CFOs and Tech Special Feature part 4: Mike Martin lives and dies by Excel


Kate Ferreira asked five CFOs about the most useful applications or types of technologies in their lives, both professionally and personally, and discovered it's not all about the newest, latest, and greatest tech on the planet, but rather how these tools and innovations are integrating into their days, unlocking insight, and - figuratively and literally - keeping the lights on.

Terra Firma Solutions is an energy engineering firm, based in SA and operating across the continent. Their solutions cover a wide spectrum from accredited training, to energy strategy development, to project implementation, support and maintenance. For finance director Mike Martin, though, everything comes back to Excel.
“The tools that make the biggest difference to me might be considered quite boring. I live and die by Excel,” says Mike. “Every single decision – whether it's something I'm communicating in an email or something I need in a presentation – I always check back with Excel first. That is where I am comfortable. I understand the capabilities of it, and I use it to produce decision-useful information.” This applies to other teams at Terra Firma too. “It really is the critical 'language' we speak in the office, if I can put it like that.”
But on top of that strong Excel foundation, the firm is turning to intelligence software to unlock the next level view and insight. “Excel's pitfalls are version-control, processing speed, and volume. It also only captures a point in time. Qlikview, for example, is far more geared for big data management. At the scale that we experience – such as data collected from 6000 units out in the field, reporting at five-minute intervals – this data would be unfeasible in Excel alone.”

“You would have to be highly skilled in pivot tables and aggregation just to understand what you are looking at, but with Qlikview on top of that data, you can structure the views that you wish to see, and you can see trends over time,” he says.

For Mike, the sweet spot is created by the combination of these two core tools. “If I have those two, I'm pretty comfortable that we can manage any volume of data. It works like a reporting skin you can put on top of most things, so in addition to Excel, we are also going to be adding it to our SAP system, which will allow us to analyse the transactions without having to go through the menu tree hierarchy to find a specific transaction.”
More and more, Mike also finds that WhatsApp – a communication tool ostensibly built for the social space – is becoming a business hotspot. “It's a good medium for making quick contact. You shoot off an email that needs urgent attention, but you have no idea how someone else runs their email. I find WhatsApp very useful for alerts on urgent requirements and after-hours collaboration between the management team.”
In fact, he says, many key strategic discussions are happening through WhatsApp text and voice notes. “I certainly feel that in the last two years this has become mainstream and acceptable. Emails may be accessible on your phone, but WhatsApp is the trigger to action when urgent.”
And in his personal life, Excel returns with a little help from a digital calendar. “My wife also comes from a finance background and we run our personal budgets through Excel. I think it is just a function of the two of us, that we can use that as a common tool to talk. For example, we’re building a house at the moment, and every single inch of that house is captured in Excel. Right from the action items to the project management matters, the costing variations, the calendars, the timelines, and so on.”

“Additionally, because life is so frantic, one of the key things that keeps us on the ‘straight and narrow’ is Microsoft Calendar. I know it is something so basic, but all of our social engagements, to do items, and work commitments are flagged in a shared calendar that lets us to understand where we are at any time, what we have on the go, and what we need to prepare for.”

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