How to Normalize Data in Microsoft Access

The term “normalization” gets thrown about quite a bit in database circles, especially to try to explain to newer users a couple of principles of data organization, but seems rather vague to someone not acquainted with database-ese.

The idea of making data “normal” is not too far from the meaning used by database designers, when one understands what “normal” is. When we create, say, a batch of file cards with names, addresses, etc., we tend to lay out the information similarly—consistently—so as to make it easier to follow on each. If each piece of information is in its own place, a “field” or space designated for each, we’re already close to the idea of normalization. One wouldn’t want to put the first and last name in the same field, since we might want to sort by last name first. We couldn’t do it easily if the two were in the same place. Nor would we want to put street address, city, state, and zip code in the same field, for the same reason.

Bad Addresses

So one rule we try to follow regardless of what kind of database software we use, MS Access for example, is that we should put one piece of information in each field. A rough analogy would be, if one wanted to fill a glass jar’s volume completely, using something like golf balls or hard candies would not work too well, as they’re too big to really follow the shape of the jar. But using gravel, or sand, or better still, flour, would be better. The individual pieces are smaller, and can fit the space much better. The smaller the pieces, the more “flexible” they are in filling the space.


Secondly, it’s a good idea to divide the tables (or collections of data) into categories—an employee database might contain a table of personal data, a table of office data, one of health plan data, one of travel/transport data, and so on. Turns out it’s easier for most databases—and users—to work with a larger number of smaller tables than the other way round.

Finally, there is at least one exception. Some kinds of data, such as addresses, work better with a little de-normalization. (Access makes this fairly easy to see.) We don’t want to put a zip code in the same field with city and state, but putting city, state, and zip fields in an address table—even though slightly redundant—make the addresses much easier to understand and use.

Address Table

Using Effort Driven in Project

Even though Microsoft Project is fairly easy to use at the basic level–entering tasks and resources, assigning the one to the other, and fine-tuning a schedule–there are a few parts of the program that seem quirky, and can take a little practice to use comfortably.

One of these is the checkmark in the Task Information dialog box called “Effort driven”. The name is fairly self-explanatory, in that a task’s duration (the thing we normally concern ourselves with) can be affected by how much effort we want to put into the task, in the form of resources. Specifically, how *many* resources.

Effort driven checkbox

There is the quirk, though. This is how it works:

When the project manager first creates the task, it defaults to Fixed Units of work (stuffing envelopes for a wedding, or laying bricks for a wall would be good examples), and (if one chooses in the Program Options) Effort driven being on. The first time resources are assigned to the task, whether it’s one person, three, seven, or more, the duration won’t change. The program is assuming you know it takes, say, four days for six people to build a garden wall, and simply goes with the original duration. BUT…if, from then on, you change the number of resources (people, in this case), the program recalculates the number of days/weeks/etc. involved, as it assumes more people can do the task in less time, and vice versa. Not totally illogical.

Add resources and change duration

Nevertheless, there are some kinds of tasks for which the relationship doesn’t apply. If someone wants to interview a subject matter expert for three days prior to writing a manual, having one or two more people involved in the interview might help develop information, but probably won’t take substantially more time, or less.

So the trick, when one wants to add or remove resources without affecting duration in Project, is to open the Task Information box, go to the Advanced tab at top, and uncheck Effort driven FIRST. Then, go to the Resources tab, add or remove people or other resources, and OK out of the box. After which, if necessary, one can repeat the process and turn it on again.

On a more general level, depending on the task, the resources, and so on, one can remind oneself that it’s a good idea to go into the Task Information box->Advanced tab, and note the state of the checkbox before making changes.

Is there a suggested default? Hard to say. It depends on the nature of the projects and the tasks a project manager is involved in. A couple of guidelines might be:

  1. If the project will likely involve fairly frequent changes to resource assignment, leaving Effort driven off would probably cause fewer upsets to the schedule, though the manager would need to manually adjust it when needed.
  2. If the project resources are assigned and pretty much left in place, having Effort driven checked by default (again, this is an item in the Program Options which can be changed) would likely work in favor of the manager.

Program Options Effort Driven

Keeping the checkbox state in mind, then, can help avoid trouble when shifting resource assignments around.

Align Fields in Access Forms

Working with Microsoft Access can be kind of intimidating when you start, especially because there seem to be so many details to absorb and keep track of. And even fairly experienced database people have to watch out for the little things.
One which really drives some new Access users up the wall has to do with forms. Doing form layout is an art unto itself, and getting a good layout can take time. Even after you’ve got it mostly cleaned up, the program has one particular nitpick some people don’t even notice. At first.

Form Design View
When you work on a form in Design view, the most time-consuming thing is sizing and moving fields (officially known as text boxes, where data show up) and labels (to tell you what the fields contain). And making sure the Tab key gets you from field to field in a logical order is important. Luckily, we can use the Tab Order dialog box to do this.
Tab Order Box

At this point, the tab order doesn’t match the order of the fields because we rearranged them. We want to tab left to right, top to bottom. So we arrange our fields, bring up the box, and click Auto Order.

Auto Order Button
BUT!…if any of the fields are not aligned just right, by their top edges, with their buddies in the same row, whoever’s highest gets dibs in the tab order. (“D’oh!”)
So we select the fields and labels in question, go to the Arrange tab->Sizing and Ordering group, and click the Align button. In the dropdown, we click Top to get everything in a given row to line up.

Align Top Command

Problem solved.
Then, go back to the Tab Order box, click Auto Order once more, and test. That should do it.
Yes, it’s kinda nitpicky. But it’s worth it, as getting this sort of thing right can improve data entry speed in Access, and other database programs quite a bit…and win you the approval and accolades of the people who do it.

Filtering Data in Crystal Reports

When you run a report in Crystal Reports, you have a lot of latitude as to what goes in, how it’s formatted and organized, and so on. But one consideration that doesn’t always get mentioned is how to leave data out.
Turns out, it isn’t difficult. In fact, the technique is similar to one we find in several other programs which deal with data and databases.

After opening the program, the database and the report in question, the feature that does the filtering is the Select Expert–specifically, the Record part.

Among the logical operators available to us is “Is Not Like” (sometimes seen in other programs as “< >” or “Not Equal To”). This is the one that says “DON’T show me…” whatever it is you want to exclude from a given field, like City.

But the next part is also easy–just a little different. If, let’s say, we want Crystal to show all cities in a shipping list other than Albuquerque (watch your spelling on this one! 🙂 ), we put that name between asterisks, like so: *Albuquerque*.

This means that every record whose city name does NOT include Albuquerque (beginning with, ending with, or containing) will show in the report.

It may seem a little odd at first, to want to exclude information in Crystal Reports, since usually we’re trying six ways from Sunday to figure out how to include information. But don’t forget that panning for gold meant sifting out what you didn’t want, and reducing a sauce involves removing water or other fluid to make it denser and more flavorful.
As a related point, doing Web searches can involve a similar idea. We often use Google to look for things, but the Advanced search capability lets us say, in essence, “Look for this and this but NOT that.” Hardly ever gets used, but it’s always there if we need it. Ditto in Crystal.

Slide Master View in PowerPoint

One of the few parts of PowerPoint that isn’t quite intuitive is the Slide Master view. Getting to it is easy–go to the View tab–>Master Views group, and click Slide Master.

Then it gets a little more complicated.
To some people it looks as if they never left the Normal view–all that stuff over on the left side looks kinda like their slide show, but it isn’t. So what is it?

Those are the slide layouts you see in the Home tab–>Slides group–>Layout dropdown. In other words, those are the basic layouts you can use to create or give structure to any slides in your show. They’re built-in and always available.

Okay, first question answered. Then what?
Can we change them, or add to them? Sure. Usually the best thing to do is right-click and duplicate one whose setup is close to what you want, and modify the duplicate. Saves time and work. The same right-click gives you the ability to rename or delete one, so there’s your freedom of fiddling.
Wait a sec, though…what about the bigger slide at the top, the one all the others are connected to by the dotted line? Well, that’s the actual SLIDE MASTER, the Big Kahuna, le Grand Fromage (sorry, it slipped in).

And what does he do? His job is to control the appearance of the others. More specifically, the background elements (graphics, company logos, etc.) and the text appearance (fonts, sizes, colors, and so on). NOT the layout of the stuff you put on the slides.
So if you want all your slides to have a consistent appearance (highly desirable in almost all shows, business or other), do the basic visual stuff in the big boy at the top, then create or modify the smaller ones for the way you want the layout of the elements in the slides. And best to do it before inserting content, if you can. Less work on the back end. (Build the foundation before you build the house.)
What about other slide masters and layouts? Can we have more than one set in a slide show? We can. Whether it’s a good idea is another matter–usually one doesn’t want to mix too many slide masters/color schemes/etc. in one show unless they’re variations on one master theme, because it shouldn’t look like a circus came to town, but the program will allow it. So be conservative about such things. But don’t let it stop you from experimenting.

PowerPoint Tips and Tricks

…or, Some Ideas for Good Business Presentations

There are people who believe the joke that says, “We have met the enemy, and he is PowerPoint.” I don’t think so. But it is true that some people, through no fault of their own, don’t know where to start when it comes to creating a good PP presentation. And there are some things anyone can do to create a decent one.


According to some sources I’ve seen, an officer in the USMC can brief a dozen subjects in under an hour. While not everyone is quite so succinct, it is a step in the right direction. Keeping the presentation simple and to the point is good. Less is more.

Not everyone in the audience may know the subject matter. Check on this if possible, and plan accordingly.

Format for readability, and for emphasis as needed. (If a company has product branding standards, they should be strongly evident.)

Keep to three or four bullet points per slide, max. More than that is like taking larger bites of food—one can choke. (Mentally, it’s similar to the Gary Larson cartoon wherein the student says, “Mr. Osborne, may I be excused? My brain is full.”) More slides with less content per is better than the opposite—a little at a time.

Make the text big enough to read easily. One of my former colleagues was a Naval aviator and had 20-20 perfect fighter pilot eyes. Not everyone does.

Use sans-serif fonts, like Arial, Helvetica, or Optima if possible—the less complicated letter shapes are easier to read on a monitor or projector screen. And stick to one or two fonts at most. Much less cluttered-looking.

Stick with as few colors as possible, too. Again, less busy-looking—and it won’t look as if the circus came to town. (That product branding thing can be helpful here.)


Graphics and audio can take up a lot of room on disk, and time to download, so use them sparingly, like seasoning on a meal.

(Audio can be a megabyte per minute if it’s good quality. DVD-level video can be four megs per second.)

Charts are useful, but they too need to be simple—if there’s a lot of information, create more charts. And make sure you label everything—simply.

This is a pretty good chart.

This isn’t. 😉

Pick the right kind of chart for the data. Pie charts for percentages, column or bar charts for sales figures, line charts for trends, etc. Trying a few different kinds is okay if you want to, but knowing what works for what most of the time gives you a foundation to work from.

Other elements in a chart can help, too. The company logo should be in any company presentation.

Photographs of people involved are also a good idea. (If you need a picture of someone outside the company, find out if you need a release form. Better to find out the easy way.)


Be careful not to overdo these, either. If you go overboard here, the presentation can end up having the feeling of a Looney Toons cartoon. And that’s usually not desirable, even if the audience has a sense of humor, because it’s a distraction. One or two transitions, alternating, or a few variations on just one, and similar animations  throughout, will be more consistent, yet not boring.

And transitions should be “medium” or “fairly fast” speed—one to three seconds, so the audience can see the change but not be held in suspense (again, not really professional). This also give the presenter time to verbally segue from one to another.

There are a few more points that figure into good presentations, but these are pretty sturdy, and after hearing this sort of stuff bounced around in class for twenty-plus years, I think my students have the fundamentals solidly by now.

Track Changes in Microsoft Excel–Essentials

One of my wife’s colleagues recently asked about whether it’s possible to track changes in an Excel spreadsheet. It certainly is, though it works a little differently than in Word, say.
Turning the feature on in Excel is quite easy–simply go to the Review tab in the Ribbon, slide over to the Changes group, and click Track Changes.
Review Tab, Track Changes
Almost immediately, we see one of the differences between this and the Word version–we are told this will put the document into Shared mode, allowing others to open and edit the file at the same time. We also want to decide which specific changes to highlight.
Highlight Changes dialog box
Usually it’ll be When and Who. By not checking Where, we’re saying we want to see where *all* changes are being made, which is normally desirable. And we almost always want to track changes on screen, though it’s possible to list changes on a new sheet. (Sometimes, for business situations, it’s quite helpful to do the latter, but being able to track and accept or reject onscreen is often immediately useful.)
Once the feature is on, any changes we make will be tracked. A marker will appear at the upper left of the cell(s) in question, to let us know something’s different. Whenever we save, the markers disappear.
More names added
But the program still tracks changes. Whenever we’re ready, we can review them and decide to officially accept or reject them.
Accept-Reject dialog box
And if something changes after matter how many times, the feature will still follow along.
Uncle Vlad added to list

So we can definitely track changes in Excel. The nature of the program requires that it function a little differently than in other members of the Microsoft Office, but not so much that the average user would have trouble with it.

The one downside to tracking changes in any of the Office programs is the feature is a little memory intensive. This isn’t nearly as much of a problem as it might have been a few years ago, what with the faster processors and less expensive memory we can get now.

Access vs Excel—Which should we use for what?

Most people find Microsoft Excel fairly easy to learn—it has a fairly gentle learning curve, the fundamentals only take a short time to pick up, and the program is actually fairly versatile—it’s not just a ledger book on steroids. Microsoft Access, on the other hand, can be kind of intimidating. Some folks hear the word “database” and, to quote the Joker, “they start losing their minds!” The whole idea of a database program is scary because there’s more to learn, more to set up before you can use it, and more to manage even when it’s working fine.

So let’s just ask the question: When should we use each one?

To answer this, we need to understand what each one can do. Excel is a spreadsheet program. Even though information on one sheet can talk to info on another, it’s primarily meant to do math-related things. So if all you need is the equivalent of a sheet of graph paper to visually organize, say, a personal or house inventory, Excel does pretty well. You could use Word for this same purpose, and have about the same amount of work, if you don’t want to use Excel. Formatting and other aesthetic things are only about as hard as in Word, so it’s almost as if you built a giant table in Word and jotted stuff in it. Or if you want to budget monthly, quarterly, and annually, and have all of those update each other, great.

On the other hand, if you need to track something more complicated, such as information on the employees of a small (or large) company, you may run into trouble with Excel. The problem is, you may need to have three or four kinds of information that all relate to the employees, but are not directly related to each other: Personal info (home address, birthday, family), office info (building, floor, office number, phone number, business email), health plan (HMO, policy type, policy number), and maybe transportation (car make and model, parking spot, bus route, commute time). Yet all of these need to tie together, as it were. You might have each of these connect to the others through, say, the employee ID number or Social Security number—make that ID part of each of the four categories so they have a common element. This is where the term “relational database” comes from—the different categories of information nevertheless relate to each other, like a baseball team where each player has a separate job, but all cooperate to play and win.

If this idea makes sense, that we separate the types of information but allow them to relate through one item, then you understand one of the main concepts of the relational database. Like Access.

So the basic answer to the question is, If you have just one kind of information (or several that are unrelated), you can store each chunk on a separate worksheet in Excel and probably have no trouble. But if the different subsets (or as Access would call them, data tables) are related after all, using Access to store the information and work with it would actually be worth the extra time and effort. As a bicycle is good for getting around by yourself, but a pickup truck can haul some serious cargo by comparison, so Excel and Access. (Sort of.  🙂  )

As a postscript, the reason I’m not bringing up PowerPivot here—which lets us do some database-ish things in Excel—is that it’s a different tool again from Access, though it is useful. And not everyone knows about it, or how it works. We do teach it at SkillForge, but again, it’s a somewhat specialized tool, whereas Access is a more general database application and has more multi-user features, making it more suitable for business database work.

RGB vs CMYK–Which should I use?

Having taught and worked with Adobe Photoshop for many years, I get asked many basic but good questions about it by new users. One has to do with color, and the color systems we use in a picture. There are several that Photoshop can use, but the two most common are RGB and CMYK. The question: Which is best?

The fundamental difference between the two is, RGB is meant for use on screen, and CMYK for print. The terms used to describe how they work are “additive primaries” and “subtractive primaries”, which refer to how these systems show white. For RGB, imagine standing in a dark room with a white wall. Take three flashlights, with color filters (red, green, and blue) and shine them on the wall. Where the three colors overlap, they seem to make white light (the opposite of what a prism does with white light—see Pink Floyd’s album THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON, specifically the cover—and the back cover.) So the three additive primaries add up to white.

Additive Primaries

With CMYK, the example is even simpler—a piece of paper going through a color printer may have areas where no ink or toner has landed. And the color of the paper we usually use? White, of course. So when the colors are held back, or subtracted, from a spot on the paper, that spot stays (or is) white.

Subtractive Primaries

But we need black ink too, because the dyes or pigments only sorta make black, and a normal eye can see this. So the printing folks added it for completeness.

In doing this, though, we get a couple of problems, and it takes a little thought to get round them. First, because the RGB system normally involves a screen that illuminates itself, it can show more subtle shadings of color than a piece of printed paper (which, unless you’re using radioactive inks—shame on you!—does NOT glow in the dark). The term Photoshoppers and graphic artists use is the “gamut”, which is wider/larger for RGB than for CMYK (where the ink/toner can smear a tiny bit and mess up the shadings). And a printout can’t show all the shades that a screen can. By definition, therefore, printout will always look a little less intense (“saturated”) than onscreen images.

Color Gamuts

And second, any Photoshop image saved in the CMYK system will use 33% more space on disk, regardless, than if saved with RGB. Why? Because the number of color “channels”, how many kinds of color there are in the picture at minimum, is three for RGB, and four with CMYK.

So which should we use?

If you’re scanning in a photograph you want to clean up and reprint (say, from the early 1900s), CMYK will work better, because what you’ll see on screen is what will come out of the printer. But if you’re scanning for archival purposes, scan in CMYK if possible to get a realistic version of the image, THEN change to RGB. Since RGB’s gamut is wider than CMYK’s you won’t lose any subtleties or shadings, but you will get a smaller file on disk. And you can scan in CMYK, do all your work, then save in RGB for later. Best of both worlds. Just have to make sure we understand the tradeoff of size, gamut, and storability.

How to Use COUNTBLANK in Excel

Some of the Excel functions, such as IF, come into play all the time, even outside business. They’re versatile and can do a lot. But others seem a little abstruse, or out in left field.

One question I occasionally get from business people in Excel is something like, “How do I make sure someone has filled in all the cells where I need data to, say, calculate an average correctly?” (Think “tax form” or W-4, for example. You want to make sure certain spaces are filled in regardless.)

In some situations, you might use a function like ISERROR, and incorporate it with IF to test if there IS an ERROR when you perform a calculation:


…so that if performing the calculation glitches, you can have the formula show a message to this effect.

=IF(ISERROR(AVERAGE(D2:D10)),”There’s a blank cell there”…

Otherwise, perform the calculation.

=IF(ISERROR(AVERAGE(D2:D10)),”There’s a blank cell there”,AVERAGE(D2:D10))



But this doesn’t quite solve the problem, because even if just one of the cells has data in it, there won’t be an error as far as Excel is concerned.

Formula finds one cell with data and calculates average


So we need to call a function that looks for ANY cells being empty, and lets us know. It’s called COUNTBLANK. (Sounds like some kind of strange nobleman–Count Blank, from some tiny hamlet somewhere….)


=IF(COUNTBLANK(D2:D10)>0,”Missing Data in D2 thru D10″,AVERAGE(D2:D10))

COUNTBLANK finds missing data and tells user


What it does is pretty simple, though. It COUNTs the BLANKs in a range, and can let us know how many there are. IF (as you see in the above formula) there are any (“COUNTBLANK(D2:D10)>0”), we want to see the TRUE result from the IF (the message about missing data); if not–that is, if the test is FALSE–then we want it to calculate the average. We’ve told the program to perform the calculation only IF the COUNT of BLANK cells is NOT greater than 0, and let us know if there are any blanks so we (or the user) can correct this.

COUNTBLANK finds no missing data


Of course, guaranteeing that only numbers get filled in is another matter. But there are a few different ways to take care of this, such as Data Validation. The important thing is, MISSING data are a problem, as the result isn’t an accurate one. And letting the user know about this is the big thing.