Ottawa PC Users' Group, Inc.
 Product Review 

Looking a gift horse in the mouth?
by Alan German

At the December meeting, the club held its (now) annual silent auction in aid of The Ottawa Food Bank. As in the previous year, O'Reilly ( were munificent in providing hundreds of dollars worth of computer books for us to include in theauction. Even better, this year, they provided a web-link for those attending the auction to download a complimentary E-book.

I had a specific one of their products in mind when I went to the web site but, regrettably, my book of choice wasn't in the list of many dozens of titles that were on offer. Consequently, I scanned through the books that were available and selected “Excel Programming with VBA Starter” by Robert Martin (Packt Publishing, October 2012).

The tag line for this book was “Get started with programming in Excel using Visual Basic for Applications (VBA)” which sounded ideal for my purposes. I have used VBA to develop a number of Excel macros, but have never had any real idea of what I was doing. I just used the macro recorder to give me some code to start with, and then checked on Google for specific insights into various VBA commands.

Clearly, a get-started guide was precisely what I needed. Furthermore, my past experience with O'Reilly's how-to guides – primarily aimed at various aspects of Linux – had been very positive. As a result of the latter, I was somewhat disappointed with this particular Excel macro offering.

It was almost as if the author had a Jekyll-and-Hyde persona. In one section of the book there was an excellent outline of the use of loop-programming techniques (e.g. for-next, do-while and do-until) and then a fairly obscure section dealing with enumeration, classes, and external libraries. For me, the latter are quite advanced topics and a little out of place without some much more basic information about the macro programming system.

I found the really odd part of the book to be that there was never any specific indication of how to read from or write a value to a cell. Sure, some relevant commands were present in some of the examples, but the author didn’t actually explain things like cell referencing and ranges, which are pretty important if you hope to be able to use the values of data elements in a worksheet.

There is a useful section on using Excel’s macro recorder, the visual basic editor, and the file (module) management system. But, there is also a large section on how to categorize user-defined functions which, once again, I would consider an advanced topic since it is entirely possible to use functions without using this feature.

One of the problems that I have with this book is that it is quite short. One can’t really hope to do justice to VBA programming in 61 pages. And, this is certainly the case if one chooses to discuss fairly advanced techniques at the expense of more basic concepts.

So, for once, O’Reilly get a failing grade from me on one of their user guides. However, anyone interested in learning about Excel macro programming, shouldn’t be discouraged. A search for “Excel VBA” in O’Reilly’s catalogue lists 21 other titles.

But, for my part, perhaps I will seek a review copy of the book I was initially looking for. It doesn’t relate to VBA in any way – but it does have 744 pages!



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