As responders scoured the Southern California coastline, monitoring the environmental impacts from the Huntington Beach oil spill in October 2021, the Coast Guard finance team back in the command post obsessed over data.
Like a scene out of a 1980’s Silicon Valley garage, they brainstormed how to leverage the trove of financial data they were generating each day and white-boarded solutions. One idea in particular intrigued team member Chief Petty Officer Kyle Nestor: how the Coast Guard might automate data flows from their daily reports to produce innovative dashboards.
Eventually, the command post stood down. But even after the finance team disbanded, Nester returned to his home unit and couldn’t shake the idea of automating their work.
“I started to Google to see if it was possible.” Nester reflected. “I realized it was and tried doing it myself, but immediately ran into trouble.”
He asked around the office for help and was introduced to someone with extensive Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) programming experience within Microsoft Excel.
“We had a call where I outlined what I was trying to build and what the end product would look like” says Nester. Within a couple days, he received an email back with several lines of code that became his core architecture. “I didn’t really know what I was looking at,” Nester said. "But it motivated me. He gave me a head start and said to finish this project, I’d have to learn the rest.”
Driven to turn his idea into reality, Nester sought out new avenues to upskill. He landed on a paid online Excel course that cost $30 and committed less than an hour each night over several weeks to finish it.
The training took him from Excel basics all the way through VBA. When he was done, he opened the original code back up and started to experiment. Using his newfound Excel skills, Nester built the first version of the dashboard. VBA allowed the dashboard to source and aggregate multiple data files and produce an intuitive dashboard displaying key insights around funding amounts and burn rates. Such valuable insights that finance and incident leadership could leverage in making critical resource allocation decisions. For example, such insights could influence when to initiate demobilization activities.
“Once I learned what I could do, I was hooked,” he said. “I wanted to keep creating.”
With his first product complete, Nester’s reputation started to grow. Local colleagues and finance professionals at the district office inquired about building out or enhancing other Excel products. Within just a few months, Nester had gone from being your average Excel user to a recognized expert.
“I used to underestimate how much we can do,” Nester reflected. However, through his training and exposure to the capabilities of Excel and the Microsoft 365 suite, his opinion changed. “It made me think about how efficient you can be when you streamline your data.” The Coast Guard Technology Revolution and the data transformation will onboard tools that provide our service members with more powerful methods to gain insights at speed.
Nester is just one example of how Coast Guard members are leading our data transformation. From headquarters to the field, every member has an opportunity to, not only take part in, but help lead our transformation. Through relentless incrementalism, we will take one step at a time towards a more powerful and data informed Coast Guard future. If you’re interested in learning more, checkout the Office of Data and Analytics for training opportunities, updates, and information on how the Coast Guard is using data as a strategic asset.
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