8 Reasons you must get better at Excel in 2015

Posted on January 12th, 2015 in Learn Excel - 18 comments

This is a guest post by Sohail Anwar

Why do so many of us use Excel? Let’s trace it back to the ’80s when Microsoft hit gold by being the first out of the blocks with the widely available operating system that was somewhat dummy proof.

Suddenly everyone could aspire to launch ‘Nukes’ like a fresh faced Matthew Broderick in the film ‘War Games’.  Wargames

By the early 90’s Windows had become even more established relative to other Operating Systems, so much so that PC manufacturers were developing components around Windows’ capabilities and suddenly PCs were Windows machines. As big business began accepting the significance of computing, Microsoft started winning huge licensing contracts with all the major corporations in all sectors, but the Finance sector in particular, where Excel would be king, was having an exponential boom at this time. For big organisations, once you spent a fortune buying licences for the Operating System it only made sense to purchase the seamlessly integrated and carefully developed/tested apps to run on them; enter Excel, Word, PowerPoint and eventually Outlook. Fast forward to 2015 and we are firmly in the age of second generation corporate professionals who have developed much of their productivity skill sets around those particular Windows tools. While all the excellent tools have their place, Excel stands out and here are 8 reasons why you need to up your Excel game more than ever this year.

1. Excel is a universal language spoken in almost all offices

klingon-vs-excel

For those who work in the field of Finance, it’s more common to hear ‘Excel’ than it is to hear ‘Spreadsheet’. Such is the ubiquity of Microsoft’s brilliant application. Of course the purists will tell you 279 reasons  Excel is not as good as ‘insert competitor product’ but the reality is 1) Purists aren’t coming from a pragmatic perspective which modern multi-skilled professionals  need to be and 2) as mentioned in the intro, like it or lump it, Excel is everywhere!

2. Stop thinking of Excel as a spreadsheet

It is a problem solving tool. I’m not saying it’s not a spreadsheet, accountants and financial analysts will often use it as a traditional spreadsheet but this is just a fraction of what it is capable of. So many other professionals will not correctly harness the awesome power of Excel because they believe it to be nothing but a boring spreadsheet application that deals with boring numbers. Case in point, three of the most common uses of Excel in my work include dealing with Text data, i.e. Lists of people from HR databases that need to be reconciled with other sources, sending out large volumes of tailored emails and creating PowerPoint presentations automatically! Those aren’t the things most people associate a spreadsheet with.

3. Create more time

The most precious commodity on Earth which cannot be replenished is your time. The better you become at leveraging Excel, the more you will be able to achieve. First the speed at which you are able to solve problems will increase and eventually if you get good with VBA then full on automation will save you hours per task. You cannot put a price on the time you will save; it will free up your own time to provide more value in your team, develop yourself in other ways (more skills or attributes), free up time to work on a side business/ hunt for a better, higher paying job or of course you can spend more time trying to break your candy crush high score!

4. Excel is not going anywhere

Excel will be around for a very long time. Big companies cannot easily migrate from established platforms and applications. Case in point, two of the banks I have worked for in the last few years still insist on the archaic 90’s Lotus Notes as their main communication tool! It’s not just the cost of doing so but in the case of Excel in mid to large organisations, Excel is a part of working culture. Even if companies would move, there is no all-encompassing rival, developed and supported by a reputable enough organisation on the horizon, compatible with all the bespoke .NET application development that goes on within organisations (which is designed to integrate with Excel). As a note, the trillion dollar business of Foreign Exchange currency trading as well as most other forms of trading still have most of their analysis work carried out in Excel in almost all financial institutions.

5. Small Data

Big data is so 2014, 2015 is about the rise of small data or local data; it has grown considerably in the last few years as companies have been spending more and more money on CRMs, ERPs, essentially databases. You need to be able to gather data, analyse it, draw some conclusions and present those conclusions as intelligence to decision makers. Don’t get left behind. I have worked with Project Management software like Clarity and most frequently SharePoint (content management)., With the likes of Clarity and other data repositories, you can extract information in formats that Excel likes (.xlsx, .txt & .csv) and then go about getting useful insights and creating reports.

6. Excel is like an analytical sketchpad

Excel is to an analytical professional what paper/pen is to an architect. I have pitched many ideas and models to my bosses by translating my wacky concepts in my head and interpreting those ideas in Excel, especially around finance, budgets and general reporting.

7. Value networking

This is my term for what in my career has turned out to be the best form of networking, not arbitrarily pestering people for coffee meetups but using that time to reach out to someone and make their life a little bit easier.  Due to its universal nature, Excel has allowed me to proverbially raise my hand and say ‘I can help with that’. And I did help, helping peers alerted senior colleagues to my abilities and when the senior/Execs started reaching out me for my help, it opened up a whole new set of doors for me which meant good things for my career.

8. More Excel skills make you more marketable

marketability-of-your-skills

Excel does not represent one skill on your CV, it represents a huge category of skills. In the age of keyword search hiring, you need to understand that simply writing ‘Excel’ or ‘Advanced Excel‘ will seriously undersell you to prospective employers. Use actual Excel functions in your Resume!

Pivot Table, VLOOKUP, Macros, VBA, Conditional Formatting, Charting and filtering…These are far more telling of your ability to an employer then writing Excel. Someone who writes VLOOKUP, Pivot Table, Filtering demonstrates an ability to analyse data and so has eliminated a potential barrier in the mind of the hiring manager reviewing the CV. Simply writing ‘Excel’ on your CV shows you can work with Excel, writing Pivot Table shows you can work with Excel and make it analyse data for you. Excel skills progression correlates well with earnings; the more you improve your Excel skills in a meaningful way to add value in an organisation, the more your earning power goes up.

To give you an example from my own career and many of the colleagues I have worked with and helped over the years: fairly intermediate skills took my earnings from £27k to £40k, getting very good with data analysis took me to £64k, intermediate level VBA took me to the £100k mark, becoming exceptionally good with VBA helped me climb eventually to £140k+. Bear in mind, blindly learning Excel is not something I advise, instead the method for improving is to find opportunities in your work to be more productive. In parallel to improving my Excel skills, I was developing other key attributes too such as Project Management, Reporting expertise and communication. It was exposure to problems in those areas that gave me reasons and opportunity to apply my Excels skills and solve very specific and niche problems which helped me stand out from the crowd more. People think you need to be a VBA god to break the 6 figure mark. When I did it, I was okay but spent a lot of time Googling and making lots of mistakes. When I helped a friend of mine do it she was at best able to manipulate other people’s code, her brilliance was in understanding where appropriate to apply solutions, speeding up and automating is what an employer values, not how pretty your code is.

Conclusion

Is Excel perfect? Maybe not for all scenarios but it’s damn good and for professionals, especially those working in or with mid to large sized organisations and who are (always should be) looking for career development, improving your Excel can go a long way to improving your overall offering as a professional.

Added by Chandoo

Thank you Sohail for echoing my views. I was skeptical to publish this post as it mimics the theme for our podcast session 27 – 15 ways to get awesome in Excel in 2015. But there is no such thing as enough awesomeness. As a community, we are thirsty for more good stuff, all the time. Plus when was the last time you heard both Klingon and Excel in same sentence.

Please share your views about this (not Klingon you silly, about learning Excel) in comments.

About the Author

Sohail Anwar has been hustling and hacking for over a decade in his professional life. He likes to go on about the fact that he’s spent over 10,000 hours applying Excel in the work place and is quite good at it. Download his FREE e-book “20 Ways You Are Preventing Your Salary From Rising” which will benefit professionals who use Excel and feel free to connect with him on LinkedIn

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18 Responses to “8 Reasons you must get better at Excel in 2015”

  1. MF says:

    "Bear in mind, blindly learning Excel is not something I advise, instead the method for improving is to find opportunities in your work to be more productive. " - Can't agree more!

    Indeed, I have built my CV using Excel. 🙂

  2. Ken says:

    Thanks for publishing this. Every new finance university major should read this during their first year. That way they can begin to leverage Excel knowledge before they get to their first job. Don't be like me and find this out 2 jobs in! (I still don't know VBA, maybe that is why I am not making $100k a year.)

    • Sohail Anwar says:

      Hi Ken, appreciate the kind words. I've become increasingly anti university as they have become increasingly anti-pragmatic/real world and turned further education into a commodity sector...but that's another rant for another day.
      Fyi you not earning $100k does not necessarily have to do with your lack of VBA knowledge...I'll save my thoughts on that for another article. Or if you're interested in pushing up your salary feel free to get in touch and perhaps I can give some advice (for free before anyone jumps on me!)

  3. Jeff Weir says:

    Ken: Every new finance university major should read this during their first year. That way they can begin to leverage Excel knowledge before they get to their first job.
    Amen!

    Every university should offer a course on Excel, too. Or recognize credits from completing a verified problem-busting game-lifting course like those offered by Chandoo, ExcelJet, MyOnlineTrainingHub, Excel hero, et cetera.

    Go further than using actual Excel functions in your Resume...put in some screenshots of some cool dashboards or insightful graphs you've put together. I have 4 full-page screenshots of things I've built in my CV, each with a paragraph or two explaining what they do/show. They work. THey get me interviews. Show, don't tell.

    • Ken says:

      Excel is a prerequisite at most business colleges, but the knowledge gained is basic. Most business professionals, especially finance, need advanced level Excel skills and experience. Thanks for the ideas, I am going to build an Excel based CV and include screenshots in my paper resume as well!

    • Sohail Anwar says:

      This is a great idea Ken re: teach Excel at Uni. Your other idea is SUPERB! my personal trick is to take my laptop in to interviews but I never thought of doing it at CV stage. Can you possibly share, even if it's a post on your own blog?

      I encourage everyone to take up Jeff's approach!

  4. Tim Rodman says:

    Great post. I especially like #5 - Small Data.

    So many companies have data that they aren't analyzing. They spend so much money on software and so much of their employee's time to capture information, but many of the "gold nuggets" in the data are left unmined.

    • Sohail Anwar says:

      Absolutely Tim! Companies are slowly getting their acts together as they've become aware of the gap. I've seen more and more job specs requesting data analysis skills with Excel and I've even seen a new type of role in the last year called 'Insight Analyst'!

  5. Vijay says:

    Sohail's post gave big positive insight to me especially on the last few lines. Though working with Excel for past few years and doing various analysis using the functions, never minded to mention it on my CV.

    "In the age of keyword search hiring, you need to understand that simply writing ‘Excel’ or ‘Advanced Excel‘ will seriously undersell you to prospective employers. Use actual Excel functions in your Resume! "

    • Sohail Anwar says:

      Excellent, glad you found it useful. As a general rule of thumb my recommendation is to 'steal' as much language as you can from the job specifcation when applying and include it in your CV. Many people apply to jobs in volume and I am against that, they fire generic CVs for many jobs. Don't do that. Better to apply to 10 jobs and spend 1hour on each one, tweaking your CV rather than apply to 100 with the same CV. You will get better response rates and the process will less disheartening and more frutiful.

  6. […] Fuente: Chandoo.org – [8 Reasons you must get better at Excel in 2015] […]

  7. Andrea says:

    Mastering advanced excel skills will absolutely grow your career and your advice is spot on! This is why analysts with consulting companies make big bucks. It's easy for Excel to be misused at leadership and decision making levels and the opportunity to tell a story or solve a problem gets lost. I have sat through far too many presentations where an excel spreadsheet is copied and pasted into a slide and it's too hard to wrap your head around the data that tells the story. A good power point slide with a powerful visual that summarizes the point with the excel file distributed as a handout is a great. I would love to hear what additional advice you have on this point.

    • Sohail Anwar says:

      Really good points Andrea, thank for contributing to the discussion. While I’d consider myself a PowerPoint expert too, I have to agree with Professor Edward Tufte’s assertion on the matter. Bear in mind Tufte is an information visualization god but he hates PowerPoint and prefers highly simple slides (a handful of bullet points at best). Its really worth reading his thoughts in this article which I consider to be quite seminal: http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/11.09/ppt2.html

      When I was a fresh faced consultant my senior managers often had a very good idea about what conclusions they wanted to present to the client and so while the fact finding/data analysis was thorough, the presentation was always skewed. There were one or two two things that drove the ‘final conclusion’. 1) Help the client play a political game and thus win favour i.e A senior person looking to close down a department to use that budget elsewhere and 2) Point out specific issues that our consultancy were positioned to resolve. I.e. consultancy is always about winning more work. This is primarily the misuse, less the Excel!

  8. […] Anwar, posting on Chandoo's blog, shares 8 reasons why you must get better at Excel in […]

  9. Gino says:

    Great article, Sohail! For me, what's becoming more and more frustrating is the executive push towards the "NEWEST EXCEL WHIZ BANG REPLACEMENT SOFTWARE". Instead of pursuing the MS BI suite (PowerPivot/Query/etc), we're pushed to roll out Tableau, QlikView, OBIEE/Answers, etc, etc.
    Now I find myself spending time not only learning how to use these applications AND trying to generate meaningful reports but ALSO having to hand hold colleagues in setting up the software, the environment, explaining how to use the new application, and on and on.

    It's a shame because the consensus seems to be "yeah, well Excel is good at the basics, but to create a super duper astound the CEO dashboard, you must simply have ULTRA-STAR software or whatever the latest rage is!

    Sorry - guess I'm just feeling the pain of always having to explain that it's NOT Excel that makes crappy dashboards/reports, it's the analyst who doesn't know any better AND stuffing data into yet another new application that no one knows how to use is not the solution.

    Cheers,
    Gino

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