8 reasons why professionals must get better at Excel
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 and their future cyborgs had meaningful access to comupters
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...
1. Excel is a universal language spoken in almost all offices
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
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.
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.
Before you leave, get my report '10 things I did with Excel that increased my salary from £27K to £100K'