What I learned about Online Excel Courses After Training 1000 students
There are countless resources online for improving your Excel skills, it’s overwhelming to say the least. So how do you wade through it all and make some progress? If you are thinking of learning online or perhaps you are not getting very far with books and googling then this article will make you aware of the pitfalls before you invest time and money in improving your Excel skills. First, ask yourself why you want to get better at Excel Fundamentally, there needs to be a reason to get better at Excel, you need to think Strategically “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” ― Sun Tzu Almost every Excel course or Book wants you to get better at Excel (duh, of course).
But, almost all of them fail at helping YOU answer the question ‘Why do you want to get better at Excel?’
Most people’s response to that question is along the lines of…
- I want to get better at Pivot Tables
- I want to do V-Lookups
- I need VBA skills
Frankly, those are poor reasons and most Excel course providers or Excel book authors will say…’Sure, I can help you with that’. Now, I help professionals get better at Excel and frankly I find that kind of advice and support to be poor.
Since, I have been using Excel for over 10 years in the biggest and best organisations like Investment Banks, I know a thing or two about how Excel is used. So, whenever someone comes to me in the hopes of improving their Excel skills, I challenge their reasons and ask ‘Why?’
Then I’ll get a slightly better response like:
- I’m a financial controller so I need to do Pivot Tables
- I’m a PMO Analyst so I need to do V-Lookups
- I’m a Reporting Manager in Banking and I need good VBA skills
Slightly better, but the reasons are still a bit random. When you are just learning random skills, that is very tactical thinking and like Sun Tzu said above, tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.
Excel skills, or should I say, the RIGHT Excel skills learned for the RIGHT reasons did wonders for my career, because they fit in to a wider strategy of career progression. I’ve had plenty of people approach me who I’ve told to not focus on learning Excel because it wasn’t the right move. Not all Excel Teachers are created equally For example, I had a senior Financial Controller with ambitions of becoming a Finance Director in a Bank ask me what Excel skills she should improve. I asked some questions and discovered she had a small team including someone who was good at Excel but she wanted to carry out some of the more sensitive data analysis herself. I suggested that her problem wasn’t a lack of Excel skills but poor delegation skills and that improving her delegation and building trust with her team was going to get her promoted much quicker than devoting time to learning Pivot Tables and Macros!
This isn’t advice the average Excel course provider or Excel book author talks about. Why?
Because they are Excel specialists.
If you are a professional like an Analyst, Controller, Accountant, PMO/Project Manager or Management Consultant then you need solid Excel but do not put your skills, your career in the hands of an Excel specialist who doesn’t get the bigger picture of how Excel fits in with your career. They will have you learning things you do not need and send you down time-wasting rabbit holes. Worse still they won’t tell you what to focus on or how to market your skills. Pros and cons of learning Excel via Google and Youtube The biggest issue faced by students is that the internet has given them access to cheap or free information.
Let me tell you NOTHING is more costly than cheap or free, especially if you are learning things from the wrong people.
But more than that, while there are some good free resources on the internet, I have found that free is highly unstructured, random and often causes confusion and overwhelm. And that’s when it’s good! When it’s not good then it’s a waste of time, it doesn’t get implemented.
The single most important factor when learning a subject like Excel is structure and curriculum. The wrong structure and curriculum won’t leave you any better off especially if you are a professional who needs to understand how to actually apply Excel to real scenarios, not just “Kendrick has 10 apples and Drake has 13 oranges” type of problems.
If you are very young, don’t have funds but have the time, then use Google to slowly get there. If you are a working professional, take the shortcut, invest in a good course with someone you have access to. Ideally someone who can see where Excel fits in the wider context of your career and learn from them. The best way to use Google I’m not anti-Googling and I’m not saying it will prevent you from greatness but I use Excel with Google in a very specific way. For example, if I have to do a complex formula or complex bit of VBA/Macros code it would have taken me 30-40 minutes to work it out. It takes me 5 minutes to Google it and 2 minutes to tweak it so I save time. As you systematically raise your Excel game, your Googling will be more and more effective and you will save more and more time. Here’s a graph to explain this:
My philosophy with Excel and work is all about saving time so yes, I use Google but to speed things up and I can do that because I built a foundation of solid Excel skills.
Advanced Excel VBA Advanced Excel VBA can be a massive undertaking and most of the people who teach it do a terrible job.
They start teaching you the jargon first, they get you used to the environment. That really is ridiculous, it shows a complete lack of empathy from the trainers.
VBA is a life altering skill. I don’t say it lightly that it helped me go from a £27K a year salary to a £100K a year salary. It’s done similar for many my students and colleagues and when it’s mis-taught then that’s a missed opportunity.
The other thing that is mis-taught is teaching ‘perfect code’ and solutions to professionals.
That’s just plain bad.
I’ve had people numerous ‘experts’ over the years tell me that my code was messy and clunky. I completely agreed with them BUT I got the problem solved rapidly, sure I can take my time and build an elegant solution but 9 times out of 10 when that isn’t the focus of your job as an Accountant, Project Manager etc then it’s a poor use of your limited time. My recommendation for Professionals needing to learn Excel Having worked in big organisations for over a decade and solving real world problems with Excel, I can tell you that there are three kinds of problems that require Excel to solve and four kinds of Excel solutions: The three types of Problems are:
- Tracking or organisation of data.
- Analysing data whether that’s regular analysis or ad-hoc analysis. Forecast, variance analysis, or for example, you’re working on a project and need to know what milestones are going to deliver in several months’ time.
- Communication of data, i.e. reports and MI.
And those three problems only need four kinds of solutions to tackle them: Four kinds of Solutions
- You are going to find the information. That means you are going to look it up or find it.
- You are going to treat that information with rules i.e. you find some information, do some analysis saying, ‘I want this data to do these calculations or I am just looking for this, if it looks like this then I want that.’ Those are very important things the if and the then.
- Deal with the non-numerical information that most of us analysts, accountants, controllers, PMO’s, and management consultants are often dealing with i.e. names or product codes.
- Summarising your data after your analysis i.e. a table, chart or graph. i.e. the end game
This framework is a more strategic view of how to use Excel, rather than just jumping to ‘should I use VLOOKUPS, Pivot Tables? etc’. This approach allows to approach Excel in a wholesale manner than piecemeal (here and there, where you learn-forget-learn-forget). Conclusion: Excel should be thought of as stepping stones to greater things… What I benefited from most and consequently teach my own students is that Excel presents a very unique opportunity to:
This should be the goal for a professional who works with Excel on a daily basis. So, you want to learn Excel, then learn at least some VBA which will help you save time, then repurpose that time to adding value in your organisation, impress the right Execs and open doors up.
If you would like to sign up for one of my Excel courses then you can learn more here: