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Opinion: How well do you know Excel?

2021-07-29  Staff Reporter

Opinion: How well do you know Excel?

Etienne Hofmeyr


On several occasions, I have sat on interview panels, where a fellow interviewer asks the question: “Where do you rate yourself in Excel, on a scale of one to five?” I roll my eyes. “I rate myself a … four.” I shake my head. In order to squeeze Excel into a frame of one to five, you would need to understand just how extensive its scope is. 

My love affair with Excel started early. During my second year at UCT, I made a model that impressed my honours-level teammate by using interlinked tabs and some naming conventions. I felt like a hero and would have instantly given myself a three out of five. Today, I consider myself an expert on the subject matter, but if forced, I would rate myself a three-and-a-half - no more. Do I want to become a four? Eventually, but this will take time. Should you aspire to become a three? Yes, yes and yes! 

The truth is that Excel is the most powerful calculation, modelling, forecasting and processing tool known to man, and the main reason for this is its incredible versatility. No programme, no matter how complex, will ever be able to capture all the needs of a firm, and when things change, the programme needs to be changed. 

The same applies to Excel, but unlike most programmes, it is easily customisable by the user. With the right skills, you can model anything you can think of, and you don’t need a degree in mathematics, statistics or computer science. One of the most surprising things about Excel is the ease of the learning curve – you can easily become a “two” in a year of learning, and that would already put you in the top 10% of Excel users worldwide. To become a “three” takes five times longer - but it’s worth it. To become a four takes serious dedication. 

Okay, perhaps your job is too demanding, and you don’t have time to learn (otherwise you would)? Here is my story. My first serious job involved a financial investigation into a partnership gone wrong. I had to find what went wrong and present the problem in a format that it could be proven and thereafter, claimed. 

I also had data – lots of it. I had no idea what I was doing, but soon realised that I had to get better at Excel, and fast! What I found was that every hour I put into learning Excel gave me an hour back almost instantly! From what I learnt, I would change the way I treated my data, and voila – time saved! Not just that time – every time! It didn’t take a mathematical genius to realise how much time each hour spent learning Excel would give me back over the course of my future career. From then on, I resolved to spend one hour learning every day. For that first year, I probably spent two. 

Of course, this trend does not continue forever. The first-ever hours of training might save you half an hour every day (for example when you first learnt to use a VLOOKUP formula). However, soon enough, another hour will save you only one minute per day (for example new keyboard shortcuts). This doesn’t feel like much, and it is probably why most people say, “I’m a four now, there’s no need to continue.” Well, here’s a sum for you: There are about 250 working days in a year after weekends and public holidays. Let’s say you work 230 of these and save one minute on each – that is almost four hours saved in the first year! Do you still think that spending an hour to save a minute a day is not worth it? 

The trick is, don’t tell your employer that you spend an hour a day training yourself to save one minute, unless you want them to make you stop. Rather, just have faith that your training will give you the time back and boost your career. Moreover, it will – for a long time to come. 

How do you get started? Well, that’s simple. Press “F1”. 


*Etienne Hofmeyr is the Financial, Reporting & Compliance Manager at Eos Capital, where he oversees financial planning, reporting and compliance as well as supporting the value-add team. He holds an Honours degree in Finance from the University of Cape Town and an MBA from the Australian Institute of Business.

2021-07-29  Staff Reporter

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