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How To Be a Master of Excel From the Master of Excel

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So I interned at a Big 4 firm this summer in Advisory and was fortunate enough to get an offer full-time. I excitedly jumped at this offer and signed, where I'll start in the fall. I know this might sound like a dumb question, but I want to be REALLY sharp at Excel… like doing the most important, heavily used and exciting functions/shortcuts in my sleep kind of sharp. What skills do you recommend I learn or brush up on and what resources do you suggest I utilize to know these really well before I start? I took 2 Excel classes in school when I was a freshman and sophomore, but they've long been forgotten sadly.


Scared for the Real World



Acknowledging a weakness is the first step toward converting deficits into strengths. Most likely the two Excel classes you took two or three years ago left you with only a rudimentary sense of what one can do with spreadsheets. The risks and opportunities in Excel lie in discovering its nuances. That's why I coined the phrase “Either you work Excel, or it works you.” The vast majority of spreadsheet users fall into the latter category.

You can turn the tide, but note that Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. James Altucher says it takes five years to reinvent yourself, which is in effect your goal. Others beg to differ. No matter who’s right, you’re clearly going to need some serious keyboard time if you want to pwn Excel. Between now and this fall, carry out every imaginable life task in Excel:

Make a grocery list
Track your workouts
Maintain a reading list
Build a personal budget
Plot your retirement

However, don’t just fill in the blanks in these templates. Rewrite them from scratch, and apply Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think” philosophy to every spreadsheet you build. Google every question that arises about Excel. Pay attention when you’re working in Excel—press the Alt key and note all of the keyboard shortcuts that appear. Hover your mouse over commands to see if a tip that contains a keyboards shortcut appears. Double-click and right-click on aspects of Excel to find hidden features. Use the function wizard, and click on those little tips that appear when you’re editing a formula.

Spend as much time as you can on message boards, such as Mr. Excel, OzGrid, and Stack Overflow. Try your hand at answering questions. Ask your own questions. Message boards are Excel school where people reveal how they use and misuse Excel, and experts disabuse end-user misconceptions.

Next, visit a bookstore, either online or bricks-and-mortar, and buy a handful of Excel reference books. Authors at the top of their game include John Walkenbach and Bill Jelen, but don’t miss quick reference guides such as those published by Beezix. Do your best to read every Excel book you can from cover to cover. The more you learn about Excel, the easier it becomes to learn that the next technique.

Switch to YouTube when your eyes get bleary from reading. Seek out webinars, such as the High Impact Excel series, which offers 1 hour of free CPE per month. Pepper webinar instructors with questions. They’re there to help you. Supplement books and videos with Excel blogs, such as Chandoo, Daily Dose of Excel, and Contextures. Comment on posts. Ask why if something doesn’t make sense. Engage Excel experts on Twitter. Start your own Excel blog or Twitter feed to document everything you’re learning, and to help others. The French essayist Joseph Joubert noted “To teach is to learn twice.” Get in over your head by bidding on Excel projects at sites like Odesk and Elance, or mine your social network connections for projects. Then use all of the aforementioned resources to get yourself out of any jams. This fall, use your new found skills to rewrite the crappy spreadsheets you inherit.

The sooner you accomplish all of the above tasks, the faster you’ll become “in my sleep kind of sharp”. That’s the point where you’ll have forgotten more about Excel than most users ever learn.

David H. Ringstrom, CPA@excelwriter on Twitter — heads up Accounting Advisors, Inc., an Atlanta-based software and database consulting firm.