Why you need to learn MS Excel

Just five years ago Microsoft Excel was as alien to me as table manners is to a two-year-old child. Then during my university summer break in 2007 I got a job at a bank that changed all that. I learned that

  • Excel makes calculations of complex formulas easy;
  • Excel works great as a basic reporting tool; and
  • Excel is used extensively by just about everyone at work.

What I couldn’t understand was that if Excel was this useful, why wasn’t I taught it in school? Then it dawned on me that I probably was. But because I didn’t know exactly what it did or how it was used for, I never really cared. So I never paid attention. And I never learned.

I now know what Excel can do and how useful it is. So I’m writing this now, hoping that you will read this and go, wow, I need to learn Excel now. And my husband/girlfriend/child. Heck, my dog needs to learn Excel.

When I say Excel, I really mean a spreadsheet program. And when I say learn, I mean really learn. As in “deliberate learning” (as opposed to learning by accident).

There are really only two things that I want to emphasise here: that Excel’s used by many different people in many different ways; and that mastering it will enable you to get much more done.

MS Excel is used by everybody in so many ways

If there’s one big reason why you should be learning Excel it’s this: Excel’s used by just about everybody and in so many different ways. 

One reason why I probably never paid attention in school if they had taught us Excel was that there wasn’t any real benefit. Sure, we needed to do some basic financial modelling and play around with “what-if” analyses (e.g. what would happen to our revenue if our product costs 20% more to make? How about if it cost 10% more to make?) during business classes.

But who actually does this sort of thing in the real world? I’m going to be a teacher/housewife/writer/scientist, not a business owner or financial analyst. So just how often do we get to use this in the real world anyway?

Well, pretty darn often. Just about every single field out there makes use of some sort of analysis:

  • A teacher trying to figure out how your students are doing as compared to their peers
  • A small business owner wondering which product to keep and which to retire
  • A scientist trying to figure out the homogeneity of a dataset
  • A housewife keeping track of household expenses and determining if it’s a good idea to send her children to $1000/mth tuition classes
  • A Donn Lee trying to see the relationship between his weekly running mileage and his (unfortunately heavy) weight

You get the idea.

Mastering MS Excel lets you get home on time

My current company lives and breathes spreadsheets. But we still have people, newbies and veterans alike, who aren’t especially well-versed in it. One thing I’ve noticed about these people is that they tend to work longer hours because even though they know what to do analytically (they can explain it to me using plain english), but they don’t know how to do it efficiently (or sometimes at allin Excel.

Every once in a while I’ll get a call from one of them asking me to help them with a spreadsheet. So I’d walk to their desk and they’ll show me what they were having a problem with and I’d fix it or otherwise advise them on it. Sometimes, the answer would be a “you can’t do that in Excel” — and this after they’d been trying it without success for the past few hours.

Many times I’d also fix something else “by the way”: spreadsheets loading too slowly due to formulas linked to external workbooks with tens of thousands of lines; inefficient use of nested formulas; and sometimes, in the more serious cases, formulas used incorrectly and returning the wrong numbers — if these were presented at a managerial or external meeting it’d be disastrous.

Would you love to be able to work through spreadsheets like magic? I cannot say enough how freeing it is to be able to have an intuitive idea of what you want to do in Excel, and be able to execute that idea through a mastery of the tool. Learn MS Excel, and go home on time, please. Your family will thank you.

If you haven’t already, go to your local library and pick up a book on Excel, or do a search on Google and YouTube for Excel tutorials and learn from there. Plenty of free resources abound.

Some external resources to get you started:

9 thoughts on “Why you need to learn MS Excel

  1. Nice article. I really like your comment about having an “intuitive” idea what you want to do, and enough mastery of the tool that you can actually do it. As you say, that’s where you get real satisfaction, and the opportunity to get home on time.

    And I completely agree that that most people should have at least solid intermediate skill with Excel. It’s a Swiss Army knife tool that can save you time in so many ways.

    I think that one challenge with learning Excel is that it’s a little like trying to learn all the tools in a big workshop. You can run around the shop and fiddle with dials and levers, but you don’t learn much that way. To learn to use each tool with skill, you need to work with that tool a bit, and actually use it to do something real. As you use more and more tools to do real work better and faster, the penny drops.

  2. Hi Dave, absolutely agree. So many technical skills I picked up were picked up while “on the job”, doing something tangible as opposed to just practice lessons.

  3. Great article. Six months ago, I knew very little about Excel. Since then my skills have gone from beginner to intermediate. By this time next year, I should be pretty comfortable with advanced topics. It just takes a little discipline. And, inch by inch is easy. Yard by yard is hard.

    Here are my reasons for continuing to improve my Excel skills:

    1) I like to learn new things. I like the feeling of accomplishment and increasing mastery. There are lots of videos and tutorials online that can help someone learn Excel for free. Of course, you can learn lots of things online for free.

    2) Learning Excel is a great way to escape, shut down, or otherwise get totally absorbed in something. It is kind of soothing. It can be fun. Again, there are many other ways to do this, but Excel is harmless, legal, has no negative side effects, and readily available.

    3) Excel exercises the logical aspect of my mind. Of course, there are other ways to do that too, but Excel does it pretty well albeit in a limited way.

    4) And of course, Excel has lots of practical applications. The more you know the more ways you can apply it at home and at work. It is really a super useful program.

  4. I may be working with a Vegetable Garden Club with over a 160 vegetable plots for100’s of Seniors in a Senior living community to use. there are many people who want to have a gar den plot and they have to be put on a waiting list to get one . Some are full plots, 20 X 20 ft., some are half plots, 10 X 20 ft. I have been told it would be very helpful if I knew EXCEL.. I guess so, but math has always been a challenge to me I’ve never done anything with this spreadsheet thing. and I wonder if I can learn all the in’s and out’s of this and apply it fairly to all the seniors wanting to be involved in gardening.
    Elizabeth K.

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