On occasion, staff accountants who were formerly interns have informed me that they've forgotten everything they learned about Excel during their internship. As a lover of all things Excel, it hurts me deeply to hear that.
There are some skills in life that must be practiced on a regular basis in order for us to excel (pun intended) at them. Skills such as learning a musical instrument or a new language require repetition in order to ensure that you’re fully absorbing the information. I wish I could tell the new staff it is just like riding a bike – “Don't worry! Your muscle memory will kick in, and your hands will be flying over those keyboard shortcuts by busy season. It will be like you never left!” Unfortunately, that is not the case. The secret to a VLOOKUP is not just going to appear in your brain without some training and work.
Learning Excel is actually a lot like learning a language – it involves new terminology, and if you don't get it just right, it won't get you very far. For instance, in my grade school Spanish class I learned that capitalizing the P in Papa makes all the difference in distinguishing the word Pope from potato. In Excel, capitalization can also matter. A FIND formula is case sensitive when looking for Papa vs. papa in a string of text, while the SEARCH formula is not capable of differentiating between the person and the starch.
The biggest similarity between learning a language and learning Excel is repetition. Duolingo, for example, is an app that will virtually reprimand you (via passive aggressive notifications) if you don't open it and practice every day. Repetition is the best way to stay ahead of, on top of, and fully immersed in Excel. Practice might not make perfect in this case, but it will make your life a lot easier in public accounting.
Recently, I spoke at a PICPA conference for accounting educators. After first speaking to our staff at Kreischer Miller, I had some questions for the professors regarding how Excel was being used in their classrooms. How often is it used? Is it just for class projects or daily homework? While professors should be incorporating Excel into their classes, students should also be making every effort to use it outside of the classroom. Practice. Practice. Practice.
Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you need to do extra accounting homework so you can practice your keyboard shortcuts or SUMIF formula. There are tons of ways to use Excel outside of the classroom to keep practicing your skills. You can use Excel to write lists (of any kind): to-do lists, packing lists, pro/con lists, grocery lists, holiday cards/address lists, etc. Another benefit could be sharing spreadsheets. While I am certainly biased in that most of my friends are accountants, every musical festival, bachelorette party, or weekend away has included a spreadsheet allocating shared expenses across all attendees, complete with IF formulas to determine who owes whom money.
In conclusion, in order to excel at Excel (okay, that one was definitely intentional), you need to find ways to incorporate it into your daily life and, as with most things in life, continue to challenge yourself. Keep filtering, sorting, summarizing data, and – most importantly – keep writing formulas. Don’t use the same formulas each time; challenge yourself to learn new formulas or new combinations of formulas. Google your questions, watch YouTube videos, read blogs, and never stop learning.
Don’t expect to get it all correct on the first try. It's okay if it takes you a half hour to write a formula that is as long as this sentence, but wouldn't it be great if you knew enough to write a formula that long? That might seem crazy, but I think that's pretty incredible.
Liz Carroll is a manager in Kreischer Miller’s Audit & Accounting group. She is a member of the Employee Benefit Plan industry group and works on various retail, distribution, and manufacturing clients. Liz graduated from the George Washington University and, after working in public accounting for two busy seasons, joined Kreischer Miller in 2013. When she’s not dreaming about spreadsheets, Liz enjoys going to Phillies games and spending time with her husband and dog. Contact Liz at Email.
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