Schrödinger’s Excel

Or, how to be deadly and awesome at the same time

ExcelIs Excel good or bad?  It is both.  Are you good at Excel or bad at it?  Probably both.

Excel is extraordinary.  In the wrong hands it also can be a disaster,  Excel is just a tool, like a chisel.  It is inspiring in the hands of a skilled carpenter and murderous in the hands of a sociopath.  This post is not about the tool but about the users of the tool: you and me.

How do you know if you are good at it?  Better question yet: how do you know if your candidate it good at it?

I know for sure that I am good with Excel in a financial setting.  I could not use Excel for, say, engineering or statistics. That is because I am not an engineer nor a statistician. What I am is a financial professional who knows how to use those features of Excel that are appropriate for my work.  I know how to be productive with it and I understand the dangers of it.  That makes me good at it. Put me into another setting, and I would struggle.  Therefore I am also bad at it.  I am very bad at VBA, although I dabble a little (horribly dangerous I am sure).  So yes.  I am good and bad at Excel at the same time.

So how do you evaluate job candidates?  Test them.  Inform candidates that all questions will come from a book, such as: Next Generation Excel: Modeling In Excel For Analysts And MBAs (Wiley Finance).

I know that many cherish the approach where they “hire for attitude and train for skills”.  I fell in love with this idea when I read Herb Kelleher’s book “Nuts!” in the 90’s.  But clearly you would not hire a chef to be a neurosurgeon based on his upbeat approach to life.  I am starting to believe that if a candidate cannot “do” Excel (in a financial setting) then he cannot do finance.  It is the lowest hurdle a candidate should have to jump.  Why?  Because how could a person who loves finance and has some experience in that area have done anything meaningful without knowing Excel?  After establishing this base competency, proceed to evaluate your candidate using other measures.

Kelleher said that at Southwest:

“We will hire someone with less experience, less education, and less expertise, than someone who has more of those things and has a rotten attitude. Because we can train people. We can teach people how to lead. We can teach people how to provide customer service. But we can’t change their DNA.”

I applaud this idea still.  But notice that Herb is talking about less and more, not none and some.  After a candidate has demonstrated a basic fitness for the position , then hire for attitude.  Sometimes this message is gets lost in translation.

Excel is dark and poisonous.  Excel is dazzling and vibrant.  Take it out of the box and start to use it.  If you start to kill something with it, perhaps you should step away.

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