MS Excel is a great way to build your tech skillset while still in school

Accountants are increasingly expected to be well versed in data and technology. Blockchain, AI (artificial intelligence), and RPA (robotics process automation) are just a few terms that accounting students might learn about during undergraduate studies. What I encourage my students to do, though, is start out with one of the most fundamental building blocks of all: Microsoft Excel.*

Why Excel is so important.

Full disclosure, I’m a complete Excel nerd — I love it for how much it can do within a business environment – from simple calculations to multi-year and multi-variable cost analysis projections. But I increasingly love Excel for how much it can offer students as a robust tool to showcase on a job interview.  I’m a big advocate of understanding “why” things are the way they are; so here are a few reasons why, despite amazing leaps in tech in recent years, Excel is still the standard application to learn and master.

1-Excel is a standard – and nearly everywhere. Most companies – especially larger Fortune 50, 100, and 500 companies – will be Microsoft “shops” and thus have Excel installed on employees’ computers (as an aside, here’s an interesting read about Microsoft’s race to the top of the spreadsheet market during the 1980s and 90s — this helps inform why Excel is “everywhere”).

2-Excel is needed for countless daily tasks that larger systems are not designed to handle. Many companies have complex technology systems in place to run their accounting, HR, legal, and other core functions. The core IT solutions used for these functions are called “ERP” (enterprise resource planning) systems. They are huge, and often expensive to purchase, maintain, and change. These larger systems contain vast amounts of data and typically come with lots of bells and whistles that allow the company to input, edit, and report on the data for the purposes of those core functions (e.g. print out W2 forms for all employees who work at the company). But the ERP systems often don’t do everything — and that’s where Excel can fill in as the catch-all tool. 

Imagine the ERP as like a crane on a construction site for an office building — it’s huge, spans the height and width of the project, and takes a lot of specialized people to operate it. But, it cannot address countless smaller tasks happening on the ground or perhaps inside the still-unfinished walls of the building; Excel is like a team of workers that can zip around the grounds, up and down the floors, addressing various tasks as needed, either in a planned or emergency fashion. Excel will not have the reach of the crane in terms of over-arching height or breadth, but it will have capacity to address nuance in every corner of the project. 

Using a more straight-up business example: let’s say you need to do a one-time regional analysis of W2 data and you want to compute postage cost for all W2s mailed within a specific set of zip codes. The ERP system may not capture that specificity since this nuanced, one-time task was not anticipated; the cost for postage is not stored in the ERP system. What a user would do is export the W2 and zip code data from the ERP to Excel and the nuanced analysis around cost would be completed in Excel.  

3-Finally, in a business environment, everyone – from staff to senior management – are likely touching Excel. As I noted above, Excel is a standard and it can be applied to countless tasks. Because it’s so useful, and can be used for nuanced tasks or complicated budgeting projections, most of your team – including senior management – is likely going to be using it. Today’s senior management grew up with Excel as staff associates 10 or 15 years ago. 

For these and other reasons, if you want to get hired into an accounting or business environment, you need to know Excel. And you can learn it doing mundane tasks at home; low risk, high reward over time. Skills building can be baked into daily life, like:

  • Type a grocery list into an Excel spreadsheet (skills practiced: data input)
  • Replicate your grocery receipt into Excel (skills practiced: data input, sum formula of cost, formatting the subtotal line, multiplication formula for sales tax)
  • Input your contacts into Excel and then group them by family, friends or classmates, work (skills practiced: creating an array (rows and columns), data input, formatting)

Sharing Excel know-how during a job interview may just be the skill that sets you apart from other candidates; every edge matters. 

Here is an article I wrote for the NJ Society of CPA’s Summer edition about the top 5 Excel skills needed for entry level staff (at an accounting firm). I will be teaching these skills (and more) at SPU starting in Fall 2021. 

Keep in touch with questions!

/Professor D’Souza

*Google Sheets (which is free) is a great proxy for Excel (which is not free) if you cannot get your hands on a copy of the MS Excel license due to cost. And, students at SPU: the university provides online Excel for free — visit this link and get in touch with the IT Helpdesk if you have issues.

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