Today Chandoo posted an interesting blogpost on “The Best Excel Interview Questions.” This is interesting for many reasons. For one, in Excel forums this question comes up a lot in very different variations:

Freddie Mercury on Interviewing

  • Someone says they’re an Excel expert, how can you tell in an interview?
  • What are 3 features/functions any Excel user must know?
  • What is the best way to verify a candidate’s skill?

Another interesting element of the blogpost is Chandoo’s context for the question:

[ … ] there is also a significant portion of you who are too good in your job [and] you will become a senior manager, VP or CXO, or better still start your own business. When the tables have turned, you will be the one looking for smart, dedicated, talented and fun individuals to join your team and make you look even more awesome.

Here’s my take on the challenge. Drawing from my experience as an Excel user, Data Management professional, Trainer and Consultant:

Unless we’re testing for a temp role where a person has to show up and perform immediately for 1 day, I don’t like the idea of asking Excel questions as a litmus test because there are far more novice Excel users than power users, and Excel is only the tool.

Well, duh! What’s the point? The Learned FanGirl, Keidra Chaney summarizes it this way “people are being thrown into data-heavy roles that they aren’t ready for; and the people who are headed for such roles aren’t being prepared, either.”

So, not only are are we dealing with a vast pool of non-power users, also an increasing number of roles are becoming part-time analysts.

Now let’s look at an interview.


Back in 2006 when Monica Johnson was a Sr Financial Analyst interviewing me for a Commissions Analyst position. She explained the importance of getting the results right. She explained how the sales information came from multiple sources, and the data quality was far from perfect. Monica explored my ability to answer questions from sales people who want to challenge my calculations.

And, I remember the moment when I admitted not knowing how to extract certain data. Monica’s reply was, “Ah, that’s just a pivot table, I’ll show you that.”
Well ok, just a pivot table? That’s the first time in life I’d heard of a pivot table, and I’d been working with Excel for several years.

A year later, my work was audited and it was just shy of 100% accuracy. Not because of Excel prowess but because of a willingness to learn, and a fair level of data literacy.


Monica’s interest was more in having someone who could be trained easily in the totality of the role: ownership, the politics, and the capacity for the skills. Part of that is checking for Data Literacy and willingness as a Data Steward:

  • A person’s willingness to take ownership of data quality. Just because someone submitted crap data for processing, an Analyst can’t accept it and shift the blame when the results are wrong.
  • Ability and willingness to conduct root cause analysis, and improve processes.

Let’s look at a common challenge that’s more of a Data Literacy problem than an Excel problem: comparing lists.


  • We have a company that sends out medical supplies on a schedule, and they’re sent to an Administrator at a hospital, not to the individuals.
  • We’re conducting an audit because of a rash of late and duplicate shipments.
The Admin should have received
supplies for these 22 people:
   In our system, we see billing & shipment
data for these 12 people:
Supplies Due Supplies Shipped

WOAH! There’s a gap of 10 people. Hurry up and get that stuff out!

broken red light bulb

NOPE! Bad idea.
A good analyst will do more than open Excel and whip out their trusty INDEX/MATCH. A good analyst would realize:

The next move should be to contact the Admin and find out what she’s received


Here are all 3 lists, including what the Admin received) and now we see goofy stuff under rocks that our Data Literacy instinct guided us to investigate.

Supplies Overview


First. Looking in the system for an order only means that an order is or isn’t in the system. It doesn’t reveal any other truth about the world.
Second. There’s investigation to conduct.

  • Rex was due his supplies but they haven’t gone out.
  • Raoul, Gregg and others have their supplies. That’s good. But why aren’t they shown as having been billed?
  • What’s the deal with Bernard and Lissette?

Investigation reveals:

  • Rex’s situation is straight-forward. The supplies were due and haven’t shipped.
  • Raoul, Gregg, Karen and others had materials shipped out by someone who intended to go back later and input the billing information. Alas, “one day” never happened.
  • Bernard and Lissette asked that their supplies be shipped early because they won’t be in town during their normal delivery time. The supplies were shipped and there’s no documentation of them as exceptions. There needs to be a way to prevent duplicate orders during their regular due period.


The exercise above is where I’ve seen the greatest deficiency–even among experienced Excel users. An experienced Excel user who’s an inexperienced Data Manager may have run a VLOOKUP between the 2 lists, proudly sent out the 10 missing supplies … and then … here comes the call from the pissed off Administrator, “when are you people going to get your act together and stop sending these duplicate orders???? You’d better not be double-billing us!”

We’ve got to get our minds around Data Management and Data Literacy because more and more information is hitting us from everywhere. The Data Literate mind that asks good questions and takes ownership is the same mind that can be taught Excel pivot tables, macros, PowerPivot, etc.

Yes. There’s merit in exploring a person’s Excel skill level in an interview. But an even better angle is to ditch the detailed questions and cockamamie computer-graded simulations. Ensure that solid Data Literacy is present because Excel skills can be taught to the right person.


Thanks to Monica Johnson for hiring me as a Commissions Analyst in 2006, and thanks to Troy Berry for suggesting that I apply for the position.  They’re the kind of mentors that I describe in Real Data Management Is Managing People Who Don’t Like The Results. There is so much more to managing data than Excel skill. And it takes people like Monica and Troy to see that, and develop the right folks.

Freddie Mercury Quote photo credit: id-iom via photopin cc
Exploding lightbulb photo credit: zole4 via freephoto