Last week I was in a cafe and saw 2 professional-looking middle-aged gentlemen at a table.

One guy told the other how he’d advised someone not to take a computerized Excel exam as part of an interview. His personal experience was that those exams are just frustration.

“You get in there and find out they’ve disabled keyboard shortcuts, but if that’s how you work, then what are they really testing?”

I politely interrupted and loudly reinforced the decision to skip that test. “You’re right! Don’t take those things!”


This question about interviewing for Excel skill has come up again; this time on a lively LinkedIn thread.

  • What questions do you ask of someone who claims to be an Excel expert?
  • Do Pivot Tables and VLOOKUP separate the pros from the hacks?
  • Should VBA be required of someone purporting to be an Excel expert?

The originator of the LinkedIn thread explained the disappointment of a continuous stream of  self-described Excel pros coming in to interview, taking the Excel exam, failing, and leaving humiliated. I found the article unfortunate and was reminded of my original blogpost on this topic:

In Interviewing, Excel Skills & Data Management Mentality the overall point was my mantra: Excel is only a tool. Use of the tool can be taught to the person who has some grasp of data stewardship.

This time around, I’ll go deeper into the problem of programmed Excel testing, and offer alternatives.


1. Excel is too doggone big

Excel users develop skill in areas where they use Excel on a regular basis. I think it’s unfair to invite someone in and embarrass them by testing them in areas that are not likely to be where they know they shine–and especially when the computerized test disables certain features.

From the employer’s perspective, maybe they don’t need what the candidate is skilled at. But with this canned testing, the employer doesn’t get to see the size of the gap between the candidate’s skill and the employer’s need.

2. Contexts are too diverse and nuanced

Each business has their own data management needs; they have their own processes and business rules.
Let’s say we have 2 analysts, Al and Marcey and they work at 2 different companies. Both are skilled at building Excel dashboards and are good at what they do. In their previous jobs:

  • Al had to clean his own data before building dashboards, and incorporated a little VBA.
  • Marcey didn’t have to clean her own data and doesn’t know VBA, but she constantly had to build different kinds of dashboards.

Who’s the expert?
Who’s more valuable?
What should Al and Marcey be asked during an interview?

Answer: IT DEPENDS! What does the employer need?


bruce lee don't concentrate on the finger

If we rephrase Bruce Lee’s wisdom to fit this blogpost, we’d say:

“It’s like using Excel to process payroll.
If you focus too much on Excel,
you’re gonna eff up people’s money.”

People, Processes and Tools are the components necessary for heavenly glory. The right person manages the processes as well as the tools.


Ask Candidates To Present An Excel Portfolio Of Past Work

  • Does their work look thorough?
  • Can they explain what they did or do you detect mindless paint-by -numbers construction?
  • Can you see where the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses are?
  • Is there evidence of focusing on a pimped-out spreadsheet vs. getting a job done?
  • Are they going to accept criticism of their 3-D 20-slice pie chart or are they going to defend it?
  • If someone had to troubleshoot their work, how difficult would it be to follow the thought process and organization?
  • How long is the bridge between the portfolio and the employer’s needs?

Notice that I didn’t say anything about VLOOKUP or nested functions. Right now, let’s focus on the heavenly glory and the moon, not the finger.

Have Candidates Look At Your Real Data And Real Needs

Sometimes the person doing the interviewing doesn’t know enough about Excel assess a purported solution. Therefore, what such a person should listen for is how the candidate asks questions.

While looking at your Excel workbooks

  • Is the candidate asking about the processes around the workbooks?
  • Are questions and suggestions being presented with the business objectives ever-present?
  • Are they understanding enough of the formulas such that functions they’ve never seen before aren’t completely alien?

Look For Passion

As Rick Grantham and I agree on ExcelTV: real analysts light up when they talk about data! Do your candidates light up?

A passionate analyst will ensure that formulas accurately reflect business rules, and test for unusual scenarios. A passionate analyst will accept criticism of their garish 3-D 20-slice pie chart.


Cloud 3

People, Processes, Tools and Passion. Those are the main ingredients in a responsible analyst role. Those will get you to the heavenly glory of turning data into intelligence. The right person who has passion and thinks about processes can be taught to use the tools.