What I would ask if you claimed you knew Excel

Fridays have become gyaan sessions about employment, internships and jobs, and I suppose that’s a fine thing to keep going. Here are posts on the past two Fridays: On Interning, and “Cracking” Interviews.

Today is about what I would ask you if I was the interviewer, and I see on your CV that you claim to be proficient in MS-Excel. This post will hopefully help you figure out if you know Excel well enough – and by your responses, it’ll help me understand if I’m asking good questions!

Here are ten questions I would have asked about MS-Excel in an interview. I’ve tried to arrange them in increasing order of difficulty, so the first is the easiest one

  1. Is it possible to work with text data in Excel? Can you give me an example?
  2. What exactly is conditional formatting? Can you tell me about a time you used it in MS-Excel?
  3. How would you password protect a file in Excel?
  4. When are you better off using data filters instead of pivot tables? Whatever your answer, what is your reasoning?
  5. I’m not a fan of pie charts. Do you agree with my opinion, or not? Why?
  6. Give me your best guess about a keyboard shortcut in Excel that I’ll not be aware of.
  7. Index and Match, or Vlookup – which is better, and why?
  8. How would you go about creating dynamic charts in Excel? Or sentences that update automatically when new data is fed in to the sheet?
  9. What is your favorite Excel add-in? Why?
  10. Walk me through the coolest project you’ve ever done in Excel. (This last one if I’m convinced that you are a proper, legit Excel ninja)

How did you do? How did I do? What are questions that I should have asked but didn’t?

On Interning

It is hunt-for-an-internship season at our Institute, as I suppose is the case all over the country.

The process is trickier than usual, because of the pandemic, and for that reason I wanted to put up a small outline of my thoughts about internships.

  1. At the start of your career, optimize for learning, rather than branding. This means that in your internship, and your first job, you should optimize for firms where you are likely to learn a lot, rather than firms that are prestigious. Prestigious firms are likely to be more bureaucratic, and more about status. This means that the junior employees aren’t likely to get a lot of crucial, really important work. The pay will be better, the Friday parties will definitely be better, but the opportunity cost will be high as well.
  2. Learning how to document the work you’ve done is a very, very underrated skill, especially in internships. One way to be really and truly remembered at the end of your internship is by handing your mentor a docket of what you did, what you wish you had done, and a documentation of all the processes you learnt about.
  3. Best of all, include a section for the next intern in this team. Include stuff like who to meet in payroll, where is the best chai to be had, who in IT is especially helpful etc, along with the obvious stuff. Not only is paying it forward a good idea in and of itself, but that next intern is automatically a friend for life.
  4. Go for all the chai and sutta beaks that you are invited to, even if you don’t smoke or drink chai. Relaxed conversations with your mentors or seniors is invaluable, and soak in all the info you possibly can.
  5. Learn Excel. Here’s a laundry list to get you started: HLOOKUP, VLOOKUP, INDEX, MATCH, OFFSET, SUM, SUMPRODUCT, COUNTIF (and all the variants). Pivots, filters, data analysis add-in, solver add-in, charts, trace precedents, what-if analysis, data tables, goal seek, data validation. You must know all of this in and out, and be able to know what you can use when. YouTube videos, websites will help, but the best way to learn is to sit with a colleague and ask her to help you out. I cannot emphasize this enough – you need to know Excel. It doesn’t matter which role, which team, which department. You. Must. Know. Excel.
  6. Whatever productivity suite your organization is using, soak yourself in it. GSuite, MS Office or anything else. Know the ins and outs of the email system, the calendar tool and the internal messaging tool. Invest the time to make yourself a ninja in it. Trust me, it is worth the effort.
  7. Seek out a mentor in the organization if one isn’t allotted to you. Set up weekly lunch/tea meetings with the mentor, and have her tell you stories about stressful times in the office.
  8. Continue to learn whatever tools you got access to at the workplace. It could be Tableau, Crystal Ball, R, Jupyter notebooks or anything else. Again, soak yourself in the tool, and start on the path of becoming a ninja in it. This will take time, but it is worth your while.
  9. Learn the big picture. Ask your mentor how whatever project you are working on fits into the larger objectives of the workplace. My very first manager told me something I have never forgotten: every single thing you do in the workplace is either raising revenues for the firm, or is cutting costs for the firm, or is improving speed-to-market. If what you’re doing is achieving neither of these three, then it is a waste of time. Ask, until you are clear about the answer, how your project fits into this simple model.
  10. Lastly, about landing an internship. Do not send out blanket emails to contacts on LinkedIn, or elsewhere. Shortlist not less than ten, but not more than twenty people, and write them a personalized note. These folks should have skillsets you want to possess – it doesn’t matter where they work. The note should include a specific question about this skillset. If they answer – and to such specific notes they usually will – take their advice to heart. Incorporate it into a project you are working on. Send them this project, and ask for feedback. Then ask if they can help you land a gig. All the notes I get on LinkedIn just ask for a gig. That’s a waste of a potential networking opportunity.