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?

“Cracking” Interviews

I had written about maximizing soul the other day, and acing interviews is one of the best ways to think about minimizing time, effort and cost, rather than maximizing soul.

Because, in my opinion, cracking an interview is the same thing as saying that my work isn’t good enough to get me through the door. So what can I say, do or project in the interview that can tip me over.

The simplest way to crack an interview is to be good enough to be recruited.1


But, all that being said, and most probably ignored, here are some points to think about when you want to “crack” an interview.2

  1. As a fresher, it is perfectly fine to not have any prior work experience. Don’t sweat it if you have no work-ex to show on your CV. At you age, and your level of experience, that is a feature, not a bug.
  2. Given your lack of experience, and presumably prior work-ex, the interviewer is likely to focus on your CV. This is the streetlight effect: what is most easily searchable will be searched. Whatever is on your CV – the only piece of paper that the interviewer has to go on – is what they’ll focus on the most.
  3. That’s why all the agonizing over the CV – it becomes your calling card during the interview.
  4. Keep your CV as brief as possible, preferably less than a page. I still keep my CV to below a page.
  5. The economics-y way of thinking about this is very similar to how a presenter uses a PPT. The PPT should be a complement, not a substitute. Since you’re the one giving the interview, and not your CV, your CV should be nothing more than a bridge for the interviewer to reach you. It should be short on detail, but as long as possible on sparking curiosity.
  6. If your CV is able to spark said curiosity, it is up to you to turn that spark into a raging fire. To me, personally, your ability to speak English isn’t a deciding factor3. Your ability to communicate, to get your point across – in any mutually understandable language – that is very much a deciding factor.
  7. For example, if the interviewer says “Tell me more about this project/internship/whatever” – that’s a spark.
  8. Do not rush into a description of the project.
  9. Tell the interviewer about skills that you used to do the project well. Make sure these skills are relevant to the job that you are interviewing for. (Example: “I used my knowledge of VLOOKUPS in MS-Excel to do xyz”)
  10. Or tell the interviewer about skills that you acquired while doing this project. The second sentence in point 9 above applies here as well. (Example: “I learn how to use VLOOKUPS in MS-Excel to do xyz”)
  11. Or tell the interviewer about skills that you become aware you were lacking in while doing this project. Again, the second sentence applies. But also, in this particular case, you should also be able to tell the interviewer stuff that you have done to begin acquiring these skills. (Example: “I learnt that I had to know VLOOKUPS in MS-Excel inside out in order to do xyz. I have learnt how to do this by doing abc”)
  12. Now, all that being said, you should precede pts. 9, 10 and 11 by explaining in no more than three sentences the following:
    1. What was the point of the project? (That is, was the idea behind the project to increase revenues for the firm, decrease costs for the firm, or increase speed to market for the firm?)
    2. What was your specific role in the project? (That is, where did you fit in the big picture? This shows an awareness of both your own specific role, as well as the ability to understand how the whole project comes together, and why.)
    3. Quantify the success of the project. (Overall, we were able to increase x metric by y% over z years.)
    4. There is no way in hell you are going to be able to do this without writing it down. Please, spend the time and write down, in your own words, your answers to each of the three points above. Writing it down makes it clearer in your head. Trust me on this one.
  13. If you’ve done pt. 12 well, followed by pts. 9, 10, and 11, congratulations. You’ve turned that spark of curiosity into a raging fire. You’ve done this by demonstrating:
    1. A passion to learn stuff relevant to the task at hand
    2. An ability to think clearly and cogently about the work that you do
    3. A clear awareness of where you need to improve, and what you’re doing about it.
    4. The ability to communicate your work and its relevance clearly4
  14. Do this well enough, and you should be able to “crack” the interview.

  1. “What if there are many people who are good enough?” is the response I usually get when I say something like this. Contradictory, no? If there are many people who are good enough, then you aren’t good enough to be better than them. Work on that first![]
  2. This blog post is written assuming a fresher is sitting for an interview. Some points don’t change no matter what type of an interviewee you are, some do.[]
  3. Language should never be a barrier![]
  4. Again, the point is to not be Shakespeare, the master of the English language. The point is to be a very, very good communicator. Short, sharp sentences, and clarity of thinking – that’s what matters.[]

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.

So what are forward markets? What is speculation?

Definitions don’t make sense unless they’re applied, and applications aren’t useful unless they’re relatable. So to understand forward markets, let’s work the other way around. Let’s start with a relatable example, and work backwards to arrive at the definition.

And what, pray tell, is more relatable than placements for students?

That is, after all, the point of an education. No?

So, anyways, placements. Here is how placements work: a company lands up on campus in the month of (say) October 2021, interviews a bunch of students, selects some of them, and offers them a job. Let’s say one of these students, who’ve been offered a job, accepts the offer.

Does the job start in October 2021? Of course not! It begins in June 2022.

In other words, a company and a student have entered into a contract. This contract says that the student will give the company eight hours of her day, Monday to Friday, in return for which the company will pay her a salary.

But the deal has not been struck for immediate delivery. The student doesn’t start work in October 2021. A price has been agreed, the terms of the contract have been agreed, and both the student and the company have signed on the dotted line – but for a transaction that will take place in June 2022. That, my friends, is a forward contract.

Now, having gotten the point, let’s learn the language that the beasts of this jungle like to use. The student, because she is selling eight hours of her time, five days a week, is the party with the short contract. The firm, because it is buying eight hours of the student’s time, five days a week, is the party with the long contract.

(Why the hell don’t they just say buy and sell, then, these financial folks? Lyk, srsly, ryt? Lmao. Brb.)

The price that the two parties have agreed upon is known as the strike price, because it is the price at which the deal has been struck.

So, quick recap: going long | going short | strike price | forward contract.


Here is how the placement process works in almost all colleges in India. If you sit for an interview, and you’re made an offer, you’re “out” of the placement process. There are variations to this rule, but in essence, the logic is that once you and the company have struck a deal, you can’t sit for any other firm that comes on campus later.

So here’s a conundrum for you: what if the company in October is a firm called HDFC, and it is offering you a package worth 8 lakh rupees (INR 800,000). The conundrum is that there is a very strong rumor (but it is, unfortunately, a rumor) that Google will be on campus next month, and they’ll be offering 20 lakh rupees (INR 2,000,000).

HDFC will pick up 20 students, but Google will pick up only 5.

Do you sit for the HDFC process or not?


There’s no right answer to this question, of course, and because of the uncertainty, cases such as these cause a lot of angst among students every year. But let’s assume that a student decides to “play it safe” and does sit for the HDFC process.

Here is what the student is thinking: sure, lower salary, and sure, no Google. But hey, a bird in hand is worth two in the bush, no? Better a low paying job for sure than the risk of not being placed by June 2022. Us economists would say the student is being risk-averse. Those finance guys would call her a hedger.

A hedger is somebody who ain’t worried about missing out on a high-paying job later. A hedger prizes certainty. A hedger mitigates risk. The price you pay for mitigating risk – the opportunity cost of risk mitigation – is that you lose the potential upside.

Choosing to put money in an FD rather that investing in stocks is hedging. Doing an MBA rather than starting a business is hedging. Locking in a job, even at a lower price, rather than waiting for a better one that may or may not come along – that is hedging. You’ll sleep soundly at night, knowing that HDFC is waiting for you in June 2022. You’ll feel a twinge of regret when your BFF lands that job at Google (of course you will), but hey – you played it safe, and that’s no bad thing.


OK, so you’re the hedger. What about HDFC, or Google? What should we call them?

Well, how much does a recruiter learn about you in a 15 minute interview anyway? All that they have to go on is that interview, and your CV. We know all about CV’s!

So when Google, or HDFC, or whoever, really – when they give you a job offer, they’re taking a bet on you. You may be the next CEO of those firms, who’s to say? Or you may be fired six months after starting your job. Who’s to say? Like I said: they’re taking a bet on you. They’re speculating.

Folks who take risks in financial markets: they’re called speculators.


Me, personally, I always get a little nervous when folks start to talk about excessive speculation, or banning speculation. Because, as an economist, I think about the student and HDFC as entering into a transaction in which the student sells the risk of being unemployed, and buys peace of mind in return. HDFC, on the other hand, sells the peace of mind of having money in the bank, and speculates on the student.

If you ban speculation, where’s the hedger to go?

A market needs people on the sell side, but also on the buy side. Without both of these animals – the hedger and the speculator – the jungle called financial markets can’t function. Just like without firms willing to punt on students, the market called placements can’t function.

I’ve yet to meet a student, past or present, who complained about “too many firms coming on campus”. And what’s good for one market, is also good for the other.

No?