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How can you tell if someone is truly an expert in Excel?

Pretty much every resume I received as an engineering manager included a statement that the applicant was an expert in Excel. I immediately discounted such statements, because most people have no idea how much they don’t know about Excel. And if such a person came in for an interview and bragged about their Excel abilities, it only took a couple of questions to establish otherwise.

Former Microsoft Excel MVP Aaron Blood posted a “user scale” to categorize the abilities of Excel users. I like to use it as a self-test when I am teaching a class in Excel because it lets participants see where they stand fairly quickly.

Novice

  • Can successfully navigate and save an Excel workbook.
  • OK with Data Entry tasks.
  • Novices can build formulas using: SUM, IF, AVERAGE, COUNT, ROUND

Intermediate

  • Comfortable building formulas to manipulate text and dates
  • Knows what a Pivot Table is and how to build one.
  • Knows what an add-in is and how to install one.
  • Understands and can use the AutoFilter feature.
  • Can record a macro and use it later.
  • Can successfully edit/modify simple recorded macros.
  • This category includes most users who claim to know Excel very well.
  • Intermediate Formulas: SUMIF, COUNTIF, VLOOKUP, CHOOSE, MID

Advanced

  • Knows what array formulas are and how to use them.
  • Can create and modify macros with or without the macro recorder.
  • Knows how to build a macro that can be triggered by events.
  • Familiar with most, if not all, of the functions in Excel.
  • Comfortable teaching or helping others with Excel.
  • Advanced Formulas: SUMPRODUCT, INDIRECT, INDEX, MATCH, OFFSET

Expert

  • Can build add-ins for distribution and widespread use.
  • If you can think it, they can build it with Excel.
  • Most likely, a disturbed individual who spends too much time thinking about spreadsheets. :-)
  • Expert Formulas: A true expert knows the strengths & weaknesses of every single function, and has probably had to build some new ones that were not available.

Guru

  • The true Excel elite.
  • Probably just a handful of them in the world.
  • If you are one, you know who you are.
  • If you're an Expert, you probably know their names.
  • From time to time, you might see one posting in a forum.

Adapted from Aaron Blood The Excel Logic Page


You will notice that the above discussion makes no mention of how many keyboard shortcuts you know. This is intentional—because in my opinion, knowing all the keyboard shortcuts does not make you an Excel expert. It merely means that you have spent many hours doing routine Excel data entry and worksheet reformatting. Knowing the shortcuts makes you more efficient at those tasks, but won’t help you when you need to tackle something complicated and start spending more time thinking about how to do something than actually doing it. The analogy I might use is that memorizing the multiplication tables may make you more efficient at doing arithmetic, but it doesn’t make you a math expert.


Microsoft offers a series of exams to test a person’s abilities in Office apps, leading to certification as a Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS), MOS Expert and MOS Master. Two of those exams for Office 2016 have to do with Excel. If a person has MOS certification, you can be assured that they have studied all the areas that Microsoft thought were important, and were able to answer questions testing that knowledge.

I have never taken any of the MOS exams, so I can’t tell you how hard they are to pass or how good a person is who has that certification. I imagine people who deliver Office training classes as their profession probably want certification. The fact that Microsoft offers these certifications for each version of Office tells me that there is both a need in some segments of the economy for certification and a fairly significant number of people who have passed the tests.


How can you tell if somebody posting on the web is an expert in Excel? Spend a few hours reading their posts and webpages. Somebody who posts prolifically on the subject is likely to be an expert. If you are good at Excel, but perhaps not an expert, I’ll bet that you can still easily recognize a real expert by going through this process.

Are their posts in help forums clear, concise and correct? Nobody gets it right 100% of the time in help forums, but an expert would have a higher percentage of times when they get right the first time. An expert would also stick with the Asker as additional complexities are included. Does the person behave professionally in forums, even when provoked? Can they handle difficult questions, or do they just post on frequently asked topics?

After reading their webpage articles, would you feel comfortable tackling a similar problem? Do the articles discuss both how to set up and solve the basic problems as well as factors that make the solution more complex?

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