Excel: The Most Underrated Software You Already Own


There’s a program on your computer you’ve used hundreds of times that can do all kinds of amazing things:

  • It can grab information from the web and create crazy calculations and fancy charts.
  • It can take pretty much any kind of data file and allow you to play with the data in an infinite number of ways.
  • It can take thousands of pages of text and give you a really good idea of what the main points are.
  • It can make a lot of processes automatic and save you hundreds of hours of mindless work.
  • It can beat Garry Kasparov at chess.*

Microsoft Excel is one of those programs we’ve all used at least a little bit, but most of us haven’t even scratched the surface of what it can do.

There’s a reason why Excel costs $139 and Microsoft Office costs $279 — this is really powerful software that’s capable of some truly amazing things.

But very few of us take full advantage of it.

The Power of Excel

I got my first exposure to Excel’s power a few years ago with an incredible stock-analysis spreadsheet that blew my mind. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I got stuck with a really tedious project and decided to disobey my boss — I found a better way thanks to some developing ninja Excel skills.

It saved me from wasting a bunch of hours of my day, and it made me look like a smart dude. (See also: 5 Efficient Ways to Boost Productivity)

But let’s face it — learning Excel isn’t fun unless it’s going to help you solve an immediate problem. It’s like an umbrella — we only care about it when we need it. Once we’re done, we throw it in the back of the closet and forget about it. But it pays off to learn some of the basics for the next time you run into a roadblock.

Learn by Doing

The next time you get stuck with a tedious task of collecting or organizing data, Google what you’re trying to do along with “excel,” and you’ll get an answer. You may find it tricky, because you have to come up with the overall plan and then figure out how Excel can help. But odds are there is a way Excel can make things easier for you.

So if you’re trying to take thousands of emails and you want to parse out some of the data, you’d search for "parsing data excel." It won’t work 100% of the time, and you may have to learn some Excel lingo, but eventually you'll get it.

There are other places to pick up some Excel basics. Microsoft’s Excel blog is a good place to start. And pay attention to any and all Excel sheets you come across to see how they do certain tasks.

Most important of all: If you meet people who are masters at Excel, ask tons of questions, get their email addresses, follow them on Twitter, and follow them on Facebook. These people will be a HUGE help as you learn all the cool, advanced stuff Excel can do. Believe it or not, people are still more useful than Google.

Improving Your Value

Excel is a powerful piece of software than can help you not only be more efficient at work, but make you look good. If you get really good at it and become the “go to” person for any and all advanced Excel tasks, you’ve just become one of the most valuable people at your workplace.

Think about it this way — if you’re the doorway to getting things done faster and more efficiently, you just turned yourself into a VIP. And VIPs are invaluable to every company.

Anyone else out there have a story of how Excel made your job easier and/or made you look good?

*Microsoft Excel may or may not be actually able to beat Garry Kasparov at chess.

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Guest's picture
Waldir Leoncio

There's also LibreOffice Calc, which is free (actually, the whole office suite is) and will fulfill the spreadsheeting needs of *almost* everyone.

Guest's picture

I do budgeting, retirement planning, loan analysis, and various financial what-if's, all in Excel. Even if it doesn't do everything dedicated financial software would do, you've done it yourself--you understand the calculations and assumptions much better than if you just entered into a program and clicked calculate.

Guest's picture

I've automated so many of the reports I have to do for work using excel. I don't always know the exact formulas that I need to use, but I have always found answers when searching on Google.

Carlos Portocarrero's picture

Dave: Curious how this has worked out for you at work...are other people good at Excel or have these reports become your domain?

I can see someone making themselves VERY valuable by becoming the "go to guy" at this.

Guest's picture

Excel is an invaluable tool. Im a senior corporate analyst for a Fortune 500 company, that Excel is the tool I used the most, it simplifies complex tasks, and it's basically how I do 90% of my statistical modeling. I also have a personal finance blog, and I speak to budgeting/spending wisely/saving etc. quite a bit. Excel is an old school budgeting tool, and it's something you can use to manipulate and customize your budget spreadsheet to exactly how you want it....yes this is what people used long before Mint or Yodlee...and many still prefer this.

Carlos Portocarrero's picture

That's what I like to hear! All ye who don't think a spreadsheet program can be this valuable, pay close attention to where Justin works and how valuable the things he's entrusting to Excel are...time to get your learn on.

Guest's picture

To the point! For me it was a delight when I got the hang of macros.

Guest's picture

Visual basic can make you look like an ace in the workplace!

Guest's picture

As an Event Coordinator, I use Excel for timelines when doing events, especially weddings.
It can even sort seating charts or conference accommodations and makes great schedules too.

I taught my office to use Excel for RFPs and it is now the standard. The downside of this is that because we can do so much more in such a smaller amount of time the expectations are higher for more productivity.

Guest's picture

OK, this one is going to sound weird...I am a web programmer by day, and I do a lot of database manipulation. Most of my colleagues turn their noses up at Excel, but it is the foundation of the data work I do.

I use Excel to generate the database scripts I need to do large amounts of data. My clients provide the spreadsheets with the raw data, and I use formulas to generate my scripts. It saves SO much time, especially when the same format spreadsheet is used. It used to take me about an hour to update speaker cap amounts with every spreadsheet. After we standardized on my tricked out spreadsheet, I am able to generate the complete script in about 5 minutes. And that is regardless of the amount of data.

I also use Excel to translate my project data between Bonsai and Remember the Milk. A few formulas and a macro or two and it's pretty automatic!

Guest's picture
Guest Peter

While excel is certainly great with numbers I find it great as a label program. I needed a program where you could change the many names on a label quickly(not possible in most label programs) and being able to drag across and down solves this. It can take a while to get setup but it is worth it in the long run for the time that it saves.