Vlookup Culture: Lingo for Aspiring Analysts




This is a preview of my course, “Hired with Excel: What Every Analyst Needs to Know.” Get started here.

If you follow my blog, you’ll know I write a lot about data analysis, Microsoft Excel, and other related topics. It’s my goal to catalog everything I’ve learned as an analyst over the past few years to help those looking to move into a data-driven, Excel-heavy position.

In my last post, I highlighted how to use LinkedIn to pursue jobs effectively: by establishing a connection with targeted influencers, not by canvassing your profile wherever possible. 

During an internship, my manager suggested that while looking for jobs, I should hang around analysts with a few years’ experience on me. This way I would really understand the problems analysts face and how they discuss their work. People can tell you’re “one of them” by how you communicate. 

This was good advice, and I’d like to build on it by examing proper “interview lingo.” The interview process has many layers, and you need to display your “data chops” differently in each. There is the recruiting or HR phase, when keywords matter most. There is the hiring manager or boss phase, where you must demonstrate your accuracy and efficiency. Then there is the coworker phase, where you need to crank up your data jargon.

The recruiter.

Job openings attract hundreds of applications, so the recruiter’s job is to send the top tier of applicants to a hiring manager. The recruiter must field hundreds of resumes but has a little help. Resume banks are set up like search engines, using algorithms to find the keyword-optimal job application.

You need to prove to the recruiter that you have a top application — which means you need to hack the algorithm, and this requires the right vocabulary. Put these words on your resume and you will more likely get to the top of the resume bank and straight to the hiring manager’s desk.

“Microsoft Office.” You will want to highlight your Excel skills in particular, but it helps to put write “Microsoft Office” and not just “Excel” under your software skills. Why? Remember — there’s an algorithm. A recruiter may be searching for “Microsoft Excel,” or “Office,” or some combination. If your resume only lists “Excel,” your resume won’t appear on the search.

Note: “What about Python/R/SAS?” you may ask. Lots of analysts use these programs. I am focusing on Excel because it’s what I am most familiar with, and because everyone uses it. 

“Business analytics.” This term is in vogue, but it really just means using data to make business decisions. If you’ve used a PivotTable to explore data relationships, you’ve done data analytics! 

“Work with large data sets.” This is another trendy business phrase, and for good reason. Companies are amassing huge amounts of data. They hardly know how to store and retrieve this data, let alone analyze it. Make it known that you are comfortable with “large data sets” or “big data.” Think vlookups here. You can write a formula that can query potentially thousands of rows of data and return the right answer every time.

Should you add specific Excel skills to your resume? Probably not. Words on resume is expensive real estate — only include things that are likely keywords for recruiters. It is unlikely that the recruiter will be searching for specific Excel skills and more likely he will look for more general keywords. But if you are asked about these skills in an interview with the recruiter, the above points explain your new skills.

In all likelihood, though, you will save the Excel details for the interview with the hiring manager.

The Hiring Manager.

Your first job as an analyst is to make your boss not look bad. You will be preparing a lot of data for your boss, who will have to present it to other managers and executives. The last thing you want to do is provide inaccurate numbers. They will confuse his audience and diminish credibility.

“Accuracy” is the keyword when communicating your Excel skills to the future boss. Guarantee him that your work in Excel will always “tie.” Numbers must match across different reports — if Exhibit A shows $200 million in sales, then so will Exhibit B. This will be one of your hardest tasks an analyst. I have spent untold hours combing through datasets correcting for the smallest variances in numbers.

The reason this is so difficult is that you will be pulling reports together from many sets of data. Using vlookups and PivotTables will greatly reduce your chances of mismatched data. Still, always be on the alert and check your numbers for accuracy. Guarantee to your prospective boss that you always check that your reports will always “tie.” This use of lingo and the understanding of its importance will be very impressive.

How do you ensure accuracy, the interviewer might ask? Respond that you know how to use a vlookup to avoid searching manually for data and making mistakes. Also that you know how to return 0’s instead of errors in your vlookups so that your subtotals still return a number.

Add that you use PivotTables for data analysis, because this tool will do all the subtotals, preventing summation errors. Your boss may only be vaguely aware of these concepts, but if you communicate them right, you will still impress.

Your future boss will rely on good Excel skills. If you don’t know the ins and outs of vlookups and PivotTables, it is all the more likely that you will provide inaccurate data that causes grief. But the boss is not the only potential work colleague who has an interest in your good Excel skills. Your coworker would like a rockstar too.

The Coworker

At many companies, you will interview with an analyst or a senior analyst. These interviews are usually less formal and more “in-the-trenches.” More than anyone else, these people know the true job qualifications and can do the best job screening. While it may elude the recruiter and the hiring manager, the future coworker understands the key role a good Excel game plays. Here is where you really need to talk like an Excel expert.

“Efficiency” is the keyword when communicating your Excel value to future coworkers. You will collaborate with them on a lot of spreadsheets. You will earn a spreadsheet reputation. You do not want to be known as the person who doesn’t know how to format data for PivotTable use, or the person who needs help writing a vlookup.

How can you demonstrate your Excel value to future coworkers? Tell them that you hate spreadsheets that aren’t set up to become PivotTables. Joke to them that you do vlookups OFF of PivotTables. Joke about the “vlookup culture” (I’d skip this one if you’re with a boss or recruiter!) Your future coworkers want to be comfortable with your Excel knowledge. They want to see that you can build a spreadsheet that will not cause them to make errors — and make their boss look bad.

Remember these strategies for each part of the interview process and your Excel skills will shine.

Avoiding the Curveballs

What if your interviewer asks you about Excel skills you don’t know? You will always get the person who asks about Excel Solver, VBA, or the OFFSET function.

How to answer these curveballs? Simple: be honest. If you have used the tool in the past, say so. If you haven’t, be forthright that you haven’t.

In either case, the key is to demonstrate that you do know the bread and butter of Excel for analysts — vlookups and PivotTables. Don’t get me wrong — other stuff is good to know. But if you are only ever going to learn two concepts in Excel (and I wouldn’t recommend that, because Excel is fun!) then it would be those two, which is why they’ve been the blog’s focus. 

Good luck on the interview.

Want to join the vlookup culture? Check out my new course on getting hired with Excel. I will show you the essential Excel tips and tricks for analysts…. and how to convert them to job leads. 

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