by Lesley Meall
09 Apr 2009
As an aspiring finance professional, you can't possibly have too many spreadsheet skills. They're not as important as your ACCA Qualification, of course; but your relationship with this productivity tool is going to play a fundamental part in your career success, and developing your spreadsheet skills as much as possible will help you to market yourself to potential employers.
'Some level of spreadsheet proficiency is expected by all employers when they are recruiting for an accounting position,' advises Corinne Dauncey, a consultant with theAccountancyJob.com. How extensive those skills need to be will vary depending on the unique requirements of each role, but they will also reflect where you are in your finance career today, and where you would like to be tomorrow.
If you are a junior financial analyst with an international publishing company, you will probably have stronger spreadsheet skills than a payroll administrator in a small manufacturing company. If you want to become a spreadsheet analyst with a merchant bank, you will need years of related experience and advanced spreadsheet skills, but if you aspire to be the senior internal auditor with a steel manufacturing conglomerate, spreadsheet skills will be less important than communication and management skills.
But even at the earliest stages of your finance career, having the right spreadsheet skills can make the difference between getting one step closer to the job you want, and not getting anywhere near it at all. So it is important to do what you can to develop basic skills as quickly as possible.
If your employer offers you the opportunity to join a formal course or attend in-house training sessions, make the best of it, and if you are funding your own training while studying full-time or part-time, explore the options open to you.
Use your initiative
If you have access to a PC with Excel or Lotus Notes installed, spend some time familiarising yourself with the spreadsheet application. If you want to look at examples of spreadsheets that have been created for a particular purpose, do an online search.
There are lots of free downloads available for tasks such as budgeting, cash flow planning, payroll, and producing profit and loss reports, so even if you do not have access to Excel, and cannot afford to buy it, you can download a free viewer for the programme's .XLS files on to your PC, and then spend some time looking at other people's creations.
Alternatively, you can experiment with one of the free, on-demand spreadsheet systems available on the internet. It will not be exactly the same as Excel or Lotus Notes (the most widely used spreadsheets in the world), but it could still enable you to develop some skills that will be relevant no matter which spreadsheet system you are using. It will also help you to get to grips with terminology such as .CSV and delimited text file (formats), try your hand at creating spreadsheets, and learn to differentiate between pages, workbooks, and worksheets.
Specialist spreadsheet courses can be expensive, but some financial recruitment firms will provide candidates with free training. 'We give all candidates who register with us access to over 2,000 online accounting courses, free of charge,' says David Jones, the UK managing director of recruiter Robert Half Finance & Accounting. Courses include: Beginning Excel, Microsoft Office (including Excel, Word, Access, and so on), Spreadsheets in Microsoft Excel - and more. So even if you are not actively looking for a new job, registering as a candidate can be worthwhile.
Terms of reference
As a part-qualified accountant, you will probably see many jobs advertised that ask for 'spreadsheet skills', but which don't say what they mean by this; well-worn phrases such as 'advanced spreadsheet skills', 'basic spreadsheet skills', and 'spreadsheet proficiency', can be less than enlightening.
Expectations differ widely between industries, organisations, departments, and even identical job titles, so it can be difficult to know where you are positioned by your particular skills - or lack of them.
If this is the case, talking to a recruitment specialist can help, because they will have a pretty good idea of what they and their clients are looking for. 'When we ask for 'basic' spreadsheet skills, we include the ability to create and set out worksheets; enter text and data; use basic headers; use formulae and functions; sort columns; and use AutoFilter,' explains Dauncey.
'At a part- or newly-qualified level, a large proportion of the accountant's role will often involve management reporting,' says Paul Thomas, director at Hays Senior Finance. So at this stage, he suggests, you will be expected to work with standardised spreadsheets, create pivot tables, and have an understanding of how to use look-ups. And in any role that involves reporting (as many do), data validation is going to be required.
As your career develops, it is increasingly likely that you will also be expected to take the financial data contained in spreadsheets and turn it into business information. 'As a newly-qualified accountant, you may find that a lot of your work involves spreadsheet presentations to third parties,' reports Dauncey. To do this, you will need to be adept at extracting the necessary information and presenting it in a format that can be easily digested by finance and non-finance people.
She lists more advanced spreadsheet skills as being able to link worksheets with different files, and to use macros. 'An advanced user would also be able to use Excel for forecasting, planning and budgeting, or have experience of using it for regression analysis, time series analysis, expected value calculations, and complex 'what if?' analysis,' advises Dauncey.
If you have only ever used a spreadsheet to record your timekeeping, and none of these other functions mean anything to you, don't worry. You are not alone. 'Lots of students know how to populate a spreadsheet, but don't know how to build it up, change the column size, or use formulae,' reports LSBF director of academics Sue Hoof. This is hardly surprising. After all, spreadsheet skills have to be learned, and there is as wide a range of expertise among qualified accountants as there is among student accountants.
However, by the time you qualify, if not before, you would do well to acquire a basic spreadsheet skill set. 'Basic spreadsheet skills are essential for newly-qualified accountants,' explains Dauncey, adding: 'Audit work, finance, treasury work, corporate finance, and taxation all require varying levels of spreadsheet skill.' And during the early stages of your career, it is to your advantage that many of the necessary skills will be equally useful in all of these areas.
While some spreadsheet skills are universally applicable, there are roles that require more specialist ability. 'Although the level of spreadsheet skills required will largely depend on the specific role and the company recruiting, it is possible to align some skills to specific roles,' advises Thomas.
Financial modelling, automated reporting, and highly analytical accountancy roles, for example, are likely to ask for 'VBA expertise', because the macro programming language Visual Basic for Applications (or VBA), is heavily used in these areas.
Even specialist systems for tasks such as budgeting, forecasting and planning, and for financial applications, often use a spreadsheet front end for data input because many people (not just accountants) are familiar with it, and comfortable using it. So your spreadsheet skills can remain relevant even if you are using a finance system such as CedarOpenAccounts or IRIS Exchequer, or an application such as Clarity 6 Budgeting or IBM Cognos 8 Planning, which both have a spreadsheet-style interface.
How long you will need to flex your spreadsheet muscles depends on how far your career advances, and how quickly. 'As an accountant progresses, direct work on spreadsheets will lessen,' says Thomas, 'because they will lead teams that provide the reports for them.' Dauncey confirms this, but she cautions against forgetting too many hard-earned spreadsheet skills, because you never know when they will be useful.
'Even if you do not actually build complex spreadsheets yourself, your years of experience will remain invaluable,' says Dauncey. 'If you can read a spreadsheet that is placed in front of you, and understand what it is conveying, this makes it easier to notice when something is wrong. As you rise through the profession, your spreadsheet skills should become more finely honed.' Which brings us back to where we started: you can't possibly have too much spreadsheet knowledge or too many spreadsheet skills.
SHARING SPREADSHEETS ONLINE
The spreadsheet is a really useful productivity tool, but it isn't always the best way to handle iterative processes such as budgeting - even if it is the most common approach. Fortunately, the spreadsheet has evolved, and it is now possible to use internet-based, on‑demand systems (and some versions of Lotus Notes and Excel) to collaborate on spreadsheets without e-mailing multiple copies here, there and everywhere.
With the traditional approach, sharing spreadsheets can be a messy, complex, time‑consuming and error-prone process, which quickly becomes a version control nightmare. Go to the ACCA website if you want to find out more about a collaborative and less labour intensive, on-demand approach.
MAKING SPREADSHEETS WORK
Spreadsheets can be difficult to manage manually, whether you are trying to control a complex, enterprise‑wide task, or consolidating multiple spreadsheets, and because the tools to do this have historically been weak within spreadsheet systems, a range of applications have emerged to simplify the process.
A number of specialist suppliers, such as Acuity, ClusterSeven, and Qtier, have developed applications that ensure that spreadsheets are properly controlled, accessed and manipulated, by automating tricky tasks such as version control, and tightening up security and data integrity. You can find out more on the ACCA website.
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY
The popularity of the spreadsheet is easy to understand. It’s a simple‑to‑use, general‑purpose tool that offers spreadsheet and calculation capabilities plus basic database functionality; it's flexible enough for quick 'what ifs?' yet sufficiently sophisticated for complex multi-dimensional modelling.
But it is far from perfect. Spreadsheets can be difficult to manage and control, they are not ideal for collaborative and iterative processes, and they are inherently error prone. Unfortunately, almost everyone believes that their spreadsheet is error free, which creates a false sense of security.
So prudent student accountants should not believe everything a spreadsheet tells them, because it will only be as good as the person who created it and the people who are using it.