After the dust settled once the Excel Champs wrapped up recently, we had the opportunity to ask South Africa’s first-ever Excel Champ, Corné van Heerden, some questions about his success, and his mastery of Microsoft’s spreadsheet program.

Van Heerden was refreshingly candid about what he thought and how he did, and his answers make for compelling reading for anyone considering entering into next year’s competition, which we were assured will definitely take place.

  1. What was your first thought when you saw the final Excel Champs challenge?

I was happy that they had written clear instructions which I could read before I started my time. In general I tend to read too fast and understand too little and then make stupid mistakes.

I knew this was a bit of a weakness of mine and so I was happy I could read carefully before starting each challenge. Then I could formulate a good plan and then start executing when the timer went off.

  1. Was what you had to do to solve the challenge familiar, or did you learn anything along the way? If so, what was it?

In general the questions were very much in line with what I had experienced in Excel before. This doesn’t necessarily mean I had encountered the same questions before, but in Excel we are given a number of tools and we need to solve a specific problem.

Microsoft provides, allegorically, the nails, the hammers and the other tools and but we need to build the house ourselves. If I didn’t have a screwdriver to nail in the screws, I’d just use a hammer to force it in, not necessarily always the most eloquent solution but whatever works.

I did however need to do an Array Calculation in one of my answers in the second round, something I don’t do often, and as a result I refreshed my knowledge on Array Calculations and functions and I learnt quite a few new tricks which I am very excited about.

  1. When you finished, did you think you had a shot at the title?

I honestly did not. When I was finished I was told that I did not have the best time. I assumed that the other contestants would’ve done pretty much as well as I did and thus I was pretty convinced I did not win.

Even after I won I was very confused and asked the judges why I had won? They said I was the only one who got everything right… So I guess I was lucky that the questions were in line with my experience.

  1. What is your favourite Excel function, and why?

This is a very difficult question… I would say that recently I’ve been very impressed by the SUMPRODUCT function. I think it’s an amazingly versatile function which was introduced in Office 2007. Another great one that has made my life a lot easier since 2007 is IFERROR.

Before in Office 2003 I had to write a function such as =IF(ISNA(VLOOKUP(D2,A2:B14,2,0)),”Item Not Found”,VLOOKUP(D2,A2:B14,2,0))… now it is simply =iferror(VLOOKUP(D2,A2:B14,2,0),”Item Not Found”). It’s a lot faster and a lot more versatile than the first example.

  1. If you could say just one thing to aspiring Excel Champs, what would it be?

If next year’s competition is anything like this year’s, my advice would be that you should focus on Excel in general, and not focus on any specific part of Excel. I focused all my preparation on Functions and Formulas, and in the final the only formula that was asked was a calculated field in a Pivot Table. The rest of the questions were all based on broader Excel Functionality and understanding.

For example, the last question we had to write a Macro, but the instructions for the Macro was on another sheet. While I was recording the Macro I had to constantly jump to the other sheet to see what the next step was. This caused a problem because I knew that the Macro was recording a reference to specific sheets and if it had to run on a new sheet it would not work.

So when I was done I went into the VBA behind the macro to remove the references to specific sheets (this was indicated as one of the reasons why I won). Thus it was not only knowledge on how to write a macro, but also knowing and understanding potential problems one encounters when recording macros which is something you only learn through experience. So look into a broad range of topics and apply them in day to day life to gain experience.

Thanks for your time, Corné, and once again well done on winning the competition! 


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