Excel Beyond Cells

Karthik Kannan, Dean of Eller College of Management, alongside Cooper Lusty, Michael Piper, Nicholas Diangelo, and Eric Kelley, Professor of Finance at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, as well as David Brown, Associate Professor of Finance at Eller College of Management.

Critical thinking, problem solving, time management, collaboration – these are the skills that employers want in today’s ever-evolving, data-driven world. While the Microsoft Excel Collegiate Challenge’s main mission is to promote student learning, perhaps surprisingly, that learning is not exclusive to Excel or even spreadsheets. The MECC facilitates learning many of the “soft-skills” that employers are looking for. In this edition of the MECC Chronicles, learn how the MECC pushes faculty and students from the University of Tennessee Knoxville beyond the cells.

In the fall of 2023, Professor Eric Kelley gathered a group of students to start an Excel club. The students knew the importance of Excel to their careers, liked solving puzzles, and thought it would be fun to try something new together. So they started solving cases, or at least attempting to solve cases. They tried cases about scoring volleyball matches, chasing dogs around doggie daycare, accumulating wealth in Monopoly, and racing cars around Formula 1 tracks. For Dr. Kelley, the cases promoted an important soft skill which he calls “non-linear thinking.” 

“Non-linear thinking” is the idea that there is not one correct path, or even one right way, to solve a problem. “The beauty of Excel cases is that they can be approached in so many different ways,” said Kelley. By going through his own solutions with students, and then reviewing walkthrough videos from Excel esports figures like Diarmuid Early, Dr. Kelley introduces students to new formulas and modeling techniques. “Showing students different ways to solve the same problem builds their tool boxes so they have more ways to solve real world problems they will face in their careers.”

Collaboration is another important soft skill that students develop through Excel cases. Nicholas Diangelo, Michael Piper, and Cooper Lusty made up the Tennessee team that attended the 2023 MECC Finals. Michael pointed out that “Going in, we didn’t expect to win. We were there to learn and grow, and working together has been a key to our progress in both dimensions.” Cooper added that MECC cases give students a great opportunity to practice collaboration, and time management, under pressure. “Interviewers like to ask about times you had to work under pressure to meet a deadline. The MECC is my go-to example. It gives me a way to highlight my commitment to learning and self-improvement. And it’s fun to talk about Excel games.” Since attending the Finals, the team has become more passionate about practicing together, and they have expanded their group to include Gavin Dawson and Cole Delorme, juniors who hope to compete in future events.

For Gavin, joining the group and practicing the MECC cases were appealing because of their accessibility. “A lot of the cases are based on games, so you don’t need to have advanced finance classes to be able to participate.” Even without having competed, Gavin used his experience and the soft skills he has developed to land a summer internship at a local accounting firm (Rodefer Moss & Co). “I was able to go into detail about some of the cases I’ve spent time working on. During the interviews, I was able to explain how I thought about solving certain problems and explain how I go about solving a problem I had less experience on.” Cole added that MECC cases are “a practical way to practice critical thinking skills that you don’t normally get in the classroom.” 

Summing up the benefits of soft skills for his students, Dr. Kelley says that “The hard work, dedication, ability to critically think, network, and have an extracurricular that they’re proud to share, makes all the difference when they present themselves as young professionals.” So, the next time you find yourself immersed in the world of spreadsheets and formulas, remember that Excel is more than just a tool – it’s a gateway to endless opportunities and self improvement. Dare to excel, and who knows what wonders await beyond the cells?

Nicholas Diangelo, Michael Piper, and Cooper Lusty Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee Knoxville