Adventures in Competitive Excel: 2014 INFORMS Spreadsheet Guru Contest Recap

Adventures in Competitive Excel: Recap of the 2014 INFORMS Spreadsheet Guru Contest


A few weeks ago I stumbled across a contest page on the INFORMS association website promising “a test of head to head individual spreadsheet skills.” Intrigued, I registered and looked forward to spending some quality time in Excel at the end of March.

The preliminary Round One came with a spreadsheet and short instructions. The goal of the contest was to advise a fictitious cardiac charity on the country most deserving of its attention. Your starting point was tables of raw data and a half-completed picture of the end result. Rounds Two and Three were very similar. The average time for completing the report was given as 1-3 hours.

INFORMS spreadsheet guru contest

Contest starting point. Note the sparklines and that one cool conditional formatting style you never use. A true feast for the eyes.


Here are a few tips I picked up after making it through all three rounds —


How to Survive Any Excel Competition

  • Know what you’re getting into. There wasn’t much information out there on past years’ contests so I read up on INFORMS itself. The association website frequently mentions big data and analytics. I guessed the contest would be wrangling large data sets and then drawing conclusions from them.
  • Work from somewhere quiet. Round One I had to take frequent breaks to setup an office prank and my time suffered from the multi-tasking. Round Two I retreated to a conference room only to be chased away by industrial glue fumes from our long overdue office carpet replacement.
  • Use keyboard shortcuts.  Text to Columns (ALT + AEF), Auto Filter (ALT + AFF), Change Tabs (CTRL + PgUp or CTRL + PgDn) and more were all huge time savers.
  • Set up as many formulas as possible.  I lost time here because it had been so long since I used RATE() that I didn’t even realize it had been deprecated in Excel 2007 in favor of RATE.AVG() and RATE.EQ(). Ouch. Knowing my basic functions would have shaved at least 5 minutes from my Round One time.
  • Read the instructions three times before starting. That sounds a little excessive but trust me it’s not. Very similar to MBA case studies – there will be small footnotes that seem unimportant and skim-worthy. In this case the minor note was that the charity prefers working in countries with republic government types. Anyone who missed this note would have mistakenly recommended Tuvalu.
  • Check Your Work. I almost submitted the wrong answer in Round One because of a simple typo. Not good.


All in all it was a great time. The organizers did a stellar job with creating the contest and coordinating everything. I plan to use the prize money to become a card carrying member of the INFORMS association and maybe one day sponsor cool prizes for a similar contest on this site.