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This Teen Knows More About Excel Than You Do About Anything

Spreadsheets are no match for Michael Kelly


Year after year, the world of competitive academia has brought us many excellent gems — the most fruitful of which have come from the extremely intense annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. Perhaps you were unaware, however, of another equally thrilling student contest that took place this week: The Microsoft Office Specialist U.S. National Championship. The 15-year tradition brings together the world’s brightest students between the ages of 13 and 22 to test their knowledge of everyone’s favorite software suite: the 2010 and 2013 versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint (and no, they are not allowed under any circumstances to consult Clippy).

This week, 108 finalists faced off in Orlando to compete for this year’s titles and a chance to move on to the world championships in August. Eighteen-year-old Michael Kelly, of Papillion, Nebraska, managed to beat out his fellow peers and take the title of National Champion of Microsoft Excel 2013, earning a $3,000 cash prize and extra street cred at his summer help-desk job at the local school district. I caught up with the recent high school grad to chat about his recent victory, the environment of the contest, and whether he’s afraid everyone will force him to make Excel sheets for the rest of his life.

I was not aware that competitive Microsoft software navigation was a thing. How’d you get into it?

The state of Nebraska decided to be part of the Certiport education program, so they can offer Microsoft certifications in high schools. I just took it as part of my normal Intro to Computers IT class, and it included how to use Word and how to use Excel. After we went through all the books and the projects, they would have you try to get certified. If you certified well enough, you were automatically entered to come down to the conference.

So you just ended up being an accidental prodigy at Microsoft Excel?

Yeah, I just did my schoolwork and then they sent me an email and said “Hey, you scored high enough in your state, do you want to come down and compete?”

Did you do anything to prepare for it?

Certiport and Microsoft publish books and projects that you can use to prepare. I had gone through all of those. I knew the basics of spreadsheets like most people. My main tactic was to find the most confusing things in Excel and practice those before I go down there.

I thought that was basically all of Excel. What are the most confusing things?

Mostly things that I have never used before, especially on the Data tabs. All the deep functions. Formulas and stuff aren’t too hard, but there are other functions like “goal seek,” stuff that lets Excel do a lot of the work for you. I had no idea how to use any of those. So I’d click ’em, and try to figure it out until I ran into a problem. And then I’d Google that problem. I guess I did it enough times that I knew enough to win.

I didn’t really understand any of that, but OK. Run me through the competition. What kind of stuff do they throw at you?

We were in all different testing times, so they would test like 20 or 30 of us at a time out of the 108 people who were there for PowerPoint, Word, and Excel.

They just split you up randomly and give you a color print out of a couple spreadsheets that they made, and then they ask you to re-create it as quick as you can. They have a hard time limit of, I think, 50 minutes or an hour. But the faster you get done, the higher your score.

How quickly did you get yours done?

I think I finished with like 19 minutes on the clock, and I was not the first person done. Another Nebraskan actually finished two or three minutes before me, but the score is based both on how well you did it, and your time.

How did it feel to enter into this strange new world and then randomly conquer it?

At first it was like: “This is a thing. I can’t believe this is actually a thing.” But toward the end I was getting really pumped. Now that I know that I’m going to the world championship, I’m sure it’s just going to be bigger scale. It’s like it all makes sense now.

Was the environment competitive in general?

There were some groups that I could tell had gotten into it a lot more. Some of the teachers were there, and it was serious for them. I think it was North Carolina that showed up in matching shirts. And they looked intimidating.

But before the awards ceremony we were just hanging out. I spent the day with the other Nebraskan I was competing against. We weren’t angry at each other. When we got to the awards ceremony, that’s when all the tension started.

Tell me about the moment you won the championship.

Oh, at first I couldn’t believe it. As I said, I thought I got fourth. I went down to the competition knowing that I was pretty good at Excel, but I didn’t think that I could win. I had done all the Excel curriculum but I didn’t hardcore study or anything, so I figured some kid somewhere else is going to be going at it and way faster than me. When I won, I was really surprised.

I FaceTimed my mom after the awards ceremony and she was amazed and super pumped. I’ve gotten congratulations from everyone I’ve talked to, even people that I only sorta know.

Is it all funny to you that the program you’re working on is three years old, which is sort of ancient in software years?

Yeah, there are a few people who are even competing in Excel 2010. So apparently they still do that. I think it just depends on what your state and what your school has. My school only had 2013, so I think we could only compete in 2013.

I’ve used 2010, 2013, and the new 2016 that’s come out and they’re basically all the same. They make minor visual changes, but if you know one, you can succeed at all of them.

A wise colleague recently told me: “Don’t let anyone know you’re good at PowerPoint or you’ll be forced to make them for everyone for the rest of your life.” Are you at all worried about that for Excel?

I don’t know. I’m not too worried. Excel isn’t the only thing I’m good at. I really don’t want to be tied into a job where all I do is enter stuff into Excel, but if I’m trying to figure something out or see what’s happening, I wouldn’t be opposed to whipping up a quick spreadsheet. That’s no problem.