Pa-Pa-Pa-Poker Face

Today’s hilarious tale from the trenches:

My client has an intern who isn’t doing anything related to my job, so I haven’t worked with him yet. The intern and I were both in a meeting at 11am, and we got there early, so I asked him about what he was working on. He told me that the CMO asked him to put together an Excel sheet with some calculations. In fairness, it’s actually a somewhat complicated model he needs to build with assumptions, like… if we get a certain % supply from this source and a certain % supply from that source and then % of that can get turned into revenue, how much revenue will we have – and he needs to do research to figure out the percentages and how to make it all work. She sent him an Excel table as an example output that she wants.

As he explained all of this, he sounded kind of confused/lost, so I offered to help if he needed it. He was stumped on what to do with the datasets that he was given, and how to translate those into the table, so I tried to provide some logic around how you could aggregate it and how it all fit together, holistically. I also suggested putting all the assumptions at the top of the sheet, before the tables/formulae, so they could be easily changed at her whim. That way, if he thought something should be 10% but after feedback was told that it should be more like 5%, he could just update the one cell with 10% and it would be reflected through the rest of the sheet. It’s pretty standard for any Excel modeling, but I figured he hadn’t done complex modeling before, so I thought it might help. I was very specific in my explanation: “put 10% in A1 and then in B1, write the units and description separately from A1.” He agreed with my suggestion and acted like he knew exactly what I was talking about.

Other people came in and the meeting started, so I moved on with my responsibilities. Meanwhile, the intern was furiously scribbling away in a notebook throughout the meeting. I kept glancing at him and thinking, “oh, how cute, the intern is taking word for word notes on our discussion,” figuring he was overzealous about his duties and really eager to impress us. That’s how I was as an intern/new consultant, so I totally got it, but that didn’t stop me from having a little chuckle at seeing myself back in the day. He also kept punching things into a handheld calculator, though, which confused me. I haven’t seen someone use a calculator in years (I open Excel even for quick calculations), and we weren’t even talking about anything number-oriented… but I didn’t really think about it too much.

However, that little chuckle was nothing compared to the major laughter I soon had to hold back. At the end of the meeting, the intern asked me to help him out again with his spreadsheet – he wanted me to validate his logic and structure because his numbers weren’t adding up correctly. It turns out that while I thought he was taking notes on the meeting, he was actually writing out equations on the notepad (e.g., 10% of 1400 = 140), highlighting the result of each calculation, and then typing the results into each cell in the table.

Inside, I nearly died, but I actually managed to stay totally composed and professional. I think he thinks Excel is just like graph paper for neatly organizing things into rows and columns! I didn’t have much time, so I politely suggested that he ought to put his calculations into the Excel so that we can see his work and revise as necessary, and suggested that after lunch he come by and I can go through it with him and help him out.

It’s now 3pm and I haven’t heard a peep, so I’m thinking he is still working with pen and paper and TI-83 calculator. Perhaps he’s graduated to drawing fireworks pictures in MS Paint with the spraycan tool?


  1. Bwah ha ha ha!!!

    Seriously, they should require Excel training in high school, just like typing. It’s just a necessary skill for any job of consequence…

    Kind of funny (at least to someone my age) that we’ve gone to a post calculator world. They’ve become a niche tool now.

  2. OMG!
    This had me in stitches!
    Part of me wants to say “you HAVE to be kidding.” The other part (the part that has dealt with inexperienced interns) knows you are not. Yikes!

    In my “day job” I can build Excel models in my sleep, much like I’m sure you can…

    How did you keep from laughing out loud???

  3. Ha ha! I have a kind of similar story – though all of my (awesome) interns are generally humanities/liberal arts majors that don’t do a ton in Excel. I asked someone to do a new Excel file and use data from an old one, and she thought she had to copy every single cell one by one. But she thought about that, and said “no, Allie wouldn’t make me do that” and knew there had to be a different way – so, smart in a lot of ways, and she went into help and realized she could at least copy line by line. And then, the other intern, had a book on Excel with her at all times during the semester but would keep it hidden because she didn’t want me to know she didn’t know how to do the things I asked of her. Honestly, I was really touched – but laughed so hard, as did they, when they finally admitted it at the end! Who knew that a lot of people don’t actually learn Excel….

  4. That is a hilarious story! I am lucky that in college (undergrad and masters) my two tax classes had big projects in excel where part of our grade was based on how well we linked things up so if the prof changed one thing, he/she could check how well it flowed through the entire project!

    I do still use a calculator a lot when checking/doing a final once over of our quarterly filings because I am not that quick at typing numbers in excel…I always use the numbers across the top of the keyboard…never got used to the numbers clustered together on the right side of the keyboard!

  5. Yay! You did the Name/URl option!!

    Poor intern. Imagine how he’s going to feel when he realizes just how much time he wasted. Although, I guess it looks like he’s a diligent worker.

  6. Aw, the poor little blighter! It’s unbelievable that someone in an office could be unfamiliar with excel. In the UK ICT qualification for when you’re 16, you have to learn to use all the Microsoft programmes (including Access, which I have never used since!). Definitely a useful qualification.

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