From teaching assistant to ‘Mr. Excel’
Author: Bill Jelen (BBA '87)
In 1986-1987, I was a teaching assistant to Professor Khalil Matta. He and professor Gary Kern were conducting a research project to see if MBA students could learn better using a course on an interactive laserdisc or traditional reading materials. Their MBA students were required to either read material or complete the interactive course to learn how to use the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet. My role in this project was a simple one, but one that changed the path of my career. After the MBA students completed the interactive course, I would administer a 40-question written test about Lotus 1-2-3 and then grade the exam.
Over the course of two semesters, I noticed that the exam was very difficult and most students only answered 40-50% of the questions correctly. The research project needed students to try their best to learn the material, so the results of the test were to be factored into their final grade for the class. At some point, after grading 50 exams over several months, I realized that I had the exam, I had the answer key, and I should figure out the Lotus functionality behind each question on the exam.
In my spare time, I set out to learn everything on the test. I figured if the test was hard enough that our MBA students only knew half of the material, it would give me a head start if I could master everything on the test. Years later, when I was thanking Professor Matta, he explained that the test had to be hard so he and Professor Kern could discern if the Laserdisc method provided incrementally better understanding of spreadsheets.
A few years later, I was working at my first job and spreadsheets became a major portion of my work day. Using the techniques that I learned from the research project, I quickly became the “go-to” guy in my company for complex spreadsheet questions. By the mid-90s, Microsoft Excel replaced Lotus 1-2-3 as the favorite spreadsheet. But the concepts from Lotus easily transferred to Excel. By the late 1990s, people at our company had started calling me “Mister Excel.”
In 1998, I started the MrExcel.com website and began writing tutorials and answering questions for people around the world. By 2000, the website was generating enough traffic and side jobs that I left the corporate world to focus solely on providing Excel help for people around the world. With 750 million people using Excel, there are plenty of opportunities to help people, either paid or unpaid.
If you enjoy what you are doing, it isn’t really work. I’ve been able to support my family simply by sharing my knowledge of Excel freely. I have authored over 60 books about Microsoft Excel. I traveled the world performing Excel seminars for 17 years. I’ve created over 2000 Excel tutorial videos on YouTube. I have been recognized by Microsoft as an MVP in Excel for sixteen years. A large community of like-minded Excellers have joined the community at the MrExcel.com website, freely answering Excel questions. In 2019, we surpassed the one million answer mark. All of those answers are still available and discoverable. When people Google an Excel question, they have a one-in-three chance of finding their answer at my website, all made possible from a 40-question Lotus 1-2-3 exam at Notre Dame.