The writer is author of ‘You’re the Business: How to build a successful career when you strike out alone’
When Emma Chieppor, 25, started a new job as an actuary, she struggled with using Excel. Working remotely from her home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she ended up teaching herself using YouTube videos.
Once she had mastered the Microsoft spreadsheet programme, Chieppor loved how much more efficient it made her at her job. In May 2021, she began posting videos on TikTok under the handle @exceldictionary, offering help to those who struggle with spreadsheets.
Within a week, one of her videos — a 25-second tutorial of the ‘flash fill’ function — went viral and her account amassed 100,000 followers. Four months later, she was at 1mn followers on TikTok and today she has more than 3.6mn followers across social media.
Chieppor is part of a crop of “Excel influencers” to have emerged in the past two years teaching spreadsheet skills in bite-sized videos. The growing trend for “micro learning”, workers’ hunger to upskill, plus the inability to learn software skills informally from colleagues thanks to working from home, means Excel influencing is booming.
The #Excel hashtag has more than 3bn views on TikTok. As Chieppor puts it, she wanted to “teach people Excel while doing something they were already doing — scrolling through their TikTok feeds”.
One of the first Excel accounts on TikTok was Kat Norton’s @miss.excel page at the beginning of the pandemic. In March 2020, the former management consultant was stuck in her childhood bedroom, unable to travel for work. She was already teaching Excel as a side project and decided to try putting out tips on a TikTok account after a friend suggested it.
“I said, ‘I can’t make a TikTok, I’m 27’,” she says. “Then I looked around on there and saw that nobody else was doing it. And I thought, there may be a market for this.”
Norton created videos of herself dancing to pop music, overlaid with a screen recording of her performing Excel functions and started posting them every day. She now has more than 700,000 followers on TikTok, as well as nearly 600,000 on Instagram. In her bio, she calls herself Chief Excel Officer.
Norton says the videos that perform best are the ones that cover core Excel functions, like flash fill and keyboard shortcuts. She also has a recurring skit of her playing a boss asking a worker to perform an arduous manual task, which they then get done in record time thanks to their newfound Excel knowledge.
“The average everyday Excel user isn’t the advanced user,” Norton says. “So when you hit on that basic stuff, the things people are doing every day manually, those are the [videos] that go viral.”
Independent content creators are not the only ones making a name for themselves in the Excel community on TikTok. Mike Tholfsen is a principal group product manager for Microsoft Education and runs a TikTok account (@mtholfsen) with 1.3mn followers. He shares what he calls MicroTips, a portmanteau of “Microsoft tips”. He says his Excel content is his most popular; a recent tutorial demonstrating the text-to-column function has more than 270,000 views.
“TikTok is about ephemeral discovery,” Tholfsen says. “You might go to YouTube to search how to do something, but on TikTok, you learn something you weren’t expecting.”
Tholfsen adds that he thinks Excel tips do so well on TikTok because it’s an ideal tool for micro learning. “The pandemic, and TikTok to a lesser extent, have started teaching people that this micro-sized content can resonate really well,” he says. “Not everyone wants the ‘30-minute just sit and get’.”
Microsoft’s flagship spreadsheet programme launched in September 1985. The software company does not provide figures for the number of Excel users, but as of August 2021, Microsoft 365, the software suite that includes Excel, had more than 300mn commercial paid seats. On LinkedIn, globally there are more than 1mn job posts for roles that require proficiency in Excel.
Despite the software being such an office staple, a survey of 1,000 UK workers by a London-based training company, Acuity Training, suggested that fewer than half of office workers (48 per cent) have received formal Excel training. Additionally, on average the surveyed workers needed help from colleagues twice per week with an Excel issue, which remote working has made challenging.
“I always found the formal Excel classes to be really dry and boring — I don’t think there’s any other way to put it,” says La-Tequl Edmonds, 33. The human resources specialist, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, relies on Excel and found the TikTok tutorials far more useful. “What was entertaining to me was that people were putting their own spin on the Excel content by putting it to music and using props. When I saw those videos, I just thought, ‘This is my speed’.”
Recently, Microsoft named Norton, @miss.excel, one of its Most Valuable Professionals (MVP), an award given to “technology experts and community leaders who actively support technical communities through unique, innovative and consistent knowledge sharing”. She now offers a range of online courses, including an Excel one at $297.
Edmonds took one of those courses, which her company paid for as part of her training and development. She was recently promoted and feels her Excel skills contributed to her confidence at work. “All of my recognition prior to the promotion was because of me meeting metrics,” Edmonds says. “And I think that I was able to do that because of those newly acquired skills.”
Meanwhile, Chieppor has partnered with the digital media company Morning Brew and plans to expand her Excel Dictionary brand into new formats. One of her account’s early followers, Korrin Perry, a research and development analyst at NielsenIQ, says that thanks to Chieppor’s videos, she has been able to show her boss how to do Excel functions. She says: “I feel more confident putting ‘Excel proficient’ on my resume.”