A Beginner’s Guide to Excel


By Mathu A. Kumarasamy

If learning data analytics is like trying to ride a bike, then learning Excel is like having a good set of training wheels. Although some people may want to jump right ahead without them, they’ll end up with fewer bruises and a smoother journey if they begin practicing with them on. Indeed, Excel provides an excellent foundation for understanding data analytics.

What exactly is data analytics? It’s more than just simply “crunching numbers,” for one. Data analytics is the art of analyzing and communicating insights from data in order to influence decision-making.

In the age of increasingly sophisticated analytical tools like Python and R, some seasoned analytics professionals may scoff at Excel, which was first released by Microsoft in 1987, as nothing more than petty spreadsheet software. Unfortunately, most people only touch the tip of the iceberg when it comes to fully leveraging this ubiquitous program’s power as a stepping stone into analytics.

Using Excel for Data Analysis: Management, Cleaning, Aggregation, and More

I refer to Excel as the gateway into analytics. Once you’ve learned the platform inside and out, throughout your data analytics journey you’ll continually say to yourself, “I used to do this in Excel. How do I do it in X or Y?” In today’s digital age, it may seem like there are new analytical tools and software packages coming out every day. As a result, many roles in data analytics today require an understanding of how to leverage and continuously learn multiple tools and packages across various platforms. Thankfully, learning Excel and its fundamentals will provide a strong bedrock of knowledge that you’ll find yourself frequently referring back to when learning newer, more sophisticated programs.

Excel is a robust tool that provides foundational knowledge for performing tasks such as:

  • Database management. Understanding the architecture of any data set is one of first steps of the data analytics workflow. In Excel, each worksheet can be thought of as a table in a database. Each row in a worksheet can then be considered a record while each column can be considered an attribute. As you continue to work with multiple worksheets and tables in Excel, you’ll learn that functions such as “VLOOKUP” and “INDEXMATCH” are similar to the “JOIN” clauses seen in SQL.
  • Data cleaning. Cleaning data is often one of the most crucial and time-intensive components of the data analytics workflow. Excel can be used to clean a data set using various string functions such as “TRIM”, “MID”, or “SUBSTITUTE”. Many of these functions cut across various programs and will look familiar when you learn similar functions in SQL and Tableau.
  • Data aggregation. Once the data’s been cleaned, you’ll need to summarize and compile it. Excel’s aggregation functions such as “COUNT”, “SUM”, “MIN”, or “MAX” can be used to summarize the data. Furthermore, Excel’s Pivot Tables can be leveraged to aggregate and filter data quickly and efficiently. As you continue to manipulate and aggregate data, you’ll begin to understand the underlying SQL queries behind each Pivot Table.
  • Statistics. Descriptive statistics and inferential statistics can be applied through Excel’s functions and add-ons to better understand our data. Descriptive statistics such as the “AVERAGE”, “MEDIAN”, or “STDEV” functions tell us about the central tendency and variability of our data. Additionally, inferential statistics such as correlation and regression can help to identify meaningful patterns in the data which can be further analyzed to make predictions and forecasts.
  • Dashboarding and visualization. One of the final steps of the data analytics workflow involves telling a story with your data. The combination of Excel’s Pivot Tables, Pivot Charts, and slicers offer the underlying tools and flexibility to construct dynamic dashboards with visualizations to convey your story to your audience. As you build dashboards in Excel, you’ll begin to uncover how the Pivot Table fields in Excel are the common denominator in almost any visualization software and are no different than the “Shelfs” used in Tableau to create visualizations.

If you want to jump into Excel but don’t have a data set to work with, why not analyze your own personal data? You could leverage Excel to keep track of your monthly budget and create a dashboard to see what your spending trends look like over time. Or if you have a fitness tracker, you could export the data from the device and create a dashboard to show your progress over time and identify any trends or areas for improvement. The best way to jump into Excel is to use data that’s personal and relevant — so your own health or finances can be a great start.

Excel at General Assembly

In GA’s part-time Data Analytics course and online Data Analysis course, Excel is the starting point for leveraging other analytical tools such as SQL and Tableau. Throughout the course, you’ll continually have “data déjà vu” as you tell yourself, “Oh this looks familiar.” Students will understand why Excel is considered a jack-of-all-trades by providing a great foundation in database management, statistics, and dashboard creation. However, as the saying goes, “A jack-of-all-trades is a master of none.” As such, students will also recognize the limitations of Excel and the point at which tools like SQL and Tableau offer greater functionality.

At GA, we use Excel to clean and analyze data from sources like the U.S. Census and Airbnb to formulate data-driven business decisions. During final capstone projects, students are encouraged to use data from their own line of work to leverage the skills they’ve learned. We partner with students to ensure that they are able to connect the dots along the way and “excel” in their data analytics journey.

Having a foundation in Excel will also benefit students in GA’s full-time Data Science Immersive program as they learn to leverage Python, machine learning, visualizations, and beyond, and those in our part-time Data Science course, who learn skills like statistics, data modeling, and natural language processing. GA also offers day-long Excel bootcamps across our campuses, during which students learn how to simplify complex tasks including math functions, data organization, formatting, and more.

Meet Our Expert

Mathu A. Kumarasamy is a self-proclaimed analytics evangelist and aspiring data scientist. A believer in the saying that “data is the new oil,” Mathu leverages analytics to find, extract, refine, and distribute data in order to help clients make confident, evidence-based decisions. He is especially passionate about leveraging data analytics, technology, and insights from the field of behavioral economics to help establish a culture of evidence-based, value-driven health care in the United States. Mathu enjoys converting others into analytics geeks while teaching General Assembly’s part-time Data Analytics course in Atlanta.

“There’s no better time to learn data analytics than now! As the amount of data in the world grows, companies and institutions are increasingly looking for a data-savvy workforce to help them make data-driven decisions.”

Mathu A. Kumarasamy, Data Analytics Instructor, GA Atlanta