Inside the mind of a spreadsheeter vs a financial modeler

financial modeling

Introduction

There is certainly a big difference between a spreadsheeter and a financial modeler. The problem is who draws that line and determines who is placed on either side of it.

I have met, witnessed and trained many people over the past 18 months and it is still amazing to see how wide this spectrum can be, not to mention the opaqueness of that line.

Apart from there being no single method of measuring this difference, you will even struggle to get a bunch of expert modelers to agree what are the definitive criteria or standards to follow in order to draw that line very clearly.

Everyone is scared the other might “own it” and desperately hold onto their own approach so sadly there are 3 that would call themselves a financial modeling standard. If you ask me no question BPSMS is hand down the best (and was the first to be created).

I even saw a list of formulas on the axis of evil by a leading accounting firm, yet a world champion proceeded to use one of those “evil” formulas in his demonstration during a Modeloff Global Training Camp.

So it would be very dangerous for me to even attempt drawing such a hard line.

But I can certainly explain and give readers food for thought when looking at the mindset of the two, which is more based on me having met thousands of them across Australia and HK.

Having previously transitioned myself from a spreadsheeter to a professional modeler, I can’t even say exactly when it was that I moved over to the other (perhaps dark) side…perhaps the day I unplugged my mouse and started to use only shortcut keys. Or was it the day I learnt Index(Match) and no longer used Vlookup or perhaps Offset or my first copy/paste and goal seek macros….nah…has to be a data table or a Solver driven button….see the problem.

Here is a short list that hopefully helps people assess personally where they might be and what might need to change to progress toward improving their potential as a Financial Modeler.

Spreadsheeter

  1. Believes he/she has little if any errors in their spreadsheet and denies or avoids thinking about them.
  2. A spreadsheeter just wants to get the job done and will rush through the process, even occasionally hardcoding numbers in formulas to balance a balance sheet and hide it in other debtors or creditors when it might be out of balance. Or have a “balancing item” / “historical balancing” as an unreconciled difference. Maybe make other assets equal the difference between net assets and total equity to force a balanced balance sheet…I know all the tricks because I used them a long time ago.
  3. A spreadsheeter likes the fact that their spreadsheet is really complex which nobody, apart from them, is able to interpret what is contained in it. Even the simplest of tasks identifying where the assumptions are located is a game of hide and seek within the spiderweb of formulas. They aim to make things complex (job protection).
  4. A spreadsheeter takes days sometimes weeks to roll forward spreadsheets and lots of manual copy and paste. They will spend more of their time preparing it and little time analysing, running sensitivities and scenarios. Its rare you will find scenario and sensitivity analysis in the spreadsheet. They might even use the words “it is what it is cause the model says so”. It’s like the model has it’s own brain and can never be wrong or changed dynamically. Spreadsheeters hardly ever build macros to automate the complexity.
  5. The spreadsheet would and could never be served to anyone, let alone a queen. The intention is not to ever explain or show it to someone in detail only to create a few fancy dashboard which are then printed or saved to PDF format so nobody has to look under the hood. It’s not pretty for those that have had the pleasure of having to review another spreadsheeters spreadsheet when they go on leave or change jobs. I had 2 staff members that struggled for weeks to switch roles purely due their different spreadsheeting skills.
  6. Speadsheeter uses their mouse a lot and knows very few shortcut keys apart from Ctrl C (copy) and Ctrl V(paste) (which they use a lot). Maybe occasionally Ctrl S (save).

Modeler

  1. Recognises that all spreadsheets will contain errors when first built and therefore actively develops error trapping and reporting/flagging within a model to detect and resolve them.
  2. A modeler actively goes looking for errors and writes formulas carefully to minimise errors and enforce consistency. A balance sheet that doesn’t balance is a cardinal sin and worthy of punishment by public humiliation.
  3. A modeler builds models so they are easily navigated and well structured. Whilst the formulas might be complex depending on the business logic and flexibility the Modeler strives to enable others to easily use and navigate the key assumptions and outputs. They aim to make things simple (it’s actually harder to make complex models simple).
  4. A modeler will find every angle possible to reduce the time spent on updating a spreadsheet so that they can spend more time on possible scenarios and potential impacts of changes to key assumptions. The modeler recognises it’s a matter of relativities across different scenarios rather than an absolute single outcome. Not matter what the model reflects as outputs it will never be 100% accurate. A modeler would use macros and probably run Monte Carlo simulations if required to lower error risk.
  5. Presentation is key. The model is built as if it were an expensive cuisine being served to the queen. There would certainly not be a bunch of excel errors hanging around like egg shell pieces in scrambled eggs. Not really a pleasant experience eating egg shells.
  6. Financial modeler hones his shortcut key strokes and might even remove the mouse all together. They are also known to remove the F1 key as its just a waste of a key and F2 (understanding basic formulas and logic) is used a lot and right next to the useless F1 key.

Conclusion

There are sadly more spreadsheeters out there than modelers (2% of Excel users would be professional modelers), however fear not as there are tools and educators to help, like me.

I was once a spreadsheeter feeling proud that I was the only person that could understand what I had created.

Whilst I thought this was a great place to be, I soon realized that the painful process of maintaining the spreadsheet all by myself eventually became boring and I could use my time to add more value outside the spreadsheet through conversations whilst the spreadsheet was merely the decision making tool, not the bible.

Being able to drive real business conversations and help drive performance face to face with people and not behind spreadsheets is truly life changing. We are human and whilst machines can do a lot for us, right now influencing decision making with other humans still needs our experience, our personal connections and care for others being successful as it’s the best way we too become successful.