Mentor Tips: Google Sheets is better than Excel


Sean Newman is a mentor with The Commons who leads the Strategic Finance Sprint and Strategy + Operations Sprint. Read on to hear why he believes that - after spending years working in both - Google Sheets is superior to Excel.

I graduated in 2016 and have since worked in Big Industry (GE Aviation), Big Tech (Uber), and most recently, a mature startup (Alto Pharmacy). In my early days of Excel, I estimate I’ve experienced over 150 file crashes and/or saving mishaps. We uploaded files to a sharing-program called Box which often created more confusion than cohesion. Uber successfully converted me to GSheets where among other projects, I built the Weekly Metrics Report still sent to the C-Suite to this day. I’ve been through countless Close and Forecasting cycles and currently manage the entire planning/forecasting models for Alto. My philosophy has always been to automate the boring stuff so I can work on projects which break new ground. Along with my hot take on spreadsheets, I’ve shared time-saving best practices below which allow me to focus on the fun stuff at work :)  

The way we do finance is changing. More and more, fresh-faced bankers are standing out amongst their peers by learning technical skills such as statistics, data analytics, and dashboarding. While there was a time when the best-of-the-best were defined by their ability to work the hardest, there’s a growing group of financial professionals who stand out by working the smartest. 

Amidst all this change, there’s one area no one seems to be talking about… GSheets. It’s superior to Excel in every single way. I’ve spent 3 years under the old guard and 3 years under the new one, so I’ve done my due diligence. My work has become more polished, informative, and quicker after moving to GSheets. Both Microsoft and Google attract some of the world’s best Product Managers, so I don’t doubt the features Mr. Gates is releasing, but the software itself is structured in a way that sets itself up to fall behind. I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I think there are a few broad reasons for GSheet superiority:

  • It’s Teamwork Oriented. View and edit access can be easily granted (and taken away). Say you’re building the topline of a P&L and another coworker is building the fixed cost model. We can do so in tandem. Once completed, our director may share her feedback through the commenting feature. Even with sharing add-ons such as Box Sync, Excel is a very offline service. GSheets on the other hand, has its head in The Cloud(s). 
  • It’s Mistake-proof. Anyone who has accidentally deleted a tab in Excel after 30 minutes of not saving knows how delicate a model can be. In GSheets however, versioning is constantly taking place behind the scenes. If you made a mistake a week ago, you can pull a copy of the report back then and either return to the old form or take what you need for the new version.
  • It’s Consistently Innovative. Excel releases new features in bulk. Microsoft 2003 begets 2007 which begets Microsoft 2010 etc. If GSheet decides a new function should exist, it can be released today. 

Still not convinced? Let’s zoom in a bit.

There are a lot of little things that add up to an overall superior product. Just to name a few:

  • Querying. Let’s say you want a model to output each client who has spent over $1,000 in a given week. This list may be 10 people long today and 20 people long tomorrow. A query takes out the tedious formula copying so you can always have the right cut of data given the constraints you state.
  • Import Range. A solution to the endless copy/pasting of raw data into financial models. If any other file contains up-to-date raw data, it can be connected through import range without any follow-up
  • Charts, charts, and more charts! Along with the standard bar, line, and pie charts, GSheets is fast approaching Tableau capabilities. Sure, it’s got some work to do, but it’s far and away above Excel. I mean… it even has geo-mapping! 
  • GSlides Connectivity. I don’t have strong opinions about GSlides (it’s good, not great), but it is a huge time-saver in tandem with GSheets. For example, if you’ve added a chart to GSlides from a model, it can be refreshed every time data changes. I’ve saved countless hours on Monthly/Quarterly Business Reviews by simply updating a deck and adding notes before each meeting. 

I could go on. GSheets are more compatible with Macs which are more compatible with SQL. GSheets can handle more data. GSheets even looks sleeker. GSHEETS IS FREE! (well, at least you don’t pay a subscription fee). There’s just one elephant in the room. The learning curve. It’s going to take 4-6 weeks to actually begin saving time; and you’re going to be slower during this period just by endlessly googling topics like hyperlinking or adding tabs or formatting charts.

There’s no replacement for time, but I’ve put together a few of my best practices when modeling in GSheets. 

  • A model is only as good as its raw data. It’s imperative that you structure your raw data intelligently. Your data should have the right granularity to avoid needless extra steps on the front-end, but it cannot be so granular that it bogs down your file. I recommend going down to the exact level you need. If you’re assessing weekly data, do not pull data at a daily level. If you’re cohorting at a state level, do not pull data at a city level. Invest the time upfront to structure your model as cleanly as possible. 
  • SUMIFS > INDEX MATCH/MATCH > Pivot tables! Another controversial take. Pivot tables look clunky and break easily. In theory, a SUMIFS formula can accomplish everything a pivot table can as long as you supply the correct rows and columns in your framework. INDEX MATCH/MATCH is sometimes necessary, but only pulls 1 cell of data. SUMIFS can pull all data in a column that meets the correct criteria. Trust me, I manage my company’s forecast models and I’ve never once used a pivot table for it… we still manage to hit our targets 
  • Use dropdown menus. A good model may be used by many different people. Regional managers, directors, and data scientists may all require a very different cut of data. With the right optionality, the outputs can be used for any use-case. This is another reason why I’m anti-pivot table. A dropdown menu can instantly change the outputs in a SUMIFS formula. 
  • Build your summary first. Until you can visualize what your output should look like, it’s hard to determine what raw data and staging tables are needed in your model. Should it be monthly? Should it be by age group? Do you want dropdown menus? Structure this all ahead of time and the upstream work in your model will all be intuitive. 
  • Format conditionally. Red is bad, green is good. If you can show this in your model it will go a long way towards usability. My personal favorite is color scaling so I can visually see downward and upward trends in tables. 
  • Swap that graph for a table. I know I just finished praising GSheets visualization capabilities. There is certainly a time and place for everything, but more often than not, a table is more intuitive to read than a graph (especially with conditional formatting). I certainly leverage graphs, but I always ask myself first “does this tell me something, or does it just look cool?” And if it’s a pie chart… odds are it just looks cool. 

At this point in time different industries are going to have different attitudes towards GSheets. If you work in Strategic Finance at a tech company, there’s a very good chance you’re already using them. If you work at a bank it may be difficult to even get your team to consider the option. What I can say with certainty, is the world is trending in this direction. Along with SQL and Tableau, tomorrow’s financial talent will have a strong fluency in GSheets. 

Note: All GSheets screenshots show randomized data not affiliated with any internal company activity.

Learn directly from Sean by joining the Strategic Finance Sprint. You can learn more about the Sprint here.

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