Diarmuid Early at Modeloff in 2014

The undisputed face of Excel as an Esport is Diarmuid Early. With a PHD in computer science, Diarmuid is the five-time finalist of the original Excel origin tournament ModelOff and top ranked Excel master at the Financial Modeling World Cup. So hot is Excel that the last competition was aired by ESPN and watched by tens of thousands of fans. Here he reveals the secrets to his Excel success

What is your background?

I studied math and physics at university and then a PHD in computer science. After that I was at Boston Consulting Group in London, Deutsche Bank in London. I am now the founder of Early Days Consulting. 

When did you become known for Excel skills?

Early in my career [ In 2008], At Boston Consulting Group]. If there was someone who was good at something people figured that out pretty quickly. Before too long, people decided I was the person to go to with questions on Excel. It would often happen that on a Friday (a more relaxed day) I would have a number of colleagues over the course of the day asking me, ‘how can I do this?’. It was not exactly a long line but a steady stream of people.

Did Excel make you popular?

It did. It made me popular with my peers. It also made me popular with management and the staffing pool with the type of work I was given.  

What advice would you give on Excel learning?

I advise people to take the time to do something the right way or smart way early on – even if it ends up taking longer. For instance, if you want to combine two datasets, learning to use V-Lookup and then doing it will take longer than sorting the two lists and then manually cutting and pasting. But if you spend that time learning V-Lookup or PowerQuery then the next 100 times you do it you will be much much faster. Early on in a job when people expect you to be bungling and hopeless anyway is very much the time to do this.If it takes three hours and the next time it takes you 10 minutes they will say this person learns really fast. It’s a big time saver later on.

What was the last thing you Googled how to do in Excel?

I Google things all the time. I recently Googled to see if there’s a way to use the new UNIQUE formula on a two-dimensional array to give one list of all the values that occur in the whole range. It turns out that there isn’t – I had to make one myself.

What do you love about Excel and competitive Excel?

I really enjoy a good problem solving challenge in Excel. I get this same enjoyment in trying to challenge a problem in Mathematica or a problem in Java but Excel is what I use much more of the time. I guess it is the math side of my brain that gets a kick out of it.

Are you surprised at how big the audience has become for Excel competitions?

Yes I am very surprised. That was pretty cool to see honestly. 

Do you get fan mail?

I get a lot of LinkedIn connection requests from a lot of aspiring financial modelers from all over the world. People often ask me questions about how do you learn? How do you get better?

Has competitive success been good for business?

Yes, since I started my consultancy I have always kind of said this is my rate which is deliberately high  and if you don’t want to pay it, I am happy to try and connect you to other people.It’s a little easier to say that and have the confidence to know that inbounds are coming since I am a bit more widely known than I used to be.

What is the payout for winning?

The first year I won Modeloff, I won $30,000. For four or so years they had big prizes. It has mostly been smaller since then – last year I won the Financial Modeling World Cup that was $5000, which is more typical now. 

Why are there so few women in Excel as a sport?

There are depressingly few, despite a lot of effort by a few people over many years. The person who won the first Modeloff I entered was Hilary Smart.

Hillary Smart

She and I both entered  10 years ago – she is probably a more mature and well-balanced person than me and said after a little while I don’t really have anything to prove any more so I am going to stop doing this. In contrast I get a kick out of this so I am going to keep doing this as long as they let me. A lot of the marketing back in the day was macho, who is going to crush this model? Kind of thing. The idea of competitive financial modeling is a little bit of a bro idea in the first place, and the marketing emphasized that in a way that didn’t probably attract that many women to the competition. It’s always a bit depressing when you see a picture of the top 20 and it’s often all guys. There is no way this is actually the best 20 people with no women in the group. 

Do you use a mouse with Excel?

There’s lots of flame wars when it comes to Excel. I guess it is in some people’s interest to stake out a strong position, say on V-Lookup vs Index Match vs X-Look or say I never use a mouse. There’s very few things that I never do in Excel. I flip between V-look up and Index Match depending on the situation or mood I am in. I use a mouse when it’s appropriate, probably not a lot but, you know, it’s there for a reason. 

Do you ever use Google Sheets?

I like it for -here’s a random use case example, my son goes to a playgroup which parents run and we needed a COVID-19 health screener, answering various questions. It was super easy to make a little Google form that each parent could have their link to and hit submit, and then there was a sheet that sucks all of that in and shows here are the 10 people that are supposed to be in class today, and who have passed the screening. Excel is getting to be more online, but Sheets is ahead in that respect. There are a couple of functions in Sheets that are kind of cool and I wish Excel had (flatten, and the query function). 

You produce some great YouTube videos. Will you have a TikTok channel?

I am not cool enough to have a TikTok channel. I struggle to keep my videos below 45 minutes.