What is Excel? A beginner's overview

Microsoft Excel is a software program included in the Microsoft Office suite. It is used to create spreadsheets, which are documents in which data is laid out in rows and columns — like a big table.

Due to its extreme versatility and power, Excel has become one of the most-used software programs in the business world since its launch in 1985. Indeed, the personal computing renaissance of the 1980s and 1990s was largely driven by the many uses of Excel and other spreadsheet software.

What is a spreadsheet?

A spreadsheet is a special way of organizing data into rows and columns to make it simpler to read and manipulate. Here's a screenshot of a blank spreadsheet:

Blank Excel spreadsheet

As you can see, the document is comprised of columns (the vertical sets of boxes labeled A, B, C, etc. on the top of the screen), and rows (the horizontal sets of boxes labeled 1, 2, 3, etc. on the bottom of the screen). At the intersection of each row and column is a cell into which a user can enter either numbers or text. The address of any given cell is generated by combining the letter of the cell's column with the number of the cell's row. For example, the cell highlighted in the diagram below is at address B4, because it lies at the intersection of column B and row 4. When we refer to this cell verbally, we call it, "Cell B4."

Blank Excel spreadsheet with cell B4 selected

The image above, of course, represents a very simple spreadsheet. More complex spreadsheets can contains hundreds or even thousands of rows and columns, the combination of which can represent millions of cells. These cells can be linked together with calculations and formulas to perform complex mathematical logic simply and easily.

What is Excel used for?

That's all well and good, but what are spreadsheets used for? Almost everything. Spreadsheets are extraordinarily powerful tools, and are used frequently in the business world to store and manipulate data.

Throughout the course of these tutorials, we'll be following SnackWorld, a fictional company, as it uses Excel to track data about its business. Here's one example of how SnackWorld uses Excel in the workplace:

Sales by item

As you can see, SnackWorld has used the above Excel spreadsheet to keep track of its sales numbers by item sold. The tabular format of a spreadsheet is the perfect way to measure this complex set of data — it would take a long time for SnackWorld's managers to write this out by hand! And Excel's formulas and functions, which we'll learn later on in this module, allow employees to easily pull out specific pieces of data to answer managers' questions.

Here are a few examples of other ways a company might use Excel. Remember, though, that these are just examples. Excel is infinitely flexible, so the possibilities are endless:

  • Keep track of sales by customer from month to month;
  • Monitor customer payments to ensure that none are late;
  • Keep track of expenses and assign them to particular employees;
  • Calculate hours worked per employee for monthly payroll;
  • Calculating monthly payments on the office mortgage;
  • Creating graphs or charts to explain company performance over time;
  • Estimate monthly sales for the next three years based on historical data; and
  • Assign projects and tasks to employees in a centralized location.

How to learn Excel

Now that you know what Excel is, it's time to learn how to use it! Get started with our how to use Excel article and begin to harness the power of this amazing tool.

Explore the 5 must-learn 'fundamentals' of Excel

Getting started with Excel is easy. Sign up for our 5-day mini-course to receive easy-to-follow lessons on using basic spreadsheets.

  • The basics of rows, columns, and cells...
  • How to sort and filter data like a pro...
  • Plus, we'll reveal why formulas and cell references are so important and how to use them...

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