The Hunger Games Meets Excel Financial Modeling – Modeloff 2013 Recap

There is only one event in the world where Excel geeks and financial analysts from the top banks and firms compete to see who is the best Excel guru on the planet. That event is Modeloff 2013: Financial Modeling World Championships. KeyCuts had the pleasure of attending the event yesterday as a community sponsor, and here is a recap of all the high-octane bloodsport-drenched Excel modeling that took place Sunday afternoon in NYC.

Modeloff 2013

Arrival at Microsoft

There was already a big line forming in the Microsoft lobby in midtown as finalists arrived a bit late and one security guard working the desk. He was probably not used to all the brain power and Excel analysts carrying their desktop keyboards in their backpacks (F1, CAPS LOCK, and INSERT keys removed, naturally). Check out the live strong Modeloff bracelets all the participants received!


Welcome to the Modeloff Finals

The hallway to the main room was decked out with Modeloff’s various sponsors like Capital IQ and Kaplan. The most impressive sponsor to grace the Modeloff poster is, of course, KeyCuts! We are sandwiched in between Mergers & Inquisitions and Mr. Excel.


The Main Event

The crowd is intently listening to John Persico, Executive Director for Modeloff, discuss the history of the event and introducing all the judges and sponsors. Mr. Excel himself (Bill Jelen) is one of the judges for Modeloff as well as Professor Simon Benninga, author of Principles of Finance with Excel. Kiel LaFrance is the final judge for the event. I had a chance to listen to Professor Benninga speak at the pre-Modeloff Innovation in Financial Modeling event Friday at Star Mountain Capital. He told an interesting story about how one of the reviewers for his books had only reviewed one other book on Amazon–and that book was about sex positions. That’s right. Sex and Excel complement each other very well.


The Challenges

To get things started, there would be group challenges between groups of finalists competing for cash prizes. The room was organized so that two tables were set up in the middle of the room where the finalists would sit head-to-head death-match style. All the challenges involve writing formulas with the least number of characters to solve the problem. It’s kind of like “Excel Golf,” as Dan Mayoh put it (2nd place 2012 Modeloff winner and 2013 Modeloff questions designer). The least number of strokes (in this case, keystrokes) the better. The finalists are grouped together by regions: London, Australia/New Zealand, USA, and rest of the world.


People in the crowd naturally gathered around the finalists as they started testing and experimenting with different formulas. The Excel files the finalists were working on were projected so that audience members can easily see what Excel monsters the Question Design team had created. Bill Jelen channeled his inner Bob Costas and provided the play-by-play commentary as INDEX, MATCH, and OFFSET were being tossed into the proverbial spreadsheet ring.


For Challenge 1 there was a tie between the teams, as the winning formula from both team had exactly 38 characters. Challenge 2 involved a block of 4 X 4 numbers and you need to write a formula that reverses or reflects the numbers across the X and Y-axis (see picture 3 above this text). The winning answer used the INDEX function instead of the OFFSET function since it accepts less arguments. Challenge 3 is involved a big block of numbers and the contestants needed to count the number of cells that are greater than 10 or less than 10. The 4th challenge was the most difficult and based on a debt facility model. Finalists needed to count the number of flags to find, for any given period, how many times the flags were triggered. Finalists needed to create a formula just to quickly sum up the occurrences without creating the flags themselves. No team solved this challenge, hats off to Dan for a tough question.

After 4 challenges, the Australia/New Zealand team came out on top!

During one of the challenges, Bill made a rhetorical statement that summed up the passionate and self-deprecating love everyone in the room has for Excel:

I just want you to consider this for a second: you are here in this room on a Sunday afternoon…watching other people enter formulas into Excel. – Bill Jelen

Very eloquent, Mr. Excel.

Keynote Speaker: Josh Rosenbaum

Mr. Rosenbaum, author of Investment Banking: Valuation, Leveraged Buyouts, and Mergers and Acquisitions, gave a short keynote following the challenges and discussed the state of financial modeling education today. Mr. Rosenbaum made some very salient points about how most modelers learn their craft. The best modelers are self-taught which means there’s a huge opportunity (or deficiency) for universities to train the next wave of financial modelers. Just because you received a 4.0 from Harvard Business School doesn’t automatically make you an expert modeler, Mr. Rosenbaum observed.


Awards and the Modeloff 2013 Champion

Leontios Toumpouris and David Loong were the undergrad and graduate student winners. For the moment you have all been waiting for: the winners!

3rd Place – Alvin Woon


2nd Place – Alex Gordon (Modeloff 2012 Winner)


1st Place – Hilary Smart


Hilary was the only female finalist this year and won the grand price of $30K. This was a big step for female financial modelers, as female entrants to Modeloff increased 10% to 19% year over year.  John then invited up all the volunteers of the event and it was pretty amazing to see all the people involved behind the scenes.


Post Modeloff Meet & Greet

I waited patiently to talk with the Justin Bieber of the Excel world, Bill Jelen aka Mr. Excel aka The King. If you have ever had a problem with Excel or needed help on writing a formula, chances are you have landed on one of Mr. Excel’s forums. I asked Mr. Excel what his favorite keyboard shortcuts were, and here they are (with Mac equivalent in parentheses):


1) ALT, E, S (COMMAND+CONTROL+V) – Paste Special

 2) F2 and ESCAPE (CONTROL+U, Esc) – Quickly view the formula and get out of the formula edit mode

 3) CONTROL + F5 (FN+F5) – Display the Go To dialog box




A shot of all the 2013 finalists.


Finally, I had the pleasure to talk with the excited yet poised Modeloff 2013 winner, Hilary Smart. She also gave her top 3 favorite Excel keyboard shortcuts (with Mac equivalent in parentheses):


1) CONTROL (COMMAND) + ARROW KEYS – Zip around an Excel sheet fast

 2) CONTROL (COMMAND) + [  – Trace formula dependents

 3) CONTROL + PAGE UP/PAGE DOWN (FN+CTRL+UP/DOWN) – Scroll through worksheets in a workbook fast


Everyone hiked a few blocks through the blizzard that had been raging on outside while the heat was turned up at the event. The post-event drinks were held at 48 Lounge sponsored by EY.


Pre-registration has already begun for next year’s event! Check this out if you think you have what it takes to be the 2014 world financial modeler. Thanks to Johann Odou and the rest of the Modeloff team for having KeyCuts as a community sponsor for an awesome event. Watch out for great things coming from the Modeloff team and the Excel community as a whole!

UPDATE 12/11/13

I would like to make a few corrections and clarifications to this post. The Modeloff event referenced in this blog post refers to the award ceremony held at Microsoft. The challenges did not determine the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners for Modeloff 2013, they were simply challenges between different teams of finalists at the ceremony.

The 16 finalists sat through 4 grueling hours of testing earlier that day which ultimately determined the winners for Modeloff 2013 (congrats again to Hilary Smart!). The testing was done behind closed doors and the World Champion truly deserves all the respect and approbation for beating out 15 other finalists.

Finally, Challenge 3 referenced in this post required counting cells that were greater than 10 or less than negative 10 (not less than positive 10).

Thanks to Dan Mayoh for the corrections!