Game on – winning formula for an actuarial Excel whizz

By Andrew Ngai
12 January 2023

By Andrew Ngai - Director
12 January 2023

By Andrew Ngai | 12 January 2023

By day, Taylor Fry Director Andrew Ngai is hard at work for his clients. By night, his knack for numbers often plays out very differently. We caught up with him to hear how his passion for spreadsheets became a surprising TV sporting sensation and what it takes to be an Excel gaming champ.

You recently won the Microsoft Excel World Championship (MEWC) – how did you first become interested and what appeals to you most about taking part?

Excel is part of my day-to-day work as an actuary and I thought I’d have fun with it when a few years ago I discovered a competition called the ModelOff Financial Modelling World Championships. From there, I found out about MEWC and was keen to enter for its non-financial focus. I find these kinds of problems particularly enjoyable to solve – the scenarios are imaginative and there’s lots of opportunity to think creatively. It’s also been nice to meet fellow Excel enthusiasts from all over the world through these competitions.

King-size success: Andrew adds the MEWC crown to his All-Star Battle win earlier this year

How can you top this performance next year? Any special rival you’re watching out for?

I’ll have my work cut out for me! There are so many excellent Excel modellers involved and the competition is bound to become fiercer as more people find out about it, especially with the huge media coverage and viral response to the Excel Esports All-Star Battle I won earlier in the year. Quite a few of the players have also been competing in other financial modelling competitions for years, sharpening their skills. As for a special rival, I’d say Diarmuid Early – he’s really fast at problem solving and has deep Excel knowledge. We faced off in the All-Star Battle, and although I managed to edge him out in the final, he finished the semi-final question a lot faster than I did.

How did you react when you first discovered the competitions would be broadcast on ESPN – the world’s leading sports entertainment broadcaster, with an average day-viewership of 812,000 people? Who did you imagine your audience would be?

It caught me by surprise – I never imagined I’d be on TV, let alone for an Excel competition. I don’t think it sunk in until after the broadcast of the All-Star Battle. With all the publicity that received, I ended up being interviewed on Channel 7’s Sunrise program. Breakfast television definitely wasn’t part of the original career plan!

For MEWC, the organisers put a lot of effort into making the competition interesting for a broader audience, and Excel is a software that most people will have on their computers even if they don’t use it much. So in terms of the audience, while I suspected it would appeal mostly to people familiar with Excel in their day jobs, I thought it would also attract some other curious spectators.

With all the publicity … I ended up being interviewed on Channel 7’s Sunrise program. Breakfast television definitely wasn’t part of the original career plan!

How relevant are the Excel skills you need for the competition to your day job?

The skills overlap a lot, and I think it goes both ways – my day job helping me in the competition and vice versa. For example, I started using more dynamic arrays in the competition, which help perform some tasks much more efficiently (e.g. sorting or filtering for unique values), and brought those over to some of my work. Conversely, I’ve been using formulae like INDEX and MATCH for many years, for example to efficiently look up values within tables of data. These are also core to solving many MEWC or financial modelling problems.

How was the experience for you this time with the live broadcast? Did it affect your focus?

The live broadcast does make me feel a bit more pressure knowing people are watching, especially this year, going in as one of the favourites to win. Luckily, I managed to focus reasonably well once we started solving the problems. It helped to get a few minutes of reading and thinking time before the timer started.

How did you feel the moment you won?

I was delighted, but also exhausted after two hours of intense problem solving in the middle of the night! With the competition becoming stronger, I was happy to defend my title this year. I was also thankful for some good fortune along the way, especially in the semi-finals when I made a last-minute lucky guess to just beat my opponent’s score.

Peak performance: Andrew defended his 2021 MEWC title with a mix of focused prep and a little luck

How do you prepare to stay in mental and physical shape?

For me, staying in mental shape is a balance between practising past problems but also not solving so many that I tire of it all and burn out. Physically, it was about doing what I can to be as awake as possible at 4am. A shower before the competition started was a must!

How do you juggle work and the competition? How much sleep do you manage over the duration?

I guess it helps that my work involves Excel a lot, so in that sense doing work is also helping me to prepare. In the week leading up to the finals, I sacrificed a bit of my social life (willingly!) and spent most of my nights doing or reviewing past problems. Sleep was mainly a challenge on the last night, with the finals being held at 4am in my time zone – I can’t say I had quality sleep the night before.

Is it a young person’s game or can you see yourself still competing years from now?

While younger people may be a bit quicker with using the keyboard and mouse, being successful in the competition is more about having powerful problem-solving skills, and there are plenty of strong participants who are older than me.

What helps you perform at your best?

Training and preparation help me a lot, including familiarising myself with the types of problems I’ll likely encounter. I’m able to concentrate pretty well once I get started and I make sure there are no distractions. Ample reading time to understand the question is important, too. Some questions involve more complicated games where it takes longer to understand the rules. I usually struggle with those and rush into building the solution too quickly because I haven’t had the time to think about the solution.

How do your friends and family view your participation in the competition?

My friends and family are all very supportive and encouraging. I know my parents watched the whole thing live, but most others only watched afterwards given it was well before dawn our time!

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