Forrest Liu ’20 is a champion. Three times — as a freshman, sophomore, and junior — he’s claimed first place in state competition. Twice he’s finished in third place nationally. But eclipsing all those awards was Forrest’s ultimate achievement: the title of national champion.
Forrest wasn’t running through, over, or around people on grass fields or wood-floored courts. He was making pivot tables, formatting page numbers in the footer, and engaging in other mouse-based sorcery in Microsoft Office.
Yes, that’s correct: Microsoft Office — Forrest Liu is a champion at Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, and Microsoft PowerPoint.
Forrest didn’t set out to be the Simone Biles of the office productivity world. Practicality drove his initial interest while a freshman at Green Hope High, where he enrolled in a Microsoft Word course as part of Green Hope’s career and technical education program. “I wasn’t really expecting anything out of it,” he says of his early motivation to enroll. “I thought it was just a class that I could learn some workforce skills in that I could use in the future.”
Though it’s not as obvious as Friday night football games, Green Hope High School has a long history of students competing in Microsoft Office competitions with participants drawn mostly from their series of career and technical education courses. One of Forrest’s teachers, having noticed his particular talent in manipulating the software, suggested he consider competing.
“Ever since I was young, I’ve loved competition,” Forrest says. “The opportunity was there, so I decided to pursue it.”
The path from classroom to champion works like this: each year students all across the country sit for Microsoft Office Specialist certification exams. Certification in the suite of programs is an incredible boost to one’s resume. Microsoft claims certification can result in significantly higher starting salaries for entry-level business employees. During the certification exams, Forrest says, memorization of an application’s tools will in most instances be sufficient, as the focus is more on knowing how to manipulate the application than how quickly one can do it.
Those who can complete the exam accurately and quickly
, however, receive the highest exam scores and are named state champions. Invitations to a national Microsoft Office competition are extended to these students where they match their skills against champions from throughout the country to see who can, based on a common prompt, create the most accurate document in the quickest time possible. Take away the festive atmosphere and flair of the national competition, and the scene becomes at its core very similar to an open floorplan office where all present are feverishly engaged in their task. No online shoppers or social media browsers here. Those who do well move on to the world championship.
Competitors can only compete once in each Office program. As a freshman at Green Hope, Forrest chose Microsoft Word 2013. He became the national champion.
The following year he was named the state champion in Microsoft Excel 2016 and finished third nationally.
To be this good requires achieving a state of thoughtlessness, where the tools of each program are so ingrained that any particular action completed is done almost instinctively. Think of the way world-class pianists or guitarists summon music from their instrument without thought. It’s the same for Forrest. Each tool in each piece of software is at the ready in his mind, and he reaches for them as would a virtuoso. Take the VLookup search function in Excel, for example.
Where most Excel-savvy folks might use Ctrl-F to search a spreadsheet, VLookup is even more powerful — and less well-known. Forrest uses it regularly.
“For me,” Forrest says, “it’s about being able to take everything apart to the smallest pieces and just know, like, every function and be able to think quickly.”
This past spring and summer Forrest completed his run through Microsoft’s Office suite while managing academic obligations at NCSSM. Materials review and timed runs through competition practice tests were squeezed in around studying for Advanced Placement exams. Once again he was named the state champion, this time in PowerPoint.
Preparation for the national championship played out similarly, with practice time fitted in around his participation in NCSSM Summer Mentorship. He flew out to Orlando late in the afternoon, after Mentorship had ended for the day at NCSSM, arriving near midnight. The competition was the next day, and immediately after the awards ceremony that evening, he left with his family and came to NCSSM by car, arriving just in time for Monday morning’s resumption of Summer Mentorship.
Forrest placed third among all PowerPoint finalists in the nation.
His run complete, Forrest is now retiring from active competition. The skills he has acquired will serve him well, and he hopes to stay engaged in the competitive Microsoft scene as an informal coach — his younger brother, a freshman at Green Hope back in Cary, was in Orlando with Forrest, competing in the Microsoft Word group.
Forrest will not garner full-ride scholarships for his efforts, nor will he tour the U.S., demonstrating in sold-out venues his incredible skills in formatting columns and inserting tables and building graphs. There’s high school to complete, colleges to apply to, perhaps business school, and a career in banking or a similar pursuit after that.
As Forrest might put it, File → New Document. Format → Font → Futura → Bold.
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