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The Docx games: three days at the Microsoft Office World Championship

Once a year, kids from around the world gather to compete at high-speed spreadsheets

Photography by Jessica Chou

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On a Sunday night two weeks back, in the Rose Court Garden of the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, California, 150 antsy competitors between the ages of 13 and 22 milled around eating miniature whoopie pies by the light of the Moon, sizing up their global rivals in the efficient use of Excel, PowerPoint, and Word.

It was as if the Olympics opening ceremony was replaced by a networking event: teens were decked out in national T-shirts, while others handed out business cards specially made for the event. At one table off by the bar, two chaperones nudged their folding chairs closer together and taught each other how to say hello (“Yassas,” “Ciao”) in their respective mother tongues. In the distance, through the palms, the tiki torches of Trader Sam's, the hotel's poolside lounge, were flickering into the black sky.  

This marked the first night of the 16th Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) World Championship, in which teens and young 20-somethings compete for the title of World Champion in their chosen professional application. It's an event put on annually by Certiport, a Utah-based subsidiary of standardized testing giant Pearson VUE. It's also a marketing stunt, pure and simple, devised to promote Certiport’s line of Microsoft Office certifications. This allows the certified to confirm the line on their resume that claims “proficiency in MS Office” is backed up by some solid knowledge of deep formatting and presentation design.

It sounds incredibly dull, yes, but the teens — surrounded by their administratively adept peers, a short monorail ride away from the Magic Kingdom — were downright giddy.

It was as if the Olympics opening ceremony was replaced by a networking event

By one standing table, a crew from all over — Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Morocco, Greece, Panama, Romania — were kvelling over their good luck to even get here. Ayman Ben Souira (16, competing in Word), from a small town outside of Marrakech, Morocco, had never left his country before but spoke English and some anime Japanese like an Angeleno. "The first time people came to our school to give out fliers about the competition," Ayman said, "I thought it was really just a scam. We're gonna go to LA? It felt so farfetched, this is the craziest first place to go."

Ruth Tom Lin (17, Word) from Panama ("I'm the only one!") had been led to MOS through an interest in studying computer science in college, but she had a problem: "I don't know if you know about Asian parents, but I have to do the doctor test, whether I want to or not. If I don't pass, I can study something else."

Tiberiu Danciu (18, Word), the sole Romanian representative, already had his head in the game. He had come last year, too, but failed to place in the top three. He was learning C++ in school.

And Kyriakos Chatziefthymiadis (16, Excel), an Athenian with a stature to match his colossal name, was overcome with emotion. "When I won in my nation I was so... I was gonna cry," he said. "I was very sad in that period of my life."

Before Excel, Kyriakos had relied on Zumba as a source of joy. "I have participated in many zumbathons," he said, "I have danced onstage. I love Zumba because it brings color to my life." But when he won the national competition in Excel, he said, "It instantly created a more happy life for me."

It was his first time in the US, too, and he had just spent the day touring LA with his two compatriots and their chaperones. Besides some drama with his Frappuccino ("I wanted almond milk, and they put in the full fat milk with sugar inside and everything"), he loved the city. "Hollywood, it's my — let's say my dream, I'm always acting like a person from Hollywood."

"It instantly created a more happy life for me."

Team USA was spread throughout the crowd, gamely asking their jet-lagged peers how they liked America. There was Anirudh Narayanan, a Carnegie Mellon-bound Delawarean who liked making AP subject tutoring YouTube videos in his free time "to relax," and Joshua Garrelts, an aspiring programmer from the Wichita suburbs in Kansas who kept chitchat to a minimum. John "Jack" Dumoulin III, an Eagle Scout and center fielder from Dumfries, Virginia, has a firm handshake and a fair grasp of conversational Korean from his childhood at an army base in Daegu, South Korea. He was the natural diplomat of the bunch, schmoozing and beaming in a Dodger's jersey. Dominic Allain, a 15-year-old from Slidell, Louisiana, told me he was using the free trip to check out SoCal schools with good game design programs.

And then there were the North Carolina kids — Forrest Liu and Dheya Madhani — coming in with a legacy to protect. If America has a Microsoft Office powerhouse, it’s Green Hope, a high school in the tiny Raleigh suburb of Cary, a town essentially carved out of the woods by software giant SAS to serve as a leafy tech employee enclave. This team always sweeps the state and takes nationals by storm, and the students have placed in the global competition four out of the past five years.

If America has a Microsoft Office powerhouse, it’s Green Hope

Green Hope is so recognized as an MOS institution, that Certiport flew in a former world champ, Ryan Catalfu (who Jack Dumoulin III beat out in Excel 2016 at nationals this year), to serve as their first-ever student ambassador — a kind of all-purpose camp counselor for other competitors to go to with questions. It also flew in the architect of Green Hope's dominance, the retired teacher Marty Roettgen, to give a motivational speech.

An hour after the reception was set to end, a last chant of “Mexico, Mexico” went around from its energetic delegation, who had collectively stashed pieces of a giant posterboard printed with the Mexican Flag into their carry-on bags, to be assembled at the hotel for Mexico-themed photo ops. One by one, kids reluctantly began walking off into the night, to get some sleep before the following day's competition.

If you're over 25 and had no idea that this was a thing: you are not alone. The certifications only came into being at the turn of the century, a year before the MOS competition began. They have slowly grown in popularity as school districts across the US adopted more STEM-focused curricula, including practical courses in how to use the humdrum IT that undergirds our global economy. North Carolina has made a deal with Certiport to guarantee every student in the state unlimited free testing, which goes a long way toward explaining Green Hope’s winning streak. (The test costs $96 retail in the US, but academic discounts can drop that to $75 or less.) Florida actually pays its teachers a bounty for every certified child under their tutelage, a legacy of Jeb Bush's enthusiasm for tests.

No matter where they are, every kid that takes a certification exam is entered into the competition automatically, and then gets informed if they happen to rank highest in their region, whether they knew they were competing or not. The proficient and willing are then sent to national competitions — the US nationals happened in Orlando in June this year — where the true American macromeisters emerge to compete on the global level.

Even though any human can take as many certifications in as many versions of Microsoft Office applications as they desire, each student can only go to nationals and worlds for one particular version of one particular program — Word 2013, for example, or PowerPoint 2016. The standard certification test asks takers to follow a series of prompts to complete specific tasks like renaming a slideshow or using the Excel COUNTIF function correctly. In most countries, the national competition consists of students retaking the same standard test they took to qualify in the first place.

Most of the students in Anaheim had managed to house the standard certification test in about five minutes (out of an allowed 50) to qualify, but the test in Anaheim used a different format. At the world competition — and the nationals of more developed testing nations like the US and the UK — instead of following a test step by step, the students are given a bunch of assets (like datasets or images), a sheet of basic instructions, and a finished document, which they then have to exactly re-create. This shift, according to Certiport, rewards true fluency with the program, rather than rote memorization of the basic test.

And the stakes are high: at the global level, first place in a program is worth $7,000 and a free Xbox. Second place gets you $3,500 and an Asus Transformer Mini. Third, awards $1,500 and a NuVision Solo 10 Draw tablet.

Plus all that glory.

Testing began the next morning, following a series of pep talks in one of the conference center ballrooms. Kids went down to the testing room in clutches of 30 or so, leaving the rest of their peers to hang and anxiously socialize in the designated “student lounge” — a pair of large conference rooms kitted out with ping-pong tables, air hockey, foosball, and an array of Xboxes.

This year, 560,000 kids in the world took an MOS test: 320,000 of them were in the US; 124 made it to Orlando after beating the rest of the kids in their states; and only six Americans made it to the worlds. Forty-eight other countries sent teams of varying sizes. Certiport's global test-administering franchises have to put up the cash to get their kids and chaperones to Disney. Like the US, China sent a full slate of six: one kid per edition, 2013 and 2016, of Excel, PowerPoint, and Word. Guatemala and Japan both sent teams of three, while Cameroon and Romania each sent one.

New Zealand, relatively new to the Certiport program, sent a team sourced entirely from one high school: Avondale College, in Auckland. The team wore all black, with kiwi bird badges on the breasts of their matching polo shirts. The delegation from Jordan was chaperoned by Fareed Ghanim, Certiport's Jordanian partner, who had only started working with the company two years earlier. After calling to ask about how he could take a test as part of some market research, he said he had spent three hours a day on the phone with the parents of two of his young charges to convince them that letting their son and daughter fly across the world to Anaheim to compete in office software was not a horrible idea. Ayman, from Morocco, had been compulsively eating candy all morning. The Greeks seemed to be having the best time, skipping the unceasing AC indoors for some sunny cafe tables by the pool.

This year, 560,000 kids in the world took an MOS test

I followed the contingent scheduled to compete at 11:30 down to the bowels of the conference center, to the hall outside testing room — Monorail B — where their laptops waited. Despite the mix of languages spoken by all the students, many opted to take their tests in English, citing the bad translations that Certiport used for their instructions and Microsoft used for its menus, which only made working in their mother tongues more confusing.

While we waited for test time to come, Certiport staff made sure everyone was there, stumbling through the international array of names and lining the competitors up against the wall outside the room. Ryan Catalfu performed his student ambassadorial duties before everyone entered the chamber, doing a little patter ("Whose flight to get here was the longest?") and leading the anxious assembled in low-key calisthenics. He relished the role, and at least half the kids took his suggestions seriously, vigorously wiggling their arms to limber up for the test.

Finally, the kids filed in and sat in their assigned spots. Earlier, each had the chance to test the keyboards of their preferred language and make sure everything was in high-performing order. Manila envelopes containing the instructions and documents to emulate covered each laptop’s keyboard. Certiport staff gathered up everyone's cellphones and stacked them on a table in the center of the room, where a cluster of multilingual translators sat, ready to troubleshoot any crises. The test envelopes were opened, and I was shuffled out of the room, to let the teens accurately replicate Microsoft Office documents in peace.  

In the cavernous lunch ballroom, I found Marty Roettgen, Green Hope's IT impresario, to ask how (and why) she'd forged a world-class Microsoft Office program in North Carolina. She came to teaching after a 28-year career in PC supply chain management — first at IBM and then Lenovo — and still wears the belt-mounted cellphone to prove it.

"I am a firm believer in the certification. I'd call it passion," Roettgen told me. "I ran my classroom like a business. I don't expect you to work 100 percent of the time. You can goof 10 percent of the time — that's nine minutes — and I let them go at their own pace."

"I am a firm believer in the certification. I'd call it passion."

Counter to the cutthroat competition that most people have in mind when they say something should be "run like a business," Roettgen sees the certifications as an opportunity to foster cooperation and a rare source of external validation for everyone. Just like when she was a manager at IBM, she sets goals for her students — like getting 28 out of 30 kids in the class to pass a certification test — and then gives them a bonus if they hit their marks. "I'd chip in 20 bucks and we'd have a celebration in class." That had the effect of motivating the A students to help their struggling classmates. "And what's even neater, is that kid who was the 28th kid — they've never been celebrated for anything in the classroom — but they're the ones who got the whole class the party."

"The type-A kids who come here? All their lives they've gotten As. It means nothing to them, but the certification is outside of that," Roettgen says. "Take a B or C student, they've done alright, but they're marginal on their self-image. A little confidence is missing: certification is what grown-ups get, and for them it means a lot. But you take that D or F student, and get them to pass? It can change their life. Somebody's just got to tell them they're worth something."

Disneyland Hotel workers wandered through the ballroom, playing a series of tones on handheld xylophones; lunch was over. As the afternoon wore on and more competitors finished their tests, the lounge cleared out, leaving the unfortunate nervous wrecks of the 3:30 slot to play air hockey while their minds furiously ran through keyboard shortcuts.

Tiberiu, from Romania, had gone light on lunch, with the theory that too much food slowed down his brain. He and Filip Nowakowski (17, Word), the lone competitor from Poland, played Jenga while they waited to be tested. Rosario Ruiz (16, Excel), Paraguay's delegate, chatted calmly about her experiences at worlds in Orlando last year, her plans to become a renewable energy engineer, and how the iced tea she was offering everyone she met was first invented in the bloody 19th century Paraguayan War.

The hotel staff wheeled out tables of popcorn and tortilla chips with tureens of queso into the central lobby, in preparation for the screening of Cool Runnings playing at 6PM for the truly stranded teens. The next day, after some more motivational speeches, the competitors were given free passes to Disneyland and let loose, unmarred by pre-test stress or post-awards letdowns.

Then Wednesday: the awards.

As one might expect at a competition in which children mimic the workday tasks of people who would probably rather be doing something else, yet another round of motivational speakers had a chance to talk before the ceremony could get underway. These speakers were clearly the motivational B Team, sent out for a low-impact day of dispensing chestnuts at the podium. One Microsoft employee exhorted the assembled teens to focus on the destination, not the journey, before stammering out a correction.

The kids, of course, were barely listening. As soon as the speeches ended and the beginning of the "student parade" was announced, all hell broke loose, and every student in the house jumped out of their seats to assemble into an entirely self-ordered line. One by one, they all went onstage holding their country’s flag, stated their name and nation, and posed for a picture with the corporate reps. Students from delegations that had only brought one flag to share would walk offstage, amble to the table where they picked up their "official participant" certificate, and break into a flat-out sprint across the ballroom to hand the flag off to their waiting comrades.

His feet seemed to barely touch the ground

As the standard American soundtrack to inspiration, Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," played on an endless loop, chaperones with tight flight schedules for their crews rolled hardshell suitcases into the ballroom entryway. Fast friends who would probably never see each other again, or at least not all in one place, took turns sneaking out for group photos in front of the official MOS backdrops in the lobby.

Everyone settled down as the awards announcements began, starting with third place in Word 2013. As each winner was named, their delegations and new friends erupted with cheers and applause, each kid fighting their way to the stage with out-of-control energy. Tiberiu, the lone Romanian, won gold, and as he ran through the crowd and up the steps holding his flag and pumping his fists to gather his trophy, Xbox, and giant novelty check, his feet seemed to barely touch the ground.

PowerPoint 2013 came next, with Hong Kong's full delegation whooping for their gold winner. Then came Excel 2013. Anticipation was high: the spreadsheet program was widely acknowledged as the elite competition within the competition, even if 2013 was seen as a slightly lesser cousin to the shiny new 2016 version. I was watching alongside one of the Greek chaperones, a teacher with an incredible bedazzled manicure and new shoes. (The whole delegation had hit the outlets on Monday afternoon.) When Kyriakos bounded onstage to accept his bronze, attempting a running high-five of the lined-up officials in the process, his teacher turned to me with tears of joy in her eyes and said, "He should have gotten more, no?"

China's Jiaxi Dai took gold in Excel 2013, and somehow managed to rocket himself vertically out of his chair, deep in the middle of a cluster, when his name was read aloud. Word 2016 saw Nigeria’s two-time competitor Eta Katherine take bronze, and another Hong Konger win top honors.

In PowerPoint 2016, Green Hope's own Dheya Madhani won silver, salvaging the school's rep and putting the US on the board.

That left Excel 2016, the creme de la creme of Microsoft Office Suite and America's last chance at an Xbox. In third, Jayden Cook, a 20-year-old member of the New Zealand Avondale All Blacks. In second, Serawut Khamset, another big get for the Thai team. And in first, Mr. USA himself, John "Jack" Dumoulin III, took home the final gold.

Jack strode across the stage in a presidential suit, firmly shook hands with the officials, and collected the spoils of his Excel-lence. As the hubbub increased, Certiport aired an ad for its testing portal, showing teen actors so excited about the idea of becoming certified in Microsoft Office that they spontaneously broke into Stomp-like improvised dance in the library. The press descended on the golden boy. An event organizer told me that two other US competitors had come in close fourths, and that Jack's win had come down to a faster few seconds.

Despite the fact that Jack had beat Green Hope’s Ryan Catalfu, too, at nationals, Ryan was magnanimous in the face of this possibly bittersweet victory for Team USA. Dheya marveled at the fact that she hadn't even wanted to compete in nationals, since an older boy at school was going up against her, but was glad that her mom had encouraged her to go, and win. "I just wanted to place, because the competition is quite tough," she said. I asked how the less-victorious Americans were holding up. "It's Team USA. We're all happy for each other and happy for our achievements."

As teams began filtering out to catch flights back home, competitors started saying tearful goodbyes to their new friends, promising to meet next year in Orlando — if they could make it. (Test-takers can return to the world championships to compete in a different program or version, depending on national rules.) "Of course I'll come again next year,” Tiberiu said. “I met a lot of people, and made an awesome friend from Morocco, Ayman."

Ayman was less sure of his future: "In Morocco, it's just for 10th grade, but I hope. I'll tell them we can do it a second time," he said. He offered me a Moroccan coin as a keepsake and asked me to sign his memento card, already covered in names and greetings, a yearbook's worth of teen intensity wrung out of four short days. Then he headed off to take more last-chance group photos with competitors being hustled out the hotel’s sliding doors.

I walked up to Jack, after his scrum died down; he was actually thanking members of the Vietnamese delegation for beating him at ping-pong on Monday. He had a photograph of his grandmother, who passed away last year, tucked into his badge holder, "for good luck," he said. "It worked."

"I did not know about this competition when I took the certification test, back in December," he added. "It's been a wild ride, and an honor just to be here."

"I'm gonna go back and get the whole county going," Jack said. "We're big into computer stuff in Boy Scouts, so I'm hoping to get them started, and also some of my athletic friends. I normally hang out with athletes." Jack paused.

"Or, I'm used to both sides. I like the baseball competition crowd and the Microsoft competition crowd. It's a great atmosphere."