That awful moment when what you thought was a number 1 turned out to be a number 2

How to Excel (sorry) on the helldesk

On Call Well done! You've made it to Friday! As a reward, treat yourself to another cup of tea and an extra slice of toast, and enjoy a morning story of panicking users and level-headed IT pros in today's On Call.

In a similar vein to last week's adventure of the Captain, our tale today concerns user bafflement with another of Microsoft Office's many delights as users gingerly made their way from the text modes of yesterday to the point-and-clicky world we take for granted today.

"Ernie", a name selected by the Regtastic Randomiser, was working for one of the tech giants of the 1990s. As the company foundered in its terminal decline, it had decided to branch out into end-user support. Ernie was, at the time, a senior agent on the team.

"Our team's client," he recalled, "was a large US bank located two time zones away, so this was strictly telephone helpdesk services."


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It was also before the likes of PC Anywhere and its ilk had made screen sharing or remote access a given, so sorting a customer's technical issue was strictly Q&A.

Ernie had been around the block a few times and his experience was often called upon by more junior staff "when a call they were on went sideways".

"One morning," he said, "I was asked to help out with a call from a bank employee who couldn't open a spreadsheet."

It transpired that this was the employee's only job. Day after day he would open the spreadsheet, update some figures and then close it again. But today… disaster! The spreadsheet did not open.

One can only speculate on the poor chap's working environment. He could not open the spreadsheet and do the one thing he was employed to do. He was clearly fearful for his employment prospects.

"And I think he's crying," the other agent told Ernie as the call was transferred.

The spreadsheet in question required Microsoft Excel, which by the 1990s was already well on its way to dominance. Sure, Apple may have had its killer app in the form of VisiCalc while Microsoft toiled away with Multiplan, but it was the first version of Excel on the Mac, followed by the Windows version that set today's juggernaut in motion.

While Excel has been known to reduce many to tears over the years, usually when a data source ups and dies without warning or an astronaut misdials a number from orbit, the waterworks normally start once a file has been opened and rarely before.

Ernie popped on his headset and took over: "Indeed, the young man seemed to be holding back sobs."

Ever the professional, Ernie tried to calm him down with the assurance that, heck, even if it had been deleted, it would still be in a backup somewhere. All he needed to know was the location where the file was usually to be found.

"Location? It's ... in Excel!" shrieked the panicked user.


Ernie tried again – Excel was the application, but where did the file itself actually come from? Did the user remember a drive letter? Maybe even a directory?

"No, it doesn't have any of those things! It's just in Excel! And now it's gone!" wailed the user.

Running from a playbook all too familiar to those who have done support, Ernie had the user try again and tell him exactly what he was doing and what he was seeing on the screen.

"Well, first I click on 'Excel', then I click on 'File', and then I click on my spreadsheet... and noooooo!

"It's still gone!"

It took Ernie a moment to realise the critical bit of information missing from the user's sobs. At no point had he clicked on 'Open'.

Ernie told us: "I asked him if, when he clicked on 'File', did 'his spreadsheet' have a number 1 beside it?"

"Umm, yes?" came through the sniffling.

"I told him to try clicking on the number 2," sighed Ernie.

"But that's not... oh. Oh! OH! There it is! It's back! Oh, thank you! Thank you!"

It transpired that the user had learned to open the file by clicking the first item in the recently opened files list. It had been at number 1 for months, or maybe longer, up until somebody had opened another file and bumped the magic spreadsheet down a notch. Cue tears, snot and panic.

Ernie suggested that he talk the user through creating a shortcut so that he might never "lose" the spreadsheet again but was told: "No, no, no, I don't have time but thank you, thank you, thank you *click*"

We can but hope the user never mixed up his number 1s and number 2s again. Things might get messy.

Ever found yourself in Excel's Hall of Tortured Souls, or solved a mystery by noticing what a user didn't tell you? We certainly have and you know you have too. Share you story with an email to On Call and see what name the Regomatic 9000 picks for you. ®

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