A decades-old lesson on not inserting Excel where it doesn't belong

A Register reader's sense of déjà vu triggers a bonus column

Who, Me? These are interesting times and, in light of recent events, The Register has elected to break from tradition with an out-of-band Who, Me? to show that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Our tale comes from a reader we shall call "Jim", not because of the Regomiser, but because this writer has fond memories of the television series Yes, Minister from back in the day (although the fictionalised events of the show have long been trumped by reality).

Jim's story takes us back to the early 2000s, when then PM Tony Blair's administration was in charge of things in the UK.

"I was working as a senior software tester," he told us, "consulting at a Government department."

For the sake of this story, we'll refer to the lumbering juggernaut of a department as "X". Such was the size and byzantine structures within that it was a law unto itself. The political masters of the time therefore had little real control over it, fulfilling instead the role of media punching bags when things went wrong.

"The project involved matching personnel with job titles," explained Jim, "and was intended to be a daily report to the permanent secretary and ministers."

Jim had one tester on this team, and scripts aimed at guiding validation were being written when an Oracle consultant approached him.

test and trace

Excel Hell: It's not just blame for pandemic pandemonium being spread between the sheets


"He was, of course, getting a huge amount of money daily to do whatever it is Oracle consultants do," Jim added. In the interest of balance, we're pretty sure that consultants from other vendors less Big and Red equally coined it while onlookers pondered their purpose.

"We can't understand it," he said, "We're losing around 25,000 personnel out of the daily report."

Jim raised an eyebrow, and the consultant went on.

"There are supposed to be 90,000-odd personnel in the report, but we're only getting around 65,000."

It sounded suspiciously close to one of those magic numbers in IT.

"Would the exact number of personnel you're getting be 65,536?" Jim asked carefully.

The consultant blinked, impressed at Jim's David Blaine-like magical powers of perception, and said, "Yes! How did you know?"

Rather than keep his tricks to himself, like the git wizard above, Jim smiled and said: "You must be transferring the personnel to an Excel spreadsheet, correct?"

Again, the consultant confirmed Jim's hypothesis, and asked what the heck Excel had to do with the problem.

Smugly, Jim replied: "The limit of rows in an Excel spreadsheet is 65,536.

"The rest of your people are being dropped silently."

This being the very early 2000s, the error is perhaps more forgivable than if one was using a similarly outdated format, say, two decades later and trying to manage a pandemic with it.

Testing had saved the day yet again. The consultant went away to remove the data-munching spreadsheet step before returning to whatever it is consultants for UK government IT projects actually do.

"I never got the credit for the solution," sighed Jim, "but the kicker is that the project was dropped before any testing could occur. Department X tried to stiff the consulting firm I worked for over its fee, arguing that since no testing was done, no fee was owed.

"They were still fighting when I left for pastures new."

Spotted something in the news that has triggered a long-forgotten bit of IT idiocy? Or noted that cockups tend to repeat themselves throughout history? Of course you have, and you should share your memories in an email to Who, Me? ®

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