User read the manual, followed instructions, still couldn't make 'Excel' work

When is a spreadsheet not a spreadsheet?

On Call Fridays can often feel like purgatory to prepare for the heavenly weekend, which is why The Register marks the day with a new installment of On Call, our weekly reader-contributed tale of tech support torture.

This week, meet a reader who asked to be Regomized as "Jeremy" and shared a story of his late 1990s role in "a fairly low-level job for a 'national infrastructure' organization."

"My team's role was to support a number of account managers," Jeremy explained, adding that those folks were "vastly experienced and ridiculously knowledgeable having spent their entire careers in the industry."

The account managers had also learned how to get along in an office. Jeremy rated them "a decent bunch and a pleasure to work with."

But most were far closer to the end of their careers than the start, meaning the PCs and productivity software that landed on their desks required a lot of late-career learning. Jeremy's job was to ensure they remained efficient in creating invoices, presentations, and reports.

"Much of my work involved using Excel (at this time the newfangled Excel 97) linking and summarizing bits of data via VLOOKUPs, SUMIFs and the like," he told On Call, adding: "Over time I'd developed a reputation for being 'mildly competent'."

That competence led one of the account managers to ask for a bit of help with Excel.

Jeremy visited the relevant PC and found what appeared to be Excel. The user explained they were trying to enter data and showed that wasn't working by clicking on a cell and waiting in vain as it failed to display the border that indicates Excel is ready for input.

Jeremy tried the same thing. He, too, had no luck. He clicked a menu bar. It was also unresponsive.

The first thing any techie tries when confronted with an inexplicable bug is turning it off and turning it on again.

Jeremy decided to try that.

This proved hard as the necessary bits of Excel's toolbar were missing – yet all of Microsoft Word's interface was available.

"At this point the penny dropped," Jeremy admitted, as it was then he recalled that one of his colleagues had written a Word document with instructions on how to use Excel. To help the account managers get the message, that document included lots of illustrative screenshots.

Jeremy realized his user had clicked on a screenshot, which had grown to a size at which it was easily mistaken for Excel itself. This also explained why it would not accept input.

"I explained the problem was and was greeted by lots of laughter and we agreed an appropriate solution was to add a clickable link within the Word document to open the actual Excel file.

"Of course, this would be a brilliant story if the person involved were some uppity know-it-all whose seniority level was substantially above their competency level, but it just wasn't the case," Jeremy told On Call. Instead, "the individual involved was a pleasure to work with and when the entire team was disbanded, and I was reassigned under an Excess Cost Elimination Programme (or maybe it was a Cost Base Reduction Initiative – the higher-ups were good at coming up with euphemisms for making redundancies) it sadly became a far worse place to work."

Which just goes to show that uppity know-it-alls whose seniority level is substantially above their competency level always show up to ruin things eventually.

Have you fixed an app that wasn't an app? Or worked with users who were so nice you happily helped even their silliest requests? Click here to send On Call an email and we may share your story on a future Friday. ®

PS: Yes, we did feature this yarn earlier for Spreadsheet Day. Some of our vultures liked it enough to bring it back as an On Call column...

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