D00d, the stopwatch is a bad sign

Seven seconds is a long time for an Excel file to load. When a mild-mannered user becomes…mmm…slightly hysterical about it, when a manager takes it as a sign that all the office computers need to be upgraded, it’s time for Super Geek to dig into the dank lair of Computer Slug Monster.

This issue came up during my weekly, on-site visit to my local client. After determining that Symantec “All your base are belong to us” anti-virus wasn’t the cause, I focused on the Excel file. The file itself was small with only a dozen spreadsheets. So, why the lag? Office files, Word and Excel, tend to bloat over time. I don’t know why. I think the edits and saves leave dregs behind. Like a rabbit’s cage that doesn’t get cleaned out very well, the files get glunky.

The Excel file causing such pain is at least six years old, been through two or three Office updates, had upwards of 60 spreadsheets created, deleted, edited, and was owned by a past employee notorious for her for her formulas. The fix was to recreate spreadsheets from scratch. Cut-and-pasting the content into a new worksheet in a new workbook worked just fine[1].

Why is this noteworthy? No, I wasn’t the Super Geek [2] I mentioned above. I was just Plodding Person, User of Office. Super Geek is a guy who works for my client’s network consultant. My user mentioned that Super Geek had spent a day (?) looking into this problem. He was very scientific as he worked diligently tweaking this and that. His performance measure? A stop watch.

D00d, if you have to use a stop watch to measure performance differences loading an Excel file, I can guarantee the improvement will not impress the user. The performance measure is…the user.

Also notable is the reason I looked into the problem at all. It was a result of a conversation with the user’s manager that started off with him asking “do you think it’s time to upgrade the office’s computers?” Instead of immediately answering, I let him continue to talk about the problem, and so I learned the real issue was Excel files, and really just one in particular.

So complaints about slow Excel files (there are many in the office) had snowballed into considering, oh, 20K+- of new equipment. I hated to be a spoilsport, really, but dang.

Long story short? Talk to your users. More importantly, listen to them, and ask questions about what is behind their questions and concerns.They’re not the computer experts [3] and so they don’t always report things using the words we would use. When a user reported to me that an emailed form was blank, I thought “blank, empty, devoid of content.” She meant the fields weren’t filled in. Same words, different meaning.

Obvious troubleshooting, right? But I think we all, especially technologists, need to be reminded daily.

[1] Copying the worksheet to a new work book didn’t work, by the way. It loaded faster than the the old workbook but it was still significantly slower than the new worksheet in the new workbook.

[2] This isn’t a dig at the network guy, just a gentle teasing. These guys are awesome. Every independent programmer should have the luck to work alongside such great professionals. They actually believe networks support people! Imagine that.

[3] My uses have to be experts in their jobs, not mine.

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