What’s Microsoft waiting for?

Somehow or other, as, over the past four decades, its Office suite of applications has evolved into a powerhouse force for individual productivity and group collaboration …

Somehow or other Microsoft never bothered to fix an annoying and easily fixed Excel “feature” (as in, it isn’t a bug; it’s a feature). Namely, just how many versions of blankness do users need (maybe 2 but I doubt it) and why are they so hard to find?

There are, so far as I can tell:

  • String nulls: Cells that have never been touched but are formatted as character strings.
  • Numeric nulls: Likewise, but as numbers.
  • The other numeric null: What you get after unchecking File/Options/Advanced Show a zero in cells that have zero value.
  • “”: Empty character strings.
  • “ “: The blank character.
  • Zeroes formatted to not display anything in the cell.

By themselves a few of these might actually be useful. What makes the bad outweigh the good is that there’s no one test that reveals them all.

Surely Microsoft could provide (for example) a modified ISBLANK() function that returns a TRUE value for any sort of blank cell; likewise it could add a FILE/OPTIONS/ADVANCED parameter that unifies the behavior of all blanks; or add a parameter to any function that handles blanks telling it to either ignores blanks of all types, or treats them all as zeroes. That would save legions of Excel jockeys from having to rely on =OR(ISBLANK(A1), A1=””,A1=” “,A1=0,LEN(A1)<1) or some such formulaic nonsense.

Why do we have this mess? I can only speculate. I imagine it’s rooted in one of the laws of organizational dynamics: When the problem is diffuse and merely annoying there’s always something more important to work on instead.

While I’m beating Microsoft up over this admittedly less-than-world-shaking grievance I have to admit: I’m guilty too. In my case the problem I’ve let fester is (was) failing to update WordPress to a supported version of PHP. I’ve known for a couple of years that the platform needed updating. But as I’m no longer a good enough programmer to troubleshoot any problems that might emerge from the process I decided to leave well enough alone.

Until this week (and let me know if you spot any glitches that need fixing – thanks!)

So I’m as guilty in my own way as Microsoft is in its way, but on a small enough scale and with such a small number of victims if it goes wrong (one, namely, me) that I can handle the remorse. But at the other end of the scale I know of Fortune 500 companies running applications on out-of-support server hardware and operating systems … thousands of them … with no path to safety because procrastination has saved them money every year for the past decades or more.

Not to mention all the other large but not enormous enterprises for which infrastructure maintenance is never quite important enough, right up until an attack takes their core applications down for a week or more.

Manufacturing mavens figured out a long time ago that preventive maintenance is less expensive than break/fix maintenance. That the IT infrastructure is harder to understand than the motors, gears, pulleys, and belts that constitute a modern factory doesn’t change the principle.

Bob’s last word: In IT, maintaining healthy platforms and infrastructure isn’t best practice.

It’s the minimum standard of basic professionalism.

Bob’s sales pitch: There’s a reason I named this blog “Keep the Joint Running.” It’s because of Principle #7 of the KJR Manifesto, which says: Before you can be strategic you have to be competent.

It isn’t the only principle worth adopting, either. Be a person. Buy yourself a copy. If you already have a copy, write an Amazon review. KJR needs your support. This is one way of providing it.

Target plans to shutter 3,500 offices in downtown Minneapolis.

This isn’t part of a corporate downsizing (or “right sizing,” or “layoff to send a message to Wall Street”). It’s the near-inevitable consequence of two merging trends plus one cataclysmic event.

The event, of course, was COVID-19, although calling something so stretched out in time an “event” might push the definition just a bit.

Trend #1 is the steady improvement in the corporate remote-collaboration toolkit that started in 1992 when Nathaniel Borenstein and Ned Freed sent the world’s first email attachment and now includes everything Slackware (if you’re a member of the Cool Kids Club), or Microsoft’s TEAMS (if you aren’t) has to offer.

That leaves the rise of the “embedded technology generation” – the ETG, also known as Millennials, Generation something-or-other, and, to those of us whose age is catching up, whippersnappers. They’re trend #2.

The ETG matters because where in days past, automation was something for which IT supplicants had to beg for funding, hat-in-hand, from the CFO, it’s now the default assumption for all work that has to get done.

Which wouldn’t be half as interesting if it weren’t for an ETG-driven change in business culture. For those of you who have yet to reach your third decade, take it from one who lived through it: Information technology used to be a panic-inducing sea change in the skills employees were asked to bring to the party; typing was too lowly a task to ask of business managers; and “telecommuting” was excessively radical given how hard it is to supervise employees who are out of range of management by walking around.

And yes, Management by Walking Around used to be a thing.

Over the past year we’ve drifted into opposite-land. It’s a strange realm in which those who used to be called “white collar workers” … except that in the world of Zoom most of us figure we’re dressing up when we put on a polo shirt … anyway, in many organizations, “knowledge workers” need to justify and get executive approval for any and all travel whose purpose is to collaborate face to face.

The point: With Target’s announcement it’s time to ask a question that not very long ago would have sounded quite bizarre: What is a city for?

In 1920, for the first time, more Americans lived in metropolitan areas than in rural and small-town communities and the trend has continued ever since. For the most part, those responsible for maintaining the competitiveness of America’s small towns did not find a formula that worked.

Perhaps until now. What made metropolitan existence attractive – a network effect in which convenient access to products and services attracted providers of more desired products and services, thereby increasing overall convenience – might be declining as the rise of virtuality makes many of the urban conveniences no more convenient than the same conveniences delivered from non-urban sources.

So the planning-for-a-difficult-future shoe now belongs on the other foot. Those responsible for urban planning need to re-think (“re-imagine” if you want to be trite about it) how to make the cities they lead attractive enough to corporate and residential inhabitants to quell … maybe that isn’t a high-enough bar; make it to reverse the urban core’s competitive decline.

Meanwhile, in the IT trenches, network engineering and troubleshooting sure are fun when employees choose and pay for a lot of the corporation’s technical infrastructure.

Bob’s last word: I have no magical formula to offer. All I know is that urban planners had better learn from the history of small town decline. Counting on things to just work themselves out is mistaking hoping for planning.

That also goes for the IT help desk when an employee can’t get their work done and the root cause is a screwup on the part of the employee’s ISP.

The word after Bob’s last word: Mad Magazine’s legendary Al Jaffee, inventor of its famous back-page “fold-ins” and Mad’s Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions, just turned 100. Happy birthday!

Bob’s sales pitch: Nope. Nothing to sell on this week’s main theme. But if you’re interested in the ETG and its impact on organizational dynamics, that’s one of the topics Scott Lee and I took on in The Cognitive Enterprise.