Back Then Everyone Used Lotus

Our information-led world is a beautiful thing. Facts, help, knowledge at the click of a mouse or the tap on a screen. Such a state of affairs is especially true if you work in any technology-related field where the solution to any problem you may encounter is just a carefully crafted search away, and because someone else has almost certainly faced and solved the same problem.

But how did we manage this before the age of the internet? Before everyone was online on a near-permanent connection, how did your average computer operator sat at his desk in the mid-1990s go about solving problems with no internet to speak of available to him?

I remember it well. So here is my tale of how it all happened.

Wavy Lines To Indicate Flashback Sequence

Picture the scene. I’m in my first job out of university, being paid a vanishingly low sum of money (hey, it was better than nothing) to be the office “IT Assistant” for the local branch of a large firm of insolvency practitioners. For the first time in a year, my immediate boss has gone away on a two week holiday, meaning this is also the first time in a year I’ve not been subject to random data entry or spreadsheet processing jobs landing on my desk within ten minutes of the working day started. In short, for the first time in forever once I’ve completed a handful of daily admin tasks, I’m genuinely at a total loose end.

So I seize my chance to pull out a small project which has been sat on the to-do pile for some time. Automate the production of the diary.

When dealing with corporate or personal insolvencies, there is a myriad of statutory filings you have to make, reports you must prepare for a specific schedule. And historically our office had been rubbish at keeping up to date with them. Details of what was due, and when, were all kept in the bowels of a Clipper-based application called IPS of which only a handful of us in the admin team had access. So once a week the program was commanded to spit out a text file of all the statutory returns required on a case by case basis. This file was then wrestled into shape in Lotus 1–2–3 before being formatted in a manner readable by the office’s internal videotext system. And so a variety of pretty graphs could be issued to the partners to show just how many late events we were enduring.

Production of this report was not a straightforward process. The work instruction for this in the office’s ISO9001 quality manual ran to about 12 pages, step by step instructions on how to format, sort, weed out and ultimately re-export the data. It took the best part of an hour for even the most dextrous of spreadsheet wrestlers to do it. And it was ripe for automating with a macro.

Happily, this was well within my talents, as in the months I’d been there I’d become quite the wizard in the Lotus 1–2–3 macro language (everyone used Lotus in offices back then, Excel was only beginning its march to dominance in the spreadsheet market). I would joke that eventually, I’d get it to stand up and fart the national anthem on command. So with the coast clear, a whole two weeks of just being left alone to get on with stuff ahead of me, I set to work on what was set to be my greatest gift ever to the admin team.

Circular Reference in Cell B55

Only within five minutes, I’d hit a snag. The text file output by the IPS application would always contain random line feed characters at unpredictable intervals. Sadly this was enough to trigger a strange assumption made by the writers of the 1–2–3 application. If you imported a text file directly into Lotus 1–2–3 containing these characters, it would assume you wanted a new page in your worksheet and create a new one on your behalf. It was a behaviour hard-coded into the program. The only way around it (we assumed) was to open the file in a text editor and manually remove all the line feeds you could find. And then rinse and repeat if it turned out you had missed any.

This, however, was not part of my plan to automate the entire process. Convinced there had to be another way to work around this, my first mission of the project was to work out what it was. Temporarily mystified, I began browsing the application help files in search of inspiration. It was here that I turned up the screen which would transform my life for the next two weeks. Details of a faxback service of solutions to common technical issues. Hey, even if this didn’t contain the answer I was looking for it would be fascinating to see how it worked anyway.

So I phoned the American number given. An automated voice instructed me to enter my fax number, plus the extension number of my desk, followed by the code for the document I wanted. Or just “1” for the index. Transaction completed, I walked to the post room and waited for the phone to ring.

What emerged behind the “for the attention of the person at extension XXXX” cover sheet was what must have been a 15-page document. A full list of technical articles containing how-to guides and solution to everyday problems. It was my first ever encounter with a technical support knowledgebase. And I had a fantastic way to access it.

It took five minutes to track it down, but yes, the solution was in there. A specific document relating to my problem of line feed characters in text imports creating multiple sheets. The bump in the road had suddenly become smooth again.

Slash Command Not Recognised

What was the workaround? There may be people who had spotted it already. Open the file up, let it populate as many sheets as it required. Then select all the data, re-export and re-import. Messy, but the result was a flat file contained in a single layer that I could then set my macro to work extracting and formatting.

By the time the boss returned from holiday, waiting on his desk was bound documentation detailing how I’d implemented my one-click solution to one of the office’s messiest tasks. Not that there weren’t other bumps in the road, including one that led to me staring at the screen for three hours without typing. I had no idea how to get a spreadsheet macro to make a human decision based on the type of event it was processing (solution: do a text search on a lookup table containing the choices), but I steadily figured it out. Often with the help of my new-found bible. The Lotus Corporation Faxback Service.

Six months later I was given a log in for the then-experimental Lotus Notes system the company was planning to roll out in future. The knowledgebase came bundled with the install, I discovered. I couldn’t help but think that had taken away part of the fun.

Music Week’s chart analyst, broadcaster and writer and general bloke with a keyboard.