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Frankly Speaking: No. 1 rule for users: Keep it simple

By Frank Hayes
October 20, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - In November, a federal judge in New York will decide whether to fix a user's spreadsheet error. Does that sound like overkill? Well, the judge is in charge of the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. history, and the spreadsheet lists hundreds of assets involved in that bankruptcy.

Now does it sound more like a federal case?

Here's what happened: On Sept. 15, giant investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed into bankruptcy. Three days later, lawyers for Barclays Capital were furiously working to finish up an agreement to purchase some of Lehman's assets in time to meet a bankruptcy court deadline.

Those assets -- contracts that were worth money to Lehman -- were listed in a spreadsheet. One of the spreadsheet's columns indicated whether Barclays wanted the assets with a "Y" for yes and "N" for no.

A Lehman exec sent the spreadsheet to Barclays' law firm barely four hours before the deadline. But it had to be converted from Excel to a PDF to be submitted to the court. An associate lawyer glanced at the spreadsheet, saw nothing but Y's in the "Do we want it?" column, and sent it to a law clerk with instructions to cut out certain columns and turn it into a PDF.

You can see what's coming, can't you?

The clerk cut out the columns, then saw that some of the rows were formatted oddly. He reformatted the spreadsheet into nice, even rows and converted the result to a PDF, then sent it back to the associate, who posted the file without even looking at it.

No one noticed that the new version was 179 rows longer than the original. In fact, 20% of the items in the spreadsheet -- the ones with an "N" -- had been hidden automatically using an Excel function. When the clerk cut out the "Do we want it?" column, they reappeared.

Oops.

The Lehman-Barclays deal closed on Sept. 22. The mistake wasn't discovered until Oct. 1, nine days later. Now Barclays is hoping the court will let it off the hook for millions of dollars in assets it never intended to buy.

It's easy for IT people to feel smug when we hear a story like this. Some power user used a fancy feature to pretty up a spreadsheet. Another user made assumptions and gave explicit instructions to a third user, who followed those instructions to the letter.

If only these users had been more tech-savvy -- or had consistent standards for using Excel, or had a better quality-control process, or had taken time to verify the data -- they wouldn't have had this problem. Right?

Except that the spreadsheet was created at one company and sent to a competitor's law firm, so forget about consistent standards. Quality control? This was a one-off spreadsheet for a one-off deal. Time? It didn't exist.

Actually, just spot-checking the finished list against the original spreadsheet would have caught the foul-up: 22 of the 70 items on the first page weren't supposed to be there. (Yes, I counted them myself.)

In other words, being a lot less tech-savvy -- or at least a lot less trusting of technology -- could have saved the day.

Look, we've put powerful tools in the hands of our users. We can't warn them about every risk. But we can remind them early and often of some basic principles of using technology: Keep it simple. Don't make assumptions. And never, ever trust tech more than you really have to.

Following any one of those rules could have avoided a court date to clean up this mess.

And once we've gently drummed those principles into users' heads, maybe we'd do well to apply them ourselves.

Frank Hayes is Computerworld's senior news columnist. Contact him at frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

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