The Magical Excel 97 Far East Language Build Screwdriver™

Raymond Chen

Raymond

The cluster of Microsoft buildings 16 through 18 were the home of the Microsoft Office team for many, many years. When they moved to Building 7 Building 37, all of the machines in the old build lab were powered down and moved to the new build lab in Building 37.

Office 97 was at this time already a very old product, so its build machines would need to be used only to service a critical security hotfix. Consequently, those machines were moved to the new build lab, but with the expectation that they would never need to be powered on.

They almost made it to the end of the support lifecycle, but alas, a security issue was identified that affected multiple versions of Microsoft Office, including Office 97, so the build machines needed to be fired up and put through their paces, for what the team hoped to be one final hurrah.

The security lead for Microsoft Office knew the drill. She sent out the usual email to the affected teams, laid out the schedule, and the team went through the standard process: Developers identified the root cause of the problem and came up with a minimally-invasive fix with the lowest risk of regression, and test plans were developed to validate the fix on all supported platforms, while focusing on areas most likely to be affected by a possible regression. Documentation teams worked with the MSRC team to draft the security bulletin, stage the Web pages, and prepare answers to questions they were likely to receive from customers. The build teams prepared the machines in the build lab to produce all the necessary product builds, across all languages, processor architectures, and product packages, including both retail versions and developer editions. All the usual stuff that happens. This wasn’t their first rodeo.

The security lead got a call from the build lab. “We may not be able to produce an update for Excel 97 Far East languages.”

“Do you need some more time?” she asked.

“No, it’s not a matter of time. It may simply never happen. We’re still working on it, though. I’ll get back to you.”

The security lead tried not to panic. What was she going to tell MSRC?

The build lab called back. “We think it’s working now. Fingers crossed.”

She asked, “Okay, can you please tell me what’s going on exactly?”

They explained, “When we moved out of the old build lab, the build machines were shut down for the first time in a very long time, and this was the first time we needed to power the Excel 97 Far East build machine back on. When we tried to turn it on, it started to boot up, but then the power button popped back out and it turned off. We couldn’t get the machine to turn on and stay on. And of course these machines are so old, they are themselves out of support from the manufacturer, and we weren’t sure sure how long it would take to rebuild the entire build environment on another system and make sure we did it correctly. This is a really old system, and it’s hard for people to remember exactly how to set it up again.”

“But you got it working?” she asked.

“Yeah, we figured out how to get it to boot up. We jammed a screwdriver in the power button. Seems to be working so far. Knock on wood.”

And thus was born a new inside joke: The Magical Excel 97 Far East Language Build Screwdriverâ„¢.

Whenever somebody was having trouble with a build, she would ask, “Do you need me to go get the Magical Excel 97 FE build screwdriver to see if that helps?”

Office 97 released on this day in 1996. Magical screwdriver not included.

Raymond Chen
Raymond Chen

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8 comments

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  • Avatar
    Jonathan Potter

    So that explains why Visual Studio has never made it easier to do multiple configuration builds at once – you just have a separate computer for each configuration! 🙂

    • Avatar
      cheong00

      Office 97 born before the age of Unicode, you have to run separate build for all language versions anyway at that time.

      • Yuhong Bao
        Yuhong Bao

        Office 97 used some Unicode, but there were still separate “Far East” and “Middle East” builds.

  • Yuhong Bao
    Yuhong Bao

    Ah, the 2001-2003 period where Office 97 security updates was “hotfixes” you had to request from PSS. They didn’t fix that until the last security update in November 2003 (it took until 2002 before these “hotfixes” was even mentioned in the bulletins), though by September 2003 there was “far east” updates again for Word (I wonder when exactly they restarted the builds). You can see the last security bulletin for both Word 97 and Excel 97 here: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/security-updates/securitybulletins/2003/ms03-050

  • Avatar
    Daniel Neely

    I’m wondering if the build machine in question used some sort of non-standard power switch, or if it didn’t occur to whoever was trying to run the build machines that front panel switches were standardized and they could’ve just swapped one from a donor machine.

    If it was an old AT style system with an AC power switch as implied by it popping out and turning the machine off, just make sure that power is disconnected first so you don’t zap yourself with 120VAC.

    • Avatar
      Chris Crowther

      If it’s an old AT style switch you could just bypass the switch entirely and connect the respective L and N pairs together. Making sure you unplugged it first, of course.

      (Over here you’d zap yourself with 240V).

  • Yuhong Bao
    Yuhong Bao

    I wonder if you can discuss the Equation Editor story. Was it a similar build issue?