Saving the Data: Minitab Goes Above and Beyond to Help Customers

In the 1980s and 1990s, Minitab software supported more than 30 different platforms—most of which are no longer in use.

It’s easy to credit some professionals with saving the day: fire fighters and doctors, for example. And for good reason—going above and beyond is just a part of their jobs.

Minitab’s customer support team would never put themselves in the same category as those who face fires and save lives. But because they routinely go above and beyond to help customers who need assistance, contacting Minitab’s free Technical Support service has helped thousands of customers save the day—or, as in one recent case, the data.

The customer in question contacted Technical Support for help with an unusual task: recovering her data from completely unrecognizable files. The support team tried a wide variety of ways to open them. Nothing worked.

At this point, it would have been easy to tell the customer recovery wasn’t possible and close the support incident. Instead, Minitab’s technical support team reached out to the company’s software engineers.

The engineers discovered that the files couldn’t be opened because the data had been collected in 1998 and saved using a long-unsupported version of Minitab Statistical Software that ran on a Sun Microsystems workstation—a machine that neither Minitab nor the customer had access to.

The Sun Microsystems workstation was just one of the computing platforms Minitab supported at the time. It allowed users to save files as either worksheets or portable files, which could be used among various platforms.

“Once we identified the kind of files she had, it became a technical question of whether or not it could be done,” says Sarah Haines, Minitab’s technical support manager. “But we truly like to be able to pay our customers back in ways like this, so we gave it a shot.”

But how do you go about recovering data from files created on an outdated machine?

Software engineer Mark Lee realized he might be able to write utility software to read the files and rewrite them in a recognizable format. Although all Minitab data was written in a common format, implementation differences would have prevented Minitab on one operating system from accessing data files saved by a different operating system.

Lee processed the files, but needed to make sure the utility had worked as intended. “If non-standard representations were used, the data might be where I think it is, but the format could be different,” Lee explains. “I would have no way of knowing if what I was reading back was correct.”

Armed with a hard copy of the data from the customer and a Minitab manual from 1990 with additional details about the format, Lee was able to verify that although the file format didn’t match the reference material exactly, the data recovered matched the hard copy sent by the customer. “Once I figured out the conversion, it was pretty simple.”

By going above and beyond, Minitab’s support team was able to recover the customer’s data, which would have otherwise been lost. “It was nice to be able to hand over the data, which made our customer very happy,” says Lee.

“It’s great to be able to take a situation that seems impossible and finds a solution that works,” adds Haines. “And most of all, I’m glad we were able to help—that’s why we’re here.”

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