The Right Tool For The Job

Or, “Why I Won’t Be Buying an iPad.”

Back when they announced the device, I put my thoughts up.  Now that the device has released, I’ve read the reviews and seen videos of it in action, I’m still not buying one.

Largely, it is for the same reasons I mentioned.  Since I’d never pay for the 3G data plan, its function as a mobile computing device is limited to Wi-Fi hot spots, and currently I’ve got a phone for that.  So the next use would be to have it around the house.  I’m really not big on browsing the net while watching TV, mostly because I usually want to actually pay attention to the TV.  And really, for the quick things I’d want to look up, I have my phone (I don’t have a land line anymore, so I always have my cell phone on me).  When I do actually want a computer it is primarily for two things: writing and drawing.

As far a writing goes, I’m not a touch typist, not really anyway (I can type without looking at the keyboard, but you can go insane watching my hands float all over – home row is for sissies), but my typing is dependent on the tactile response of the keyboard, to know when I’ve made mistakes.  I’ve seen people complain about how a laptop forces you to be in an uncomfortable position and the iPad lets you be more relaxed… only, I’m not uncomfortable when I use my laptop.  In fact, I’m often more uncomfortable in the big cushy couches most people love.  I like rigid, straight back, seating (though when I watch movies I do like a bit of tilt and some head support).  Using an iPad and the positions I’d have to be in to type on it two handed looks to be painful to me.  I may end up at an Apple store to play with one someday, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like it.

For drawing, as a previously mentioned, I don’t want to draw with my finger.  I really don’t.  I like using a stylus, which the iPad does support, but I’d really have to use it to see if it is worthwhile.  And is it pressure sensitive?  I use the heck out of the pressure sensitivity on my Wacom.  I’d hate to be without it.

Most of the web based gaming I do these days is Flash based and wouldn’t function on the iPad, so that’s out.

For me, the iPad just isn’t the right tool for the job, and currently my phone, netbook and desktop do the things I want very nicely.

On the other hand, while I wouldn’t buy one of these, I think my wife would like it quite a bit, except for the whole iTunes thing.  We are Zune people, and I really don’t want to install iTunes and then have it and the Zune software start fighting over who has control of the MP3 tags.  But if we could get over that, I think she’d be very happy with the iPad as an email checking, Internet browsing, note jotting, media consuming machine.  We’ve got a few boxes of CDs and DVDs sitting around waiting for a garage sale, perhaps we could use them for something else.

Call Centers vs Help Desks

From my experience, customer support at most businesses falls into one of two categories: Call Center or Help Desk.  As either a customer or an employee, I prefer the Help Desk.  Now let me explain both and why.

A Call Center is usually defined by the (over)use of call metrics to define success.  They want to have as few calls as possible be answered by the automated backup system (when all the reps are busy), and you do that by decreasing call length.  A rep who is not on the phone is a rep who can answer the phone.  In a Call Center, the reps are encouraged to pick up the phone, gather information, answer if they can do so easily, and if not inform the caller that someone will call them back and issue them a ticket or incident number.  No real “work” gets done in a Call Center, they are just there to answer the phone so you don’t talk to a machine.

A Help Desk is very similar except that often the only metric that matters is how many calls it takes to resolve an issue.  The fewer the better.  Call length is unimportant as long as that time spent is relevant to solving the problem.  The goal is to have every problem resolved on the first call, so that the customer does not have to call back.

Whenever I call a company for support, if the entirety of my first call is to create a trouble ticket and then wait for a call back, I already know that my support experience is going to be disappointing.  In one of my most recent experiences, I called about a service outage (no phone service from a 3rd party reseller) and a ticket was created and I was told I would be contacted “shortly”.  Now, understand that my initial report include the line “we are a 24/7 business and we are completely down”.  It took 3 hours for a technician to get in touch with me, during which time I had called the support number a dozen times and escalated through several managers, because, you know, my business was dead in the water.  When he called he was very nice and explained that they were having lots of high priority calls today (which I only half believe since it has become defacto procedure in business to never accept blame and deflect onto other people or situations), and then he ran a line test and determined in less than 2 minutes that he couldn’t help me and we needed to have AT&T go physically fix a line.

Now, allow me to outline one of my jobs on a Help Desk to explain why the above experience was bad.  When I worked for one company, I started initially as a “2nd Level” support person, not clearly defined, but I was not an admin nor did I directly take support calls.  Through my efforts and with the support of management, our help desk would eventually have three clearly defined levels:

  • 3rd Level – These are the system admins, the experts who troubleshoot problems when everyone below them has no idea how to fix it.  If you talk to this level, it is because your problem is new or different enough that a new solution has to be found.
  • 2nd Level – These are the system techs.  They have knowledge, one day probably hope to be promoted to the admin level, and their desks and inboxes and hard drives are filled with solutions handed down from the 3rd Level.  They use these solutions and refine them on issues passed to them from the 1st Level, and they pass failures and run new ideas past the 3rd Level.
  • 1st Level – These are the people who answer the phone.  They aren’t required to have any real knowledge at all beyond being able to read and follow instructions, and to have good people skills.  On their desks should be folders of solutions refined from the 2nd Level, or their PCs should have access to a knowledge base or other digital medium with search capabilities.  Every thing they cannot solve from documents on their desk or in the knowledge base is passed to the 2nd Level.

The goal of these levels is clear.  The 3rd Level guys have other work to do, which is interrupted when they have to take support calls, so they want to solve and document and pass to level 2 as quick as possible.  The 2nd Level guys want to become 3rd Level guys, so they work to understand and refine everything that comes from level 3, and part of that process is recognition that will come from authoring documents for the folders and knowledge base for level 1.  The 1st Level folks, if you’ve hired them correctly, are the kind of people who love helping other people, so they want to resolve every call and don’t want to pass things off to level 2, and if you’ve hired your 1st Level manager correctly they’ll be the sort who hounds level 2 for solutions to problems that keep going past his people.

If you staff and train this three tier help desk right, it is extremely efficient and people won’t mind at all when they have to call because their issues will be handled promptly.  At the company I worked for, while I was the 2nd Level guy, I implemented the folder system for problem resolution.  For everything from password resets to broken PCs, I gave the 1st Level every piece of information they could safely use for troubleshooting and resolution, and when I needed to give them access to something unsafe I wrote or provided a tool that allowed them to do what they needed without giving them full access.  And for everything I absolutely could not give them access to, I gave them instructions on how to gather what information in order to make my job as easy as possible so that I could resolve and respond to the issue as fast as humanly possible.  When I ascended to the 3rd Level, I took my process with me, convinced management we needed a 4 person 2nd Level staff to replace me, and I began documenting every 3rd Level process I could pass off to level 2, which they in turn continued my example of refining and passing to level 1.  Within a couple months of the full three tier setup, the 3rd Level group barely received any support calls as level 2 was handling most of them, and the 2nd Level was rapidly trying to pass the buck to level 1 with new procedures and documentation in order to free themselves up for working on “special projects” (which mostly consisted of implementing work that level 3 had designed … the grunt work that helped educate them on more facets of the systems).   Over time, some of our level 2’s got promoted or got new jobs, and we were even able to promote people from level 1 to level 2 (not often done since the prime skill set for level 1 was customer service, but if someone had technical aptitude we allowed them the opportunity to try, some went back to level 1, some did well at level 2), and the whole thing ran much more smoothly than when I had arrived.  Even I eventually moved on, and when training my replacement, a guy promoted from level 1 to 2 to 3, I showed him all my duties and toys, and then I handed him a documentation manual with every solution I had not or could not pass on to the level below me.  It was beautiful, and as far as I know still runs that way today, eight years later.

So how does that relate to my recent service outage?  Well, if a technician can, in less than 2 minutes, tell me that the problem is not theirs and we needed to call AT&T, whatever he did should be able to be wrapped up in a tool that can be given to the people who answer the phones so that problems like mine can be routed properly more quickly and not have to wait three hours just to be told they aren’t talking to the right people.  The problem is that it is a Call Center, and their management has no interest in having the people answering the phone actually solve problems, their job is just to answer the phone so people don’t wait on hold too long.

Me, I’d rather wait on hold comfortable that when they answer I’ve a good chance of getting my problem resolved, than to talk to someone sooner only to be pushed off and told they’ll call me back at their convenience.

It`s Comcastic!

For a number of years, I was a customer of Charter Communications, and it blew. I know that’s a bit crass, but then their service was terrible. Outages and other issues made it so that I couldn’t get through a single day without wanting to call customer support. I rarely did though, because the customer support for as awful as the service. Nine times out of ten when I did call, I got an automated message stating they were aware of an issue and were working on it. The times I got through, I wound up speaking to someone who was only qualified to answer the phone, not actually know anything about the problems of the callers. There is this story that I like to tell, mostly because its true, about a time when I called in to Charter and explained that my connection was fine, but the current outage was because one of their routers was misconfigured. They didn’t believe me, even after I explained that the reason I know was because I had been able to telnet into the router using the default login and password. I went to my parents’ house that night, downloaded a manual, went home and fixed the router myself.

All in all, my experience with Charter was why I was happy to learn my new house was in a Comcast service area.

I really shouldn’t have been happy. While overall Comcast provides better service than Charter, being better than the worst doesn’t make you good. From day one I had connection issues, but the people at Comcast were happy to help me, after three weeks of calls, to discover that they did not support my cable modem anymore. So I bought a new one. I started having connection issues again and we found that my “signal” was too low. A technician came to the house and “fixed” it. About three months later I called in again… “low signal”, another technician visit and it was “fixed” again. Another three months, another “low signal”, another “fix”.

I should break here to explain what “fixed” means. See, they tell me that I have low signal. The technician comes out, verifies the low signal and then puts in an order to have the signal at my house increased. One time they did replace the cable buried in the yard, and one time they replaced a splitter, but mostly they just run tests and call in to have the signal increased. I suspect that someone back at the home base performs an audit every three months, sees the higher than normal signal for my leg or node of the network and resets it.

So, its been three months again, and I’m waiting for Comcast’s Comcastic service to kick in… I really wish there was an alternative that didn’t involve Comcast and didn’t involve switching to some sort of DSL/Satellite service for Internet and TV. Oh well, maybe this time the “fix” will stick.

Words in the Workplace

Someone at work has been bad. Or at least so I must surmise, since I found a little gem of an email in my inbox the other day gently reminding me of workplace conduct. Here is a little snippet:

Work Policies and Rules:
I understand that it is my responsibility to ensure that my personal conduct and comments in the workplace support a professional environment which is free of inappropriate behavior, language, joke or actions which could be perceived as sexual harassment or as biased, demeaning, offensive, derogatory to others based upon race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, sexual orientation, marital status, veteran’s status or disability. I further agree to refrain from words or conduct that is threatening and/or disrespectful of others.

From this I can only determine that the only appropriate speech at work is to be completely neutral talk about work tasks, which, ironically, offends me. I suppose this is just one of those gigantic cover-your-ass type things where the company wants to be able to say, “Hey, we said it was not allowed and they did it anyway, so you can’t sue us, just the guy who did the offending.” And it makes me sad that our society is litigious enough that companies need to be constantly covering their asses.

Sadly, though, the main thing this email has done is make me curious about who said or did what to who to trigger this particular ass covering. In true cover-your-ass fashion though, I’ll never be able to find out unless it happened to one of my immediate colleagues. But in true office gossip fashion, I’m sure I’ll hear plenty of theories.

Killing in the name of God

So I read this story. This frightens me because one thing I am constantly being told is that acts of terrorism and violence are acts of fundamentalist Islam, and not of the general Islamic people. But, just like the car bombings, I’m searching around and I’m not finding any Islamic people saying its wrong. At most, they say that “we” do not understand their culture.

And I guess I don’t, nor do I want to. But I suppose that comes with being brought up in the “loving and caring God” Christian household, with being taught that things like the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades were misguided. Now we have an entire section of the world that is literally saying, “if you do not believe in our God, we will kill you and we are right in doing so,” and not enough of the “right” people are condemning it.

I suppose my feelings on this are firmly planted in the idea that silence is acceptance. If something is wrong, and you look the other way, you are passively saying that you agree, that you are going to allow that to happen. So now we have a man who was Muslim and is now Christian, and his countrymen want him to die because turning away from Allah is a sin against Allah that holds the punishment of death.

I keep being told that Islam is a peaceful religion, and yet, especially in the Middle East, its followers cling tightly to the concept of the “infidel”. An infidel is, in short, someone who doesn’t worship Allah. And while over the years Christianity has taken the stance that non-believers should be converted (and yeah, at some periods they felt that conversion through torture and death was okay), but Islam has held to the idea that infidels, non-believers are less than human and not worth converting. Infidels are the enemy, and they are charged by Allah to rid the world of infidels. In Islam, while the treatment of other Islamics might be purely peaceful, killing infidels is rewarded in the afterlife. And the problem is that the fundamentalist Islamics who fully support this are very loud, and the Islamics who condemn this are fairly silent.

Its great that we want to help out developing nations, but should we be helping support a belief system that would prefer to see us dead? I don’t know, but its definately something to think about.

Sky High

John Hughes returns to high school with this tale of super powered children attending a school to train them to be heroes… or for the less usefully powered kids, hero support, a.k.a. sidekicks. Okay, its not really John Hughs, but its got enough teen high school troubles that it could pass for one of his movies…

I really had fun watching this movie. After seeing a number of comic book and superhero films take things in a more grown-up and serious manner, it was nice to see a film take it from an almost slapstick comedy family point of view.

I’m not going to say much about the movie itself, because I might get carried away and ruin it for you… but its definately worth the money to go see it. It’s one I’ll have to own on DVD when they release it. Good stuff.

There’s No Place Like Work

CubicleI’m sure at least one person out there has wondered where it is that I spend most of my day. And it just so happens that this morning as I got into work I decided to snap a picture of my cubicle. When I was just working for ITCS, doing internal work and client support, I had an office. It was nice and big, I had two desks and a conference table. And I had a window. I arranged my desk to face the door so noone could sneak up on me, and I happily whiled away the hours coding and troubleshooting, and sometimes surfing the web. But those days are gone.

I’m down at BellSouth now, contract for ITCS. The money is better, and the hours more plentiful, but when it comes to work space I got shafted. Hard. See that monitor in the picture? That’s not my workstation. My PC is hidden in the corner. That dark screen you see is an application server. And all those file cabinets? Not mine. They are full of other people’s junk. In the lower left corner you can see a bit of blue. This is a spare chair. Its not mine, but it stays in my cube because none of the real employees want it in theirs, except when they need the extra seat, but they always bring it back.

Someday, I’ll have an office again.

25 February 1999

WARNING: Job rant to follow.
I work for a software company. I work in tech support. (No. I have never had someone ask me about their coffee cup holder. It’s not that kind of support.) I deal with a GUI Development Software package, and I support the programmers who use it.
So all today I have sat in a training class on the newest features of our latest release of one of our products (all of which will be integrated into all of our products). And I’m in awe. With all these new tools and functions, knowledgeable developers will be able to do some really cool stuff. And not only that, they will be able to do large amounts of work in a short period of time. If someone takes a good month or two and develops a nice set of templates for our product that use all the little features we have made available, the programmer will be able to do a one time pass through of the automatic GUI building procedure and be left with only minimal changes, those minor things we have yet to incorporate, to make before they have a final product. They just need to sit down, read all the instructions and then they’ll be set.
So why am I really not looking forward to all this?
It’s that last line. It turns out that 98.5% of all programmers don’t feel they need to read instructions. They know they basics, and they should be able to “feel out” the rest of it. Boy, is that a complete load of bullshit.
When our new product comes out, I will spend the next 3 to 4 months “recovering” people from their “feeling out” the new features. People will manages to irrevocably delete entire projects without making backups and blame me. People will accidentally invalidate data and even the Windows registry playing with things that they have no idea what they are doing, and in the end they will blame me. Every step, every tool, every piece of information they will ever need is within their reach. And each one of them will throw it in the trash because they are “programmers” and they don’t need “handholding”, they aren’t “children”. But they will cry. Each and every one of them will cry when I explain, “Well, you shouldn’t have done that. It says so in the manual.”
So if you ever learn anything from me and my postings here it is this… RTFM. Read The Fucking Manual. Every page. Every word. Every step of every tutorial and example. And don’t blame the support guy for your mistakes. He’s just doing his job.
Theater Review:
Today’s Song:
Overkill by Lazlo Bane. This is originally a Men At Work song, but I picked up this CD from Lazlo Bane based on someone telling me that if I liked the original I would love the remake. Well, I loved the original, so I snagged 11 Transistor by Lazlo Bane and popped it in the CD player. Man, I was totally blown away by this version of the song. Where the original was kind of bubble gum poppy like most of Men At Work’s stuff, this version is smoldering fire. It builds up, starting with one man and a guitar, and ends with Collin Hay himself guesting in the final verse. Truly worth my money, ’cause the rest of the CD isn’t too bad either.
Today’s Movie:
For some odd reason, I’ve had quotes from Real Genius floating through my head all day, so I’m making it my movie of the day. If you have never seen this Val Kilmer classic, you must. Go to the video store now and rent it. Some of you might have to wait because someone else might get to it first, but that’s okay. Go tomorrow. And the next day. And everyday until you get it. And Kent, stop playing with yourself.
TV Highlight:
RERUNS!! I love it when I get to see shows that I’ve already seen, especially if I have seen them 2 or 3 times before. But one step even better is when they preempt reruns so they can air some movie (edited for television) that made hundreds of millions in the theater guaranteeing that 99% of their audience has already seen it, and probably rented it too. Titanic will probably be a good one to run on TV (over 2 nights even!!) because NO ONE has seen that one. And NO ONE has rented or bought it yet. I mean, can you imagine all of the people (all 6 or 7 of them) who will finally be able to see Titanic!!!