DSL has been off for over 12 hours and that’s about my limit. There’s only so long I can do without a fresh set of bits, so I break down and do my third least favorite thing to do… call customer support.
Customer support frustrates me because of the well-designed ability to do nothing. This is intentional. The support process is designed to filter out the idiots which means if you want to actually find a living breathing human being, you must subject yourself to a series of idiot tests. This is why I reserve customer support excursions for dire situations. No DSL for half a day is dire. Let’s go.
My first ten minutes on the phone are spent in admiration for how far voice recognition has come. First off, it’s working 95% of the time, which is significant. I’ve been making fun of voice recognition for the better part of a decade, so seeing it applied in a real-time business situation is cool. Also, my DSL provider has done something smart with the recordings which guide me along. The recordings use common language… sometimes slang. For example:
VOICE ON PHONE: If you’re looking for information about new DSL service, say “New”. If you’re having problems with your existing DSL line, say “Problem”.
VOICE ON PHONE: Got it.
Got it? That’s slick. This use of relaxed language gives me the impression I’m dealing with less of a corporate monolith, but we’re just getting started.
My call proceeds via the automated customer support center and I figure out there’s an outage in Sacramento that “could” apply to me. Problem is, Sacramento is 100+ miles away from Randsville and that’s far enough for me to push a little harder, so I do it… I say, “Operator”.
Here’s the transcript:
REAL VOICE ON PHONE: “Hi, thank you for calling SBC. My name is [pause] Joe. How many I help you?”
Now, I’m always terribly nice to customer support folks. Even though I’ve just spent 30 minutes jumping through idiot hoops to get to them. They’re just doing their job and being kind sometimes helps.
ME: “Joe, hi. My DSL has been offline for 12 hours now and I’d like to get some information about when I might get my DSL back.”
JOE: Let me first start by apologizing on behalf of SBC for this inconvenience. Can I have your DSL account number please?
Joe’s laying it a bit thick, but ok. Whatever.
ME: Sure, it’s ###-#####.
JOE: Thank you. Sir, if may ask, what is your name?
ME: It’s Rands Pantalones.
JOE: Thank you. Sir, if I may ask, may I call you by my first name?
Ok, what the hell? Now, you should’ve guessed this is clearly outsourced customer support. No big news there. It’s also pretty clear that “Joe” is reading from a series of carefully scripted cue cards. Even if his delivery wasn’t so stilted, the content of the questions just scream FOCUS GROUP DERIVED FEEL GOOD CONVERSATION TECHNIQUES. Let’s move on.
We continue. He tells me what I already heard from the automated customer service. There’s an outage, but it’s over 100 miles away and I want to make sure I’m a part of that 100-mile radius, so I push Joe a bit.
ME: Joe, Sacramento is far away. Can you confirm that my outage and the Sacramento outage are the same thing?
JOE: [long pause] Rands, let me again apologize on behalf of SBC for this inconvenience. A moment please. [another long pause] Rands, do you like sports?
RIGHT OK NOW YOU’VE BLOWN IT JOE.
I realize the cue card says, “Choose from one of the following MAKE A CONNECTION WITH THE CUSTOMER questions”, but I’m becoming more comfortable with the thought of dealing with the voice recognition system rather than Joe. It’s not that I believe Joe isn’t a decent human being… he’s just on the other side of the planet and I don’t know shit about cricket and he knows less about ice hockey, so why are we doing this dance?
My discomfort with the Joe experience would be good segue into an incensed rant into the evils of outsourcing, but I don’t want to go there. I’m happy Joe has a job and I’m sorry about whoever lost their job back in the States, but I have one piece of advice for both of you.
Cogs get outsourced.
Last month, I spent an hour explaining to the dean of a local college what kind of curriculum he should be schlepping to the local Silicon Valley kids. His first question was, “What is your hardest technical question?”
Before I answer, a brief aside. Yes, I’ve lost some sleep worrying about the perception that high tech jobs are being shipping over seas. More importantly, I’ve fretted that declining enrollments in computer science programs are direct result of this outsourcing. A decrease in the programming population in the US of A would mean it’d be harder for me to hire a fresh out of college guy/gal to beat up for a few years, but I’ve got some really good news for you.
The next generation already knows more about computers than you do and they haven’t even made it to college yet.
The current generation never knew a home without a computer. They assume they have ready access to just about any piece of information… and they’re probably working on their own Linux distribution right now. As a means of shaping your brain for critical thinking, I’m going to give college two thumbs up. As a requirement for doing great work in the software development industry, I’m going to give a college degree a long “Hmmmmmmm” while I slowly stroke my goatee.
Back to the question, “What is the Rands’ hardest technical question?”
ME: “I don’t ask technical questions.”
Listen, if you’re sitting in my office for an interview, I am assuming you’ve got technical chops. We wouldn’t have let you in the door unless we could figure out from looking at your resume that you had the technical skills to do the job. Doesn’t matter if you’re a college hire or Mr. Lord of the Database. I’m not vetting you for technical ability, I’m vetting you for the breadth of your vision, I measuring your ambition, and I’m looking for a sign that you believe you can change the world. Really. If all you want to be is a cog in the machine, quietly hiding in the 27th floor of the Behemoth Corporation, Inc., well, that’s great, but here’s the deal: cogs get outsourced.
As I’ve already discussed, jobs that can be “well specified” are being shipped offshore. High tech moved manufacturing offshore a long time ago and now we’re in the midst of pushing technical and customer support there. These are jobs which can be described with a flowchart, a specification, a means by which the job can be performed in a reliable and measurable way.
Think about Joe’s job. He’s spending his day following a well-defined routine. These are the calls and this is the flowchart. Joe has a daily metric. Joe, you are successful if you resolve 27 calls per day. More is good. Less is bad. The definition of this metric is why SBC is ok with outsourcing their customer support overseas. They did the math. 27 calls a day in the US is $50.00 and 27 calls overseas is $30.00. Multiply that by 27 million calls they do a year and you’re talking serious bank.
Joe is happy he’s got a gig and so am I, but just because his country provides a better dollar per call ratio doesn’t mean he’s got a guaranteed gig. Watch, two years from now Fezlakistan will burst onto the outsourcing stage and guess how long it’ll take your corporate behemoths to do math and start shipping their cogs there. Sorry, Joe. Keep reading. I can help.
Interfacing with Humans Pays Big Bucks
Well-defined QA and engineering is right on the tail of manufacturing and that’s A-OK with me because nothing that I’ve done in just under two decades of software development has been well-defined.
Seriously. I’m coming up on almost 15 years straight of non-stop development, crunch cycles, and fire drills. I work hard on improving process and quality, but it’s hard to write a good spec when the VP of Engineering is telling you that if we don’t get Customer X that feature, well, 150 people lose their job. So, make the call, don’t sleep for two days to get the product out or write a spec that is going to make QA and Documentation’s job easier?
The process weenies out there are now standing at their desks viciously shaking their finger at the screen as they read this. They are saying, “Rands, you just got lucky. You’ve just been fortunate enough to land at successful companies where these fly by the seat of your pants design shenanigans can exist because the cash is pouring in elsewhere.”
Really? Fifteen years, four companies, and six promotions later… you think I’m winging it? No, I just looking like I’m winging it because I never stop moving.
Seriously, I do not specialize in hardened software that keeps submarines pointed in the right direction. I work on software where the primary user is you, the person who stares at the bleeding edge and thinks, “What’s next?” Predicting this future is a messy business. There is a distinct lack of flowcharts. Practically zero spreadsheets. People argue a lot, but they’re arguing because the best way to refine an idea is to throw it in a mosh pit of creative people, wait, and then see what emerges.
Jobs in this crazy design arena, so far, are safe simply because:
- You can’t outsource creativity.
- You can’t outsource thinking.
- You can’t outsource passion.
Our Peculiar Accent
The number of people needed to create a viable product is decreasing. We need fewer folks who make widgets and more folks who are staring at the entire widget landscape and wondering, “I wonder what happens when I put Widget X near Widget Y… Hmmmmm… I think I’ll call it Flickr.”
I’m not suggesting that it takes any less hard work or collection of bright college brains to get these ideas off the ground, but I do know that within the circles I travel, there is a distinct optimism regarding ideas. Folks believe they can do anything. I love to think this sense of entrepreneurial spirit is an American asset, but that’s absurd.
If we have to outsource something, let’s work on outsourcing that. Let’s show the rest of the planet the excitement Borland felt when it started to go toe-to-toe with Microsoft. Let’s demonstrate the enthusiasm a bunch of midwest college kids felt when they realized this browser thing they wrote was changing the world.
If we have anything to share with the rest of the planet, it’s our own peculiar entrepreneurial accent.