Tech Life All hail Fezlakistan


Actual conversation.

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”.

ME: Problem.


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?


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.

Key Exports

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.

8 Responses

  1. Sorry Rands I know I’ve done this to you before. I’m not sure if you appreciate it, tolerate it or despise it when I point out your typos and obvious grammatical goofs. If you hate it, please let me know and I’ll happily go on reading without comment. I guess I bother because it is a distraction to me – and it diminishes my enjoyment and content retention of your article.


    1) They did they math.

    2) You can’t outsourcing creativity.

  2. All fixed. Thanks


    seriously, i had one of these nightmare calls with earthlink on behalf of my dad. when i called, i told them exactly what to do: log into the redback and see what bitrate the head end negotiated with the modem. then roll the truck; you have a bad linecard.

    90 minutes later, the guy came to the end of his script and the problem was still not resolved. then he hung up on me.

    in the middle of it, he asked me how the weather was, so i asked him what he thought of his new prime minister, manmohan singh. he stammered and said “we’re not allowed to discuss politics.” ugh. i would have rather been interacting with a machine.

    a week later someone called from the US. and yes, in the end they replaced a linecard in the CO. downtime = 1.5 weeks.

    anyway… your analysis is correct. cogs get outsourced. one day iCal will write itself and you and i will get outsourced too 🙂

  4. Well Rands, you hit it right on the spot. I’m curious how your call was resolved, because as an on-site technician for a local PC store, I ended up calling SBC quite frequently. I always got someone in the Midwest. And I made a gentleman in the Butternut region quite happy by simply being compentent when I called.

    And that’s how I reached my conclusion: it’s hard to outsource the guy who is willing to come to your house. I believe we’ll always need someone local to pop in when the Corporate Machine can’t drive over to Suburbia because the roads are too small.

    But you’re right on about the cogs. Makes me think of a previous co-woker’s shirt: “Go away or I will replace you with a small shell script.”

  5. Foley 18 years ago

    Was tickled to read your opening rant, Rands, as I’m an engineer-turned-marketer in the speech recognition industry. Haven’t seen your earlier (no doubt justified) skepticism on speech. It’s going the way of ATM’s and airport check-in kiosks. Before: OOH SCARY GIVE ME A HUMAN. After: PEOPLE ARE STUPID SELF-SERVICE IS FASTER. Outsourcing experiences like yours with “Joe” only prove the case that easy questions should go to automated systems and tough questions should go to intelligent skilled reps. And the sooner companies make automated systems stop sucking (speech is one way, though not the only one), the better. Anyways. Not meant to be a commercial. Just was nice to see validation from a favorite blogger.

  6. Very timely prose. I hit your site on occasion and always enjoy your timely comments and views.

    Our development team, QA, Support, Deployment etc… that is only 35 strong here in Colorado was about to become “Project Managers”. Unfortunately we answer to a higher power in Baltimore and was on the brink of moving our main “grunt” development “over-there”. That was the story anyway, we’ll keep the creativity here and communicate the daily drudge to an out-source off-shore.

    Well, that was two weeks ago and today those powers made a reversal announcement. Our VP who’s originally from “India” fought hard to keep the work here and well, won. He knows there’s intellegence and competence over-seas, but feels that our 8 years of effort would suffer in the end and eventually would be dissolved.

    However, while our engineers may be over-paid, some-times appear lazy, keep odd hours and generally dispise process and planning are still THE MOST CREATIVE at solving problems and when the chips are down, everyone puts their personal life on hold to get it done.

    I was concerned the original plan was doomed for so many of the reasons you mention. Everyone wants process documented and standardized to predictability, but truth is, it’s not part of the fabric of the US spirit. We’re mavericks and seat-of-pants folks regardless of how much “process” we try to put in place. I’ve been doing consulting and deployments for years and while I attempt to put in predictability, I prefer the “make-it-up-as-I-go-along” process.

    I’m all for the success of other countries and frankly with a more global economy, I wish them well, but I agree on creativity, design and spirit. Americans solve problems throught these efforts and to dissolve such efforts is a travesty.

  7. Miguelito 18 years ago

    I’m glad you move in optimistic circles because all I see these days is a pervailing sense of pessimism. Nothing is really all that interesting to work on. 4 tech jobs in 8 years in 4 widely different fields, and I cannot say that any of it has been all that different or interesting when it finally comes down to it. Writing customer support software vs. printer drivers is just about same when it comes to the everyday stuff of making it work. Maybe this is my viewpoint from predominantly a QA point of view and maybe I’m just really burnt out after the last gig at Enormous Bureaucracy Corporation, but from talking to coworkers, I know I’m not the only one trying to figure out where the good ideas are anymore.

    And flying by the seat of your pants only works when your organization is structured to support and expect that, when there are other lines of communication open besides the formal. It does not work for an engineering department that is the equivalent of a dysfunctional family, and is all about blame, blame, blame. In my experience, QA became the whipping boy because what, they weren’t smart enough to figure out that Widget A has been added to the product in the last 2 days? So didn’t test it with Widget B and it crashes the product when you turn them both on? In that case, I started demanding that EVERYTHING be well documented, so then at least I could point to a document and say “not my fault”. This was, of course, deleterious to the quality of the product and further eroded QA/Dev/IT relations. But I damn well wasn’t going to sit through any more point-the-finger-of-blame meetings.

  8. Konrad 18 years ago

    “Seriously, I do not specialize in hardened software that keeps submarines pointed in the right direction.”

    I don’t think your conclusion would be any different if you did. I’ve specialized in software that keeps fighter jets pointed in the right direction and in software that keeps nuke plants running safely. It seems that well-defined software engineering is a lot like all those UFO sightings; it’s apparently so common that we should have documented proof of its existence any day now.

    That’s not to say outsourcing can’t happen. It just has to happen at different scale, like an entire department or project. The work is too fuzzy to have managers in one country doling out neatly-packaged and well-defined tasks to engineers in another country.