fighting the lack of good ideas

i love traveling

I hate not being home.

I travel for a living now, performing site installations, upgrades, customizations, and on-site support for our customers. The travel’s a blast – see new places, try new food, drive different car. But not being home except weekends does kinda cut into one’s social activities.

At this point, I wouldn’t trade the type of work I’m doing, unless someone offered me large piles of green paper, but I’d like a little more notice than just a few days (sometimes less!) before hopping on a plane and heading out to another customer.

Even 2 weeks would be nice (which is supposedly the minimum time we’re allowed to book travel etc for work anyways). That’s happened once so far, in 3 months of being in the job.

On the other hand, you all get to find about great places to eat all over the country 🙂 .

queuing the next generation

Like many people, I work for an under-staffed segment of a remarkably under-staffed company.

Before transitioning to professional services, I worked for support, and they are even more under-staffed.

I see a simple solution to this problem, but the company is too short-sighted to implement anything like this, sadly.

Problem: We need new people. Desperately. Especially in support, though we will need more in professional services, too.

[My] Solution: Establish an on-going co-op/intern program to bring new ideas, young people, and energetic minds to bear on the issue of handling customer service.

How can this be done? I think it’s a combination of trust and energy on the part of the management of the company: they need to be willing to trust people without “experience” to learn how to do the job, and that means they need to expend energy on aggressive recruiting of new talent.

I think the best way to start this is to go to local colleges and trade schools (including tech and community colleges) and look for people who actually want to work. There are certainly a lot of students who don’t want to work. And there are certainly a lot of students who won’t want to do what you need them to.

But I will maintain that there is a notable subset of students (even if they are not in “related” majors) who are both willing and able to handle the high-stress, interrupt-driven environment of technical support. And those are the folks you (we) need to find and recruit to handle your (our) technical support backlog.

One way to do this would be to hire them on as full-time, but hourly workers, and pay for up to 9 or 10 credits per semester at the school they are attending. This will give them an incentive to continue their education (after all, their employer is paying for it), and to want to stick around with the company when they’re done with school. Pay them, say, $20k per year, but cap their weekly hours at 40. Make sure they go home when the day is done so they don’t burn out. With the company paying for their school, it might take an extra year for them to graduate, but when they do, they’ll have both experience, and – probably – a desire to continue working for the company that helped them through.

The big selling point on this, though, needs to be that you only recruit outstanding sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Too many freshmen don’t know what they want to do, nor do they tend to have the drive – yet – to get to where they want to be. The other component needs to be to at least annually, if not semi-annually, issue 5-10% raises for those folks who are performing well – as a further incentive for them to want to continue.

The big advantage for the company is that when those students graduate, they’re very well trained of the company’s product(s) and procedures. This makes bringing them onboard as “real” technical support personnel much easier as their need not be a long orientation and familiarization period.

Unfortunately for where I work, though, the company is too focused on this quarter to worry about how they can improve the next decade.

preparing for change (part the second)

As with knowledge capture, so must any successful organization pursue training.

Training need not be formal. It can be self-paced, on-the-job, as-you-go, or formal. I know that I have learned the most about the product I support not from formal training, but from actually supporting it.

Part of that is because we have had a tribal knowledge base, that needs to be captured. But part of it is because what we do varies from customer to customer, based on their environment.

Training must also be focused to the folks who will be undergoing it. Some people learn by doing, others by reading, others by hearing. An effective training program in bringing new people up to speed must, then, combine all of those methods. But training cannot last too long as individual sessions. It would be better to have 1-2 hours of training per day, a couple days a week for 3 months than to have it all in one week, 8 hours a day.

preparing for change (part the first)

I have recently been preparing to change jobs within my company from Support to Professional Services. This has lots of caveats, concerns, and corners to shine light into, alleviate, and circumvent.

The first thing that I did when I found out that I would, in fact, be able to move to ProServe from Support was to review all the cases I have had over the past year for commonalities, how-tos, and troubleshooting material. I have been working supporting a very complex server management product since January of last year, and I’ve had a lot of cases in that time.

One of the things I started to discover as I went through my case history was that customers end up having similar issues, but may report them with different symptoms. Like having the flu, where symptoms include fever, nausea, dehydration, dizziness, and more, one core problem can manifest itself in many ways.

So, in reviewing every case I have had in the last year, or at least those that are still ‘owned’ by my user, I was able to generate about 40 articles for other folks in Support to use in diagnosing similar issues in the past.

The core of any organization should always be knowledge transfer. In the company I work for, however, most of that knowledge transfer has been done verbally – so between all of us we know the product, but it’s tribal: if one person leaves, everything they know walks out the door with them.

Knowledge capture, then, must be a priority for any organization. Knowledge base articles, wiki pages, cheat-sheets on a shared server – something must be done to adequately snag everything those involved with the group both know and need to know.

Like the famous Microsoft developer’s conference video chants, “Developers, developers, developers, developers!”, so, too, must any organization chant, “Knowledge capture, knowledge capture, knowledge capture!”

computers were made for americans

Or at least, they were built for people who speak English.

Evidence for my claim: the first electronic computers were built during WWII by the British and Americans for code breaking; the first programming languages were designed, written, and implemented by Americans and British; the transistor, which led to the IC, was developed by Americans; the integrated circuit was designed by Americans; the Internet project was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA); Tim Berners-Lee was born and raised in England, and invented the World Wide Web.

Most programming languages are written from left-to-right. Interfaces are designed to be read and processed from left-to-right.

I wonder how different computers and interfaces would appear if they had been originated in a non-English-speaking country, or non-Western culture?

Would they seem more intuitive to us, or less? Would they be easier to use, or less? Would countries like China be leading the world in technology, with the US being some kind of feeder economy if computers had been invented elsewhere?

What do you think might be different if computers hadn’t been invented for Americans?

a perfect hash function?

As I was walking to get my turkey pot pie today that was cooking in the microwave in our break room, I looked at the parking lot below and realized that parking lots are approximately perfect hash functions.

Think about it: cars come in in some semi-random order; spaces are available in semi-random fashion; cars park; and the owner comes back to the same spot to retrieve the item later. Admittedly, it isn’t necessarily replicable every day – but it’s an approximation.

Perhaps a better example would be a professor who tells his students on the first day of class to remember where they are sitting, because that’s their seat for the rest of the semester. The spaces were filled in random fashion once, then always in the same way in the future: if Sarah isn’t in class, her slot is empty – it doesn’t get filled by anyone else because they’re in their slots.

The real trick will be to figure out how to replicate this behavior functionally.

the inanity of ‘special’ lanes

Carpool lanes do not alleviate traffic. They encourage folks to either a) ignore the ‘carpool-only’ signs, or b) get pissed-off at other drivers ignoring the signs.

I’ve been in California for a few days on a working vacation, and the carpool-only lanes are stupid. Because I’ve been driving by myself to work, I do not have 2 or more people in my car, and therefore am not supposed to be in said lanes, unless it’s *not* between certain hours, which are, of course, exactly when I’m on the road.

There is a similar phenomenon in Virginia where they have dedicated HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes open northbound for part of the day, southbound for another part, and closed the rest of the time. To use those, you must have at least 3 people in your vehicle (unless you’re in a motorcycle or vehicle that can only hold two people, in which case the 1 or 2 (respectively) is OK. So, for those of us who don’t typically travel with more than ourselves or maybe one other person, those spare lanes are useless.

That’s right: even when traffic gets slowed down, those lanes are [mostly] barely used. So, instead of actually alleviating traffic, they end up making the drivers stuck ‘where they belong’ pissed-off at those lucky jerks who can use those spare lanes.

If Virginia were smart, they’d open up those spare lanes to everybody, with the caveat being that there are fewer exits from those extra lanes, so if you are a ‘local’ driver, you should stay out, but if you’re a ‘through’ driver, go ahead and use them.

And out here between San Francisco and Sunnyvale on the 101: drop the signs. Having one lane utilized at <15% while the others are stopped or barely moving is stupid.

All that extra lane has done is make traffic worse.