forge

Customer Service is a Thankless Job – Sorry

I have the greatest respect and admiration for folks who do customer support.  I couldn’t do it.  My personality just wouldn’t allow me to walk folks through plugging in the proverbial power cord every day of the world.  I am sure that I’d become the first ever documented case of spontaneous human combustion.  Because of this I’ve contemplated whether I should write this blog post for quite a while.  However, I ultimately realized that although I had my issues with individual customer service folks who had helped me, I am substantially more frustrated with the systems that allow this to continue – and in fact encourage it.

So I need to provide a little bit of background.  Around the first of this year I tried getting to http://technet.microsoft.com for whatever reason it didn’t respond.  I didn’t think much about it, I was just going to register for something so it wasn’t a big deal.  A week or two later I tried again and it still didn’t work.  At this point I got a little more curious.  So I logged into a server at Bluelock.  I could get to TechNet from Bluelock.  That meant it was a local problem.  So I put on my debugging hat and dug in.

A quick check of nslookup reviled that the IP address resolved for both locations were the same.  OK, it’s not a DNS problem.  Good to know.  I then started digging in and ran a packet trace from my firewalls (a SonicWall Pro2040 @ Bluelock and a SonicWall TZ170 here).  I saw something very odd.  At Bluelock I got the SYN and SYN ACK packets I’d expect to form up the TCP connection.  Here I got SYN, SYN ACK, SYN, SYN ACK.  Hmmm, that means the TCP stack locally didn’t like the ACK designed to form up the TCP connection.  I try a few other machines on the network including Windows Server, XP, Vista, etc.  They’re all having the same issue.  I tried with the local PC firewall on and without it on.  Still the same result.  I decided to eliminate more variables.  I instructed Telnet to make a connection to TechNet on port 80.  Although Telnet is a lousy web browsing client <grin>, it is one of the most basic ways to test whether a TCP connection can form.  When it didn’t work I had eliminated a ton of stuff.

So, in preparation for my call to support, I went in with a laptop and bypassed my TZ170.  I MAC cloned its external address so Brighthouse/Road Runner, my cable provider, wouldn’t lock out either the TZ170 or the laptop – so far as they were concerned it should have looked like the same computer.  When I did the test I observed the same thing.  No connections to technet.microsoft.com but arguably every other web site seemed to work.  (I’d later find out that there were a handful of other sites that were affected by this problem, but that wasn’t until later.)

So I hook everything back up and pick up the phone to call the Road Runner national help desk.  A pleasant sounding lady named Brandy answered the phone.  I briefly described that there was one web site, technet.microsoft.com, that I couldn’t get to.  She asked me “Did you put www in front of that?”  I politely explained that this web site didn’t have a www in front of its address.  I further explained that I had done a substantial amount of troubleshooting and had isolated the problem to the fact that TCP connections weren’t being formed up to the web site – although it was transmitting packets.  I offered to send her the packet capture and described the telnet procedure I had used to eliminate a ton of the variables that can happen in a typical system.  After a brief pause she asked “Did you try clearing your browser cache and cookies?”  I politely responded that it was clear that I wasn’t communicating effectively with her and that I’d appreciate the opportunity to speak with her manager.  To be clear, I expected this sort of an interaction, as I said before, most folks that customer support speaks with aren’t able to find the on/off switch.  I don’t expect them to be reading packet traces with me (as a point of fact I couldn’t tell you what IN the packets was wrong.)  I look at this interaction as an important and unfortunate necessity.  However, what happened next would start me down the process of changing my TV and Internet service.

A supervisor answered the phone that would only identify himself as Mike.  I explained the situation to Mike.  After a brief interaction Mike told me that this was a problem caused by the equipment or configuration on my end and wasn’t their responsibility.  When I asked him how he reached this conclusion he told me that I could get to every other web site and he could get to technet.microsoft.com therefore it must be my problem.  I presume Mike was in Reston, VA and I’m in Indianapolis, IN – there are a few different pieces of equipment between him and I.  I’ve seen all sorts of weird issues for clients caused by routers that are overloaded, overheated, or damp (don’t ask).  I certainly didn’t agree that because he didn’t see the problem that it didn’t exist.  I’ve never met God personally but that doesn’t shake my belief that he does exist.  I’ve never seen an electrical fire but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe they don’t exist.

So I asked Mike to escalate the case and he refused.  When I asked to speak with his manager is when the story got sad and entertaining at the same time.  Mike responded that he didn’t have a manager.  I said, well, supervisor, director, boss — whomever did his reviews…  He responded he didn’t have any of those.  I had to pause.  I knew that the manager of the call center who’s working at 11PM on a Monday night isn’t the CEO of the organization, so I was being lied to.  I strongly dislike being lied to.  I dislike it even more when it’s so obvious.

So I asked, Mike if he signed his own paychecks.  He said no but wondered why I cared about an accounting function.  I responded that I didn’t – but that if he didn’t sign his own paychecks he had a boss.  So I continued the only person in an organization that doesn’t have a direct boss, that I know of, is the CEO.  I asked him if he was the CEO and when he responded no I asked him if he worked for the CEO.  He said yes, and I asked if he worked for the CEO directly.  He responded that he did.

So at this point, I’ve demonstrated that Mike’s a liar.  He clearly communicated he didn’t have a boss, manager, etc., but then later indicated that he worked for the CEO.  However, I’ve still got a problem.  I don’t believe that Mike actually works for the CEO.  I decided to give up for the evening and talk to someone during the day shift.

At this point I think I need to make a personal statement, if I ever have an employee so boldly lie to a client they will be fired – on the spot.  I don’t see how any organization can stand to have its employees boldly lying to customers like this.  It’s this clarity of conviction that makes the rest of the story so troubling.

I called back during the day and got Mona.  I politely told Mona I needed to speak with a supervisor and when asked what for, I said that I needed to register a complaint about a supervisor from last evening and I didn’t feel comfortable sharing that complaint with her.  She transferred me to Martha.

I explained the customer service situation to Martha and asked that she do whatever was appropriate to deal with the concern.  I considered the issue disheartening but had written it off.

Dealing with the customer service issue meant I didn’t have time to deal with the actual problem so I had to wait to call back – in the evening.  (Taking care of my customers is a priority.)  When I called back in I got Kelly.  Kelly transferred me to Mike.  My conversation with Mike was only slightly better in that he said that he would look into the issue.  He didn’t offer to allow me to talk to the next level of support, provide me with a NOC ticket number, etc.  He simply said he’d look into it.

When I asked when I could expect to hear something from him, he said he couldn’t make a commitment on when the problem would be resolved.  When I clarified that I was just looking to know when I’d hear from him on this issue again he indicated that he couldn’t make a commitment – not even for a status call.  I shared with him that I felt this was bad customer service.  He told me I was wrong that you never make a commitment you can’t keep.  To me, follow up calls should be something you have control of.

So without any timeframe guidelines since Mike wouldn’t provide them – I called back in 4 hours later to request a status update.  To be clear, I didn’t expect that the problem would be resolved, I just thought I might be able to get the NOC ticket number.  The technician answering the phone told me that Mike had tried to call me and that I didn’t answer.  I logged into Vonage and verified that I hadn’t missed any calls.  I asked the technician for the status update and he indicated that the notes didn’t indicate what the update was.  So after informing him that there was no call I asked to be transferred to Mike again.

Mike was noticeably frustrated.  When I asked what the status update was he indicated that he didn’t call.  (Apparently the technician was mistaken)  When I asked for a status update I was told that he couldn’t work on the issue because I had called in.  For this to be truth this would presume that he was personally troubleshooting the issue, something I wasn’t ready to accept.  I asked him when I should call in again he told me that he’d call me when he had something to report – and more disturbingly he said “You need to stop calling in.”  I was shocked.  I called in a few minutes after four hours of delay from originally reporting the problem after he wouldn’t communicate an expectation to me – it wasn’t like I was calling in every 10 minutes.  However, the whole point of customer service is to talk to customers who are having problems.  It would seem that if no one calls in then there wouldn’t be any jobs.

Mike also threatened to close the case that he ultimately admitted he had opened with the NOC.  My response was something along the lines of “If you think I’m upset now…”  I apparently convinced him to leave the case open as I hung up because at 2AM I got a call from a technician (that I let go to voice mail).  The technician indicated that he had a few questions but he thought he knew what the problem was.

By the time I woke up TechNet worked.  I called in to close the case and asked to speak with a manager again about the customer service issues.  I again got Martha.  Martha indicated that their boss (Mike’s and hers) wouldn’t be in until 10AM (it was like 8:30).  I asked for a call back and she assured me she’d give him the message.

By this time some of the corporate sales and support guys had returned my calls that I made.  I know a few people in the area who use Brighthouse for their corporate Internet connectivity.  So I managed to get a call.  The corporate service manager acknowledged some issues on the network due to some IP addresses they acquired from Japan and indicated they were are of the issue.  Since my problem was resolved I thanked him and moved on.

Two weeks later I was clearing off my desk found my note and called back in.  This time when I spoke with Martha she indicated that Mike’s boss wouldn’t be calling me back.  No reason was given.  I was nearly ready to change services, but I needed one more push.

That push came a week later when TechNet stopped working again.  I called back in and after initially having a technician walk through it with me and get assigned a NOC ticket… I was told I’d get a follow upcall.  The next day, I tried to follow up and being told that I had never done any troubleshooting steps and that I had been told repeatedly this was my issue and not an issue on the Road Runner network.

The end.  I’m done.  I decided that I there were too many customer service issues.

I switched to AT&T’s U-Verse service.  I’ve called in a few times with some questions – and I can’t tell you the customer service difference.  The folks I’m talking to are polite, respectful, willing to help… all things that I never got out of the Roadrunner National Helpdesk.

So back to the starting point, why does this bug me so much?  Well, I have a set of unanswerable questions:

  1. How can you have such poor customer service skills in a manager and not realize it?
  2. How can anyone in a customer service position refuse to call a customer back?
  3. Organizationally, how do you fail to recognize such a systemic problem?

I wonder if I’ll get a call back now that it is too late.

forge

I’ve been Assaulted (Tagged) someone call someone else who cares

I’ve been assaulted… more precisely tagged by fellow MVP Todd Klindt.  I’ve been thinking about The Wizard of Oz and the quote “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” I generally detest engineered attempts to get to know other people – particularly at company parties.  But I’ll oblige so here goes…

  1. I’m a pilot – who never flies.  That’s not quite true.  I am a licensed private pilot – something I had always wanted to do but I’m finding that time and money never seem to intersect in ways that allow me to enjoy much of it.  My brother is an Airline Transport Pilot – so occasionally I find some time to go flying with him.
  2. I take pictures too.  One of my attempts to make some money is taking pictures.  My IStockPhoto profile has got a few of the things that I’ve published.  I take the camera with me most places these days and try to disprove the belief that taking digital pictures doesn’t cost anything.  If you take enough of them you have to have a budget for the DVD archival of them.
  3. I’m the (volunteer) technical director for Hazel Dell Christian Church.  If you’ve been to a contemporary Christian church you may or may not have noticed all of the technology making the experience immersive.  Sound reinforcement, video projectors, cameras, computer controlled lighting, closed circuit video distribution, etc., are all there to make sure that attendees don’t notice that they are there.  (Sounds paradoxical doesn’t it.)
  4. I recently mounted a laser illuminator to an air rifle.  I have two dogs that are not able to climb trees and get squirrels – and the squirrels know it.  I’ve decided to even the odds a bit (or tip the balance of power you decide.)  I don’t yet have a good kill ratio but I’ve definitely reduced the amount of time that the squirrels sit in the trees and bark.  And yes, I know that an air rifle doesn’t have any accuracy so mounting a laser illuminator to it is like trying to strap a rocket to a Pinto.
  5. I’ve forgotten what I’ve written.  There’s been more than one occasion where I’ve went looking for information and one of the links that came up was one of my own articles.  I used to get annoyed now I am just glad I can find it so I can move on and do something else.  Most of what I’ve written or edited is either in my MVP profile or on my book listing.

So, the folks that I’m tagging are:

crack

The Email Foundation is Cracking

In the old days, before spam had taken hold, before the Internet had become something that a vice president wanted to claim credit for creating, and before the media became so enamored with the latest goings on in CyberSpace, email was reliable.  It was more reliable than the US Post Office.  It was a pleasure to get email.

I can remember that I used to be thrilled when I dialed up my modem and opened my POP mail client – or further back logged into a Unix Shell account and got my mail.  It was a thrill to be able to speak with friends who were far away but who had somehow found their way to the Internet.

Those days are long gone.  The foundation of email as we know it is cracking and we’re all seeing it.  Here’s what’s happening that we may not be seeing.

Second Order Effects of SPAM

If you ask anyone about unsolicited commercial email, SPAM, you’ll hear about all of the lost time. You’ll hear about the latest in body part enhancements, the newest investment opportunity, or perhaps about a poor man in Nigeria who needs someone to accept billions of dollars.  SPAM is an annoying and unfortunate reality of email on the Internet today.

If you read any statistics about email you’ll quickly realize that SPAM is growing at a rate disproportional to the overall growth of email.  My own incoming mail is approximately 50% spam, 2% viruses, and who knows how much useless mail.  The estimates for corporate email system is that more than 80% of the mail coming in is SPAM.

These sobering statistics have forced nearly every organization to take actions to defend against it.  Real-time Blacklists, heuristic scanning, pattern matching, reverse DNS lookup, and other techniques are layered together to form a defense from SPAM.

This has created a doubt that your message has made it through.  Suddenly the second order effect of SPAM is raising its ugly head.  Instead of having absolute trust that your message will be delivered to the other end you have to consider that your message may have been caught by their SPAM filters.  You have to consider that your SPAM filters may have caught their response.

It’s an unfortunate reality that something that we could once trust implicitly now must be considered fallible.  We must accept that our messages aren’t guaranteed to make it to the other end any longer – not that they ever really were but we may have felt reassured more than we are today.

It seems almost routine now that I hear about messages that don’t make it through because of SPAM filters.  Just this week I had a message that was definitely caught in a SPAM filter.  I myself am starting to realize that I can no longer rely upon email without question.  I must consider the need to follow up.

A Million Straws

Perhaps the way you’re seeing the foundation crack isn’t in the loss of messages but rather in the delay of messages.  It used to be that you could talk to a support technician and send them a file.  Almost before you finished saying the words “The file is on its way” the file was already in the recipients’ inbox.   Today I’m routinely faced with the response “I’m still waiting on your email message.”  The delay in mail systems is getting to be greater.  Even with faster network connections, faster mail servers, and more advanced mail programs, the delay problem is getting worse.

The overall volume of mail that organizations deal with today would have been inconceivable ten years ago.   PostIni (www.postini.com), a mail-forwarding organization, estimates that it processes 1 billion messages every day.    The Congress Online Project (www.congressonlineproject.org) reported that mail destined for congress increased from 20 million messages in 1998 to 48 million messages in 2000 – and that the load on the servers has created delays of hours – and sometimes days in the delivery of messages.

Is it any wonder why it takes longer for messages to reach the destination today than it did even a few short years ago.  Add to the layers of protection that we now must have to protect against spam, an immense increase in overall volume and it’s not hard to see why we may have to wait several minutes before messages reach their intended destination.

However, this is time that is wasted.  An efficiency we picked up due to technology is the ability to nearly instantly show someone on the other end of the line what we were seeing.  We could attach the corrupted file, the log file, or whatever and it would be whisked silently and quickly away to the destination.  No longer.  It’s not the Pony Express any longer.  It’s your favorite airline’s luggage handler.  Pieces of eMail that are lost or delayed are climbing.

Conclusion

So what does this mean?  It means that the next time you are confronted with someone asking about what the harm is in SPAM messages.  Think beyond the amount of time it takes to read them – think beyond the cost of the internet connectivity.  Think about the costs of the whole war on SPAM.   Think about lost messages and delayed messages and what it does to further reduce the time that we have for our professional careers, our personal lives, and our community.

forge

Home Made Post Cards

Note: This is categorized personal.  If you don’t want to see these subscribe to the professional category.

My son and my brother-in-law have a silly game where my brother-in-law pretends to eat my son’s feet.  Don’t ask me how it started because I don’t know.  However, my son as we were leaving started holding his feet up for his uncle to eat.  Thus was born the idea of sending my brother-in-law a post card with my son’s feet on it.

Loving a challenge, I figured out a way to create our own post cards.  First, take some pictures and make a 4×6 print.  (I don’t have a photo printer here at home since I can never make the math work out right so I had to stop by Target.) For the sake of argument, let’s call the cost 39 cents. Second, get a 4×6 index card (blank).  It cost me about 1 cent for the index card.  Third, spray mount (or glue) the index card to the back of the print.  I have no idea on a cost for this one so we’ll call it 10 cents.  Fourth, write the addresses on the back left side of the index card.  (or cheat like I did and use your label maker — it prints postal delivery point barcodes so hopefully the post card won’t get too lost.)  Fifth, write your message on the other side of the card.  Finally, add a postcard stamp to the card and mail it.  The current postal rate for a post card at 4×6 is .24 cents.

The net of this is for somewhere around 65 cents you’ve sent a cute (and sometimes strange) message to family and friends.

forge

Thoughts on Optimisim and Pessimism

Thomas Edison was once asked about his failures in creating the light bulb and his response is often quoted as “We now know a thousand ways not to build a light bulb.”  That’s a dedication to staying positive that few (if any) of us could muster these days.  It’s a passion for creating the light bulb that would not be discouraged.
Through some of the reading I’ve been doing lately, I’ve been consumed with thoughts about how you perceive the world around you will drive how the world around you becomes.  This probably isn’t true in the literal sense (however, I wouldn’t discount it.)  What is true, however, is that we have two types of people: The optimist, always believing that there is more than their really is – but happy in that thought, and the pessimist, always believing that there is less than there really is – and miserable or fearful in that thought.
The classic is to place a glass with water equal its total capacity and ask if it’s half empty or half full.  The optimist is supposed to answer that the glass is half full while the pessimist answers that it is half empty.  A few severe pessimists, and I know some, would tell me that the glass may only be half empty now but due to evaporation, perhaps a crack in the glass, unidentified forces, etc., they’re sure that the glass will eventually become empty.  (It’s about that time that I reach over and drink it to prove their point.  It’s a fun thing to do.)
So there’s nothing new here.  You already have heard these things.  But what you may not instinctively realize is that optimism is its own reward.  Sure, I have to accept disappointment.  I’ve set the bar higher. I’ve decided to expect that things will go well, that life is ultimately good.  In return, I get to delude myself into a happy state.
And, of course, the “storms” will come, as they always do to try to convince me that the world is an ugly place.  And at those moments, I’m frustrated, disappointed, and worse.  However, that happens so rarely, that I get most of my days filled with happiness.
The mother of one of my friends is a pessimist, the kind that believes in evaporation, she recently shared with her daughter – “See, I was right.” It was in reference to some pessimistic “The sky is falling” prediction.  The answer back was the classic answer from an optimist: “So what, if you always predict something bad will happen – eventually you’ll be right about one of them.”  In other words, the optimist doesn’t have to assume that everything will always go right, they can be realistic about bad things happening, and they just believe that it’s a small proportion of every day life.
Fairly recently we were at a zoo and had our son’s wagon stolen.  We were able to recover it in relatively short order, however, its impact on our son’s small mind was fascinating to watch.  It had never occurred to him that someone would steal.  Why would you take something that wasn’t yours?  This plus trying to figure out both mommy and daddy’s reactions was putting his poor little mind into overdrive.  The end result was we got the wagon back.  He still vividly remembers the incident (perhaps too vividly.)  He has changed his behavior.  He still takes his wagon to the zoo; however, we keep a closer eye on it.  He didn’t give up.  He didn’t refuse to enjoy the zoo just because a bad thing happened – he simply is more aware of the possibility of a bad thing happening and tries to plan for it as best he can.
So my parting thought, a quotable, is simply this:
“Failure is only not trying because there is no hope of success.  Persistence guarantees eventual success through hope.”
Be an optimist, what do you have to lose?
forge

The Tivo Out of Box Experience is REALLY bad

It is amazing to me just how bad of an out-of-the-box experience that you can have with Tivo.  For all of the good things that the product does, it’s like there’s a completely different company managing their out-of-box experience.

I wanted to summarize for folks the situation that I ran into recently when I purchased a Tivo unit with DVD recorder for the church I attend.  I purchased it to record and store content from a specialized satellite subscription that the church purchased.

To start, you must use the phone line for initial connectivity and there is still no network connection on the unit I purchased.  You can add a USB-based network card, however, it’s a separate accessory that you have to buy.  Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, however, it can make logistics difficult as it did for me.  To get the unit started you must complete the setup calls (not setup call as seems to be the common parlance.)

So I plugged the unit into a line that I thought was an analog phone line — it turned out to be a digital phone line — and the modem burned out… when the replacement unit arrived I plugged it into the line for the fax machine (which I new was analog).  It completed it’s first call and then asked me to setup the A/V sources.  I go back to try to tell it that I want to specify my sources, since specialized satellite wasn’t one of my options.  It forces me to make the 10 minute setup call again because I transitioned back before the call to change the sources.  I get to the same screen and eventually turn the unit off and take it back to the room where the satellite is connected.  When I plug it back in it forces me to go back through the setup again — including the phone call … which I can’t make because the phone is in another room.  (Are we beginning to see the insanity?)

So I decide I’ll bring it home where I have phone and video together and then move it back to the church.  That’s great.  I start the process all over and get through the first call and the setup relatively quickly.  (I was doing other things at the same time.)  Then it goes to make a second call.  After the third failed attempt I replaced the relatively long phone cord with a short cord.  It’s still not working.  Each attempt takes five minutes or more because it doesn’t restart the download and in fact it does a cleanup activity prior to starting.  Needless to say it’s a painful experience.  I have Vonage for one of my phone lines, the one I was using.  So I eventually tried the other line and it worked … and at the end it says that the unit will be working for between four and eight hours and I shouldn’t unplug the system until it’s done.  It doesn’t indicate how I will know if the unit is done, nor does it indicate if there’s a safe way to power down the system that won’t cause any issue.

What irks me most about this whole situation is that less than a dollar could have put a flow chart of setup activities in the box.  Something that would have shown me the steps I’d need a phone line for, the overall process, and how to deal with common issues — however, that level of thought wasn’t put into the out of box experience — in a company that spends so much time working on user interfaces, ascetics, and other “user touch“ aspects.  It’s unfathomable that they wouldn’t put more thought into the out of box experience.

I’m now sitting with a Tivo unit on my desk that needs to go back to the church.  I’ve invested hours getting the unit to work for something that frankly should have just powered on, started up and let me use it as a glorified VCR without any of the issues I ran into.

By contrast, I’ve had a replay TV unit for three years now.  The out of the box experience was easy. I had the option of using either a phone or the network.  As I remember it, there was a basic set of instructions for what was going to happen and what I needed to do.  It was an extremely installation…

Now I need to see if I can figure out how to get the unit to tape from the satellite feed back at the church or if I’m not done dealing with the setup process. At least I can connect it to the network, if I can figure that out…

forge

Rant: Book Development Editors are a dying breed

I used to do a lot of development editing for books.  It was fun work.  You were able to see the impact on the books you were working with.  You could see author’s writing getting better as they started to get used to your comments.  They would quit taking short cuts.  They would begin to view the material from the reader’s point of view.

The job of the development editor in the book process is to “develop” the material.  In other words, the development editor is supposed to make the material better.  Development editors don’t do this by adjusting the placement of the commas or the number of capatilized letters (that’s the copy editor’s role.)  Instead, the development editor looked at the tone, overall flow, depth, and other broader issues.  They focused the author’s attention on these issues so that they could be improved upon.

What I’ve realized from the reading that I’ve been doing lately is that the development editors aren’t doing this today.  It’s likely because they’re too busy with other projects but still the abscense of this assistance for the author is painfully missing from many technical books today.

The book industry is right to be scared of the Internet and the way that we consume information these days, however, they’re not doing themselves any favors by shortcutting the development process in favor of books that are quicker to market.

I read a lot of blogs, articles, and shorter content on the Internet.  However, when I really need to have a thorough understanding of a topic, or I need to make sure that the information is right, I go to a book.  I use them as authoritative voices — however, this is challenging for me when the books have no more thought or organization to them than a typical one of my blog posts.

I wonder if the technical book publishing community will totally collapse before they learn what made Wrox what it was. Ok, before they went bankrupt.  The point is, however, that the brand of Wrox was powerful.  Having the opportunity to work with them (as a technical editor), I can tell you that they crafted their books.  The development editor was very involved.  They had the material run through two technical editors.  Everything was designed to get a quality product — at the center of that effort was the development editor who was managing all of the support that they were providing to the author.

Of course, the days where you could expect that a book won’t wander — that it will follow a clear, intelligible outline are long gone … Some days, I wish I could go back.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

Book Review-The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

If you’ve been reading this blog then you know that I’ve been doing a lot of reading of my own lately, mainly associated with some professional development in the area of reconnecting to basic software development fundamentals that I’m already aware of and some new things as I try to find some new ideas in the various forms of the agile development movement that I can use or try.

The latest book is radically different.  It’s one that was casually mentioned to me by a colleague, Jeff Juday, who was recently awarded Microsoft MVP status.  He mentioned how he thought the program related to the book he had just read, The Tipping Point.

This piqued my interest initially because I’m always curious about how the market works and Jeff promised the book would have some insight.  (He was right.)  Having written (or written part of) 16 books, I know how random sales can be from one title to another.  In fact, when my friends and colleagues approach me about writing a book and ask me if their idea is a good idea, I usually respond with I have no idea.  The market seems to work in mysterious ways.

The Tipping Point is a book about epidemics.  Not so much the negative things as we associate with the word epidemics but rather about things that have a radical growth cycle.

At some point in the book, I wanted to share a passage with everyone I knew.  Some of my mentors, the pastoral staff at the church I attend, my mother, several of my friends, and some of the folks I know at the MVP program at Microsoft.  The truth is that when I finish this blog post many of them will be receiving a link via email to check it out – excluding those I know read my blog regularly and so they’ll see it anyway.

I found the book enthralling as I examined some of the market reactions I had seen.  The birth of the Internet (really the adolescence of the Internet), the growth of cellular phones (which the book discusses), and I even thought about it in terms of SharePoint Portal Server.  (For the record, I would have written this blog post even without a SharePoint tie-in.)

I remember working with the 2001 version of SharePoint Portal Server.  When I’d talk with my peers most of them would be asking me – “Share What?”  There weren’t many people that knew what it was.  Today, when I talk about SharePoint to people I meet – even outside of the industry – I get a surprisingly high awareness rate.  Most don’t know what it does exactly but they know that people think it’s something to watch.  (As a sidebar, most people who do SharePoint work don’t know exactly what it does.)

The interesting thing is looking at this pattern – and others – and evaluating why SharePoint is such a pervasive word in the IT industry and in the minds of small business owners.  It certainly can’t be attributed to the stellar marketing that Microsoft has done for the product.  (Sorry guys.)

Quietly you’ll get some of the marketing folks in the information worker group to admit that there’s a lot of confusion about SharePoint and few places to find good answers.  I’ve had clients pay for us to develop documents that they can use to internally explain the solution – because it’s simply too hard to do without clear documents on what it does and doesn’t do.

SharePoint isn’t successful because of a greater number of people running Microsoft Office.  SharePoint’s popularity can’t be explained by a renewed interest in IT.  It’s an absolute mystery to me as to why it’s become so popular.  (Here’s a challenge – tell me via email why you think it is so popular.  I’d love to hear your perspective.)

The Tipping Point didn’t explain why SharePoint has become so popular but it did give me the clues to look for to identify what happened.  I don’t have the answers but I do at least know some of the questions to ask.  In that way, I think it will be invaluable in the way it allows me to see things more clearly.

The analogy that I’ve come up with to explain it is that it’s like someone with imperfect vision – like myself – putting on glasses for the first time.  It doesn’t make me see or allow me to see for the first time but it does bring more clarity to what I’ve been seeing all along.  The unfortunate thing is that it has also exposed me to how much I still don’t see.

There are some psychological tenants that most people subscribe to – including me.  That I know believe are false.  I’m questioning how much about the way people behave is about their character and how much is about their circumstances.  (In an interesting turn of events, the environment swapping movie Trading Places was on TV last night.)

If you’re the least bit curious about how trends get started and would like to get a little bit better picture of them I highly recommend reading The Tipping Point.

forge

Recognition vs. Recall

Where did I put that again?

One of the things that’s been fairly constant in my life over the last few weeks — that rediscovery stuff is hard, particularly when you try to do it too quickly.  It’s caused me to recognize that there’s information I’ve seen before but I couldn’t recall it on command, nor can I even remember where I saw it again.

It reminded me of some of the instructional design research I did several years ago while I was doing a lot of development editing for books.  I ran across Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, while I can’t say that I agree with every bit of the classification or the revision of the work.  However, it’s interesting because it causes you to think about how we teach and learn in a different way than we most folks think about it.

What caused me to think about it was the difference between recognition and recall.  These are at the bottom most levels of the taxonomy.  The most basic level is recognition.  That means that if someone asked you what it was you couldn’t tell them but if they say it to you — you will recognize that you heard it before.  Taking from my daily life…  My wife asks me to pickup paper plates from the grocery store.  I walk into the store and can’t remember what it was that my wife asked me for.  (I lacked recall.)  However, my friend, who co-manages the store walks up to me and starts offering ideas on what it might be: bread, milk, cheese, etc.  When he hits paper plates I immediately recognize that it what I’m there for.

The trick, for me, is to figure out how to get more of the stuff I read and take in into the recall category and less in the recognition category.  I could be struggling for higher levels, levels that allow me to do things with the information but for now, I’d be happy to hit recall all the time.

Excuse me while I go look for my car keys…

If you’re interested in learning more about how we educate ourselves and others, it’s an interesting read.