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Gee, I Wish I Could Do That

Thanks for calling WordPerfect Support. My name’s Brian. How can I help you?

Brian wasn’t your typical support operator. In fact, Brian wasn’t a support operator at all. Brian was the lead developer for WordPerfect’s email program. We had just shipped version 3.0 and Brian came down from the mountain to spend a couple of hours hearing how people were using the product. Okay, maybe it wasn’t a mountain, but the programmer’s building was literally up the hill from the support buildings. A large canal separated “them” and “us.” Most of us had never even met one of the programmers.

Brian’s response to customer issues was also not your typical response. I won’t say that we learned by his example, at least we didn’t learn support techniques.

The famous French queen Marie Antoinette was informed that her subjects had no bread. Her response reportedly was,

Then let them eat cake.

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And thus a revolution was born.

With software, if you want to know how a program is supposed to work, ask the developer. If you want to know how it actually works, ask a tester. If you want to know how people are using it, ask a support operators.

I once approached a programmer in the WordPerfect cafeteria.

Paul, I had a call today from someone getting the error, “Header File Full.” Any idea what might be causing that?

Wow. We never expected anyone to ever even see that error message.

Such was the life of a WP support operator. We almost never got to see or talk to the programmers. And now, here was Brian sitting in our midst taking calls from customers.

I think I understand your issue Mr. Smith. And we’ll be changing that in the first service pack.

THAT was his answer to some of our most challenging issues? “I’m the programmer, so I’m going to fix it.” It wasn’t even a great answer for the customers. The next service pack might be months away, and in the mean time they have a program that doesn’t work the way they need it to.

As support operators we were constantly looking for ways of configuring the current product, given it’s limitations to solve customers current problems.

The lead programmer on the other hand, had the option of baking the breadless customers a cake.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children and one grandchild.

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I Should Have Made That Look Harder

Rodney, before you go, do you have a wrench that will fit down my garbage disposal?

Maybe. . .Let me see it. Why do you want a wrench to fit down your garbage disposal?

There’s a screw that’s loose and I think it needs to be tightened.

Well, there are supposed to be moving parts.

Yeah, well it’s making a weird noi. . .

Fixed it.

. . .

I maybe should have made that look a little harder, huh?

I’ve spent 25 years in the software and IT business. My first program was recorded on cassette tape. And yet, given the choice, I would much prefer to get my hands dirty building or fixing something. I’ve been helping a friend remodel a house in Provo for the past several months. I stripped a basement room to bare walls and complete rebuilt it.

In the story above I was helping another friend. He’d called the “In an emergency, when you call today, we come today” guys and it was an emergency and they didn’t come. He needed a new toilet installed. I’ve replaced quite a few.

The worst part about changing out a toilet is what’s called the wax ring. It connects the toilet to the drain. I’ll spare you the pictures. It’s no fun to replace. But, if you’ve never done it, you have no idea where to even start.

I was just putting the finishing caulk around the base of the new toilet when my friend asked me about his garbage disposal. He explained it had been making a rattle noise for weeks. In his limited experience the solution was a “loose bolt.” That wasn’t the problem. In fact, I’ve never heard of a bolt inside the disposal becoming loose.

I literally fixed the problem in 5 seconds. We laughed about it, but it reminded me that sometimes it’s important to make something look harder than it is. And not for the reason you think.

Richard Feynman was a brilliant physicist who helped build the atomic bomb at Los Alamos during the Second World War. He was also an amateur safe cracker. He made a game out of cracking the combination locks on the scientists’ filing cabinets. He had a strict rule whenever he was asked to break into a colleague’s filing cabinet. He always worked alone. The only tool he required was a screw driver that he always had to retrieve from his office. The same office where he had been storing a list of every combination lock he had previously deciphered on the base.

Once in the office, Feynman would quickly open the filing cabinet and then sit for 20 minutes reading a magazine. He realized that the longer it took him to open the cabinet the more impressive it looked to his coworkers.

WordPerfect (Back To Where It All Began) was one of the first programs to experiment with locking files. Their document password algorithm wasn’t particularly sophisticated. (Kind of like their email password (Forget You Ever Knew How To Do That.)) Whenever you have a program that will set a password, you will have people who forget that password. WordPerfect would allow people to send in their files and WP would unlock them for them. In the days before the internet this was a process that might take weeks.

And wherever there is a potential business opportunity there will be a company to step in and fill the need. A couple former WordPerfect employees wrote a simple little app to unlock WordPerfect password protected documents. For fifty bucks, they’d send you the program on a floppy disk. I don’t know the algorithm, but I know it was very simple and very fast. In the days of slow computers, the password breaker program could unlock a password in less than 3 seconds.

The programmers added in a delay of about 30 seconds. Thirty seconds is a long time when you are waiting. The program would show a spinning disk and say something like “Processing – Please Wait.” Why the delay if the program already broke the password in the first three seconds?

Perception.

For fifty bucks you want a program that is going to do something hard. If the results popped back right away, people would feel like they overpaid. It’s strange when you think about it. We don’t pay for results, we pay for the experience. The password guys made good money for a long time.

As for my garbage disposal friend, this was his problem.

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A tiny rock had found its way into his disposal. I assumed this was the problem based on his description of the problem. While he was still explaining his loose bolt theory I simply reached into the disposal and fished around with my fingertips until I found the rock I’d assumed was there. If I was charging him for the repair I probably should have made it look a little harder.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children and one grandchild.

Follow him on
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or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

The Death Of Comedy

I took a wrong turn on my way home from work yesterday. It’s not a big deal. I live in a small town that is smack up against other small towns. I was driving through Lehi, UT and trying to find a back way to my house in Pleasant Grove.

I ended up turning down Memory Lane instead.

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(Photo Credit: irunoninsulin.com)

I found myself at the Lehi cemetery. I don’t regularly visit cemeteries and there are ones closer to my house. But, I have a friend buried in Lehi.

Clint McKell was larger than life. A former college football player, he was about 6’5″ and resembled a large teddy bear. Clint was a stand up comedian. But, like many comics he was a broken person.

It’s a strange irony that many comics are not what you would call naturally happy or upbeat people.

We laugh at our pain.

That’s what a friend told me at Clint’s funeral.

Clint’s demons were found in drugs. A typical story really. Football injury requires pain killers. The injury heals, but by then he’s already addicted. It cost him everything. He lost his job. He lost multiple jobs. He lost his wife. He, at one point lost my friendship.

See, being young and stupid and adding drugs to the mix makes for a terrible combination. Clint was my friend, and I don’t choose friends lightly. He made a mistake. It was a terrible betrayal of trust. And it shook me to my core.

To his credit, Clint realized his mistake. He reached out to me, asked my forgiveness and wanted to get together for lunch in a week to try to repair the damage and attempt to salvage our friendship.

Two days later he was dead.

He died before I could forgive him.

He passed away in the winter. There was snow on the ground although the day was bright. Comics deal with pain in what looks to the rest of world like a callous, hard hearted manner. They make jokes.

Clint was never a hack until his death?

What do you mean?

Well, overweight comic dies of a drug overdose? It’s been done a million times.

Someone brought a bottle of ginger and dropped it into his grave. His nickname was “The Big Ginger” for his bright red hair, a trait he got from his mother. His death was almost more than she could bear.

As I made the turn to head East around the cemetery towards Pleasant Grove, I thought about all of this and more. The cliches; don’t forget to tell them you love them, you never know when it’s your turn to go, forgive the past.

There is no witty, clever tie-in to computers or business in today’s post. No second story that I’ll attempt to weave into the first story to illustrate a shared point.

I did eventually manage to work through my grief and anger. It’s useless bearing a grudge against the dead after all. I hope he found peace in that eternal slumber.

Today’s post was simply because I took a wrong turn on my way home from work and found myself driving down Memory Lane.

Here is a clip of Clint performing comedy recorded just a couple weeks before he died.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children and one grandchild.

Follow him on
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or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

When Cops Interrupt Your Conference Call

Hey, Jared I need to be on a conference call tomorrow morning at 5:30. Will my visitor badge get me in at that time?

Sure, you’re badge is a universal badge. It will work just fine at 5:30 AM.

You’d think that would be simple, right? You didn’t detect anything ominous in that exchange did you? Neither did I.

I was visiting Richmond, VA for the opening of our new call center. As the IT project manager, I’d been working for months leading up to this day. We had one little issue to nail down. We had to send a license file daily to our client and we were still having issues with it (Not My First Rodeo.)

The file had to arrive by 5:00 AM Central Time. That was 6:00 AM Eastern Time. I set up a 5:30 meeting with my team members in Salt Lake City and India to guarantee we uploaded the file successfully. I was getting up at 4:30 to make my meeting, but the guys in Salt Lake were getting on the call at 3:30 AM. India was in the middle of the afternoon.

I arrived in plenty of time at our facility. Just like the local IT guy had said, the card reader turned a satisfying green when I scanned my card key. I pulled open the door and headed for the conference room where I was going to make the conference call from.

beep, beep, beep

That could not be a good sound. I looked at the display panel next to the door.

System Armed. You may now exit.

I knew what that was. Any possible confusion was removed 7 seconds later when the siren went off.

I had a class in high school called International Relations, or IR for short. One of the focuses for the semester was a trial of the Empress Dowager Cixi of China. The last of a long line of Chinese Emperors and Empresses.

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My friend Kevin and I were assigned as defense attorneys. There were a couple kids who were prosecuting attorneys. Others were British sea captains, local merchants, even a Chinese prostitute. (Didn’t seem radical at the time, but not sure our teacher Mr. Kerrihard could get away with that today.) And of course, a student played the Empress.

The purpose of the lessons that stretched over several weeks was to force us to learn about 19th Century China. It was a fascinating exercise. The purpose of the trial was to put the dynasty on trial for actions that led to the subjugation of China by the European powers.

And that was the key to the issue. Kevin and I understood that we were defending not just the last Empress, but the entire dynasty. Our opposition didn’t understand that.

The results weren’t even close. The main prosecutor focused on the Empress and her actions. She showed how she was a corrupt official who essentially sold out her country for the promise of peace. Had the trial hinged solely on the actions of the Empress we would have lost. . .badly. But, we showed how previous emperors had been strong leaders who worked to keep their people safe. Sure there were some scoundrels, but there were also many good leaders.

Kevin and I won easily.

What’s this have to do with me standing in the lobby of our building in Richmond, VA with the burglar alarm blaring in my ear?

Perspective.

I stared at the burglar alarm panel and tried to will myself to learn the access code. No inspiration was forthcoming. I made my way to my conference room, just off the main lobby (where the alarm was located.) Closing the thick wooden door cut the sound down to simply loud from painfully loud.

911, please state the nature of your emergency.

Ah. . . I just set off my company burglar alarm.

What’s the address?

Yeah, I’m not exactly sure of the address. I’m from out of town and I don’t come to this building a lot. I think it’s Parham Road. It might be in Richmond.

Okay, I see it now. We’ve dispatched an officer. He should be there shortly.

In the meantime, I still had a conference call to do. I dialed into the conference call bridge a little before 5:30. I was the first one on the bridge. Out in the lobby, the alarm suddenly went silent. That was one thing at least.

I opened the conference room door and stepped out to check. . .and immediately set off the alarm again. Motion activated. Behind me I could hear people beeping into conference call.

Hey guys, thanks for joining us. Where are we at with the file?

I just emailed a copy to all of you. Rodney, check it for the right file name.

Looks good. Go ahead and upload it to the client FTP site. I need to step away from the phone for a minute. Be right back.

The alarm had timed out again. I hit the MUTE button on the phone and headed out to the front door where I could see a policeman standing. The alarm, of course went off again as soon as I set foot out of the conference room.

Are you Mr. Bliss?

Yes. Here’s my ID. I’m from out of town and they forgot to tell me about the alarm.

Okay, I’ll clear this alarm, but by law I have to come out every time the alarm company calls us. If I have to come back it’s going to be considered negligence and there will be a fine. You should call your monitoring company.

Sure. Thanks.

I retreated back through the earsplitting alarm to the relative quite of my conference room.

Rodney? Rodney, are you there?

Yeah, I’m back. How’d the upload go?

The file successfully uploaded.

Great. I’ll inform the client and let you know if there’s an issue. Bye.

I hung up the phone and started writing an email letting our client know the file was on their site. As I was writing the phone rang.

Mr. Bliss? This is the 911 dispatcher. I see that you met with our officer?

Yeah, he was really nice. He suggested I call our alarm company. I unfortunately don’t have that number.

Well, we can give you the phone number that your alarm company called us from.

Sure.

Fortunately, I was able to convince the alarm company that I wasn’t breaking into the building. Apparently not a lot of thieves call the cops on themselves. I still didn’t have a code to turn off the alarm. And while it was silent again in the lobby, I hid in the conference room, waiting to see people walking past the frosted glass.

Here’s an email that I sent to Jared later that morning.

Jared,

My card worked perfectly this morning. Thank you.

Do you know what else works at 5:30 AM?

The burglar alarm.

Oh. . .and cops. The local cops are also working at 5:30 AM.

I used my one phone call to call my mother. Never called Mom from jail as a teenager. Didn’t want to miss the opportunity!

Actually, I’m in a conference room kind of hesitant to open any doors for fear of I’ll set off the sirens again.

Thanks for the heads up on the alarm. . .thanks a lot.

Perspective.

In my high school IR class, Kevin and I won because we understood that we needed to address more than just the current Empress. She might be the focus of the current discussion, but we needed to understand that to answer the current question, we had to look at what else was involved.

A perspective I wish my coworker had when I asked “Will my badge let me in at 5:30 AM?”

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children and one grandchild.

Follow him on
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LinkedIn (www.LinkedIn.com/in/rbliss)
or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

Do NOT Eat The Broccoli In Colombia

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Cali Colombia is a beautiful city. We were here in this jewel of a city to welcome three preteen girls to our family. The house that we had called home for the last three weeks was a beautiful grey marble and offered amazing authentic Colombian dishes for each meal. And we had never had so many different types of juice. We never had the same type twice.

The food was great. Long on beef and vegetables. Not much pasta. And then one night the nice Colombian lady who worked there served broccoli. I’m not a broccoli fan. I’ll eat it so the kids will eat it. My lovely wife on the other hand, loves broccoli. She dished a big helping for herself and started to dish a helping for each of our girls.

No. No.

They were quite insistent. She tried to convince the girls in her limited Spanish that broccoli was good. They were having none of it. They insisted that broccoli tasted really bad. No amount of talking would convince them to try it. Finally, my lovely wife decided the best way to convince the girls was simply to show them. She picked up a big spear and plopped it in her mouth.

And that’s when she knew why my girls didn’t want to eat the broccoli.

There are two important lessons that we learned from the broccoli. Well, actually my lovely wife learned it. . .I didn’t actually eat any of the broccoli.

First, things are not aways what they appear. This isn’t a revelation to anyone, I know.

I was working as the Executive Vice President for Agile Studios. We made custom software for a variety of clients. One day a man walked in and asked us to build a commerce website. It was a fairly simple site. You come to the site, select a product and pay with a credit card.

My boss wanted to take the job. After all, it’s what we did. After the guy left I told him I didn’t think it was a good idea.

Second, trust the locals.

Why didn’t you like the deal?

Too many red flags.

Like?

Servers in an undisclosed location in Russia. He rolls his IP addresses every few days. We aren’t allowed to access the servers directly.

Do you think he’s a spammer?

Yeah, he’s a spammer.

My boss agreed we didn’t want to build a website for a spammer. Some deals were simply not worth it. And he trusted my experience.

Vinegar.

The reason my girls didn’t like broccoli? Vinegar. See, the traditional Colombian method for cooking broccoli is to boil it in vinegar. Like mistaking wasabi for guacamole, Colombian broccoli, or more accurately the vinegar it’s saturated with explodes in your mouth.

My girls got a good laugh and my wife and I got a great lesson in trusting the judgement of little girls who couldn’t speak a word of English.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children and one grandchild.

Follow him on
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or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

I PAID For This Day

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Remember your lab is due on Friday, and I’m giving you a break and there’s no class on Thursday. Any questions?

. . .

Yes, Rodney.

Why is there no class on Thursday?

Well, I need to be out of town, so we are canceling.

Can’t you get a substitute?

Excuse me? Are you saying you WANT to attend class on Thursday?

Absolutely.

Everyone is excited to get the day off. Why do you think we should have class?

Because I PAID for that class day.

My classmates weren’t happy with me, and I didn’t convince the professor to get a substitute for his class. But, I think it illustrates an important point. Think about when you were in college, or if you are still in college, think about your classes. Who decides if you have class one day? Who is the one really in charge?

You might be tempted to say the professor. You’re classmates might agree. Mine certainly did. I’m sure the professor would agree. You’d all be wrong. The person who pays for a service is ultimately the one with the power. As a college student, you are paying. You, or your parents are paying a lot of money for you to be in that class.

After working hard to get into college. After paying a pile of money in tuition. After working hard to get into your choice of classes, why would you then let someone short-change you?

If you went to a movie and the theater decided to cut a 2 hour movie down to 1:45 you’d be screaming for the rest of your movie. If you went to a concert and 20 minutes before the end of the show they made you leave the concert hall, you’d be upset. If you were watching the World Cup and you missed 30 minutes. . .actually, you wouldn’t miss much, but a soccer fan would be upset. If you bought a book and twenty pages were missing out of the middle, you’d want your money back. If you order a 12 oz steak and they bring you a 9 oz, you’d feel cheated.

So, why when it comes to education do we consider it a treat if the professor announces he is going to shortchange his class?

We employee a lot of call agents at my work. These are people who applied to work for our company, dressed up in a tie to come to the interview. They interviewed with a supervisor. They took a drug test. Then, they waited anxiously for us to tell them they got the job.

And yet on a slow day; a day where we are getting fewer calls than expected, these people line up to volunteer for VTO: Voluntary Time Off. In other words, they worked to get a job and then asked to not work. They are hourly. It’s not like they get paid for VTO.

Roger is the Assistant Call Center Manager. He started as an on-phones agent. In his current role, Roger approves people for VTO. Every time he does, he shakes his head.

When I was an agent I NEVER took VTO. I used to work construction before getting my first job here. Now all I had to do was sit on the phone and talk to people? And they’d PAY me for it?

Yeah, that’s the type of attitude that led to Roger getting promoted to running a call center floor instead of being excited that his professor was cancelling class for the day.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children and one grandchild.

Follow him on
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LinkedIn (www.LinkedIn.com/in/rbliss)
or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

No, I Don’t Think It Was a Good Thing

Does that sound like the generators kicking on?

The lights flickered again.

Yes, I’m sure I can hear the generators.

And then the lights went totally out.

I’m in Virginia this week opening a new call center. We’ve been working on this project for months. I’ve been working on the project plan for this site since I started at this company four months ago. My coworkers had been working on it for many months before I was hired.

To say this was a critical launch would be an understatement. I have been obsessing about technical details for weeks. Would we get the license file to successfully process? Would our call copy servers record calls? Would our IEX data reports go out once we started taking calls?

One by one each piece fell into place. Our work was paying off. Each worry was resolved and as the day went on I felt better and better about the outcome.

See, we’ve had three launches and each time something went wrong. Not something that put the launch in jeopardy, but enough to cause me some anxious moments. I was determined that this launch wouldn’t have anything like that.

And then the lights went out. The Desktop Engineer immediately turned down a hallway away from the call floor.

I’m going to go check out the Data Center.

Okay, I’ll check the call floor!

And I headed down the long call floor past rows and rows of empty desks waiting for future agents, to where our group of brand new agents was gathered at the far end of the call floor.

Did any calls drop?

Nope. The phones and the computers didn’t miss a beat.

That’s a relief.

It’s great that this happened during the launch, don’t you think?

No, actually I didn’t think it was good that we had to test our emergency generators and our uninterruptible power supply (UPS) system during the most critical time of our very important launch.

I can’t blame my coworkers. While our call center windows are frosted over the thunder had been really impressive. And let’s face it, a power outage is an exciting event.

But, as an IT project manager, my goal is to make the launch as boring as possible from a technical standpoint. I don’t want any hiccups, anomalies, gremlins, or ghosts in the machine.

Sure we have processes and programs in place to handle contingencies just like this power outage we had, but that doesn’t mean I want to use them.

It’s like saying, ‘We went camping and used every single item in our first aid kit. Wasn’t that great?

No. No it’s not.

But, I will say that having the generators kick on was certainly better than the alternative.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children and one grandchild.

Follow him on
Twitter (@rodneymbliss)
Facebook (www.facebook.com/rbliss)
LinkedIn (www.LinkedIn.com/in/rbliss)
or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

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