Friday, October 12, 2018

Winning Support through Culinary Creativity: Massimo Bottura

Lately, I have enjoyed watching a show called "Chef's Table", which is a series that spotlights chefs from around the world who are doing radical things with -- and through -- their food.  The stories are fascinating, and they describe the journey each chef took from humble beginnings to the lofty peaks of the culinary world.  But, interestingly, most of the chefs spotlighted are not just cooking and serving great food.  Instead, they are each challenging themselves and others in ways that go beyond the kitchen.  And, curiously, many of them are changing the world.

As I have watched these chefs and heard their stories, I was struck by the thought that many of them are providing Winning Support in ways that are not all that obvious.  Now, it might seem that the world of fine dining is far removed from your job, but Winning Support is instantly recognizable, no matter your chosen field.

I'd like to look at several of these chefs who are great examples of providing Winning Support through culinary creativity.  Each of the chefs has changed -- or is in the process of changing -- the world in their own way, using their own gifts and talents.  And, by studying what those chefs are doing, we can perhaps learn lessons that can be applied in our own fields.

In this post, I will highlight how Massimo Bottura provided Winning Support in a time of crisis.

Massimo Bottura is a chef in Modena, Italy, whose restaurant Osteria Francescana has been ranked as the one of the best restaurants in the world, taking the top spot several times in the past few years.  He is a chef who is provocative with his cooking, and is in the process of completely redefining the concept of Italian cuisine.  He is upending centuries of traditions in Italian cooking, daring even to challenge the very recipes that have been passed down from grandmas through the generations.  He has taken it upon himself to open the world to a new sort of Italian kitchen, and, if the awards that Osteria Francescana has received over the past few years are any indication, he is succeeding.

But, it was not easy to reach that point.  In Italy, if you ask anyone who has the best food, the answer is usually, "Grandma".  Those treasured recipes that had been handed down over the years have resulted in a culture that is very resistant to change, especially when it comes to Grandma's cooking.  Since Massimo dared to twiddle the recipes, he had opened himself up to ridicule from diners, critics, and restaurant reviewers.  For years, his restaurant struggled; the tables were empty and repeat clientele almost nonexistent.  He was discouraged and finally decided to give it up, but his wife told him, "Don't surrender a battle that will just continue within you."  She encouraged him to give it just a little more time, and, eventually, one of the most influential food critics in Italy came in to eat because he was famished from being tied up in a traffic jam.  That critic's review opened the eyes of the Italian culinary establishment, and Massimo's reputation started rising.

You've all heard the cliché of "thinking outside the box".  Massimo takes that concept even further.  Through perseverance and a strong belief in his mission -- and having a partner who helped push him to be true to his inner calling -- Massimo was able to break through and do something so different, that he has pretty much blown up the box as far as Italian cooking is concerned.  We can learn a lot just by observing his perseverance and dedication to his craft, and those traits are a good foundation on which to build our own brand of Winning Support.  But, something happened in 2012 that shows the true example of someone who provided Winning Support in a most unusual way.

In May, 2012, two earthquakes struck the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy -- which includes Massimo's hometown of Modena -- causing widespread damage and taking the lives of 27 people.  Amongst the damages were over 300,000 wheels of Grana Padano and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, with an estimated value of (E)200 million.  When the racks containing the heavy wheels fell, the cheese was cracked on the inside, which would have stopped the aging process, causing the cheese to go bad.  The dairy farmers and cheese makers were on the brink of ruin unless something happened, and fast.

Wanting to do something to help save the local cheese industry, Massimo created a twist on a traditional Italian pasta dish that would spread awareness of the problem and create a worldwide demand for the wheels of cheese that needed to be sold and used immediately.  He took a standard Italian dish of pasta with pecorino cheese and pepper and changed the ingredients to include risotto and parmigiano cheese.  The risotto was made from rice from the rice producers in the region, who had also been affected by the earthquakes.

The recipe was developed and shared through social media, with the goal of having as many restaurants, chefs, and even home cooks around the world serve the dish on the same night -- October 27, 2012 -- as a fundraiser for the region.  The fundraiser created not only a sense of urgency, but the recipe created a worldwide demand for parmigiano cheese.  As a result, the entire supply of cheese wheels were sold, and not a single cheese maker ceased operations.

When the earthquake struck, Massimo was in the perfect spot to be able to help.  He physically located in the same region, and was very familiar with the product itself.  More importantly, perhaps, is that he was mentally in the perfect spot: he had already spent years taking Grandma's recipes and changing them.  He had persevered through the years of ridicule to reach a point where his new Italian cuisine was not only accepted locally, but was being sought-after around the world!

By creating a really good recipe that created the demand for the cheese and then getting the power of social media behind it, Massimo helped his town, his region, and his country with his Winning Support.

So, what are you doing in your field to prepare yourself for being in the right place to provide Winning Support when called upon?  Are you breaking through the barriers placed in your way by the Establishment?  Are you being true to your inner calling?  We might not all be called upon to change a time-honored recipe in a time of crisis, but, each one of us has a gift, a knack, a skill that can be used to provide Winning Support at just the right time.  Hone that skill; sharpen your tools; keep yourself mentally keen so that when a crisis befalls your clients, you will be able to provide Winning Support when the time comes.

And just to let you know, I am practicing what I preach.

Recently, I was laid off from my job, and have some time on my hands.  I am no longer in a position to actively provide support to paying clients, so I am using this opportunity to work on my skills and practice my craft by watching programming tutorials and learning new ways to develop and deliver software solutions.  I want to hone my skills, sharpen my tools, and keep mentally keen so that I'll be ready to provide Winning Support when the time comes.

We can do this together.  Let's start Winning Support.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

What's Your Magic?

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a seminar where Jon Cook, CEO of VML — a very successful advertising agency — was being interviewed. During the interview, he mentioned something from his internship at Disney World that showed how a simple concept can turn ordinary support efforts into Winning Support.

At Disney properties, Cast Members are empowered to sprinkle "Pixie Dust" whenever they can. If you recall from watching "Peter Pan", Tinkerbell sprinkles Pixie Dust on Wendy, John, and Michael to help them fly. In the tangible world of Disney properties, Pixie Dust takes the form of random acts of extra-special customer care. Disney Guests already have a sky-high expectation about how much fun they are going to have; the addition of Pixie Dust allows Disney Cast Members to meet — and then exceed — those baseline expectations, high as they may already be. In essence, it becomes a way to treat an ordinary interaction with a guest into one that borders on the magical.

In the interview, Jon provided one specific example of a Pixie Dust moment. He mentioned that one of the most common questions he was asked was, "What time does the three o'clock parade start?"

From his viewpoint, this was the perfect time to sprinkle Pixie Dust.

Let's unwrap this simple little exchange and examine it from the viewpoint of the guest and from that of the Cast Member.

It is a typically hot Florida day, and the air is stiflingly muggy, with very little in the way of a breeze. A harried mom and dad are struggling to keep up with their little girls who are dressed as their favorite Princesses. The girls' faces are flushed from the heat, and Mom and Dad are sweating, both of them with a look of pure frustration as they take in the crowd of people and the long lines. You can see them calculating how much it is costing them to stand in yet another line.

They are hoping that waiting for the parade to start will give them a little bit of relief. In exasperation, Dad turns to the nearest Cast Member and asks what time the three o'clock parade starts.

For the Cast Member, simply answering "Uh ... the three o'clock parade passes by here at 3:15" would have answered the question that was asked. But, it also presents an opportunity to magically transform the entire experience from one of frustration to one of excitement and joy.

Let's watch the magic of the Pixie Dust.

In front of the Cast Member are a pair of hot, tired, and bedraggled parents holding on to a squirming Snow White and Elsa, each of whom wants to go in separate directions. All of them need a cool drink and a lot of shade.

The Cast Member knows that the three o'clock parade starts at 3:00 PM in Frontierland, but won't get near this particular spot until 15 minutes after that. The Cast Member sees the hot, flushed faces, and then bends down to the level of the little girls: "I am so glad you are here today. Do you want to see Olaf and Snow White up close?"

The little girls stand transfixed, eyes wide in anticipation, and nod.

The Cast Member says, "I thought so. Well, let me show you where they are going to be."

He leads them to a cool, shaded area on the other side of the street, knowing that Olaf would be walking on right there, and that Snow White would be just a few floats behind. The Cast Member turns to Mom and Dad and suggests they get to this spot 30 minutes early, and that Mom could hold the spot while Dad goes over there to get some cold drinks.

Note that what the Cast Member said didn't take that much effort. In fact, the knowledge that the Cast Member needed to have wasn't much beyond simply showing up at his or her post and being observant. Instead, the magic was in reading the situation and interpreting it in a way that would provide maximum benefit to the guests. You could even say the majority of what the Cast Member addressed were the questions that were not asked.

All of us, no matter where we work or what we do, have some form of magic that can turn ordinary support into Winning Support. Perhaps you have found a different vendor for your client which will help them save a significant amount of money. Or, you might have developed an application that will help reduce the cost and burden on your client's system administration personnel, making their lives a little bit easier.

I know of one support engineer whose personal magic is that he tries to look ahead for his client, to find out the things they need to know, and to keep them informed before they are aware they have a need. A few months ago, when the WannaCry malware was spreading across the world, he told me he triple-checked that the malware vector had been blocked on the client's servers a month before and that there was no indication of any problems with the servers. Then, he sent his client's administrative team an email telling them their servers were safe. The members of the administrative team had heard about the spreading malware on the news before they got into the office, and when they sat down to send him an email asking if everything was OK, they were pleasantly surprised to see the assurance was already in their Inboxes.

It was a small effort on my friend's part, but it was a huge relief for his client because it was one less thing they had worry about. In short, they thought it was magic.

Which brings me back to Jon Cook.

My first interaction with him was on a hot Sunday afternoon at a ballpark. I was wearing dark shades and a soaked, pirate-style bandanna over my head to keep off the sun. I introduced myself to him as we were both helping ourselves to hotdogs and hamburgers, and we shook hands over the ketchup and mustard.

Even though I only wear a bandanna and shades when I am out in the sun, every time I have seen him since then, he has greeted me by name! It doesn't matter where we run into each other, he always greets me with a smile and a, "Hey, Bob ... how's it going?"

It turns out that some of Jon's magic is remembering peoples' names and faces, even years down the road.

I'm not sure how it makes others feel, but for me, Jon's magic inspires me to push just a little bit harder to spread my own magic with my clients.

Take time to reflect on the simple things you can do to make your support experiences magical. Take an honest look at the last few interactions you have had with your clients. Is there something you could have done just a tiny bit differently that would have transformed the experience? Can you tweak your style, your delivery, your processes just a little to make your clients' lives better?

You might be surprised about the great rewards that come from expending just a small amount of effort in your day-to-day routine. For starters, you'll be on the way to Winning Support!

Monday, June 6, 2016

Refuse to Accept the Status Quo

Sorry to have been away for so long.  This thing called "Life" kept getting in the way, and I needed to stop and re-assess what was going on.  By writing this post, I am refusing to accept the status quo from the past year.

I read a fascinating article today about something truly strange that has been observed and then studied in depth.  Believe it or not, but your choice of browsers can say a lot about your personality, your work habits, your performance, and overall ability to cope with the stresses of your job.  I was skeptical at first, but as I read the article and watched the TED talk that was behind the article, I became a believer.  The more I read, the more I realized there was a definite tie-in with providing Winning Support.

First, the attributions and links.  The TED speaker is Wharton psychology professor, Adam Grant, who has written a book entitled, "Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World".  The article that helped to break through the inertia of the past year is, "Adam Grant: What Your Web Browser Says About You".  The TED talk in which Grant expounds on his findings is "The Surprising Habits of Original Thinkers".  I encourage you to read the article and even watch the TED talk.  The article will take you about 5 minutes to read, and the TED talk is about 15 minutes.

In a series of studies, an economist named Michael Housman was involved with a project to determine why some customer service representatives stayed in their jobs longer than others.  His team studied the data from more than 30,000 employees who handled calls for banks, airlines, and cell-phone companies.  His team's initial dive into the data sought to reveal a correlation between a history of job-hopping and commitment, but the data didn't support the original hypothesis.

Looking for other clues, he saw that the data his team had available included the internet browser that employees had used when applying for their jobs.  He assumed that the browser one uses was just an individual preference, and didn't expect to see any correlation.  What he found astounded him.  Those who had used Firefox or Chrome to browse the web remained in their jobs 15 per cent longer than those who used Internet Explorer or Safari.

He then ran the same analysis for absences from work and found that Firefox and Chrome users were 19 per cent less likely to miss work than those who used Internet Explorer and Safari.  (I know, I know ... I would be prone to miss work, too, if I had to use IE on a daily basis, but that wasn't the root cause.)

His team then looked at performance, and was able to analyze nearly three million data points on sales, customer satisfaction, and average call length.  You guessed it: the Firefox and Chrome users outperformed those who used IE and Safari.  Their call times were shorter, they had higher sales, and their customers were more satisfied with the service received.

The more the team studied, the more convinced they were that there was definitely a positive correlation between the browser a person uses and his or her job performance and job satisfaction, and it wasn't due to certain users having more technical skills than others.  What they discovered was that the deciding factor was how the user had acquired the browser.  Internet Explorer and Safari are the default browsers for Windows and Mac OS.  Therefore, in general, the Firefox and Chrome users had had to make a conscious decision to load those browsers and to use them.

You don't have to be especially tech-savvy to download a different browser.  However, you have to want to.  Instead of accepting the default — in this case, a browser — you have to refuse to accept the status quo.  You have to be willing to take the initiative.

And this is where it ties in to providing Winning Support.

When you take the initiative in your work, your customers (both internal and external) will benefit.  When you say, "There just has to be a better way ...", you will start to explore new options, new ideas.  When you refuse to accept "That's the way we've always done it" as a valid reason, you'll begin to look for ways to improve your life, your work environment, and even your browser.

When I look back over my career and review the programs I have written and the web sites I have helped design and support, I can see that the bright spots all have something in common: I didn't like what was happening or the way the software worked, so I did what I could to improve it.  In some cases, that was in redesigning a subsystem to be simpler, more elegant.  In some cases, it involved writing a program or utility, and then making it available for others to use.  I've done it in the past, before I was involved in day-to-day support, and I've done it in my current position, trying to make a complex content management system implementation easier to use by non-technical users, most for whom English is a second or third language.

When I get brutally honest with myself, I think I have remained in software development and support precisely because I often find myself looking for better ways to do things.  I cannot build things like models and bookshelves with my hands.  (Well, I can, but they don't last long.)  However, I can build useful software applications and simplify complex tasks through the proper application of a keyboard and a compiler.

Now, please don't misinterpret the concept that Adam Grant and Michael Housman discovered.  Don't think that just by downloading Firefox and Chrome you are going to magically become the Greatest Support Superhero That Has Ever Lived!  It isn't the downloading in itself ... it's the willingness to search for better/faster/easier ways to do things and then want to improve the lives of others by sharing the fruits of your explorations with them.

So, in what ways have you been accepting the status quo in your job, in your relationships, in your life?  In what ways have you been "happy" with the default settings?

If you want to start improving your game, if you want to boost the amount of Winning Support you provide, start by looking at the defaults you have accepted and change what you can.  Look for ways to make incremental improvements.  Don't just accept the status quo; instead, take charge of your life, your environment, your job.

I know you can do it.

For many of you, all that is needed is the decision to start and the impetus to make that change.  I applaud you and encourage you to do just that.  Small changes, baby steps, tiny improvements.  The big stuff can come later.

For others, though, you need to know where to start.  Let me suggest you start with one of these links:

It is a small change in your life, but one that may open many doors for you in the future.

Let's do this.  Let's start Winning Support.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Learning the Language

Dia daoibh, a chairde.  Conas atá tú?

For the last nine months or so, I have been learning Irish.  My mind is being stretched in so many ways, just trying to wrap my head around the orthography, pronunciation rules, and grammar.  One of the greatest joys I have experienced recently was being able to read and understand a book that was written for parents to read to their children.  That's right, folks: in Irish, I've reached the verbal equivalence of a six-year old!

Learning a new language requires changing your worldview, biases, and priorities.  What works for you in your native tongue may have to be changed before you can understand — or be understood in — another language.  For example, English has a Subject-Verb-Object order: The cat drinks milk.  On the other hand, Irish has a Verb-Subject-Object order: Ólann an cat bainne (drinks - the cat - milk).

The change in sentence order and structure requires a fundamental shift in the way you think, speak, and read.  It is similar to using a postfix notation calculator like those from Hewlett-Packard: Push the Verb onto the stack, read along to get to the end of the Subject clause and push it onto the stack, read along to get to the end of the Object clause and push it onto the stack, then pop off the whole phrase.

Another major difference between languages is in the way prepositions are used.  Simple little words like "In", "Through", "Over", "Under", "With", "About", "For", and "To" make up a huge portion of any language, and learning the new words is fundamental for effective communication.  But, it isn't just about learning the new words; you have to learn the correct usage for each preposition.

Consider an English sentence like "We listen to the radio".  In Irish, though, the sentence becomes "We listen with the radio".  Even though it may not make sense to your mind, you have to change your way of thinking, your verbal processing, to speak the language properly.

It is this change in mindset that makes learning a different language so important.  You can read all you want about a country and its people, but until you try to learn its language, you won't be able to touch its soul. In fact, I believe learning a new language is one of the highest forms of respect you can pay to another culture.  You have to be willing to accept that their way and their culture trumps your background.

Can you picture what would happen if I — with my vast experience of nine whole months and six-year old equivalency — decided that the Irish were wrong about their prepositions and that thousands of years of spoken culture was incorrect?  Imagine the laughter and derision that would accompany such arrogance!

But yet, those of us who provide technology services and support are often guilty of the same type of behavior with our clients.

I was on a conference call the other day with one of my support clients. My client is a large, multinational corporation, and client representatives from France, Italy, and the United States were on the call.  Also on the call was a third party who had been brought in to build a catalog of my client's products.

(Sorry to go into the weeds a bit, but on this client's website, they have their product lines split into a hierarchy of "Product Lines" and "Segments".  A "Product Line" contains multiple "Segments".  An example of a Product Line might be "Ceramic Coffee Mugs", and it might have four Segments: "#1601 - 16 Ounce, White", "#1602 - 16 Ounce, Black", "#2401 - 24 Ounce, White", and "#2402 - 24 Ounce, Black".  You get the idea.)

During the call, the representative from the outside vendor briefly mentioned "Product Lines", and then went into a lot of detail about "Segments" and "Types", and the format of the data for each.

What followed was a long period of silence as people in different countries tried to parse the English words into their own languages, and from there, tried to correlate the words with their own corporate culture.  Then, the questions started flying back and forth.

For nearly 15 minutes, the actual business of the meeting was put on hold as the participants tried to understand what the vendor's representative was trying to convey.  He kept insisting that the "Types" were simply "Segments without size or color".

Eventually, it became obvious that what he was calling a "Type" was actually what the client calls a "Product Line".  Once the client corrected the vendor — and he accepted the client's terminology — the meeting got back on track.

As I left the conference call, I was struck by how similar supporting a client — and particularly taking on a new client — is to learning a new language.

Providing Winning Support means that we have to be willing to learn our client's corporate culture, corporate paradigms, and corporate language.  We have to accept that our corporate culture, worldview, mindsets, and language may need to be modified when supporting that client. 

Developing a deep and lasting relationship with a client should be a primary goal for anyone in a support role.  We've all heard that it costs "ten times more to find a new client than it does to keep an existing one".

I don't know if it is really a 10:1 ratio, but I do know that keeping an existing client happy generally means your company gets to keep that client.  And one of the best ways of keeping a client happy is to provide Winning Support.

To deliver Winning Support consistently, you have to respect your client's unique culture, and to do that, you have to learn the language.  The great thing is that many of you already have the tools to do this, for the secret to learning your client's language is that you have to LISTEN!

It's actually pretty simple.  I know you can do it.  Let's get out there and start Winning Support!

Feicfidh mé ar ball thú!

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Effective Pairing

Several months ago, one of our development teams was trying to bring a project in for a landing and a call went out for developers to come in and do some “pair programming”. I’m sure we’ve all been at the end of a project that is running hot, had numerous change requests, and been subject to the mounting pressure to deliver the desired functionality by the promised date. I’ve been there, and wanting to build up some good karma, volunteered for a few sessions to help where I could.

It was a great experience, and after the project was over, several of us got together to exchange thoughts about effective pairing. Seven important elements for effective pairing came out of those discussions. Interestingly enough, these elements are also key to providing Winning Support.

Learning all you can from your partner establishes the framework for effective pairing. Your partner knows the code, the project history, and the overall picture, so assume the role of a student. Let your partner teach you and explain what is happening; your job is to listen attentively. More than likely, your partner already has the right information to solve the issue, but the problem is that he or she may have too much information. Allowing your partner to be the teacher will help to crystallize his or her thoughts, which will then narrow your partner’s focus to what is really important.

Intelligent queries can help your partner sift through the pile of information. As your partner shares with you, listen carefully. Don’t ask general questions such as, “What’s that?” Instead, ask direct, specific questions:

  • “Why are you forcing the string to lowercase every time through the loop? Wouldn’t it be faster to force it to lowercase once before the loop?”
  • “You keep saying that we don’t need to look at this code. Why is that?”
Supporting your partner can take many forms. Offer to fetch a cup of coffee, a Mountain Dew, a cold cup of water, or a snack. Maybe he or she needs a break; if so, the two of you can take a quick walk around the building. While you are walking, let your partner talk to clear the cobwebs.  This isn’t just an idle waste of time; your partner’s subconscious will continue working on the problem at hand, and you’ll both return refreshed and able to take a fresh look at the problem.

Don’t overlook the benefit of just being there with your partner. At the tail-end of a project that is under schedule, resource, and budgetary pressures, nothing is more demoralizing than working on a critical issue alone. Just having someone there who is willing to give of themselves to help you fight through the issues will keep the dark and depressing thoughts at bay.

Tracking your partner’s moves through the code and through manual test cases takes keen observation skills. If your partner is exercising a particular test case, take notes. Keep track of the screens and the data entered to help ensure the test is repeatable.

Pay attention to how your partner is entering the data. If she types it in one time, but selects it from a list or copies it from a file another time, it’s worth a question. Usually, it won’t matter, but the test may not be exercising the same pathways in both cases.

In other situations, you may want to track process durations. Just noticing that an activity took one second during one test but 15 seconds during a subsequent test might help your partner uncover a potential problem.

Serve your partner by taking care of the periphery. Track the things that your partner isn’t focusing on, but bring them to attention if you see something that doesn’t fit with the patterns your partner has established.

Engaging your mind with the task at hand takes discipline. You are there to engage with your partner; therefore, your mind needs to be on your partner’s issues and not your own.

You are there to help your partner, not be a hindrance. You need to be actively involved in helping your partner concentrate on getting the work done. Being deep in the throes of a pair programming situation is probably not the best time to bring up that long story about that time you were working on a problem that is only tangentially related to your partner’s situation.

If you find your mind wandering and disengaging, you may need to return to the Inquire and Track aspects of a pairing exercise.

Nurturing your partner takes grace and diplomacy. To nurture someone means you are caring for and encouraging his or her development and growth. In most pairing exercises, you are there to Learn, Inquire, Support, Track, and Engage, but there will be times when your experience needs to gently and gracefully come to the fore.

Knowing when to nurture your partner and on what subjects requires diplomacy.  You have to know what is important enough to be a teaching moment, and what can slide, especially if the pairing exercise is being performed under tight schedules and project pressures. Under those situations, making a big deal out of your partner’s coding style is probably not going to be well-received. However, if your partner is using the wrong design pattern or a resource-expensive algorithm, then that may be the time to gently and gracefully offer wisdom.

During a recent pairing exercise, I observed a junior developer whose partner was a very senior, respected leader. The senior leader was trying to lead the developer down the right path, but it was clear the young developer was out of his depth. Although the senior leader was frustrated and wanted to just grab the keyboard, he stopped and took the time to explain not only what was wrong with the existing approach, but why it would be a problem down the road.

Instead of just pointing out the problem and saying, “Fix it!”, the senior leader showed the developer the rationale behind the better approach, and then gave detailed instructions on how to implement the changes. This is one reason why this senior executive is so well-respected in our company and in the industry: he knows when someone needs a nurturing mentor.

So far, we have six important tasks for effective pairing:

  • Learn;
  • Inquire;
  • Support;
  • Track;
  • Engage; and,
  • Nurture.

Some of you have already seen the seventh — and probably the most important — task in any pairing exercise, and that is to LISTEN.

  • When you listen to your partner, you will be able to learn what you can about the problems he or she is facing.
  • When you listen to your partner, your inquiries will be direct and pointed, and will help your partner focus on what is truly important.
  • When you listen to your partner’s frustrated sighs and the heavy pounding on the keyboard, you will know it is time to support your partner with a cold soda, a snack, and a mental break.
  • When you listen to your partner, you can be better at tracking the pathways through the code and through the test scenarios.
  • When you listen to your partner, your mind will be engaged, and will not be wandering. If your mind is wandering, then you cannot be the effective resource your partner needs.
  • When you listen to your partner, you will be able to know when to nurture your partner’s mind and craft.
During one exercise this past summer, I was paired with a very sharp and talented front-end web developer. I am pretty sure he has forgotten more about Javascript and its numerous frameworks than I will ever hope to learn. To be honest, I was a little intimidated by him, and wondered why he would need a partner.

I asked him, “How can I best support you in this effort?”

He replied with, “Just listen to me mutter.”

Throughout the evening, he gave his internal monologue a voice and I listened. Together, we discovered a problem with one of the data-retrieval web services. It was a long and arduous evening at the end of an already-long day, but solving that particular problem helped to make the entire project a success.

When you stop to think about it, listening to someone mutter might just be the essence of providing Winning Support. We always respond when our clients are yelling, because we tend to jump at the loudest voices. But, sometimes the small, quiet mutterings of our clients can indicate a bigger problem, and learning to hear those soft voices can help to identify problems you don't know you have. When one client happens to mention some seemingly inconsequential thing, and then, another client raises the same issue a day later, it may indicate a deeper problem that needs to be addressed, and quickly.

We need to tune our ears to listen to those mutterings, to learn from them, to inquire intelligently about the issues being raised, to support those who are voicing concerns, to track what is happening, to engage our minds fully with those who are muttering, and to nurture those who need guidance.

Whether you are in a pair-programming exercise or you are supporting a large number of users, the key to providing Winning Support to your partner — and to your clients — is to LISTEN.

We can do this.

Let’s start Winning Support.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Are we Having Fun Yet?

Lately, I’ve been reading Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal. This book is an exploration of the role games play in our lives, how they make us better, and how games might help us improve the world. She has a powerful thesis, and some of the things she says resonates deeply.

In the opening chapters of her book, she illustrates how games can provide more meaningful work, and then follows it up with a chapter called “Fun Failure and Better Odds of Success”.

In that chapter, McGonigal lays out the position that games offer us overwhelming opportunities to fail repeatedly, but in a fun way. Whether it is avoiding barrels tossed by a gorilla, shooting at alien spaceships, or killing orcs and goblins, we typically only succeed after failing multiple times. It is obviously fun to fail at these games, because most of us don’t walk away from the game after we have failed once or twice. Instead, we start the level over and try again. It is this fun failure that gives us an “urgent optimism” that we are almost ready to conquer the level.

Be honest: how many late nights have you put in on Halo, Call of Duty, WoW, Tetris, or Candy Crush Saga saying, “Just one more level!”?

Fun failure, indeed.

But while the concept of “fun failure” is fine in a game, it certainly doesn’t reflect reality for those of us in the Support trenches. Except for the failure part, because sometimes it seems like we’ve got failure down pat. This is especially true when we have an intractable issue that defies logic, or when an issue keeps cropping up in the field and we can’t duplicate it in our debugging environments.

That’s because real life is difficult, reality is tough.

Right now, I’m working on an issue that is a dark shade of ugly. It is like one of those old maps that shows the known world and seas, and then near the edge of the map is a coastline followed by the legend, “Here there be dragons.”

This code that I’m trying to fix is miles inland from that warning. I’m so far into the dragon-scape that I can’t even tell you in which direction the coastline lies.

It is a whole lot of failure and even less fun. I’ve tried to refactor this code at least twice, and failed to make headway. Here there be dragons, and the dragons be winning. I have to admit that being unable to slay this dragon made me pretty demoralized.

But then I read this nugget from McGonigal:
Learning to stay urgently optimistic in the face of failure is an important emotional strength that we can learn in games and apply in our real lives. When we’re energized by failure, we develop emotional stamina. And emotional stamina makes it possible for us to hang in longer, to do much harder work, and to tackle more complex challenges. We need this kind of optimism in order to thrive as human beings.1
Getting energized by failure is a difficult concept to grasp, and as I reflected on how I might get energized by my current dragon-battle, I wondered what would happen if I adopted McGonigal at face value. That is, if games are fun and teach us how to have fun while failing, then what would happen if I turned my support efforts into a game? Instead of being demoralized by a seemingly invincible dragon, what if I was just facing a super-difficult Boss Level?

Just the simple change in my attitude has already given me hope. I know I can beat this level; it’s just a matter of time. I’ve taken a fresh look at the battlefield, reconnoitering the dragon’s landscape with a more critical eye. I’ve started mapping the dungeon, listing all the intertwined business rules that are driving the complexity of the code I have to fix.

Rather than driving me back and beating me down, my previous attempts — and failures — have become an integral weapon in my arsenal. I know what doesn’t work, and more importantly, I know where the dragon is likely to be lurking.

McGonigal is certainly right when she says that urgent optimism in the face of failure can be energizing.

A week ago, I was responsible for supporting 60 or so content editors in a content management system containing tens of thousands of content items, fixing bugs and adding features to a burgeoning legacy system with business rules that get more complex with every passing day.

But this past week? This past week I was playing an MMORPG with 60 or so other players. Within the game’s landscape there are tens of thousands creatures, mostly benign, but each of those creatures has the ability to become a problem overnight. Every passing day, new challenges arise as the game’s owners — my client —toss new business rules into the mix.

Last Friday was a pretty good day in my new game and I was able to complete two major quests. The first was “The Case of the Untranslated Zombie Documents”, and the second quest was “Why Does this Functionality Break in Internet Explorer 10?”.

The root cause in the second quest turned out to be caused by the change to the User Agent string reported by Internet Explorer. It turns out that the CMS we use is looking for “MSIE” in the navigator.userAgent string. However, with IE 10 and later, the User Agent string no longer contains “MSIE”; instead, it reports “Trident” (among other strings).

In that particular quest, I found the reason why the functionality broke, but I don’t have a fix for it yet. But, now that I know the root cause, fixing it is just a matter of time before I finish the quest and can move on to new challenges. No matter what happens, I can’t wait to get back to my game tomorrow.

I’m having fun at my job once again. Are you?

What support battles are you facing? Can you change your thinking and make it a game?

Support and Maintenance can seem like an epic battle, but it is a battle we can win.

Let’s start Winning Support!

1 Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken (New York: The Penguin Press, 2011), 69.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Putting the Most Important Things First

Twenty years ago today, on May 9, 1994, I had one of my greatest personal work-related triumphs.  It was a Monday, the day after Mother's Day.

For the past six months I had been leading a development team creating a completely new version of our company's software.  This particular application was my baby; I had designed it and had convinced the company that it was best way to handle a growing customer base and getting our clients off the old, buggy, single line-of-business software.

Not only had I designed it, but the company had even let me name this new product.  I was intimately familiar with all of its files, all of the code.  I had a great team working with me, and we clicked like a well-oiled machine.

On that day, we had installed the software at a major client's headquarters, as a Beta Test site.  We spent the day hand-holding the users, going from desk to desk, answering questions and giving pointers.  Sure, we had a few glitches, not the least of which was the discovery that the memory manager that I had designed was not up to the rigors of the abuse the clients were giving it.

But, all in all, it was a banner day, a day which I count among one of my greatest career achievements.

Around 7:30 that evening, we were exhausted.  The team was gathered in the server room, analyzing dumps and traces, trying to figure out how we were going to replace the memory manager.  We were laying out the schedule for the next day and handing out debugging, code-fixing, and hand-holding assignments.

Suddenly, the group leader's pager went off.  He looked at the number, expecting it to be a client, and he said, "BobR, I think your wife is trying to get in touch with you."  This was before cell phones were commonplace, and I wasn't at my desk, so she had paged my boss.

I called her and got the news I was expecting to hear.

Twenty years ago today, on May 9, 1994, my Dad ran his last race, fought his last fight, and drew his last breath.  He had finally lost a very short battle with a fast-spreading cancer.

For the previous six or so weeks, he had been in the hospital in Los Angeles, his life ebbing away.  I had had to make the painful decision not to fly out there from Kansas City until the end, knowing that when I had seen him just nine weeks earlier, it was going to be for the last time.

At that moment, the problems with the memory manager were flushed from my mind.  My boss told the team that we were done for the night, and we headed home.  The problems with the software would have to wait.

It is difficult to provide Winning Support when you are faced with a personal tragedy.  It is difficult to serve others when our own lives are in turmoil.

I learned a couple of important lessons that day.

First and foremost, your family comes first.  Period.

Yes, I truly believe that we are to serve our clients to our utmost, but we also have to consider our family as our most important client.

If your clients are more important to you than your family, I would suggest that you need to take a long, hard, serious look at your life.  Clients are important, jobs are vital, and work needs to go on, but clients and jobs will not be around forever.  Your family, on the other hand, should be your refuge, your place of respite, your primary responsibility.  Cherish those around you.

If you have a husband, wife, partner, brother, sister, son, daughter, father, mother, or any other close loved one, then put down the mouse, step back from the keyboard, and give them a call.  Better yet, go see them and give them a hug.

The second thing I learned is how important it is to have a good team around you.  Over the next day, I had to develop a work plan for the team, reassign all my work, bring a team member up to speed on the memory manager, get ready to fly across the country, design a headstone, and prepare a eulogy.  I had an awesome team and they all stepped in and supported me in my time of grief.  And the work got done without me.

If you are a one-person shop — if you are all alone in your position — do yourself a favor and find a friend.  Buddy up.  Cross train someone.  Do some pair programming.  Find someone who can help shoulder the burden when you need help.

Providing Winning Support is an endurance race, not a sprint.  Take care of yourself, take care of your family, and then take care of your clients.

You cannot serve others well — you cannot provide the type of Winning Support of which I know you are capable — if you aren't putting the most important things first.

Others stepped up to help me when I needed it, and I want to pay back that favor.

If you need some help, I'm here for you and will help in any way I can.  Feel free to leave comments below.  I would love to hear from you.  How may I serve you?

Let's start Winning Support.