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Where To Begin? December 18, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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As some of you may have noticed, I like to extract lessons from the day-to-day incidents that surround us.  If I’m able to extract some little nugget from an experience, I count it as a worthwhile event.  Imagine my delight to uncover five lessons in a short, two minute encounter earlier this week.

I was in line at a local craft shop. The fellow in front of me was part of a larger group of dads and their kids, making crafts as Christmas gifts.  Apparently, they all paid on arrival, but this dad had discovered he had a 50% off coupon in his wallet.  He was asking for a refund of half of his fee.  And thus the lessons in poor service began.

  1. Develop policies that punish your customer. The salesperson immediately responded with “We do not give refunds.”  The customer was taken aback but undeterred.  He asked again, pointing out that he had just paid a few moments before. Apparently, the policy does not address timing, so again, the request was refused.  When the customer asked again, we moved to lesson two.
  2. Blame someone else. The salesperson then shared that this wasn’t her policy, but instead had been created by “accounting.”  I wondered how big the accounting department might be at a little mom-and-pop store like this one, but no matter. Someone else had set this policy, and we were all powerless to change it.
  3. Pass the buck. When the specter of “Accounting” did not seal the deal, the salesperson called over another employee.  Unsurprisingly, she confirmed the bad news: that was the policy, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. It became clear that both employees had been taught lesson four:
  4. Don’t care. It was obvious that these two had no vested interest in making this person happy.  For whatever reason, their engagement with the company simply involved showing up, doing their job, and going home.  Apparently, long-term customer satisfaction did not figure into their performance review. As a result, we finally got to lesson five.
  5. Offend a member of a larger group. This guy was part of a group of dads.  You can be sure he told each one of them about the refusal.  You can be sure that when the group has to pick their next outing, this store would not be on the list.  For want of a small refund and a bit of kindness, a whole collection of families were alienated.

This whole conversation took less than five minutes before the dad finally gave up.  The salespeople had no idea of the damage they had done, and neither would the store owner, who was not present.

Good customer service is hard, but bad customer service is so easy.  For all of us in service organizations, we need to remember that good service is a continuous effort and even a slight slip can create lasting damage.

The unhappy dad went back to his child, and I moved forward to pay my bill.  I didn’t have the nerve to ask if I could use his coupon.

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Method CIO December 16, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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It is said that during the filming of Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman stayed up for several days to appear appropriately disheveled for a particular scene in the film.  When his costar, Lawrence Olivier, asked why, Hoffman explained that method actors were trained to actually experience the role they were playing.  Olivier replied, “Why don’t you try acting?”

While actors may choose to act or to use Stanislavski’s classic Method, I don’t think that CIOs have that luxury.  To be effective, a CIO needs to be a Method CIO: directly experiencing the systems, technologies, and platforms that they will subsequently select, acquire, deploy, and manage.  It is not enough to consider technology at arm’s length.  Technology must be experienced first-hand to be fully understood.

I have always embraced technology, long before I moved into a management role.  Even when I held technical positions, it became clear that reading about new things was not the same as using and exploring them.  The technology we use is too unpredictable, with side effects and unintended consequences that can only be discovered through first-hand use.

I can remember the first time I tinkered with a PC, or used email, or set up a network, or created a web page, or configured a RAID array, or used any of a hundred tools that have since become part of the technical fabric of our lives. My expectations of the technology were dramatically different from my actual experience.  The longer I used the tool, the more I discovered about it.  The lessons learned and the overall experience made it much easier for me to understand the system and be able to decide how and when to use it.

Even as I’ve shifted away from a direct technical role, I’ve stuck with my decision to directly experience as much technology as I can.  That’s why I blog, and use social media tools, and experiment with mobile devices.  It’s not that these tools hold a sudden fascination for me.  Instead, they are simply the next generation of potentially useful technologies that may or may not matter to me and my company.  I’m expected to be able to evaluate these tools for their personal, professional, and corporate potential.  I can’t do that effectively without directly using them until my curiosity is satisfied.

Obviously, no one has the time (or the wherewithal) to try everything that crosses their path.  We have to use some discretion to sort out the potentially valuable tools from those that may not be worth a look right now.  Even the list of potential tools can be long and unmanageable; that’s when we need to engage other like-minded folks to experience those tools and share their impressions.  Others who share the enthusiasm for the “Technical Method” can be a tremendous help in sorting through the ever-increasing amount of stuff that comes our way.

With all due respect for Sir Olivier, I think that Method CIOs develop a deeper understanding of the technology they manage.  Were Dustin Hoffman ever to turn his attention to IT management, I suspect he would agree.

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Lifetime Impact December 14, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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Early in my career, I had the great good fortune to work with a pure research team.  The team had two distinct research areas: advanced digital communications and large-scale parallel processing.  The former was populated by absolute geniuses who, among other things, developed stuff  like 16 kilobit modems back in 1980, along with a nifty technology we now know as HDTV.  I was in the latter group; we were a bunch of young Unix hackers who tinkered with odd things like parallel processing, the internet, the web, and email.  It was a wonderful place to be, and I still have many fond memories of the people and the projects.

Last week I learned that one of the senior members of the communications group, Dan McRae, passed away.  Dan was a brilliant engineer, but he was also a kind, supportive mentor to many, many people.  As his coworkers learned of his passing, they began to share memories of Dan and the profound impact he had had on their lives.  Although I had only known Dan peripherally, those who had known and worked with him for decades echoed a common sentiment: he had made a profound difference in their lives.

Several people shared the same comment: that were it not for Dan, their lives would be dramatically different today.  His guidance and intervention at an early point in their career had led them to decisions that made a big difference for them and their families.

Dan did not set out to make a big difference.  Dan was being Dan, quietly inspiring people to do great things personally and professionally.  Yet the impact he had on so many people is immeasurable.

Thinking of Dan made me realize that to be remembered in this way may be the greatest achievement to which any of us could aspire.  Paradoxically, you cannot try to achieve this kind impact; rather, it occurs as a side effect of doing the right thing, all the time, for a long time.  I suspect that even if you had asked him, Dan could not have explained how he had this impact on people.

If you died today, would people say the same thing about you?  Do you live your life in a way that makes a profound difference to someone?  I hope that in the end, we will all be able to claim a similar legacy as Dan McRae.

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Social Spackle December 9, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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It’s been a social media week for some reason, with many opportunities to discuss the benefits and pitfalls of all this new stuff with lots of folks.  Despite the attention that social media gets, and the adoption of the tools by some demographic groups, there is still a long way to go for some people to start using this stuff.

There’s a common refrain that permeates a lot of these discussions: “It might be useful for others, but I just don’t think it’s for me. Who cares what I’m doing or thinking?” I have a simple answer for that: “I do.”  And lots of other people as well.

The concept of social media is not new.  Years and years ago, social media went by different names.  We used to call it “talking,” or “writing a letter,” or “making a social call.” As technology advanced, it became “sending a telegram” and “making a phone call.” Now we call it “updating my status” or “sending a tweet.” Technology changes, but the goal remains the same.

The point is to keep in touch with people you care about, and for them to keep in touch with you.  These simple interactions with others build a rich fabric that connects you and keeps you close. While some people belittle the trivial information that often gets shared, it is that information, in fact, that makes the whole exercise worthwhile.

In today’s world, we rarely cross paths with people and engage them in person.  When we do, we often spend time catching up: “Where have you been? What have you been doing?” We do it because we care, and the more we know about a person, the more we can connect and share.

Social media lets you share those little bits about yourself all the time.  Interested people can absorb them and keep up with you.  I call this information “social spackle.”  It is the stuff that fills in the cracks in our relationships and keep them strong. When you do finally meet someone, you are already up to speed on their life; you can have a richer and more valuable moment together.

Consider a simple example: an acquaintance tweets as he goes on a trip to visit his daughter and see his grandchildren.  Trivial data, he thinks; who would care about that?  But those who know him are glad to know it, and file it all away.  When we next meet, we have excited questions: How was your trip?  How are those grandkids? That little bit of social spackle strengthened our bond and made for a nicer moment.

Reluctant to try social media?  Don’t do it for you.  Do it for those who care about you.  Find ways to spread some social spackle and see what happens.  You will be surprised at the change in the richness and quality of your relationships, both with people you’ve known and the people you will meet.  What do you have to lose?

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No Coffee, Please December 7, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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At a recent industry event, I settled in for the luncheon keynote speaker.  As you would expect, they came around and poured coffee.  I dutifully added cream and sugar and took a few sips. Perfect!

When I was half-finished with my coffee, the waiter came around and refilled it.  Aaagh!  This completely upset the careful balance of cream, sugar, and coffee.  Now I was stuck: put up with too-bitter coffee, or try to make corrections with partial portions of cream and sugar.  Either way, my coffee experience has been disturbed, if not ruined.

As I gave up on my coffee and decided to just eat the mints from the bowl on the table, it occurred to me that many of us in IT run around with coffee pots.  With the best of intentions (always have a full cup!) we disrupt the carefully crafted experiences of our users.

We talk a lot about change management and preparing users for the impact of system modifications.  Change is inevitable, and there is no way that we’ll be able to preserve everything a user likes about a system as we add new capabilities.  Even little changes in menu ordering or form layout can cause great consternation among people who have grown used to a system.

It is one thing when we recognize an impending change and work to avoid end user difficulties.  Big system rollouts usually have lots of formal change management to make life easier during transition. But how often do we send out little changes and ruin our users’ coffee, so to speak?  It doesn’t have to be a system change; a change in process can be disruptive, too.  Vendor changes to support or licensing terms are hard to deal with, even when they work in our favor.  Even changing a phone number or replacing an old piece of equipment with a new one can inject an unwelcome change into someone’s life.

Change is hard, whether it is big or small.  And the size of the change is in the eyes of the changee, not in the changer.  As we constantly improve and upgrade our world, let’s be careful when and where we decide to pour coffee.  Hopefully, we’ll have fewer users left with a bitter taste in their mouth.

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