The Kneed for The Knack

The following was originally posted on the Avaya site here.

In a product support organization, your people are, without a doubt, your most critical resources. While you can use knowledge bases and tools to prevent re-discovery, new problems will always arise and you need engineers who can quickly get to a resolution. The skill I value the most in engineers is their ability to troubleshoot. By that I do not mean their ability to recall from memory what an Error 529 is on a specific product (that’s what knowledge bases are for); rather I’m referring to their ability to look at a technical problem, narrow down possible root causes, and logically find the solution. At first glance this may be confused with basic critical thinking, but it is something beyond critical thinking; it’s The Knack.

There is no better way for me to convey the concept of The Knack then to play the following embedded Dilbert cartoon. If you’re short on time, just watch the first two minutes. (The rest of this episode can be found here and here.)

Like most humor, the writers of that comic took a truth and moved it to an extreme for a laugh. I’ve yet to meet an engineer that could sense a battery going bad in a TV remote, but I have met many that can stare at a problem and solve it without any direct experience. For many people, changing the time on a car radio can be irritatingly complex without the manual for reference. An engineer with The Knack, howeverunderstands the design limitations of the user interface of the clock, has used one before, and can surmise the proper steps in almost any car.

Several years ago, I was involved with a critical outage of a web-based application experiencing a timeout issue. An engineer was brought into the escalation that had no experience with this solution at all. He asked a series of questions to get a mental image of the architecture similar to the one below:

knack_diagram1_small.jpg

He reasoned (correctly so), that if we submitted a unique series of letters at the website, searched the logs on each server for that phrase, and noted the timestamps of the relevant log messages, we could determine which component was adding the delay and tripping the timeout. Once identified, we could get the relevant expert on the phone and get the system back up within minutes. This engineer didn’t get caught up in the reality that he didn’t know how this solution was written nor the underlying technologies well enough to troubleshoot any of them in great detail. Instead, just like with the clock, he combined solid critical thinking with a working knowledge of web architecture to quickly narrow down the possibilities.

While this diagnostic skill has always been respected, it is getting more and more valuable as technology evolves and become more intricate. While new solutions bring improved value to users, the underlying technology that makes those products work is becoming more complex to troubleshoot.

Ten years ago, enterprise phone systems were analog and digital. The phones had their own wiring that connected them directly to the PBX, creating a contained environment where all diagnostic information was in one place. With modern SIP solutions, the phones have evolved to be multi-functional, offering complex features including presence and video. To make this possible, the infrastructure has become distributed, making the diagnostic work distributed as well. To trace a single SIP call requires diagnostic information from several servers and endpoints. The Knack – this art of troubleshooting – is needed now more than ever.

At Avaya, I’ve had the great pleasure of working with not only individuals, but entire teams of engineers blessed with The Knack. Watching one of them attack a problem is like seeing an artist paint. They use the same paintbrushes and paints as others, but the way they wield them makes them true artists. Having one of these engineers working a support issue can mean the difference between resolution times measured in hours versus weeks. While we have amazing automated tools and knowledge bases (ex. Avaya Mentor), it is these talented engineers who bring the most value to an Avaya maintenance contract.

In my next post, I’ll write about how to identify engineers with The Knack as well as how to nurture this skill within your organization. Until then, remember that with great power comes great responsibility, and in this case, often social ineptitude.

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Why Virtual Office Might Be Right for You

The following was originally posted on the Avaya site here and then again at the CIO Collaboration site here.

After having breakfast with my three children on Friday, we were sitting in our front room and happened to see one of the neighborhood fathers get in his car and drive off. My three-year-old twin boys paused, contemplated the sight, and then asked me “Why did he have to drive somewhere to go to work?” Great question.

Nearly four years ago, the small Avaya office that I was a part of closed, sending the two dozen of us regular office attendees to our homes. While I do miss the morning coffee time, putting golf balls down the cubicle row while on calls, and the occasional group lunch, I have come to appreciate and enjoy my new work environment.

Work/life balance. Working from a virtual office (VO), combined with a relatively flexible work schedule often gives the employee a healthy work/life balance. Yes, I know that sounds cliché, but I get to wake up with my children, feed them breakfast, get them ready for school, and sometimes do pick-up or drop-off. Then up a flight of stairs and I’m at work. If my kids need something (and their mother isn’t available for some reason), they know they can knock at my office door and if I’m not on the phone, they can come in for a short interlude of family time. It is also much easier to skip out of work for the kids’ swim lessons on a Friday afternoon when I’m already home (and don’t be surprised if you see a tweet from me from the pool, thanks to my LifeProof case). In return, my employer gets me for 10+ hours a day. And not only am I putting in the hours, but I’m also wicked productive (more on that later).

Why are you still in a cube? So, why aren’t more people working from home? As Dave Michels wrote in a recent CIO Collaboration post, many employees and employers don’t even pause to think if virtual office might be right for their situation. I agree with Dave that many people are missing out on a great opportunity. Avaya has done quite well with VO employees and perhaps this is not just because they have an open mind about these things, but because Avaya sells many of the communications solutions that make VO successful, which brings us back to the productivity question.

Engagement. There was an excellent blog by Scott Edinger in theHarvard Business Review last month about how remote workers are as engaged if not more than those who work in the office. You should give it a read as I won’t reiterate his excellent points here, but suffice it to say that when the supervisor and employee are not in close proximity, they consciously work at their communication, resulting in more engagement. I have found regularly scheduled 1:1 meetings are crucial. I meet with all of my direct reports for at least 30 minutes every week. For the rest of my organization, I meet individually with them every other month. Sometimes we talk about work, other times about family or sports. What you talk about matters less than the fact that you are talking. Don’t make this your only opportunity to talk every week, but having time set aside makes sure you really connect.

Communication Tools. As Scott wrote in his HBR post, having the right tools are crucial to making that communication happen regularly. While you can get by with a solid audio connection, video is becoming a huge benefit for VO employees. I’m lucky in that Avaya has a variety of tools to make working remotely successful. Here is a list of what I use (in addition to my standard desktop software):

  • Avaya Desktop Video Device (ADVD) with the Flare Experience for audio and video calls
  • Plantronics CS351N headset with enough range to get to the kitchen for lunch
  • Use of a Scopia Video Conferencing server for video conferencing calls. This is relatively new, but is already becoming my favorite tool. More and more of my meetings are becoming video calls. My ADVD integrates flawlessly, allowing me to connect to those calls without using my laptop.
  • Use of an Avaya Aura Conferencing server for audio conference calls, which also allows me to see who is on a conference call and who is speaking
  • SFDC’s Chatter (internal social media tool that is becoming increasingly valuable to me)

Face Time. Another helpful tip that I’ll share is that whenever you stumble upon a colleague’s picture (LinkedInTwitter, internal sites, etc.), attach it to an Outlook Contact (see here). This way, whenever you receive an email from them, you will see their picture, making it feel more like a personal interaction. As an added bonus, when using an Avaya Flare client, those pictures transfer over, so you can see their pictures for phone calls as well.

Not for everyone. Don’t assume that a very productive employee in an office will remain so at home. VO is a great fit for experienced information workers that spend a good deal of time on the phone with others, especially if those others are geographically dispersed. If an employee is new to the role and/or need access to physical equipment or people, this won’t work. A certain discipline is needed in order to stay focused on work when there are increased distractions (family, television, video games, etc.) The individuals’ personality and work-type must match up to ensure the employee can continue to meet or exceed his/her objectives

The Office in Home Office. Yes, I know, you have a laptop, a smartphone, and a Bluetooth headset. That does not make you a one-woman-home-office. A coffee shop or your kitchen table while the kids play in the next room over will not be successful long term. Get yourself a quiet room with a door (ex. guest bedroom). The room doesn’t have to be office-only 24×7, but during work hours, nothing else should be taking place there. Besides, you don’t want to be the person on the conference call with the dog barking, or worse, “Daddy! I’m all done pooping and peeing!!” (Did I mention my Plantronics headset has a very handy mute button on it?)

Don’t forget your agents. While I have focused on my own experience as a knowledge worker using Unified Communications products, working from home is also a great option for Contact Center agents. I work with a customer of ours in retail and I know they value their home agents. Kay Phelps, one of my fellow bloggers here, has written a number of articles about these Home Agents, so please go give her a read.

In summary, if I were writing an online review of a product, I’d sum up Virtual Office as:

4OutOf5Stars Amazing, but not for everyonePros:

  • Great work/life balance
  • No commute transportation costs (gas, tolls, car, auto insurance/repairs, etc.)
  • Significantly reduced wardrobe expenses
  • No downtime needed between meetings
  • Positive environmental impact

Cons:

  • No after-work camaraderie over drinks
  • More self-reliance for IT and office supply needs
  • Discipline needed by the employee and those they live with

I know I’m not the only VO employee out there. So, let me know what you think. Living the dream? Did you try VO and it was a fail whale? Desperate to break out of your cube and into your sweatpants? Drop a note in the comments below.


What Does Serviceability Mean to You?

The following was originally posted on the Avaya site here.

Some days, I wonder if Serviceability is even a word as people I speak to often don’t know its meaning. Wikipedia, one of my favorite sources, defines

Serviceability as “refers to the ability of technical support personnel to install, configure, and monitor computer products, identify exceptions or faults, debug or isolate faults to root cause analysis, and provide hardware or software maintenance in pursuit of solving a problem and restoring the product into service. Incorporating serviceability facilitating features typically results in more efficient product maintenance and reduces operational costs and maintains business continuity.”

I care about the meaning of Serviceability and if people know its meaning because I’m a serviceability advocate. One of my responsibilities at Avaya is to lead Serviceability Engineering for the company, putting this term clearly in my wheel house. In general, I agree with Wikipedia, with the addition that Serviceability refers to not just maintenance support, but also the installation and configuration of the product. When asked what I mean by Serviceability, I use the following examples:

• Standardized and centralized logging
• Enhanced filtering and automatic pattern recognition
• Consistent use of SNMP alarming
• Secure Remote Access and Authentication
• Human Methodologies to approaching root cause
• Solution-wide call tracing
• Intuitive interface, with minimal set of data-gathering questions
• Automated tooling to evaluate the health of the solution
• Automated receipt and resolution of known issues
• Debugging tools and automation for particular product needs (ex. A tool to validate date in an embedded database, preventing the troubleshooter from needing DBA skills.)

I thought it would be an interesting conversation if we all took a moment to think about what Serviceability means to us. If you are a manufacturer, what do you focus on in your own products to deliver excellence in this area? If you are a Services employee (implementation and/or support), what sorts of things are you used to utilizing in the products you work on? What do you wish were present to help you do your job better? And perhaps most important, what about those of you that use communications products (all of us)? What do you expect around serviceability?

One of my favorite Serviceability features that Avaya offers is for our one-X Communicator softphone. From within the client’s user interface, the user can click a button that will generate a new email with all the logs (compressed) attached to the email. The user then answers some pre-populated questions and sends it to their IT support team. For those of you who have attempted to troubleshoot issues on a user’s desktop, you know how hard it can be to arrange for remote access and permissions to grab the necessary logs. This feature simplifies this for everyone involved (see YouTube video below for more on that)

Valued readers – Let’s make use of the comments functionality on this website. Please voice your opinions and let me know what Serviceability means to you. What are the Serviceability features that you absolutely love? What are the gaps that drive you crazy and you wish someone would address? Let me know, and I’ll correlate and comment on them in a future post.