Author Archive: DJ Harris

July 15, 2009

Subjecting Subjectivity To Math

I recently read an article about an endeavor that is currently being undertaken to develop a “Speech Analysis Algorithm Crafted to Detect and Help Dissatisfied Customers”. In short, a team of engineers are hoping to create software that will recognize when a caller is becoming stressed and immediately phone a manager to alert them of a developing situation. Wow! It is rare that you would see math and science applied to something that is so subjective. After all, math is used to quantify and measure things all based on a known or a baseline. In this particular effort, I would surmise that the team of engineer’s most difficult task will be to determine how to establish a unique baseline for each unique call and caller. Once upon a time as a student of Electrical Engineering, I took on my share of convolution integrals and that’s a path that I do not care to venture down again. I’ve also taken on my share of convoluted customer calls in a past life and witnessed our frontline assisting customers in complex situations here at SoftLayer.

Until there is such an application that can detect and address a conversation that may be heading in the wrong direction, we have to rely on good ole’ training and experience. With each call and query, the baseline is reset. I’d even go further to say that with each exchange; the baseline is reset as our Customer Service Agents seek information to get to the root of the issue. It’s not hard to imagine the frustration that can build in a back-and-forth conversation as two people look to come to a solution or an amiable conclusion just as it is understandable that sometimes, a customer may simply need to vent. How do you calculate and anticipate those scenarios?

I wish much success to the team involved in the customer service speech analysis program. And programmatically speaking, I see many CASE, SWITCH, FOR, WHILE, BREAK, CONTINUE, IF, ELSE, ELSE IF, NEXT statements in your future. Good Luck!

October 8, 2008

Mulch Ado About Nothing

A couple of weekends ago, I decided to enjoy some of the cooler temperatures (yes 90 degrees in Dallas is considered a cold front in September) and take care of a little yard work. One of my tasks was cleaning up the flower beds and installing a fresh batch of mulch. At my side was my trusty, eager, and willing sidekick “Deuce”, my three year old son. When I grabbed my shiny new shovel, he ran to the garage to grab his shiny blue (plastic) shovel. There was a question for every move and every object that was foreign to him “What’s that?”, “That’s yours?”, “Where’s mine?” Is there any thing called child physics, because with my kid, for every action, there is an equal and opposite question.

Anyway, with the weeds all pulled and the shrubs all trimmed, it was time to pull out that big bag of cedar mulch. As soon as I opened the bag, Deuce opened his mouth, “What’s that?” “Mulch” I replied. He looked at the bag; looked at me; back to the bag; then back at me… He gave me a confused look of disbelief and said almost disappointedly, “That’s wood sips!” (He has a little trouble with “ch” sounds sometimes). “That’s wood sips daddy!” he said again this time raising a palm full of chips above his head to make sure I got a good look of the stuff that I had mistakenly referred to as mulch. At that point, I was reminded by my three year old of a lesson that was taught and repeated to me many times before; “Call it like you see it!”

I think a lot of individuals, organizations and companies get in their own way by trying to characterize $2 tasks with $10 words. I’ve been as guilty as everyone else, more so in my experiences as a project manager than anything else. I’ve asked for an estimate on the release of the agreed upon deliverables that I and other stakeholders have a vested interest in before when I could have easily just asked “When will you have that done for us?” There’s no room for misinterpretation there? There’s irony in the thought that part of the purpose of the project management “discipline” is to promote a common language to make it easier to engage with others involved in the project. I’m not making that up.

At SoftLayer, we have an assortment of people from various professional, geographical and personal backgrounds. Though we do have “projects” that we “manage” we try not to get caught up in volleying high dollar “project management” verbiage over cubicle walls. We can’t afford to get things lost in communication so we tend to “call it like we see it”. I encourage you to try it for yourself. The next time you’re tempted to request the outputs from the user validation activities on your project, simply ask for the test results. The next time you’re tempted to order a “Grande Drip” from Starbucks, ask for a medium coffee. And, the next time you head to your local hardware store for a day of gardening on a “not so hot” hot day, be sure to get a big bag of “wood sips!”

-DJ

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November 2, 2007

No-Huddle

With the NFL season in full swing and the usual suspects up to their usual tricks, a question was raised as to why some teams opt to run a "no-huddle" or "hurry-up" offense when their backs are against the wall with the clock ticking away, while other teams seem to constantly be in a "hurry-up" mode throughout the game and have a significant degree of success with it. In either case, the objective is to keep the competition off balance and have steady advances to the goal. An obvious example of an undeniably successful team that employs such methods is the reigning NFL Champion Indianapolis Colts.

Before I go further into lumping praise onto the Colts, I feel that I am obligated to state that I am not a die-hard Indy fan. The team that I root for shall remain nameless for this article as I am still traumatized by the hammer that they leveled on my team of choice on the NFL's opening night (Hint: Rhymes with "The Aints.").

Okay, so this observation invites the question: how did the Colts become champions by performing in a manner that, to outsiders, may appear to be rushed and distressed? One could say it's because they have trusted, senior individuals in their skill positions implementing the plan. Another might say that by focusing on rapid incremental results, they are able to execute more efficiently. An additional point might be that the constant communication amongst the players allows them to adapt to the circumstances that are constantly changing so that they may deliver and reach their goals.

To those of you not caught up in the imagery of football, you might recognize that these are some of the same traits that characterize successful adaptations of Agile Software Development. With the goal of delivering continuous and valued improvements to our applications and supporting software, the Softlayer Development team practices many of the Principles behind the Agile Manifesto. While "moving the chains" toward the end-zone alludes to the incremental success of an NFL team's offense, we speak more in terms of functional and valued releases towards achieving greater customer satisfaction. This is afforded to us by the skilled players on our team, constant communication, and a continued focus on producing measurable results. We are determined to keep "moving the chains" so, stay tuned to the Developer Network, Forums, and all channels Softlayer as we continue to push towards our goal.

-DJ

August 24, 2007

Globalization and the Internet

Globalization is now, and forever will be, an ubiquitous topic in most political, economic, and social forums. The term "globalization" is defined by Merriam-Webster as "the development of an increasingly integrated global economy marked especially by free trade, free flow of capital, and the tapping of cheaper foreign labor markets." The latter of the traits has emerged as the strongest point of contention due to outsourcing. Markedly, Fortune Magazine recently published a story on a new "insourcing" trend. It's a trend so new that my spellchecker doesn't even recognize the word.

Though "free trade" and "free flow of capital" are explicitly declared in the definition of globalization, free flow of information is somehow absent. The role that the Internet has played in globalization and the development of the global economy cannot be overstated. Continued advancements in the Internet and Telecommunications have literally connected suppliers, vendors, sellers, and buyers that historically had been segmented by barriers such as geography and time zones. What this phenomenon has come to shape is the global marketplace, where products from across the world compete for the preference of an endless consumer base. With an increase in competition comes an increase in the consumer expectations for quality and performance. As a growing company with a significant international client base, SoftLayer continues to strive towards providing quality solutions and support that exceeds our customers' expectations.

Though the Internet has helped to fuel the soaring growth of the global marketplace in the recent decade, there are still many obstacles that impede its progression. Most of the hazards have a legal connotation surrounding hot-button issues such as Intellectual Property, Copyright Infringement, and most notably in the hosting world, Abuse (bandwidth theft, computer viruses, fraud, etc.). It's certainly enough to keep our abuse department busy as international standards and governing policies are fortified to help combat these areas of concern.

This observation merely skims the surface of globalization and the development of the global economy as there are many arguments both for and against its advancement. At the forefront or behind the scenes (depending on your vantage), you will find the Internet. It has been stated that “the Internet is the backbone of the global economy" with evidence cited in the form of web transactions going from "virtually nothing in 1994 to nearly $657 billion in 2000."1 Care to guess what that number is now? As SoftLayer furthers its commitment to quality, our objective is to continue to strengthen the platform from which our domestic, international, and multinational customers launch into and compete in the global marketplace.

-DJ

1Charles W. L. Hill, International Business: Competing in the Global Marketplace (Irwin/McGraw-Hill; Fifth Edition, 2004), p.13.

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July 16, 2007

Collocation? Que Loco!

In most project management and system development circles, collocation refers to the centralization of resources, human and otherwise, for the purpose of creating greater efficiencies in a development cycle. In most cases, this involves pulling a developer from here, an analyst from there, and so on, for the life of the effort that they have been designated to participate in. In this day and age, with stakeholders spanning the globe, collocating for the sake of one project is not quite feasible. Now, imagine collocating for every project. Some might say, “That’s crazy!” Here at SoftLayer, we are just that… collocated that is. Sales, Finance, Development, and Support all share the same roof, breathe the same air, and drink the same coffee!

Outside of the obvious efficiencies gained from being in each other’s reach, such as information sharing and truly real-time communication, we reap other benefits that quickly cascade out to you, our customers. A major benefit that we have realized is the speed of going from suggestion or conception, to the delivery of a valued and usable solution. A good example of this resulted in one of the latest API method releases that I was recently involved in.

While working on a solution to parallel the monitoring feature of the Customer Portal, one of our forum moderators noticed a request from a customer that involved exposing the monitoring data to the API as well as including a few other bells and whistles. By the end of the day, the new API monitoring method, along with the customer’s requested additions, was approved, designed, developed, and tested! How crazy is that? Let me run that by you again, the customer made a request, the company responded… quickly. No web conferences, conference calls, misinterpreted emails or IMs, just a quick and correct response.

Another benefit of being collocated is visibility. Good ideas are never overlooked. While we like to think of ourselves as innovators that are constantly ahead of the curve, we are always looking for ways of serving our customers better. Whether you are engaged in a phone call or chat with one of our Sales Representatives, touching bases with Support, or volleying an idea through the SoftLayer Forum, your input is channeled directly to the hub where a dedicated and connected team is staged for top performance. Our disposition affords us the ability to nimbly address your position, resulting in gains that can reach crazy proportions!

-DJ

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