Blog Fiasco

April 15, 2014

Bug trackers and service desks

Filed under: Musings,Project Management — Tags: , — bcotton @ 5:58 pm

I have recently been evaluating options for our customer support work. For years, my company has used a bug tracker to handle both bugs and support requests. It has worked, mostly well enough, but there are some definite shortcomings. I can’t say that I’m an expert on all the offerings in the two spaces, but I’ve used quite a few over the years. My only conclusion is that there is no single product that does both well.

Much of the basic functionality is the same, but it’s the differenences that are key. A truly excellent service desk system is aware of customer SLAs. Support tickets shouldn’t languish untouched for months or even years. But it’s perfectly normal for minor bugs to live indefinitely, especially if the “bug” is actually a planned enhancement. Service desks should present customers with a self-service portal, if only to see the current status of their tickets. Unfortunately, most bug trackers present too much information for a non-technical user (can you imagine having your CEO using Bugzilla to manage tickets?). While this interface is great for managing bugs, it’s pretty lousy otherwise.

Of course, because they’re similar in many respects, the ideal solution has your service desk and your bug tracker interacting smoothly. Sometimes support requests are the result of a bug. Having a way to tie them together us very beneficial. How will your service desk agents know to follow up with the customer unless the bug tracker updates affected cases when a bug is resolved? How will your developers get the information they need if the service desk can’t update the bug tracker?

Many organizations, especially small businesses and non-profits, will probably use one or the other. Development-oriented organizations will lean toward bug trackers and others will favor service desk tools. In either case, they’ll make do with the limitations for the use they didn’t favor. Still, it behooves IT leadership to consider separate-but-interconnected solutions I’m order to achieve the maximum benefit.

March 27, 2014

Fun with birthdays

Filed under: Musings — Tags: , , , — bcotton @ 9:09 pm

Sometimes I get distracted by shiny trivia. Shortly before St. Patrick’s Day, I noticed that seven of my Facebook friends happened to celebrate their birth on that holiday. That seemed surprisingly high, so I went through and counted up the birthdays for all 459 of my Facebook friends who have their birthday listed. The results are interesting. I don’t know if they’re meaningful or not.

As you can see from the I-should-have-made-it-larger chart above, any given day is most likely to be the birthday of one of my Facebook friends. It is slightly less likely to be the birthday of none of my friends. That was the most surprising result: I would never have expected that 108 days a year are empty when there are 459 birthdays to go around.

St. Patrick’s Day is the most frequently-birthed day with seven, although June 4 has six. According to the New York Times, those are the 134th and 146th most common birthdays. The most common birthday for those born between 1973 and 1999 is September 16, yet none of my Facebook friends claim that day.

May and December are the most common months for my friends, both with 52 birthdays. January is the least common with 25, though February and November each have 26. February gets some credit for being the shortest month, but it is still among the three months with less than one birthday per day. January does claim the longest stretch of birthday-less days, with eight.

How about days of the month? The 31st has the highest average, due to the 5s contributed by March and May (interestingly, these are the only two days with 5 birthdays). In second place, is the 22nd, which has the highest total count at 24. The lowest is on the 20th, which only has 6 birthdays. Two days before and after are in the 20s, so it’s a notable dip.

The full spreadsheet is available in Google Drive if you want to make your own observations.

March 11, 2014

Considering Bloom’s taxonomy in staffing decisions

Filed under: Musings,Project Management — Tags: , , , — bcotton @ 8:45 pm

A while back, an exam question introduced me to a taxonomy developed by educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom. In researching this work, I was immediately struck by how useful it could be when making decisions about technical staff. Bloom’s taxonomy is composed of three domains. The cognitive domain includes six hierarchical levels (from lowest to highest):

  • Knowledge
  • Comprehension
  • Application
  • Analysis
  • Synthesis
  • Evaluation

Applying these levels can help guide the interview process and provide a measure of a candidate’s abilities. With many technical jobs, though, it’s preferable to ignore the knowledge level. “Knowledge” in this context refers to memorized facts. Some interviews, especially phone screens, tend toward being entirely focused around the knowledge level. Even interviews that are based around programming exercises potentially overemphasize recitation over application. It is far too easy for a nervous interviewee to underperform on memorized facts. In real-world tasks, references are available for facts.

Once a person is hired, they need to be assigned work. If tasks are rated at the level they require, they can be matched to people at the required level. Tracking a person’s task levels can be beneficial as well. Giving someone tasks lower than they’re capable of will erode morale over time (and is a waste of resources), but someone who never gets lower level tasks could probably use a break. By the same token, giving people the occasional higher-level task gives them growth opportunities but too many can cause undue stress. If employees largely self-select tasks, a drop in level can be a warning sign of wider problems.

Of course, such applications are not new. Bloom’s taxonomy, by its very inclusion in an IT project management exam, is clearly not newly applied. It’s just interesting to me that a taxonomy developed for education some 60 years ago could fit technology staffing so well. If it’s new to me, then it’s probably new to someone else, too.

January 9, 2014

Feeling stupid at work

Filed under: Musings — Tags: , , — bcotton @ 6:09 pm

This post is inspired in large part by my friend Ed Finkler’s Open Sourcing Mental Illness campaign.

In my new job, I’m faced with a lot of deep, technical challenges. Sometimes they’re of a nature I haven’t seen before. When they come quickly, it gets pretty easy to feel down. When I’m physically sick, it gets even worse. And it compounds. There are days that I feel downright stupid and completely unqualified for my job.

Then there are days when I solve a problem well, master a new skill, or otherwise validate my professional existence. Those days feel pretty awesome. I like having those days.

In the past few months I’ve had many of both of those days. Lately, they’ve trended toward the good instead of the bad, but I don’t take that to be a sign of a permanent state. I’ve said before — and I honestly mean — that if you never feel stupid in your job then you’re not in the right job. The important thing is to try to minimize and recover quickly from the stupid days.

It helps to know that it’s okay to feel stupid. That’s part of the reason why I’m writing this. I’ve found that sharing my frustration with a trusted coworker who can provide meaningful encouragement helps the recovery process. It also helps to remind yourself of why you’re awesome. Reading Chris Hadfield’s book helped me a lot, too. Sure, I’ll never be an astronaut, but I still know how to work through a problem. I can solve smaller pieces until the larger problem is fixed, and I can bring myself to ask for help when needed. That’s enough to make me as successful as I need to be.

October 2, 2013

Service credibility: the most important metric

Filed under: Musings,Project Management — Tags: , , , , — bcotton @ 7:28 pm

I recently overheard a conversation among three instructors about their university’s Blackboard learning management system. They were swapping stories of times when the system failed. One of them mentioned that one time during a particularly rocky period in the service’s history, he entered a large number of grades into the system only to find that they weren’t there the next day. As a result, he started keeping grades in a spreadsheet as a backup of sorts. The other two recalled times when the system would repeatedly fail mid-quiz for students. Even if the failures were due to their own errors, the point is that they lost trust in the system.

This got me thinking about “shadow systems.” Shadow systems are hardly new, people have been working around sanctioned IT systems since the first IT system was sanctioned. If a customer doesn’t like your system for whatever reason, they will find their own ways of doing things. This could be the person who brings their own printer in because the managed printer is too far away or the department that runs their own database server because the central database service costs too much. Even the TA who keeps grades in a spreadsheet in case Blackboard fails is running a shadow system, and even these trivial systems can have a large aggregate cost.

Because my IT service management class recently discussed service metrics, I considered how trust in a system might be measured. My ultimate conclusion: all your metrics are crap. Anything that’s worth measuring can’t be measured. At best, we have proxies.

Think about it. Does a student really care if the learning management system has five nines of uptime if that .001 is while she’s taking a quiz? Does the instructor care that 999,999 transactions complete successfully when his grade entry is the one that doesn’t?

We talk about “operational credibility” using service metrics, but do they really tell us what we want to know? What ultimately matters in preventing shadow systems is if the user trusts the service. How someone feels about a service is hard to quantify. Quantifying how a whole group feels about a service is even harder. Traditional service metrics are a proxy at their best. At their worst, they completely obscure what we really want to know: does the customer trust the system enough to use it?

There are a a whole host of factors that can affect a service’s credibility. Broadly speaking, I place them into four categories:

  • Technical – Yes, the technical performance of a system does matter. It matters because it’s what you measure, because it’s what you can prove, and because it affects the other categories. The trick is to avoid thinking you’re done because you’ve taken care of technical credibility.
  • Psychological – Perception is reality and how people perceive things is driven by the inner workings of the human mind. To a large degree, service providers have little control over the psychology of their customers. Perhaps the most important are of control is the proper management of expectations. Incident and problem response, as well as general communication, are also critical factors.
  • Sociological - One disgruntled person is probably not going to build a very costly shadow system. A whole group of disgruntled people will rack up cost quickly. Some people don’t even know they hate something until the pitchfork brigade rolls along.
  • Political – You can’t avoid politics. I debated including this in psychological or sociological, but I think it belongs by itself. If someone can keep some of their clout within the organization by liking or disliking a service, you can bet they will. I suspect political factors almost always work against credibility, and are often driven by short-sightedness or fear.

If I had the time and resources, I’d be interested in studying how various factors relate to customer trust in a service. It would be interesting to know, especially for services that don’t have a direct financial impact, what sort of requirements can be relaxed and still meet the level of credibility the customer requires. If you’re a graduate student studying service management, I present this challenge to you: find a derived value that can be tightly correlated to the perceived credibility of a service. I believe it can be done.

September 21, 2013

Internet addiction and cell phone sociability

Filed under: Musings,The Internet — Tags: , — bcotton @ 8:24 pm

A picture of a restaurant’s cell phone policy posted to Reddit led me to a back-and-forth with another Redditor about cell phone etiquette. His(?) take was that using your cell phone while out to dinner with someone is unconditionally rude. It’s been my experience that no taboo is universal. The person I was talking to didn’t seem to understand this. “Of course, if every participant doing it, it might be acceptable, though I still wouldn’t agree with their choice. But it is disrespectful that your partner takes his time to spend with you and you just succumb to your addiction.” My point is that if everyone you’re with has no problem with it, then there is no problem. Certainly there’s some context required, too. Spending the entire meal playing Angry Birds is not the same as checking for updates on a loved one undergoing surgery.

Conveniently, Ben Johnson had a story on Marketplace Tech just a few days later. An inpatient treatment center for Internet addiction opened earlier this month in Pennsylvania. The director talked about how Internet addiction progressed from chat rooms and porn to day trading (and porn) to auction sites and social media (and porn). At one point, she referred to the Internet as a tool, which it is, but then went on to ascribe goodness and badness to it. Tools are not inherently good or bad; it’s the application of a tool that is good or bad. We don’t talk about “magazine addictions” because some people get addicted to Playboy or to Reader’s Digest.

Both of these cases strike me as examples of how our society has not yet caught up to the technology we use. Social norms, medical understanding, legal structures, and so on all need time to catch up to a world where communication is instantaneous and geographically-unbound. There’s a tendency to wring hands and say “this generation blah blah blah,” but people aren’t really any different than they were 100 years ago. The world we live in is different, and changing. But we change to fit it.

August 31, 2013

Liable for sending texts to drivers?

Filed under: Musings,The Internet — Tags: , , , , — bcotton @ 8:15 pm

On episode 225 of This Week in Law, the panel discussed a recent appeals court ruling in New Jersey. According to a summary by Jeremy Byellin, the court left open the possibility that someone sending a text message to a driver might be held liable for civil damages if the driver is distracted and gets into an accident. I haven’t been able to find the actual text of the decision, so all I have to go on is Byellin’s summary. Given that disclaimer, this seems like a questionable thing to put into a ruling. To be clear, the defendant in this case was not held liable. The court appears to be saying “but if you know someone is driving and will immediately look at your text, you may be partially liable for any damages they cause.”

From a theoretical perspective, it makes sense. If you know you’ll be distracting someone operating a four-wheeled killing machine, there’s a compelling interest to disincentivize such behavior. In the real world, this is tough to prove. The easiest defense is ignorance, since the court required active knowledge to hold a person liable. Unless the driver explicitly said “I’m driving and immediately viewing all messages I receive,” there’s little to prove that the sender had sufficient knowledge to be liable.

Even if the driver did send such a message, it might never see a court room. Because the parties to the conversation would likely delete incriminating messages and most carriers limit the amount of time they store messages, Byellin says “only a very narrow percentage of cases will the content actually be discoverable.”

TWiL panelist Gordon Firemark brought up an interesting point as well. Is the government repsonsible for distracting drivers with Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) messages? From the New Jersey ruling, the government would not be liable because it could not know if a particular recipient is driving. Still, it’s easy to see how this opens the door for additional litigation. Even if every defendant wins, there’s a real cost to having to defend against a suit.

The slippery slope that I find particularly interesting is the non-SMS case. Indiana’s texting-and driving law was wisely written to cover more than just SMS messages. However, a pedantic reading could apply it to any method of data transfer. GPS-enabled applications, such as Google Maps or Waze, can reasonably determine if a phone is mobile or not. By design, they distract drivers from the road. Could Google be sued for not disabling Maps while the car is in motion?

Probably not. Really, this is all just an academic exercise. To my knowledge, no one has ever been held liable for texting a driver, in part because it’s so monumentally difficult to prove the plaintiff’s case. But the fact that a court would basically invite unwinnable suits strikes as little more than a stimulus program for the Bar Association.

June 3, 2013

Student speech rights

Filed under: Musings,The Internet — Tags: , , , , — bcotton @ 7:30 am

To continue the legal theme from a few days ago (with the addition of some “old news is so exciting!”), a high school in Kansas suspended the senior class president for comments he made on Twitter. What did he say? ““Heights U” is equivalent to WSU’s football team“. WSU’s football team doesn’t exist. That’s it. For that, the school deemed his initial tweet and responses were disruptive to the school.

It’s not clear to me if the Heights High School is acting in accordance with legal precedent (their decision is certainly unjust, but that’s another matter). The Supreme Court has affirmed and re-affirmed restrictions on the free speech rights of students. Bethel School District v. Fraser, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, and Morse v. Frederick have all served to limit what students can say.

In Tinker v. Des Moines, the Court protected non-disruptive political speech, with the disruption being the critical factor. In Bethel, Hazelwood, and Morse the speech in question was part of a school-sanctioned activity even if the activity was not on school grounds (as in Morse). It would be a great stretch to consider Mr. Teague’s Twitter account to be a school-sanctioned activity, as it appears to be his personal account. To my knowledge, no Supreme Court ruling has ever addressed a school’s ability to restrict speech that occurs outside of school events.

Arguably, the concept of in loco parentis could be used to support the ability of schools to respond to behavior that happens outside the school. I don’t agree with this, but it would be interesting to see how this argument played out in the courts. In the meantime, I expect that this may end up being discussed in court rooms for years to come. If no suit is filed, it should at least be used as an exercise in high school government classes across the country.

June 2, 2013

Remembering Tim Samaras

Filed under: Musings,Weather — Tags: , , , — bcotton @ 9:47 am

I woke up this morning to learn that veteran tornado researcher and storm chaser Tim Samaras and two others were killed by a tornado near El Reno, Oklahoma. I never knew Tim in person, but I had the pleasure of interacting with him on the wx-chase mailing list and on the Stormtrack forum. Tim was of the old breed of chasers: safety-conscious, focused, and a serious scientist. This makes his death all the more jarring; Tim Samaras is about the last person you’d expect to die in a tornado.

That’s why this is so upsetting for me. I’ve always held to the belief that chasers are safe so long as they’re not stupid. I don’t know what happened in those last minutes, but it’s safe to say Tim was not being stupid. Did he make a mistake? Did he lose situational awareness? Was this a completely unavoidable accident? I can’t answer any of these, which means I’m face-to-face with the lethality of my sometimes-hobby.

To my knowledge, Tim and his companions are the first people to die while actively chasing. The other deaths that I’m aware of were due to roadway accidents on the drive home. That nobody has been killed is a surprise in itself given some of the crazy antics of those who have taken up the hobby inspired by “Twister” or Discovery’s “Storm Chasers”.

Tim can no longer contribute to the scientific study of tornadoes. Perhaps his death will serve to remind us all that even the best are vulnerable.

May 30, 2013

Facebook’s post policing

Filed under: Musings,The Internet — Tags: , , , , — bcotton @ 9:59 pm

Casey Johnston had an article on Ars Technica today about Facebook’s announcement that they would step up monitoring and removal of what they deem to be hate speech. Because this appears to be driven by complaints from women’s advocacy groups, the commentary has been largely political. I’d like to set aside the specifics of this and focus on the general case. It’s an interesting move on Facebook’s part because it sets a precedent.

Long, long ago, when telephones were still a thing, there was a legal idea of a “common carrier” (it still exists, of course, I’m just employing some blogtistic license). Common carriers offered services to the general public and were generally prohibited from doing anything about the content. For example, AT&T could not cut off your phone service if you did nothing but swear and say profane things when you were on the phone.

Although phone provides are still considered common carriers, internet service providers (ISPs) generally are not. ISPs, while protected from liability under various laws (e.g. Comcast can’t be shut down because a customer used a Comcast connection to transmit child pornography), can [in my understanding] theoretically terminate service if they don’t like what you’re “saying” on your connection.

Moving up the stack, websites such as Facebook or Funnel Fiasco are neither ISPs nor are they telecommunications common carriers. The general consensus, though untested in court as far as I know, is that sites are privately owned and can allow or disallow whatever content they like. This seems to be a pretty reasonable position, but there’s a difference between Facebook and Funnel Fiasco.

Apart from having a smarter and better-looking founder, Funnel Fiasco doesn’t allow just anyone to have a presence on the site. Facebook, especially for businesses/organizations, is more than just a blog or a message board, it’s a key part of digital presence. While that doesn’t make it an ISP, it does move it away from being just a website. Perhaps some additional category (e.g. “hosting provider”) needs to enter the understanding in this context.

What makes Facebook’s policy interesting to me from my perch as an armchair lawyer is the selective enforcement. While they are well within their legal rights, does it set a dangerous precedent for them? By choosing to police some content, are they liable (legally or otherwise) for not policing other content? Can they be held liable for policing content when other substantially similar content was not policed? Can the publicness of Facebook make it a common carrier?

Eventually this will become better defined. Whether it be by legislation, regulation, or litigation.

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