Archive for the ‘dayjob’ Category

What is it that makes call centres so uniquely awful as social institutions? This is something I’ve often touched on at Telco 2.0, and also something that’s been unusually salient in my life recently – I moved house, and therefore had to interact with getting on for a dozen of the things, several repeatedly. (Vodafone and Thames Water were the best, npower and Virgin Media the worst.) But this isn’t just going to be a consumer whine. In an economy that is over 70% services, the combination of service design, technology, and social relations that makes these things so awful is something we need to understand.

For example, why does E.ON (the electricity company, a branch of the German utility Rhein-Westfälische Elektrizitätswerke) want you to tell their IVR what class you are before they do anything else? This may sound paranoid, but when I called them, the first question I had to answer was whether I owned my home or was a tenant. What on earth did they want to know that for?

Call centres provide a horrible experience to the user. They are famously awful workplaces. And they are also hideously inefficient – some sites experience levels of failure demand, that is to say calls generated due to a prior failure to serve, over 50% of the total inbound calls. Manufacturing industry has long recognised that rework is the greatest enemy of productivity, taking up disproportionate amounts of time and resources and inevitably never quite fixing the problems.

So why are they so awful? Well, I’ll get to that in the next post. Before we can answer that, we need to think about how they are so awful. I’ve made a list of anti-patterns – common or standard practices that embody error – that make me angry.

Our first anti-pattern is queueing. Call centres essentially all work on the basis of oversubscription and queueing. On the assumption that some percentage of calls will go away, they save on staff by queueing calls. This is not the only way to deal with peaks in demand, though – for example, rather than holding calls, there is no good technical reason why you couldn’t instead have a call-back architecture, scheduling a call back sometime in the future.

Waiting on hold is interesting because it represents an imposition on the user – because telephony is a hot medium in McLuhan’s terminology, your attention is demanded while you sit pointlessly in the queue. In essence, you’re providing unpaid labour. Worse, companies are always tempted to impose on you while you wait – playing music on hold (does anybody actually like this?), or worse, nagging you about using the web site. We will see later on that this is especially pointless and stupid.

And the existence of the queue is important in the social relations of the workplace. If there are people queueing, it is obviously essential to get to them as soon as possible, which means there is a permanent pressure to speed up the line. Many centres use the queue as an operational KPI. It is also quality-destroying, in that both workers and managers’ attention is always focused on the next call and how to get off the current call in order to get after the queue.

A related issue is polling. That is to say, repeatedly checking on something, rather than being informed pro-actively when it changes. This is of course implicit in the queueing model. It represents a waste of time for everyone involved.

Repetition is one of the most annoying of the anti-patterns, and it is caused by statelessness. It is always assumed that this interaction has never happened before, will never happen again, and is purely atomised. They don’t know what happened in the last call, or even earlier in the call if it has been transferred. As a result, you have to provide your mother’s maiden name and your account number, again, and they have to retype it, again. The decontextualised nature of interaction with a call centre is one of the worst things about it.

Pretty much every phone system these days uses SIP internally, so there is no excuse for not setting a header with a unique identifier that could be used to look up data in all the systems involved, and indeed given out as a ticket number to the user in case they need to call again, or – why not – used to share the record of the call.

That point leads us to another very important one. Assymetric legibility characterises call centres, and it’s dreadful. Within, management tries to maintain a panopticon glare at the staff. Without, the user faces an unmapped territory, in which the paths are deliberately obscure, and the details the centre holds on you are kept secret. Call centres know a lot about you, but won’t say; their managers endlessly spy on the galley slaves; you’re not allowed to know how the system works.

So no wonder we get failure demand, in which people keep coming back because it was so awful last time. A few companies get this, and use first-call resolution (the percentage of cases that are closed first time) as a KPI rather than call rates, but you’d be surprised. Obviously, first-call resolution has a whole string of social implications – it requires re-skilling of the workforce and devolution of authority to them. No wonder it’s rare.

Now, while we were in the queue, the robot voice kept telling us to bugger off and try the Web site. But this is futile. Inappropriate automation and human/machine confusion bedevil call centres. If you could solve your problem by filling in a web form, you probably would have done. The fact you’re in the queue is evidence that your request is complicated, that something has gone wrong, or generally that human intervention is required.

However, exactly this flexibility and devolution of authority is what call centres try to design out of their processes and impose on their employees. The product is not valued, therefore it is awful. The job is not valued by the employer, and therefore, it is awful. And, I would add, it is not valued by society at large and therefore, nobody cares.

So, there’s the how. Now for the why.

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The Libyan rebels are making progress, as well as robots. Some of them are reported to be within 40 miles of Tripoli, those being the ones who the French have been secretly arming, including with a number of light tanks. Now that’s what I call protecting civilians.

They are also about to take over the GSM network in western Libya like they did in the east. How do I know? I’m subscribed to the Telecom Tigers group on LinkedIn and so I get job adverts like these two.

ZTE BSC Job: URGENT send cv at [e-mail] for the job position or fw to your friends : Expert Telecom Engineer ZTE BSC.Location:Lybia,Western Area,1300USD/day,start immediate

URGENT send cv at [e-mail] for the job position or fw to your friends : ERICSSON MGW/BSS/BSC 2G/RAN Implementation Senior Expert Engineer.Location:Lybia,Gherian,Western Mountains,1300-1500 USD/day

In fact, one of the ads explicitly says that the job is in the rebel zone and the other is clear enough. What the rebels are planning to do is clear from the job descriptions:

must be able to install a ZTE latest generation BSC – platform to be integrated with 3rd party switching platform,solid knowledge of ZTE BSC build out and commissioning to connect up to 200 existing 2G/3G sites

To put it another way, they want to unhook the existing BTSs – the base stations – from Libyana and link them to a core system of their own, and in order to do this they need to install some Chinese-made Base Station Controllers (BSCs – the intermediary between the radio base stations and the central SS7 switch in GSM).

Here’s the blurb for the Ericsson post:

Responsible for commissioning and integrating an Ericsson 2G BSS network (2048-TRX Ericsson BSC plus Ericsson BTSs) in a multi-vendor environment. Will be responsible for taking the lead and ownership of all BSS commissioning and integration, leading the local team of BSS engineers, and managing the team through to completion of integration.

Experience of Ericsson MGW implementation, and integration of MGW with BSS, is highly desirable. Experience of optical transmission over A-interface.

Compilation, creation and coordination of BSC Datafill. This will include creating, generating, seeking and gathering of all Datafill components (Transport, RF Frequencies, neighbor relations, handovers, Switch parameters, ABIS mapping, etc.) based on experience and from examination of existing network configuration and data. Loading of Datafill into the BSC to facilitate BTS integration.

Working with the MSC specialists to integrate the BSC with the MSC. Providing integration support to BTS field teams; providing configuration and commissioning support to the BSC field team.

So they’ve got some Ericsson BSCs, the base stations are Ericsson too, and an MSC (Mobile Switching Centre, the core voice switch) has been found from somewhere – interesting that they don’t say who made it. That’ll be the “3rd party switching platform” referred to in the first job. They’re doing VoIP at some point, though, because they need a media gateway (MGW) to translate between traditional SS7 and SIP. They need engineers to integrate it all and to work out what the various configurations should be by studying what Gadhafi’s guys left. (It’s actually fairly typical that a mobile network consists of four or so different manufacturers’ kit, which keeps a lot of people in pies dealing with the inevitable implementation quirks.)

The successful candidate will also have some soft skills, too:

Willing to work flexible hours, excellent interpersonal skills and the ability to work under pressure in a challenging, diverse and dynamic environment with a variety of people and cultures.

You can say that again. Apparently, security is provided for anyone who’s up for the rate, which doesn’t include full board and expenses, also promised.

They already have at least one candidate.

It is now reasonably certain that I’ll be in Palo Alto from Saturday evening to Thursday evening. I’m going to be carless but close to a CalTrain station, if that helps anyone. The explanation is of course here.

Update: I will be here from 6pm tonight with some bloggers.

So I had the opportunity to take part in an Augmented Reality standardisation meeting on the fringe of this year’s 3GSM Mobile World Congress. First of all, it was the year the heavens opened (someone on twitter said it was as if the show had turned into Glastonbury) and I got drenched and my shoes went bad, and my cab didn’t take me to the Telefonica R&D building in Via Augusta but instead to the main switching centre, this amazingly domineering building…

2011-02-17 13.07.09 Telcos – they live in places like this, they know where your dog goes to school, but can they tell you if it’s really your bank on the line?

So I got soaked again, and eventually arrived, and spent the first session listening to my shoes rotting. I acted as scribe for the session on AR browser implementations, markup language vs. JSON, native application vs. browser plugin and the like. I hope I contributed something of value. I have a Flickr set of the annotated flip charts here; I’ve been asked to help prepare the final report. Which just goes to show the enduring truth that if you want to influence something, wait until the very end and sum up with a balanced account. Supposedly this used to be the way to pass the Diplomatic Service exams – buy a pipe, puff on it occasionally during the team exercise, then “sum up with a balanced account”. But you’re not allowed to smoke these days.

2011-02-17 19.16.26

OK, back from eComm in Amsterdam; here’s something interesting. Besides all the stuff I was meant to be following for work, we had a presentation from a group of the sort of media-arts types who get a lot of coverage on Bruce Sterling’s blog; in fact the whole gig was faintly Beyond the Beyond-esque when it wasn’t Charlie Stross-esque. Notably, two projects struck me as emblematic of a certain kind of thinking.

The first one was the Isophone, which is a mashup of a flotation tank and a telephone. The idea is that you sink into yummy sensory deprivation while talking to someone else in the same condition; it looks like this.

the isophone, with user

Maybe it’s just me, but having to take phone calls under a state of total sensory deprivation is not my idea of fun. I couldn’t help imagining some sort of nightmarish prison call centre, a whole pool full of them.

Then there was Mutsugoto. Let the official description speak for itself.

Mutsugoto is meant to be installed in the bedrooms of two distant partners. You lay on your bed and wear a special touch-activated ring visible to a camera mounted above. A computer vision system tracks the movement of the ring and projects virtual pen strokes on your body. At the same time these pen strokes are transmitted to and projected on the body of your remote partner. If you follow your partner’s movements and your strokes cross, the lines will react with each other and reflect your synchrony. Special bed linens, silk curtains and other aspects of the physical context have been designed to enhance the mood of this romantic communication environment.

But what are the civilian applications? As they say.

Go on, this is basically a sex toy, isn't it?

Well, I think we can probably guess. Anyway, I found both of them depressing; it also struck me that too many of these projects are all about sucking information out of the virtual space and representing it on a piece of hardware in private space. Basically, a gadget that reads out Twitter feeds, that you’re meant to think is your friend. Further, once you get rid of the microphone, pointing device, keyboard, webcam, etc, you’re basically watching TV on your own. It’s read-only communication into the private realm.

The suit faction in this field, oddly, works the other way round – the M2M (Machine to Machine) community in telecoms, the big IT types, they’re all more interested in getting data from the real world and representing it in virtual space. Basically, it’s all SCADA applications – monitoring the current status of CO2 pipeline valve number 58634. Flowrate, direction, valve setting and temperature, please, and when did you last have your grease changed?

What seems to be missing from this as an artistic project is sending stuff into the public space. A lot of data gets captured from the public space into the private space; CCTV is one version, promoting your demo on Flickr and taking photos of the cops is another. Nothing much seems to be sent back, though; can’t we have truth-screamer robots that run about yelling out under-reported news? Of course, if you or I were to encounter one we’d probably dropkick it into a handy canal. Splosh; “Hey there! CitizenMediaBot is sinking!”

But it would at least be fun, and more fun than gazing at a waldo that turns puce when #drivel is trending again. I suspect there’s scope for this with things like Layar, who were also presenting. Then, we’re deep into the Strossosphere; “what do we want? Brains!” indeed.

I often miss chunks of the humour at the Stiftung because I would rather do almost anything than watch US business-spot TV news. If you wanted to hide something from me, you could do worse than put it next to a TV tuned to CNBC. But I think I experienced something of the culture the good doktor despises so much the other day.

The scene; 3GSM/sorry/MWC keynote session. Dramatis personae: Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, ditto of Nokia, Ralph de la Vega, ditto of AT&T Mobility, and moderator Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal. Others present – diverse delegates, press, staff, self.

It was of course dull; you don’t go to the keynotes at tech conferences for content, you go to the actual conference sessions, or for that matter, the cocktail parties. De La Vega’s presentation at least contained actual factual material, Kallasvuo’s was inoffensive and reflected a Finnish disinterest in conference stardom, but Ballmer’s was vacuous to an incredible degree. I was aware of his reputation for histronics, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the degree to which the entire performance was divorced from its content.

He shouted, he stomped around the stage, he gave every impression of passion, but the text was content-free. It was the style of rolling TV news – had the sound been turned off, it would have been possible to synchronise almost any imaginable text with the video. David Hockney once said that in the theatre you don’t put a tree on stage, you put treeness there; this was an exercise in the theatre of Ballmerness.

One reason why I went to the keynote was to witness what happened when Ballmer of all people had to speak on the topic of “openness”; in the event, he avoided the obvious problems here by talking a great deal without saying anything.

He reminded me a little of the only time I ever heard Arthur Scargill speak; he didn’t have anything like Scargill’s style, but he acted in much the same fashion. This is of course the heart of demagogy – it’s all about turning your audience into a crowd, through a display of free-floating emotion. In this case, much of it consisted of a display of empty optimism and emotional stroking – that uniquely American mode, boosterism. We were called on to be optimistic, bullied to be bullish, badgered with progress.

We proceeded to the panel discussion, during which Mossberg encouraged the Great Men to waffle with him at great length about the Apple iPhone, possibly because this was a level of discussion he felt comfortable with. Then, he turned to taking the rise out of the head of Nokia (clearly some minor provincial), apparently having no idea where he was and who the audience were. At one point he used the success of the US automakers as an example; apparently, even if the Europeans had invented the car, blah, blah. Why was Nokia so weak in the US? Kallasvuo replied to this at some length, taking in several major news announcements of the day, some technical issues, questions of design and more.

The subject was changed back to iPhones.

By this point I was only staying in the hall in anticipation of the promised questions from the floor. I had a strong sense of having wasted my time.

Asking provocative questions is a time honoured way of drumming up business at conferences, as well as a contribution in itself. After the next homey anecdote about so-and-so’s wife and the funny little keys on their Nokia, my finger was itching. It was time to throw a pavé in the water. Questions were finally announced, and the first to be called was none other than John Strand, who I interviewed for the first ever story I wrote for Mobile Comms International in 2005.

And that was when the comfortable round of anecdotage was broken up; Strand started positively shouting that the session was outrageously US-centric, that the iPhone made up a tiny percentage of the market, and why weren’t we talking about something more useful? Dead silence…and then, applause. The viewpoint of the entire hall had shifted to yer man, standing near the back, surrounded by horrified organisers.

Neither Mossberg or Ballmer had any answer to this; it was a My Pet Goat moment. The rest of the world had turned up and crashed their OODA loop completely. In a theatrical sense, it was positively Brechtian; his intervention, in breaking the frame, forced an alienated re-evaluation of the characters. Kallasvuo maintained a poker face; there was a rumour that De La Vega sought Strand out later.

Before I or anyone else could move in with a further question, Mossberg announced that the session was closed and left quickly through the stage door, as Strand was still orating, having been deprived of the microphone. I couldn’t help imagining a helicopter on the roof. It was the most fun all week.

In which the Database nearly got me.

So I went to 3GSM (sorry, sorry, Mobile World Congress). Now, these things are usually fairly good previews of the ID-card future – constant RFID-tag badging, lists everyone in the world is either on or they aren’t, security theatre aplenty. On this occasion, when I visited the registration Web page, I was invited to check off sessions I wanted to take part in from a list. Oddly enough, one of the options was given as “Cocktail and Ministerial Dinner”.

Of course, I’m enough of a chancer that I put a tick in the box. Later, my registration e-mail pinged through; and, next to the seminars on credit transfer by SMS, unified communications APIs, progress in billing systems, etc, etc, there it was. No detail of when or where, though. So, on Monday night with no – no invitations and paralysed for the evening, I quizzed a GSMA staffer about it. They made some calls. Eventually the word came that I should take a cab to the National Theatre at once.

When I got there, perhaps I should have realised this was going to be a little heavy; a little heavy stood on each street corner, in that “serious security” way. I showed documents, and there was much phoning, and eventually I was shown through a door into what appeared to be security control. At first, there was someone who was coming to meet me; then, a tiny intense woman in an expensive suit appeared. There was a “grande problema” – people kept saying this.

“This isn’t an invitation”, she said. I suggested it was a lot like one. “It didn’t come from us”. It seemed an unusual coincidence. “If it had come from us it would be on a formal card and it would have come from the Spanish embassy!” No answering that one. Then: How did I get it? I must photocopy all the documents. Do you mean to say you could register for this from the general congress site? Do you realise the king could be here and – the president of Catalonia?

Her voice dropped sharply out of sheer reverence when she got to the bit about the president of Catalonia. I was beginning to worry I might be deported, possibly to Spain, or else that they would cancel my security pass. It went on; they now insisted that they needed to send me a letter of apology. I said they shouldn’t bother; eventually I was allowed to slink away like a dog, presumably cleared of ill-will towards the president of Catalonia.

What struck me most about the whole scene was that nobody seemed to accept that the Big Database could possibly be wrong. It seemed easier to imagine that I had forged the entire invite.

photos

I may not be blogging 3GSM for this blog, but you can look at the pictures on Flickr, here.

3GSM, sorry MWC

I’ll be at 3GSM, sorry, MWC in Barcelona from Sunday evening to Thursday morning.

I’m increasingly annoyed by official-media consensus that young people will suffer more than anyone else from the recession. Not that I especially doubt this; I doubt the reasoning, which appears to be that they’ve all gone soft and they’re not like we were in my day. As a general principle, I believe this is usually wrong, being unfalsifiable and all, and also being a projection of one’s own fear of death.

But on the specific case, I dispute the facts. It wasn’t a great time to be young; by definition, when you’re young your only source of income is wages, and the labour share of national income has been flat for years. Indeed, real wages have been flat for donkey’s years. A personal example; I was offered a job at Euromoney Institutional Investor on a salary of £16,000 per year, but on a six-month contract. Even at Mobile Comms International, it was a while before I was earning more an hour than I had been Pritt-Sticking the flaps of substandard envelopes whilst waiting for Bradford City’s second season in the Premier League. However, it improved, and I’m well aware I learnt a hell of a lot there. I spent around 20% of my post-tax income on my railway season ticket.

At the same time, both rents and house prices shot through the roof. This was crucial; the whole idea that home-owners got rich from the rise in the value of their property was dependent on someone buying it from them. People retiring and trading-down was a factor that had to match people trading-up; at bottom, there had to be first-time buyers, who are generally young. The net effect of right-to-buy and the great property bull run was to transfer wealth from first-time buyers to sellers; in the aggregate, the Bank of Mum and Dad was borrowing from the kids.

And, of course, there were tuition fees, top-up fees, and for a cohort including me, both the fees and no student grants. Meanwhile, we were told we ought to consume and keep the economy going, take part in the creative industries and volunteer, but do this while joining the job market, to borrow heavily to pay for further and higher education, to accumulate savings on deposit, to save for retirement (or in other words, to pay others’ pensions), that we were a bunch of unserious greenies, that we were politically apathetic, that we would face the consequences of climate change (after it became respectable to worry), that we were all drug fiends and music characterised by repetitive beats was against the law, that we weren’t getting on the housing ladder, that we were borrowing too much money (this from the people who brought you Citigroup) and that people who were slightly younger ought to be punished for playing hooky in order to demonstrate against the Iraq war. To cap the lot, we were told we were drinking too much. If we were, who could guess why?

Actually, if I was younger, I think I’d be delighted by the crisis. I’ve got plenty of schadenfreude and indeed klammheimliche Freude as it is. Things I need (somewhere to live, somewhere to do interesting things) are likely to get cheap, and me minus five years doesn’t care about the cost of huge cars or Vertu mobile phones because he doesn’t have any money but does have more sense. The strength of ideological drivel is reduced; there has been a catastrophe in the intellectual environment, a meteorite has plunged into the credibility of the market monkeys, and as usual, this is followed by an adaptive radiation, a blossoming of new species into new or newly unoccupied niches.

Even when me minus five years starts working for the clampdown, at least he or she gets to save for their retirement in a low asset price world, and to bore me minus ten years with tales about how they staged bio-hacking parties in abandoned bank C-level offices, and how this gets them off inevitably joining the Conservative Party, or functional equivalent. Which is, after all, the claim to intellectual legitimacy of most of the people who spent all that time ordering me to simultaneously save, work, borrow, volunteer, spend, rebel, invest, and obey.

I suppose they must have meant one of those.