Over the years, Man (By which I mean H. sapiens sapiens, not just boys. The capital ‘M’ means that I’m trying to project a certain level of gravitas here. Is it working?) has struggled with a lot of questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the nature of reality? How do we know something exists? Is there a God? What is the meaning of life? How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? Complicated questions. Important questions. Big questions.
Some years ago, I gained some insight into one of them from a totally unexpected direction. (Not the Journal of Fluid Mechanics.)
An aside. (It only looks like one. It isn’t. Really. Would I lie to you?)
I’ve talked about call centers a few times (well, maybe more than a few), pretty much entirely in the context of computer tech support. These call centers exist to take your call (duh) and delay, complicate and restrict access to the people who can actually help you so that the computer company can claim proudly that they have an effective support arm but at the same time render it ineffectual. So they can make more money. Because, as it is so often, it’s all about the money.
(The purpose of a support arm isn’t actually to help people. It’s to help people who are able to pay while keeping costs tightly controlled and forcing
customers users to jump through elaborate hoops so they feel helpless, powerless and lost. And did I mention Procedures and Metrics? Managers (and other people in expensive suits) love Metrics. (Not that kind. Odds are they wouldn’t understand one of those.) And Procedures? They love those too. (Procedures are sort of like cancer: nobody knows exactly where they come from but they can’t be ignored.) (Am I just being cynical? I don’t think so.)
It’s an interesting factoid that one of the best pieces of software I’ve ever used had the development team doing product support — without a call center.
Well, I find it interesting.
Since it’s all about the money and because phone calls are essentially free these days, call centers pop up in the oddest places. For example, for years the multinational computer company that I’ve never explicitly named had a call center in Cape Breton. Atlantic Canada. Cape Breton was a logical choice: it has an adequate communication infrastructure, an educated population and perhaps most importantly, economic depression and massive unemployment. The fact that the population is good-natured and friendly almost certainly wasn’t part of the equation but it made dealing with that particular call center, not fun exactly, but not entirely a chore.
One day I had to call in a fairly minor hardware problem; I forget the details but it was probably something innocuous like a failed hard drive. (In a system with mirrored drives and up-to-date backups, a single drive failure is usually nothing to get excited about. Hard drives, when you have enough of them, sometimes fail a lot.) It happened late on a Friday afternoon, late enough that I had already gone home but one of my homebrew monitors (sort of like this one but, you know, written by me so a little uglier) had detected a fault and sent me a message. I sat down in the Green Chair of Thinkitude And Blowing Stuff Up and called the magic phone number. As luck would have it, the Fairy Godmother of call centers routed my call to Cape Breton.
It was late afternoon/early evening here; in Cape Breton it was an hour later so it was early evening. On a Friday. The exact time when a call-center-answering-the-phone guy might be expected to be a little… testy. But he was pleasant. Heck, he was more than pleasant — he was cheerful. Upbeat. Sunny, even. And then things got weird.
“Is that Rose?”
Wait, what? I hadn’t identified myself, I hadn’t given him the ridiculously long string of digits that identified me as a customer, I hadn’t provided a serial number or a contract number or any of the other forms of identification that might tell him who I was. He was basing his guess on me saying “Hello, I’d like to open a hardware issue please.” And how many calls does he handle in a week? Hundreds, certainly. I was impressed.
(That may have been the tipping point for me forming an unofficial Procedure of my own — if I got a difficult call center I’d call back over and over until random chance ‘took’ me to Cape Breton.)
But I was talking about Existence and Reality and stuff.
Back in 2002, the computer company that I’ve never explicitly named introduced a new server named after a breakfast staple (not bacon; I don’t find that particular meme particularly interesting). It was labelled ‘entry-level’ so they weren’t suitable for any sort of heavy lifting but they were entirely capable of modest production duties or development and testing. Plus they were dirt cheap so we bought a bunch — for a while there was quite a lot of them in the machine room — often in piles on shelves. (Stacks of computers, while convenient, are a bad idea: when one breaks — and one thing you can say with certainty about computers is that they WILL eventually break — it’s INEVITABLY the one on the bottom of the pile.)
One day I took one out of its box, put it on a shelf, connected a power cable, a network cable, a console cable and turned it on.
Nothing happened. DOA. Well, that happens sometimes. No worries, though — it was under warranty so I just had to call the brain trust and get them to send either a part or a guy named Mike with a part. Like I said, no worries.
The computer company that I’ve never explicitly named had recently opened a new call center somewhere in the third world. They had told me, though, that this call center wouldn’t be handling any of our calls.
Guess what? They lied.
“Hello, I’d like to open a hardware call. It will be a warranty call.”
“I can do that for you. Can you give me the serial number of the affected system?”
“I can.” I did.
“I’m sorry — that machine does not exist.” Not “can you repeat that”, not “can you double-check that”, not “I can’t find that serial number in my records”, but “that machine does not exist.”
And then he hung up.
Earlier I mentioned that one of life’s Big Questions was ‘How do we know something exists?’ Well, we know that a computer exists if a call center employee in India says that it doesn’t.
Like I said, you can sometimes find insight into the Big Questions in totally unexpected places.