Sunday, 10 July 2016

Return to Sender

A.K.A. How Not to Treat Your Customers

A.K.A. Adventures in Bad Experiences

Recently I ordered some Pentel Arts Aquash Waterbrushes through Amazon Canada. I didn't realize, at the time of purchase, that these were being fulfilled by a company on the other side of the border. That, in itself, probably doesn't make a lot of difference to me, but the delivery choices they made certainly did...

So, to deliver the brushes to me, the seller used DHL Global Mail who will take the shipped goods across the border and then will hand them off to Canada Post. Not really a big deal, this was all to happen before things got a little hairy on the possible strike/lockout front, but then the product was never actually delivered. In fact, looking at the tracking history, Canada Post picked up the product on the 22nd of June, sat on it for a couple of weeks, and then returned it to DHL on July 7th with absolutely nothing happening in between. It gets better, though, as the seller then tells me that DHL then destroys the package as they're unable to return it across the border.

Where to begin with such a customer experience? Lets start with a global delivery company, that being DHL, not actually handling the package all the way through to final delivery themselves. It's not like they don't have the facilities to do it, but instead they hand it off to another company and then effectively they lose track of it. Couple that, which itself would be a relatively minor issue if the deliveries made it, when they do get return of the package they make no attempt to find out what is going on and make no effort to contact the seller for clarity. No, they just destroy the package and move on. It's a good thing that what I ordered wasn't one of a kind! I don't even know where to begin with how incredibly bad a customer experience that is, it would certainly encourage me to never use their service for anything even remotely important in the future.

Now lets talk Canada Post... I'm not even really sure where to begin. Let's start off with picking up a package and not doing anything with it. How incredibly ridiculous is that? However, this can happen, I get that mail rooms can be busy, the package could have fallen off something, etc. These things happen. However, the solution to something like that is to finish the delivery! No, nothing like compounding what could have been a simple mistake by returning to sender instead, as Canada Post then chose to do.

It gets better, though, oh so much better. You see, when you do want to find out what is going on, you can call or you can use social media.

Let's start with social media, shall we? It turns out that they only monitor it from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm ET. Yep, if you happen to live in another time zone, well, too bad. I don't, but I do have to wonder what planet they live on? This is a 24/7 world now, people may not get an opportunity to contact them until after work and, as a consequence, their Twitter/Facebook messages don't get any attention. Even worse when it's a Friday, since it's now a multi-day lack of response, only leading to additional anger and frustration as a result. If nothing else, recognize that you serve a country that spans many time zones and handle appropriately.

So, discovering that social media is a bust, I did manage to call. Those hours are marginally better, but then you have to wade through menu, and message, hell just to talk to a human being. Finally, somewhere! Nope. The depth of detail they were able to give me was that it was returned to sender (which I already knew) and that the reason would be on the package which, as I've been given to understand, has since been destroyed. I'm at a loss for how to explain how ridiculously bad a customer service experience it is for Canada Post to not be able to tell me why they returned a package to the sender and then to return it to one that will destroy it. Seriously. It has to be unintentional, it would require a level of absurd maliciousness to deliberately craft an experience like that and, even with my currently low opinion of them, this is probably too much.

The only one that seems to do the right thing here is Amazon. I filed a failed delivery refund claim which they're now processing. I have confidence there. I feel for the sending company, but at the end of the day, I'm not going to be out $50 for their delivery choices and I've already recommended to them that they consider switching carriers for the future.

Customer experience really does matter.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Interesting Definition

Sophie Turner at HBO's Season 3 Premier
By Suzi Pratt
Used under Creative Commons 2.0
It's probably not news to most people by now that various US-based media companies are cracking down on cross-border watchers from Canada. This is, for the most part, a consequence of very dated licensing agreements and policies that still look to enforce geographic borders in the age of the borderless Internet. Still, agreements are agreements and I respect that even when I wonder what they're thinking when they do that. This is why, despite the relative ease that content such as the ever-popular Game of Thrones, I wait until the content hits iTunes and then I buy it. I fully support the content makers getting paid appropriately so that they continue to create great content.

That does, of course, mean that I need to be a little deaf to information about the current episodes of some of these shows, yes I know about Jon Snow, but that's the price of cutting the cord and being honest about it. However, when I see articles like "HBO tells Game of Thrones pirates it's easy to pay for shows" on a Canadian website, then I feel a need to investigate the veracity of that claim.

So, in the context of the article, the folks at HBO and Bell inform us that you can legally stream episodes through the use of TMN Go. That's great! I'm in! Oops, wait, it turns out you need a subscription to the movie package through an existing TV provider such as Bell, Rogers, Shaw, etc. Well, I'm in Cogeco land so I decided to see what the cost of entry to watch the only show I'm actually interested in...

  • Basic Channels - $25/month (only because the CRTC forced the issue)
  • The Movie Network Channel - $21.99/month (needed to get HBO)
That doesn't include the receiver cost, which Cogeco will give you free for 6 months, but then you pay to rent it after that. So, leaving aside the receiver, the monthly cost to watch HBO's Game of Thrones in my area is, at least, $46.99/month. For reference, a Game of Thrones full season, in HD, on iTunes is $43.99. 

So, given that each season has 10 episodes and, if we say it's roughly 3 months to broadcast a full season, then my cost per episode on a cable subscription is about $14 per versus $4.40 if I wait and buy the set, assuming that I only hold onto my cable package for the duration of the season and that's still not counting taxes, various fees, and the hassle of returning the equipment when I'm done.

Now, for my view, I would be more than happy to pay $21.99/month for TMN Go all on its own. That's pretty close to the HBO Now price that our US cousins pay when you factor in exchange rates, but it's not an option today. Fixing that would, in my view, make the HBO and Bell claim true. Until then, however, it's patently false.

Interesting definition of "easy" they have, you just need to be a little naive.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Don't be a Brake

There's a very fine line between supplying guardrails and supplying brakes when it comes to an Agile journey and many really struggle to see the difference.

At the heart of any Agile transformation is the willingness to empower your teams to make decisions and take action and the key to that is context. When you first start out, a major challenge is establishing context and ensuring that your teams know what you're attempting to accomplish. That period of growth will, in many cases, have some rather spectacular explosions and so businesses will often put some guardrails in place to minimize the blast radius as much as possible.

These guardrails are okay because being Agile doesn't mean you get to go full-tilt Wild West where anything goes! However, we want to make sure that these are actually rails and not brakes, and that's sometimes hard to spot.

So, as your teams start to experiment and look at new ways to do things, the question you need to start asking yourself is simple: what can really go wrong if I let them try? Much of what we do will have some element of risk attached to it, that's expected, but as a leader you have a responsibility to make good risk assessments and guide your teams accordingly. That does not mean "no" for the sake of saying "no." It's entirely parental to tell someone "no, because I said so" and as a consequence, it's important that you understand why you're saying that and that you're able to provide significant context.

A better way to tackle that, though, is to ask powerful questions about what they're looking to do. You're a leader, so lead the teams to a better answer by educating them, providing context, and explaining risks. You always have "no" in your back pocket, but the use of it should be really infrequent and very carefully considered when all else fails and the risk really is too great.

The other aspect of self-examination is to ask yourself if you're saying "no" as a default position. I find that many who use that often do so because they don't have an informed response and so saying no is a way of avoiding the need to become informed or to buy time to get informed. Either way, it's not a good approach, primarily because it immediately deflates your team. One of the worst feelings for a people in a workplace is to have your enthusiasm shot down with a "no" by a poorly informed manager. If you're not informed enough to respond, say so, and then become informed with their help. That may, as a result of the journey, inform both you and your team as to the right course of action and it's very powerful.

In the end, the line between a leader and a manager is, quite often, understanding the difference between a guardrail and a brake. A leader helps the person climb the wall, helping to reduce risk while facilitating the challenge. A manager probably won't let you climb it in the first place.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Words Matter

One of the things that you'll often hear in the workplace is the term resources. By that, many mean, all of the people and equipment needed to get a particular task done. In fact, some dictionaries back up the concept in their definitions (bearing in mind that dictionaries are written by people in a workplace).

Whats the concern then? After all, we have "Human Resources" as a department in just about every business larger than a handful of people. Well, the problem is that is dehumanizing, even when combined with "human" at the front.

It's dehumanizing because it presumes that people are interchangeable, like chairs, and that each one doesn't bring something unique and important to the problem. When dealing with complex tasks and challenges in the modern technology world, you very quickly learn that it's not a matter of having just anyone there, you need the right people there, the ones with the knowledge, skill, and desire to get it done. Those people aren't chairs and considering them like that is unlikely to help you succeed in the long run because, quite frankly, it's demotivating.

Speaking of demotivating terms, there's an expression that probably also needs to enter the dustbin of corporate speak: let's throw some more bodies at it. Maybe we should recognize that term is synonymous with cannon fodder and has roots in the idea of disposable people and realize just how offensive that really is. As a leader, if your team is truly disposable, then you have even bigger problems than you realize.

I recognize that modern usage is more about the concept of all hands on deck needed to deal with a ship in peril, but what you really need is the right hands on deck. That's where being a leader comes into play, as it shows that you have a grasp of a situation and are able to think reasonably and rationally, rather than just panic.

We swarm problems in agile software development, so I recognize the value of many minds, but the key is recognizing that all of the minds engaged are unique and that the size of the swarm is appropriate to the situation. That brings me back, full circle, to note that if all of the minds swarming a problem are unique, then maybe we should be talking about finding the right people and resources to get the task done.

So, words matter. Treat your people like people and not like things, the difference it makes will be remarkable.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

What's in a Perq?

Knowing when to run is important.
"There's a sign on the wall, but she wants to be sure 'cause you know sometimes words have two meanings." - Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven

As some may know, I recently had the opportunity to pitch to prospective job seekers at Techfest Toronto (that's me on stage, by the way). It was a fun evening, though a little nerve wracking standing in front of more than 700 people! However, that's not the story to be told here, it's one of the reasons I'm even thinking about this today.

The other reason I'm thinking about this is a meeting at work that discussed the concepts of servant leadership. In other words, leaders enabling people to do great things by providing help, context, knowledge (skills), and tools rather than direction. 

In any event, during the course of the Techfest pitches, there were a number of organizations that talked about office related perqs. As a community, I think it's safe to say that many of us have come to expect many of these as table stakes for an employer to be offering for us to even consider them. The difference is in the fine print...

So, as Robert Plant sang, sometimes words have two meanings. In other words, it's worth having a look at what is hidden behind those perqs and why. It's an open secret that many software shops are really technology sweatshops, albeit often well-paid ones, and that many of the perqs are there to keep you at your desk longer. 

For example, three meals a day? I'm good with lunch, probably breakfast too, but dinner is a warning signal. Maybe when I was younger, but even then, I have friends, family, a partner, that I'd like to see, maybe have a meal with. Meal plans like that are indicative of a company that wants you there from the early hours of the morning to the later hours of the evening. If you like that, okay, but there's more to life than your desk.

How about free dog walking? That's pretty cool. Even more cool is to actually have time to do it yourself and maybe, just maybe, pet your dog and play with him. Kind of the point of having a dog, really.

Not a perq, but another warning sign is time sheets, especially when you don't bill to a customer. I've heard a lot of the explanations, had to use them myself from time to time, but "using it help refine estimates" is a common explanation and the least likely to actually be the purpose.  Many places use it to measure employee "engagement" on the job and it's probably the easiest, and distinctly the most inaccurate, way to do this, but not uncommon.

I spent twenty years or so working in your classic software company and there were a lot of great times, great laughs, and even greater friends that came from those years, but with that also came a lot of late nights, lost weekends, and artificial stress. I did learn something from all of that, though, and that's to have a look for hidden meanings. It's a hard won skill, if nothing else.

In case you're wondering, we have some great perqs, but we don't do time sheets and we don't expect you to start early and stay late, which brings me back to servant leadership. You can try to solve the challenge of maximizing output by demanding unreasonable commitment and justifying it through perqs or you can do it through providing people with the context, skills and tools they need to do great things and then setting them loose to do it. I firmly believe that the latter is a far more effective way to engage people and increase their productivity. 

So, whether you're seeking new opportunities or offering them to others, this is something to think about. I think it's important for companies to offer opportunities for fun while at work, doing so is good for general mental health, the underlying reason is always something to be aware of.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

I forgot what I was going to write about

Ever have those days where you have this brilliant idea for something just before you go to bed and, because you failed to write it down, you forgot what it was? Well, that just happened to me...

I've commented at work, a few times now, that you often don't realize how many balls you throw in the air until you go on vacation and have to catch them all when you come back. As complicated as that can be, there's something really great about working in a place that allows you to stretch out and try many things. However, I suspect that this is a big factor in why I forgot what I was going to write about. It'll come to me, eventually, and hopefully it will be devastatingly brilliant.

In the meanwhile, some really cool things have been happening in my working world...

1. We now have a shiny new blog: Capital One Canada Engineering that we just unveiled this week. It's exciting to have this up because it forms one of the ways we hope to engage with and give back to the general tech community. Not a lot to show, just yet, but we're working on it!

2. We're rocking our way into Techfest Toronto, 2016 and we're the only financial institution! I'm speaking there, techie-a-techie, giving you the lowdown on how cool we are. So, yep, that's me in that list and I'm really looking forward to telling folks about us, so hopefully you're checking it out.

3. We also have a new C1 Tech Series event coming up on March 24th. This one is by Patrick Quattlebaum. If you're not familiar with Patrick, he's the head of Adaptive Path and a brilliant designer of fantastic human experiences in the digital world. You don't want to miss this and the donations are for the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital. A great talk for a great cause, so come on out. You don't even have to be a techie to enjoy it.

There's even more great things coming, so keep an eye on our tech blog for more.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

CUSEC 2016 - Well Done!

This past week I had the good fortune of attending CUSEC 2016 as a member of the Capital One sponsor team. For those not familiar, CUSEC is the Canadian University Software Engineering Conference that is hosted annually in Montréal, Québec and has grown from its humble roots in 2002 to the fantastic student event it is now.

So, as I'm wont to do with these things, I thought I would write up a little retrospective on this event as well. Before I get into the "what went well vs what could be improved" thoughts, let me first state that this was easily one of the best run conferences I've been to in a long time. The whole event, from top to bottom, was very well put together and I think each and every student organizer deserves a massive round of applause for such a fantastic job. Professional event organizers would be hard pressed to do better.

What went well?

  • General organization. The team working on the event had things lined up and moving along nicely. Everything from initial registration to daily activities were smooth and professional. The only glitch was the breakfast the first morning, but I think that was the hotel more than the event team.
  • Sponsor care and, well, feeding. I was not expecting that they would be looking after us in that respect, but they did and did it well. I haven't attended a lot of events as a sponsor, but I definitely felt appreciated by the organizers!
  • Sponsor speeches were well attended and they gave us 60 seconds each. People actually appeared to be listening too. :)
  • Great speakers, which seems to be a hallmark of the event, but here's the really cool idea: they put the speaker's event time and date on their badge. Brilliant.
  • Super friendly staff. Not only really helpful, but they were friendly and chatty and that makes us feel really welcomed. Very impressed with how engaged and interested they were.
  • Workshops by sponsors. Giving the opportunity for sponsors to put on workshops was great and I highly recommend that future sponsors take advantage of it. Not only is it a good way to continue your connection with the students, it's a good way to promote yourself.

Thoughts for improvement...

Not a lot really, these are just suggestions that I think would up their game another notch.
  • Put the speaker's talk title/subject on their badge too. The date and time is brilliant, this is a minor tweak to that idea (one that I intend to really remember).
  • Consider a conversational table layout for the workshop rooms. The structure was a bit lecture like and really encouraged the traditional "back of the class" model. Having a conversational layout allows for better idea exchange. You could have both styles available, giving some options, but also allowing for additional events. 
  • Following along the conversational table model, that's also a possibility for the keynote room. It can work really well, it did at the Toronto Agile Conference, because it lends itself to greater discussion and removes the "stare at somebody's back" situation.
  • More lightening talks! I really enjoyed them, I have to admit, and I'd have loved to have seen more.

Summing it up

If you're a Software Engineering student, this is well worth attending. Not only can you learn a lot of things through the talks, but there are great opportunities to talk to sponsors about career goals, résumé constructions, job and internship opportunities, and more. Lots for you there.

If you're a company considering sponsorship, go for it. This is a really well done conference with a great opportunity to get engaged with the next generation of techies. That's a real positive and one I can only recommend as the competition for these talented students gets more intense.