The Sad Decline of Tech Support

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By Grace Peng

Keith Blount's post about DIY software houses includes this crucial point: "...an important part of the day-to-day running of a software company is, naturally, tech support."

This brought back the memory of my initiation into the arcane world of tech support.

"Save yourself some time, use my phone," said the Unix sys admin I introduced in this story.

"Why?" I asked.

She explained about caller ID and tech-support triage. If I called from my phone at my desk, my call would be routed to a level 1 customer service rep. If I called from her phone, a level 3 rep would take the call.  She said that my problem was level 3 or higher and it would save me considerable time to initiate the service call from her phone.

This was 20 years ago, a quaint time when tech support for the U.S. market resided in the U.S.  When I read this CNN story stating that Alpine Access invented the use of customer service reps working from home, I felt it was important to set the record straight.

There was a time when armies of mothers worked part-time at home fielding calls for myriad companies such as Johnson and Johnson (biology and chemistry majors) and Digital Equipment Corporation (math/CS majors).

In DEC's case, some of these women were part of a welfare-to-work program where the state paid for their medical care, DEC-paid minimum wage, and part of every dollar the women earned was deducted out of their welfare checks. The mothers didn't have to hire babysitters -- hence the occasional crying baby and "I'll call you right back." They could work anywhere, even rural or inner city locales with few job opportunities. In addition, they didn't have to add commuting time to their workday or lose a job due to unreliable transportation. It was a win-win for DEC, the taxpayers, the environment (no commute!), the mothers and their children.

The women were able to brush up on their work skills, their children could see mommy working instead of waiting for a handout, and the employer got to take employees for a test run. Promising women received continuing education and were able to work their way up the job ladder and become level 3 and higher tech support or other jobs in the software industry that pay a living wage.

This system was analogous to the system that allowed women in the 1930s ("human calculators" that calculated rocket trajectories by manually computing differential equations) to work their way up the job ladder to become mathematicians. This ladder helped establish women in applied math/computational science. History and the role model effect created an environment that attracted more women and, crucially, encouraged universities to accept women into math programs because there was a job market waiting for trained women.

The ladder is long gone, and we also have plummeting numbers of women working in STEM.

Programmers that field technical support calls learn how people actually use their software and the impact of software architecture decisions and coding mistakes. Tech support representatives learn which bugs are fixable and which software architecture patterns they should not emulate. It gives the customer immediacy and the programmer/tech support a 360-degree view of their software. It's important training and should be part of every programmer's and software architect's work history.

If we offshore technical support, we lose a part of ourselves.

DEC went bankrupt. It was bought by Compaq, which was in turn bought by HP. About five years ago, HP made the decision to off-shore nearly all their tech and software support. The transition was completed about three years ago.

It's more than a tragedy for women. It's a tragedy for the software industry, our economy and our entire nation. Here's why.

Keith mentioned the importance of sending screen shots in tech support. It goes both ways. The customer also needs to send screen shots of what they see to tech support. There are sound legal and security reasons for why a customer cannot send a screen shot out of the country. Any company that off-shores their tech support necessarily cedes the security-conscious part of the market. They also lose control of their intellectual property -- both their source code and their understanding of the failures/limitations of their code.

Small software shops such as Keith's keep their tech support in-house. Some large companies off-shore most of their tech support but keep a small cadre of stateside tech support personnel, which the security conscious customers can access for an additional fee (typically 10-100% more than for off-shore support).

One large company has the chutzpah to shunt all of their level 1-3 support to a non-English speaking country. To get support from someone who can do more than read a script and can communicate in English would cost around 10,000% of the base price of their software. Caveat emptor.

Software contracts rarely mention where the tech support resides or the quality of the tech support so it is important to ask before you sign on the dotted line. I need not emphasize the importance to get it in writing.

If I were on the board of directors of these companies, I would fire any CEO who off-shores customer service and code maintenance for any other reason than to be closer to the customer or to maintain a 24-hour hotfix cycle.

An aside: College students and others who couldn't work full-time or in a conventional setting, e.g. the disabled, also used to work tech and customer support.

Grace Peng has a day job at the intersection of science, technology and governance/policy. She also does a split shift at home as a mother and wife to a field scientist. She blogs about science, the culture of making, and work/life issues at Bad Mom, Good Mom.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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