Monthly Archives: March 2008

The $10/hr Dilemma

Everybody who enjoys calling tech support, raise your hand.

No one?

As a long-time IT Director, who came up through the system administration ranks, I dread those situations where the deadline is near, the answer is far, and the only option is to call the company’s support line. Mind you, it’s never my first option – a well-phrased Google query, first sent to the web, then to Google Groups, is far more likely to get an answer quickly. And there are those application manuals, gathering dust – the best ones will have good indexes. Also, decent applications have online support forums, and the best ones let you search without joining first.

What makes me crazy is this: the chances that the $10/hr front line support person answering the phone will know more about the application than I do are slim. This isn’t arrogance, it’s experience. I’ve almost certainly installed more applications in my career than he or she has ever used. And I know, for a fact, that that support person has a script — a series of questions that they have to ask me verifying that I’ve tried all of the things that I’ve already tried.

So my mission, should I be lucky enough to accomplish it, is to bypass all of this. Sometimes I can, sometimes I can’t – kind of depends on how much independent thought the $10/hr type is willing to apply. Here are my techniques:

  1. Remember that I’m speaking with someone who makes $10/hr (or less, particularly if it’s outsourced to another country) to take all sorts of abuse. I’m patient, polite, gracious. It’s not their fault that I have the problem, whatever the problem is.
  2. Appeal to their intelligence. Experience, which I have the edge on, isn’t intelligence, and salary level isn’t an indicator, either. If the support dude feels like I’m treating him or her respectfully, they’ll be more motivated to really help me.
  3. That said, still be authoritative and a touch arrogant. Let them know that you are not a novice. “I’m IT Director for a national organization and have years of experience with all types of software. I have a specific question about this feature; I have tried all of the standard debugging methods and have been through the manual and support forum. If you are not the person most knowledgeable about this area, can you connect me to someone who can assist me?” Goal here – skip to the higher level tech support, do not pass go, do not collect half an hour of aggravation.

I don’t vary any of this for U.S. based vs. outsourced support. It’s the same job and territory. If anything, based on experience, it does seem to me that the outsourced first-level support is often more knowledgeable than American counterparts, maybe because it’s not an entry level job in India or China, or one with high turnover, as it likely is here.

[This post is a shout out to friends in the NTEN IT Directors Affinity Group, a few of whom made the request]

Horton Homeschools a Who

As anyone who has kids, was a kid, or was an adult who has the good sense to read great kid books knows, Horton was an elephant who heard a tiny voice on a speck of dust and sought to protect the infinitesimally tiny population therein. His antagonist in Dr. Seuss’ classic “Horton Hears A Who” was a sour kangaroo who maintained “A person on that? … Why, there never has been!”. Not to belabor the obvious, but we have Horton representing imagination and free thinking, and the kangaroo preaching narrow-mindedness and suspicion.

So, I took my family to see the movie yesterday. The movie takes the ten minute tale and strrrreeetttccchhess it into a 90 minute film with mostly topical humor. As father to a homeschooled son, I was pretty offended by one joke. Early on, the haughty, over-critical kangaroo, voiced by Carol Burnett, protests that Horton can’t be allowed to spread these horrible lies about tiny people, that he’ll corrupt the youth with his overactive imagination. But her little kangaroo will be all right – “he’s pouch-schooled”.

This promotes the sad, but popular stereotype of homeschool parents as over-protective and narrow-minded. It’s this type of stereotype that, last month, led a three judge panel to rule, in a case of possible domestic abuse, that children can’t be homeschooled in California unless the primary parent doing the homeschooling is an accredited teacher.

Three judges ruled on one case of possible neglect and abuse, and then took a giant club and swung it as wide and far as they could, hitting every one of the estimated 200,000 homeschooling families in California. We aren’t abusing our child; we aren’t hiding him from the world — quite the opposite! What we’re doing is working as hard as we can to provide the educational environment that he will soar in.The state government should respect that.

I’m blogging this because it’s the tip of a very large iceberg. While homeschooling wasn’t our first choice, public school isn’t an alternative that we would consider, even if our kid was one of the minority of children whose learning style meshes with that educational model. The No Child Left Behind Act is ravaging our school systems, and creating an environment where fear and threats determine the curriculum, much as fear and threats have dominated our political arena in the George W. Bush years. Children are taught to pass tests, and the ability to test well is a skill unrelated to the ability to think.

The kangaroos are in the classroom. What kind of world will my child grow up into, if all of his peers are taught only how to memorize, not to imagine and discern?

NTC08 Part 2: In Honor of Marnie Webb

At the NTEN awards on Friday, Marnie Webb took the Person of the Year award, and rightly so! In honor of Marnie, a key originator of the nptech community, I want to share the story of how I met her. And try to make her blush a bit more. 🙂

In 2004, I was reading Jon Udell‘s Infoworld columns about a new technology called “Really Simple Syndication”, RSS. The technology interested and thrilled me a bit, because it looked like it might provide a much needed management tool for web-based information (which it did). In early 2005, I was browsing through popular bookmarked web sites at, a web site that made innovative use of RSS, and saw a link entitled “The Top 10 Reasons that Nonprofits Should Use RSS“. I noted that the author, one Marnie Webb, of course, worked near me in SF at Compumentor/Techsoup. The next week, I ran across a post by the same Ms. Webb to the mailing list. Armed with the knowledge that there was someone else obsessed with the same technology trends and potential that I was, I emailed her and said “You don’t know me, but we have to have lunch”.

The rest is this story — this blog, Techcafeteria, my happiness in finding/joining NTEN, which Marnie introduced me to. We started up the nptech aggregator web site, as the next logical progression in Marnie’s campaign to get people around the world referring useful information to each other via that ubiquitious tag. But I am positive that my story is far from unique — Marnie is one of those people who, in her unassuming way, promotes ideas and community. So, good work NTEN, and great work Marnie! A well-deserved award.

Back from NTC08

What a week – I flew to Tallahassee in Sunday and had a great visit with the attorneys and staff at Earthjustice’s office there, then hopped a couple of planes Tuesday night to New Orleans for NTEN’s annual Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC). As usual:

  • a bigger crowd than the prior year;
  • a meticulously planned event that leaves no room for anyone not to get a lot out of it;
  • great speakers; great food; great networking.

I participated as a panelist in three sessions:

  • Change Management: The People Side of Tech Adoption, which I designed. Steve Heye, a technology planner for the YMCA, and Dahna Goldstein, CEO of Philantech joined me, replacing Amir Tabei, CIO of NPower Texas, who fell victim to air traffic problems that messed up a number of NTC commutes. I thought the session went reasonably well, with some valuable info imparted and a good dialogue, but it got a little testy toward the end, which I think is indicative of a lot of the frustration we all have with the knowledge that technology planning is key to successful change management, but there are still far too few CEOs that get that. Or, it could be because the room was too small and we were practically sitting on top of eachother…
  • Will Your Data Be Yours? Evaluating Data Exchange in Software. This one, led by Laura Quinn of Idealware and with Alan Gallauresi of Beaconfire, was far more technical, diving deep into data exchange technology. Alan took the real technical role, and I did my bit to soften it and tie it to real world examples, but, truth is, I think we had an audience that was pretty good with the acronyms, and it was another successful session.
  • Finally, Roundtable: How I Solved my Data Integration Problem was led by Dahna (above), and we were joined by Corey Snipes of Twomile Information Services and Richard Jeong of The Friends Committee on National Legislation. Again, the other guys took the more technical side while I presented the management issues. This was, I think, the best session of the three. It really was a mix of the first two topics, focusing heavily on the politics around integration projects, and the dialogue was really robust, as with the Change Management session, but much more friendly.

Rumor has it that that last session was videotaped – I’ll link here if it shows up.

I also attended a pretty compelling session on organizational metrics. Steve Wright (Salesforce) and Rem Hoffman (The Center for What Works — day job: Exponent Partners) pitched a movement to change the metrics that nonprofits are judged by from the standard financial ones that Guidestar tracks to a more mission accomplishment-based model. This is an ambitious, but important effort, and Rem’s Center is a good place to start.

On Friday, I attended the first Meeting of the NTEN IT Directors Affinity Group, and, once again, we were in far too small a room. It started out a bit surreally. We all agreed that this was a place for the leaders of Information teams in organizations to talk freely about our challenges and our vendors. We started the session with round the room intros – name, org, number you serve and number on your staff. The fourth person explained that he was from some charity-focused telco and wanted to talk to us about his company’s offerings. I truly thought this was a joke, but when I called him on it he got up and shuffled uncomfortably out of the room. If you do anything similar to what I do for a living, then you know that it’s an endless barrage of cold calls and spam. As IT decision makers, we are all walk around with big targets on our chests for these vendors. They have little sense of propriety, as this truly illustrated. It’s amazing that they don’t just ring my doorbell and invite themselves over for dinner at night.

Note: I make a huge distinction between vendors selling products and services and nonprofit-focused consultants (circuit riders). Circuit riders tend to people who are just as mission-focused as I am, and see a more effective role for themselves as freelancers than employees. Vendors want to sell me products. There are many decent, nice vendors, and many who will discount software for worthwhile organizations, and I’m highly appreciative. But the best ones also know that we have enough to do without listening to pitches every ten seconds. Hard selling in the nonprofit community is not cool.

So, rants out of the way, the conference also offered great New Orleans excursions for food, the traditional Day of Service, where conference attendees donate time and expertise to local non-profits (I consulted for the Pro Bono Project), and a couple of keynotes. They were unusually weak this year – David Pogue, NYTimes tech critic, gave an entertaining canned performance that, while funny, lacked much in the way of relevance and depth. Most of us actually already knew about cell phones, Google, Internet TV and Web two-dot-oh. He would have done better to find out who he was addressing prior. On Friday, three women from New Orleans non-profits told interesting stories and painted the rosiest picture possible of New Orleans’ post-katrina recover– I mean, renaissance. Their talk was countered by a rash of twitter links to articles on how only a 16th of the families that own houses have actually received the money promised them (not to mention the fact that anyone renting is just out of luck). New Orleans felt like a ghost town, with pretty empty streets and lots of for sale signs. It is certainly inspiring to see and hear about the efforts of the local churches and nonprofits to rebuild it, but it’s a continuing disgrace that the government and national media ignore the situation and let incompetence guide every move. The federal government has pretty much abandoned the gulf coast.

Next year, NTC comes home — it’s in San Francisco. I look forward to attending without flying, for once! I have every confident that it will be one of the five best conferences I’ll have ever attended, as this, my fourth NTC, was one of the four.