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My Response to Dell Customer Support May 19, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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This gives me no pleasure, but I simply don’t know what happened to this company over the last couple of years.

Ms Athaluri – Thank you for your email.  I have received this computer.  However, you have failed to answer a number of my questions.

  1. Why did Dell promise a response to my multiple questions within 24 hours, yet did not do so.  That written and verbal promise is almost certainly considered an enforceable contract under US law, yet Dell repeatedly failed to deliver.
  2. Why did Dell say on its website that the system shipped on May 10, when in fact it was not received by FedEx until May 17?  This once again is a broken promise.
  3. Why did Dell charge my credit card upon order, rather than upon shipment?  This is certainly against applicable US law.  The customer support rep I talked to said that it only sought authorization; AmEx tells a very different story.
  4. Why could not the telephone representative answer why my system had not shipped when Dell claimed it did?
  5. Why have you not addressed any of my questions?

I am appending this conversation to my complaint with the New Hampshire Attorney General.  And rest assured that this is absolutely the last purchase that this otherwise loyal 25 year Dell customer will be making from this company.

Thank you for nothing.

Peter Varhol

Dell is Terrible in All Parts of its PC Business May 17, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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Let me begin by saying that I have bought Dells for 25 years, both for personal and business use. Regrettably, this is the last one.  I met Michael Dell once, now about 25 years ago, in Boston.  He was in his late 20s, and uncomfortably nerdy in his ill-fitting suit.

So let me start with the most recent. I currently have a message on the Dell Support page warning that I am using an outdated version of Internet Explorer, and that all features may not work.  Um, except that the browser is Chrome; in fact, Chrome 50, the most current version.  The screen capture is below.

So, first, terrible IT. Dell should fire them all, except that it probably did and these are the outsourcers.  This is simply an unconscionable embarrassment to any tech company, let alone one such as Dell.

Second, I purchased yet another computer from Dell. Dell claimed to have shipped it a week ago, and provided the tracking number, with the caveat that it likely would not appear on FedEx tracking page for 24 hours.

Okay. Except that FedEx didn’t show it received at their facility for another week.  Even though Dell said they shipped it immediately.  And charged my credit card when the order was placed, not when it seemingly shipped.

I called Dell Support. I sent multiple emails through its Support email.  In all cases, I was promised a response within 24 hours.  Nope, no response whatsoever.

Dell, who do you think you are? If you treat longtime and loyal customers like this, how are you going to treat someone who just occasionally buys a computer?

I realize that you don’t care anymore, and probably don’t want even want to really be in business anymore. But stop treating your customers like they are garbage.  And stop charging credit cards when an order is placed, rather than shipped.  That is a questionable legal and definitely awful ethical practice.  You have no right to be in business.

Dell, it's Chrome, not IE.

Dell, it’s Chrome, not IE.

Some Hard Questions About Building a Team April 23, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Technology and Culture.
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I feel a certain kinship with Pieter Hintjens.  From his blog, it sounds like his diagnosis was similar to mine, last year.  My diagnosis was wrong, and I declined surgery.  In the same universe, he had the Whipple procedure, and has had at least several years of life tacked onto the end of his existence.  And they seem to have been productive years, in a professional and personal sense, although it sounds like he may have little time left on the mortal plane.

But, reading other posts of his, I would hesitate to place myself firmly in his camp. Among his posts, on the viability of GitHub moving forward:

>> . . . a climate in which political outsiders use the weapons of gender and race against meritocracy.

So what is meritocracy? And what are the weapons of gender and race?

There was a time when I believed in strict meritocracy, like it was something that was easily definable and measureable. Age and experience have cured me of that delusion.  In fact, we can’t define meritocracy in any way that doesn’t include our own biases.

Let me explain. Certainly, we can devise a test to determine who is the best at a particular skill.  Or can we?

I spent my formative years studying psychology, which is where I was introduced to the concept of bias. We have these things called IQ tests, which purport to measure innate intelligence.  Or something like that.  But whatever we are measuring is the end product of our own biases of what comprises intelligence.  There is a question on the standard IQ Test:  What color is a banana?  Seems straightforward.  But to someone growing up with spoiled bananas, or no bananas at all, or even is color-blind, the question becomes problematic.  Irrespective of intelligence.

I would not bet on a team that had the ten best programmers. I would bet on a team that worked as a team, with strengths and weaknesses.  To compensate for the weaknesses, we need different points of view.  To get different points of view, we need team members that are different, yet are cohesive.  That is harder, and we shy away from harder.

Yes, there are people, who in their ignorance or incompetence, brandish gender and race maxims as teleology. And yes, they are wrong in a fundamental sense.  And it is unfortunate that we have to endure them.

But that doesn’t mean that there is not value here. We are lazy.  We ascribe success to intelligence, or ability.  I say no.  Success means having teams with complementary skills, not the best skills necessarily, but skills that offer the best chance of working effectively together.

How can we tell the difference between real value and political one ups-man-ship? Ah, that is the rub.  I won’t pretend to be able to do so.  But I do know that choosing the ten best pure coders is a recipe for failure.

Graduating and the Cult of Organizational Culture April 12, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I’ll confess right at the beginning that I’ve been reading Dan Lyons, a.k.a. Fake Steve Jobs, and more recently with HubSpot. He notes that it, and other companies, promote a culture that those of us who have been around for a while may find strange.  One telling example is that when a person is fired (let go, laid off, or whatever you want to call it), they are euphemistically referred to as having “graduated”.

I’ve also been giving some thought to the simply incorrect concepts that are unquestioningly accepted in many tech companies regarding culture. Cultural fit is probably at the top of that list.  Dan cites the “culture code” that Netflix published in 2009, where Netflix views itself as a sports team, always looking to have “stars in every position”.

Um, no. That is not a sports team.  No sports team has stars at every position.  What they have are people that can contribute complimentary skills that, taken as a whole, make the team strong.  I seem to remember a professional football team from a few years ago that declared itself to be a “Dream Team” based on the quality of individual players.  That dream team went 4-12, resulting in the firing of the coach and dismantling of the team.

I feel safe in saying that Netflix is wrong, on so many levels.

As it happens, I know the Moneyball concepts fairly intimately, thanks to a series of presentations and articles I did. The Oakland Athletics didn’t consist of stars by any means.  In fact, it had no stars.  Instead, it had people who had well-defined results in specific areas that were highly correlated with winning games.

We can’t define what wins games in software, because there is a broad range of outcomes between being wildly successful and filing for bankruptcy. And that conclusion can change surprisingly fast.  It is a marathon, not a sprint with a defined winner and loser at the end of each day.  But we can build a team to thrive through good times and adversity.  And that team might have stars, but it also has journeymen, older and younger contributors, and contributors with different societal perspectives.

Organizational culture is not a unique value proposition, nor a competitive advantage. It is a filter through which the organization views and makes decisions about hiring, working conditions, benefits, and interaction with employees.  Not all filters are bad, although many are.  By filtering, we are limiting the scope (and I would argue the value) of information that the organization will consider and act on.

I think it’s pretty clear that what Lyons describes is an unhealthy work environment, mentally and likely physically. I doubt that it has anything but a negative impact on the long-term success of HubSpot.

So what are the things that make organizations unhealthy rather than healthy? The GE forced ranking and yanking system of the 1980s that was widely praised and copied is today considered stupid and counterproductive.  Accepted thinking changes, although any reasonable assessment of what GE was doing must acknowledge that it hurt more than helped.

Ultimately, it may boil down to the Potter Stewart rule of pornography: “I know it when I see it.”  Ultimately, we will build a better company, and a better culture, if we set those filters broad rather than narrow.  Disagreements in strategy and tactics can, and should, be healthy.

We Don’t Understand Our Numbers March 27, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Strategy, Technology and Culture.
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I recently bought The Cult of Statistical Significance: How the Standard Error Cost Us Jobs, Justice, and Lives, by Stephen T. Ziliak and Deidre N. McCloskey.

Here’s the gist. Statistics is a great tool for demonstrating that a difference found between two sampling results is “real”.  What do I mean by real?  It means that if I measured the entire population, rather than just took samples, I would know that the results would be different.  Because I sample, I have uncertainty, and statistics provide a way to quantify the level of uncertainty.

How different? Well, that’s the rub.  We make certain assumptions about what we are measuring (normal distribution, binomial distribution), and we attempt to measure how much the data in each group differ from one another, based on the size of our sample.  If the two types of results are “different enough”, based on a combination of mean, variation, and distribution, we can claim that there is a statistically significant difference.  In other words, it there a real difference in this measure between the two groups?

But is the difference important? That’s the question we continually fail to ask.  The book Reclaiming Conversation talks about measurements not as a result, but as the beginning of a narrative.  The numbers are meaningless outside of their context.

Often a statistically significant difference becomes unimportant in a practical sense. In drug studies, for example, the study may be large enough, and the variability low enough, to confirm an improvement with an experimental drug regimen, but from a practical sense, the improvement isn’t large enough to invest to develop.

My sister Karen, a data analyst for a medical center, has pointed out to me that significance can also be in the other direction. She collects data on patient satisfaction, and points out that even minor dissatisfaction can have a large effect across both the patient population and the hospital.

That’s just one reason why the measurement is the beginning of the conversation, rather than the conclusion. The number is not the fait accompli; rather, it is the point at which we know enough about the subject to begin talking intelligently.

The Power of Talk March 15, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I have a confession (not really). While ostensibly a techie, I have two degrees in psychology.  I may have learned something in the process.  I am currently reading MIT researcher Sherry Turkle’s fascinating Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in The Digital Age.  The book is about how a flight from conversation undermines our relationships, creativity, and productivity.

It is an amazing book. It sends you in so many different directions.  Let me start with this.  We like to think that automation frees us from routine, boring tasks so that we may be creative.  Except that automation is also causing us to be automatons, dependent upon constant stimulation from the web, from Facebook, from tweeting, from texting, to prevent ourselves from feeling alone.

As we text, IM, and email to maintain connections, she believes that we have lost the ability to hold face to face conversations, with all of the spontaneity they hold. Instead, we avoid such encounters, instead wanting to edit our responses to make sure they are perfect and neutral.

All of us will recognize the behavior that she describes. For most of us, it is not pathological (I hope).  For some of us, it undoubtedly is.  Does it affect our creativity, and our authenticity?  I think it might.

If you read one serious book this year, this is the one.

I am decidedly not anti-technology. Yet any functioning adult who has spent time with themselves will intimately understand her message.  It is a sobering one.  It is not anti-technology either, but it shows, starkly, how technology may be changing us.

Homo superior? Or homo inferior?  At this point, I have more doubts than ever.

About SXSW, Gaming, and Free Speech March 14, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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So you may have heard about the gaming harassment summit that is a part of the highly attended South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, TX this week. And that it was poorly attended.

Well, at least a part of the reason it was poorly attended is that it was geographically remote from the main conference. And the SXSW organizers had already cancelled several sessions on similar topics, ostensibly because of the threat of violence.

I’m reading comments on LinkedIn on a couple of articles that talk about this summit. Professional people are actually attaching their names to screeds that advocate that threats of violence against participants is free speech, or that female gamers are getting what they deserve.  To be fair, it seems like LinkedIn quickly took down these posts, but that doesn’t change the thoughts and beliefs of the majority of commenters.

I am disgusted. Free speech in no conceivable world includes the right to make threats of violence or death against others.  I repeat: that is not free speech.

And what does this say about the environment that the SXSW conference is promoting and supporting? I know people who think this event is the best thing since hot buttered rum.  The President of the United States was at this conference, speaking on the government’s right to hack our phones.

That is wrong in so many ways, by the President (that’s you, Mr. Obama), and by people who believe that this event is in any way benign and supportive, and most especially those that make threats.

Free speech is letting those who disagree with us have a platform for doing so. Without fear of violence or retaliation.  It is not threatening them, and those who cannot discern that difference are wrong.  I wonder how this can possibly happen in the USA, in this day and age.

Bank of America is Pure Evil March 3, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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All I wanted to do was pay a couple of bills online, as I have done for years.  Suddenly I could not even reach a website that I had used for years.

I never wanted to bank at Bank of American to begin with.  About 25 years ago, I started my self-employment odyssey, and wanted to open a SEP (self-employment pension plan).  The only bank in my area offering such an account at the time was Nashua Federal Savings and Loan.  Well, in the interim, Nashua Federal became NFS, got bought by Baybank, which got bought by Bank of Boston, which became BankBoston, which got bought by Fleet, which was bought by Bank of America.

And here I am.  I would very much prefer not to be; service at Bank of America has at best been uneven, as they have failed to follow through on promises and churned the service people I was in the middle of dealing with.

And do you know what my real problem is?  “Our website has not changed, it’s your computer.”  I call bullshit.  I am using the same computer, and same browser version, as I did when I successfully logged on a few days earlier.  And, by the way, no OS updates either.

And it was incredibly insulting.  I tried to explain that I was a computer expert.  It may sound egotistical and self-serving, but I was trying to level-set my experience so that I might get assistance that was appropriate to that experience.  No dice.  They have one protocol, and they use it to the point of wearing it out.

I tolerated their protocol.  Now my IE configuration is completely screwed up, and I cannot log into anything right now.

I repeat:  All I wanted to do was pay a couple of bills.  Perhaps two minutes total.  I am now at an hour and a half, with no resolution on the horizon.

Bank of America, you are pure evil.

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