Saturday, October 23, 2010

Joys of Data Entry

There are times that I feel I am at my most creative when I work alone.

When I work alone, I am not bound by other's past failures. When I am cheerful, I don’t realize how monumental a task I have broached. When I cannot build on the work of those that came before me, I am not hindered by their missteps. And there are conventions in Telecommunications industry of which I am completely ignorant.

A few years ago, when we first started documenting the physical infrastructure of the University of Florida there were only a few student laborers and myself. I don’t think any of us truly appreciated the breadth of the task we were undertaking. In the beginning, we were only tasked with documenting OSP fiber cables. Now, piece by piece, the breadth of that project has grown to encompass every physical aspect of the UF building networks. We have grown as well. From a group of student laborers and me, we have grown to include over 20 full time staff members.

In the beginning, each individual staff member held complete responsibility for documenting their own work. Any one person that deployed a new circuit held responsibility for documenting every component of that circuit. With only four staff members, we clearly could not hand off our documentation to any other group. In addition, by deploying a new labeling standard we were in a position where no one else could understand the significance of the labels we were creating. No one person was expected to be an expert but each staff member was expected to be able to navigate a plethora of systems managed by other groups. By documenting the physical cabling infrastructure we interfaced with our networking core group, our facilities group, all local IT support personnel, and UF’s physical plant division.

As VoIP began to take hold on our campus, we experienced the now common struggle of integrating our telecom staff with our networking groups. I am sad to say that over time, the majority of our telecom staff has been let go. But, as the few that are left have been brought into the fold, there is an interesting idea taking hold.

A number of us that grew out of the telecom industry are asserting that we could increase productivity by removing data entry and documentation responsibility from the field technicians and move it into the hands of data entry specialists. The idea has some merit. Data entry specialists can be expected to know the ins and outs of our documentation systems and should have an easier time sorting out system problems. This would free up our network technicians to focus on solving network problems and focus on delivering new network services. If we had more staff to begin with, we may have gone this same route.

Our own core networking group has student staff dedicated to updating their logical diagrams and router documentation. But, we didn’t, and I’m glad.

I am certain that the separation between those that do the work, those that update the documentation, and those that use the documentation does irreparable harm.

For our core group, logical diagrams are often out of date. An engineer that does work may forget to hand off the documentation work. The doc team, for all of their good intentions, has no follow up capability because they don’t know what each member of the core group is doing. The most reliable documentation they maintain is based on dynamic querying of the devices that they manage.

For our telecom group, this means that a technician hands off notes from a work order to a customer service rep to enter into their billing system. The CSR enters what they are given but have no true understanding of activity in the field. Where there is confusion between the technician and service rep, the technician must be available to clear up the problem. In a situation where they must call back a technician to explain, the department then has to account for those hours since each technician’s hours must be billable.

So, a documentation specialist calls a technician/engineer for clarification.

The technician/engineer is not responsible for documentation so they delay in answering questions.

This rewards the service rep for “figuring” it out.

This corrupts the documentation.

The documentation then has no value for the field technician.

The field technician does not document their work.

And the cycle goes on, and on.

Our staff who spent time working in telecommunications lament the days where others performed data entry and documentation. In their minds, the older system worked. Their tasks were simpler, and they weren’t hounded for documentation mistakes. Where before they handed folders off to data entry specialists they are now expected to document their own work and account for any errors they create in the system. The transparent nature of this model makes it appear less credible than its telecommunication predecessor.

Our current system constantly checks itself for documentation errors. Those errors are assigned as work orders and corrected. Current error counts are public record and currently stand at .47% of our total record count of 50,000 records. But, the old system never reported errors because it had no method for discovering them. Therefore, it was perfect.

The paradigm shift from specialized data entry staff to distributed data entry can be difficult for staff. Any change can be difficult. There are those here that still bemoan the expense of labeling a cable. But, for our application, holding individual technicians responsible for their own documentation has paid dividends over and over again. Not only can individual technicians document their own work, they invest the documentation with value through their own use.

Unused documentation is not worth having.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Age and Progress

I just read the most recent edition of BICSI news. It had a wonderful article in it concerning Ray Gendron, a former president of BICSI and the progenitor of BICSI Cares. For those who don’t already know, the BICSI Cares committee collects money at each BICSI conference and donates it to a local children’s charity based in the location that is hosting the conference.

Let me start by saying, these guys are good. They are the definition of good: both in how they operate and in their goals. At my first conference, I was approached a number of times and asked, quite politely, if there was anything I could spare. I can be a pretty cynical guy so I kept my money to myself and my head down. They wouldn’t leave me be.

My boss showed up and laughed while he explained things to me. For just a little bit of money, the BICSI Cares committee would put a little sticker on my badge that would let everyone know that I had made a donation. Then, they would leave me be. I laughed out loud at the thought: a charity protection racket.

This is where Ray enters the story. The next morning, the morning of my RCDD exam, I wandered down the hall and approached the BICSI cares committee booth to get my sticker. I walked up and an older gentleman asked if I wanted to make a donation and I pulled a twenty out of my wallet and started to hand it over. At the last second, I pulled it back.

“You know,” I offered. “I’m testing for my RCDD today.”

“Good for you!” He reached out and shook my hand. There was warmth to his smile and genuine cheerfulness. It had a childlike quality that made me smile. “What do you think your chances are?”

“Fair to middling,” I said. “I’ve got a deal for you. You can have this twenty now, or forty tomorrow if I pass.” To this day I don’t know what possessed me but it seemed funny at the time.

The old guy drew himself up and looked me up and down. He smiled even more and stuck out his hand.

“I’ll take that bet.” He stuck his hand out.

The next day I went back and paid my forty dollars, happily.

For the next two years I happily went back to the booth to make my donation the first day of each conference. Each year he remembered me and would call out to me before I got to the booth. He would stop my donation and ask a simple question.

“You testing this year?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow then. Don’t forget us.”

I didn’t. That man was Ray Gendron. I can’t say that I really even knew him and a number of people have already sung his praises in more public venues than my little blog. But I wanted to share my story of a man who genuinely appeared to enjoy life.

I’ve known another man who had a similar impact on my life.

My father has an older friend who he hunts with from time to time. They were much closer years ago and I’ve known him since I was a child. He’s in his eighties now.

Warren isn’t a powerhouse of a man. I’ve never really thought of him as a great leader, or visionary, or anything that marks a man as important. But he has always been a good friend to my father and a good friend to me.

I work in information technology and the only real constant I have to work with is change. One of the most frustrating aspects of my job is dealing with entrench bureaucracy and people who are frightened by change. Because of this, older persons get a bit of a bum rap in my industry. As we get older, things seem to get more static. Old ways are more comfortable and new ways of doing things just seem trivial.

But, as a child, Warren took me to his study to show me his new Nintendo gaming system. He had a childlike glee to his eyes as he sat me down to play. He explained the ins and outs of the game we were playing (Metroid for those who care) and talked about life.

“You’ve got it good Sheard T”, he would tell me. “We never had toys like this when I was a kid and they’re only gonna get better.”

His wife rolled her eyes from the kitchen. She didn’t approve, but then again neither did my Mom. We all wasted too much time on video games. But in Warren I saw a man who wasn’t afraid of new things – change.

A few years later I was a teenager and I sat down with Warren at his kitchen table. We were talking about how things used to be in the great nation of America and Warren started laughing.

“Sheard T,” he smiled. “Don’t talk to me about how things used to be. I was there and it wasn’t as great as people keep sayin’ it was.” He told me about separate but equal. He told me about friends passed over for promotion. He told me about all manner of injustices and he did it without ever losing his smile.

“That was yesterday Sheard T. It wasn’t all bad but don’t let anybody tell you it was all good. We fought in World War II but we did some bad things too.” Then he told me about all the good things we had today. The KKK was a shadow of what it used to be. Women could be anything they wanted to be.

I started to protest. Things weren’t that rosy. Warren waved me off. “It’ll never be perfect. Just keep workin’ at it. If you do it right, it gets better all the time.”

Last year, I stopped by Warren’s house on a cross-country drive to visit family. We talked about family, he played with my kids, and we generally got reacquainted. Somewhere in the conversation I let my vision roam over the living room and smiled.

Underneath the TV there was a Nintendo Wii.

I pointed it out to Warren and he just smiled. His eyes twinkled and he leaned in to me.

“Do you want to see the PS3? It’s in the other room.”

These men have both taught me valuable lessons. They didn’t mean to but just by watching these little pieces of their lives I’ve learned to appreciate where I am and the opportunities available to me. I don’t lose myself in nostalgia.

And each night I tell my little girl, the best is yet to come.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Fallacy of Numbers

In 1988 I was sitting in calculus class when I learned something that has stayed with me ever since. I’ll paraphrase Mr. Massey without his permission.

“It is a pity,” my teacher began, “that we use numbers for so much but few people understand what they mean.” He proceeded to draw out on the chalkboard how our grades for his class would be calculated. He drew boxes representing four exams and a final box to represent the average of those exams.

“We like to use numbers to communicate. Numbers have power. If you put a number on something, we like to think we have a better understanding of what’s happening. The entire field of statistics is based on this premise, but consider the following.”

He drew in the grades of two students. Both students received grades of A, B, C, and D. One received them in ascending order while the other received them in descending order.

“Which one has a better understanding of the subject matter?”

Obviously, the student that started slow and finished the semester with an A had a better understanding of calculus. His point wasn’t lost on any of us. Both would end up with the same average grade. He then went on to explain how we would be graded on a different scale where later exams would have heavier weight. He reserved the right to nudge our grades upward if he believed we deserved it.

I was thinking of this a few years ago when the University of Florida’s Human Resources department redesigned their method for performing annual performance appraisals. Each year managers across UF are expected to file performance appraisals for their staff members. There would now be a greater emphasis on not only expecting those appraisals to be done but there were now more criteria on which a staff member could be evaluated. Each criterion would be based on a number of 1-5 and then summed to a final score of 5-25.

We were guided by numerous presentations and exhortations to treat performance evaluations as a chance to discuss performance with our staff. The assignment of numbers was less important than the chance to truly communicate with our subordinates.

I carried out the evaluation of my staff and moved on with my work. It wasn’t very shocking that six months later I was asked to defend my request for a raise for one of my subordinates. Apparently, his performance numbers were lower than a number of other candidates. As an explanation, I offered up that I am a critical supervisor and expect a great deal from my staff.

Comparison of performance numbers assigned by different managers is problematic at best. Some supervisors are best friends with their staff. Some managers have difficulty criticizing staff and some subordinates do not respond well to any criticism. Communication is key, but reducing that interaction to a number implies an impartiality that simply does not exist.

Both examples serve to illustrate the dangers of relying upon numbers to reflect and evaluation of performance. Unfortunately, in any significantly large institution there comes a point where we must rely upon numbers to record performance. People need to remember what assumptions lie behind all of those numbers. When we forget those assumptions, we put ourselves in a position where we are relying on “fuzzy Washington math.”

Organizations are constantly looking for metrics in order to evaluate their own performance. Managers look for appropriate metrics in order to justify budgets, request new staff, defend their policies, and for any number of other reasons. Managers need information in order to make decisions and there need to be metrics in order to inform those decisions.

When organizations spend so much time concerned with litigation, metrics can be used to not only inform but defend decision making. Efforts to remove someone from an organization are usually greeted with calls for documentation. Has the employee been counseled? Have they been informed of their sub-par performance? Is there record of their sub-par performance? And, the power of numbers here cannot be understated. A steady record of low appraisal numbers recorded over time has as much impact as a record high performance numbers.

But, as time has passed, the metrics used for evaluation have evolved. More and more, recorded opinions of management are giving way to more objective criteria: how many tickets resolved, average ticket lifespan, customer survey based information. I believe this trend has serious power and great potential to help management make informed decisions about the organizations they run.

As long as we understand the assumptions behind those numbers, all is good. Without true understanding though, numbers can lead us more astray than forward.