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February 28, 2013

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What the iPhone 5 Taught Me About Improving the Customer Experience

In the last year I have written several blog posts about improving application speed and overall IT performance (and I promise, it has not been solely at the request of the Marketing team). I am simply obsessed with performance, it is in my DNA. Working for several years in the Application Performance Management (APM) industry has left me with the desire to make EVERYTHING faster, even while I’m sitting at home. :)

So 3 months ago I purchased the iPhone5 (I’ll admit it, I’m an Apple freak). I’m not planning to write a word about the device speed (it is crazy fast) – but would like to talk about one “minor” change Apple’s product team made (or what we refer to in the software industry, a “minor”).

Apple moved the headphone jack to the bottom of the phone rather than on top where it “usually” belongs. At first I thought: “WOW!” this an amazingly creative idea and It even saves some space… the Apple guys have done it again!”

After tinkering with the device and thinking about it further, I asked the obvious questions:

“What’s in it for me?”
“How does this change improve my experience as a customer?”
“Does it provide value?”

The short answer is no. I simply get nothing out of it, or even worse, it can be annoying.

When I try to listen to music while running I found this feature (see picture below) – REALLY annoying.  I would put the iPhone on the treadmill and it hits the power button. Or, I need to press both of my thumbs down to “like” a song on the Pandora app. Worst yet, most if the applications only display ins one direction so it won’t turn the other way around. This leaves me in the position of reading song information upside down while running.

I was (and still am) frustrated.  Even though these are all minor issues. The key point is, one simple change in usability or product design can result in an unforeseen, negative customer experience.

How does this “minor” apply to my world – delivering a quality customer experience to our SharePath customers? After my iPhone experience, I have refocused my thought process when it comes to our product delivery. The first question I ask myself is what value will this change provide to our product users? If I can’t think of anything, I will forego making any changes.

Here is an example. Last week,  a consultant suggested that we should collect more data about our customers. Specifically, we’d send a list of questions the client would have to fill out before we send them their SharePath log-in credentials. After my experience with the new iPhone “minor” I simply asked what value this would provide to the customer. Nothing! (and please don’t say it will enable us to serve them better)

No matter what business you’re in, thinking hard about what value your product design or service changes provide to users will keep you moving in the right direction. If a problem leads to a mediocre solution, I’d prefer to stick with the problem.  Looking back at Apple, the iPhone 4S was a great problem to have. :)

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October 9, 2012

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Rebuttal: Five Things I Learned About APM By Watching Marketing Eat Their Own Dog Food

Our Marketing VP, Frank Days, explained in a recent post five things he learned from eating his own dog food.

Essentially, he explained that he uses SharePath to monitor our customer facing websites (As I have mentioned in the past we use SP extensively for internal uses). The key points can be summarized in the following tidbits: get the right data, enable IT Operations, know your baseline, and make page load speed an obsession. Let’s take some time and put an Operations perspective on each of these concepts.

1. Get the right data
My buddy Frank correctly explained the conundrum facing most IT Operations teams: “The sad truth is that most people just don’t have the right data.“

As a typical Operations guy, I spend hours looking at many tools. The DBA has one tool, the network manager has another tool and the server guys a third. When something goes wrong these individual tools may all show a green screen! As I’ve said in the past:

You can have a totally green screen, alerts indicating that the CPU is at 100%, and official monitoring tools telling you that everything is A-OK. But you can’t listen to that. You need to keep going, keep investigating, and keep learning about the environment so that you know for yourself that everything is OK.”

The key is finding the right tool which gives you the right data to prove the performance of your critical applications.

2. Enable IT Operations
As a COO, I lead a group of incredibly hard-working and talented experts who are very adept at wearing many hats. The challenges and surprises we encounter in our customers’ environments can sometimes seem insurmountable. But we always find a way. The main point is we’re constantly trying to juggle several problems, and we don’t have time for problem detection. What Ops guys need is a tool that auto detects the interdependencies in an environment and gives true, up-to-the-minute measurements of service level performance. This empowers IT Ops to analyze performance and dramatically reduce problems.

3. Know your baseline
The key metrics for Marketing and Operations may be different, but to be successful in both, you must understand what standard operations actually look like. Is a 2 second response time good enough for customers? What about 2.1? How can you tell if you haven’t been monitoring it consistently? It’s even more critical for Ops guys. We have key SLAs to maintain. Ops needs to know precisely when 2%, 10%, or I dare say 20% of transactions are not meeting the requirement and to push the “I am so sorry” email in advance for poor performance rather than waiting for someone to call. You must proactively manage these service levels so you can avoid nightmare outage scenarios (usually during weekends).

4. Make page load speed an obsession
After we put our work into improving our page performance we saw a 12% increase in downloads of SharePath Express. Speed is crucial! When you have phones that are running so fast today, people are expecting to see the same fast response time on every website and app page. For us Ops guys, I believe end to end visibility is the obsession. The response time of critical transactions can never be fast enough! You can never be too diligent in measuring KPIs and SLAs. And finally, nobody in the history of IT Operations was fired because they improved a good site to be a better one :-) .

With the growing complexity of IT environments and with the amount of changes we deploy every day, it’s important to take note of what makes your life easier as an Operations professional. If you gather the right data, enable the rest of your Ops team, keep track of your baselines and obsess over your KPIs and SLAs, you will always be heading in the right direction. Even if you have to eat your own dog food along the way.

June 12, 2012

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What Can Crooked Cops in Costa Rica Teach Us About IT Performance?

Sometimes the long days and hard-fought battles at the office add up, and start to take a toll on you. When that happens, it’s good to be able to escape somewhere warm, sunny and beautiful. Recently, I did just that when I took a well-deserved vacation in Costa Rica. Costa Rica is an amazing place, filled with great people, beautiful scenery and delicious food. Even the road system, which was notoriously poor in the past, is getting better.

I spent my days relaxing on one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen, and had some great quality time with my family in the swimming pool.

One thing happened during my vacation that really made me think. On the first day of the trip, we were driving to the beach in Manuel Antonio when a man in an official-looking uniform flagged down our car, directing us to pull over. Wanting to obey the law, I immediately slowed down. I figured it was some kind of checkpoint, or maybe I had a light out or committed some other traffic violation.

A friend of mine who lives in Costa Rica and happened to be riding shotgun that day knew better. “Keep going”, he said, “it’s nothing”. I was amazed and confused. I didn’t want to run from the police! I was a guest in this country and the last thing I wanted was to end up on the wrong side of the law. “No way!” I said, thinking I needed to obey the police’s directions. But my companion urged me not to stop, so I drove on, thinking of fines, prosecution and old episodes of Locked Up Abroad.

We passed the official… and nothing happened. In the rearview mirror I saw him flagging down another car. That car also refused to stop, with no consequences. What was going on here? After a short ride another official asked me to stop…. Same thing. At that point I began thinking about prison and how it is going to look like the living behind bars…

My companion told me that it was a scam; people who dressed like police officers are nothing but parking lots attendants that are asking you to park at their “official” place… :)

It reminded me of the world of Application Performance Monitoring. You can have a totally green screen, alerts indicating that the CPU is at 100%, and official monitoring tools telling you that everything is A-OK. But you can’t listen to that. You need to keep going, keep investigating, and keep learning about the environment so that you know for yourself that everything is OK. Don’t just base your decisions on some “official” average or network sample. Push for perfection in performance, and don’t just listen to every fake cop that signals you to pull over.

Think of it this way. When was the last time that one of your customers complained about applications that were too fast?

April 9, 2012

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Aligning Service and Product Strategy

If you’ve been reading my blog posts, you know that I love my product. We all do here. But we also know that there are competitors out there doing a good job as well. The APM industry is quite competitive, with several companies saying very similar messages. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish one product from the next.

However, I think there are things we do better than the others. Ours’ is the most lightweight in the industry, it supports broad coverage in terms of technology, and our implementation process is streamlined and painless. Am I trying to market our product? Always- but this is not the reason I write these posts.

One of the keys to our approach to this whole thing has been to align our service strategy closely to our brand. I sit with my guys to figure out the best way to make sure we’re doing this; to ensure that our support and platform have the same message. It is vital that every member of my teams believes in the same product values and benefits. So here’s what we figured out after a recent brainstorming session:

Lightweight - Our SAAS platform is slim, with nothing but a neat Knowledge Base and a process to open tickets. This is designed to be a SharePath “Wikipedia.” Opening a ticket takes 30 sec or less, without huge forms or applications to fill – as lightweight as possible.

Fast - A day after the purchase date, we configure an account for every user; send them a welcome video (1 min and 40 sec long) and a link to download the product – a day after they’re up and running. The customer can start using the product the day after they pay for it. There is no need for a training session, PS days or anything like that. Just go ahead and start.

Coverage - There are multiple support channels for all of our users. Shoot us an email, call the support center or log in to our platform (from any device on earth) and you’ll find our KB; like a SharePath wiki, with everything you need – starting with implementation/installation guides and even a template project plan.

As I mentioned in the past, service is a product and it is important to provide your customers with the same message with both products – the service and SharePath. It is as true for an APM tool as it is for Skype.

February 21, 2012

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Traveling Transaction Modeling

Over the past few years, traveling has become a major part of my life. I travel a lot for business, so I’m on the road a good chunk of the time. One of the most interesting (and daunting) things about getting from point A to point B is planning the route. This is most difficult when I have a meeting in New York City, because there are four possible (and reasonable) ways to get there. I could fly, go by rail, drive or take a bus.

Right away, the bus is a non-starter. It takes too long, the station is far from my home, and to be honest, it’s just not comfortable. Even though it’s the cheapest option, the quality of the seats multiplies by the length of the ride comes out to… well, you know how it is.

Flying should be the best bet. The flight takes only about 30 minutes. But with all the security at the terminal these days, the time it takes to get to the airport and the cost of the NYC taxi to wherever I’m going, it’s too much.

The train is fine, with good scheduling most of the time, and it does get you downtown at no extra cost, but if you want the best cabin, you have to pay for it. It’s expensive and depending on which train you ride, it can take nearly five hours to get to where you’re going.

Driving at least gives you some independence (and great music!), but it’s tiring and with gas prices where they are, it isn’t exactly a bargain. Tack on the cost (both financial and mental) of parking in New York City, and driving suddenly looks like a pretty bad plan.

All of these options have one problem in common – the scheduling is never accurate. You can’t be sure your flight will leave on time. Your bus could break down, you could hit traffic, or your train could be delayed for some reason. You always take the risk that the meeting will start without you, or not start at all.

What if we could track the data on that? Aggregate it based on EVERY ride, 24/7, all year long – how many minutes did we lose because of a flat tire, a mix-up on the runway, or a traffic jam? How buses perform in January, etc. If we had that information, we could filter it down and make the best decision on how to get there. Not just from an average, not just in general, but from real data. Can we have a database that tracks every individual ride, on every option, every day, and then aggregates it into a clear picture?

How often is the train delayed on Sunday? Can I get a comparison between today and last year? How many times has this bus line had to stop for a flat tire in March? Does it happen more in winter or in summer?

Now apply this to an application transaction. One little click of a mouse generates thousands of options, rather than just four. There are network devices, hardware (web tier, DD or – God forbid – a mainframe), you name it. Luckily, we do have a way to monitor them all. And the information we get is based on real data, not on an average.

Now who says that IT shows less progress than the travel industry? For now I’ll take my traveling decision based on 2 dimensions only – Price and Time.

January 19, 2012

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Tailoring Performance for Your Customers

Last week, my wife started giving me a hard time about my clothes. I had a trip to Europe coming up, and the official verdict from her was that my suits were simply “not enough”. Figuring I’d better do as I was told, I decided it was time to shop around for a new suit. Hoping to impress my wife, I wound up buying the best of the best.

But it is the trip to the tailor that I want to talk about. I went on a Thursday to have some small alterations made. He looked at me and said my suit would be ready in a week. I was stunned- my flight was in three days and I never expected it would take so long. I tried to bargain with the guy, to get him to push my suit to the front of the line, but I had no luck. The tailor waved his hand around the store and said: “look, I have many more like you and these things take time.”

While he took my measurements, I was really disappointed. I paid and left, wondering how I was going to get another suit in time for my flight. About a minute after I left the store, the tailor called me and said: “it will be ready tomorrow morning.”

It had all been a joke!

That made my day, but it also made me think. This tailor has been in the service business for years. He has had lots of time to develop his approach to service, and leaving his store that day, I felt that I needed to learn something from my experience.

I hate the model of setting low expectations and delivering higher. I prefer to have the expectations and deliverables align so there are no surprises.

And then it occurred to me: Performance.

I tried to remember the last time I was amazed by performance in any way. Have you ever said, “Wow, those IT guys have so many servers to manage, so many troubles, zillions of transactions to run… How do they provide me with a millisecond response time?”

Only once have I had that thought; right after my first ever Google search. I remember being amazed at how fast the results came in, especially since my PC can’t search that fast for a file stored on the hard drive. Since then, I can’t recall any surprises similar to my experience with the tailor.

I think it’s time for us to start surprising our customers again.

December 5, 2011

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IT Performance Metrics and Airplanes

I am writing this post on an airplane, traveling home from a great visit with a customer of ours. Well, more like a partner. It was the kind of meeting that makes me really love my job: working with smart people who run huge, complex systems in constantly-changing environments.

These meetings involve the usual stuff – syncing about the latest tech issues, planning the next steps, discussing training, challenges, implementation processes, unforeseen needs and service feedback. I try to learn what they are doing with the product, look for test cases and probe into the product as well as the service.

One specific thing I am always trying to find out is how are they running their performance process? Who is responsible for it? How is it implemented, both in test and production?

I know that performance is agile and often changing. There isn’t always a dedicated team to run it. Sometimes, it is the IT ops (mainly for production); sometimes it’s the App owners/developers, sometimes performance engineers. These teams can either operate per unit, or for the company as a whole. Obviously, the root of any degradation needs to be found both in testing and production, and it should be a cross-IT effort.

Since performance involves so many components throughout IT, it’s hard to find the right people that can maximize performance. A performance expert needs to be able to look horizontally over all the components, and have the ability to comment on and investigate them professionally. Each component (OS, DB, network etc.) is a whole, and it can take years to master so many fields.

Generally speaking, performance is simply a non-standard structure.

I remember when I ran an operations team in the past; we had a very long argument over whether the DBA’s should be centralized or per application. Eventually, we decided to have one centralized (system DBA’s) and several application-specific (application DBA’s). This kind of structure, along with Data Warehouse DBA’s, has since become a standard in the IT industry.

It will be interesting to see how that performance works out.

November 28, 2011

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Monitoring vs. HR

In my many years of managing data centers and IT, I’ve had (and still have) the distinct honor to work with a diverse group of people – developers, SYS admins, DBA’s, first, second, and third level support. What I have realized during those years is that, luckily, there isn’t much difference between IT and people.

People’s lives are constantly changing, just like IT. There are several situations which occur unexpectedly in one’s life; trouble with the mortgage, kids needing braces, a losing basketball team, or even just a lousy mood can skew a person’s outlook. Even positive things cause changes: a great movie, relaxing vacation, or desire for promotion brings about a new state of mind. No matter what has changed, it leads to an impact on the job. The smallest difference in a worker’s life, for better or worse, can change productivity for an entire day, week, month, or year.

Just like IT, it’s very important to monitor any and all changes, since even the slightest difference could have a “butterfly effect,” i.e., a causal chain that leads to major upsets down the line. End-to-end monitoring of your people is in-depth. You need to listen very carefully and ask them the right questions. By building relationships, and interacting non-stop, over and over again, you can at least understand, respond, and manage the changes that happen outside of your control.

An old professor from my MBA studies left me with some knowledge that I’ll never forget. He said “your employees will always talk, always complain. That’s a fact and you can’t change it. The challenge is to get them to talk to you.”

IT components will always change, that’s the nature of a “good” IT environment. Some of them will cause huge headaches for IT management and that’s a fact we must live with. The challenge is to make those changes visible, from end to end, so that we can effectively monitor and react to them. I wish I had a performance management tool for Human Resources! Now, I’m just doing it manually!

October 18, 2011

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End User Experience: What Can Pizza Deliveries and Hurricanes Teach Us About It?

How could pizza deliveries and hurricanes possibly relate to the end user experience?

Last night I ordered a pizza from one of the major chains. They have a fantastic, intuitive website that lets you order a pizza for delivery without ever picking up the phone. The site is full of useful features: a detailed menu, easy ordering etc. But the best feature by far is what wraps up the process. Once you’ve placed an order, you can check its progress from start to finish with a neat bar that pops up. The status bar tells you when your pie is being put together, when it comes out of the oven, when it’s in the driver’s car; the whole nine yards.gi

Being able to track your order adds nothing to the finished product. Your pizza isn’t going to taste any better because you know it’s almost at your house. That status bar won’t get you to buy any additional product or spend any additional money.

So why would they add this as a feature?

What makes it so compelling?

It’s all about providing the customers with data. The level of transparency your organization offers is like a meter of trustworthiness to the end users. This leads me to something we are all familiar with on a daily basis as managers we have to deal with issues. Whether it’s a product problem, sub-par service, or – God forbid – a bug, telling your users about it is imperative. You need to offer all the details you can, with almost no filters. Only then, when you’ve built trust in the fact that you are managing the situation (and that trust is solid), can the other side listen to your solutions. What steps are you taking to fix the situation? Offering up your plan shows that you are in control of whatever happens. If you can show that you were prepared for whatever problem your users are having, they will breathe a sigh of relief, and feel that they’re in good hands.

On the other hand, if you’re not prepared – if something completely unexpected and unknown has come up, admitting the truth will still be better than silence. Hurricane Irene provides a great, recent example: millions lost power and the utility providers were nowhere to be found. Users called and asked when the power would be back, and they’d hear a recorded message telling them nothing. Even the nightly news was reporting on it. The Governor of Massachusetts tracked down the executives of one provider all the way in Europe for answers. Obviously, this made a lot of people very unhappy. But, what if the providers held a press conference and said: “look, this is a huge mess and it’s going to take us a few days to straighten everything out. Sit tight and we’ll fix it soon”? When you’re open and tell users upfront: “Yes, we have an issue, = this is why it happened, this is what went wrong, and were working around the clock to fix it,” it sounds much better than: “Everything is fine, don’t worry. “

As I keep telling my guys over and over, day after day: “It’s all about the amount of data you provide and how transparent you are – not the data itself.”

October 14, 2011

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iPhones, Televisions, and Angry Birds, Oh My!

As I reflect today on Apple’s launch of iPhone 4S, I realize the concept of an “app store” has become part of our lives. More and more devices are supporting apps, and the ubiqitious app store is the method by which they are disseminated. When I’m downloading something for my phone, it isn’t supposed to be a long “sell cycle”. Sales guys don’t come to my apartment to show off the features. Nobody takes me to lunch. There is no golf involved. I just research the app, maybe by reading some blogs, and then I buy it.

You may say the absence of the sale cycle reflects the price, but I don’t think so. Software is software, and, a need is a need.

What I don’t get is why the enterprise software industry can’t operate this way. Let’s build our app store! Software, no matter how critical or complex, should be downloadable from the web. Like the popular “Angry Birds” game, purchases should follow the freemium model. You download a trial version for free; maybe it’s missing some features, or maybe it’s only for a limited time. If it turns out that you like the software, or better yet, NEED the software to keep your business running smoothly, you pay for the rest of it. And, you pay with a credit card. This format shows particular promise in the areas of application performance management and real user monitoring.

Recently I purchased a brand new TV. When I got home I realized that it’s more of a computer than a television. It has an app store! Hundreds of things that I can use for free or buy depending on my needs. If the television industry can do this, why can’t we? At Correlsense, we have. The app store is up and running! You can use our real user monitoring Express Edition in production, on one app, with two collectors. Use it: it’s yours – just download it. . If you want to see more, you buy it. Online. At our app store.

I’m still waiting for the day that a blog tells me a cellular vendor has finally downloaded billing software X, or the GE just installed ERP software Y. Hopefully someday my dream will come true. If nothing else, it will cost less!