Archive for August, 2005

USB power slots in homes?

31/08/2005

This article on Slashdot about Mazda having a car that uses a usb stick as a key got me thinking about the usb devices I own.
My iPod, my mobile phone and a few other bits and pieces can all make use of usb for charging. The iPod aside, data transfer’s not that important for them. If I need to charge these devices I need to get my laptop out, which can be inconvenient. I’d like to be able to avoid having to lug around a phone charger with an unwieldy plug on the end as well as different plug adaptors for different countries.
So how long until we see power sockets in modern buildings with a usb slot as well as a traditional plug socket?

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Outsourced call centres – do they always make sense?

30/08/2005

Although I don’t live in the UK any more, I still go back two or three times a year and regularly read the UK press. One of the prevailing themes in the business press over the last few years has been outsourcing call centres to countries outside of the UK, typically to India.
Let me be very clear – I am not against outsourcing call centres to India or anywhere else. If it makes business sense to outsource to any country, regardless of the colour, creed or nationality of the people who work in those call centres, I’m for it.
The main business drivers for outsourcing look great on paper – you get a call centre in Bangalore for much less than you would in Leeds, for example. Bangalore has an educated, English speaking population, lower wages, setup costs, etc, etc.
Listening to friends who have experienced the results of these call centre migrations however, I have to wonder whether what looks good on paper is the right business decision for every UK company or business situation. The call centre might cost you less, but unless the service is equally as good or better, you’re going to annoy your customers. The same would be true if Texas outsourced its operations to Glasgow, or Sydney outsourced to New York or Calcutta outsourced to London. It has nothing to do with the race or religion of the people calling and answering the phone.
It strikes me that there are some situations that work well and others that don’t. Currently there seems to be a blanket policy of outsourcing everything. I predict a backlash from customers, followed by a settling down period where the right tasks are assigned to the right people.
What I feel works well is simple, ‘transaction based’ customer requests. Changing an address maybe, or signing up to a simple service.
What doesn’t work well is anything that involves salesmanship on behalf of the call centre employee, solving a problem that involves some lateral thinking based on expert knowledge of the company’s business, in depth knowledge of geography, personal circumstances or a customer who speaks with a strong regional English accent that non-Brits might find hard to understand. Lord knows, it can be hard enough for me to understand some Brits when speaking face to face, let alone over the phone.
Calling up a call centre can be a trying experience at the best of times. You usually only need to call if there’s a problem, so the chances are that you’re het up about something once the call gets through to a human being. The reason you are calling is probably due to the fact that what you are trying to accomplish involves something more than following the basic steps on the website or the list of instructions on the recorded message. This means that when you get through to someone, you need someone who can understand the way you speak English and who is totally familiar with the task you want to accomplish, whether that is taking a train from Gillingham to Bicester, getting your broken monitor replaced or anything in between.
One of the biggest complaints I hear from friends in the UK is that once you are through to a ‘live’ person, communication breaks down. The way people in India speak English is different to the way people in England speak English for example. The way people in the South of England speak is different to the way the Scots speak, so it must be very hard for call centre employees to understand every caller that comes through. Couple that with an irate customer who doesn’t speak a clear ‘standard’ form of English and is angry and upset and you’re gong to get a major customer service breakdown. You’d have the same problems if Bangalore outsourced its call centres to Newcastle.
Ironically, if you know that you are talking to someone who you know is not a native English speaker and who is doing their best to communicate with you, one tends to have a bit more patience. Speaking to someone who is ‘supposed’ to speak perfect English but doesn’t understand you can be ten times more frustrating, particularly if you are trying to charge your mobile phone as you urgently need to make a call, yet are unable to understand a word the person on the line is saying. If I call customer service in the UAE, I don’t expect to get someone speaking the Queen’s English – that would be absurd. We crunch along and make ourselves understodd. If I’m sitting at a tube station in East Barnet and am calling a UK company, I expect to be able to communicate easily with the person on the other line.
Another issue is that someone sitting in another country, regardless of the training they’ve recieved, isn’t really going to be able to understand the vagaries of the UK’s rail transport network or other ‘local’ details. The first step in customer service tends to be acknowledging that the customer is upset and angry and unable to do what they want to do. If you are totally unaware of the fact that it is the middle of the night and the customer is stranded at some suburban train station in England that’s filled with litter and graffiti and menacing teenagers, repeating to them that the next train is due at 5 in the morning is simply not good enough. You need to accept that the person is in a bind and recommend some local taxi numbers to them, for example, not just repeat the time that the next train is due.
It’ll be interesting to see how things settle down over the coming years. I suspect that outsourcing call centres will cease to be percieved as a universal panacea and will start to be used for specific, well qualified business processes.

Thumbs up for Budapest

29/08/2005

The good citizens of Budapest will be relieved to hear that Christopher and Tabusum Saul were charmed by their city.
Sighs of relief all around, I’m sure.

I was in the Sun Budapest office for two days and Tabu joined me from the UK. I then stayed on an extra three days over my weekend and we toured the city, having a great time. Great food, friendly people, English spoken everywhere and a great B&B in the heart of the historic area of the city.
While I was officially on Sun business we stayed in the Art’Otel, which is a rather trendy place on the Danube, just opposite the parliament building. It was only 20 Euros a night extra for Tabu to stay with me, which was pretty good value considering the quality of the hotel. It’s perfectly situated on the Buda side, 15 minutes’ walk away from the Sun office and almost opposite the Parliament building on the other side of the Danube.

Parliament outside and in and the steps up to the tower of St Stephen’s Basilica.
Our bed and breakfast, The Bellevue, was fantastic. Usually B&Bs called ‘Bellevue’ tend to look out onto anything but a good view. Not the case here. We ate our breakfast on the balcony overlooking the parliament building and the Danube and the balcony for our room looked up to the Fishermen’s Bastion. Proprietress Judit and her husband were very friendly and spoke excellent English. We enjoyed chatting with them and hearing about Judit’s ‘interesting’ experiences in Kuwait in 1981… Staying there really helped make sure our short holiday was a fun one.

A gentleman should always lend out his jacket should his lady get chilly on the banks of the Danube.
To me, Budapest had the air of a successful provincial town. That’s not meant to sound rude, or diminish its status as a capital city – what I mean is that it’s packed full of history, there’s lots to do and it seems not to suffer from so many of the ills that affect Europer’s larger capitals. There was hardly any litter, traffic seemed to move freely and there was plenty of public transport. There was some graffiti and you saw a few people who were clearly homeless, but nothing nearing the scale of what you’d get in most of Britain’s cities.
We enjoyed seeing the sites and got thoroughly exhausted walking all over the place. In Dubai you never walk, so covering several miles a day gave my legs a good work out.
The Hungarian equivalent of Berlin’s Love Parade was being held on the Saturday and we walked down part of the route watching the floats go by. Below is a picture that shows some of more ‘restrained’ outfits being worn. Several girls on some of the party trucks had dispensed with most of their clothes, but these guys were parading a little less of themselves.

I have to mention the cars, although certain people think that noticing this aspect of a city is ‘sad’ and ‘boring’, but wives and husbands aren’t always going to agree on everything, are they?
Most of the vehicles on the streets are mid sized European and Japanese saloons. I saw very few larger luxury cars, although Land Rover seem to have carved out a decent business. I was surprised to see so many Trabants and Wartburgs still around. There were also plenty of Skodas, including lots of Estelles. I loved seeing the Estelles – I learnt to drive in a bright orange one in London thirteen years ago.

Schnell, sicher und bequem. Der neue Trabant!
I also saw a great example of a Skoda Rapid.

This is one of the cars that’s on the list to sit in my garage at one point as part of my classic car collection. Alongside it will be a 1975 Opel Kadett C Coupe and a Series 1 Land Rover. A mid 70s Ford Capri would be nice to have as well. But I digress.
The first three letters of Hungarian number plates can spell some interesting things in English.

All in all, a great little break. Tabu has been in the UK since July, so I hadn’t seen here since the end of my short holiday, which ended around mid July.
I’m looking forward to going back to Hungary as a tourist again and getting to see more of the region. Any country that has telephone boxes almost as cool as the ones London used to have and which hasn’t ditched them for plastic monstrosities comes high up on my list.

Sun Hungary are the desktop kings

29/08/2005

If we can replicate Sun’s Hungary office across the rest of my region, desktop sales for SEE would be in excellent shape. They’re not in bad shape at the moment of course, but there’s always room for improvement.
These guys are the most advanced country in terms of ‘getting it’ when it comes to Sun Ray. The sales guys and their support teams understand where Sun Ray fits and where it doesn’t. Where it doesn’t is usually the most important place to start. They have some good existing references to build on, a recently hired sales head who’ll be partly paid on desktop successes and an excellent solutions architect who knows the technical side of things inside out. (That’s Janos, whose blog is linked off my ‘blogroll’).
Most desktop sales are heavily reliant on partners. The local partner manager is putting a system into place which provides excellent incentives to partners to sell Sun Ray and Tarantella.
Hmm. Nothing seems to be missing really. Looks like I won’t be visiting again for a while!
It seems like things are in place for a good year.
I’m counting on you, guys…

Michael Jackson might be my new neighbour

29/08/2005

Apparently Michael Jackson has been eyeing up property in Dubai.
What with Julio Iglesias apparently buying property here, along with Posh and Becks and Rod Stewart and other minor British celebs such as Gazza, popping out for a cup of sugar should become quite exciting.
I’d like to see Rick Astley, Sonia and 5 Star moving in as well.

Hotel Internet access is too expensive!

23/08/2005

Come off it, 29 Euros for 24 hours of Internet access from my hotel room? For a slow connection that keeps disconneting me? And that’s 24 hours from the time you pay for it, not 24 hours of actual being logged on and using it!
This is the most expensive I’ve experienced so far (I’m in Budapest), but around 20-25 Euros seems to be the average, which is still too much.
Someone’s ripping people off badly. This is even worse than when I got charge 18 Euros for a ‘breakfast’ that consisted of me taking one danish pastry off the buffet.

Apologies to my window cleaners

18/08/2005

I need to apologise to the guys who clean the windows of my building.
Being on the 34th floor and having a nice view, we’ve never got around to putting in curtains. When the cleaners slowly lower themselves down, getting to our flat every 6 months or so, they usually come by around 7.30 in the morning when I’m in bed. Usually I can hear them coming – water sploshes down the windows and the basket they sit in clunks against the walls.
Usually this noise wakes me up and I slide under the covers.
Today however, I must have been particularly tired. I stayed fast asleep, dreaming about the building falling down due to a tidal wave. They clunked past and I only woke up in time to see the three guys’ heads dropping out of view.
Then I realised that I hadn’t been very modestly covered by my duvet, so they must have had an unpleasant eyeful first thing in the morning.
Hopefully things improved lower down the building, whose first 33 floors are occupied by flight crew from one of the local airlines…

Apologies to my window cleaners

18/08/2005

I need to apologise to the guys who clean the windows of my building.
Being on the 34th floor and having a nice view, we’ve never got around to putting in curtains. When the cleaners slowly lower themselves down, getting to our flat every 6 months or so, they usually come by around 7.30 in the morning when I’m in bed. Usually I can hear them coming – water sploshes down the windows and the basket they sit in clunks against the walls.
Usually this noise wakes me up and I slide under the covers.
Today however, I must have been particularly tired. I stayed fast asleep, dreaming about the building falling down due to a tidal wave. They clunked past and I only woke up in time to see the three guys’ heads dropping out of view.
Then I realised that I hadn’t been very modestly covered by my duvet, so they must have had an unpleasant eyeful first thing in the morning.
Hopefully things improved lower down the building, whose first 33 floors are occupied by flight crew from one of the local airlines…

Conference Call Eitquette

14/08/2005

Conference calls are a necessary evil at Sun. I don’t think anyone really likes hosting them or sitting in on them, but it’s often the only practical way to update people or discuss issues with a geographically disparate team.
I usually come off badly in terms of timing – Dubai is 11 or 12 hours ahead of California, depending on the time of year. This means I usually have the option of getting up for a call at 5 in the morning, or dialling in during the evening at around 7 or 8. This means that if I do have to be on a call, I want it to be worth it.
Fortunately the desktop team conf calls are usually straight to the point and are ‘well chaired’…
For what it’s worth, here’s my conference call code of conduct. In no particular order, the rules that I try to follow and which I think everyone else should. Some of them are obvious, but that doesn’t mean people follow them.
If you do follow them I promise conf call nirvana for you and your colleagues.
Conference Call Eitquette
* Mute your phone if you’re not the one doing most of the speaking.
I have no desire to listen to your breathing whilst I get a Tarantella business update, or hear your dog barking during a description of the features of SRSS 3.1, however thrilled Fido might be at the fact we will be supporting Solaris 10 x86 with the next release.
* Keep to the matter in hand.
If the point of the call is to discuss Point A, let’s discuss Point A and deal with minor details pertaining to a two seat deal in Country X later on. That way Chris can get the salient points, hang up and and go and have his dinner.
* If you dial in late, don’t bellow ‘HELLO’ down the phone and interrupt the call.
‘Hello, hello, is everyone there?’. Yes we are here, now please shut up so we don’t have to be here any longer than necessary.
* Speak slowly and clearly.
I’m bad at this one – I get excited and start rabbiting. This is all the more important when most of the callers don’t have English as a first language. People at Sun generally speak excellent English, but using the phone makes understanding a lot harder. Personally I often find that Americans mumble down the phone and even I find it hard to understand them, let alone someone who isn’t a native speaker. Or maybe I’m just going deaf. I speak ok German and worse French and would find the equivalent of our conf calls in those languages tough going.
* Be on time for the call.
If the call starts at 9, dial in at 8.58, not 9.04. All the beeping you hear when people dial in late makes the call sound like an episode of The Osbournes. If you can make it for 9.04, why can’t you make it for 8.58? Some people would be late for their own funerals.
* When asking a question, say the name of the person you’re addressing it to.
What usually happens is someone asks a vague question and 50 people start answering at once. What works is ‘let’s introduce ourselves, starting with the SEE region’. What doesn’t work is ‘Hi everyone, are you all there?’
* Have a ‘chairperson’.
The chairperson’s job is to keep the call relevant and on schedule, even if he or she is not the one doing most of the talking. Rule the call with an iron fist.
* Avoid using speaker phones.
If possible, use the handset as it cuts out external noise and increases the volume of your voice.
* Make it clear you’ve finished what you have to say.
End your sentence/question/statement with ‘over to you, Dave’, or ‘that’s all from my side’ – something to make it clear you’ve finished. Half the time on calls seems to be spent with people waiting for other people to speak, so you have a minute of silence before everyone starts talking at once.
* Timezones – they exist.
It might be convenient for you to have your conf call just after you’ve got into the office at 9, had a coffee, done some email and chatted to your colleagues, but if hosting the call at 11 means someone’s dialling in from their mobile during the beginning of their weekend, wife or husband glaring at them, you’re doing something wrong.
* Summarise the key points of the call for those who couldn’t attend.
Granted, the danger of doing this is that everyone will stop dialling in altogether, thinking they can just get the summary after it’s happened, but if people don’t see the value of what’s being discussed, your audience will inevitably slowly start to slip away over time and eventually you’ll be talking to yourself.
Over to you, Dave.

Playing with Linux Terminal Server Project

11/08/2005

Over the last couple of days I’ve spent some time playing with diskless Linux clients using the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP).
I installed Fedora Core 4 as a guest OS in VMware on my JDS3 laptop and then installed the LTSP packages as per the instructions on the web site.
It was a bit of a fiddle to get things up and running, although I seem to be alone in having experienced any trouble! The main culprit turned out to be tftpd. It appeared to be running, but I was getting strange PXE boot errors and the OS wasn’t loading onto the client. The log file in /var/log/messages read Sending NAK (0, permission denied). After a lot of fiddling and some help from a colleague the solution was found: start tftpd manually. First disable it via xinet and then start by hand using the following command –
#tftpd -l -vvv -s /tftpboot
-vvv turns on verbose logging.
DHCP didn’t seemt to want to start at boot time, but starting it manually wasn’t a problem.
My ‘client’ was also a guest OS within VMWare. I found that it would boot up fine with 32MB, but 16MB wasn’t enough.
Once up and running it seemed to function quite well. I need some more memory in my laptop to see how well things run in a more realistic environment.
Once things were set up I grabbed an old Dell from the Sun Dubai office’s ‘laptop graveyard’, set it up to boot from the network, entered its mac address into dhcp.conf on my LTSP ‘server’ and it booted up.
X wouldn’t start on the Dell. The answer turned out to be to configure lts.conf to make it boot into a shell, then run /usr/X11R6/bin/xorg - broadcast. X started fine and I got the Fedora login screen.
Looking at the documentation, I see that it’s possible to configure LTSP to run applications locally if need be, which could be handy if you have very heavy multimedia requirements, although the added administration overhead is considerable.
Apparently K12OS makes things even easier to set up. For some reason I wasn’t able to install this with VMWware though – booting from the first ISO worked fine, but after that the installer seemed not be be able to see the virtual CD drive. If I have a free machine and get around to burning the CDs I’ll give it another go.
Talk to old Unix hands and they’ll sniff that LTSP is nothing but diskless clients, doing exactly what Sun were doing 15 or more years ago. That’s true, but with Linux you have an excellent desktop and a cheap x86 client, which means diskless Unix clients’ younger cousin is much better looking and less expensive to take on. Of course, there’s no reason why you couldn’t use Solaris x86 to do something similar. At this stage though, Linux has better hardware support for the older PCs that are likely to be lying around.
The inevitable question is how an LTSP setup compares to a Sun Ray setup.
What I liked about LTSP –
* It’s free and Free, a fantastic effort totally built on volunteers’ contributions
* It works on old PCs that are lying around
* It seemed to work well without too much fiddling. As I said above, my issues don’t seem to have affected other people.
I can imagine for a small office or classroom it would be an interesting option.
I think where Sun Ray wins over is in its general simplicity and easy manageability – ‘it just works’. You have nothing to manage at all on the desktop. You have smartcard based session mobility, load balancing, ability to run over certain low bandwidth connections and the option of Linux or Solaris to deploy on.
There are also ‘soft’ advantages – no fan noise, minimal amount of electricity used and the fact that there’s nothing to steal.
I’m sure you can buy support from local IT companies for LTSP, but there’s no support for it in the way Sun supports Sun Ray.
A 50 seat LTSP deployment would still need a fair amount of local configuration, especially if you have disparate models of client. Over 5 years I can imagine the client hardware needing replacing for various reasons and each time a new version of client hardware is introduced you’d end up with more complications.
Take a 100, 500, 1,000 or 1,500 seat deloyment and you’d start to spend a lot more time looking after your client hardware, whilst battling with a lack of proper load balancing on the server side.
A 500 seat Sun Ray deployment should still be dead easy to manage. Our largest regional customer has 1,500 Sun Rays in a large hospital. Being able to breeze around from ward to ward and insert your smartcard to access your session quickly from anywhere saves a huge amount of time. Not having any worries about client hardware means the admin now spend their time managing things centrally instead of racing around the buildings fixing broken PCs. Expand the scenario to a company like Sun, with 27,500 thin client desktops and LTSP simply wouldn’t scale in the way large Sun Ray deployments do.
I’m always in favour of using the right tool for the right job. Just because something’s on the Sun pricelist doesn’t mean we should shove it down a customer’s throat. That approach always backfires. I can definitely see where LTSP fits. For most of the business customers I spend my time with however, I can’t see it being a popular choice.
Where local skills are good, the number of clients is small and budgets are non-existent, LTSP would make a good solution.