December 30, 2005

One Night in the Call Center

These kinds of books fascinate me.

I'm an anti-call-center kind of woman. I've walked down the halls of North American call centers and they do seem like sweatshops to me, albeit with air-conditioning, and comfortable chairs and plantronics headsets. The blinking LED scoreboard with average call time and customers in the queue and total calls handled that day makes it seem like a sporting event. You just expect to hear the Monday Night Football music (which I hear is available, these days) as your computer welcome theme.

I almost never call, because I know they are following a script, and I know that the same script is in the help file or manual or online support somewhere, and I can look it up myself without burning up the phone liness between Connecticut and Bangalore. By the time I want to talk to a live person, I am well off the script with a GPS and a machete, and call centers can rarely handle off the script.

But India.

One of my good clients these days is from the sub-continent - a lovely man who has done a lot to dispel my learned biases. You see, Indian engineers have frustrated the be-jaysus out of me at times - I think there is some peculiar amalgam of British rooted education and Indian culture and attitudes that make an engineer's training in India unique. Western engineers can at time be cowboys; if the simulation software is broken they whip out the slide rule or start jotting notes on the back of an envelope, toss in some fudge factors, overdesign things, make some guesses. Not, I might add, the best way to design a bridge or skyscraper or airplane. But good enough, quite efficient in fact, for many decisions.

I work in a field filled with maybes and probablies - it's almost artfully intuitive and there is almost never one single answer derived from formula and fact. I am pretty good at artful intuition, which is why I get paid the big bucks. In days gone by, I would get calls from Indian engineers, working at A&E firms, looking for the one true answer, the textbook formula, the path to Ohmic enlightenment. Barring that, they wanted me to take responsibility for making a guess. There does not seem to be a lot of cultural or educational support for making guesses in the Indian engineering system. Probably for good reason, truth be told. I suspect a cowboy was involved.

I've done this dance a lot. "I know you can't tell me what size wire to use because you do not have all the information or know all of the facts, but if you were going to specify a wire size, what would you use?" I need to find someone to phonetically write out the Hindi translation for "I am not going to tell you what wire size you should use, you will have to take responsibility for this decision yourself" - because a lot of times English does not seem to work....

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