Out of the Yellow, into the Blue.

Today is my second last day as a Support Engineer for Notes/Domino.

Out of my nineteen years or so in IBM, eight of them were spent in Level 2 support. When I first entered into the role, I had the mistaken belief that many others do (in and out of IBM!). In that it would be a call center reading a script. I couldn’t have been more further than the truth.

Apart from the massive amounts of training in several product areas, you also got trained on how to deal with people. Something you don’t realise you need until you do it. ;)

At the time of joining as well, it was quite common for support engineers to move into new roles after three years. So some of the training focused on making sure when you do move, you set a standard and expectation that is expected by customers.

In the day-to-day stuff, you are dealing with stressed customers, complex technical issues, keeping everything progressing and focusing on the product knowledge for the customer. This meant writing tech notes, wiki articles, videos, open Mics, etc. You are also reviewing issues for development to investigate in future releases. As well as new features coming down the line (training & supporting).

The job I found is extremely fun and technically challenging. Which is why I have stayed for so long.

However I have followed the Watson technology for a number of years, and it’s great that a role opened up that I actually get paid to use the technology. :) So come Monday I will move into my new role in Watson.

While I have met many people from Level 1 to Level 3 across the world, AVL’s and customers. I believe the ones I miss the most is the customers. The Appdev customer community is very well established and I would often work with names you see showing up on Planet Lotus, OpenNTF, StackOverflow. While I have never had a serious issue with any customer, there are some customers that stand out.

Dealing with them is a “breath of fresh air”. They knew what to expect. So you would often get a well designed test case/sample which not only reproduces the issue but would often explain all the alternate workarounds tried, etc. In some cases some of these customers have shaped some of the features you see today in Notes/Domino.

I’m not allowed mention names in PMRs publicly, but I am sure they know who they are. :)

Anyway I wanted to say it’s been awesome, and I hope it stays awesome for everyone!

The elephant in the room.


I watched the new demo of WatsonPaths this morning and was somewhat impressed, although for different reasons. I haven’t been overly impressed with Watson doing customer support (although it is in Beta).

For those who haven’t been paying attention, Watson plans to replace customer support. I reviewed the marketing material some time back. One part of the parts that irked me was “Half of calls typically go unresolved or require escalation“.

So I had a read of the actual report related to the claim. It relates to where the engineers are not considered experienced (duh!). When you look at the figures for experienced support professionals then the figures become more realistic. But it raises an interesting point. That being the underlying price of support.

In order to give good support, you need good support staff. Resources and tools only go so far. Often the best customer support goes beyond just resolving the issue at hand. Some of the best technical support people I work with are not strong technical, but you can easily slot them into different product areas and they still shine vs someone with more technical skill in that space.

To give an example. Imagine you got this support call in.

“Hi, I recently upgraded all users to IBM Notes. One user deleted one of their mail rules but it is still executing. I looked at TN 1088058 but that didn’t solve the issue.”

So looking at that text a junior engineer will take the following from it:

“Hi, I recently upgraded all users to IBM Notes. One user deleted one of their mail rules but it is still executing. I looked at TN 1088058 but that didn’t solve the issue.

Straight away we see they are on Notes 9. As they mention a user deleting their mail rules, it is referring to mail rules in the client and not the server. We can also see that the customer mentions what they looked at to solve the issue.

A normal search engine would not pick up on the “didn’t solve the issue” and would refer the customer back to the tech note they already looked at. NLP on the the other hand would pick up on this (as would a junior engineer). Both would probably dismiss the tech note because of the customers comments.

Compare that to a more senior look at the call.

“Hi, I recently upgraded all users to IBM Notes. One user deleted one of their mail rules but it is still executing. I looked at TN 1088058 but that didn’t solve the issue.

The blue highlighted text tells us the following:

1. The customer has recently upgraded to a new version (Most likely ND9 as they say “IBM Notes”). It is quite normal for a customer to be under a lot of pressure during these times, as they are dealing with a number of factors in the upgrade. As such the customer is more likely to respond negatively to suggestions they wouldn’t normally worry about.

2. “One user”. This would mean that the issue is not as critical. However with the migration happening it’s possible this is one very important user, or again there is stress going on in relation to the migration and they are under pressure to resolve all issues.

3. “Looked at”. So this tells me that the customer has attempted to solve the issue themselves first.  It also tells me that the customer in question may be experienced in troubleshooting, so to be tactful asking obvious questions. (Dell handled this one very well).

4. Tech Note 1088058. It would probably be dismissed as the customer has already said it didn’t solve the issue. But this related underlying technology hasn’t changed in a long time. Every known issue is in that tech note.

Most likely cause is they did not follow the tech note correctly. So tact is required in pointing this out (normally testing ourselves).

Back to the elephant in the room:

“I strongly believe that Watson will replace* my job sometime in the future.”

The Watson support portal sadly is not that (yet). To me it is a more annoying LMGTFY. It doesn’t fully reflect the power of what Watson is.

Once taught correctly Watson can pick up on the nuances like above. It can also draw from a number of sources (source code, customer correspondence, server topologies, etc) to get a clearer and faster picture of where you focus the investigation.

Which is why I enjoyed watching the WatsonPaths demo, as it appears to draw on the strengths of what Watson can do. Here is the video.

* “replace” is probably too strong a word. For the moment “augment”. There may come a day when Watson will take over, but for the now it would allow an experienced engineer to quickly see a breakdown of data in relation to the issue/customer, so as to offer the solution in a less stressful manner.

Thanks for the Linkedin endorsements but..

I appreciate everyone giving me LinkedIn endorsements, but I am really not an expert on WebSphere / Portal. Haven’t used either in years.

Likewise with other non-related endorsements I’ve been deleting them as I find them. But I was wondering if people just accept these random endorsements? What would be the benefit in doing it?

Forget about the Help NSF for the ND9 Designer client.

For those of you who have just installed Notes Designer 9, I recommend to check out the new help features.

Pressing F1 in the designer client will bring up the help, which you can move around the UI to where you like or expand it to full screen.

Here is an example looking for getDocumentByUNID method.

Screen Shot 2013-03-21 at 20.05.25

As you can see the methods now have the Object reference in the title along with the language. If this isn’t enough you can also filter out what you don’t want. For example clicking on the Scope and create a new Scope called Java API.

When selecting topics set it to search only “IBM Designer Basic User Guide and Reference -> Java/CORBA Classes”

Screen Shot 2013-03-21 at 20.06.17

If we do the search again you can see only Java related items showing up.

Screen Shot 2013-03-21 at 20.06.36

Overall a much cleaner experience than the NSF help file.

Because no one need suffer the pain I did. (C-API)

I’m ramping up on C-API stuff at the moment.

I’ve been having a pretty horrific time trying to get installed and running properly on OSX (Thanks Parag for the help!). What has driven me to near insanity though was creating a simple project to run in XCode. After numerous trial and error it appeared to all stem from one wrong little backslash in a string! That’s what I get for expecting it to execute the same way as the command line.

So I wrote up my steps on the Domino Appdev Wiki, so that no one need suffer like me. :)

A reminder to those going to Connect 2013.

It’s that time of the year again. From a support point of view, to maximise your time there I recommend doing the following.

1. If you have a particularly tricky PMR, or a block of PMRs that you want to discuss at the conference with someone (i.e. Developer), let your support engineer for the PMR/s know that you will be there. No guarantees!, but they hopefully should be able to get some time with a developer for you that is relevant to the issues.

2. If you aren’t available for PMRs for the week of Connect 2013, let support know who your backup is or tell them you will follow up after the conference. Saves them wasting time on trying to chase you for a follow up.

3. If you speak to a developer at Connect 2013 and they tell you to open a PMR. Make sure to get their name and it is put into the PMR! Especially if they have promised you the Moon on a stick. ;)

Using LanguageWare with Lotus Notes

I had meant to finish this a long time ago, but I remembered how annoying it is to do video recording, so I might ramble on a bit (It’s no notes in 9!).

So this demo will give a very brief overview of how you can create a personalised live text/analysis system in XPages using UIMA. It demonstrates using Languageware, which takes a lot of the pain out of working with UIMA. We quickly create a names dictionary of over 5,000 first names, then teach it how to understand a full name.

[edit] I redid the video so it is more watchable now.

I really need to pay more attention to OpenNTF

Just finished day 1 of IBM XPages Master class. In the morning we were introduced to the XPages Toolbox.

In support we deal with issues related to Notes/Domino and not the customers application. So from the get-go we have to ask the customer to create a sample to remove their application from the equation.

The majority of customers are just as passionate in creating test cases as they do with full scale applications. That said, I can still relate to the amount of work that can be involved in doing something like this, trying to find the exact line of code and state that manifests the issue.

So watching the toolbox drill down to the code level to show where a performance issue was happening was pretty impressive.

So if you haven’t used it yet, start! :)