Author Archives: Kevin

About Kevin

My dad brought a laptop home from work one day when I was in 5th grade, and it was all downhill from there. I've owned Palm PDAs, Pocket PCs, Handheld PCs, and Windows Mobile Smartphones, and finally found one that I could settle down with. Hopefully. I also graduated from the University of Michigan here in Ann Arbor, with a B.S in Computer Science.

What a Mess!

You may have seen my other post with a pic of how many PDAs there are on my desk. Well, there are still a lot of PDAs on my desk, and with all the support email and testing I do, it’s just hard to keep it clean:

A Messy Desk…

I’ve been trying to solve this problem for a while, and it’s compounded by a few things.

  • I need a lot of USB ports.
  • I need a lot of electrical sockets.
  • I need to be able to have people come and take devices away and bring them back.
  • I need it to be easy to use without getting in my way.

After a lot of finagling and a trip to the office supply store, I solved my problem with a box cutter, a mailing tube, and some shipping tape. (Why does this sound like the way MacGyver foils some enemy contraption?)

A clean desk!

Now, if only someone could tell me where I could get a 10 port USB hub…

GTD + ListPro, Take 2

The GTD ListPro template that I made has turned out to be quite popular. As in, it’s been in the top 3 most-downloaded List Exchange files list pretty much since I posted it almost 1 year ago. It’s even been #1 quite a few times.

In that time, I’ve had an on-and-off relationship with David Allen’s Getting Things Done. Starting up with GTD is like trying to get a new habit. When you don’t want a new habit, it’s very easy. When you want one, it’s very hard. I’ve had almost 26 years to get in the habit of brushing my teeth when I wake up, and that’s not a very complicated task. Organizing myself using GTD is about 100x more ‘things to do’, and it’s a lot more difficult.

In any case, I’d planned on posting a differently-organized ListPro template for GTD that was much simpler and put everything in one place. Then, new versions of our software happened. Luckily, an intrepid ListPro user beat me to the punch, and he really beat me. He wrote a great blog post about how to use ListPro to manage your GTD actions, and sent us the associated template. The template is so simple, it makes mine look like “War and Peace”. As a result, it’s probably a lot easier to stick with!

So go get the template, read the article, and get something done!

(P.S: Why do I feel like Matt Foley, the motivational speaker played by Chris Farley on “Saturday Night Live”, when I make so many links in a short blog post? You know, like when you “bunny ear” things you’re “talking about” with “other people”.)

Life as a software tester for Ilium Software


This picture illustrates two things. One is that I have terrible handwriting, especially on a white board. It also gives a glimpse into what software testing is like here at Ilium Software.

I’ve been meaning to talk about testing, but between testing eWallet 5.0, InScribe 2.0 and just finishing up on a Keep Track update, not to mention supporting our existing and new software… there just wasn’t time. If you have some time, read on!

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Unintentional Success Story

Every once and a while, Ilium Software tech support gets a heads-up about an interesting and unexpected use of one of our products. We aren’t the only ones; Patrick at MicroISV on a Shoestring had the same experience and his story prompted me to think.

Sometimes the use case isn’t much of a stretch; ListPro is a program to make lists, so it’s hard to find a use for ListPro that isn’t obvious by definition. Prayer lists, scavenger hunts, web bookmarks, flight checklists… they’re all still just lists. NewsBreak is the same way; RSS and ATOM are usually used for simple ‘newspaper headlines’, but all sorts of information such as your NetFlix queue, Gmail account, eBay search results and weather reports are available via RSS. These uses are just part of what NewsBreak is designed to do.

eWallet, on the other hand, is really designed to be a program to hold your sensitive personal information like passwords, credit card numbers, bank account numbers, frequent flier mile cards. That’s it; you put personal information in, eWallet encrypts it under one password. That doesn’t stop people from coming up with their own uses.

Just yesterday, we had a user mention that she used eWallet to keep track of things she wanted to buy on the web. She would create cards with the backgrounds set to a picture of a particular item, with the weblink to the item and a description in the notes. That way, she could see at a glance exactly what something was, instead of having to go visit the website to figure out why it was in the list.

This is not something eWallet was intended to do, but it works and made the user happy. The ‘pictures of stuff to buy’ list works because eWallet supports both card background graphics and Picture Cards (useful for pictures of your dog / cat / gerbil with fruitless dreams of freedom / kid / favorite flower pot / car / boat / that really big fish you caught that was thiiiiiiiis big, really! / etc.) You know, stuff you would keep in a real wallet.

It also brings up the great can-of-worms question, “Should we pursue this with eWallet?” I definitely don’t have the answer. Questions like these are great, because they open up all those weird little opportunities you – the developer, or tester, or anyone else in software development – wouldn’t necessarily think of on your own.

Customer Service Etiquette

In eleven days, I will have been working for Ilium Software for two years exactly. I think. I’m really bad at numbers. In those two years, I have slowly drifted towards being something of a Good Customer Support advocate. Now that we have a blog, I can actually say something about what goes on in my head.

I get to be on both sides of the fence when it comes to customer support. I’m a customer getting support from other companies, and I provide support to our customers. Some people probably don’t reconcile this state very well; I can’t imagine that spammers are delighted to sift through spam email every morning while they have their coffee and wake up, nor can I imagine that telemarketers are very pleased when someone selling vinyl siding interrupts their dinner. 

I can’t stand receiving poor service, though, and I don’t want to give it to anyone else. I also can’t stand it when other people describe poor service, or describe the way they treat customers/service reps.

As a result, I’ve come up with this guide to Customer Support Etiquette, for both sides. It’s not very complete, but it’s a good start.

Customer Etiquette

  • Be polite. You don’t have to be cheerful, but don’t be a jerk. Say, “I’m unhappy, why did this happen?” Don’t say, “What are you trying to do, rob me?”
  • Don’t call the representative names. Unleashing a string of profanity at a service rep won’t do anything except indicate that you are angry, and that you are very likely to be unreasonable. Interestingly, I have never had this happen here at Ilium Software, but I did have to hang up on someone who was screaming into the phone at my previous job. An exception to this rule is if you are trapped in an obnoxious telephone menu system – some people have noticed that if you start swearing at a phone system, it drops you to a human.
  • Know when to walk away. Sometimes, hassle isn’t worth the effort you put into it.  If you are in line at the grocery store and you are hassling the clerk about how your hot dogs came up the wrong price, and the line is fifteen people long behind you, getting your forty cents back is going to cost fifteen people their time and the anguish of listening to you complain while their ice cream melts.
  • Know when to push. It’s like that song by Kenny Rogers – know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, and I won’t go on with the rest of the song. If the answer is “No” the first time, asking a second time is probably not going to kill either you or the other person but they may change their tune. Ask a third time and you’re going too far.
  • Show respect. You are probably talking to a human being. What answers they give you may not be your own answers, but mandated by their employer. Understand this, and don’t give them too much of a hard time. I can’t say how many times I’ve read comments on websites where people completely tear up sales associates at retail stores. It might be annoying to be swarmed by sales people when you go to buy a CD, or asked to buy a service plan on something inconsequential like a small carrying case, but it’s not the actual person’s fault. This is actually a touchy issue – you might very well consider that it really is the person’s fault because they chose to work at that job. It should be somewhat evident if they are out of line, or just reciting drivel. Pity the drivel, stand up to behavior that’s out of line, and that is the meaning of respect in this case.
  • Do not treat CSRs as if they are automatically going to be a problem. Customer Service is not your enemy until proven as such. At its best, customer service is your best friend in the whole world. At its worst, it will drive you insane. It will not, however, kill you in the huge majority of cases. You will cause needless stress on both sides if you approach a service interaction as if the other person is going to try to destroy you.


Customer Service Representative (and company) Etiquette

  • Don’t insult the customer. No matter how stupid someone is or seems to be, never say anything about it and don’t throw them a line you’re not holding onto. Even if you have to stomp the floor and scream into a pillow when you get off the line, hold your tongue.
  • Break a rule to avoid making a scene. If you are faced with the choice of A) not meeting your retention quota, or B) standing your ground and ending up a figurehead for all that is wrong with customer service []  the correct choice is A. I don’t care if your boss says it’s B. It’s A. 
  • Don’t create CSR rules that only exist to help you maximize your profits. This one’s for companies – if you have created a rule that doesn’t just stem losses but tries to raise your profits with no necessary benefit to the customer, you’re opening yourself up for all kinds of ill will. See the link in the above bullet.  
  • Learn to speak. If.You.Sound.Like.You.Are.Giving.A.Book.Report.In.Third.Grade or you sound like You.Are.The.Magazine.Salesman.From.”Office.Space”, You.Might.Be.In.The.Wrong.Job. That said, by the end of the day my standard “Ilium Software, this is Kevin, what can I do for you?” greeting becomes impossible to say without stuttering.
  • Fix mistakes and apologize. If you make a mistake, fix it and say you’re sorry. If someone else makes a mistake, fix it and say you’re sorry. I recently had to talk to five different people at my cable company just to get my service properly moved from one apartment to the next. However, at the end, the rep apologized for the mess and fixed it. They didn’t blame me, they didn’t pass the buck, they said, “I’m real sorry that happened, I don’t know how they could have scheduled an appointment for before you called, everything is set up now, really, honest.”
  • Don’t give out useless compensation. “I’m sorry you had a bad time with us and now want to kill all of our service reps. Please accept this pointless gift card good only for something from the company you now despise, or this coupon that looks great but can’t be used for anything.” Bzzzt. Wrong answer.
  • Remember what a customer is. They’re paying your for something. You wouldn’t have a job without them.

Retention? Nope.

Ilium Software is really happy to have customers, but not so happy to have them that we would do anything to keep them. On the surface, doing anything seems like ‘bending over backwards’ to satisfy the customer. That’s not a horrible idea – we really try to make people happy within reasonable limits and company policy.

When I say ‘do anything’, I include threatening, badgering, obsfucating, hard-selling, and otherwise retaining.  The first – and quasi-official – thing that I want to get across is that we don’t have a retention policy or a manual. Ilium Software does not have a document that says how to retain customers when they say, “I don’t like [product], I want a refund.”

For more examples and some ranting, keep reading.

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Common sense is neither common nor sensical. Discuss!

One of my little Google Homepage widgets is for a blog by one James Bach, who knows more about testing than me. A lot more. He recently blogged about his dislike for the words ‘intuition’ and ‘common sense’ being used as explanations in arguments.

Bach has a very good point when it comes to using those two concepts as ways to explain away a problem.

The article also made me think about how often I run into issues of common sense or intuition while providing tech support. Keep reading for some examples, and a little discussion on how I think the common sense and intuition pitfalls can be avoided.

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What is RSS? Here’s a short answer.

One thing I’ve noticed in terms of support is that people usually come to us wanting to make lists (ListPro), keep track of passwords and such (eWallet), keep track of financial transactions (Keep Track), but when it comes to NewsBreak, it’s a bit up in the air. It lets you… read news! Specifically, it’s an RSS feed aggregator, and if you know what RSS is, you understand the concept immediately.

If you don’t know what RSS is, wrapping your head around just what NewsBreak is good for, can do, can’t do, etc. can be a little tricky. If you don’t know what RSS is, this article will probably help: A non-technical explanation of RSS.

You got “Getting Things Done” in my ListPro!

Ten points to whoever recognizes the advertising throwback in the title. “Getting Things Done” is a methodology developed by one David Allen to help create a ‘trusted system’ for tracking what you need to.. get done.

GTD focuses on helping you dump your brain into this trusted system, so you don’t leave obligations looming in the black uncertainty raincloud over your head. If you don’t have time to read his book, you can probably get a good sense of how the core of GTD works by looking at this flowchart [PDF file, 30KB].

GTD is pretty popular with geeks, probably because it takes quite a bit of fiddling to get it done (geeks love to fiddle with things, in my experience), and because it’s a “Life Hack”, a way of optimizing your life to make things work better.

GTD is also something that is basically a bunch of lists. We make a product called ListPro that is very good at making bunches of lists. So inevitably, the two will collide. For the collision, keep reading after the cut thingy below.

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