The Business of Software

Stop outsourcing support

By Jim Grey (about)

There’s a trend among the hip companies in Silicon Valley to move tech support departments to middle America. Lauren Smiley wrote about it recently for Medium’s Backchannel, saying that it’s all about cost. You can simply pay support techs less when they’re not on the coasts.

But it has the consequence of blocking support techs from moving up into more interesting — and more lucrative — roles in the company. It makes support a total dead end job. But more importantly to the company, it takes away a key element that can make the software better.

Abandoned National Road and US 40

Support jobs aren’t always an automatic growth opportunity. The supply of support techs usually dwarfs demand for roles they can move up into.

But it’s no wonder support techs want to move up — support is hard. For less money than other technical roles in the company, you have to listen to unhappy users all day and try to help them get the promised value from your company’s products. It’s emotionally draining. I’ve heard support techs joke more than once that support years are like dog years: every year you work feels like seven.

Still, support really can be a good place to grow talent for other teams because techs know the products and, more importantly, how users actually work with and experience them. Support techs spread this invaluable perspective anywhere they go in the company. This is why I love to hire support techs into my testing teams.

But another reason it’s good to keep support in the same building is that it makes the software better.

Here in the Midwest, where cost of living is generally low, the startup, small, and medium-sized companies where I’ve worked don’t outsource customer service. Those workers are already plentiful and inexpensive. And so support is always down the hall or on the next floor. Developers and testers become friends with many of the support techs.

To developers and testers, users can be an abstract concept. It’s a shame, but since we don’t know them and don’t experience our products as they do, we feel freer to make choices that are expedient for us but potentially unpleasant for them.

But we always get an earful from support when things don’t work well! And we don’t want to create difficulties for our friends there. It makes us work hard to deliver software that doesn’t make the phones blow up.

Successful software delivery is a team sport. Don’t cut off a key part of the team just to save a dollar.