Personal, Stories Told

The best customer-service experience I’ve ever had

I applied for a job that asked me to write a few short essays on topics germane to the role. One of them, as this post’s title says, was to tell about an amazing customer-service experience I’ve had. You might enjoy the story.

I had an amazing customer service experience with the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Yes, you read that right — the BMV. It showed me that persistence and savvy can solve a thorny customer problem.

It was 1994. My license was due to expire so I went to the nearest license branch to renew it. The clerk said, “Mr. Grey, the computer says you renewed your license at the Lawrence branch last month.” That was 90 miles from where I was standing. I’d never been to that town.

Dog in the wayback

This happened long before the phrase “identity theft” had been coined, long before data security was any kind of concern. We were all incredibly careless with our personal information then. It was common to have your Social Security number printed on your checks! Mine was. Heck, until just a few years before this story happened, your SSN was your driver’s license number in Indiana. Clerks at Kroger used to validate the checks I used to pay for my groceries by making sure the SSN on my check matched my driver’s license number. It was madness.

This problem was beyond the clerk’s authority, so she gave me a number to call. The representative who answered lacked the authority to help me as well. “I’m not even sure who can help you with this,” she said. “But I’ll find out. Give me a number where I can reach you. Here’s my number in case you don’t hear from me in the next day or so.”

That day-or-so stretched into a couple weeks, with that rep and I calling each other every few days to check in. She tried office after office at the BMV until she found someone both with the authority and the willingness to take on my case.

The woman who now had my case was some sort of upper-level manager. After I mailed her documentation that proved my identity to her satisfaction, she told me what she knew. “We think someone walked into the Lawrence branch claiming they were you and that they had lost their license card, sweet talked a clerk, and walked out with a license in your name but with their photo on it.”

License plate

“This is not going to be easy, but I am going to do everything I can to resolve this for you,” she said. “I will take this all the way to the BMV Commissioner if I have to, and I may have to.” She advised me to check my credit reports and criminal records in several Indiana counties to see if my impostor was doing dirty deeds in my name. She gave me her phone number so I could stay in touch.

It took her weeks to sort it out, working with various BMV offices to coordinate the solution. She authorized an entirely new driver’s license number for me and put an alert on my old record that the license was fraudulent. “You need to know that we’ve never done anything like this, not in all the years I’ve been here. But we allowed this problem to happen and it is on us to fix it for you. By the way, if the police pull the impostor over for speeding,” she said, “he’ll find himself in handcuffs!”

I was lucky; my credit did not get torched and the sheriff did not appear at my door because of something my impostor did. There was an upside for me, though. The BMV’s ancient computer couldn’t transfer my driving record to my new license, which made two speeding tickets disappear. Poof!

What made this a great customer service experience was:

  • Persistence. Everybody I encountered worked hard on this problem, jumping hurdles and removing obstacles, until it was resolved.
  • Savvy. The BMV was a giant state bureaucracy, with miles of red tape. The customer-service rep and the upper-level manager both knew how to navigate it expertly.
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Job search update

I accepted a job. I’m going back to work January 7 as an Engineering Manager for a national software company with a large office in Indianapolis. If you live in the US and have children in school, you probably have used, or at least have heard of, the product I’m going to help build.

I had hoped to find another small company ready to scale. The company I’ll be working for is well established, with a mature product and thousands of employees. Smaller companies have been my “sweet spot” where I’ve found great satisfaction and delivered solid results. But I didn’t find such a company ready for a person like me on this job search. 

Yet I am relieved. And this company should provide a solid platform for growth.

When I found myself unemployed in 2015, I was in high demand. Several companies expressed strong interest in me, I picked up some side consulting, and I got to weigh two competing job offers.

But in 2015 I was selling myself as a Quality Assurance leader. (QA people test software to make sure it works as intended.) I have a great story to tell there, backed up with deep experience.

Since then I made the transition to Engineering leadership. It came not a moment too soon, for as I discussed in this post on my software blog QA leadership roles are drying up, and for good reason. 

But in Engineering I find myself in a much larger pool of competition. Frankly, it hurt me as a candidate that I haven’t coded in ten years and am only lightly familiar with modern development and infrastructure tools and frameworks.

I claim that this doesn’t matter. What I might lack in technical chops I more than make up in skilled leadership. I made a deliberate choice some years ago to double down on being an outstanding leader, and it had the natural consequence of letting my technical skills wither and age. But I get outstanding results anyway, because I know how to harness my teams for best engagement and best results.

This turned out not to be as compelling a pitch as I imagined. In two opportunities I was passed over for candidates with more recent technology experience. Maybe this is ego talking, but I would be surprised if they had anywhere near the leadership skill and experience I do.

But I have to take this as an important signal. In my new role, I need to learn the technologies we use. I must go deep enough that one day when I’m on the market again, I have a technology story to tell that removes any doubt about me.

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I always thought the reward for doing a good job was that you got to keep the job

Another thing happened while I was on my blog hiatus last month. I was fired.

I was Director of Engineering at a startup software company. I had led the building of “version 1.0” of our product. I doubled the engineering staff to an even dozen, put in the practices and processes they used to do their work, and collaborated with the product-idea people to make sure the engineers had solid backlogs of work to build from. In short order we turned a chicken-wire-and-chewing-gum prototype into a real software product that sold well and provided real value to customers. I’m proud of what my team and I accomplished.

Those accomplishments apparently didn’t matter in the end.

To tell you the whole story would probably violate the confidentiality agreement I signed. I’m left to guess at much of it anyway, as they wouldn’t tell me why they were letting me go. Financial considerations could have played a role. My boss and I had lately been at serious loggerheads over some matters and I feel sure that hurt me considerably.

I saw some classic signs that it was coming: of my boss canceling meetings with me, of some of the successes for which I had once been praised being reframed as not so successful after all, and of me being left out of tactical and strategic discussions. My boss even suggested strongly that she was losing confidence in me. I was dead man walking.

I’m astonished by how fast things turned. I had been praised as a key player through about the end of the summer. My performance had netted me an off-cycle pay raise, and there was talk of promoting me to Senior Director.

When my boss messaged me late one afternoon to ask me to meet with her at 8 am the next day, I knew the axe was falling. (The office would have been deserted at 8 — in the software startup world most people reach the office well after 9.) There was no way I was going to toss and turn all night in stress and worry and then make the 45-minute commute just to get fired. So I made her do it that night at a nearby Starbucks.

My exit left me feeling played, brutalized, and ultimately humiliated. I’ve spent a great deal of time and energy since then processing what happened and my feelings about it so I can be at peace. I’m not quite there yet but I am close.

Those of us who work in software must simply accept its volatility, especially in young companies trying to find their way. Fortunes turn for the worse and layoffs follow. Strategies change and people who were once key players suddenly find that they are no longer the right person for their role, or that their role is no longer needed. This involuntary exit isn’t my first — in 30 years I’ve been laid off twice (I wrote extensively about the last time, here) and fired one other time (and then un-fired; read that oh-so-hilarious story here).

Of course, I have only so much financial runway. If I don’t take off in another job before about the end of the year, my family will be in challenging circumstances.

I remain well known in the central-Indiana software community, so I immediately started reaching out to colleagues to reconnect with them. I always asked them for introductions to people I don’t know in the local industry. It’s remarkable to me how willing people who don’t know me are to meet me for coffee on the recommendation of a shared colleague. It has been interesting and fun to make those connections. Some of them revealed opportunities that haven’t been made public yet.

I also applied for a couple jobs that were available. One of those applications led to a solid interview. The title is Engineering Manager, so I’d be stepping back a level from my last job. But they’ve given me an idea of the salary and it’s not much less than I was making before. It’s a well-established company, and those generally pay better, job to job, than startups. They like me and tell me they want to offer me the job, but as of today my candidacy is held up in some corporate red tape and I feel like it’s a coin toss whether it will come out in my favor.

I remain charmed by the startup world and would love to hold out for a leadership role at another young company. But landing one of those jobs — any job, really — takes patience and serendipity and I need to support my family right now. Wish me luck. If you’re a person of faith, my family will be grateful for your prayers.

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Connecting with your children as people

I’m not a gamer. I grow frustrated trying to keep up in any game more complicated than Monopoly. And while I was a teen at the dawn of the video-game era, I played pinball instead.

DamionMy life feels full and complete without games. But my son Damion is a serious gamer who finds deep and legitimate meaning and satisfaction in gaming both online and in person with others.

A feature of my relationship with Damion since he was old enough to speak has been him telling me of his gaming exploits at length, and me having no idea what he is talking about.

I was happy to listen, though, because I loved hearing the joy in his voice.

When he was four, he spent hours trying to teach me Yu-Gi-Oh, an adventure card game. It was too complicated for me and I couldn’t get it. I eventually gave up.

My lack of ability to connect with him through gaming sharply limits our ability to connect as whole people. I wonder how much disappointment he feels. I’m still disappointed I couldn’t manage it with my dad. But I can see that there are just limits. The apple may not fall far from the tree, but we are still different people. There will always be parts of each of us the other will never truly know.

I tried a few times to connect with my dad through his interests. Dad wanted for years to teach me to sharpen knives, something he took pride in. I let him try a few times, but he was so unpleasant when I didn’t pick it up perfectly from the start that we never got past the opening lesson. I thought for a while we might connect over hitting balls together at the driving range, something he enjoyed. But even there he felt the need to teach me to be perfect at it, which robbed it of all its fun and pushed me away.

Damion and Pentax KM

Then last fall Damion tried the same thing, asking me if I’d lend him an old camera and show him how to use it. Aw hell yes! I showed him how to spool film into my Pentax KM, taught him how to match the needle to set exposure, and gave him a couple composition tips.

Then I backed off and let him explore on his own. That was hard. Just like my dad, I wanted to hover, and guide, and teach. I resisted with all my might because I didn’t want to suck all the fun out of it for Damion and squander this golden opportunity.

Damion enjoyed the experience and asked to keep a camera. So I gave him two, a Pentax K1000 like his mom used to own and a Pentax ME because I love mine and shoot it most often. When we see each other now we often go for photo walks together.

I feel like I’m atoning for my father’s sins by doing this better with my sons. It’s helping me let go of my bitter disappointment that my dad and I could never manage it.

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Fall break

I’m taking a break from my blog, starting today.

I want to use my blogging time to focus on other projects. With any luck they will include a new book of my film photography. I’ve wanted to start these projects for months but life is full. That time has to come from somewhere.

I’ll respond to comments, and I’ll still comment on your blog if you have one, but there will be no new posts here. I’m not exactly sure when I’ll return but November 1 feels about right.

Indiana State Road 45

If you miss the blog while it’s taking this break, know that there are 2,154 posts in the archive. That’s eleven and a half years of my photos and stories! The archives do get lonely and would love your visit. Click the button to be whisked to a random post from the past.

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See you soon!

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The high cost of college today and why I’m disappointed in my alma mater

Three of our sons are heading off to university this week and next. My oldest begins his final year at Purdue, my youngest his second year at University of Indianapolis, and our youngest his first year at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis.

That school was not our son’s first choice. It wasn’t anywhere on his list of preferred schools, actually. Unfortunately for our son, our family’s serious life challenges in 2017 and 2018 led us to be very late in the very important process of selecting a school. It limited our son’s options. IUPUI is a good school with several excellent programs, including a major in our son’s area of interest. But he chose IUPUI because it was available and affordable, not because he wanted to go there.

SmokestackOur son will get a fine education at IUPUI. But he will attend his first classes there on Monday less than fully excited. Our bright and capable son applied to many very good schools and was accepted into every one. He was even accepted into my alma mater, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, a high bar to clear. That tough little engineering school in Terre Haute, Indiana, has offered the best undergraduate engineering education in the nation for more than 10 years running, according to U.S. News and World Report.

College costs have ballooned nationwide since 1989, when I graduated from Rose. All four years cost roughly $60,000 then, which was considered a positively astronomical sum. In those days Rose was neck and neck with Notre Dame as the most expensive schools by far in Indiana.

Today, one year of Rose-Hulman costs about $60,000.

None of our son’s preferred schools offered enough financial aid, but Rose-Hulman’s offer fell the shortest by far. They offered thousands in grants and guaranteed student loans. They also assumed his mother and I would contribute a very large sum, one that we would have found very challenging to pay. But even after all of those funds were applied Rose wanted $37,000 more, and advised our son to seek private student loans in that amount.

We looked into those loans. The only ones we could find began compounding interest immediately. At the offered interest rate, that $37,000 would have ballooned to nearly $60,000 by the time he graduated. If he had to borrow that much each of his four years, with interest those private loans would total about $201,000 upon graduation.

I cannot justify that kind of debt even for the best undergraduate engineering education in the nation. Very good engineering educations are available for far, far less money at other schools.

White ChapelI called Rose’s financial aid office hoping that my alumnus status might open a door. Nope. The woman I spoke to was very kind, apologetic even, but said that on appeal the most our son would get was an extra thousand dollars.

Rose-Hulman is now simply out of reach for a family with middle-class (or less) money.

Small, private colleges are struggling to survive across America. Rose-Hulman, I believe, saw it coming. As they quadrupled the cost of admission over the last 30 years, they also built a world-class campus that can attract the elite (read: wealthy), who can pay. I hardly recognize the place; the campus I attended in the 1980s was spare, almost ramshackle. Rose did this so it could continue its mission. Reluctantly, I have to say I can’t blame them.

But as a once proud alumnus, as the son of a factory worker who had a life-changing experience at Rose, as someone to whom his Rose-Hulman education has paid lifelong dividends, I’m disappointed to the core.

I’ve written many times about my Rose-Hulman experiences; click here to read it all.

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