Providing customers with excellent support and making sure our products run smoothly is a full-time job, and it takes a special person to do it. Meet Jim Viner, head of quality assurance and new product introduction. We sat down with him to find out how he works through issues and what his mantra is to keep on going.
What role do you play at iDirect Government?
There are two aspects to my job. One is new product introduction (NPI), so when new products launch, I help engineering and marketing facilitate a successful release.
My second role is quality assurance engineering. From that standpoint, my role is actually to head quality assurance for iDirectGov. Our SVP of Operations Jim Hanlon has named me the quality champion, but ultimately that rolls up to him and company President John Ratigan.
How many problems do you solve a week?
That depends on the size of the problem(s). There are big problems that take a long time to solve, and there are small problems that you can solve on your own or by interacting with one or two people, and then there’s the typical run of the mill problems that we run into. Those can take anywhere from hours to days to solve.
My duties are a good blend, because the two aspects work hand-in-hand. When I’m working from an NPI perspective, I’m looking for what I need to do to advance to the next step. That’s what you have to do with NPI – you have to get to that next step. So I have that attitude from the NPI point of view, and in terms of quality, I see myself as more of an opportunist. If there is some way that I can solve a quality problem to ideally improve things significantly, that’s a better return for us.
All that to say, it’s hard to put a handle on how many problems I solve. Today, when I booted up my laptop, my email wasn’t syncing up. I rebooted it again, and the same thing came up. I clicked the icon to scan for issues, and it found that the wireless wasn’t active on the laptop for some reason, so I had to turn that back on. That’s one problem solved today!
What would you say is the first step of figuring out a problem before reaching out to you?
Through the guys in Technical Assistance Center (TAC), our operations team helps customers discern what the problem really is. Is it a network issue on their side? Could it be a hardware issue isolated to certain remotes or line cards? There’s some level of discernment that TAC works through with customers on a standard call, making them the front line.
On the business side, sales engineers and account owners also have a very keen interest in understanding how the customer’s problems are addressed. They have built a relationship with the customer and work with them on a long-term basis.
Do you work on both sides, software and hardware?
I don’t work with software usually – but I can if a customer is experiencing a particular software problem. Typically, unit performance or hardware issues make up the bulk of problems. You can usually figure out a workaround in many cases when there’s a software problem, and they’re always fine-tuning releases to address those problems.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
It’s hard to say. The most challenging is trying to dive into problems that are beyond our area of expertise, primarily because of the business side of it. Recently, we executed a couple of very fast-turn analyses, but the issue we were addressing was much larger than we expected. So it was a significant problem. Despite that, we were able to make sure everybody understood the concerns and were able to make things happen very rapidly. So I would say just gauging the size of the issue and responding accordingly is the most challenging part of my job. Do I need a big hammer to solve a problem, or something very precise to solve a problem?
What’s the most satisfying part of your job?
Two things: the first one is the NPI, the release process, because you’re launching a new product and putting something new out into the world. That’s always exciting to me, personally, because I’ve been doing it for a long time. I place a lot of pride in them, and it just feels good to release a product that we know is designed well, we know it performs well, and hopefully it sells well going forward.
The other thing that’s satisfying is seeing a customer’s problem getting solved. If I can help the customer solve their problem and make their job easier, then that puts us all in a better place.
How long does it take to solve a problem?
I break things down into 15 minute intervals, and I try to be respectful of people’s time. I run late a lot, and that’s my behavior, but I understand my behavior, and I respect people’s time. Is the building burning down? No, things are not that critical. I heard an interview over the weekend on YouTube from the Johnny Carson Show. He was interviewing a 97-year-old farmer who still farmed, so he’d asked him a question about the pace of life on a living farm. This fella was very chipper and spry, and he said, “Well, you’re never in a hurry.”
But in our business there are some cases where you have to be in a hurry, because we have to reply to the customer’s needs. The thing is, how much effort can you put into addressing what the customer sees as the appropriate response? Sometimes I’ll get a call at my desk when I’m in the middle of an analysis or when I have some other kind of desk review going on, and I may not be able to address that right away. I might be tied up in something else or I may need to get information from two or three other parties and pull that information together.
You have to be respectful and understand that, yes, it’s going to take me some time to get that back to you. Solving problems is basically the same thing except it’s an order of magnitude bigger in terms of the number of people I have to get involved. There’s a number of things that you don’t necessarily have to impact. If it’s hardware, I have to understand what to do to fix the units in the field, and then I ask, “Are other units affected? Do I have inventory? Do I have to go back to the supply chain? Do I have to investigate further?” Those types of things are always happening. They’re always going on.
How integral is quality assurance for iDirectGov?
It is very integral for iDirectGov. It’s beneficial for us.
For example, we had a case with the 9050 OM. As we approached the launch point, we came up with a few problems, one of which we believe happens at a low failure rate, so we highlighted it. The reason for this is the specific application. It would be very detrimental to the user if this instrument failed in this way, and as such, we have very little tolerance for this failure. Our engineering teams continue monitoring the production builds for this type of issue. If there are any returns or calls that come in from the TAC side, we’re aware of those as well. We keep track of it and know it’s something to look for.
As the quality champion, I always say that everyone needs to be familiar with where to find the quality policy. Usually they know, and I think the company has a very good response.
What’s your process?
I have them call TAC first. If it’s quick, I’ll ask a couple of questions and tell them I need to route them over to TAC. In a couple of cases it’s simple, and you have to take a couple of minutes to temper the issue. I’ve had cases where we shipped a piece of hardware that was literally missing a screw or nut or bolt, something very small and very accessible to the customer. We located sets of hardware between engineering or re-ordered and had them shipped to the customer. Those kinds of things I don’t have to spin up the whole TAC cycle or get a lot of people involved, and it’s one way to address their immediate need. Simply put, you give them what they ask for. We’ve done that a handful of times. I always follow up with them when I go back and look at metric reviews to see if there’s a chronic problem.
What’s the most challenging problem you’ve had to solve to-date?
The most challenging task was probably the 8-Series end-of-life (EOL) process, mostly because we weren’t quite aware of what exactly the EOL process meant to the various aspects of the organization. When we issue an EOL for a product, it means that the supply chain has become so constrained with obsolete parts that there is a limit on how much longer we can support that product. For the 8-Series, it was a processor that was no longer being made. In 2009 or 2010, we purchased a huge amount of these processors, which limited how many more we could build and provide support for up to three years out. Then I had to alert the customers and let them know that this product they’ve been using for the last decade is no longer going to be available. That in turn spawned a significant bump in the number of 8-Series orders, and it was significant enough that it really threw the supply chain into a bit of an accelerated pace to meet that demand.
Your job can be somewhat stressful at times. Do you have any mantras or mindset you strive to maintain?
I just tell people you have to be very flexible with your expectations. And what that allows you to do is understand what’s really critical and important. It’s a simple mantra, you just have to be flexible. You can’t solve all the problems in one day.