Degrading Call Center Service

I can’t quite put a finger on it, but somewhere during the last five years I started really taking stock of the degrading call center service quality.  This is not my industry and I don’t know how to properly quantify or respond to this change, but I am starting to think that this may be either an opportunity: for startups, for someone like Ralph Nader, or for legislators and other regulators who ultimately serve as the people tasked with serving the public interest.

For startups the answer could be as simple as coming up with a way for customers to register the fact that the call center service they are receiving is a not working.  For example: when my wife and I had a baby recently the Maryland Health Connection/Maryland Health Exchange call center made two major mistakes (not counting mis-management of the overall program from the start).  First, they changed our address to the wrong address.  That wrong address was passed on to Carefirst of Maryland, my health insurance company, by the Maryland Health Connection/Maryland Health Exchange to.  I called in to Carefirst multiple times and they told me that they could not change my address or that the only way to change my address would be through the Maryland Health Exchange/Marylnd Health Connection.  After getting the call escalated to management numerous times with zero results I gave up trying to get Carefirst to update my address.  When I call Carefirst they ask me to verify my address in order to talk to anyone there about anything.  Carefirst also sends mail to the wrong address.  Health insurance is provided with geographic limitations on top of this!  So I called the Maryland Health Connection/Maryland Health Exchange thinking that it would be easy to get them to change my address.  After calling in multiple times and they told me that they either could not change my address or that the only way to change my address would be to buy a completely new insurance policy through the Maryland Health Exchange/Maryland Health Connection.  Seriously?  How hard is it to change an address?  After getting the call escalated to management numerous times I decided to try calling their website technical support line.  Same thing, but after pushing for the call to be escalated I was told that my address would be added to a spreadsheet that would be used to update my address in their system (apparently, I kid you not, the entire system is a website with a web form that provides data in spreadsheet form that someone manually data enters into another system).  They told me it would take a few days or a week so I waited.  Several months later the address is still wrong.  A startup could provide a way to report this to upper management.  Maybe they could have one of those hospital style pain faces scales that you pick out where you pick the face showing that dealing with this problem hurts a whole lot or is a complete disaster that prevents someone from getting health care at all in a case like this.

I mentioned that perhaps this is a problem for someone like Ralph Nader to take up.  In 1965 Ralph Nader wrote a book titled ‘Unsafe At Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of The American Automobile.‘  While someone may not die of a call center episode, their life might be threatened under certain circumstances.  I could see the headline now: ‘Elderly person commits suicide after spending 40+ hours seeking to reverse health insurance denial following typo in spreadsheet by Maryland Health Connection call center worker.’  This may seem extreme, but it is actually not that far off.  The people who work in these call centers DO NOT have the authorization to help people if someone calls in with a situation like this.  They flat out refuse to.

It seems that one of the few options that people have as a last resort is to go to third parties to seek help.  Good luck with that. I called my US Senator’s office (they forwarded me to the Governor’s office.  I left two messages and never heard back from the Governor’s office so I called a third time and was told that they would speak to someone about it.  I received an email shortly after the third call telling me that my address was being updated, but that was a complete fake out.  They did not update my address.

I tried social media. I reached out to @MDHealthConnection twice.  The first time they looked up my phone number based on my Twitter ID (which was probably a violation of my privacy rights under HIPPA or something) and called me using the phone number on on file with the Maryland Health Exchange.  Then they had someone email me to confirm that I needed my address updated.  That person said they would have my address updated, but that was also a complete fake out.  They did not update my address either.

At least if there was a startup allowing people to report their Call Center pain level they could share this data with someone like Ralph Nader or the Governor’s office so that something could be done about it.  Maybe this is an opportunity for social entrepreneurship that will get funded sooner or later.  Maybe it is a project for the Presidential Innovation Fellows although their charter does not include state government or private sector companies.

I called the Attorney General’s office and they told me that the Maryland Health Connection is so screwed up that if you are married and you die then your spouse can’t update the system to get survivor benefits.  I don’t have experience with this, but that sounds like a major problem.

Most of what I am talking about involves the Maryland Health Connection call center customer service team’s inability or unwillingness to help people.  But this is just one example of a problem that is across the board when it comes to call centers.

Something really needs to be done about the degradation of call center service quality.  Companies and governments are putting people in gatekeeper roles and blocking people from getting what they are paying for or entitled to.  This is out of control.

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Counting Source Lines Of Code for Products

While reading through the source code to an app that one of my products depends on I discovered an app called SLOCCount by David Wheeler, a PhD in Information Technology who went to George Mason University.  SLOCCount is short for source lines of code count.  I decided to try it out to see how many lines of code there are in one of my products.  This is is a great utility and if you have a few minutes you should try it out. It took seconds to install and run.

The report delivered by SLOCCount was interesting:

Total Physical Source Lines of Code (SLOC) = 232,451

Development Effort Estimate, Person-Years (Person-Months) = 61.05 (732.59)

(Basic COCOMO model, Person-Months = 2.4 * (KSLOC**1.05))

Schedule Estimate, Years (Months) = 2.56 (30.66)

(Basic COCOMO model, Months = 2.5 * (person-months**0.38))

Estimated Average Number of Developers (Effort/Schedule)  = 23.89

Total Estimated Cost to Develop  = $ 8,246,879

(average salary = $56,286/year, overhead = 2.40).

To refine this report, I would first have to come up with a way to exclude directories for open source code that my team did not write.  Next, I would have to adjust the average salary numbers quite a bit.  I don’t know any developers who would work for $56,286 per year.  I wrote David a note about this so maybe the next release will contain more realistic numbers.

David’s is development effort estimate is interesting.  I can’t help but wonder if this is how people managing CMMI projects measure efforts and outcomes.  Maybe it is how they sell things.  If they do then I can understand how things like the Maryland Health Exchange get screwed up so badly.

At any rate, I am glad I discovered SLOCCount today and will keep it in mind going forward.

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Is Learning To Code Enough?

If you are thinking about changing careers or just upgrading your skill set by learning to code, you have to ask yourself if learning to code is enough.  Being a software engineer or even a web developer is not just about learning how to read and write in a scripting language like ruby, python or java.  Even if you learn to code, you are going to hit walls that require mathematical thinking or different ways of thinking than what you are used to.  At least not if you are a mere mortal.

This post was inspired by the following events:
A few days ago I listened to episode 6 of Alexis Ohanian’s NYRD Radio podcasts where he was interviewing James Altucher.  A few days before that I watched ‘The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Schwartz‘.  Then I watched Mark Halberstadt‘s Khan Academy video talking about how he went back to school and got his BS in Electrical Engineering after getting a bachelors many years earlier in music.

Mark describes himself as a C student before he spent three years learning math and science through the Khan Academy.  You can watch his video series explaining his process as well as some reflections on going through it via his YouTube channel here.  Mark got a 4.0 GPA when he went back to school at Temple University. Mark comes across as a really smart guy who was not really getting all that much out of school except with respect to music.

James describes himself as having been kicked out of grad school for a variety of reasons including his tenacious pursuit of writing.  He told Alexis that despite having made a ton of money and going to an ivy league school as an undergrad, he would not pay for his kid(s) (I think he said he had just one but that isn’t important here) to go to college.  James comes across as a

Aaron comes was a child prodigy.  He picked up things unusually easily earlier than most and mastered impressed his peers.  Aaron was an add on founder of Reddit.  He came in after the original three founders had started the company and his company that was part of YCombinator stalled.

As someone who got an undergraduate degree in an area that did not require much math or science (Calculus was the highest level math I took in College and Astronomy was the highest level science), I can identify with Mark a lot more than with James.  I think that sometimes people like James think that a system is bad because it was bad for them, but they fail to consider things through they eyes and experiences of other people.

Aaron was certainly gifted, but he also had access to the web early and often growing up.  His family supported his use of computers.  Not everyone has that sort of foundation.  Based on the documentary video, The Internet’s Own Boy, he was a completely autodidactic learner.  He could probably pick up a text on mathematics and make sense of it.  I know a few people like that, but most people are just not like that.

This brings me back to my original idea about whether or not just learning to code is enough. Most people simply need to develop some foundations if they want to be a well rounded and solid software engineer or developer. I don’t know know if these foundations need to be the same as the requisites for computer science or electrical engineering.  Mark is working as a software engineer now.  I have been working on software and doing web development off and on since before college.  The lack of math is not preventative per say, but it is frustrating when I start taking deeper dives into more advanced topics like machine learning, natural language processing and information retrieval which all interest me.  There are times when even things like front-end web development and design involve math at a much less complicated level so someone who assumes that they can just learn to code without studying the foundations may be in for a few speed bumps along the way.

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On Being A Startup Parent

I decided to take a few months off from my regular routine when I learned of the arrival of my first child recently.  So far so good, but it feels like there is something missing most days.  I read ‘The Baby Book’ by Dr. Sears which was quite helpful before and after the our baby’s arrival.  If I could only recommend one book to expecting or new parents, this is it.  My thoughts on being a startup parent today are very different from before.

I expected things to be harder than they turned out to be in our case. I am glad that this is the case.  I did not expect that I would be hustling for crumbs of time 24 hours a day 7 days a week.  For instance, if I want to make an important phone call I either need a babysitter, Juliana, or a bottle of milk combined with a good measure of luck and some lead time to get the baby to sleep.  Going to a coffee meeting isn’t that challenging provided that it is within walking distance which is easy when you live downtown.  Trying to get any work done that requires more than a 30-45 minute focus is nearly impossible without someone to watch the baby or the baby being in nap mode.

Having a baby is like being a startup founder in other ways as well.  You need a support network.  If you have parents who are more than a short commute away then you will consider making some major life changes very quickly.  In many ways this is like choosing to be a solo founder vs. finding co-founders early on.  Having friends and family nearby is a great thing.
Overall, I really did not know what people meant when they kept saying that having a kid will change your life but I do now.  Everything is different.  And I really do mean everything.  In good ways for the most part.

As you might expect, as an entrepreneur I am looking at things and coming up with businesses and solutions to the countless pain points associated with parenting.  I thought about doing a kickstarter for a clothing line, but the time bank required to go meet with a seamstress has not received any investments yet.  I started thinking about apps for just past the horizon in the e-learning, mentoring, and other categories.  So far nothing has stuck.  I’m not determined to find a startup related to being a parent, but it is very tempting.  The 4Moms company has certainly cornered the Apple tile on the baby monopoly board.

One thing that I really do think there is some opportunity around is early childhood learning.  Whether it is the flash cards and flash card apps or the books on how to be a parent, there is a huge gaping hole that exits.  The books out there are largely conceptual, but not constructive.  At least not for early childhood.  I can’t tell you how many books I have read that have said the exact same thing one of several different ways.  There isn’t a lot of innovation going on.  Kristin Barnett’s ‘The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius‘ is so far among the better reads that I have encountered simply because it tells of how one parent parented in some very uncharted waters.  The book is well written and interesting so it is a good read all around which helps.  Most books on early parenting or early childhood development promise big, but then there is a drop off in the second or third chapter and things digress to repetitive mush or childhood development almanacs like those found all over the place.  There isn’t much quality reading in this category that I have found so far.  Children’s books are also quite disappointing in many cases, but I’m not too harsh of a critic (a funny critique of Goodnight Moon).

One thing is certain, becoming a parent has lead to a substantial increase in my pursuit of comedy relief and the humorous side of life.  Today I discovered a blog called ‘The Ugly Volvo‘ which is quite funny.

As a new parent and an entrepreneurial parent, I am always on the lookout for more interesting reading (e.g. blogs, books, articles), online video content (e.g. Coursera, Youtube), and interesting programs.  Some of the best insights that I have found so far have come from a friend of Juliana’s who taught for the Stanford University Online High School.  Email me if you have suggestions, are interested in chatting about any of this stuff, etc.

Last, but not least, I can say with certainty that our assumptions about women in workforce deserve much more attention. I think it is assumed that women are different than men generally, but my experiences as a new parent staying home to spend time with my first child are enough to convince me that a) this isn’t just a male vs. female thing, and b) that women have a much tougher time than men do during the period leading up to giving birth and during the first year of being a parent.  This is as much an economic issue (child care isn’t consistently high quality or cheap) as it is a people in the workplace being considered fairly by employers, coworkers and government.

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Learn To Code In The Time It Takes To Recruit A Coder

The title of this article is something that I would not have said seven years ago.  Things have changed.  Free online learning and local learning as well as mentoring options have proliferated like crazy in the last seven years.  Today, there is no reason why you can’t learn to code in the time it takes to recruit a coder to build your app idea.  It will take you 2-3 months to find a decent coder who will work for sweat equity or a reduced compensation arrangement so take that time and use it instead to learn to code.

I am getting a ton of emails from people asking me if I know a programmer that they can work with from all corners of the earth lately.  People seem to think that they are in a corner without hope.  I feel the need to provide some education for them here.

For starters, if you think you are in a corner now…without a coder…just wait until your coder quits or moves on because you discovered that they can’t build your dream app in short order.  Better yet, wait till you get your app built and you can’t afford to keep it working and you have figured out that things are not quite what you thought they would be.

Bootstrapping an app, be it mobile or web or enterprise, is a lot like building a house that isn’t ready for the inevitable storms (yes, not just one) that are coming.  You think you just hire someone to build you something and that is it? That is not how things work at all.  You are in for a very rude awakening over time.  Initially it will be because you want more than you can get.  After a while it will be because you lose someone and they are replaced by someone who says the previous person did everything all wrong.  If you are lucky you will not have people who flake out on you mid way through a critical project.  Oh, and nobody will care about this as much as you.

So my modest proposal to you, the non-technical founder who is gearing up for an epic hunting campaign for rock star programmers, is this:

You can learn to code in about the same time that it would take you to find a programmer.  And you should learn to code before you find a programmer.  Why?  Because you are building a software product that you will own.  You might not be the best programmer or even a decent programmer right out of the gate, but that isn’t the point.  Your lack of understanding of what you are about to get yourself into is going to weigh you down like a lead balloon as you try to get your startup going.

Learning to code is easier than ever now thanks to the abundance of free online course offerings from companies including Coursera, Udacity and countless others.  I have been thinking about this a lot lately.  If you have not done so already, check out the Learn to Code page (see the menu across the top of this page) here on

You might as well do it even if you are going to hire a programmer.  You are going to want to fix something sooner or later and you might as well get started now.

Feel free to email me if you would like to discuss how to pursue this directly.  I would be happy to discuss how to get headed in the right direction from the start.

Good luck!

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Learning To Code

After taking a break following my becoming a new parent, I have re-focused attention on learning to code.  This is an update with some thoughts and reflections on my adventure.

If you are planning on having a kid sometime in the future one thing that I think you should know is that everything you plan on doing or were in the middle of doing will take a back seat for at least 2-3 months.  I had picked up some really solid momentum, but the wind was knocked out of me and it took three months to get back on track.  A lot of things change in three months.  A few of the coursera courses that I had signed up for ended while others started, a few technical projects including some small fires were completed with a little help from a friend, and I decided to start working through Zed Shaw’s Ruby the Hard Way book. I just want to point out that if you compare Coursera to Zed’s book, Coursera is a complete waste of time.  Zed offers some really good suggestions that would not have occurred to me about how to master and learn things in addition to some great ruby instructions.  I met Zed back in 2007 and reading his book has filled in the picture about him quite a bit.  If you need a place to start learning to code, his books are a great place to start.

I have been considering going back to school and getting a Masters in Computer Science or Human Computer Interaction more and more. I can’t say that I really want to pick up a new student loan, but otherwise I really hope to do this sooner or later.  One of the things that I am going to do to prepare for this potential scenario includes working to expand my mathematical knowledge and skills.  I just added a page with some resources that I am looking at utilizing (HERE) Stroud & Booth’s Engineering Mathematics book.

If all goes well then I may just turn myself into a more balanced product manager and founder along the way.  I have had a few interesting conversations with companies about taking on a new role lately, mostly after I got an email from someone at Apple who tried to recruit me. It made me wonder what else was out there enough that I put a few feelers out to see what would come back.  I ended up turning down a few very nice jobs including one with a startup founded by a very successful San Francisco based team trying for a repeat in a new space, a handful of consumer startups (I nearly went for one of these and may decide to sooner or later), and a few more established players.  It has been interesting being on the candidate side of the equation instead of being the one recruiting and hiring people for my team or for startups that I advise.  After becoming a parent I am really tempted to sign up for something where someone else is the captain of the ship so that I can focus on being a solid dad.

Where this adventure in learning to code will lead is still not clear to me. For the near term I will continue on as the lead developer and CEO/head of product for my own startup while advising other people’s startups but if something interesting comes along I may find myself tempted enough to change things up.

If you are going through a similar situation or just want to compare notes feel free to email me. I am constantly impressed by how different people approach things.

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Grant Me The Power To Get Unstuck Quickly

Earlier this week I ran into a problem that stumped me and a developer friend with considerably more programming experience.  It reminded me of my racking my brain over a problem when I was in college only to discover that the real problem was an undocumented bug in a proprietary tool that my employer at that time relied heavily on.  I can’t help but wish for less complex application development circumstances, but that is a pipe dream.  As I build back my coding capabilities and programming experience this leaves me wishing that the coding gods will grant me the power to get unstuck quickly.

If you are learning to code the first thing that you have to do is develop an advanced level of mindfulness.  In other words, you have to learn to focus on something without allowing anything to get in the way.  This is not easy.

It isn’t like things are working in your favor as you try to do this.  Language and framework versions are rapidly evolving and frequently being introduced.  Meanwhile, information retrieval tools including Google are struggling to deliver relevant and timely help as we seek answers.

I found myself thinking about this after a migration of an existing app’s code base to substantially faster servers. Part of the migration involved moving several self-hosted git repositories to

Everything about the move was awesome except for a few speed bumps that were easy to identify and get around.  Overall, the migration went smoothly.

Then I pulled down a fresh copy of the code base from Github to make sure everything was working properly.  No dice.  The first time I tried to fire up the app on my Mac Book I was hit with a cryptic error that was hard to resolve.  It was a Ruby on Rails environmental issue that involved which version of gems were being used.

Looking back at the issue now, it was a pretty stupid simple issue to resolve.  Unfortunately, I don’t spend a lot of time working with my Ruby on Rails environment. If that was the case then I would probably have figured out the problem in minutes.

Instead, I sought out solutions to this puzzle via Google and the usual lineup of results via sites that Google prioritizes.  The answers were not easily within reach.  This was frustrating.  I asked someone for help and he was initially stumped using the same method despite considerably more software engineering experience.  I put the computer down and revisited the issue later which lead me to the solution within minutes.

Learning to code is definitely a cumulative effort.  If you are trying to learn to code, with Ruby on Rails like I am or with something else entirely, just remember to be patient with yourself and mindful when it comes to what you are trying to do.  If you an do this then the haystack that your needle is hiding in may just present itself to you and make your effort a more enjoyable one.

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