Sunday, May 28, 2017

The BPO Saga

Accounting and debt collection services are classic examples of businesses answering the need for externalizing certain business processes. The first call centers have occurred in the 1960s, when phone systems became generally available consumer goods, and the first digital marketing services have occured in the 1990s, after the Internet.

Nowadays the BPO family includes members from multiple location contact centers to boutique accounting firms. Although different in geographic presence and organigrams, all of then are sharing a common set of particularities:
  • operating in a highly competitive market environment demanding always better quality and lower prices
  • permanently looking for new opportunities, because both customers and employees are moving targets
  • skilled and experienced decision makers, because the industry is not attractive for investors and there are no funds for errors
Nowadays even a student can organize a small team for offering digital marketing services, or a home based phone answering service. He/she won't have contracts with banks or supermarket chains, but by investing much time and some money in his/her startup he/she can gain the necessary experience for being hired by a BPO company operating on the middle or high end market.

Once a tech guy enters a professional BPO company, he/she will experience the "love me or leave me" trait of this industry. While these companies must follow the newest trends in technology and economy, and they encourage their tech personnel in studying, getting certified, growing personally and professionally, high salaries and stable incomes are not typical in the domain.

BPO workers are mostly underpaid, and sometimes even overworked. This happens because of the complex business model based on numerous smaller and bigger projects handled in parallel by a number of persons working in turns. Micromanaging such processes is a nonsense - most workers have to do multitasking (handling at least 2 projects in the same time). A fixed full-time or part-time salary supplemented with bonuses is widely accepted for this kind of work.
Let's face it, staying 8 hours on the phone is not a dream job, and tackling Office documents for ever-changing customers is not something you are happy to do all your life. The BPO workers are looking for other jobs, and the tech guys might leave the boat for pecuniary reasons.

On the other hand most customers of BPO companies are entities running 1-2 year projects, or startups with limited funds. In time the projects are ending, and the startups are or failing, or growing and considering more appropriate solutions for their new needs.

For BPO managers hunting new customers and new personnel has to be a permanent activity. For them the breach between contractual incomes and salary expenses does mean first of all an investment fund in technology and education for keeping the boat floating.

The funny boys of the BPO family are Upwork and Freelancer. Both are defining themselves as meeting places for employers and professionals, but they are used mainly for BPO purposes and for experimental projects.

While Upwork has been struggling for two years to break into a hypotetical middle market, Freelancer is adapting itself to a global market using the breach between the prices and salaries of different countries. In my opinion who is consuming the benefits of this breach for anything else than the latest technologies and education, will probably fail in the BPO business.

Contact centers already have a tradition in moving from one country to another, virtual admin and digital marketing teams are following their paths as the Internet bandwidth becomes larger.

I'm envisioning BPO as a saga because for surviving they have to fight continuously with the project management triangle's constraints and doing their best quality work.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

PowerShell as Rescue Party

During the last two years Microsoft reorganized its own certification system, and now MVA is offering several so-called Learning Paths, two of them based on PowerShell. Although it's categorized as a tool for IT professionals, I consider PowerShell a fundamental tool for developers as well.

As most end-users are working in small and medium-sized companies, most IT guys are expected to offer working solutions, not just completing isolated tasks.

Thinking about solutions determines us to analyze and define the problem we have, to shortlist possible alternatives, to consider the pros, cons, HR and financial aspects of those alternatives - in short it teaches us project management.

The nature of end-user activities and workflows indicate when and where a web app, a shell script or a desktop app works better.

PowerShell always comes in handy as a rescue party when an emergency situation arises, or concrete results are required by undecided users, or the work environment is chaotic.

This happens because PowerShell has been designed to be the IT guy's Swiss Army knife. Of course PowerShell has evolved together with the Windows OS versions, and it's neither a universal glue for 32 bit and 64 bit software, nor a scotch tape for parallel and batch processing.

When I've made my first home work with PowerShell and MS SQL Server, I've been impressed that my small script was reading csv (xml etc.) files pushed by a different system, and updating my database, and sending notifications in case of certain error conditions.

Later I've learned that SharePoint workflow automations and remote server monitoring are also using PowerShell - so it certainly worth the time and money spent.

Business models are changing in the same pace as the economic environment, consequently nowadays in an IT system the proportion of the rapidly updatable shell scripts tends to grow - that's why learning some PowerShell becomes more and more important.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Synching Calendars?

Innate multitaskers and firefighters are thriving in a chaotic environment. They don't mind to handle 2-3 phones, half a dozen of IM channels and a browser with 1-2 dozens of opened tabs.

Easygoing professionals might pick up several messaging and time management software, and one day they realize that they have a number of calendars, contact lists and message lists to sync, because the data they need is spread across more or less integrable services.

Is hiring a part-time assistant a good solution to this kind of new problems produced by the new technologies? The answer is - as always - it depends.

The primary rule is that the business model tells what kind of project management and process management tools are suitable for the company. People often put off changing software, or consider that their existing processes are too complicated for being restructured.

"We love our here... software so much, that we've also purchased comes a list of tools... in order to complete its missing features" could be a winning innovation model, or hard stuff with steep learning curve for new employees, or a hack causing quality degradation in time.

In case of a BPO company it's good to search for a software based on Kanban tables or Gantt charts, which offers graphs for past and future time intervals. Todoist is ok for a freelance VA, but not for a VA team, and who has dozens of processes, might consider migrating from Asana.

In case a professional needs a predictable and quiet environment for performing well, then he/she will definitely make a good complementary team with a native multitasker assistant, regardless of his/her software tools.