When an IT Staffer Gets Thrown Under the Bus

Tuesday Mar 25th 2008 by Eric Spiegel
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Who’s responsible when your company’s bug-infested software causes massive customer complaints?

The whole company was buzzing during our weekly Monday morning all-hands meeting. Usually these meetings are fairly dull. I mean, how much really changes week to week? But this week, the buzz was about Jared, our well-liked customer support manager who was shown the door. Jared was pretty much told to not let the so-called door hit him in the derriere on the way out.

Let me give you some background before I divulge the buzz. Jared and his support team were the front line against our usually ticked off customers. Why were they ticked off? Simply because our customers were using a beta software product being sold as version 2.0. There were so many bugs even the most veteran exterminator would have been overwhelmed.

One of our customers had called into our support line to complain about having the same problem occur over and over. This was his third call in less than one month. That was bad enough, but it got much worse. The support engineer who was assigned the issue inadvertently forwarded an email response from the product team manager about how this known bug would be fixed in a future release. That wasn’t so bad, except the last sentence stated “Be sure to push the customer to upgrade to the new release because there is no way we are fixing this bug now.”

Well, the customer received that email and went ballistic. He escalated to their CEO who called our CEO. The bug ended up being fixed in the current release and Jared was fired because his team was held responsible for the errant email. Jared had stood up for his support engineer, saying he took responsibility for not getting involved with such a hot escalation.

And the CEO fired him.

Of course there is more history and office politics were deeply involved, but let’s get back to the buzz at the all-hands meeting. Turns out all the managers were told by the CEO that although Jared was a nice guy he was really quite incompetent. Subsequently, that buzz had filtered down to the rank and file who were frankly a bit bewildered because they all respected Jared. He was always fair to his team and seemed to make good decisions, almost always keeping the customers happy despite our patchwork product.

Sure enough, the CEO gets up in front of everyone at the all-hands meeting and says “I’m sure you are all wondering what happened with Jared. We all liked him and wish him well, but his performance was not up to our high standards. This will only benefit us all in the long run.” The room fell silent as the CEO quickly moved on to other topics. Jared was effectively “thrown under the bus” and everyone knew it. Was the sales team blamed for over promising what our software could do? No. Was the product team blamed for delivering more bugs than an ant farm? No. Was the CEO and the rest of the executive management team blamed for promoting a policy that encouraged the sales team to be aggressive with their promises? No.

Therefore Jared was blamed.

We all know software companies sell buggy software. It is the nature of the business. But how a company portrays the software to potential customers is a decision made by the management team. Now that I’m running a software company, I realize this is a very fine line to walk. What I have learned is that if you don’t want to go down a deep, dark rabbit hole where customer support calls emulate a big hose pumping gallons of water into the hole, then don’t sell vaporware.

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A software product must provide some level of value beyond what a customer can get from writing custom code or from the competition. The overall value must outweigh the bugs -- and there will be bugs. (Notice I didn’t say “there will be blood”; although some software support teams would argue that point.)

As for the customers, they aren’t completely off the hook. They also need to do thorough due diligence, such as calling company references and Googling the company and software product name. Better yet, they should go a step further and Google the executive team to see if they have any history of leading software companies that mislead customers in the past. If a customer still is not sure, then they should try negotiating a money back guarantee.

Now back to poor Jared. I have seen too many good people being thrown under the bus in various software firms. Just as most of our parents told us as children, if you do not have something nice to say, then say nothing at all. Management needs to play the positive role model and set a culture that doesn’t lead to backstabbing and the need to constantly cover your rear end.

If bad examples are set and poor quality software is delivered, there are bound to be more bus accidents along the way that will ultimately lead to a train wreck for the entire company.

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