by Hal Pomeranz <firstname.lastname@example.org>, Deer Run Associates
IT professional and hold myself to extremely high standards of customer service
(both of which certainly put me high on the suspect list for the title of
"closet masochist"). This
means that I'm also really a jerk to other customer service people when roles
are reversed and I'm on the customer side of the equation. Our parable begins, then, with my quest to
find the right serial cable for an application on my home network.
I'll be the first to admit that the cable I needed was a mighty strange
cable. It had to run between the serial
port on my Sun Ultra5 workstation and the serial console port on my moldy old
Sun clone that I use for testing. The
Ultra5 has a standard 9-pin connector, but the clone (for reasons known only to
the manufacturer of the device) uses those cheesy little round mini-8
connectors. And, of course, this had to
be a null-modem type cable. To think
that such a cable exists ready-made was perhaps a vain hope, but occasionally I
enjoy tilting at windmills so off I went.
late at night (the only time I generally get to fiddle around on my home
network), so I decided to call the toll-free number at... well, let's call them
"Big PC Parts Warehouse", "BPPW" for short. I buy a decent amount of gear from these
guys because I know I can call them late at night and generally get it the next
morning if I'm willing to pay enough.
I'm connected to Bob (not his real name) and I'm up front with him and
say, "I need a really strange serial cable. It's 9-pin female to mini-8
male"-- I didn't even try to specify the "null-modem" aspect
because I don't like to tempt fate.
then asks the fatal question, "Is this for a PC or a Mac?" Let me try to explain exactly why this
question is so infuriating to me as a customer. First, it seems to imply a disbelief that I could actually be
able to specify on my own the exact sort of cable that I need for my
application. Let's face it folks, Bob's
job in this scenario is to separate me from my money in as painless a manner as
possible for all concerned. If I tell
him that I want a purple cable with pictures of Barney the Dinosaur™ and in the
shape of a Moebius strip, his job is to either tell me how much it costs or let
me know that they don't stock those.
second problem with the question is that it doesn't really matter whether or
not it's for a PC or a Mac (or a Unix machine or my nuclear reactor). It's a serial cable, and say what you
want but good old RS-232 is a pretty well understood standard at this
point. I wanted to reach through my
telephone, grab him around the neck, and pound his head against the monitor on
his PC while rhythmically intoning, "It <*thunk*> doesn't <*thunk*>
matter <*thunk*> you <*thunk*> jerk! <*thunk*>
It's <*thunk*> a <*thunk*> serial <*thunk*>
cable <*slam*>!" Instead, I manfully mastered my emotion
(which is a polite way of saying I "wussed out") and gave him the
completely unhelpful response, "Heh, heh.
Well, actually it's for a Unix machine."
then proceeds to ask me again what I want and then he puts me on hold. At this point I know I'm doomed because he's
either (a) talking to a night-shift supervisor who's just as clueless about
this stuff as Bob is, or (b) calling the cops because there's a dangerous
lunatic on the other end of the phone.
It turns out to be (a) because Bob comes back on the phone a couple of
minutes later and lets me know (in a tone which leaves no room for doubt that
our time together is at an end), "Nobody makes those cables."
gentle reader, it's really not Bob's fault.
He probably hasn't been given much training by BPPW and I doubt his
supervisor is much better off. And
they're both going to quit in the next six months and have nothing to do with
me or BPPW ever again.
reality, anybody could make one of "those cables". In fact, I know that BPPW will do
custom-order cables upon request. Hell,
I could have done it myself, but frankly crafting custom cables never really
held much allure for me— when I want to do something with my hands I practice
my origami. The other answer, of
course, is that such a cable could be "built" by stringing together
off-the-shelf components. Bob could
have made either suggestion to me in order to separate me from my money, but he
didn't and BPPW was the ultimate loser because they didn't get the sale.
guess it's time for me to figure out the minimum number of components I need to
string together in order to make my cable.
I'm figuring it's three: mini-8 to DB25, a DB25 null-modem block, and a
DB25 to 9-pin cable. Turns out I'm
right, which I confirm by perusing the Web site of "Large Cabling
Manufacturer" ("LCM"). I
could actually order all of the components directly from LCM's Web site, but I
decide to do a little price comparison.
turns out it's a good thing I did because the prices at LCM's Web site are
almost double the prices I get for exactly the same manufacturer's components
at the Web site of "Discount Parts Supply" ("DPS"). Yes, that's right, LCM is charging me twice
as much for their own equipment at their own Web site. Well, that doesn't seem like such a good
deal, so I start shopping at DPS. Oh
wait, I have to enable "cookies" on my Web browser so the stupid
shopping cart code on
Web site works.
the end game is upon us as I click the checkout button. Oh good, DPS has saved
my billing and payment information, so checkout is a snap... or is it? Hmmm, that's strange; they don't have my
shipping address. No problem, type that
in and click the little "save as default" button on their form. Submit.
The result is a SQLServer ODBC error all alone on a page with no
navigation elements or administrator contact information. Swell.
Hit the "back" button, re-enter the shipping address
information, DON'T click the "save as default" button, and
submit again. Works this time of
course. I'd scream, but I no longer have the strength.
hour, three vendors, and untold wear and tear on my nervous system later my
"cable" (actually a composite object about 7 feet long) is winging
its way through DPS' fulfillment system and will arrive at my place sometime
early next week. Cost was $21 for the
three cable pieces plus $11 shipping (don't ask). I go to bed with the serene knowledge of a job well done.
let's face it, gentle reader, it was a "job well done". I could have given up like Bob did, but I
didn't. It's that ability to "roll
with the punches" and ultimately arrive at a solution for your customer
(who may in some cases be yourself) which separates the IT professionals
from the wanna-be's. So the next time
somebody asks why you're making all that money for what you do, share this
little parable with them and ask them who they'd rather call when their hard
drive melts down-- Bob or you?