I’ve come back to Cisco recently, and I think I can say that I haven’t worked this hard since the last time I was at Cisco.  I remember my first manager at TAC telling me in an interview that “Cisco loves workaholics.”  In an attempt to get more organized, I’ve been taking a second crack at using OmniFocus and the GTD methodology.  To be honest, I haven’t had much luck with these systems in the past.  I usually end up entering a bunch of tasks into the system, and then quickly get behind on crossing them off.  I find that the tasks I really want to do, or need to do, I would do without the system, and the ones that I am putting off I keep putting off anyway.  I have so much to do now, however, that I need to track things more efficiently and I am hoping OmniFocus is the solution.

Meanwhile, for TAC Tales #6, in honor of the theme, I thought I would talk about how efficient I was at TAC, owing to a system we had called C3.  C3 was an Oracle-based case management system that Cisco used for many years.  If you opened a case on-line or on the phone, the case would be created in C3.  Only TAC people (call-center agents, customer support engineers, etc.) had direct access to the Oracle C3 interface.  C3 was widely reviled by TAC engineers, and it was admittedly rather clunky.  However, I’ve never been as organized in my life as when I was using C3.

When a new case came in on your shift, you went into C3 and accepted the case.  At the point, the case would become a part of your backlog, which simply meant all the cases you had accepted and not yet closed (or transferred).  One C3 screen displayed your backlog in a list view. Any work you did on a case you entered into the case notes in C3.  (A little insider info:  in TAC many notes on your case are marked “internal” and cannot be seen by the customer.)  We had a motto in TAC:  If it’s not in the case notes, it didn’t happen.  Not everybody abided by this, but I did religiously.  Case notes might contain router outputs I thought were relevant, bug ID’s I suspected, links to CCO docs, etc.  But they also had notes like:  “Left VM for customer telling him I am waiting on engineering”, or “Discussed with customer that next step is to monitor and see if problem recurs.”  Often I would just type a next steps list under the heading “NEXT STEPS” at the bottom of a note.

C3 had no way of keeping track of due dates at all.  We were required to “touch” our cases once a week, even if they were in a holding pattern.  To remind myself what cases needed attention, I used the old TAC trick of adding a due date to the case title.  So, a case titled “Multicast packets getting dropped” might become “5/3 Multicast packets getting dropped.”  Then, when looking down my list of cases, I could easily identify which ones to work on.

If we didn’t attend to a case, a few things could happen:

  1.  The customer might call wondering what was happening.
  2. The customer’s “High Touch Operations Manager” (HTOM) might ask what was happening.  At HTTS where I worked, each customer had an HTOM that tracked their cases and made sure they were being actively worked.
  3. My boss might take note.
  4. My “create-to-close” numbers might be impacted, potentially affecting my performance review.

All of the above created a relentless pressure to close cases, but in addition to these there was another motivating factor:  I hated having too many cases in the backlog.  Ideally I wanted less than 20.  I constantly reviewed cases and tried to close them.  When you are taking 2-5 a day, you need to keep closing to stop from developing an unmanageable backlog and unfavorable attention from management.

I’ve never been so efficient and productive in my life.  Occasionally I’ve tried to recreate a C3-like system myself, but I’ve never been able to.  As you can tell from my description, C3 was not terribly well-designed.  It lacked fields for many basic functions like due dates. It was a clunky Oracle app with no smartphone client.  (This was, alas, before the iPhone.)  So why did it work so well?

The motivation factor.  We could have used slips of paper, and we probably still would have been efficient.  One of the best ways to get something done is to have a good reason to do so.  One of the best ways not to get something done is to not have a good reason to do so.  (This is why I postpone so many blog entries!)  I know I am going to be presenting at Cisco Live in July, and there is no way I am going to show up without a slide deck.  At TAC (and especially in HTTS) we had a constant pressure to close cases, as I outlined above.  When you put “clean out the garage” into OmniFocus, you can keep deferring it because you simply have no good reason to do it.  When you need to fit a second car in there, suddenly you find it jumps a bit higher on the list.

Simplicity.  I’m not the first to notice that a complex system becomes complex to manage.  The very features C3 lacked made it a great tool.  I put anything, whether notes or a to do list, in one place.  I put the due date in the title.  That was all I needed.

Totality.  TAC engineers do have some non-case-related work to do, but probably 90% of their job is working cases.  Therefore, nearly everything we needed to do was in C3.

Auto-Entry.  You didn’t need to remember to put add something to C3.  When a customer opened a case and you took it, it showed up in C3.  Easy.

Always open.  I’m willing to bet that there are some applications, like PowerPoint, that you only open when needed, whereas some, like Outlook or Evernote, that you always have open.  We had to work in C3, so it wasn’t like we needed to remember to check it.  I logged into email first and C3 second, every single day I worked in TAC, and kept them both open as long as I was working.  Often, when I’ve tried another system, I didn’t default to keeping it open, and so I would gradually start to forget about it.

I was quite proud when a fellow TAC guy called me a “case killer.”  As I mentioned, I’ve tried to recreate the power of C3 over the years with Filemaker, Bento, Evernote, Onenote, and even paper notebooks.  I hope OmniFocus is it this time.  Since I’m back at Cisco, maybe I could get a guest C3 account and pay an HTOM to bother me every week!