When you open a TAC case, how exactly does the customer support engineer (CSE) figure out how to solve the case?  After all, CSEs are not super-human.  Just like any engineer, in TAC you have a range of brilliant to not-so-brilliant, and everything in between.  Let me give an example:  I worked at HTTS, or high-touch TAC, serving customers who paid a premium for higher levels of support.  When a top engineer at AT&T or Verizon opened a case, how was it that I, who had never worked professionally in a service provider environment, was able to help them at all?  Usually when those guys opened a case, it was something quite complex and not a misconfigured route map!

TAC CSEs have an arsenal of tools at their disposal that customers, and even partners, do not.  One of the most powerful is well known to anyone who has ever worked in TAC:  Topic.  Topic is an internal search engine.  It can do more now, but at the time I was in TAC, Topic could search bugs, TAC cases, and internal mailers.  If you had a weird error message or were seeing inexplicable behavior, popping the message or symptoms into Topic frequently resulted in a bug.  Failing that, it might pull up another TAC case, which would show the best troubleshooting steps to take.

Topic also searches internal mailers, the email lists used internally by Cisco employees.  TAC agents, sales people, TMEs, product managers, and engineering all exchange emails on these mailers, which are then archived.  Oftentimes a problem would show up in the mailer archives and engineering had already provided an answer.  Sometimes, if Topic failed, we would post the symptoms to the mailers in hopes engineering, a TME, or any expert would have a suggestion.  I was always careful in doing so, as if you posted something that was already answered, or asked too often, flames would be coming your way.

TAC engineers have the ability to file bugs across the Cisco product portfolio.  This is, of course, a powerful way to get engineering attention.  Customer found defects are taken very seriously, and any bug that is opened will get a development engineer (DE) assigned to it quickly.  We were judged on the quality of bugs we filed since TAC does not like to abuse the privilege and waste engineering time.  If a bug is filed for something that is not really a bug, it gets marked “J” for Junk, and you don’t want to have too many junked bugs.  That said, on one or two occasions, when I needed engineering help and the mailers weren’t working, I knowingly filed a Junk bug to get some help from engineering.  Fortunately, I filed a few real bugs that got fixed.

My team was the “routing protocols” team for HTTS, but we were a dumping ground for all sorts of cases.  RP often got crash cases, cable modem problems, and other issues, even though these weren’t strictly RP.  Even within the technical limits of RP, there is a lot of variety among cases.  Someone who knows EIGRP cold may not have a clue about MPLS.  A lot of times, when stuck on a case, we’d go find the “guy who knows that” and ask for help.  We had a number of cases on Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) when I worked at TAC, which was an old WAN (more or less) protocol.  We had one guy who knew ATM, and his job was basically just to help with ATM cases.  He had a desk at the office but almost never came in, never worked a shift, and frankly I don’t know what he did all day.  But when an ATM case came in, day or night, he was on it, and I was glad we had him, since I knew little about the subject.

Some companies have NOCs with tier 1, 2, and 3 engineers, but we just had CSEs.  While we had different pay grades, TAC engineers were not tiered in HTTS.  “Take the case and get help” was the motto.  Backbone (non-HTTS) TAC had an escalation team, with some high-end CSEs who jumped in on the toughest cases.  HTTS did not, and while backbone TAC didn’t always like us pulling on their resources, at the end of the day we were all about killing cases, and a few times I had backbone escalation engineers up in my cube helping me.

The more heated a case gets, the higher the impact, the longer the time to resolve, the more attention it gets.  TAC duty managers can pull in more CSEs, escalation, engineering, and others to help get a case resolved.  Occasionally, a P1 would come in at 6pm on a Friday and you’d feel really lonely.  But Cisco being Cisco, if they need to put resources on an issue, there are a lot of talented and smart people available.

There’s nothing worse than the sinking feeling a CSE gets when realizing he or she has no clue what to do on a case.  When the Topic searches fail, when escalation engineers are stumped, when the customer is frustrated, you feel helpless.  But eventually, the problem is solved, the case is closed, and you move on to the next one.