February, 1995

I dropped out of college in the dead of winter.

Fortunately, I was living in Tucson, Arizona at the time.

Less fortunately, my only transportation was a motorcycle, and I had a thirty minute commute to my first full-time job.

And my shift started at 3 a.m.

It was still pretty cold.


I won't get into the details around my truncated college experience here, because that's a series of screw-ups that are better left for another time. This story begins with me going to a job fair for America Online one afternoon and demonstrating enough technical aptitude during the initial screening for them to offer me a job on the spot. It paid eight bucks an hour.

The minimum wage at the time was $4.25, so I felt like some kind of genius. I accepted the offer without every considering that I'd be working a graveyard shift (they didn't mention that until I was through orientation; shifts were re-assigned every six months, and you got to select your preference based on seniority).

I had also been hired shortly after they'd stopped offering stock to their employees - another kick in the ass that I didn't quite grasp at the time


Call center jobs are generally pretty terrible. And working a call center doing technical support for people who can't get their America Online service working in the wee hours of the morning has got to be close to the bottom of the spectrum. If you don't remember life before broadband, I'll explain: The internet was a primordial soup of what can only be described as chaotic garbage, and you paid by the minute for the privilege of wading into it. You had to dedicate your phone line to this process, which was a real inconvenience, as nobody really had mobile phones.

If you were fancy, you had a second landline installed at home. If you were wealthy or stupidly committed to the effort, you got ISDN (look it up, I'm not explaining it here, but, yes, I had it once). If you were normal, you told everyone in the house when you were about to get online so that they wouldn't pick up the phone while you were connected, because that would immediately cut you off. If you had caller ID on your line, you had to remember to disable it in your modem string.

And that was where I lived for eight months. Modem strings. The arcane codes you sent to your modem right before dialing the number to your ISP to ensure you had the most stable possible connection. AOL's software would try to automatically guess the best possible string, but when it missed, and people had bad connections, or couldn't connect at all, they called me.

If you bought a shitty computer, or installed a shitty modem in your computer, you'd have problems. Back in those days, a lot of shady companies sold 9600 bps modems with compression and labeled them at 14.4k bps (which was near top speed at the time). You needed a string that would tell the modem to behave at its real speed, because AOL already had compression running and would barf on the modem's sad attempt to do the same. People would get mad that AOL wouldn't give them the full 14.4k speed that they paid for. I learned a lot of very polite ways to tell people not to be cheapskates.

(Dial up modems would eventually top out at 56k. ISDN got you 128k. Imagine paying a fortune for garbage bandwidth like that... we did, and we liked it.)

For eight months, my life was 3 a.m. modem strings and generally surly insomniac AOL addicts. I saw things, man. I heard things. I had a bell on the top of my monitor that I would ring every time I heard a caller flush a toilet. You learn to find humor in the little things. But I finally quit after getting passed over for a promotion that would have taken me off the call center floor. I couldn't do it anymore. I was drinking a gallon of coffee a day and reciting modem strings in my sleep, according to my girlfriend at the time.

But I learned a thing or two along the way.


AOL was my first job, and at the time I was proud of it. It was a company that everyone had heard of, in an industry that was about to explode. I wanted to be awesome at it.

So I paid close attention during orientation. It was two weeks of technical and customer service training, but they also had us read a book.

It was called Raving Fans, and, to be honest, it was the 1990's equivalent of the Gumroad e-book grift where you pay $47 for a twelve page PDF. It was 150 pages of complete filler that could have been illustrated in a three-slide PowerPoint deck. But the premise stuck with me: A successful business doesn't need lukewarm customers. It needs enthusiastic ones.

This was the mission, according to CEO Steve Case. I took it very seriously.

Most of the middle management did not. Call center employees were expected to process calls in three minutes or less. From hello to resolution to goodbye in 180 seconds.

I was utterly terrible at this part of the job.


The best reps figured out how to just get people off the phone with half a solution in a hurry. Yes, you could get dinged for a customer that has to call back, but that was rare, and if you were punching out 20 calls an hour, nobody really cared anyway. I learned all the slick ways to do this from the old-timers who would talk shop during their smoke breaks.

(Lesson One: Take smoke breaks. Even if you don't smoke. The smokers all collaborate out there together, and you'll learn a lot faster. I'd go out with a cup of coffee just for the fresh air and made friends with all of the guys and gals who had the same break times. They were collectively the best reps on the floor for a reason - they all talked to each other. The guys taking breaks at their desk never learned anything.)

It wasn't uncommon to mock the relative stupidity of the average AOL tech support client, but I generally tried to forgive all but the most egregious examples. After all, my dad would call me all the time with some of the same questions, and he has a few PhD's. Not knowing computers doesn't make you stupid any more than not knowing how to change a transmission, but I.T. folks are stereotypically bad at understanding this.

I was patient, and my call times were terrible, because I was out there trying to make raving fans. It didn't get me promoted, but I learned what I was good at, and I came away with a few good stories to tell.


The best one was the woman who couldn't install the software at all.

She worked a graveyard shift as a nurse, and called me on her day off. She was already frustrated when I answered, curtly rattling off her name and phone number as if she'd done this a dozen times already.

"That's the fifth disk you guys have sent out, and it still doesn't work," she said.

I pulled up her information. She had no account with AOL, but she was still in our problem tracking system. This was now the fifth time she'd called. The notes from the previous techs all said the same thing. The floppy drive keeps reading an unformatted diskette. Suspect bad drive, or some kind of weird bug in the operating system wiping the disk.

"I took the computer in to have it looked at, and the guy at the shop says it's fine. He was able to use the disk drive with no problems," she continued.

Whoever this computer tech was, I wanted to punch him. He couldn't have just installed the AOL client for her while he had the PC? It's not likely that he didn't have a copy of it lying around. You have to understand - in the mid 90's, AOL floppies were a damned plague. They were EVERYWHERE. Every computer magazine had one stuffed in it. Every retail outlet had a stack of them on the counter for you to take. If we had your address and you weren't a customer already, we were mailing you one. We'd give your friends free time on AOL if they'd refer you (and give us your address to flood you with diskettes with). I knew guys who would request them deliberately, just to wipe them and use them as free blank diskettes. AOL floppies (and later, CD's) probably accounted for 83% of the e-waste in the world at the time.

But there was nothing I could do about idiot PC mechanic guy. I was surprised that this woman was even still trying to give us her money. Most clients would quit after one or two calls. But she really wanted this to work. Her son had referred her, and she wanted to use e-mail to keep in touch, since her work hours made phone calls difficult.

So, I started walking her through the process. We tried the disk she had. Sure enough, it was blank. Not just blank, but totally unformatted. I had her format it, just to be sure the drive worked (I didn't trust idiot PC mechanic guy). It did. She could even save a file to the disk, remove it from the drive, and then re-insert and retrieve it.

How did she end up with five bad disks?

Something had to be killing them along the way.

"Ma'am, the mailing address we have on file, is that your home?" I asked.

"Yes" she said.

"And does the mail get delivered in a box out front or in a slot in the door?"

"A mailbox at the end of the driveway" she said.

"OK, what time of day do you usually pick your mail up?" Maybe the disk was sitting in the sun too long? I was reaching.

"I wake up in the afternoon and usually grab it before I head to work. But I don't read it right away unless it's something urgent," she said.

"OK, so, you grab your mail from the box... say it's' not urgent, like an AOL disk, where do you keep it until you have time to open it?"

"On the fridge."

"You mean like on top of your fridge?"

"No, on the side. I have a big magnet that holds it there."

I muted my phone. I let out something between a laugh and a yell of triumph.

But I also heard my manager laughing hysterically three cubicles down. He was listening to the call.

I went back to the client. "OK, ma'am, that's probably the issue. Floppy diskettes are sensitive to magnetism. The large magnet on your fridge is erasing it every time you put your mail there. Let me send you one more disk, and just keep this one away from the magnet until you can use it."

When I got off the call, my manager called me into his office.

("Office" is a generous term. He had a cubicle with a slightly higher wall than the rest of us.)

He was a good dude. Retired Marine. Generally pretty patient with me, despite the fact that I had the worst call time on the team.

He had started listening in on the call when he noticed I'd been on the phone with the same customer for more than five minutes.

"That was a hell of a call you just had," he said.

"Yeah, can you believe it? Giant refrigerator magnet." I replied.

"Great job. But that took you twenty-five minutes. They aren't going to like you staying on the phone that long."

'They' were his bosses. He was expected to coach me into a three-minute call time, but he didn't have the heart to do it. I think now it was because he knew I was just trying to solve every problem that came my way, and that was more important to me than getting the client off the phone in a hurry. I like to believe it was for my own good, even though it kept me from getting promoted. I was better off in the long run not turning into a three-minute call monkey.


Aside from the smoke break hack, I learned a few things that have served me well since.

First, it really is important to have fanatically happy customers. They don't ALL have to be this way, but if you have enough of them that are insanely devoted to your brand, you'll always be able to turn a profit. And, like the book told me, often all it takes is that extra 1% effort.

Second, I figured out what my first real talent stack was (although it would be years before I could articulate it). I was technically sharp. I loved solving problems. And I was really good at not only explaining technical concepts to laypeople, but also translating their needs into technical solutions. After a while, I realized the combination of those skills was more valuable together than any one of them apart.

Real advancement isn't just about getting better at the one or two things you're already good at; it's about constantly refining, supplementing, and recombinating a unique talent stack to add value to any given situation. As Robert Heinlein said, "Specialization is for insects."

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