So many hats, so many responsibilities

6 min read

I mentioned in a previous post that early Epic employees, like in many startups, had many responsibilities.

While making coffee and cleaning coffee pots didn’t specifically improve a skill I’ve needed since then (I still don’t drink coffee), we did much more day to day.

So many Hats

One thing really missing from the modern Epic employee experience, and frankly, from most software developer employment careers is taking on work that would normally be done by other roles/staff.

The primary differentiator is that the team I was on was self-supportive. The four of us had to handle everything that was happening as it related to our software application.


Of course, this included software development. It included all quality assurance from both code review to end-user quality assurance. There were dependencies on other team’s products and their lifecycle and release schedules (back in the 90s Epic releases were done product by product on their own schedules and weren’t always coordinated cross-team). We had to package our own releases AND either deliver them to customers and walk them through the upgrade, or perform the software upgrades.

Sure, I can hear you saying, “just like a startup.” Hold on.

In addition to creating the software, we wrote about the software as well, both from a technical perspective and a end-user perspective. While our writing skills may not have been worthy of an International Award in Technical Writing, our output was as good as other software companies at the time. Just for clarification and to put this in perspective for my readers, there were no “screenshots” as this was all terminal development. If we wanted a screenshot of something to be included in documentation, we had to draw it by hand using ASCII art (our documentation was using a fixed-width typeface at the time in a very rudimentary Epic-built text editor—not something like Microsoft Word). Think Linux man page in terms of what was possible.

With the exception of being able to use modern tools to write documentation, you’re still thinking, “sounds like a lot of small startups.”

The Phone

When I look back at those years though, the most interesting and I think useful role though was that we did hands-on customer support on the telephone. There wasn’t a layer of phone support (tier 1, 2, 3): it was just us. If a customer would call with an issue, they’d speak directly to one of us (after going through the main Epic number to get routed to us). We had a rotating duty of doing Monday through Friday support, but also carried a pager for after hours emergencies (thankfully, those were rare at that time given the nature of the usage of the software we were selling).

I’m an introvert on most days, so getting me to take unexpected calls and have a meaningful interaction took some practice. I wasn’t thrown to the wolves though as the TL made sure that I had back-up available so that A) customers would get the highest quality service and B) so that I wouldn’t have a support-breakdown. After a few calls though, and getting to know the folks on the other end of the phone, it became second nature and a bit of challenging fun to work through the issues they were having.

As expected, I don’t remember most of the calls as they all blur together. I know sometimes they’d call very unhappy about something that had happened. In fact, there were more than a few times there was yelling unfortunately, so being able to listen and respond calmly regardless of the target of their frustrations proved to be invaluable. I recall one time when a customer called very angry about something that was happening with their system. He was yelling and extraordinarily unhappy. He was loud enough that I remember someone else from the team coming over to see if they could help (and this wasn’t on a speaker phone!). After 10-15 minutes of yelling and walking through the problem, and addressing the concerns, he was laughing and joking and we were talking about what plans we had for the weekend (and he did apologize for his demeanor earlier in the call).

I learned a better sense of empathy for what it’s like to be a customer for the products we were building that you can’t get through surveys or through an immersion trip (I definitely have a post planned about Epic’s immersion trips). When a customer was calling, it was very unlikely they were calling to see how we were doing (on rare occasions, it did seem like they were mostly bored and just wanted to chat). Far more likely was that they were calling because they needed a helping hand. It could have been something they caused, or something the software was doing (or hardware or … who knows!). I know they appreciated being able to talk with the developers that made the product rather than going through a support-tree.

The direct customer interaction when things weren’t going well — it’s had a life long impact on the way I’ve built and thought about software. It helped me develop troubleshooting techniques that a lot of people could use.

A few years after I started, it was common that teams had at least one person in a full-time support role, so software developers stopped taking direct calls. It’s a shame too, as a lot of developers at Epic would have benefited from the experience, even if it was only for a year or two.

If you’re saying to yourself, “but I do support!” Great! Is it direct from the first interaction? That’s what can really help you learn about your own software and the perception others have. If it’s being filtered by other support staff, you’re not seeing the whole picture. And, if you’re a manager who thinks reading summaries or even details about support issues is a substitute for actually doing the work: LOL.

Try it yourself!

And while in a world of software that sells internationally makes a phone call direct to an engineer extremely complex when dealing with language and time zones, I’d urge new startups and existing companies to consider how they could get their software developers on the front lines of support occasionally, especially if it can be personal, on the phone/video, and not only through email, or chat. The ability to think on your feet, maintain composure, troubleshoot, empathize, organize, prioritize, and solve problems is a skill that can help every developer level-up.

If you’re in an environment where you would like this opportunity, talk to your manager and see if there’s some way you could be more involved with customers directly. You won’t regret it…, most of the time. 😁

Have you done direct customer support over the phone?

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