Mandi Walls: Welcome to Page It to the Limit, a podcast where we explore what it takes to run software in production successfully. We cover leading practices used in the software industry to improve both system reliability, and the lives of the people supporting those system. I’m your host, Mandi Walls. Find me @lnxchk on Twitter. Hello folks. Welcome to Page It to the Limit. I’m Mandi Walls, and I’m with you this week, and today we have a very special episode, because we are introducing our newest advocate here at PagerDuty, Kat Gaines. Welcome to the podcast, Kat.
Kat Gaines: Yay. Thank you, Mandi.
Mandi Walls: So tell us about yourself. Tell us about what you’ve been doing at PagerDuty, because you’re kind of OG PagerDuty now.
Kat Gaines: Yeah, I guess, kind of. I’ve been at PagerDuty for a little bit over seven years now, and I started, I came into the company working as an individual contributor on the customer support team. That’s the team that’s outwardly facing, working with PagerDuty customers, helping them solve problems, get where they need to go faster. It was a really tiny team at that point. The company was a lot smaller too, and of course, time passed. Things changed. We grew, we scaled, and so did I with the team. Most recently, I was director of the Global Support org at PagerDuty, so when I say that we did grow, we grew internationally too, in that time. Then just about last week, by the time that we’re recording this, I moved over as you know, but our listeners don’t, to the developer advocacy team.
Mandi Walls: Yeah. We’re super excited to have you. For folks who are maybe new to the podcast or aren’t sure like what some of the things we do, you will see us around. We write blog posts, we go to conferences, we give talks, we help customers deal with the other stuff that they have to do when they’re learning how to use the tools like PagerDuty and other DevOps tools. We’re branching out into some of this customer service features and that kind of a thing. What’s important for, say DevOps teams or engineering teams to know when they’re working with customer service folks?
Kat Gaines: Yeah. That’s actually one of the things that made me really excited about taking on this role and changing teams, is that we don’t talk about this necessarily quite enough as an industry. I think there are a lot of things that are important to know, and one of the biggest key things is that your development teams and your support teams, while they’re separate teams in separate organizations, sometimes, sometimes not, really, they have to operate as one team and one cohesive unit, because at the end of the day, you’re all trying to accomplish the same thing, right? You’re trying to build something great for your customers, and you’re trying to build something that works for them too, and hopefully, something that they’re happy with. Your support folks hear every piece of feedback around that. They take the brunt of the negative feedback, God willing, they hear the positive feedback too. They hear the things that people like about the product. They hear a lot, and they really have a good pulse on who your customers are and what they need. Your development teams don’t necessarily have that. They’re probably not on the phone with customers all day. If you’re at an org like PagerDuty, maybe they’ve shadowed the support team once or twice, which is something we offer folks up on any team internally to do, but they don’t have that day-to-day exposure. It’s really important that they work as kind of one team together, and a group who can share ideas and share feedback, and really just think about kind of how they can contribute to what the other team needs. For support, that’s thinking about how do they help the development teams build a better product, and how do they help them know that what they’re working on is what the customers actually want to see? For the dev teams, that’s, how do they make the support teams lives easier? By building the product the customers want to see, making sure the priority bugs are fixed, or taking in and asking about that feedback. When you have that done well, it’s a really harmonious relationship, because it means that you’re going to be really in tune as a business with who your customers are. At the end of the day, that should be the goal. We don’t all answer to every single request our customers have. Otherwise, every product would look a little bit like Howl’s Moving Castle, I think.
Mandi Walls: Probably yes. Yep.
Kat Gaines: But knowing what the important things are, and having your finger on that pulse of what they need and what they’re asking for is just absolutely crucial to keep moving forward and scaling in the right direction.
Mandi Walls: Yeah. That’s super important. I mean, as a buffer, right? Your engineering team doesn’t usually get to talk to customers all that often, so the customers know that there’s folks on the other end of that support ticket or they’re sending us email, or those kinds of things. Then, part of that software development life cycle becomes, how we get that stuff back. I’m going to assume that it’s tooling and culture, the same way that it is for say DevOps and site reliability, and all these other practices that we have in the industry. That good customer service is also a combination of behaviors, and culture, and tooling that folks need to sort of internalize.
Kat Gaines: Oh my gosh, yeah. It absolutely is. That’s the other thing too. I don’t know that we focus enough on the tooling and culture that we need to make those teams successful. We talk a lot about what other teams may need, what developers might need. We don’t necessarily think about, as proactively, what support teams might need, and I’m seeing that conversation starting to shift. There’s a big interest in AI right now in the industry, for example. I think, I mean, even today, I was going to say before I left leading the PD support team, but it’s still true today. There are three new vendors in my inbox every other day.
Mandi Walls: Oh my gosh.
Kat Gaines: Who want to talk about their AI product for customer support teams, so that’s something that’s really interesting and a conversation that’s getting a lot more proactive, I think, in terms of how different companies are thinking about it. They’re thinking about two main things, I think, and that’s one of the big pieces of the conversations being driven forward right now. The first thing, is the customer experience, the ability to self-serve information, the ability to easily find and discover information, kind of get to that end goal faster. I don’t remember what I was looking at earlier today, but it was something that kind of boldly stated, “No customer wants to have to go through hoops to contact a live support agent.” They don’t actually want to talk to your support team, and even though that might sting a little bit to hear initially, it’s true.
Mandi Walls: Yeah. It kind of is, I understand. Yeah.
Kat Gaines: It’s true, and we all have support teams, because we know that scenario is never a hundred percent possible, but they want to, at the end of day, I mean, think about it. If I’m buying something on an online shop, I want to just click the buttons, get my business done, have it show up at my door in two to three business days, and I don’t want to have to interact with a human to do it, which is why I didn’t just go to a store and do that instead.
Software is really similar. We want to be able to just go about our business, use the tool the way it’s intended and move on with our day. Why I said that stings, it is very, very true, so by the time you’re getting to a support agent means they haven’t found that resource on their own, which is where a lot of these self-serve AI vendors are coming in and trying to make that easier. But then it’s also trying to make things easy on your support teams, because again, we all have support teams, because we know that that scenario of never talking to a human isn’t possible, right?
Mandi Walls: Yes, Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Kat Gaines: But what do we need those people to focus on? Do we need them to focus on password resets? Do we need them to focus on, how do I update my billing information? We don’t. We need them to focus on the technical problems. Hey, there’s this product, this is broken. This doesn’t make sense, and so, really, it’s about being able to free up agents’ time to focus on those more important and more complex issues, which in turn makes their jobs much more satisfying. No one is signing up to work in a support team to answer password reset questions all day. They’re signing up because they want to learn something interesting, because they want to learn about that product. They want to deep dive into the stuff that’s like, “Huh? Why does that work the way that it does?” They want to work alongside the dev team, like I was saying earlier. They want to be part of a team together. I think it’s cool that the shift, I’m starting to see at least, is really moving toward making things easier on both ends. It’s not entirely customer face, it’s not entirely agent based, but it’s really about how do we take these two groups of people and make their experience as satisfying as possible?
Mandi Walls: No, that’s excellent. I will say that, and you worked on this sort of before the pandemic and during the pandemic, and I, as a user of certain things have certainly seen various companies sort of do it right and sort of not. At the very beginning, there are a lot of places where their agents weren’t set up to work from home, and a lot of those kinds of things. What kinds of things have you seen over the past couple of years that were sort of impacted by the move to a more digital, or that work from home, and all of those things? How’s that been impacting the sort of customer service realm?
Kat Gaines: Oh my gosh. I think that there are a number of teams like the PagerDuty team who are very lucky in that they already had a lot of kind of setup where they could easily just shift their jobs to home. Then there are probably an equal number of teams, potentially even more, who the pandemic hit and went, “Oh my God, what do we do now?” Whether it’s, you’re based in a physical call center type of support environment, or whether you just never really considered your team, and how they would work remotely, and how your practices would shift to being remote. Even I say that, like we were lucky. I mean, even teams like ours, I think hit a stumbling block at first. Just kind of looking at, okay, how do we communicate with each other? Right?
Mandi Walls: Sure. Yeah.
Kat Gaines: One great example I have, I think, with the PagerDuty team, is that we were split up across multiple global offices, but a lot of people on the team really relied on, who can I tap on the shoulder, in person, and turn around? For example, if I’m a tier one support agent, I can easily turn around and tap a support engineer in my office, on the shoulder, if I need help, or if I need to talk to them about a ticket that I’m about to escalate up to their level. Of course, we lost that immediately, and so I think it was both a blessing and a curse, because for our team, at least, it was about finding new ways to work without that physical interaction, without being able to see each other, and there were a lot of of different fail safes and things that the team implemented. A lot of things that they tried out, but then it was also about figuring out how to work differently as a global team, and be less focused on who was right next to you physically or who’s down the street. The things I started seeing were people building more relationships across locations, even time zones that only had like an hour or two of overlap with each other, and being less reliant on, well, this person shares the exact same working hours as me, but instead, just being reliant on, who’s online, who’s around? Who can I talk to about this? Then figuring out the different communication tools we have, how do we leverage those in the right way? There’s a lot of experimentation that went on, even for, like I was saying, teams like ours that were “lucky,” because we are already had somethings figured out or a lot of things set up. But that was kind of the cool benefit of it. I don’t want to say there’s been a benefit of the pandemic that sounds… icky.
Mandi Walls: It’s a little dark, but yeah.
Kat Gaines: Little icky to say, but I don’t know that our team would have such a strong global culture if they just continued on the way that they were. I think that there are a lot of other teams out there, from my peers that I’ve talked to at other companies who feel the same, and who have seen some similar benefits. That they’re able to be a little bit more flexible about how they work.
Mandi Walls: Mm-hmm (affirmative). No, I think that makes sense, I mean, and for a lot of folks who are getting used to the more long-term work from home, I’m sure it’s true for them too. I joined PagerDuty during the pandemic, so I’ve not met anybody in person.
Kat Gaines: Well, that’s the other thing too, right?
Mandi Walls: Yeah.
Kat Gaines: You join any company during a pandemic, you’ve never met anyone in person, and then for the people who are at that company, it’s like the rethinking your onboarding processes. Then, what does it look like to bring a new person into the team and get them up to speed when you can’t say, “Oh, just go sit over there with Kat and she’ll show you the ropes.” Right?
Mandi Walls: Exactly. Exactly. You’re onboarding people to your new culture, your new tools, and all those things, and the same time they’re not sitting next to you in your cubicle, watching you figure all the things out, and all that. Yes. Been completely insane, quite honestly, but yeah. One thing you did mention was having the kind of job that is a learning experience and allows for interesting problem solving, and those kinds of things for your customer service reps. What do you see them growing into then over time? Obviously we have a pretty mature customer service organization here at PagerDuty. There’s lots of different levels and they can become… Sort of come up the ladder in customer service, but where else can they go? To me, it would seem like maybe they could be sales engineers, or other folks who need that kind of deep knowledge of the product.
Kat Gaines: Yeah. This is a really good question, because there is so much flexibility in that. There are so many directions it can go. Even, for example, like with my move to this team, I posted on LinkedIn about it, like, “Hey, y’all, I’m doing a new thing,” and a colleague from years ago who actually used to work at PagerDuty, was one of our old support engineers back in the day, responded to my post and was like, “That’s so cool. I think that support is such an interesting foundation for developer advocacy and the types of things that you’re going to bring to that.” I said, “Yeah, hey, me too. I think support is an awesome foundation for all kinds of things,” because I really do. You mentioned sales engineer, solutions engineers, so we’ve had a couple folks from the team go there. I have seen people go from support into sales, into engineering, into internal IT help desk teams into… I’ve seen folks who’ve gone into marketing type of roles, into sales directly. It’s so flexible, and I think that the reason for that, is because you get such a good base of knowledge of the product, that wherever your excitement or your passion about that lies, if you really just want to be able to talk about it a lot and help people find new ways to use it, you could go into solutions. You could go into something like that. If you want to help people kind of implement best practices and find a successful way to do that, you could go adjacent into customer success. I’ve seen a number of people have a lot of success, no pun intended, doing that as well. Of course, if you’re somebody who wants to go into engineering, and you either have a technical base, or you are somebody who goes to a bootcamp, for example, and works your butt off, and then interviews for a role, which I’ve seen a number of people do and do a fantastic job at. Then you bring something to that organization that they didn’t have, which is what we were talking about earlier, that customer facing experience, you bring the empathy to that organization. You bring the understanding of the blind spots with the product, the gaps, the areas that need work. It’s an asset, both in career growth. It’s an amazing foundation to start off of, but then it’s also an asset to whichever team you join, who potentially has not had very many people who have that depth of knowledge of either the product and/or the customers themselves.
Mandi Walls: Yeah. I totally understand that. Even with PagerDuty, where we’re ostensibly a product that mostly engineers are users, even then, up until just a couple years ago most engineers probably weren’t regularly on call, so they didn’t have as much direct experience with the product as our customers support folks would have on a regular basis. Yeah, that customer drive, that customer focus, all those things that we’re pitching in DevOps for SRE, and all those practices, definitely are invaluable to teams if they’re bringing new folks on.
Around that, right? In the customer service realm, one of the questions we ask on the podcast is to share with us maybe a myth that you’d like to debunk about customer service. I’m sure there are a few, but do you have a favorite myth?
Kat Gaines: There are a few. I think if I could pick one, I think that you’ll sometimes see folks assume that support teams or folks who support either aren’t technical or don’t have technical capacity, or that they’re even worse, just using their support role as a stepping stone to something else. That they’re not really invested in it. I think that’s where you miss out on some of what we’ve been talking about. That you get to learn from them about your customers and who they are. That you get to hear, kind, of their passion about what it is that they’re working on. I think that you can have folks who fall into that category, but the majority are really excited about what they do, excited about how people. It takes a lot of emotional intelligence and empathy to have to be in support or really any customer facing role, but definitely support where you’re bearing the brunt of frustration sometimes. It takes a lot of patience, and there’s a lot to learn from that, and so I think one of the myths is maybe that there isn’t as much to learn, or that the support person is the only person who’s interested in learning or skilling up, but I think it’s a little bit more equity, and how we all learn things from each other. That needs to be a little bit of a shift there.
Mandi Walls: It’s definitely its own practice, and as teams are moving to more customer centered design and customer centered product development, your customer support people should be your best buddies.
Kat Gaines: Yeah. We think as an industry, that it’s something that can be done quick and it can be done cheap, so I think it’s also just the theme of under investment, which again, I’m seeing that start to turn around a little bit these days. That there is more acknowledgement of the value of your support teams and the people in those teams. Whether that’s another team who views it that way, whether it’s an executive that you have to make a case to, I think that that’s a myth that we’re all starting to come to terms with, thankfully, and I hope to see more shift in that direction.
Mandi Walls: Yeah, that’d be great. Absolutely. Another question that we like to dig into. What’s something that you maybe have learned in the last few years of your career that you wish you had known earlier or something that was hard to come by that was very valuable?
Kat Gaines: I’m actually going to come back to something we were talking about a while ago, which was the flexibility of different career paths from support. I’ll take myself as an example. I graduated from college with an arts degree, and I graduated into the tail end of a recession. I had no clue what to do with myself other than, well, I don’t want to have to move back in with my parents just now, so I better find a way to make a paycheck. I kind of just fell into a tech support role out of college, and just said, “Well, this is a thing I’m just going to do.” It looked kind of cool because it was in the music industry. It ended up just answering a lot of kind of retail type support questions, and some website tech support questions, things like that, but I really kind of thought when I got that first job out of college, “This isn’t my career. I’m not going to go anywhere with this.”
Mandi Walls: Mm-hmm (affirmative). That’d be you.
Kat Gaines: It sounds a little crazy right now, right?. I think that that’s the thing that I wish that I had given myself a little bit more patience with back then, because even though I did ride it out and see it out, I probably, I don’t know that I would’ve done that had I not come over to PagerDuty. I think that was a rather big inflection point in my career where I was kind of going, “What do I do with myself? I don’t know, do I go to grad school at this point and throw in the towel and try to do something else? We’ll see.” I wish I had known kind of the career possibilities, and maybe just invested in myself a little bit earlier in terms of the types of growth that would push me toward that.
Fortunately, I learned to do that eventually, and I learned how to help other people learn to do that down the line too, and found a lot of joy in coaching and mentoring people in that direction too. But yeah, I wish I had seen that and I wish people had talked about it earlier on, instead of just like, “Oh, support, that’s just kind of a whatever job that people go to.” That was my perception. I was stupid. I was wrong, and so I’m going to go back in time and tell my early 20s self that to just be a little bit more patient and chill out. But really, this is also why talking about this for me is so important, because I want anybody else in that same boat to see and understand those possibilities too.
Mandi Walls: Yeah. What’s some good resources for folks who want to know more? Are there places where customer… Is there a secret customer service cabal, someplace people hang out and trade secrets? Or…
Kat Gaines: Secret lair. Yeah. Firstly, I don’t think a lot of them are too secret, but maybe not enough people know about them. I’m going to make a big plug for Support Driven, which is a newsletter/Slack community. It is an amazing place just to kind of hang out, and talk to other people in the industry, and get to know kind of what they’re doing. I’ve thrown things in there when I just need advice or I need more ideas around something I’m working on. I had somebody ping me just yesterday looking for something similar and just saying like, “Hey, I just want to hear a little bit about your perspective on this subject.” It’s just an amazing place to find peers and find people to talk to and get to know. I would definitely recommend that anybody in the industry and the role, go there and start building that community too, because it’s really hard to do these things alone.
It’s really hard to try and figure it out, especially when you’re looking at metrics, those types of things. When you’re trying to make the case to higher up for things that your team needs, those types of things. It can feel very isolating, I think, especially for people who lead support teams to not know who your people are that you can bounce those ideas off of. Those are the people, they’re the ones, a lot of great people hang out there. I think there are some moments where I would’ve floundered without those folks to fall back on.
Mandi Walls: That’s excellent. We’ll add that to the show notes. For folks that are listening, we can check that out and we’ll have that available there. What are you looking forward to in your new role? You’re now six days in, so no pressure.
Kat Gaines: Really?
Mandi Walls: Yeah.
Kat Gaines: All of six days. I’m looking forward to conversations like this. I think that I have a couple of folks who [inaudible 00:23:04] network, who we could bring onto the podcast and have really good conversations with. I’m looking forward to more good conversations. I am looking forward to broadening the perspective of some conference talks and kind of different ways that we can be part of those events, and talk about more roles. Both support and roles adjacent to support, or how developers interact with and can get things from support, that really just help up level them too. I am really excited about… Oh my gosh, how much time do we have? I feel like I could go on forever. I’m excited about so many things.
Mandi Walls: I’ll let you know. Yeah, we should be fine.
Kat Gaines: I am really excited about just being able to have a venue for us to have these types of conversations, and to talk about just the ways that… Something we haven’t even touched on in this conversation. It’s like the way that support interacts with incident response, which is one of the big pieces of PagerDuty’s product, right?
Mandi Walls: We have to do a whole episode on that at some point, so yeah.
Kat Gaines: There are a whole bunch. Yeah. Just the ways that your customer facing teams can help up level and protect your company reputation in those roles.
Mandi Walls: Definitely. Yeah.
Kat Gaines: Those types of things, and how having them be part of your incident response operations can make it easier for everyone to focus on fixing on the problem and to have the right people to advocate for your customers in that moment too. Right?
Mandi Walls: Yeah.
Kat Gaines: I am just frigging thrilled to be on this team, and have a bunch of stuff ahead of me to do. I’ve been doing a lot of reading, a lot of, kind of figuring out where my feet are and yeah, just really excited for what’s next.
Mandi Walls: Yeah. We’re super excited to have you! The embracing the customer experience, and acknowledging that that’s a big part of your brand, and your relationship with your customers, and the customer love for your company. The folks that are on the front line there, play such an important role for that, and it’s excellent that we have you on board to help spearhead all these conversations with folks. I’m super excited too. I mean, yes, we miss our dearly departed Julie, but-
Kat Gaines: Oh my gosh.
Mandi Walls: … it’s going to be awesome.
Kat Gaines: We do miss you, Julie.
Mandi Walls: Is there anything you would like to leave folks with as we wrap up? Besides make sure you subscribe because Kat’s going to have a lot more episodes on here.
Kat Gaines: Subscribe. We’re going to talk about some cool stuff going forward. I am not great at Twitter yet, but follow me. I am @strawberryf1eld. The I is a one. Yeah. I think for anybody listening, who wants to connect to talk about some of those things or even is inspired and thinks they have something to talk with us about, whether it’s on the podcast or a Twitch stream or something like that, come on through, let us know.
Mandi Walls: Absolutely. I will put all of our request forms, and our contact info and all that stuff in the show notes for folks, so you can find us, because we are looking for more guests for this next season of the podcast, as well as, as Kat mentioned, we have a Twitch stream now. We’d love to have folks on, to show off things that they’re doing with PagerDuty and Yeah. Kat, thanks for coming along today.
Kat Gaines: Yeah. Thank you. This is fun.
Mandi Walls: Excellent. Well folks, that was our 51st episode of Page It to the Limit. Thanks for joining us. Make sure you subscribe if you haven’t been already, so you don’t miss any more of these amazing episodes, and we’ll sign off. I am Mandi Walls and I’m wishing you an uneventful day.
That does it for another installment of Page It to the Limit. We’d like to thank our sponsor, PagerDuty, for making this podcast possible. Remember to subscribe to this podcast, if you like what you’ve heard. You can find our show notes at pageittothelimit.com and you can reach us on Twitter @pageit2thelimit, using the number two. Thank you so much for joining us, and remember, uneventful days are beautiful days.
Mandi Walls is a DevOps Advocate at PagerDuty. For PagerDuty, she helps organizations along their IT Modernization journey. Prior to PagerDuty, she worked at Chef Software and AOL. She is an international speaker on DevOps topics and the author of the whitepaper “Building A DevOps Culture”, published by O’Reilly.
Kat is a developer advocate at PagerDuty. She enjoys talking and thinking about incident response, customer support, and automating the creation of a delightful end-user and employee experience. She previously ran Global Customer Support at PagerDuty, and as a result it’s hard to get her to stop talking about the potential career paths for tech support professionals. In her spare time, Kat is a mediocre plant parent and a slightly less mediocre pet parent to a rabbit named Lupin.