Tech Support as Training Ground: How MathWorks Finds Strategic Value in Customer Support

What are the events that a support manager most dreads?

  • An irate phone call from a member of the owner’s family looking for support?
  • Being told to locate any new support office in a low-wage area?
  • Release of a new product with known and serious defects?
  • Having a 50% annual attrition rate, including losing many seasoned, key staff members to another department in the company?

Okay, they’re all pretty dreadful, but that last one is a particular headache since the ramp up time for new hires is long and knowledge transfer is a challenge. So, would you believe there’s a software company that has that level of attrition from technical support as a goal — more specifically, as an explicit program? It’s a unique view of a strategic role that technical or customer support can play for a company — that of a development group for entry-level employees to teach them about a company’s products and, perhaps more importantly, to develop a customer sensitivity.

The MathWorks in Natick, Mass., a publisher of MATLAB, SIMULINK, and other scientific simulation software, has a rather unique charter for its tech support department, called Engineering Development Group (EDG). EDG is explicitly used as an entry level position for about 25% of the company’s open positions. How did this happen and what are the benefits to MathWorks?

Allison Babb, senior manager in EDG, notes that “The technical support industry has lots of ideas on how to keep people, but little about how to help them move on — and stay in the company. No one has looked at how to make that turnover a benefit to the company and not a loss.” She said the first step in the transformation in thinking that unfurled at MathWorks was to “embrace the reality of the situation. Lifers in tech support are rare.”  Support people were transferring to other groups, and it became noticed by senior management that these people were “solid successes” in their new positions, typically performing better than people hired directly to their positions with little to no ramp-up time. The company’s top management asked for some program to be developed that would leverage this value that EDG informally had brought to the company.

Having recognized and embraced the opportunity, the second step in this process was to form “internal partnerships” with other groups at MathWorks. This was made easy by the fact that senior management asked for the formal program to be created. Since no other companies were doing a similar program, Babb was inventing as she proceeded. She held one-on-one meetings with department heads — such as engineering, quality assurance, training, documentation, and product management — to get their input on a level of collaboration with EDG that would work for their department.

The program evolved into a form of a “job bank” for new hires into EDG. The various functional groups put together short term projects they need performed with skill set profiles. Employees hired into EDG select from this project request list or network within the company to find projects on which to work. Effectively work about half of their work week on these projects. This project job bank model was an easy sell to the other functional group managers since they didn’t have to manage the people and no binding commitment was made. To date, though, not one EDG employee has been pulled off a project.

Obviously, a key internal partnership was between EDG and HR. This model complicates HR staff forecasting. No certainty exists for the number of EDG employees who will be hired permanently by other groups. Currently, EDG is filling about 35% of other groups’ positions, and — here’s a migraine headache for a support manager — EDG does have that 50% annual attrition rate. “If you had told me we’d be transferring half my people each year, I’d said you were crazy. It would break technical support.” Since timing of the internal hires is not readily predictable, EDG hires ahead of the need, in effect having a buffer of employees.

This type of program will only work if EDG hires the right people. So, “external partnerships” were also key to success. While led by HR, EDG employees go to career fairs at select colleges to help with the recruiting. MathWorks will host events on campuses where EDG employees will deliver technical presentations. MathWorks also hosts college days at the MathWorks campus every Friday from December to March. EDG hires masters-level people only. Yes, that’s right, this tech support organization hires only people with masters degrees in engineering since that’s the skill level its internal partners required.

MathWorks receives a huge volume of applicants since the jobs in EDG are highly attractive to candidates, belying the notion that tech support jobs would not be desirable to those with advanced degrees. Candidates used MATLAB in school, and the product reputation is a draw. More importantly, the project model presents opportunities to learn and explore before choosing a more narrow career path.

Hiring at MathWorks is highly competitive and a “well-oiled machine.” For every 100 resumes reviewed about 20 will lead to interviews, which will lead to one — yes, one — new hire.  Interviews last for the better part of a day involving the hiring manager and peers. Both soft skills and technical skills are evaluated. A debrief at the end of the end will determine whether the candidate fits the MathWorks culture. Several comprehensive references are required — and they are reviewed in detail.

The seriousness of the interview process is reflected in the new hire development. New hires have three to four months of training, delivering real support for customers under supervision. They rotate across the product teams in EDG to gain a breadth of product knowledge. Each employee has milestones they are expected to meet, and they are expected to develop technical skills as well as soft skills — teamwork, leadership, initiative, assertiveness, communication, and project management. They’re also trained on “how to work within the MathWorks culture.” Project work starts at about 10 months of tenure, although they have the option of starting projects right after being hired. While EDG currently has no required stay period in the group, it’s currently just over one year.

While the program certainly increases EDG’s stature in the company, it’s not without its drawbacks. Imagine Babb’s dilemma of having a “perpetually green staff” and few to no senior staff members to take on her group’s projects. Her job also takes on much more of a coaching role rather than supervising for which she is well suited.

But the program does provide one major benefit for EDG: bandwidth. With 50% of their work force effectively working for other groups, EDG can meet a short term demand surge, for example, from a new product release, by having the EDG employees focus on support. EDG can in effect double its work force almost in real time for short term issues.  Further, they had a large number of EDG alumni upon whom they could call in an emergency. Perhaps equally importantly, the tight relationship with engineering provides for rapid knowledge transfer as new products near release.

This model would not work for every company. The culture and the supporting environment have to be correct. Perhaps most importantly to ensure the collaboration, EDG is a cost center, not a revenue or profit center. If EDG management had P&L responsibilities, the shadow pricing and chargebacks to the other groups would have to be contorted beyond comprehension. While we may think that a P&L responsibility for customer support would be best for a company, it’s important to recognize the full complement of strategic value customer support can bring to a company. While customer support can generate revenue from external customers, we see here at MathWorks that customer support can generate incredible value for its internal customers with roles that are optimal for the company but would be hard to reconcile with a performance appraisal system for customer support geared toward profitability.

This model also works for MathWorks now in part because the company is growing and new opportunities open up in the functional groups on a large-scale basis. What happens if or when growth slows, and the opportunities for transfer become limited to backfills for attrition? That day may come and will certainly test the mettle of MathWorks management and culture. Hopefully, the value that support can provide in developing a “reserve of high caliber, well-trained engineers ready to transfer” embedded with customer sensitivity will remain in the strategic crosshairs.