During the 1990s, I had built a large enough network of people that I could contract myself out for short-term programming jobs. One of the jobs was a six-month contract to help finish a call center for an electric company in Pineville, Louisiana. The application we developed for the customer service representatives (CSPs) was written using the PowerBuilder programming language. The interactive voice response (IVR) program was a commercial application that ran on an IBM AS400. And some single-purpose apps were a mix of commercial software and custom software written in C++.
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Building with PowerBuilder
During the 1990s, I had built a large enough network of people that I could contract myself out for short-term programming jobs. One of the jobs was a six-month contract to help finish a call center for an electric company in Pineville, Louisiana. At that time, my family and I lived in Central Florida.
The application we developed for the customer service representatives (CSPs) was written using the PowerBuilder programming language. The interactive voice response (IVR) program was a commercial application that ran on an IBM AS400. And some single-purpose apps were a mix of commercial software and custom software written, I think, in C++.
It was a fascinating project. Our client was nervous. They were afraid of any negative experience their customers might experience. So, the client made sure that at least one senior CSR from each satellite office moved to Pineville. Our program used the ANI code (caller ID) and the IVR to route phone calls to “familiar voices” and pop up the customer’s account before the CSR answered the call.
“How do you know who I am?” “Are you spying on me?” Our client’s customers were cautious when it came to new technology. IVRs were not that common in the 1990s, so the CSRs received extensive training on answering their calls in a way that didn’t creep out the customer.
An odd aspect was that our client had us program the IVR to keep callers “in the system” for up to 45 minutes during the project’s start-up phase. This long wait-time was to prevent callers from flooding the new CSRs and the whole new call center. I’m sure they quickly shortened the time.
Since I lived in Florida and my job was in Louisiana, I’d get on the road at 5:00 am each week on Monday morning. I’d arrive at the Gainsville airport in time to catch the first commuter flight to Atlanta. I then ran through the airport to catch a flight from Atlanta to Houston, Texas. When the plane door opened, I’d burst out and run through that airport to catch a small commuter flight from Houston to Pineville, Louisiana.
That commuter flight was where all the team members gathered, so the whole team arrived in Pineville on the same flight. I was younger then, but I was dog-tired when it was time for me to start work!
Our manager set the project up for all of us to began work at 11:00 am on Monday and worked until 5:00 pm on Thursday. So, by 3:00 pm on Thursday, all work wound down as each of us struggled with airlines to get the connections we needed to get back home. When (and if) I made it home, I had a three-day weekend. That was nice.
We had keys to the office in which we worked. So, our work week was from 6 am until as late as we could all hold out. This weird schedule worked well for our client and us. For our client, we weren’t “underfoot” all week long. And for us, with our compressed work schedule, we accomplished a lot because we were all entirely focused on work.
During the week, we all stayed at the finest hotel in Pineville. It was well over 100 years old, and the rooms were all pretty much as they’d originally been built, except the plumbing, which had gone through several upgrades.
The hotel was spotlessly clean. The staff was as courteous and as professional as anyone could hope for. And as a bonus, they had coffee urns located in strategic places. Hands down, it was the best coffee I’ve ever had, and I’ve drunk a lot of coffee in nearly every part of the world.
As a team, we had some fun during the project. I knew several of the people from previous projects I’d done, so, once a week, we’d all go to a restaurant downtown that had amazing bar-b-que and out-of-this-world bread pudding. I kid you not; by noon, people would be in a line out the door and down the sidewalk.
Anyway. Since I was brought in to help finish the project, I stepped into a challenging situation. The most difficult bugs were still in the system, and more functionality still needed to be developed, and our client had a hard cutover date.
The client was shutting down their satellite offices and consolidating all of their CSRs in Pineville. Some long-term employees were moving to Pineville, and other employees were quitting or being let go. All of the telephone numbers were being rerouted to our telephony equipment. It was a high-stress project.
On the cutover date, calls from across the state of central Louisiana would be ringing in Pineville. Our project had to work, and it had to work by a specific date. Worst of all was that there were some things we just couldn’t test until the cutover. So it was nerve-wracking. What made it worse for me was that my whole team was leaving on Friday before the project went live on Saturday. Since I was just a contractor, I was left behind to deal with any issues and be the single neck to choke. Lucky me!!!
Thankfully, nearly everything worked, and the parts that didn’t were minor issues that we put on the post-implementation list. Since I was self-contracted, my contract ended when they went live. I flew home on my client’s expense account but arrived unemployed.
I did contract programming for many years. I enjoyed it because I could work like crazy for six months and then take a month off between contracts. However, after the dot-com bubble burst in 1995, it became more and more difficult for me to self-contract and get the high hourly rates I traditionally received. I gradually moved back to working projects through “head-hunters” and finally re-entered full-time employment. I am so thankful for my contracting years because I learned so much. I continually worked with new people who were at the top of their game, and I always used the latest technologies. It was the kind of thing that couldn’t last, I knew that, but I sure had fun while it lasted.