Congratulations to Subex, the Indian revenue assurance giant, the first vendor to come clean and clarify that software is an alternative to paying people to do jobs, and not an excuse to create even more jobs. However, I am not sure they realized what they were saying…
This story begins by observing a change in Subex’s marketing approach, following the change in Subex’s management team. Subex’s old management team used to issue press releases announcing sales made to real customers, many of whom they could name. Now under new leadership, Subex seems to have copied cVidya’s marketing style, no longer telling us about sales, and instead issuing a press release saying one of their products is really very very good. Honest. Oh yes it is. It really is. It really is very good. And it must be, because the press release says so. Here is a snippet of the new puff release for an old product:
Zen is the industry’s first solution that sifts through millions of records and narrows-in on the problem area in a matter of minutes. It is a powerful magnet that pulls out the needle from the haystack.
Kudos to Ashwin Menon of Subex, who stood in the line of fire and answered a lot of tough questions about Zen from talkRA commenters. Many were sceptical about what Zen actually does. Ashwin’s post generated 20 comments in total. This was a record for talkRA, and double the total number of comments that Gadi Solotorevsky has received in the thousand years since he assumed leadership of the TMF’s RA team. (Note to people who like data analytics: some might think this is evidence that nobody actually reads Gadi’s blog. Or that they suffer a boredom-induced brain haemorrhage whenever they do.) In answering the sceptics, Ashwin appeased those who felt ‘a magnet that pulls needles from haystacks’ was an overly metaphorical way to describe software functionality. They demanded literal explanations of why they should use Zen; Ashwin had the integrity to provide them. However, eight months later, Subex continue to exhibit an excessive love of flowery language. However, they do give us some hard numbers about how well Zen pulls needles from haystacks. And here are those numbers, summarized in one place:
- “increases productivity by over 75%”
- “reduces the time to find root causes, typically from 30 hours to 30 minutes”
- “ideally provides a substantial boost to analyst productivity by an order of magnitude of 10-20”
- “Tier #1 African operator success story… improvement in time saving… 66.67%”
Yup. They sure offered a lot of numbers saying how good Zen is. Note to people who like data analytics: the numbers are all very different. Some of the improvements are four-fold. Some are sixty-fold. Some ten-fold, some twenty-fold, some three-fold. Which means a lot of them are wrong. Possibly all of them.
Let me spell out what Subex is saying in their headline factoid: analyst productivity will improve by over 75%. What they really mean is that, with the help of Zen, analysts will complete jobs in a quarter of the time that they used to take. (Note to people who like data analytics: this is actually a 300% improvement in productivity – 1 man can do the same work that used to be accomplished by 4 men.) Well, that sounds very good. It sounds unlikely, given Zen is just a big magnet and operators rarely suffer from chronic haystacks, but it does sound good. So, RA analysts, next time you sit down alongside your three colleagues who are also RA analysts, take a good look at their faces. Because you will not be seeing them much in future. Unless you meet them down the unemployment centre, looking for a job.
It is usually at this point in the argument that somebody blusters how you really need those other three analysts to do some other really important work. Maybe they can go somewhere and reduce a previously unknown risk by a few thousand orders of magnitude. Back in the world of real business, where data analytics is about using real data to make real decisions, either you have a job that needs four people to do it, or you do not. If it is cheaper to sack three guys and use software, then you sack three guys who you do not need any more. And if you just fancy taking the three guys and giving them another job, then you had better be giving them a real job which delivers real benefits, not just keeping them on the payroll for old times’ sake. In which case, you should have already employed three other guys to do that other job, and you did not have to wait for Subex, Zen, or any other vendor or product to come along and tell you it is time to rewrite the job descriptions for three quarters of your team.
The bottom line is that each necessary task is a genuine task, whether performed by man or machine. You would have to be pretty stupid to believe that the interests of people who sell machines are perfectly aligned to the interests of people who want jobs. Automation exists to lower the burden on people. And companies lower the burden on people not because they are charities, but because they want to employ fewer people in order to reduce costs and improve profits which they pass on to shareholders. Simple. So this amateurish press release from Subex is the first really strong sign that the cosy consensus between RA employees and RA vendors is breaking down. In a greenfield, buying some software can also create jobs, because you employ somebody to push the buttons. In a mature business, if you can get the same results with fewer buttons being pushed, you employ fewer people to push the buttons.
It is possible that the old consensus will temporarily break down, only for a new form of consensus to emerge between telco staff and vendors. Both the employees and the vendors may try to recreate the original greenfield expansion stimulus, by simultaneously extending their scopes to cover new areas. That way they can try to recreate the convenient win-win of the early days of revenue assurance, where software was sold and jobs were created at the same time. I expect we will see some of those messages from firms like Subex, just to appease the people they will have inadvertently upset with this press release. I am sure we will hear it from Gadi Solotorevsky of cVidya, because he wants to be everyone’s friend all of the time. After all, he has maintained his thousand-year peaceful reign precisely because he is a dead-eyed, cold-hearted, data-driven ruthless terminator of telco waste, whilst also being a simple, kind, jolly fellow who hands out alms to the meek and is beloved by small children and furry animals. (Note to lovers of data analytics: yes, there really is some kind of contradiction in there. As well as sarcasm.) I am sure we will get these familiar contradictions being repeated. However, if bad decisions are compounded for short-term gain, then employees will suffer sooner or later.
Pushing buttons is the wrong way to create jobs. Pushing buttons is a low-skill activity, and will always get squeezed by improvements in automation. Too many RA jobs were defined by RA vendors. They wanted employees to push the buttons on their software and fill in the gaps in its functionality (whilst not drawing attention to those gaps). As such, some jobs were not defined to address the real needs of telcos, and little thought was given to creating a career path for the people who filled those button-pushing jobs. The right approach, which RA could have taken from the outset, would have involved minimizing the number of low-skill button-pushing jobs. The emphasis should have been on the human skills that will never be automated. If that had been the case, then Zen would contain nothing new. (Note: I make no assumptions about whether Zen contains anything new.) The right approach would have involved giving the RA department, and hence its people, a job that went beyond crunching data to find anomalies. Those jobs would have been high-skill, and would have needed to deliver high value-add in order to justify them. They would require the kinds of skills we expect from real professionals – which includes seeing through marketing bluster and ignoring nonsense numbers.
It might be too late to reverse the mistakes made in this pool we know as ‘revenue assurance’, in which case many employees will have to sink, whilst automation sails on. Of course, the people with most to gain might offer some employees a berth on a lifeboat, perhaps named ‘revenue intelligence’ or one of those other phrases they so love to coin. But the destination will be much the same. Or we can learn from mistakes, and create jobs that make the most of human minds and restrict software to the role it really deserves: quickly executing a lot of simple, brainless, tedious calculations. That would be a radical change of approach. It would necessitate that telco employees assume the role of leaders, and their software suppliers would revert to being the followers. The tasks performed by software will have been defined for the developers, not defined by the developers. Now what do you think the current ‘leaders’ of revenue assurance might say to that? Perhaps they would disapprove. Everyone claims to like the forward march of progress, but nobody likes progress when it threatens to make them redundant.