Why Dell.com Still Feels Like Buying a Used Car

A looong time ago I complained that “Dell doesn’t think like their users think. When you go to their website, the first question they ask is what kind of buyer you are: home, small business, large business, etc. I don’t know what I am!”

They’ve never stopped trying to segment their customers. They seem to know that people hate it. Today on their corporate blog (where, I daresay, you’ll never see comments about politics), they brag about their new homepage design. They mention the three things that everyone told them they needed to fix, and number 3 was that whole segmentation business. Quoting Dell:

We still ask you to identify what ‘segment’ you best represent.

Why? Just show me all the products you offer and let me decide . . .

Seems like a fairly easy thing to do… Can’t be that hard, right?

Unfortunately, it is a bit more complicated than just changing links. When you call Dell on the phone we have specific phone numbers depending on your customer type. This way we can offer you the right product, the best solutions & accessories, and the proper warranty/services coverage for your system.

We think this creates greater value by providing information that is relevant to your specific needs.

This business about creating “greater value” is a bit of a whitewash. We all know exactly what’s going on. They’re trying to charge business customers more. That’s all there is to it. It’s Pricing 101. Camels and Rubber Duckies. Please don’t make up stories about how you’re offering us the right system. Somehow Apple and IBM/Lenovo have been happy to sell computers on the Internet to people without needing to know their “customer type.”

The reason this pisses people off is that nobody likes to feel like they’re getting ripped off. You feel less ripped off buying a way-overpriced Apple MacBook Pro because everyone else is paying the same price, and Apple is hardcore about not letting any dealers sell it for less.

Whenever we buy servers from Dell, even though they eventually offer us a price that beats the competition, we still have to spend a week or two negotiating, gathering competitive bids, etc. By the time we place our order the price we pay is about 20% to 30% less than the price advertised on the web, and we’re still not sure if we could have paid less.

Bottom line: I’d love to just order the damn servers from their website, clicking on the links to configure it. Dell would have my money sooner and wouldn’t have to pay any sales people to talk to me on the phone. But you’ve trained me to negotiate every time if I don’t want to pay the sucker price, so now I have no choice.

Unfortunately, this is obviously a decision that starts all the way at the top, and the poor designers working on fixing the website clearly don’t have the authority to change the way Dell does business.

Private Offices Redux

Adam Barr writes about Workplace Advantage, a new project going on at Microsoft to rethink how offices are arranged. “This is the plan to have people working in flexible space that can be quickly reconfigured into offices, cubicles, open desks, pods, or whatever you want,” writes Barr.

Microsoft is famous throughout the tech industry for putting literally everyone in individual, private offices, about half of which have windows. There’s not much debate that this is the most productive environment for programmers, but not everyone at Microsoft is a programmer. “The goal of Workplace Advantage is to reconfigure offices to fit the 4 employee types that were identified after studying the workforce: travelers, orchestrators, concentrators, and providers (examples of which, respectively, are sales, program management, dev/test, and IT),” Barr reported in an earlier post. Makes a lot of sense: private offices aren’t right for every type of work.

Not every programmer in the world wants to work in a private office. In fact quite a few would tell you unequivocally that they prefer the camaradarie and easy information sharing of an open space.

Don’t fall for it. They also want M&Ms for breakfast and a pony. Open space is fun but not productive. Last summer, the Project Aardvark interns were all in a big open space. The net result was that there was no such thing as a conversation between two people. Every time I went out there to talk to one of them, it became a conversation with all of them; every time two people had to talk, instead of going off to a quiet space somewhere, they just spoke directly to each other, interrupting the other two’s concentration. Although this slightly helps keep everyone “in the loop,” it also knocks programmers out of flow causing them to lose their concentration and devastating productivity, so I prefer to keep people in the loop using more formal methods, like weekly email status reports, and through informal methods like eating lunch together every day, which is why we have free catered lunches and a really big table.

Picture of big table at Fog Creek

This summer, we have much more private niches (not quite offices) for the summer interns, and I’ve noticed that when I talk to one of them, the others don’t even notice and certainly don’t stop cranking away at their work. I don’t think it has hurt communication much, either.

Travelers Insurance: Drop Dead.

Travelers Insurance is running an ad in Inc. Magazine with the headline:

“To catch a geek, you have to think like a geek.”

There’s a picture of a person wearing pants that don’t fit, frayed red socks, and untied shoes.

The advertisement says, “Fashion sense aside, today’s high-tech criminals are evolving constantly… Give your independent agent a call, and spend your time taking your business to the next level. Instead of worrying about a crook in ill-fitting pants.”

Am I nuts, or is this ad really offensive? First of all, the implication that geeks are somehow a threat. The whole tone of the ad is that you need their excellent insurance because the world is swarming with nerds and geeks who are going to break into your business systems and steal from you. So buy our insurance.

Second. What is this, high school? With the bullies who fail all their classes have such an inferiority complex they have to make fun of the geeks? If this is high school, Travelers is the neanderthal jock beating up geeks for their lunch money. “Protection” money.

Third. I can’t really think of anyone less qualified to “protect” you from “geeks” than a bunch of insurance salesmen. Get over yourselves. Have you looked at your own actuaries? Have you noticed how insurance people dress?

Fourth. Can you imagine anyone more harmless than a geek? A skinny nerd happily entertaining himself playing Dungeons and Dragons, or quietly playing practical jokes on bandwidth-thieves, or laughing hysterically at reinterpretations of 19th century light opera? What exactly is the threat, fat necks? What are you afraid of?

I’m sorry, Travelers, maybe the current Bush presidency has given you the idea that it’s ok to make fun of the scientists, inventors, researchers and programmers who are creating the future, finding cures for your diseases, building the spreadsheets you use to figure out how much commission you’re making, and educating your idiot progeny. Maybe a know-nothing in the White House has given you the idea that it’s somehow acceptable now to poke fun of geeks and nerds, in big two-page ad spreads on the inside front cover of a magazine for founders of startups. But you know what, morons? You probably forgot that most of the people that read Inc. are geeks. And we buy insurance. Lots of insurance. Like me. And in fact I used to buy it from you. But not any more.

Search Box

I got a nice blue box in the mail:


It seems Seth Godin persuaded Google to donate one of their new Google Mini appliances to power Joel on Software. Thanks, Google! If you use the search box, above, you can try it out.

At first I was worried that since it didn’t really use the Google infrastructure for searching, it wouldn’t be able to rank things very well. But somehow, it does. For example, if you just search for “Joel” the first result is The Joel Test, which is probably the #1 article on this site ranked by incoming links. So I guess it is communicating with Google to get PageRank information for public pages.

Image of Google MiniOverall, setting it up was reasonable: an hour or two to get the appliance racked up, most of which was spent following an infuriating procedure to get the IP address on the thing set up, and an hour or two getting the thing configured, most of which was spent following a very non-appliance-like, infuriating procedure to upgrade the software to the latest version (hey, Google, it’s on the network, why can’t it upgrade itself?)

Anyway, the point is, except for a couple of rough edges, everything was very easy to get set up, and now we have nice search results and I have a little bit more control over the results. I can do simple things like block the printer friendly versions from coming up as duplicates, and all kinds of complex things which I haven’t even figured out like synonyms, XSLT templates, and all kinds of complicated stuff. I can’t quite figure out how to make my changes to the main settings take effect right away. I tried to make it so that when you search for “mindless complexity” you get the search results for “.NET”, because I am the KING of witty, but for some reason it’s not happening … maybe I have to wait for another crawl. And the administration UI is, well, not pretty or GoogleFriendly. It’s more High Geek:

What do you think about the idea of appliances instead of software?

Correction 8/1/06: Google informs me that the Mini never phones home, even to get public PageRank information; the search results it produces are entirely based on whatever documents you told it to crawl.

Open House

Here at Fog Creek Software we recently finished a big expansion of our office space. If you’d like to check it out, meet the Fog Creek team and this year’s crop of bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed summer interns, please come to our open house, next Thursday, July 27th, at 5:00 pm. There will be snacks and wine.



Fog Creek is at 535 8th Ave., near 37th St., New York NY, on the 18th floor.


Wanted: System / Network Administrator

Yesterday, the net sum of what I managed to accomplish consisted, approximately, of creating one new email address.

Sure, there were extenuating factors: it was the first email address on the fogcreek.de domain, the German registry doesn’t understand that the order of your domain’s name servers should not make any difference, it was a Bad Hayfever Day, and lots of people interrupt me all day long. And the combination of Postfix + Cyrus + ActiveDirectory authentication over LDAP is a little bit too much for my rapidly shrinking brain to handle.

But still, it’s gotten to the point where my personal to do list now consists of 75% system administration tasks. There’s a big stack of seven Dell PowerEdge 2850 servers outside my office that need to be configured and installed somewhere. This is getting ridiculous. It’s time to get a full time sysadmin.

So, before I post this on the Fog Creek Jobs board… do any of you happen to know a brilliant system/network administrator who would be interested in working at Fog Creek?

We’re still a small friendly company and we all eat lunch together every day at one big table.

We need someone with extensive experience administering mixed networks (Windows, Linux, NetBSD, and Macintosh). We operate two small data centers and will be building a third.

Some of the things we need maintained: DNS and BIND, Postfix, Cyrus, BSD firewalls and routing, LDAP and Windows 2003 Active Directory, Nagios, IPSec VPNs, Subversion, Dell server hardware, Veritas Backup Exec, Microsoft SQL Server 2000/2005, IIS 6.0, and VMWare Server. We need someone who can program well enough to write maintenance applications (for example, SQL Log Mirroring to create warm backups) and scripts for monitoring applications (like GFI Network Monitor), and who has the good sense to document everything extensively. We don’t care about certifications.

We’re in New York City. We pay well and have great benefits, like free lunch, stock options, Aeron chairs and private offices. You get four weeks of paid vacation and six holidays, health insurance, a dental plan, gym membership, and relocation expenses paid. We’ll consider applicants from anywhere in the US. We will not consider telecommuting. Please email resumes to jobs@fogcreek.com and I’ll look at them.

Fine print: Fog Creek Software, Inc. does not discriminate in employment matters on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, national origin, age, military service eligibility, veteran status, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, or any other protected class. We support workplace diversity.