Jan Schouten gets excited about the idea of going out to cut peat for the fire. He lives in a place where it can get so windy that if a dog isn't on a lead, it can literally blow away. Where, if the ferry doesn't make it into port, the supermarket doesn't stock any food. A land where power cuts are so common, they hardly rate a raised eyebrow. Jan might sound like the hero of a Robert Louis Stevenson novel, but he's actually the Dutch-born manager of a hi-tech NetCentre offering telephone technical support for members of the British ISP Madasafish. And he lives and works on the Isle of Lewis, most northern of the Hebrides, off the north-west coast of Scotland.
When first told I was going to be writing a feature on the everyday goings-on of an Internet help desk. I didn't envisage having to make the trip to Stornoway ('capital' of the Isle of Lewis) to conduct my research. In my mind's eye, I pictured the place as mile after mile of moorland with houses dotted around, an abundance of sheep, a lack of trees and howling gales. It just goes to show that sometimes I can be uncannily correct in my assumptions, because that's exactly what I found.
Why the hell had they decided to set up on this remote outpost of Britain? Why would IT professionals choose to live in such a place? Would the locals have enough IT knowledge to get the rest on Britain online? I'd soon find out?
I was met at the airport (for airport, read ex-bomber base with huge landing strip and a hut doubling as arrival and departure lounge) and driven to the hotel, before being picked up for dinner with some of the NetCentre staff. All were genuinely nice people and had an enthusiasm for their work that would shame ebullient Sky Sports commentator Andy Gray. Where else in the world can someone get as excited about going out to cut his own peat as he is about building Web sites for his customers. If one man reflects that enthusiasm, it's team leader Kevin Melia. Kevin used to be a car mechanic in his native Leeds, but became bored and moved to the island with his wife, who was born there. A few months later he heard about the NetCentre and, as a computer nut, decided he fancied the idea of a career in telephone support. To coin a phrase he never looked back, and was recently promoted to team leader. And his love of the job is permanently obvious.
Kevin has a host of funny stories to tell about his experiences at Madasafish. One customers was convinced his username was Packard Bell, while another rang for an installation CD but couldn't give Kevin his number as he didn't have a phone - a bit of a problem when it comes to going online. That call came from a phone box, and it wasn't the first time a punter had rung from a payphone. Kevin once took a customer through a step-by-step process assuming the guy was completing the commands on his computer; it turned out the customer was in a call box. But for real comedy you can't beat the bloke who rang up to complain that when he'd put the Madasafish CD in his Sonly PlayStation the game was crap ?
It's tempting to say that Kevin's zeal owes much to that fact that where's nothing better to do in Stornoway: however, he obviously loves the place as much as he does his job. But that doesn't explain why the NetCentre was built on the island. You can locate a help centre anywhere you like, as long as it has phone lines, so why Stornoway? Salaries aren't any cheaper - the staff are paid rates comparable to a similar centre in Glasgow. However, anyone developing a business on the Isle of Lewis is welcomed with open arms. They're offered grants as an incentive to create jobs and provide training for the islanders. The NetCentre also benefits from a particularly low staff turnover: people who work there don't want to live anywhere else and there are no competitive IT employers, so they stay where they are. Therefore Madasafish has subsidised new businesses, with staff happy to have been given a chance to work in a burgeoning industry, while living in a place they love. 'It's a set-up that seems to work very well.'Going it Alone
Once I'd got my head round that concept, it was time to tour the centre. To say that Madasafish's modern edifice was at odds with the island's traditional buildings would be a considerable understatement.
Then, after spending the day meandering around and listening in on a few calls, someone seemed to think it would be a good idea if I, new boy from the Smoke, actually had a go at fielding a few calls - on only my second day. It's still unclear whether Kevin or myself was the more daunted by the prospect of giving me the responsibility of keeping Madasafish's subscribers happy.
It usually takes a few days' training before they let anyone loose on the phones. I had an hour. First came a crash-course in using their telephone reporting system, and then I was paired with Callum Maclean to learn my trade as a Customer Service Agent in record time. Callum is another who was born on the mainland but moved to the island to be with his wife. He knows a few stories too: he once had a call from a woman who was convinced that her password was '****' because that was what appeared in the password field on her screen. I started off just listening in to the calls he took, which was easy. Then the Powers That Be decided I could move onto the computer to fill in the details on a call while Callum was talking to the customer. This meant nothing more strenuous than typing in names, the nature of the problem and what advice was given. So far, so good; nothing too difficult. At least, not as long as Callum kept pointing frantically at the bit of the screen I should be clicking on. As my performance had become something of a sideshow in the office for anyone who wasn't busy, it wasn't long before hints were dropped that I should start taking call myself. I wasn't keen. Although I had enough knowledge to know what Callum was talking about when he took his calls; it was a while since I had used PCs to dial-up, and I wasn't familiar with all the programs customers were using. While I was confidant I could correct the type of faults people were reporting if I was sitting at their machine, the difficulty would be envisaging what the customer was seeing, and giving instructions from a considerable distance.
However, if they were daft enough to let me have a go, I was daft enough to do it - so Callum flicked a switch and I was live. Luckily this coincided with the quietest period of the day and I wasn't bothered by any calls for a while, so instead I was inundated with fake calls from within the office from imaginary customers with imaginary problems. Thanks a lot, guys. But if Callum had imagined he could take it easy, he was quickly mistaken. I've never seen so many notes scribbled so quickly on a pad of paper as he tried desperately to let me know what I should be saying. Still, I managed to get through a few fake calls and prove myself at least a little bit capable. Which was just well, considering that calls from real customers soon started coming across. I managed to bluff my way through several problems, and would like to take this opportunity to thank the subscribers I dealt with for their patience.
At this point Callum decided it was time for a coffee break, and my short career as a Customer Service Agent came to an end almost before it had begun which was doubtless a relief for customers and staff alike. Let's just say I'm not giving up the day job yet. And the next time I have to call a helpline, I'll be the best and most polite customer ever.