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Hewlett-Packard, Houston, TX

Page history last edited by Madame Curious 13 years, 8 months ago



Last Friday was my last day visiting Steve Myles in the customer support organization at Hewlett-Packard (HP) in Houston, TX.  HP is a large information technology (IT) company.  They make desktop and notebook computers, ink and laser printers, and servers, among other things.  They also provide IT support to other companies.  It was a busy two weeks, but I learned a lot!  I learned about operations research and forecasting, as well as some interesting things about customer support.


The first thing I noticed when we got in the car to go to HP was that this was the same type of car driven by my friend at the Cary Institute in New York.



When Steve and I got to the HP site, I had to sign in and get a visitor badge.  The ladies at the security desk were very nice and said they were glad to let me visit the site to help students learn more about science and engineering.  Here we are after I got my badge!



Next, we went to Steve’s building.  It’s really big!



He works on the seventh floor and he almost always takes the stairs, so I took them with him.  That was a lot of stairs!  I learned that climbing stairs actually relates to science.  It’s a good way to promote cardiovascular (heart and lung) health.  Health is science:  your health is based on human biological processes.  Stair climbing also strengthens muscles, burns fat, and helps reduce stress.  It’s also “green” (friendly to the environment) because it does not use any electricity.  It’s good for people and the planet!



That sure was a lot of stairs, though!  I got used to it after two weeks.  When we got to Steve’s floor, we went to his cubicle and it was time to get to work!



Since I didn’t know much about operations research (O.R.), I asked Steve a lot of questions.  He told me that without a good math and science education, he would not be able to do his job.  Steve has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in industrial engineering, which is the type of engineering that relates to process improvement – “engineers make things, industrial engineers make things better.”  His master’s degree has a concentration in O.R.  He explained to me that O.R. is the mathematical analysis of a process or operation used to help make decisions.  The Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS, the professional organization for people who do operations research) describes O.R. as “the science of better.”  Steve explained that O.R. is used to find the best way of doing something, the “optimal solution.”  He told me that he uses O.R. techniques to help solve problems and make decisions for HP’s consumer call centers and repair centers.  Those are the call centers and repair centers that support HP’s individual (rather than business) customers.


Before we got started, Steve asked me to do some light reading to learn about operations research.



Steve was kidding about having me read those textbooks, but he used those in college and graduate school.  He refers to them sometimes to help with his work.  He also has a sign at his desk that says “Operations Research Analyst Parking Only.”  I think that would be better on a parking space, but they don’t have assigned parking at HP.



For the first week, I sat at Steve’s desk and learned as much as I could about what he does. 



There was a lot to learn!  Most of it looks pretty much the same, working on a computer, or I’d show more pictures.  Though Steve works on a computer all day, he uses different O.R. models (a model in this sense is a mathematical representation of reality) and spreadsheets at different times.



A lot of Steve’s work relates to call centers.  The group he is in works with the call centers that support customers in the United States, Canada, and Latin America.  There are similar groups for other parts of the world.  Call centers are where the customer support agents work.  If you need help with your computer or printer, these agents are the people you want to talk to.  If you need help, you don’t want to have to wait too long on the phone to get to talk to someone.  You also don’t want to have to talk for very long to get your problem solved.  Part of Steve’s job is to help keep the waiting time down through a process called capacity planning.  His coworkers (who live in India – Steve talks to them over the phone and through e-mail) produce a forecast of how many calls HP expects to receive each week (more on forecasting in a little bit).  Steve’s job is to assign the forecast for printer-related calls to different call centers.  He does this with a series of mathematical equations and inequalities (called an optimization model) that make sure that all of the expected calls are accounted for.  The model takes several other things into account, including how many calls each call center thinks that they can handle (their capacity).



Steve is also responsible for day of week forecasting and planning (forecasting is determining what should happen, while planning is determining how to deal with what is forecasted to happen) for support calls for both printers and computers.  The calls are assigned to each call center on a weekly basis, but they need to know how many to expect each day so they can schedule the right number of agents to answer the phones.  If they don’t know that, customers will have to wait on hold for a long time and that’s no fun!  Steve runs an O.R. model that assigns the calls HP expects each day of the week. 


The second week I was here, I got to do some of the work!  Steve let me run some of the models and help interpret the results. 



Steve spends a lot of time on the telephone.  He talks to his coworkers in other parts of the U.S. and the ones in India.  He also has conference calls with the different call centers to talk about how many calls they can handle in the coming weeks.  He let me listen in on some of these calls so I could understand how they relate to his job.  It was neat to get to hear from people all over the world on the same call!  It was also interesting to learn more detail about how call centers work.



The rest of Steve’s job relates to HP’s repair centers.  When you have a broken printer or computer, you might have to send it in for a repair.  Just like how nobody wants to wait on the phone, nobody wants to wait to get their computer or printer back once they have sent it in.  Steve helps the repair centers make sure that they have the right parts at the right time to fix each customer’s printer or computer.  He does this using inventory control techniques, which try to make the right number of the right replacement parts available at the right time for the right price.  He works with the planning and procurement (buying) groups to make sure that parts are ordered when they are forecasted and that there is enough “safety stock” – extra inventory kept to make sure that forecast errors don’t cause problems for customers.


While I was working with Steve, I had the opportunity to meet some of his coworkers.


Snoopy and the Texas Tech bear sit at his desk every day.  The beaver, Buc-ee (the mascot of a highway travel stop in Texas), usually rides on the zipper of Steve’s backpack.  I met some of his human coworkers, too, including his boss, Viroj Buraparate.



Viroj has a Ph.D. in Operations Research.  In this picture, he has his “guns up” because he went to Texas Tech, where Steve also went to school.  That day, we were in a conference room with Viroj and some of Steve’s other coworkers.



One of his coworkers is Terri Woodlan, who is a forecaster.  I didn’t know much about forecasting, so I worked with her more closely to find out more!



A forecaster uses statistics – data about how things have happened – to predict how things will happen in the future.  Terri works with HP’s repair centers.  Her job is to predict how many broken computers or printers the repair centers should expect so they will have the right parts available to fix each customer’s unit.  She also forecasts replacement units, which are what HP sometimes sends customers instead of repairing their computer or printer.  Terri’s forecasts use information about how many printers or computers have broken in the past.  They also use sales projections to predict the number of future repairs.  The forecast tells how many broken units the repair centers can expect on a weekly basis so they can purchase parts to fix the broken units.



I learned that forecasting is both a science – it uses math to predict the future – and an art.  It is an art because it is impossible to include every possible variable in the forecast model.  Using the science alone (information about the past and related predictions for the future), the forecast will not be as accurate as possible.  Terri and other forecasters have to take “business intelligence” into account.  Business intelligence is knowledge that anyone in the company might have related to how many computers or printers will break or how many calls to expect (or, in other fields, whatever is expected to happen in the future) that is not obvious from looking at the data alone. 


Since Terri forecasts for so many different types of products, she sometimes needs to have printouts to help her keep track of her work.  She asked me to get some of the printouts for her.



Terri and Steve work together sometimes.  Her knowledge of forecasting and his knowledge of inventory control complement each other when they are helping HP’s repair centers.  They have worked with several repair centers to decrease the amount of time it takes to repair a customer’s computer.  They have traveled to repair centers in Memphis, TN and Dallas, TX, as well as to a repair center in Houston.  Viroj usually goes with them on these trips.  The three of them are going to Guadalajara, Mexico at the end of November to work with a repair center that supports HP’s customers in Latin America.  I wasn’t able to visit a repair center while I was here, but Steve showed me some pictures from them.  This one shows technicians repairing notebook computers.


((source:  http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/sb10068252n-001/Photographers-Choice-RF)


Steve has traveled to several different cities for his job.  In addition to Memphis and Dallas, he has worked with and traveled to repair centers in Louisville, KY and the Los Angeles, CA area.  He has also gone to some conferences, including one in San Francisco, CA where he presented some of his work related to repair center inventory control.  In 2008, he and Viroj presented at a conference about call centers in Philadelphia, PA at the Wharton School.  Maybe I’ll get to go there someday!



At the end of each day, Steve and I left his cubicle and walked through the hall to take the stairs down again.



When we got to the parking garage, there were more stairs to get back to the car!  After a long day at work, I was glad that there weren’t more stairs to climb than there were, but it felt good to get a little exercise!



I learned a lot during this visit!  I now know that companies use math to help support their customers.  I also learned what operations research and forecasting are and how they can be used to help make business decisions.  Even though everyone I have visited on my travels so far knows a lot about math and science, there is a lot of different work that they actually do.  It was really nice to see how people with similar backgrounds – math and science – can do so many different things!


I wonder what I’ll learn on my next visit, when I go back to Colorado State University!



Hewlett-Packard, Houston, TX

I arrived in Houston, Texas last weekend.  I've spent this week working with Steve Myles at Hewlett-Packard (also called HP).  Steve is an Operations Research Analyst in HP's Customer Support group, so he uses math to help the company make decisions related to its call centers and repair centers.  This type of work is a lot different than what I've learned about so far, but it is very interesting. 



I'll post more soon!

Comments (1)

Madame Curious said

at 7:50 pm on Nov 19, 2010

Hi Steve, Wow! We learned a ton about O.R. and forecasting. In fact, we are hoping to use that vocabulary with our Junior Achievement teacher next week. Won't he be impressed when we drop those hard words on him. We think Houston, TX looks like a great place to be, so we think your company should fly us out as a focus group to interview about student technology needs. Can you ask Viroj to fund our trip? Oh, BTW, Mrs. Sage has a printer, an HP Photosmart 7660, that she bought eight years ago to use in her classroom. It has held up quite nicely, so we are impressed with your products; however, it is now squeaking as it prints. Any suggestions of what she can do? The squeaking is driving her crazy, and that could be a problem for us, her students! Please help! Thanks again for letting her visit. Take care.

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