How Fastly builds support, part 3: Building our support organization

This blog post was originally posted on my personal blog. This is the third part of a multi-part series on how Fastly architects and builds our support process. Check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 4.

At Fastly, we've made some key decisions about how to operate and structure our support team in a way that allows us to deliver quality at scale. Some of the lessons we learned are more specific to issues encountered as we grew, but most can be applied to any support or customer-facing team.

Don't repeat yourself

The first support pain point Fastly ran into was answering repeated questions, as every company might experience. There are two major tactics that can be used in some combination for solving this problem: documentation and canned scripts in the ticketing system (or a text expander tool). Adding people to the team is a solution, too, but that isn’t possible for many companies, as it's by far the most expensive and least efficient way to address the problem.

In true ops fashion, Fastly embraced the DRY (Don't Repeat Yourself) method. If a question was asked twice, someone built the answer into a document on The team didn't use canned scripts or macros at all. The nature of our questions didn't make reusable scripts practical — even today, there are not a lot of canned scripts used due to the nature of our support requests.

This presented a few issues. Sometimes the docs were unorganized, as nearly every employee contributed, and sometimes the docs overlapped. At the time, there was no one owning or coordinating documentation efforts.

Empowering customers to problem-solve

But, this approach was a net positive, as it tapped into a support truism: many people would rather not contact support at all. If you can make it easier for your customers to self service, you're making it easier for everyone. It also makes it possible for customers to solve problems themselves, which makes them feel awesome. And who doesn't like feeling awesome?

It's important to note that when a customer contacts support, they are taking a lot of effort to seek assistance and admit they need outside advice. For some people, that's a normal process. But for others, it can be a huge ego hit. If you can make self service easier, either through product design or documentation, your customers will have a better experience, which directly shapes their support experience.

The right tools for the job

Another friction area Fastly encountered early on was the need to communicate through more than just email or support tickets. Since everyone in the company (and most of our early customer base) was already in IRC, it made sense to set up an IRC room for customer communication. The room #fastly on Freenode was born. It's still there. You can ping me in there right now, most likely (I'm @aspires).

IRC is an amazing way to communicate with customers in real time to either debug problems or talk shop. You'll get some of your best feature requests and product insights from the users who take the time to chat with you. Also, Fastly has reached a critical mass where customers are helping other customers. That's amazing, but it's not unique to us. It’s happened at every company I've seen with a maintained IRC room.

Easy onboarding

IRC helps us scale in another way. When we're working closely with customers, we can set up rooms for the customer quickly and get down to work without a lot of overhead. Customer onboarding for major infrastructure changes needs to be faster and smoother than email, but not as time-consuming and cumbersome as a conference call. IRC offered an ideal, asynchronous communication tool that only chat can provide.

We later found that when customers helped other customers in IRC, a lot of shared knowledge wasn't getting logged in a reusable way. So, we recently launched a Discourse-powered community forum to help keep the interesting use cases and shared knowledge in an indexed location.

Fastly also has a lot of unique workflow-improving tools for our specific circumstances. Some are built right into our ticketing system, and others live in a central location outside of the ticketing system. Nearly every support team has them, so this isn't a big surprise. But I do recommend building these as early as possible. A great support toolset, combined with comprehensive documentation, will scale your support organization more than you think. (It's also fun to blow off some steam hacking on an internal tool that will get real use.)

Pager duty

Another tool we use heavily at Fastly is our pager system. That's right, support carries a pager. It's a follow-the-sun rotation with our London office, which eliminates the burden of being woken up. It originally started as a way to track who would field tickets over the weekends, but we've applied the rotation to different tasks. For example, we give Premium Support customers an emergency trigger email, which pages our support team. This also means that if there's an issue that needs support assistance, our engineering teams have the ability to page us.

A dedicated department

Fastly started out with engineering answering tickets directly. It was a great process that helped fine-tune our initial product set in the best way possible. Fastly was able to make this scale further than most. With the techniques and tools previously outlined, Fastly engineering was able to operate for almost two years without a dedicated support organization.

But, as ticket load increased, and as teams across Fastly began to specialize, it was time to build a real support team. Fastly has structured support as part of a larger organization called customer engineering, responsible for the entire customer onboarding and lifecycle process. This includes sales engineering, support, documentation, and professional services. Some teams call this "customer success," but the result is the same — support is factored into the entire business process, rather than operating as an outside team.

Fastly officially started the customer engineering team in mid-2013 with support as the primary responsibility, but the team took on sales engineering work that was previously done by the founders and a few early employees. At the time of writing, Fastly's customer engineering team has nearly 20 people divided among our San Fancisco, London, and New York City offices.

Team structure

It's important to address team structure — not just how our support organization is structured, but how we interact with the rest of the company.

Customer engineering is a first-class organization at Fastly that actively works with all teams to ensure a high-quality customer experience. We have the resources we need to grow and make decisions for the good of the customer, and because we're structured to address the entire customer cycle, we can have real impact on customer happiness and product perception.

The customer engineering organization is also included in the product development process. We don't lead roadmap discussions, but we do get copied on projects as they progress. Because we're looped in regularly, we're set up for success; when products ship, it's not a surprise — we've done the necessary work to be ready for go-live. Because of this, we're better prepared to manage inevitable bug reports and customer issues after ship.

This is critical for good support and happy customers — simply looping your support team in on the development process early will make your ships significantly more successful than pushing features without communication.

Our support workflow

Fastly's process for solving tickets with other departments is also unique. Typically, support organizations operate on their own island, where they either cannot escalate a ticket to product engineering for assistance (the common startup scenario), or where they escalate a ticket to a magical "next level," never to see it again (the common big company scenario). Neither of these is ideal. You're either building a system where customers run into barriers and red tape, or a system where support pushes the buck to other people.

Fastly intentionally structures its support workflow in the following way for escalating and interacting with other teams:

  1. New ticket comes in.

  2. Support claims the ticket and starts investigating.

  3. Support comes to a point where another team needs to weigh in.

  4. Support assigns the ticket to the team's group in the ticketing system (support is still copied on the ticket).

  5. The assigned team is now responsible for providing an answer, update, or response on to the ticket thread.

  6. Someone from the assigned team weighs in, possibly responding to the customer directly.

  7. Support takes the ticket back, and continues solving the issue. At this point, if necessary, support repeats step #4.

  8. Support resolves the issue with the customer.

  9. Support starts the documentation process as needed.

It's a little more involved than other organizations, but the important steps here are #5 and #7. When support assigns a ticket to another group, such as ops, finance, legal, neteng, etc., that team works to get an update as soon as they reasonably can. Once that team weighs in, it’s support's job to take the feedback, relay it in a meaningful way to the customer, ultimately resolve the issue, and create documentation (if appropriate).

Our technical teams have been experimenting with an "on call" rotation for interfacing with other teams on pressing issues. Fastly just happened to use pager shifts like this to structure other aspects of the business, so it made sense to build support (and other teams) into the shift process for communications. You may need a different system, but the main point is this: great support teams need to have a codified way to work with the rest of the company in a way that doesn't distract or derail daily work.

If support isn't included in the final process of shipping products, and if your support organization doesn't have a respected way to pull in other teams to help solve customer problems, you're hindering your efforts to build and scale the quality of support you offer. The people who end up suffering are your customers and users.

This piece definitely got more into the trenches of planning, team management, and the actual process of growing support. So if you have any follow-up questions, let me know in the comments or on Twitter at @austinspires.

Read Part 4 of the series to learn about how we built training processes for our support team.

Austin Spires
Sr. Director of Product Management

7 min read

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Austin Spires
Sr. Director of Product Management

Austin Spires is Sr. Director of Product Management at Fastly, where he focuses on user experience. He’s been working on developer tools and customer happiness for five years, and frequently speaks at conferences and meetups. Before Fastly, Austin worked in sales and support at GitHub, where he helped lead customer onboarding. Originally from Texas, Austin plays a mean bass and likes drinking cheap beer.

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