It's not always easy to hold someone's hand from across a network, but Radha Basu and her company, Support.com (formerly Tioga Systems), have hit upon a way to help the help desk, by allowing tech-support staff to diagnose troubles remotely. Support.com is a pioneer in the newly dubbed e-support business -- and Basu, the president and CEO, is a pioneer in her own right.
As a young girl in India, Basu rebelled against the wishes of her parents and secretly enrolled in the engineering program at the University of Madras when she was 15. After graduating with honors, she foiled her mother's best-laid marriage plans by jetting off to the United States for graduate school. In her mid-20s, Basu joined Hewlett-Packard Laboratories, and became the first woman ever to lead an R&D project there.
Twenty years later, Basu was heading up HP's 1,400-person e-business software department when she called it quits to join a new start-up. Basu plans to shake up the way companies think about their customer support. And it's a field where she thinks women have an edge.
The number of senior women executives certainly has increased significantly in recent years, along with the growth of e-commerce. Do you see a relationship?
I certainly do. I think the Internet is a medium that rectifies a lot of inequities. You have 22-year-olds launching companies, you have women achieving very senior positions in a short period of time. And that's all quite different from the more entrenched brick-and-mortar world.
Do you think that's because Internet companies tend to be run by younger executives?
That's part of it, but what I think is even more important is that the whole Internet phenomenon is very customer-focused. And one of the things about women is that we're able to look at customer needs, be appreciative of them and develop cooperative, win-win relationships.
What do you see as your most immediate challenge?
Today, what I really lose sleep over has to do with building the company from a scalability point of view. That may not sound very sexy, but I believe if you want to be involved in the Internet infrastructure for the long term, you have to make the necessary investments to scale your operations and ensure the reliability and predictability of your services.
That sounds suspiciously like corporate IT thinking. Is that your principal focus at the moment?
Well, corporate tech support is an important market. But you also have to bear in mind what e-support means to our customers -- and the relationships they have with their customers. Often the only contact point the customer has with the vendor is the "support analyst." And that's especially true if you sell on the Web.
So I believe you're going to find that support becomes an increasingly important area in terms of helping our customers differentiate themselves from the competition. We can't think of customer support as just being technical support, because it's also becoming the focal point for interacting with customers.
You've said your goal is to make Support.com the Inktomi of support sites. Can you explain what you mean by that?
After leaving H.P., I consulted with Inktomi for a while and I really admire the company. They provide the infrastructure behind most of the successful destination portals. They're the traffic cops and it's their search engine and caching technology that makes that whole thing go. So in the same way, I'd like Support.com to become the infrastructure behind every Internet support portal, every intranet support portal, and every extranet support portal.
What do you offer to help make that happen?
Our DNA Probe [technology] lets us provide technical support to any computer user anywhere on the network. Since desktop systems and the applications they run can be configured in many different ways, it's vital that the help desk be able to look at how a system has been put together before it tries to troubleshoot. The DNA Probe makes that possible by going out to discover the application's state, the way that state is managed and the configuration dependencies that have to be accounted for. That's the first step. And on the basis of that, the DNA Probe creates a real-time map of the system. That means that at any time, on any trigger, we can go out and create that map. Then we can use it to diagnose the problem.
And once we've got that handled, there's a healing component within the DNA Probe that automatically fixes problems. So that gives you automated discovery, diagnosis and healing -- and all of it over the Web.
"Healing" sounds like a great idea, and it's a term that PC manufacturers are throwing around a lot these days. But exactly what does it mean?
I think what's happening is that PCs aren't even commodities anymore. They're getting dangerously close to being giveaways. So now PC manufacturers are getting into the business of offering managed PC services. Micron is one example. In fact, their managed PC service is called Connectedsupport.com. And they use our technology to deliver that. For them, it's a means of survival. And self-healing in that case means that customers are able to help themselves to the information and support services they need.
I believe that for subscription computing [where hardware is sold for a monthly fee] to be successful, support has to be an integral part of the offering. I cannot believe that any consumer would sign up unless they could be assured of good, solid e-support as part of the deal.
Given the accelerated depreciation cycles for computers, I wonder if it even makes sense to buy hardware anymore.
I agree. Certainly, I don't want to buy hardware. I just want to get the service I need -- with the knowledge that in six months, if the hardware needs to be upgraded, the vendor will go ahead and handle that for me.
For now, though, the vendors that have embraced the subscription model seem to be targeting small businesses. Why not larger organizations as well?
Actually, I think we're already beginning to see some evidence of that. Some of our larger customers -- companies like Computer Sciences Corporation and Compaq -- are becoming service providers not just to small and medium-sized businesses, but to large corporations as well. And within those corporations, I think you'll soon see that their IT departments start to use the service-provider model to improve the delivery of internal support.
Do you see Support.com doing some evangelizing?
Yes. We've worked enough with the earliest ITSPs [information technology service providers] to know what's required there. And I expect we'll continue to be one of the leading enablers in that space. But we're very clear that our job is to provide Internet infrastructure for support. So we're not just about to eat our own children by setting up destination portals and acting as a service provider ourselves. I know that it's sexy to be in the destination portal business and to be branded. But I think that competing with your own customers is not the way to build long-term, stable growth.
Word has it that you decided to leave your 20-year career at H.P. while trekking in the Himalayas. Looking back, would you say the higher elevation allowed you to see more clearly? Or were you just oxygen-deprived?
I'd like to believe it was the pull of the mountains -- being able to step back and look at things in a spiritual context. But maybe the lack of oxygen helped, too.