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Celebrating the Terra Frontline Support team

As we head into the holiday week here in the US, I’d like to take a moment to give thanks to one of the Terra teams whose role is as essential as it is often unsung: Frontline Support. They are the helpful folks who staff the helpdesk and forum; they troubleshoot technical issues, provide advice, dig up links to relevant resources, and collect feedback from users who are experiencing, shall we say, the highs and lows of cloud computing.

In those moments of direct interaction with individual users, our support staff members represent all of us, and they often create lasting impressions that help shape people’s overall user experience. I’m proud to say that if the helpdesk logs are anything to go by, the team is doing a fantastic job. 

Here’s a sampling of responses from Terra users who were asked about their experience with the helpdesk: 

“One thing that amazed me is the support people. They helped me a lot, in a very short time, and with such patience!”

“The advice provided was given friendly, quickly and to the point.”

“I really love the support that I get from the Terra team!”

This is both heartwarming and no accident: it’s the result of hard work by competent people who care, guided by effective support policies (known as Service Level Agreements, or SLAs). 

As an example, the Terra support SLAs say you should expect a first response to any query to the helpdesk in under 4 business hours, and full resolution in under 8 business hours (not counting the time the support person has to wait for a response from the user if there’s some back and forth discussion). Full resolution means you get a definitive answer, even if that answer is “that’s not possible yet but we’ll file a feature request” or “this is a bug, we filed a ticket for engineering to fix it, and here’s how to get around the problem in the meantime”.

In practice, the team’s median first response time is about 1 business hour, and full resolution (minus wait time) is under 4 business hours. More complex issues that require escalation to engineering specialists typically take longer, but most reach full resolution within a few days. Over the past six months, they’ve beaten their SLA targets consistently over 90% of the time, and 95% of surveyed users report being satisfied with the support they received.  

(Hot tip: The best time to ask for help is 2 pm ET on a Wednesday; the worst is 5 pm ET on a Friday to absolutely no one’s surprise)


How are they so good? 

The Frontline Support team is masterfully orchestrated by Tiffany Miller, who previously served as a product manager, did a stint as a support specialist herself, and is now an Associate Director overseeing Frontline Support and User Education (which covers documentation, workshops and the like). Armed with a keen operational mindset and first-hand experience of what it’s like to work in Terra, Tiffany has assembled a team of support specialists, engineers and interns who are smart, dedicated and passionate about helping researchers achieve their goals. 

Also, they’re absolutely lovely people. I mean, just look at them. 


From left to right: Beri Shifaw (Lead Support Engineer), Jason Cerrato (Supervisor), Genevieve Brandt (Product Support Specialist – GATK), Tiffany Miller (Assoc. Dir.), Anika Das (Intern), Pamela Bretscher (Intern), Samantha Velasquez (Product Support Specialist); photoshopped in, front right: Emil Furat (Intern)


But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s another sample of responses from the helpdesk logs that bear witness to the quality of the support they are providing to Terra users, on an individual basis. 

“Samantha wasn’t only knowledgeable and courteous, she was responding within a very short time and went above and beyond to educate me about new and practical options in Terra.”

“Emil’s support to me was outstanding: prompt, clear, and efficient. A true pleasure to work with him.”

“Jason is top notch! Always providing help, explainable, timely manner!”

“Pamela answered all of my questions quickly and effectively, thank you very much”

“Anika’s responses were very prompt. After a few exchanges, she was able to point out the underlying problem. Great work!”

“Genevieve is always super helpful and responds in a timely fashion. Thanks for the support.”

Every one of them demonstrates their commitment to the team’s values: they are efficient, helpful, and importantly, they are kind. People who are reaching out to the helpdesk of any software service tend to be confused, frustrated, stressed; sometimes there are language barriers, or even just technical jargon creating misunderstandings. Under those circumstances, it takes a lot of patience, empathy and communication savvy in addition to “pure” technical skill to resolve issues in a way that leaves everyone feeling better. 


After nearly 10 years working in this space, I still can’t tell for sure whether that empathy comes from the lived experience of helping people figure things out day in, day out, or whether it’s an innate quality of those who are successful in these roles. (Why not both?)

What I do know is that product support specialists carry the experience of working directly with users to other roles. For example, Beri Shifaw (pictured taking the group selfie) has moved on to lead what we call Tier 3 support; he no longer responds directly to tickets, but investigates escalated issues as a Support Engineer, alongside consultant Nestor Moreno and engineers from other teams as needed. Yet he still cares every bit about the person behind the ticket as when he worked the frontline, and he communicates this user-first attitude to everyone he works with in the broader Terra engineering group. 

Finally, you may have noticed from the photo caption above that some of our support staff members are interns — visiting undergraduates from nearby schools, doing (paid) internships under senior team member Jason Cerrato’s supervision. We’ve been blown away by their professionalism as they’ve risen to the triple challenge of mastering Terra’s technical features, expanding their scientific literacy, and developing their support skills. We fully expect them to carry the many benefits of this experience into their respective careers, and we’re excited to see where they go from here! 

So, once again, a huge thank you to the Frontline Support team on behalf of all the rest of us Terrans. 

And to everyone out there using Terra, thank you for trusting us with your work! Don’t hesitate to reach out if you need any help — Frontline Support has got you covered.


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