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AI help desk software frees IT ops to take on SRE skills

A financial services company will retrain its help desk staff to be app developers and SREs, while AI handles the grunt work for the company's call center employees.

Software-based automation of menial tasks will pave the way for more meaningful work among IT ops pros at a financial services company.

Until 2018, IT ops teams at Freedom Financial Network, a 17-year-old financial services company focused on consumer debt reduction, were largely focused on help desk tasks for the company's 2,200 call center employees. The company had also made some progress in cloud migration and the adoption of Agile and DevOps practices, but wanted to take a more automated approach to its everyday IT tasks and rethink how it assigned its employees.

"Having people do application support and begin SRE training changes the game versus paying people $22 an hour to answer the phone and open ServiceNow tickets," said Mark Tonnesen, CIO at Freedom Financial, headquartered in San Mateo, Calif.

Tonnesen said he briefly considered AI help desk features from ServiceNow and AIOps software from Moogsoft, but heard word-of-mouth recommendations from other CIOs about a stealth startup called Moveworks. The company, officially launched in April 2019, was founded by former Google employees that specialized in natural language processing at the web giant.

The SaaS-based Moveworks AI help desk software integrates with Slack, Microsoft Teams and other ChatOps services, along with email. It interacts with Freedom Financial's call center employees through chatbots and email conversations, and processes their help desk requests through an AI-driven probabilistic decision engine.

"There are a lot of help desk automation tools on the market that do things like password resets," Tonnesen said. "But they usually still require people on the back end."

Since it implemented Moveworks in 2018, Freedom Financial has automated between 15% and 20% of its help desk tasks, and hopes to automate 25% to 30% by the end of 2019. At the same time, it will rework its IT ops teams and retrain them.

AI help desk only the first step in complex SRE transition

IT pros at Freedom Financial have already begun to dig into SRE work. A small team of three former software engineers and one ops-focused systems engineer are building an automated application deployment platform in Google Cloud Platform with tools such as Chef and Ansible, along with Docker containers. These SREs support application development for the company's customer-facing apps, which added SMS and chat support for call center employees and SMS-based payment support for consumers.

Mark Tonnesen, CIO at Freedom FinancialMark Tonnesen

Over the next six months, Freedom Financial will retrain 14 more IT service desk staff -- some as SREs, others to support corporate apps such as Salesforce, and the rest as application developers, Tonnesen said. He also plans to use Moveworks data analysis to identify the most common reasons for help desk requests so that SREs can address their causes long-term.

Having people do application support and begin SRE training changes the game versus paying people $22 an hour to answer the phone and open ServiceNow tickets.
Mark TonnesenCIO, Freedom Financial Network

But while AI help desk software frees up IT employees who would otherwise spend all their time putting out fires, it can't help Freedom Financial with its toughest task -- retraining employees.

"I wish there was a better mechanism for training," Tonnesen said. Freedom Financial puts engineers two at a time through a three-week training program, then embeds them with product teams to learn on the job. Unlike larger companies with thousands of engineers, Freedom can't justify a formalized year-round training program.

SREs are particularly difficult to train from the ground up, Tonnesen said.

"It's hard to find people that really understand what it means," he said. "And we can't afford to have an IBM-style three-year internship rotation."

Meanwhile, Freedom Financial also plans to roll out Moveworks software in its call center environment for call center employees to use to service customers. Eventually, Tonnesen wants to use AI software to automate back-end business functions such as HR and facility services.

"We'd like Moveworks to evolve to support more channels of communications, such as reports and payments systems," he said.

In the wider market, IT pros have many choices for AI help desk tools, and that number is only growing. Aside from ServiceNow's native help desk automation and AIOps products from Moogsoft, BigPanda, ManageEngine and others, vendors such as Spoke, IPsoft, Zendesk and Freshdesk also offer Moveworks alternatives.

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