Escalation engineers are the most experienced and senior technical members of Microsoft's Product Support Services (PSS) team. Last week, I talked with Bob Ward, an escalation engineer with Microsoft's SQL Server PSS team, about how PSS works, the role of a SQL Server PSS escalation engineer, and the state of SQL Server support. In this special edition of SQL Server Magazine UPDATE, I share Ward's explanation of how PSS works. In the regular edition of UPDATE, which will arrive in your email Thursday, I'll pass along some best practices that Ward wishes SQL Server customers would adhere to.

Many customers are surprised at the depth of technical expertise that exists in the PSS group. Ward, for example, has been with Microsoft since 1993, when he joined a newly formed support team in the Dallas area. Before joining Microsoft, he spent close to 10 years working on UNIX and other database platforms, including Informix, Sybase, and Ingres. Although Ward at first was concerned about leaving the UNIX world to work on SQL Server, which was a relatively low-end platform at the time compared to its UNIX competitors, he was intrigued by the opportunity to learn the internals of a database engine. And Microsoft convinced him that SQL Server was an up-and-coming platform destined for big things in the database world.

PSS team members' skills go well beyond the ability to answer simple questions for phone-in customers and to write an occasional Knowledge Base article. Ward says he and fellow escalation engineers frequently have detailed interactions with SQL Server developers in Redmond as they struggle with thorny decisions about the product. Escalation engineers have full access to SQL Server source code and are master developers in their own right. Direct access to source code lets PSS troubleshoot, isolate, and solve almost any customer problem. These skills also let PSS play an important role in the SQL Server product-development life cycle. Intimate knowledge of the source code coupled with interactions with thousands of SQL Server customers lets PSS help the product's developers better understand what does and doesn't work in the field.

You might think your support call about a specific problem is pretty insignificant to Microsoft in the grand scheme of things, but Ward says Microsoft uses call records to compile a comprehensive list of support trends. Analyzing these trends lets Microsoft keep its finger on the pulse of the global SQL Server community. The company uses this information, for example, to allocate resources for writing white papers and articles that address the most common user needs. PSS also shares trend information with the development team as it considers new features for future versions of SQL Server. Microsoft often incorporates new product features based on feedback that the PSS organization gathers.

The SQL Server PSS team is also set up to quickly engage escalation engineers during a normal support call. I always assumed that escalation engineers such as Ward probably spent their time working almost exclusively on calls from companies who've shelled out big bucks for a premier PSS support contract. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that escalation engineers regularly participate in typical PSS calls such as the ones that you and I make. Ward says that escalation engineers spend a fair amount of time every day in triage meetings reviewing outstanding support calls. Microsoft's call-review triage system lets Ward and his colleagues quickly find calls that are difficult to solve and that they might be able to add immediate value to. Escalation engineers sometimes interject themselves into a support case even before the original PSS member asks for their help. Ward says that Microsoft has rigid goals for the rapid resolution of PSS calls, and senior engineers are committed to ensuring that these goals are met.

According to Ward, PSS's role has evolved over the years. In the early days of support, most customer cases were in the "break-fix" category: The customer "broke" something in his database or SQL Server had a bug, and the purpose of the call was to fix that specific problem. But Ward says that today many calls are more architectural in nature, with customers asking how to use SQL Server to accomplish specific tasks. This change has directed PSS into a more proactive support organization. PSS still spends plenty of time answering customer phone calls, but the group also creates new technical self-help content that can help customers avoid problems.

The SQL Server PSS site is one of the most comprehensive portals for SQL Server technical information. The direct link is http://support.microsoft.com/default.aspx?scid=fh;EN-US;sql , but you can quickly navigate to the SQL Server PSS site from the main PSS site at http://support.microsoft.com ; just follow the links from the "Product Support Centers — Support Information and FAQs by Product" option. You'll find a wealth of valuable technical information about SQL Server that will provide hours of enjoyment the next time you're stuck inside on a rainy day. And be sure to read SQL Server Magazine UPDATE on Thursday to learn which best practices the SQL Server PSS escalation engineers wish we'd follow.