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How I Upgraded 50 Facilities to Cloud-Based Voice

Last year, my director asked me to select and upgrade 50 of our facilities to a cloud-based VoIP solution. We’d had some experience with cloud-based voice solutions, having had trialed various vendors and having acquired some through mergers, and were ready for this next step.

But before I launch into my deployment story, let me tell you a bit about myself.

Who I Am

Fairly fresh out of the military in the late ‘90s, I found myself back in school and exploring career options in IT. An internship I landed turned into a permanent job as an IT tech supporting computers. I earned my Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer certification -- back when we were running Windows NT -- and then took a bunch of Avaya classes and became the “phone guru.”

Twenty years later, I’m with this same company, a Fortune 500 enterprise, as senior voice architect (actually, I’m the only voice architect but shhh, that’s just between us). I have much to be thankful for in my career here. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to dozens of offices, from coast to coast, building and supporting our voice systems, rightsizing services, reducing costs, and training personnel. I’ve managed mergers and divestitures; migrated multiple intercontinental private lines across the country; built an enterprise fax solution, then outsourced it 12 years later; and installed our first VoIP call center.

Fast-forward to 2018, and I found myself facing the cloud-based VoIP goal with all eyes on me. I say “me” because my department was downsized several years ago. We went from a voice department of nine, down to two, then one. Over time, the company merged my department with our network engineering department, and outsourced telecom expense management (TEM) and first-level help desk functions to a third party.

Cloud VoIP Project: Three Goals

After a few years of dabbling in cloud-based VoIP, my company selected a go-forward solution and, as I noted in the opening, directed me to upgrade 50 of our facilities (roughly 3,000 handsets) this year. The goals were to reduce operating cost, provide greater reliability, and improve support.

From small sales offices to large manufacturing plants, our facilities vary in size from two up to about 500 employees. Infrastructure varies from modern Cat 6 cabling with perfectly-labeled patch panels and shiny Power over Ethernet switches to faded and brittle 66 blocks under layers of warehouse dust and grime and serial ties to the telco demarc nowhere near the data center.

Needless to say, I knew that I had my work cut out for me.

Question: How do you eat an elephant?

Answer: One bite at a time.

Assembling My Team

Successful projects don’t happen in a vacuum. While I might be the only employee in my cost center, I still had a team to lean on. Each member listed below is an important stakeholder, whether they realize it or not -- and I stress this fact early in my kickoff calls.

In no particular order, here are my partners for this VoIP migration project:

TEM Vendor -- I used our TEM vendor to gather general operating costs at the launch of the project. Then I returned to the vendor on a regular basis for bill copies and customer service records. Finally, the TEM vendor reconciled the initial bill for the new cloud-based VoIP service against the quote of each site.

Field IT -- Field IT participation is critical. We have more than 100 IT personnel in the field -- our eyes and ears and boots on the ground. They’re also our liaison with the business -- our customer. The good ones see the big picture. They understand the value of the project and help point out potential hurdles in advance. The great ones read the material l provide and work proactively.

Network Engineer -- A great network engineer is critical to a successful VoIP deployment. Just like a concrete foundation is essential when building a house, a solid network is critical to supporting VoIP. Our network architect sets the standards, then our network engineers assembled a process we could repeat for each site. That said, not every site was a simple “wash, rinse, and repeat.” The network engineer and I had to adapt to and overcome various challenging environments several times.

Voice Vendor Project Manager -- We were able to negotiate a project manager into the deal with our cloud-based provider. Already having had experience rolling out cloud-based solutions with a few different providers, I can say that having a seasoned project manager on the vendor side was definitely helpful. As my telco point of contact, she was able to head off potential issues before they evolved into problems. She was my second set of eyes to ensure thoroughness of my cut sheets. She was the liaison with the local number portability group, the engineers, the designers, and so on. She was invaluable!

The Business -- Getting a business representative from each facility to participate in the project was a challenge. Some held the notion that these VoIP migrations were strictly IT projects and they shouldn’t be bothered with the details. This is where many IT folks need to come out of their shells, and shine. It’s time to exercise those communication skills; bridge the gap between the business and IT; and make a compelling argument that input from the business is crucial to ensure that we shape their new communications system to help them drive efficiencies. Once I made my pitch, some quickly jumped on board and helped out. They were excited to come into the 21st century with their communications system and equally happy that I was going to pay for it. Others required more guidance, and sometimes I needed to hold their hands through the process and drag them along kicking and screaming. And if stakeholders didn’t come around quickly enough, I let them know that I’d take their locations off the migration list and move on -- and I had a formal process for how this went down, as discussed below.

Voice Vendor Technicians -- Per terms of our contract, vendor-provided techs were responsible for unboxing, testing, and installing the phones. This was an extremely valuable contract term, especially in remote locations that lacked field IT personnel.

Me -- I’m a blend of a telecom director, architect, and project manager all wrapped into one.