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The Reinvention of the Telecom Professional

I can be pretty blunt at times. Case in point: A few years ago I was invited to meet with the telephone administrator for a medium-sized business. I didn't know that much about the communications system she managed, so I did what I always do in those situations. I asked for a tour of the facilities and peppered her with questions about what I saw.

"What version of call processing software are you running? When was the last time you upgraded the processors? Is your firmware up to date. How may IP stations have you rolled out? What's your mobility strategy? Do your users have access to video and instant message?"

Over the years, I have learned to not be terribly surprised when I run across vintage software and hardware, but this particular company was practically in the dark ages. There were far too many analog lines than I cared to count, and they had yet to implement a single IP endpoint.

When I asked her why, her response was this: "My people don't need anything beyond dial tone."

As disappointing as the comment was, the look of pride on her face was even more disturbing. She clearly found great satisfaction in denying her users access to new forms of communication.

As I am apt to do when I encounter people like this, I threw out all decorum, looked her in the eye, and said, "Do you want to have a job in five years? Because at this rate, you haven't much of a future in this industry."

Thankfully, most people have moved beyond analog and digital endpoints, but I continue to run into telecom managers and support personal that have yet to realize that their jobs are not what they used to be back in the day. While PRI, DTMF, and ringtone generators still have their place, the craftsperson that isn't familiar with virtualization, SAN, DNS, and DHCP will soon find his or her bag of tricks deficient in what a modern communications system demands.

Reinventing the Telecom Professional
For a number of years my mantra has been, "Voice is just another form of data that runs on your network." However, I am now finding this to be an inadequate description. More accurately, voice is an integral part of an enterprise's data infrastructure that is delivered through the same sets of servers, management tools, policies, and security guidelines as any other enterprise service.

Okay, that's a mouthful, but communications platforms have evolved to the point where they are not that different from an enterprise's non-voice applications. They share the same requirements in terms of processing, storage, and resiliency. This is true for both premise and cloud-based solutions.

Let's start with my original notion that voice is simply another form of data. Show me a telecom professional who doesn't understand DHCP options, FQDNs, and the difference between Layer-2 and Layer-3 networking, and I will show you a dinosaur. These traditional data networking concepts have become an integral part of the modern communications platform, and not understanding their use and impact will result in poor performance or, even worse, unworkable configurations.

Of course, it doesn't stop there. Telecom professionals need to be well-versed in storage area network (SAN), virtualization, and other technologies which have been traditionally the purview of the server guys and gals. In fact, I want PBX people to stop referring to server people as a separate group of folks. The differences between PBX and server support staff have completely evaporated. As any Zen master worthy of the title will tell you, we are all one.

In many ways, SIP is the great equalizer. Unlike H.323, which lives and breathes voice and video communications, SIP is media-agnostic. A SIP session can certainly be used to set-up a voice conversation, but it can also convey presence, user policy, whiteboarding, text messaging, screen sharing, and something as farfetched as chess moves. Yes, I have seen SIP used to play chess across the Internet.

As SIP and SIP-related technologies are fully adopted, old school gateways and PBX specific hardware will be replaced with virtual services that can live anywhere within an enterprise's private and extended networks. This technology shift requires a set of skills that cannot be labeled as strictly voice or strictly data.

Changes Everywhere
I don't want to sound like I am only picking on the telecom people. This transformation of communications affects many job titles.

I was recently on a call to discuss centralizing SIP trunks for a fairly large enterprise. One of the participants managed the company's data network, and after a fairly lengthy conversation about gateways and TDM telephony, he spoke up and asked, "What is this POTS thing you keep referring to?" So, although he was an expert in spanning tree and shortest path bridging, he wasn't aware that POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) was simply an analog line.

Like the telecom professional, the data guru who doesn't understand quality of service (QoS) requirements for real-time communications or the bandwidth implications of different audio and video codecs will find him- or herself less and less relevant to the modern enterprise.

Challenges/Opportunities Abound
Knowing the difference between a DS0 and DS1 will remain important for some time to come, but even the smartest dial tone jockey in the world cannot rest on his or her laurels. In my 31 years in this industry, I have witnessed enormous upheavals and I expect that by the time I hang up my headphones, a lot of what I know today will seem quaint and outdated.

This constant change is both daunting and invigorating. It's why I am still here and why I still feel completely engaged in my career. It's also why telecom professionals who embrace these changes will not become dinosaurs. The writing is on the wall and it's in a language that everyone must learn to speak.