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Using APIs to Change the Role of the Telecom Department

Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.
-- John F. Kennedy

My job puts me in front of the telephony departments of small, medium, large, and even gargantuan companies on a very regular basis. Not being tied to any specific industry, I speak to call center outsourcers, manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, healthcare providers, and just about any vertical you can think of. While they all have unique aspects as to how they deliver services within and outside of the company walls, I run into the same concerns, fears, and visions for the future. Every telecom manager wants to provide a rich set of reliable, flexible, fast, and powerful features at the lowest cost. Rarely seen as profit centers, communications technology budgets are closely monitored and the little fat that might exist is quickly trimmed and consumed by other departments within the organizations.

Unfortunately, this model doesn't always lead to the most cutting-edge or forward-thinking solutions. Business units often play a huge part in directing the technology the telecom department invests in. That doesn't mean that they get to pick and choose brands and model numbers. Instead, they say they want something that does this and IT departments get to figure out how to deliver that.

That's not to say that this is a totally flawed system. Technology decisions should be made on the basis of what the business units need to make the company profitable. I would never suggest that technology for the sake of technology is the right way to run a business.

However, this top-down approach can lead to stale thinking, and decisions are too often based on "what do we already know." No one wants to get fired for picking the "wrong" product, and so telephony solutions limp along using the same old technologies.

Think back ten years ago. Who would have thought that Microsoft and Apple would play such big parts in the way we communicate? Sure, Microsoft was fiddling around with Live Communication Server (LCS), but that was hardly a replacement for the products offered by Nortel, Avaya, Siemens, and the other top communications vendors of the time. And while Apple had announced that they were working on what would eventually become the iPhone, it wasn't anything you could go out and buy at that point.

Today's a different story. Apple is a dominant player in the world of mobile communications, and Microsoft is winning over new enterprises every single day. I can mention Lync in every single meeting I attend and never do I get a deer-in-the-headlights look. People know what Lync is, and chances are high that they've worked with it in some form or another.

Sadly, that's not the case with a lot of the bedrock communications technologies. Specifically, it's not the case when I speak to IT departments about SIP trunks to and from the PSTN.

I can stand before every telecom professional in the Unites States and say AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, and Sprint, and they know exactly who I am talking about. However, if I bring up SIP and service providers such as Flowroute, 8x8, Nextiva, or Twilio, I am guaranteed that one or more (and usually more) people in the room will not know who I am talking about. In fact, just today I was speaking with a large healthcare equipment manufacturer and was asked to spell Twilio. Granted Twilio has only been around since 2007, and AT&T can trace its roots back to the 1800s and Alexander Graham Bell -- but remember, who knew about the iPhone before 2007? Other than Steve Jobs, no one.

Lest you think that I have something against the legacy vendors, I do not. I have no problem working with the likes of Level 3 and Verizon, but I would love for folks to open their eyes to these newer service providers. I want them to be willing to look at solutions possible from the likes of Twilio and Flowroute that may not be available from the old school companies.

Specially, I want IT departments to consider the flexibility that these new solutions bring to the table. For me, that means exploring the application programming interfaces (APIs) that may only exist when you work with the new kids on the block.

All this brings me back to what I previously discussed. When business units drive the conversation, the topic of APIs rarely comes up. In fact, there is a good chance that many of these people don't even know what an API is, let alone how they can be used to create powerful solutions customized to meet the needs of the enterprise. Their jobs are to make money and not write software.

This is where the IT and telecom people need to step in and help reframe the discussion. When the business unit asks for more customer interactions, don't immediately think bandwidth in and out of the enterprise. Think about how APIs and the applications built on them can get in the middle of workflows that optimize the customer experience. When the contact center team asks you to support SMS text messages, think cloud and text automation. When they want to improve agent performance, think pre-processing logic built into Web pages. Better yet, head them off at the pass and educate the business units as to what is possible and what they are missing. No, that doesn't mean you have to teach them how to write RESTful Web services calls, but they do need to understand the fundamental features they enable.

This requires everyone to step out of their comfort zones and learn what has occurred in the past five to ten years. Explore the cloud and platform-as-a-service (PaaS) offerings from Zang and RingCentral. Kick the API tires of Twilio and Flowroute. Find out what 8x8 is doing with IVR. Take the time to uncover the other players in these spaces that I haven't even bothered to mention. You may be surprised at how much is there for you to play with.

There is no rule that requires a telecom department to wait for the business units to speak up. Instead, the power of APIs and these new breed of service providers should be inserted into business planning discussions as early as possible.

Andrew Prokop writes about all things unified communications on his popular blog, SIP Adventures.

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