VoIP Mind Meld

FRAMINGHAM (03/02/2000) - The coming convergence of voice and data isn't so much a merger of equals as a takeover, with the net heads on the rough-and-tumble data side firmly in the driver's seat. To the Bell heads on the more orderly and civilized voice side, it's as if the inmates are taking over the asylum. But any organizational shakeup provides opportunities, and enterprising voice professionals are getting ready to seize them.

IT executives view the Bell heads as junior partners in the transition, with the voice world being subsumed by the data side. Voice professionals are regarded as less technologically savvy, and reporting and salary structures tend to reflect this assessment. Meta Group Inc. studies show that data professionals get paid 20 percent to 30 percent more than their voice counterparts, and for far less experience.

In reality, both sides are underestimating each other and have valuable expertise to contribute.

Rush Presbyterian St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago is implementing voice over ATM at five remote sites and is also evaluating Cisco Systems Inc.'s voice-over-IP products. "When you replace regular phones with IP phones, the voice features have to be translated to the data equipment, and it's going to take a lot of collaboration," says Prasad Ravi, director of networks and telecommunications.

Ravi is sending his voice staffers to TCP/IP and voice-over-IP classes, and is having them evaluate IP telephony products.

Rob White, vice president of telecommunications for Home Shopping Network in St. Petersburg, Florida, says, "I am training my telecom installers in data, but I also require my senior data people to learn the voice systems." White sees an opportunity to reduce staffing costs by making better use of certain types of voice specialists.

"Telephone installers get paid half of what a LAN installer gets, and there are a lot more of them," White says. "If we train them, we should see prices go down."

The training isn't that difficult, according to IT professionals whose careers have spanned both sides of the house.

"The biggest problem we are running into is a fear factor on the part of the voice people -- a flame that data people sometimes try to fan," says Wendy Noel, telecommunications specialist for NOVA Chemicals in Pittsburgh. "Out I look at them and think, I was running networks before you were out of diapers, so don't tell me I can't do it."

In fact, voice folks should look forward to the new order with confidence. Data engineers tend to be one-trick ponies who can only discuss one aspect of the network, while voice people are generalists. "It's easier for us to embrace the data world because we've always had to be more flexible," Noel says.

People skills are another strength that telecom professionals can take advantage of.

"A lot of data people have never had to deal with a user before," says Elizabeth Ussher, a program director for Meta Group in Atlanta. The voice people have a customer-service type of mindset that sets them apart from the data side.

NOVA Chemicals has been able to use this mindset as teams of data and voice people work together to develop telecommuting and mobile-computing plans for users who don't have an IT staff on site. "The data engineers come up with all this whiz-bang technology, but it's the voice people who provide the reality check and make sure that ordinary people can use it," Noel says.

While convergence won't happen overnight, now is the time to prepare for it.

Professional organizations such as the International Nortel Networks Meridian User Group (INNMUG) provide a good place for voice workers to get started.

"I've been involved with INNMUG for 10 years, and this experience has helped me improve my leadership and presentation skills and strategic thinking," says Jean Wilson, telecommunications director for Vistana Resorts in Orlando and an INNMUG director. "There is so much information you acquire from networking with others that you can't get in a classroom."

Likewise, Meta Group's Ussher advises companies to bring their voice and data people together in brown-bag lunch meetings.

"We have an aggressive education program, and weve been cross-training voice technicians and moving them over into the data engineering group," says Virgil Palmer, director of global communications and networking services for Air Products & Chemicals in Allentown, Pa.

Switch vendors and carriers sometimes offer free courses on TCP/IP and voice-over-IP, while training firms, colleges and universities offer more extensive instruction. Also, INNMUG and other professional groups host conferences that include educational programs.

Finally, Bell heads can supplement their training with some hands-on experience. Home Shopping Network's White recommends experimenting with a small IP-based voice system. Evaluation units are often available free from vendors.

Breidenbach is a consultant and freelance writer in San Mateo, Calif. She can be reached at sbreide@aol.com.

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