VoIP projects need engineer cooperation

The thorniest worry of voice-over-IP project managers remains getting voice and data engineers to work effectively together on VoIP rollouts, several managers said at last week's VoiceCon 2005 conference.

As VoIP projects gain in popularity, more companies are seeing the need to bring traditional telecommunications managers into planning and implementation discussions with data network engineers, but the cultures are at odds, corporate IT managers said.

When a VoIP implementation starts, "the room divides and the voice and data teams start throwing grenades," said Craig Hinkley, senior vice president for network architecture at Bank of America in Charlotte, N.C., where a project is under way to provide VoIP to 180,000 users over the next three years.

Allan Rubin, manager of network engineering at Delta Air Lines in Atlanta, said a recently completed VoIP global call center implementation serving 8,000 agents in 17 locations taught him that voice and data engineers must at least report to a common management group.

"If the voice and data groups don't report in the same place, you face a lot of high hurdles," Rubin said. "You have to take the traditional voice and data people and lock them in a room some place."

David Stever, manager of communication technology services at PPL Services, a power company in Allentown, Pa., knows the need as well. He said a VoIP team of voice and data engineers was formed by actually having the workers sit in the same office area, with their cubicles interspersed. Ultimately, the entire VoIP group located into a new office, further cementing the relationships.

Analysts and users at VoiceCon said the focus on the people and politics of putting together VoIP teams for implementations shows that VoIP has moved well beyond the trial stage to full-blown implementations, showing the focus is on how to best do the work.

In addition to bringing the two workgroups together for physical meetings and workspaces, VoIP managers suggested setting up clearly defined roles for the two groups and even cross-training them. The discussions also got into whether job descriptions must be written so the duties are parallel and whether salaries must be at parity, since voice engineers have traditionally earned less than data engineers.

At Bank of America, roles for both groups have been delineated by creating the VoIP Infrastructure Services group and the VoIP Application Services group, Hinkley said. As VoIP projects get implemented, other managers said it might be necessary to keep specialities such as voice or data engineer intact, and even add a third group to handle the full roster of VolP applications, such as integrating voice mail and e-mail.

At PPL, job duties have evolved into three groups, with one for infrastructure, another for higher-level networking functions such as e-mail and voice mail, and a third devoted to operations, Stever said. He said that there might never be a pure job title for VoIP engineer, because engineers will want to retain specializations, while honing their abilities to work on teams with workers of different skills.

Several managers said they have found that training for dealing with end users is especially important for workers who have traditionally been in data networking roles, since they haven't had the end-user contact that voice personnel have.

Janet Smith, a consultant at Janet Smith & Associates in Chapel Hill, N.C., said she converged voice and data teams at an academic medical center where she worked in a prior job and found that the data network workers "never wanted to play by the rules," but found after some problems that the convergence eventually "worked like a charm." The process was not without headaches, she added during a birds-of-a-feather discussion by IT managers.

"Some days, if I'd had a gun, I would have shot them all," she said laughingly.

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