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When voice over IP made its commercial debut in 1995, networking professionals were excited. Voice engineers who worked on traditional private branch exchange systems were less enthusiastic, however, worrying how their circuit switching skills would -- or wouldn't -- translate into this new era. Many voice engineers stayed in the legacy PBX world through retirement, while others embraced networking and found their dual skills valued.
Below, we share our conversations with three sometime legacy voice professionals: Ben Levitan, an electrical engineer with expertise in mobile systems, standards and protocols and a cellphone expert witness; H. Thomas Veal, a unified communications engineer at V7 Tel/Net Solutions consultancy; and Jim Price, a senior telecommunications engineer at Advance2000, a technology services firm. They offer their views of how the rise of VoIP changed their worlds and the landscape of voice engineering forever, and how they and many of their peers navigated some major career transitions as a result.
How did you get your start as a voice engineer?
Ben Levitan: I went from working on system design of radar systems as a defense contractor for Hughes Aircraft to the telecom world. Over the years, I worked at COMSAT, GTE (which eventually became Verizon), Nextel and Sprint.
H. Thomas Veal: I went to school for business, but worked at NCR Corp. in the early ‘90s as a maintenance biller, trying to get supermarkets to re-up their maintenance contracts. My boss asked me if I'd like to work on the telephone system at NCR, and I was trained in-house -- first on the AT&T switch and then on the Lucent one when they switched over. I didn't know it was a booming industry then; I just thought I'd be doing something [that might help] my future.
Jim Price: I fell into telecom. A father of a friend owned one of the first telephone interconnects, and I drove a truck for them. Eventually, I worked my way inside to project manager, but I was always interested in the technical side. I learned as much as I could. Most of the people that had telecom jobs in those days either had on-the-job training or got training in the military.
What were your responsibilities in the traditional voice world?
Levitan: Everyone was worried about quality of service and whether voice was acceptable for commercial use. As we moved from analog to digital voice, we experimented with sampling. We were trying to get people to determine what was the lowest acceptable sampling rate.
Veal: When I first started, I was a ‘moves, adds and changes' guy. When AT&T bought NCR, I got a job as a lead technician at HP, still working on PBXs.
Price: At that time, project managers were responsible for gathering a database for new installations that had employee names and extensions mapped to the associated cable number. We'd also create pickup groups and hunt groups for departments. Then, when I moved to a position with the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority, I was responsible for daily maintenance of Siemens and NEC switches, including moves, adds and changes.
When did you first encounter voice over IP?
Levitan: In about the mid-'90s, standards committees like the International Telecommunication Union started talking about dropping circuit-switched networks and going to all-IP networks. That's when the anxiety happened for voice engineers. We were aware of IP and the internet, but not experts in it.
Veal: Although voice over IP came on the scene 15 years ago, I didn't get into it until about 10 years ago when I was working for ESPN. I was a PBX guy specializing in Avaya switches, and my boss thought it would be beneficial if I could also do voice over IP when I went out in the field.
Price: The first place I worked with voice over IP was at Alcatel. Although they hired me for my PBX experience, voice over IP arrived a couple years later. I had no choice but to learn it.
How did you learn voice over IP?
Levitan: Like most voice engineers, I learned it incrementally. For instance, rather than jumping into a Cisco class, I learned basic IP. You couldn't just Google IP back then, so I used textbooks from universities to learn about IP addresses and classes of IP. IP was pure digital math rather than the analog work we were used to.
Veal: I took Global Knowledge courses focused on Cisco routing, ICOMM and troubleshooting. I found Cisco very user-friendly.
Price: Voice over IP was difficult for me. I had to learn all about networking, routers and more. It was a whole other world. I took Cisco classes on the OSI model, configuring data switches, virtual LANs and those sorts of things. I found the hardest parts to be learning subnet masks and troubleshooting network issues. I could learn how to configure a switch and connect a bunch of PCs to that data switch, but phones are more sensitive to latency and delay, and I needed to know how to troubleshoot.
Has knowing legacy PBX systems been beneficial to your work in voice over IP?
Veal: Definitely. I led a project for a large insurance company and was responsible for wiring all their Cisco phone systems. A lot of the offices had old PBX systems where you had to take old [plain old telephone service] lines and install circuits into new Cisco systems. Legacy system knowledge was integral to doing well at that phone switchover.
Price: Data people weren't as familiar with carrier services such as Primary Rate Interface or Direct Inward Dialing -- features that would make the experience better. The customers would notice that I was someone who was more in tune with what the PBX needed to do.
What networking pros can learn from legacy PBX pros
Two years ago, TSYS Global Technology Services, a third-party global credit card processor in Columbus, Ga., migrated from a hosted PBX system to an on-premises voice over IP network.
Chris Stalcup, telecommunications engineer lead, worked on that project and helped legacy voice engineers on the team make the transition.
"We wanted to keep those team members onboard, but there was a lot of hesitation among them to take on something new," he said. "I think there was a fear of the unknown."
TSYS recognized the value in the legacy voice team's knowledge -- some had been in switching for 30 years.
"A lot of them had electrical engineering backgrounds and were great on power and cooling," Stalcup said.
To ease the transition for those that wanted to learn voice over IP, TSYS offered training. Most of the instruction involved the voice team learning from the networking team and train-the-trainer sessions. The company also set up a test system so that everyone could get familiar with the Avaya voice over IP environment.
"We helped them gain the network-centric attitude needed for voice over IP," Stalcup said.
What happened to your peers -- did they also get trained in voice over IP?
Levitan: The misconception is that there was a sudden transition from analog to digital. Not true. As with everything in the telephone industry, everything is a slow evolution rather than a sudden evolution.
A lot of people who were voice engineers became managers and were shielded from having to learn voice over IP. Others aged out. When I started interviewing people at Verizon, the candidates that came in had no knowledge of analog. After leaving Sprint, I became an expert witness for trials, testifying about cellphone communications.
Veal: Change is hard for people of a certain era. Some got out of the industry, and some just stayed on with the legacy systems as long as they could.
Price: Not all of them made the switch to voice over IP. Some wound up going to work for cabling companies, some went to work for companies that needed their PBXs maintained and some dumped voice altogether.
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