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IP telephony a good career opportunity for network engineers

By fitting network experience to today's IP telephony needs, an IKEA manager has discovered success.

Bill Wolff, North American network manager for the European furniture retailer IKEA, first delved into telephony more than 10 years ago when he was looking for ways to cut costs.

For example, Wolff stumbled across surprisingly high rates for a telephony connection between IKEA's U.S. headquarters and a warehouse, primarily because of locked InterLATA rates as the calls crossed state lines.

He then "muxed" several connections over a leased T1 that was already needed for data, and the company saw substantial savings.

"That opened people's eyes, and they said we should look at economies of scale in other places like this," Wolff said. "Similar configurations were made for the first-generation center network of mixed voice and data we built. This facilitated savings to lower operations costs, which in turn lowered the cost of furniture for our customers."

While IKEA's European branches have been slow to pick up on VoIP's potential, Wolff said, he has been able to undertake several projects throughout IKEA North America that have seen success. He hopes this will point the way to the future after the Swedish headquarters gets the taste of bad IP telephony experiences out of its mouth. Personal curiosity drove Wolff to start exploring telephony and what could be done to cut costs, but since then he has found a rewarding career that capitalizes on his networking background in order to drive down the furniture giant's North American costs.

He is driving the Swedish company's slow transition to IP telephony while carving out a new career path -- for himself and other network engineers.

He is not alone. New Gartner research entitled "How IP Telephony and Unified Communications Are Changing the Proficiencies Required for Network Engineers" has found that as more companies move away from TDM to IP telephony, employees like Wolff, with mixed skill sets in networking and telephony, are in high demand.

The opportunity for networking professionals willing to try something new comes about because, for many telephony professionals, the move to IP is not always intuitive, often requiring expensive training and vastly different job functions.

"Gartner has talked to organizations that have cited that many TDM engineers have not been sufficiently skilled or motivated in making the migration to IP," wrote Christine Tenneson, a Gartner analyst. The report found that, in some companies, only 50% to 60% of the telephony engineering staff successfully made the transition to IP.

But for networking veterans, the transition to IP telephony is much easier and offers the chance to prove their value to the enterprise.

Wolff said he picked up most of what he needed to know without formal training -- he is not a big fan of most certification programs -- and by working closely with vendors.

Gartner's recommended "minimum qualifications" for an IP telephony job included in-depth knowledge of switching and routing, experience in converged IP and IP telephony system implementation, and security certifications like CCSP.

Overall, Wolff said, the move into IP telephony has been a fulfilling career direction for him.

"Being able to make decisions in both areas has been fun," he said. "Telephony has kind of taken a back seat to data networking over the years, but for a customer-driven company, we rely on telephone communications to deliver our customer calls and hopefully keep them happy."

The new career direction could also prove lucrative.

A survey by Foote Associates found a 25% gain in the market value of professionals with unified messaging skills over the first six months of this year, and VoIP professionals saw a gain of 11% in the past year.

Gartner estimated that the salary premium for IP-certified telephony engineers over their TDM counterparts can be 30% to 40%. And the percentage of enterprises with IP phones in North America will jump from 28% to 37% by the end of this year, meaning that there's no shortage of work for competent IP telephony experts.

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