"The greatest compliment I ever received was during a bicsi exhibitors` hour. A man had brought his wife across the room to meet me. `This is Donna Ballast,` he said to his wife. `Most of the guys in this room don`t know enough about cabling systems to carry this lady`s toolbox.` He was the kind of person I had been trying so desperately to reach," enthuses Ballast, who can be readily seen at bicsi panel discussions and tia standards meetings, where she unflinchingly champions the cause of cabling installers, designers, managers, and contractors.
Though she has no formal college degree, her base of operations, ironically, is a university, where she analyzes and designs networking and telecommunications installations. "I am not a professional engineer," she says. "I wear jeans, a shirt, and work boots to work most every day. I have a hard hat and steel-toe boots for those special occasions. I visit with architects, engineers, installers, and end-users with one mission in mind: Get the telecommunications cabling installed and the network operational on time and on budget."
Learning from the best
Attaining her current multifaceted position as analyst, designer, and supervisor at The University of Texas at Austin wasn`t easy. She learned by doing, working in an everyday, real-world classroom that`s about the size of the entire cabling industry. She had to digest the industry, segment by segment, to become the highly respected authority on structured cabling that she is today. "I have had the honor of working closely with many of the founding fathers of what we call structured cabling--Ross Cotton, Dunn Harvey, Bob Jensen, Paul Kreager, and Joe O`Brien. I will always be in their debt," says Ballast. "I have often felt like the only student in a room of 80 or so professors--sometimes all of them speaking at once."
She says that even though The University of Texas at Austin is "the most populous university in the United States, it is a small pond in the world of telecommunications-design professionals. I was not only in a small pond, I was the tiniest fish in our pond. So back in 1992, I flew to Tampa, FL, and took the bicsi rcdd exam. My plan was to fly in, take the test, collect my pin, visit a few of the exhibits, and fly home. Somewhere between flying in and flying back I met some people who would change my life."
A couple of months later, Ballast received a telephone call from bicsi. "Bob Jensen asked me what I thought about standards. My answer was: `I think everyone ought to have a few,` " jokes Ballast. "After a chuckle, Bob asked a few technical questions and said goodbye. In about a week, a letter came from Larry Romig asking me to be bicsi`s representative to the tia. I was both stunned and elated. I was still going to be the tiniest fish, but the pond was definitely getting bigger."
Since then, after every tia meeting over the past six years, Ballast has prepared a report of what she learned, and answered questions from bicsi members. "It was through one of these reports, which were regularly published in the bicsi News, that I met chief editor Arlyn Powell of Cabling Installation & Maintenance," notes Ballast. That`s when the idea for the popular question-and-answer column "Ask Donna" was born, and it has been a mainstay among readers of Cabling Installation & Maintenance for the past five years.
Married, with adult children, Ballast and her husband buy homes and remodel them. They`re about halfway to their goal of 20. She also collects Sn3 brass models of the Rio Grande Southern and she never misses an issue of the Narrow Gauge Gazette. Her love of contemporary jazz comes in handy when she`s answering all those e-mail questions at home--one of her remodeled houses.
"After dinner I log on and download my e-mail," she explains. "On a slow day, I get about 25 e-mails, but usually it`s more like 45. There has been a shift in the last few years; more and more questions are coming from overseas. Like the guy in Bosnia looking for optical-fiber test equipment, or the guy in South Africa who wants to know what I think about fiber-to-the-desk for the University of South Africa. The problems are the same everywhere: lack of information." When she provides the answers, "I`m ethical, I tell the truth, and I do what I say I am going to do," says Ballast.
Cabling is designed to last
"Don`t panic," Ballast tells her constituency, "but don`t believe everything you`ve been told about the long-term viability of utp cabling systems, especially that they won`t be able to support future demands for increased bandwidth. You have heard the sales pitches. The network hardware may be obsolete in six to eighteen months, but what about the cabling itself? Now that`s another story. It even says so right there in the scope of eia/tia-568, published in 1991: `Telecommunications wiring systems defined by this standard are intended to have a useful life in excess of 10 years.` And that 100-ohm utp [later named Category 3] cable you installed seven years ago will still support all the same applications today that it supported back then."
She says that the TR-41.8.1 working group responsible for tia/eia-568a has created confusion and aggravation among designers and installers by continuing to call any and all 100-MHz cabling Category 5. "We lobbied hard that at least a `vintage date` be stamped on the cable, but we were too few," Ballast says. "So today, there`s a lot of installed cabling with `Category 5` printed on the jacket, but no one knows what it can support until it is tested."
Ballast calls herself "one of the old-timers at the tia meetings now, but my mission remains the same: to bring the concerns of the designer, installer, and end-user to the table--I can assure you that the manufacturers are very well represented. The applications guys are driving the bus and the rest of us are just trying to hang on."
Looking back at her very first tia meeting, she says, "A dear friend, George Mirick, asked me, `Why are you doing all this?` " The woman who`s well-known for providing honest answers responded, "My only goal is to make a difference."