Training for designers: staying on the cutting edge

Sept. 1, 1996
General knowledge of the entire infrastructure, strategic planning and expertise in your specialty are fundamental to being a good designer.

General knowledge of the entire infrastructure, strategic planning and expertise in your specialty are fundamental to being a good designer.

Paul S. Kreager, Level 0-1 Inc.

During the past several years, technological advances in telecommunications cabling have created something of a monster that needs taming. You used to be able to throw almost any wire into a building to connect your telephones and terminals--and you could do almost anything to it. For example, when the 50-pair feeder was a little short, all you had to do was tie a steel cable to it, connect it to the telephone-company truck bumper, and stretch it out a couple of more feet.

Today, this kind of practice is lethal to transmission performance. At 100-MHz frequencies, we are dealing with signal-transmission lines in their true sense. Cable design is more like radio-frequency engineering today, not the direct-current cable-design practices we used before. Today`s systems are also more multidisciplinary. To create a good working design, you need to consider factors other than cable, for example:

- Performance relationships between cable systems

- Pathways the cables are laid into

- Spaces into which the cables terminate

- Grounding aspects of the equipment the cables eventually connect to.

Also, you have to understand the engineering fundamentals to reason out the proper design solution; for example, you may need to consider if it is a design for Category 3, Category 5 or a mix of both types of cables; the bandwidth capability of the media; the impact of noise; and improvements in coding schemes over time. The taming of the telecommunications "monster" is through knowledge, which calls for training.

Long-term cost is key factor

The infrastructure that supports the telecommunications utility in a modern commercial building consists of equipment spaces to house the electronics, grounding and bonding for equipment and cable, the cable pathways, the cable system itself, and the administrative functions that keep it running efficiently. This article focuses on the design aspects of these infrastructure elements.

As a telecommunications system designer, perhaps the single most important determining factor you should consider is the long-term cost of maintenance and operations. Studies have shown that more than 50% of the total cost of a commercial building over a 40-year life cycle involves long-term cost for maintenance and operations, while only 11% of the total cost is initial cost.

Many end-users are not aware of this fact, and you can help educate them about its importance by including long-term costs for maintenance and operations as part of your design. If the "guiding light" for design is long-term cost, then perhaps this should also be the focus of your training goals.

Marketable skills

Think about this in a more global sense; for example, what might make your skills more transferable? What if a top executive, who does not fully understand your end of the business, decides your function is no longer valuable to the company? Can you readily pick up your skills and apply them somewhere else?

In my opinion, the following important factors determine your value in a worldwide market: skills needed by the organization, knowledge needed by the organization and your ability to positively impact the bottom line by appropriate decision-making. Training can make a significant impact on all three of these areas. However, I would recommend that you do not focus on only one small segment of the telecommunications infrastructure. The more knowledge and skills you have in each of the interrelated infrastructure areas, the more valuable you are to the organization.

Some important driving forces within our industry tie into training and your need for correct design procedures. Two of these are the standards of the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA, Arlington, VA) and the nonprofit organization known as Bicsi (Tampa, FL), with its registered communications distribution designer (Rcdd) program.

The telecommunications monster was created after deregulation of telephone companies--making cabling infrastructure an owner`s responsibility--and at about the same time as the rapid initial growth of local area networking. As a result of these two events, the telecommunications industry was disrupted for several years, spawning the need for an organization to guide system designers. Bicsi already existed, but was not well-known in the telecommunications industry. Since that time, Bicsi membership and the acceptance of its Rcdd program by the industry have increased. More requests for proposals and bids require knowledgeable system designers, and the Rcdd designation demonstrates a useful level of relevant knowledge.

Since 1985, and parallel to the growth of Bicsi and its Rcdd program, the TIA has developed standards directly related to the telecommunications infrastructure. These standards are the benchmark by which modern telecommunications infrastructure design is evaluated.

However, you should not blindly follow either the Bicsi Telecommunications Distribution Methods Manual (Tdmm) or the TIA standards. Each design project has its own character and set of political and economic considerations that are factored together to get the design job done correctly. Education is the key.

Do you need training?

I learn something new every day, mostly from my students. However, some people think they know everything there is to know about telecommunications and, therefore, do not need additional training. But you may not be aware of knowledge that could improve your jobs. For example, do you really understand the following?

The basics of infrastructure elements well enough to converse knowledgeably with project peers, consultants and associates?

The engineering fundamentals behind the design decisions you make? Or do you just follow the rules?

How TIA and Bicsi are driving developments in the telecommunications industry?

And, for your area of responsibility, can you

- Intelligently apply the TIA standards and Bicsi Tdmm guidelines--not just blindly follow them?

- Provide design solutions that reduce the initial cost?

- Provide design solutions that reduce long-term maintenance and operations costs?

If you cannot answer yes to some of these questions, perhaps you could use some training. Another test might be to sit through a week-long session of the TIA TR-41 working group, which writes all the standards you use. This experience is very educational, but may also serve as an indicator of the need for additional training.

Justifying training

The need for training is usually obvious after you have received it: In many cases, organizations can save more than the cost of the training from increased productivity, shorter design cycles, broader knowledge and new ways to solve design problems. Communicating this to the decision-makers before the training is the difficult part.

Over the years, I have had students spend $2000 to $3000 for the seminar fee and travel expenses, just to sit through a couple of hours of a multiday seminar on material of special importance to them. And they leave satisfied with that knowledge. That is the ultimate expression of the value of training. On the other hand, some people attend seminars, only to find that they did not learn as much as they thought they should have. The lesson here--although they may not recognize it--is that they have probably learned that their knowledge and skills are on the right track. You would pay several times the seminar cost for a consultant to tell you that. However, one difference between a consultant and an instructor is that, in the classroom, the instruction given is under the tough scrutiny of peers--and the student will rightfully challenge advice given--which requires the instructor to know his or her material thoroughly.

Available training resources

Many sources of training are at your disposal, including training from vendors, independents and industry organizations such as Bicsi. If you need to learn something that is vendor-specific, attend the vendor`s training classes. But, for infrastructure designers, vendor-specific designs are generally inappropriate. You should shop around for unbiased training--training that does not sell products.

If you are starting out in the industry, Bicsi has an introductory distribution design course that provides an overview of the telecommunications infrastructure elements. Because planning is closely associated with design, you will also need training that covers issues important to your organization or your client; for example, issues such as wired versus wireless, fiber versus copper and arguments for or against access flooring. You will also need detailed knowledge of the standards that drive infrastructure design, including an understanding of the engineering fundamentals upon which the standards are based.

Typically, you can acquire training in two ways: You can attend a public seminar, or your organization can hold an in-house seminar. Most training organizations offer both.

If 10 or more people in your organization need the same training, the in-house route may be more cost-effective because it reduces or eliminates travel expenses. If students are forced to attend an in-house seminar, however, this can be a deterrent to the effectiveness of the training; for example, students may not participate or pay attention, which will not provide a good educational experience for either the students or instructors. On the other hand, an in-house seminar with students who want to be there can be a better experience than a public seminar, because the instructor can focus on the needs of the organization being trained (see "A Customer`s Perspective on Training," below.)

Evaluating training programs

When choosing a seminar, the qualifications and experience of the instructors and the training materials are most important. If you learn from someone who only teaches design but has not practiced it, the training may not provide as much in-depth knowledge. On the other hand, if you learn from someone who has experience but has not taught the subject, that person has not been tested as an instructor. No experience is quite like answering "live" questions from your students: Without that experience, the instructor has not been exposed to all aspects of the topic.

In addition, designing is an engineering discipline, and the instructor should be well-versed in engineering fundamentals to provide the student with an optimum design education.

If you are convinced--as I am--that TIA and Bicsi are the principal driving forces in our industry, then it is important to really understand those forces through the TIA standards and the Bicsi Tdmm. Applying that same rule, instructors you choose should have detailed knowledge of the design standards that drive our industry. And, if those instructors have participated in the development of the standards or the Tdmm, their knowledge is deeper--and yours will be, too.

Watch out for glitzy training. Just because a training organization offers full-color slides from a projection panel connected to a computer does not necessarily mean you will receive in-depth training. Computer-projection technology is great for short presentations and sales pitches, but multiday training seminars are a different matter. High-technology techniques not only add to the cost of the seminar (passed along to the students) but there is the possibility of the equipment breaking down. The message is more important than how it is displayed.

Also, good lighting on the screen is important, as is the opportunity for students to be able to follow along in their workbooks or take notes. An overhead projector does not require that the lighting be lowered and lets the instructor make eye contact with students. It is difficult to show 8-1/2 x 11-inch material with a projection panel; with an overhead projector, you can use materials such as magazines, standards segments or information from the Tdmm.

Well-focused subjects, self-teaching cassettes and distance learning via the Internet or remote conferencing can be effective. Design training, however, requires several days of classroom instruction; for this type of intense education, it is best to have an instructor in front of you who can provide immediate answers to your questions. Interaction in class is also effective because your classmates may have similar problems that can be worked out in a group setting. q

Paul S. Kreager is president of Level 0-1 Inc., a telecommunications education company in Pullman, WA. As a professional electrical engineer and a registered communications distribution designer (Rcdd), he chairs the TIA-569 and TIA-606 committees and is a contributing author to the Bicsi Tdmm.

Click here to enlarge image

Tony Nuciforo, a principal at Robert Derector Telecommunications (New York, NY) and an instructor for Level 0-1, points out an important fact to the class at the U.S. Military Academy (West Point, NY).

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