Voice vs. data: how times have changed

I remember the day I focused my career on data networking. It was 1993, and I was supporting Novell LANs, X.25 WANs and, as part of a departmental cross-training initiative, PBX installations and international voice services.

During one of the periodic human-resources career-counseling sessions, I was given the opportunity to move to the voice group. Because I had some interest in voice technology, I considered the offer, but chose to remain in data networks.

Data was where the action was. The data network group had all the cool toys and capital funding. So even though I was interested in voice, the glamour of the data world drew me in.

It was a good decision. Career opportunities in data networks were abundant, as companies rushed to implement multiprotocol vendor networks. Opportunities continued as these companies consolidated the networks into IP-based infrastructures. Each opportunity brought either a generous salary increase or fast career advancement.

But in 2001 things changed. The business downturn resulting from the dot-com bust and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks brought an increased focus on cost containment. Companies were hesitant to invest in new technologies and equipment. Planned upgrades were put on hold as corporations focusing on fully using existing infrastructures. Career opportunities leveled off as the emphasis moved from implementation to operations.

And while data networking is nowhere near dead, it is being viewed more as a commodity. Salaries have leveled off, and network engineers are no longer hired on the spot.

On the voice side things are a different. While all the churn was happening in data networks, voice groups were quietly moving from TDM to IP and positioning themselves to take advantage of the new age of networking -- one in which customer-facing services take precedence over protocols; call centers are more important than departmental LANs; and voice is more important than data.

Voice, specifically VoIP, is the new era of networking. Companies are investing in converged networks primarily because of their ability to lower the cost of corporate voice services. VoIP-enabled virtual call centers are being deployed to reduce operational costs, accommodate home-based workers and provide global 24/7 support. Because of their customer-facing nature, voice services are starting to be viewed more strategically than data.

So I shouldn't have been surprised to read on NetworkWorld.com that Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert voice experts are commanding salaries of $150,000 to $200,000. Voice has come into its own.

Voice today is equivalent to NetWare in the 1980s and TCP/IP in the 1990s. It's the skill you want on your résumé. Items such as Session Initiation Protocol, H.323, TDM and dial plans need to be part of your knowledge base.

Looking back to that day in 1993, who would have guessed the outcome? Voice engineers commanding higher salaries than data engineers? Call centers considered more strategic than LANs? PBXs receiving more capital funding than routers? How times have changed.

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