Monday, January 2, 2017

Making the Rules and Breaking Them

Designers study incredibly hard to memorize the rules of their craft.  Architects and codes, plumbers and the Uniform Plumbing Code, electricians and the NEC, IT professionals and current best practices, and my personal favorite – engineers and the laws of physics.

But, aside from the laws of physics (theoretical physicists notwithstanding), the rules of any craft are just rules.  Professional organizations work diligently to keep those codes/standards up to date, but this means those same organizations are constantly rewriting those same codes/standards.  If organizations constantly rewrite the rules, how can they expect anyone to respect them? 

Codes have the power of law behind them and any contractor can explain why it’s important to respect those codes, and the inspector enforcing them.  But, telecommunications standards and IT current best practices have no such champions or strength.  They only have their own practitioners to stand as their standard bearers (pun intended).

Practitioners have a vested interest in following standards.  Contractors can tout “standards compliance” as a market differentiator.  Standards for one trade often mark the handoff to another trade so if work isn’t standards compliant, the next trade can’t do their work.  And, standards allow tradesmen to work together peacefully instead of rewriting technical manuals each time a new professional is hired. 

But, practitioners of any trade rarely control the purse strings for any project or organization.  In all but the smallest organizations, dedicated management professionals exist whose primary responsibilities are safeguarding the budget and timeline of the project/organization.  Standards often threaten both budget and timeline, for good reasons, but threaten nonetheless.
·       Install one cabling drop in each room instead of two. (budget/timeline savings)
·       Install Category 5e cabling instead of Category 6 (budget savings)
·       Defer maintenance on server hardware (budget savings)
·       Design a building without adequate Telco Room coverage because connectivity is not needed on day one. (serious budget savings)

To address this, designers must recognize that they have a vested interest in being able to explain the reasoning behind their standards.  Unfortunately, far too many tradespeople do not understand the reasoning behind the standards of their fields.  Inspectors will learn the rules and then point to the rulebook if challenged.  This strategy can work well for a code enforcement official but will eventually fail for all other trades.  Adherence to any non-mandated rule set will eventually fall to the pressures of budget and/or time. 

But, understanding the “why” behind a standard can do more than fend off an over-eager manager, it can bring non-tradespeople into the fold.  When a tradesperson approaches a management question as an opportunity to educate, they generate a dialogue.  Those questions lead to more and the tradesperson becomes a part of the design/management team.  A tradesperson that is a management resource will be sought out.  A tradesperson that is an obstructionist is to be avoided.

In designing a library storage facility, a project manager questioned the Wi-Fi design that required numerous access points in an area where hardly anyone would be working.  Multiple e-mails and meetings had taken place with the network design team becoming personally offended that their design was being questioned.  The project manager and networking design team seemed to be at an impasse.  But, with the building owner present, a quick discussion concerning future RFID systems for book tracking and the need for Wi-Fi settled the issue.  In fact, the Wi-Fi design became more robust with the full support of the project manager.  Instead of relying on the standard to enforce the design, we explained the design and in the end, strengthened the standard.

And finally, management deserves the right to ask questions and confront longstanding practices.  After all, that is their job.  Along with a fair amount of bumbling, they will often question longstanding practices that might benefit from being reconsidered.  And, if a tradesperson cannot defend that practice with a response more nuanced than “it’s the standard”, maybe that practice deserves to be abandoned.

Without knowing, the UF police department has contributed to my own work at UF by questioning some of the basic premises of Ethernet design.  I’ve been able to deploy Wi-Fi in some locations I considered impossible because I didn’t step outside my own understanding of the rules.   Stephen Shapiro said, “Expertise is the enemy of innovation.”  Learn to listen to people outside of your trade.  A different perspective can be invaluable.

But, all of this requires that we, as professionals, understand why we do what we do.  It is not enough, to memorize the rulebook.  We need to be ready to explain every standard and the ramifications of their abandonment.  We need to know why we should stand our ground, and when.

Only then, can we understand what we have to gain by breaking the rules.