Backroom boys – who does what and how does all the technology work?

Have you ever wondered how all of your telecoms technology works and who makes it all happen? One of 08Direct’s technical experts, David Shields, explains all here – and don’t worry, it is all in English so you don’t need a degree in engineering to understand it.

So, you use our telephone numbers. Thank you, we’re very glad you do, our business wouldn’t amount to much without you.

But what’s going on in the background, when you say you’d like the new super-duper 0844 number to end up ringing your mobile? Is there a bunch of hi-tech pixies plugging wires into a magical switchboard, like in the old nineteen-forties black and white movies? Unfortunately not, there are no magic pixies here.  I wish there were, but it’s sadly not the case.

There’s only us.

‘Us’ is a bunch of programmers, engineers, and some boring black and beige boxes, sat in air-conditioned racks in some datacentre somewhere in Greater London. And I expect, given that you’re still reading this that you are expecting me to tell you what we (the programmers, the engineers, and the boxes) do.

The Engineers – I can’t tell you in detail what they do, because I’m not one of them. I do know they talk in insanely complicated acronyms (unlike we programmers), and that they know in some detail what the boxes with the blinking lights do, and how telephones happen. I also know that they are seriously smart at what they do, and they have so much knowledge and experience that they know precisely which boxes to poke with the engineering stick, and where to poke it, and how hard. And that’s seriously clever stuff. They also have to do dangerous tasks, such as talk to management about what the boxes do, and talk to programmers to tell us what to ask the machines to do. This is challenging.

The Boxes – they don’t say much for themselves, that’s for sure. Like some supermodel trophy wife, they are expensive to acquire and maintain, but they sure look impressive. And it’s not just looks, either, these things are smart. Smart, and Dumb. Smart because they make everything happen, callers reach companies, emails arrive pinging in inboxes, and messages are saved and recorded. But dumb, because they are generally obedient. They do exactly what we tell them to do. And we have to tell them really carefully what to do, because if we tell them wrong, they’ll do it wrong.

They sit in London because the pipes that flow data in and out of these boxes can be really fat down there.

They cost so much because we want them to deal with millions of calls, without a hitch, every time. They are not exciting to look at (unless you have a thing about blinking green lights), because no-one looks at them, in a dark datacentre miles away. But to we engineers and programmers, they are seriously cool pieces of kit.

The programmers – even worse than the engineers, programmers speak to each other in arcane technical shorthand, which to the outsider seems like babble. It’s not – it’s just a high-bandwidth communication between programmers, so they can share information and concepts without using way too many words. The problems only occur when they (we) try to speak the same way to non-programmers, who respond as readily to them if we had been speaking Dutch to some Amazonian tribesman. We try not to, but we slip up sometimes. Sorry.

What we do is tell the black and beige boxes what exactly to do with incoming calls, outgoing destinations and the like. And we tell our computer systems to play nicely with others, and let our commercial customer’s systems talk to ours, so their systems can do telephone things without them having to pay Rooney figures for their own black and beige boxes.

And on the communications thing, we programmers do have to be able to speak real English, to the real world, (hence this article), because the real world requires documentation that makes sense, and an understanding of what our systems can do for them. So remember, we are not some High Priesthood of Babel, we are ordinary people making complicated things play nice with others.


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