Lesson from a Phone Jack

Tips when planning technology infrastructure

Wall jack for a wired telephone still exists.

The Backstory

I have written about old, nostalgic technology that continues to be around long passed its useful life like my story about the cassette tape, and now, here’s another, yet more “permanent,” example.

Technologies like our old music formats are stored by choice. We make a conscience effort to NOT throw something away, or we conveniently forget about the old tape, because it doesn’t cost us anything to keep it.

However, technology infrastructure investments built to make our lives easier tend to stick around much, much longer — and if you inherit the infrastructure, more often than not, it’s more expensive to get rid of it, so you build over it or leave it alone.

This rung true (pun intended) for me when I was painting a wall in my house, and I noticed I had to take a wall plate off and paint around an empty telephone jack.

The Object

Phone cord (for those that haven’t seen one before)

Slightly annoyed that I had this almost useless hole in my wall, I kept the phone jack there, because…

it still works; it’s better to have it there just in case you need it; and was a lot more time and work effort to remove it.

So, I painted around it and made the jack look like a cool piece of old-school technology that’s still relevant and hip. Ha!

But, as the saying goes… “what is old is new again.” It’s becoming more common place to revert to the past where reliability and good craftsmanship existed at a seemingly much higher standard when compared to today.

Future Proof Infrastructure

While it may sound improbable, good infrastructure lasts a really long time before needing replaced, and when it does, it usually serves as the foundation for what’s coming next. Telephone lines have been around since the 1870’s, and the basic concept remains in use today… a physical wire connects end points that need to communicate with one another.

With approximately 150 years worth of experience, the phone line has certainly proved its worth, but it’s slowly dying with the rise wireless devices.

But similar to the state of the blacksmith’s career once horses weren’t used as primary modes of transportation after the motor vehicle arrived, blacksmiths are still used and needed today… just not in the same scale as before.

The reality is hard lines are still useful today and play a role in our communications infrastructure — I contend hard lines should still be built into our new buildings and renovations, which is contrary to others’ opinions. When you need a reliable voice or data experience, people don’t look for a cell phone or wireless device… people go to wired devices or the physical connection.

The Lesson

The debate about when to let go of certain technologies will never end, and everyone has an opinion.

So here’s my philosophy when planning technology infrastructure:

  • Understand why something works. Understand the underlying trend not the fad. For example, there was a fad a few years ago where the creation of duplicate, mobile-friendly websites was hot… think “m.domain.com.” I did not jump on that bandwagon, because why would I support two different systems that did the same thing? I jumped on responsive design as an early adopter, because the operation of publishing and reaching the audience was optimized and made sense.
  • Future proof by thinking about scale. This one is a bit tougher, but it comes down to predicting fundamental business needs. For example, I tend to replace software that doesn’t have an API or method of openly being able to connect with other software to send data in and out. Software that is built to work with other software is more scalable, and no one piece of software will fit every need an organization has.
  • Understand how people work. Knowing how people work is more important than the tools they use to get the job done. There’s almost always a technical solution or approach, but sometimes, a manual brute-force effort needs done first to understand what is really needed before spending time and money on a solution that will immediately go to your software junkyard.
  • Focus on reliability and options. Of course when it comes to technology, the system just needs to work — all the time. However, this doesn’t happen without planned redundancy and back up plans. For example, if either Wi-Fi or hard line goes down, it may be possible to use the other. But, if there is only one option to use, good luck keeping the peace.

The Take-aways

  • Knowing how people work is more important than the tools they use to get the job done.
  • Future-proofing is about understanding the principles of “why” something works not “how” it works.
  • Obsolete technology may never go away.
  • Reliability is proven over time through calculated planning and forward thinking.

Phones tied to walls seem odd to younger generations who don’t understand why a phone would need a cord. They’ve asked, “What’s a phone jack? What’s the plug for?” Good question.

Written by Shaun Holloway.