My Big Lie

I started my career at Bell Canada with a lie. And now I had to somehow live up to it.

The question from George Walker, my interviewer, was “Have you ever worked in a Central Office?”

“A Telecom Central Office is the main switching facility for a telco, providing access to the Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS), leased lines, and circuit-switched services that the telco offers to customers. The central office (CO) contains the switching equipment that connects telephone subscribers to both local and long-distance phone services.”

In 1981 a central office, generally consisted of banks (sometimes on multiple floors) of electrical-mechanical switches that interacted with each other to pass electrical impulses from your dial phone to connect with a broader network and ultimately connect to your desired end connection. The system at that time was called “step by step” – or to those in the industry, simply “step”.

A typical Step by Step switch bank

Those electrical-mechanical switches required regular maintenance and service, to ensure they did not fail as communication paths through the central office as were required – hundreds of thousands of calls per day passed through those switches.

Therein was the problem.

I was asked if I was familiar with servicing these switches. The truth was, I had never serviced one in my life. At Cambray, we had in fact installed a “step” office. But it was installed and activated by switching experts, hired for this specific reason. I had nothing to do with it.

What had I gotten myself into? I had no idea how to fix these switches.

Secondarily, the system was designed by British Telecom and was vastly different than the Northern Telecom switches that Bell Canada used. I had walked through the CO (central office) on multiple occasions. I knew what a switch looked like – but that was about the extent of my knowledge.

Somehow, I managed to convince Mr Walker that I was worth taking a chance on and I was hired on the spot. I was to start in early July of 1981, as a central office technician. The rubber was about to hit the road.

I was making about $20K/year as manager of the Cambray Telephone company. I was offered $18K to start at Bell Canada, as what the union called a “technician 4”.

My first lesson in negotiation was about to begin.

I told them that I could not move from Lindsay to London for less than I was making already. They said they would get back to me. After an agonizing 3 days with no answer, I was thinking I had blown my only chance at “the big time”. Then I got the call that changed my career trajectory. They would make me a “Technician 1”, paying me $28K/year.

They had blinked first, thinking they were hiring a switch technician. I could not believe how much money I was about to make. Life was about to get way better – unless they found out I had lied!

Kindred Spirits

I showed up to work that first day, full of anticipation and angst. This was Bell Canada, not some rinky dink little office in the middle of a cow pasture. This was the big time.

The office at 479 Clarence St in London was massive – at least to me. It was 4 stories high, constructed of immaculate grey stone work. The lawn and gardens around the building were pristine, thanks to a gentleman I later came to know as Harold Slade. You could eat off that grass, not a blade out of place. Harold took great pride in his craft.

No one had told me that I needed a code to enter the ornate brass and glass double doors. I stood there briefly wondering how I would get access, when up the stairs bounded this 6’4″ gangly guy. Short, blondish/brown hair and a ready smile, he towered over me. He introduced himself as Rick and offered to let me in – and a lifetime friendship was born.

Rick Seys, grew up in Langton, not far from my little village of Vienna. Our lives soon became intertwined, both professionally and personally. Rick became a brother from another mother to me. In an earlier post, I expounded on our decades of friendship. Becoming Doc – Wolfeish Musings

Rick had started a few weeks prior to me and was returning to the London office, after a few weeks on assignment in Ottawa.

Our careers in telecom followed similar, though divergent paths, through technicians, management and still later as consultants.

“The Frame”

If you are old enough to remember Tom Sawyer’s story, he was a master at getting others to do the work for him, convincing others to whitewash a fence as he looked on – a job he wanted no part of. I was about to channel my inner Tom Sawyer, to save face and perhaps my job. But first I had to build a reputation as a hard worker, reliable and dependable.

My first role was as a “frame technician”. Inside the walls of that massive building it was a hub of activity. The ceilings felt like they were thirty feet high and jammed with equipment. The constant “whirring” of switches connecting calls was always in the background.

London is a university town, and with that, came thousands of new telephone numbers being assigned to students as they moved into residences and student housing. July and August were traditionally busy months making those connections, in addition to the everyday connections that went on year round.

The “frame” was actually two frames, made of multiple metal beds, about eighteen inches above each other from the ground, up to about twenty feet high. Layers of wires, connecting dial tone, to telephone numbers. All done through a labyrinth of copper wires, all connected with soldering guns. The metal pins that wires were soldered to were so close above one another, that it was common to get “frame bite” – which is what happened when the wire strippers slipped and your knuckles became covered in scabs over time. It seemed my hands were always covered in blood and scabs at the time.

There were so many connections to be made during “the university rush” that people worked on the frame in three shifts at times – twenty four hours per day.

I met and worked with so many people over that first summer, that I still think about and to some extent stay in touch with. Marie Hall, Terry Whelan, John Brand, Nelson Wilson, Brad McMurray, Gary Humphrey, Karl Brand, Karen Hughes, Keith Woodward, Carol Hare and many more that escape me at the moment. All great people in their own right. People that I learned from and shared a bond with at the time. Many I have kept in contact with over time, ever if simply following them on social media. The memories alone, have inspired my career in many ways.

We worked hard – and sometimes played hard together.

Meet Tom Sawyer

After the hectic few weeks of university rush, Rick Seys had moved to the data group, and I was transferred to the switching department – both on the same floor.

My worst nightmare was about to begin. How would I cover my tracks – having no prior technical skills.

I learned quickly that I needed to cozy up to the veterans on the floor. 30 year veterans like Bill Meyer, Fred Reynaert, Harding Keith, Jack Prince and Elmer Martin had a world of knowledge in their heads. I needed to befriend them and quickly.

When the mechanics of a switch failed, that meant a call was blocked from it’s destination, resulting in a complaint from a subscriber to the repair office. Someone would have to identify the problem and resolve it mechanically – generally with a tweak of a spring, or replacement of a part. I had no idea how to identify the problem, let alone fix it.

Since Bell Canada was measured by the CRTC on its ability to provide service and eliminate outages, the technicians were expected to fix these issues asap.

Cue my budding friendships!

I saddled up to the veterans, extolling their talents and reminded them at every turn how I admired them and wondered at their ability to problem solve. Soon they were fixing switches for me. I did eventually absorb barely enough technical skills to get by, mostly through osmosis, but I was never going to be a skilled technician.

Tom Sawyer would have been proud!

Movin’ On

Whether by design or simply good luck – or perhaps incompetence 😉, I was eventually moved to the Network Operations Centre (NOC), where I seemed to find my rhythm as an analyzer. Who knew that I had analytic skills – I sure didn’t. But I seemed to have a knack for finding anomalies in data. Soon I was enjoying my new role.

A network operations center (NOC) is a centralized place from which enterprise information technology (IT) administrators — either internal or third party — supervise, monitor and maintain a telecommunications network. Large enterprises with extensive networks and commercial network service providers typically have a NOC 

My NOC role was to analyze switch data, identifying faulty call patterns. When identified, I had to create a service ticket for the technician and point them in the right direction to fix the problem. The job required similar analysis for other central offices in the London area, from the city proper, to small centres like Shedden, Ilderton, St Thomas, West Lorne, etc. I seemed to have a knack for it.

It also allowed me to use my Tom Sawyer skills to get some of the more reluctant technicians in the rural areas to resolve outstanding issues. These gents were solid union guys and I learned to deal with them with kid gloves and a velvet hammer.

Network Operations Centre (NOC)

Dealing with others in the NOC, I started to develop relationships with some of the managers through having to write reports, which were to be passed up the line to upper management. Unknown to me at the time, my writing skills began to get noticed, and I often received compliments on my reports – and some feedback to help me enhance my messaging.

Sadly all good things must come to an end, and after eighteen months or so, it was time to rotate someone else into my role, and me back to the switching department. Whether this was by design to help enhance my skills or not, it did not sit well with me. Maybe it was intended to be part of a larger plan in my development. But to me, it felt like a demotion, and I hated being a technician.

Soon I found myself getting into a funk. It was time to move on.

Nova Scotia Here I Come

It became a pattern in my life. When I felt trapped, my pride would not allow me to ask for, or investigate a change. I simply quit and moved on.

Strangely enough, I managed to never missed more than a few days of work between career changes. I would manage to leave a job one week and start my new role within a few days. But this particular change would prove to be life altering.

My brother in law at the time, had a school supply business in Truro Nova Scotia. I believe I have documented this period of my life previously, so won’t go into detail. Suffice to say, my wife and I took a week vacation, flew to Nova Scotia, checked out the opportunity and decided I would become a salesman – going school to school all over the Maritimes, selling graduation rings, yearbooks and school photography.

I left Bell against the advice of my friends and family, packed up and move to Truro NS. My union rep, Dave Cain tried to convince me to at the very least take a leave of absence – leaving the door open to return if things didn’t work out.

Nope – I was selling the house and moving. End of story.

Big mistake! I was NOT a salesman – THE MOVE WAS A HUGE MISTAKE!

Trevor was a baby at this point and we soon found out this was not for us. But what to do? I had really messed up this time.

After 15 months or so, I was desperate. I applied at Maritime Tel and Tel and Prince Edward Island Tel. There were no openings for someone with my skills – or perhaps just no interest.

I had nothing to lose, so on a whim, I looked in the phonebook (remember those?) for the president of Bell Canada – I didn’t find that number, but I did find a number for a VP (Mr Kyle as I recall). Taking a deep breath, I called the number and to my surprise and horror he answered.

I could tell I was on a speaker phone and immediately became tongue tied. I managed to blurt out that I had made a huge mistake in leaving Bell and wondered if there was some way that I could get hired back. He humoured me and said he would look into it. I never heard back, but I often wondered if I had planted a seed – maybe through my audacity – and perhaps paved the way for a position down the road.

I reached out to Doug Kinchen, a Section Manager at Bell that I had worked with, sending along a resume. I was learning to network, though I didn’t know it at the time.

Soon I was heading back to Ontario. Family in tow.

Coming Home

Ed Latimer had grown up in Vienna as I had. Perhaps he had a soft spot for me as a result. Twelve years my senior, he saved my ass more than once – and as many times as he helped me out, I know I disappointed him in some of my career decisions. This would eventually become another of those times.

I called Ed at Amtelecom and told him I was looking to come home. The company was expanding into installing business systems, not just in Aylmer, but in Southwestern Ontario. The name of this new enterprise was called AMCO. Ron Hawley was one of the technicians.

However, there was no role for me there at the time. If I wanted to come back, I would have to work on one of their newer acquisitions – on Manitoulin Island.

We were desperate to move home. I likely would have taken a job digging out outhouses if it meant being back closer to friends and family.

We packed up all our belongings, welded a towbar on our 1981 Malibou and towed our 1976 Ford Bobcat back to Aylmer. Moving in temporarily with my In laws, we privately bought a house on Centennial St in Aylmer for $60K, with an 8 year amortization – vowing to suffer briefly in order to be mortgage free as soon as possible.

We would live in Aylmer and I would work on Manitoulin Island as long as necessary, hoping that a role would eventually come up in Aylmer. As luck would have it, my time on the island lasted two weeks! Another lucky break in a string of lucky breaks.

We soon settled back into life in Aylmer. My wife was close to her parents again and our family began to grow, with the birth of Geoff in 1985.

We were happy to be home and back in our element. One lesson we took from our experience in Nova Scotia, was that we weren’t particularly good at searching out new friends.

I was determined to get involved in the community. Sports seemed a good place to start. I volunteered to coach hockey – and a 25 year love affair with coaching began.

2 responses to “My Big Lie”

  1. Well done Doc! So many fine memories of those halcyon days emerge upon this read.
    We both lived the same trepidation – what if they find out we don’t know what we are doing…
    In reality, even if we didn’t – that strong work ethic and eagerness to learn, ingrained in two boys from small villages always triumphed, every time.
    ps. I can still hear the Test Board speaker beckoning…

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