I think most people would agree the responsibility for a project’s success or failure ultimately lies with the project manager. I’ve seen quite a few instances of project problems caused by poor management, and many of the help calls we get at the Fiber Optics Association (FOA) indicate the manager’s lack of fiber optics knowledge.

Who am I talking about? It could be the manager of a contracting company whose personnel has designed and installed a fiber optic network or the company’s field supervisors. It could be a contract IT or communications manager at a customer facility. Often, it’s a buildings or facilities manager to whom the responsibility for the cable plant has been delegated. Sometimes, it’s even the higher-ups in an organization.

Some of the problems we receive at the FOA are amazing. An IT manager for a large metropolitan area found that the cable plant he had installed didn’t work because it had 4,000 bad connectors. Another sent us optical time-domain reflectometer (OTDR) traces submitted by his contractor for documentation that showed the cables were too short to test with an OTDR. In one big project, contractors subcontracted to firms that had no fiber experience but still were digging up and breaking underground utilities daily.

These kinds of problems can be solved if the managers have some basic knowledge of fiber optics in several important areas.

Let’s start with design. Last month, I discussed what was involved in designing a fiber optic project; that article should be copied and sent to every manager. It provides a good overview of what a fiber optic cabling project entails. The manager needs to know enough to decide whether the design will meet his or her communications needs, both today and in the future.

The choices of components are potential problems for the uninitiated. Managers need to learn enough about fiber optic components used in various networks to ensure the proper ones have been chosen for the installation. 

Cables are a big potential problem. Recently, we prevented a manager from ordering hundreds of miles of outside plant cable with the wrong fiber—multimode, not single-mode. We’ve prevented the purchase of outside plant cable for premises applications and vice versa.

We have also talked managers out of using problematic connectors, something they would have known if they had some basic training. Another manager did not know that UPC and APC fiber optic connectors were incompatible.

Hopefully someone—a salesperson, distributor, manufacturer or contractor—would have questioned these choices, but, if not, the customer would be stuck with a large amount of virtually worthless cable plant.

Another problem that managers face is choosing contractors and consultants. We’re helping a large homeowners’ association that had been working with a consultant to design a fiber optic network for more than 1,000 homes. After months of work and considerable expenditure, the consultant was unable to handle the project. We have also seen contractors who were probably really landscapers hired to do trenching with disastrous results.

Managers should be able to evaluate most of these companies based on basic business practices, experience and references, plus proper certifications for technical personnel. However, unfamiliarity with the technical issues of fiber optics projects can cause problems with contractors and consultants.

How can a manager evaluate the quality of an installation without understanding the technology? The whole idea of the NECA/FOA 301 fiber optic installation standard was to define installation in a “neat and workmanlike manner,” but without basic knowledge of fiber optics, how do you judge that? How do you evaluate test results from the installation or whether documentation is complete?

How about operation of the network once it’s complete? We’ve seen managers uncomfortable with the idea that fiber requires no maintenance. They are incredulous when we tell them that any attempt at maintenance is likely to cause more problems than uncover them. But that’s what those of us with years of experience in fiber optics know to be the case—build it right and leave it alone.

How should a manager get trained? We know they are overworked and have little spare time for training. The FOA’s simple solution is Fiber U (www.fiberu.org), our free online training website. We have a quick introduction to fiber optics that’s perfect for managers and a basic fiber course they can use for learning more details. Of course, there also are other online training platforms. In the future, I’ll talk more about training.