When night falls over Frankfurt and the old TV tower begins to glow in magenta, it is time for the colleagues at the International Network Management Center to start their night shift.
At the foot of the tower, which the locals lovingly call their "Ginnheim asparagus" (after the city district where it is located), lies the INMC, the International Network Management Center. From here, Ante Margeta and his colleagues monitor Deutsche Telekom's global network: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Because the network never sleeps.
Around the world, people talk on the phone and companies exchange data. Usually completely without a hitch. But an inattentive bulldozer driver can throw a wrench into the works. Hurricanes regularly leave a trail of destruction in the Caribbean and the southern United States. Earthquakes like the recent one in Mexico not only cause terrible harm to residents, but also destroy the communications infrastructure. You'd think this would make the INMC a hectic, busy place – with workers frantically rerouting lines here and there, managing impending overloads and negotiating prices for fallback lines. But when you enter the control center, with its huge monitor screen, one thing is striking: the concentrated silence. Under the lead of the supervisor on duty, the colleagues handle all the problems with ease. "Ideally, our customers never notice a thing," explains team lead Margeta.
3:00 a.m.: When the US go to bed Asia tops on the agenda
To ensure this, the INMC engineers work around the clock, in three shifts. When the night shift starts at 9:15 p.m., North American business is already fully ramped up. "We have the first peak in the U.S. at three in the afternoon here, when the first people there arrive at work," explains Margeta. "Things fall off starting at 10 p.m." And at around 1 a.m., Asia starts working. The night shift employees use this time to perform maintenance on the network equipment for Europe, for example, or monitor the progress of necessary network repairs, to make adjustments if needed. The KAT 1 submarine cable, one of the most important links for data traffic between the U.S. and Europe, is also monitored from Frankfurt at night (and on weekends).
"Our technical equipment is much less extensive than it used to be," says Jörg Heil, another team lead at the INMC. "Hardware which formerly needed a whole floor of a building now takes just a 19'' rack because of the high-performance software of the systems." The changeover to IP technology is making the network faster and more flexible, simplifying management of network traffic. It also harbors new challenges for the INMC technicians, however. "The IP network makes it more difficult to find faults," explains Heil, "because we move from the management of lines towards the transfer of data packages."
The giant, 74 square-meter-sized monitor helps the technicians keep track of the big picture – provided they know how to interpret the deluge of information it contains. "Roughly speaking, the left-hand side shows the important parameters of the transport network nearly in real time; the right-hand side shows the signaling, such as porting of mobile phone numbers," says Heil. Where outsiders see incomprehensible code, INMC experts like Josip Puljic (photo above) can spot direct courses of action.
Intercultural competency counts – especially at night
Technical skills aren't the only thing the INMC staff has to bring to the table; intercultural skills are also essential, especially at night. "In this job, you quickly learn how to communicate with your different contact persons," reports Margeta. He assumes, for example, that Americans work in small teams, where everyone generally knows what is going on. "In India, in contrast, they have large teams, and in the worst case you have to repeat everything when your call is forwarded to a different person." It's important for the Chinese to know even the smallest details, he says. "And you have to make sure that everyone has really understood everything," says Margeta with a smile, "because our Chinese and Japanese colleagues sometimes find it hard to admit that they might have missed something." The working language overnight is usually English. But the INMC team is multilingual: in addition to German and English, they also speak Spanish, French, Russian, Croatian and Polish.
"You really have to love this job to want to do it"
When the relief arrives at around 7 a.m. the three employees who make up a night shift make their way happy straight to bed. Rest and recreation are important as the night shift can at times get especially stressful, depending on the amount of breakdowns customers report and how many repair works do not run as smoothly as planned. "It is especially demanding for our colleagues to coordinate the various duties. You really have to love this job to want to do it," confirms Margeta (on the right, sitting: Alexander Ghimboasa).