Wireles Networking is a practical guide to planning and building low-cost telecommunications infrastructure. See the editorial for more information....

Building Your Team

Every village, company or family has individuals who are intrigued by technology. They are the ones found splicing the television cable, re-wiring a broken television or welding a new piece to a bicycle. These people will take interest in your network and want to learn as much about it as possible. Though these people are invaluable resources, you must avoid imparting all of the specialized knowledge of wireless networking to only one person. If your only specialist loses interest or finds better paying work somewhere else, they take the knowledge with them when they go.

There may also be many young and ambitious teenagers or young adults who will be interested and have the time to listen, help, and learn about the network. Again, they are very helpful and will learn quickly, but the project team must focus their attention on those who are best placed to support the network in the coming months and years. Young adults and teenagers will go off to university or find employment, especially the ambitious youth who tend to want to be involved. These youth also have little influence in the community, where an older individual is likely to be more capable of making decisions that positively affect the network as a whole. Even though these individuals might have less time to learn and might appear to be less interested, their involvement and proper education about the system can be critical.

Therefore, a key strategy in building a support team is to balance and to distribute the knowledge among those who are best placed to support the network for the long term. You should involve the youth, but do not let them capitalize use or knowledge of these systems. Find people who are committed to the community, who have roots in the community, who can be motivated, and teach them. A complementary strategy is to compartmentalize functions and duties, and to document all methodology and procedures. In this way, people can be trained easily, and substituted with little effort.

For example, in one project site the training team selected a bright young university graduate who had returned to his village. He was very motivated and learned quickly. Because he learned so quickly, he was taught more than had been foreseen, and he was able to deal with a variety of problems, from fixing a PC to rewiring Ethernet cable. Unfortunately, two months after the project launch he was offered a government job and left the community. Even a better salary could not keep him, since the prospect of a stable government job was too appealing. All of the knowledge about the network and how to support it left with him. The training team had to return and begin the training again. The next strategy was to divide functions, and to train people who were permanently rooted in the community: people who had houses and children, and were already employed. It took three times as long to teach three people as it took to train the young university grad, but the community will retain this knowledge for much longer.

Though this might seem to suggest that you should hand-pick who is to be involved, that is not often the best approach. It is often best to find a local partner organization or a local manager, and work with them to find the right technical team. Values, history, local politics, and many other factors will be important to them, while remaining completely unfathomable to people who are not from that community. The best approach is to coach your local partner, to provide them sound criteria, make sure that they understand that criteria, and to set firm boundaries. Such boundaries should include rules about nepotism and patronage, though these rules must consider the local situation. It may be impossible to say that you cannot hire kin, but it is best to provide a means of checks and balances. Where a candidate is kin, there should be clear criteria and a second authority in deciding upon their candidacy. It is also important that the local partner is given this authority and is not undermined by the project organizers, thus compromising their ability to manage. They will be best able to judge who will work best with them. If they are well educated in this process, then your requirements should be satisfied.

Troubleshooting and support of technology is an abstract art. The first time you look at an abstract painting, it may just look to you like a bunch of random paint splatters. After reflecting on the composition for a time, you may come to appreciate the work as a whole, and the “invisible” coherence becomes very real. The neophyte looking at a wireless network may see the antennas and wires and computers, but it can take a while for them to appreciate the point of the “invisible” network. In rural areas, it can often take a huge leap of understanding before locals will appreciate an invisible network that is simply dropped into their village. Therefore, a phased approach is needed to ease people into supporting technology systems. The best method is involvement. Once the participants are chosen and committed to the project, involve them as much as possible. Let them "drive". Give them the cable crimper or keyboard and show them how to do the work. Even if you do not have time to explain every detail and even if it will take longer, they need to be involved physically and see not only what has been done, but how much work was done.

The scientific method is taught in virtually all western schools. Many people learn about it by the time they reach high-school science class. Simply put, you take a set of variables, then slowly eliminate those variables through binary tests until you are left with one or only a few possibilities. With those possibilities in mind, you complete the experiment. You then test to see if the experiment yields something similar to the expected result. If it did not, you re-calculate your expected result and try again. The typical agrarian villager may have been introduced to the concept, but likely will not have had the opportunity to troubleshoot complex problems. Even if they are familiar with the scientific method, they might not think to apply it to resolving real problems.

This method is very effective, although time consuming. It can be sped up by making logical assumptions. For example, if a long-running access point suddenly stops working after a storm, you might suspect a power supply related problem and thus skip most of the procedure. People charged with supporting technology should be taught how to troubleshoot using this method, as there will be times when the problem is neither known nor evident. Simple decision trees or flow charts can be made that test these variables, and try to eliminate the variables to isolate the problem. Of course, these charts should not be followed blindly.

It is often easier to teach this method using a non technological problem first. For example, have your student develop a problem resolution procedure on something simple and familiar, like a battery powered television. Start by sabotaging the television. Give them a battery that is not charged. Disconnect the aerial. Insert a broken fuse. Test the student, making it clear that each problem will show specific symptoms, and point the way as to how to proceed. Once they have fixed the television, have them apply this procedure to a more complicated problem. In a network, you can change an IP address, switch or damage cables, use the wrong SSID, or orient the antenna in the wrong direction. It is important that they develop a methodology and procedure to resolve these problems.

Last Update: 2007-01-25