Paging systems and Conference Bridges for startups & small teams

velocity_logo_conf.gifEarly registration for the Velocity Web Performance & Operations Conference has opened. To help spread the word, I’ve written this “simplest thing that will work” hack to a common Operations need: Paging systems and Conference Bridges.

Step 1: Establish a team contact list with SMS email addresses

Create a Google Spreadsheet to create a team roster like this one. My recommendation is to let people enter and manage their own information. Most cell providers have an email to SMS gateway of some kind. In the US, these are:

  • ATT:
  • Nextel:
  • Sprint:
  • T-Mobile:
  • Verizon:

Step 2: Set up a notification email list

Set up an email alias and add people by email address and SMS gateway address. If you don’t have a way of creating an alias, you can use a mailing list provider such as Google Groups.

Step 3: Set up the Conference Bridges

free-conference-call.gifI am really happy with which, amazingly, provides free conference call bridges. I recommend setting up three different bridges, and naming them by color so you can refer to them as the “Red Line”, “Blue line”, etc.

Step 4: Test your notification & conference bridges

Test your notification system to make sure people get the pages and can dial in and use the conference bridges as expected. I’ve found that it’s easier just to give everybody the “host code” instead of having some people using the “participant code”. Your mileage may vary. Once you have verified that people are getting pages and can dial into the conference bridges you should…

Step 5: Make wallet sized cards

Make, print, and (if you can) laminate wallet sized cards which contain the
notification email list, and conference call information. I just buy Business Cards and do the layout online.

Step 6: Make conference auto-dialers for your phone (Secret Sauce!)

To reduce the time it takes for people to dial into a conference call,
create phone book entries for each of your conference bridge lines.
Most phones will allow you to insert pauses when dialing. For instance,
this is accomplished on an iPhone using commas, so you end up with an
entry like this:

  • Bridge 1 – RED
  • 12065551212,,123456*1

This will dial the conference number at 1-206-555-1212, then pause for a few
seconds, then dial the access number 123456* (the “*” is the host
code), pause and then dial 1 to confirm and enter the conference call. 
You can then share these with your team along with the wallet cards.

Step 7: Agree on common expectations

The real challenge in this process is agreeing on a set of common expectations. For instance:

  • Who can use this system and when should they?
  • Who is expected to dial in when they are paged and after how long?
  • Is there somebody “on-call” who will be able to work on problems if necessary? What do they need to have to do that effectively?
  • Should automated systems be able to send pages or just humans?
  • What happens when this system doesn’t work?

My recommendation is to establish an “on-call rotation” which
includes specific response-time obligations. For instance, somebody who
is “on-call” would be expected to respond to a notification and be on a
conference call and online working within 15 minutes. To do that they
need an EVDO card or similar, lots of minutes on their cellphone, and a good headset (I really like the Jawbone)

Step 8: Implement, review, and improve

Once everything is in place you should meet on a regular (weekly) basis to
review and improve the system and process. Start with the following

  • When was the system activated, who was engaged, and what was accomplished?
  • What needs to be done to resolve problems faster, using less resources?
  • Are people getting burned out by late-night interruptions?
  • Which problems were fixed so they will not recur?
  • Which problems are happening over and over again?
  • What needs to be done to prevent them from recurring?

Hopefully you found this useful. Your comments and feedback are always welcome
either here or via email to jesse (at) oreilly (dot) com.

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