‘Telephony’ geek

Feb 042009
Authors: Jim Sojourner

If CSU were a living organism, the archaic telecommunications system that links together the more than 25,000 people on campus would be the brain.

Jim Hebbeln would be the neurosurgeon.

Like the Wizard of Oz, Hebbeln is the man behind the curtain — the eyes and ears at the university’s communication epicenter. He’s the man in the receiver who bellows, “I’m sorry. The number you are trying to reach…”

A dying breed maybe, but in the age of iPhones, BlackBerries and Twitter, Hebbeln is the fleshy heart of the system, listening to the pulse of the campus and keeping a human touch to a digitizing world.

His office, cluttered with charts, old cables and phones, serves as the windowless command center from which he oversees CSU’s 12,050 phone lines — maintaining, updating and repairing the mechanics and software.

“I get this thing to work so someone can pick up a phone, punch a few buttons and they’re connected to Europe or wherever,” the old-school technician says, his mustache bristling over a smile as he motions to the rows of purring processors and vine-like cables in the adjacent switching room.

Hebbeln, who wired Durward and Westfall halls for a summer job 40 years ago, has been working with CSU’s switching system since 1993 and says his 24 years of database work at Quest make him one of the best in the business. Even Princeton calls Hebbeln when they need telecom help.

It’s this experience and multi-faceted expertise that make Hebbeln ideal for monitoring the thousands of signals that are transmitted to and from the campus phone lines, all of which run through the twisting wires and thousands of blinking computer chips.

Hebbeln knows what each one of them does and where each one goes.

“He’s very, very into his telephony,” his wife Debbie Hebbeln said.

Into telephony may be an understatement, but according to CSU’s Vice President of Information Patrick Burns, Hebbeln is just the man CSU needs to make sure its phone system works under any circumstance.

“He’s a gem from top to bottom,” Burns said.

Hebbeln’s technical skill is critical in keeping elevator and emergency phones up and working at all times, even during power failures, Burns said, and although Hebbeln attributes much of the system’s functionality and reliability to its design, back-up batteries and generator, he has no small part in its continued operation.

“They don’t see all the background work and all the worry we do to make sure we have a system that works 99.999 percent of the time,” Hebbeln said.

But for Hebbeln, the job extends beyond his nerdish understanding of the birdlike clicks and chirps his machines produce, and his passion lies with the emotional connections between human beings rather than the physical connections between cables.

“I guess I’m a geek, but I think I’m a human geek,” Hebbeln said. “I like to work with people. I like to get this stuff so it works for them. That really is the crux of the thing.”

Knowing he makes human interaction possible, even simple, he said, gives the job its full value.

“We already have the technology in our heads to move our lips and pass on words and emotions,” Hebbeln said. “The phone just conveys it.”

“I like to keep a humanness to this because that’s what the whole voice system is,” he added, his voice softening with zealous appreciation, “It’s not just words — it’s inflections; it’s urgency; it’s sympathy; it’s loss; it’s happiness. There is a lot of emotion going through this thing.”

For Hebbeln, his own daily interactions with people make the job worth getting up for, and he takes pleasure in helping people solve their technology issues.

Despite the “gazillion” help request e-mails he receives — admittedly his greatest flaw — Hebbeln will even steal some of his co-workers’ work orders to try to interact with as many people as possible each day.

“Without social interaction between us and other people, then we just don’t exist, do we? We’re in a void,” Hebbeln said.

His interaction with phone users does not stop with troubleshooting, though. Hebbeln said he takes such pride in his system that he records the error messages users receive after dialing an incorrect number himself.

“To call off campus,” his gruff voice directs, tinny and disembodied, from the receiver, “you must dial 8 and the local number.”

Hebbeln said he tries to bring in a “sort of radio professionalism” to the recordings and goes so far as to drink just one beer the night before he does a recording to create the deep voice he calls his “beer voice.”

As trivial as it may seem at first, that very same “professionalism” that motivates Hebbeln to create his “beer voice,” also prompts him to protect the rights of his clients.

In spite of being a fly on the wall of any conversation that travels through CSU’s phone lines, Hebbeln is a staunch defender of privacy rights, refusing to provide records to anyone, law enforcement included, without due process and a court order.

In accordance with federal law and the U.S. Constitution, he does not keep any records of conversations and said, even under the “gray area” created by the Patriot Act, when CSU police officers approached him without a court order, looking for the international call records of a student, he unflinchingly refused.

“I just try to run (the system) the best I can and as professionally as I can. And I’m not the manager. I’m just a switch technician,” Hebbeln said.

And while he may be just a switch technician, a self-described geek, Burns described Hebbeln as outstanding ethically, technically, socially and “in every way possible,” and Hebbeln’s wife described him as “the most wonderful geek in the world.”

However, for most CSU personnel, Hebbeln will just be a ghost that makes the phones run. And that recognition just might be enough.

Enterprise Reporter Jim Sojouner can be reached at tips@collegian.com.

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