Most people know Safaricom as a Kenyan mobile network operator in Kenya. And true to that, it is the largest telecommunications provider in Kenya, and one of the most profitable companies across Africa region.
The Safaricom House, along Waiyaki Way, is known to the headquarters of Safaricom. The twin tower is where most visitors end up because that’s where the Chief Executive Officer, the senior leadership, and many of the staff sit.
However, our focus this time will not be the usual Safaricom House, rather, a second office not known to many of Safaricom’s customers as well as its employees. This is the Safaricom Care Centre. It is known by the staff as SCC.
As you drive down towards the city center along Waiyaki Way, this nine-floor building, set back from the road, and surrounded by trees, houses the Safaricom Care Centre. initially, after being moved from Extelcoms House on Haile Selassie Avenue, the building is the second home of the telecommunication company.
Inside the building, the fourth floor to be precise houses the company’s network operations control.
In one of the rooms labeled ‘Restricted Access’ and ‘Network Operations Centre’ on the door, is where network coverage is monitored. There are four monitors to each desk and on the wall, hang large TV screens.
One screen shows a live map of Kenya with major parts covered in green and some parts in yellow. There is also a key in the corner that signals the technical team in case of any trouble if the yellow turns to red. Others show lines on graphs while others have figures that blink constantly. Others have large tables showing things are good when they are green and bad news if they turn red.
Meshack Kiminza, one of the managers in one of the work shifts tells us how this place is unknown to most people among them, the very employees to the giant telco.
“I don’t know how many people have visited this place, but there are probably people in this company that doesn’t know that it exists. People who work for other divisions may never know that there is a command center for the network,” says Mr. Kiminza.
Despite the seemingly technical and complex work involved in ensuring everything runs smoothing across the country, Meshack is confident about his team’s capabilities, thanks to his nine years of work experience in the center.
“By the time you notice that something is not working on the Safaricom network, there is already someone at NOC who has already picked it and it’s being worked on.”
The team that Meshack oversees spends the day staring at screens, monitoring the entire Safaricom network, and everything that is happening on every service that the Safaricom offers.
That room is known as the Front Office while the Back Office team makes routine checks and calls, using an Incident Management Software to identify and get faults solved. Incidents are marked, in order of their severity, as major, critical, or crisis.
The Back Office consists of the technicians and engineers working behind the network. They work in a different room.
Meshack reveals that Major and critical incidents are handled by the team, but when it gets to crisis mode, everyone is briefed.
“Once in a while, a crisis will inevitably strike and when it does, it gets very busy, and things get very hot.” adds Meshack.
“Calls have to be made to the engineers and technicians who repair broken transmissions masts and cut cables or the software engineers who have to figure out codes; calls have to be made to the senior colleagues up the road who run the departments and ultimately, the CEO will organize for the customers and the public to know that work is under-way to restore services.” says Meshack
Meshack terms it a “pressure cooker environment”. A problem requires sort of military precision and the team involved usually has to trace every step they take to restore the service to normal.
The onset of COVID-19 in the country has affected how Meshack and the entire team at the Operations Centre work.
“When coronavirus reached our shores and brought with it the need for social distancing and working from home where possible to limit the spread of the novel virus, they tried working from home and found that it was no good.”
After several meetings and deliberations, it was agreed that only the Back Office could work from home while the Front Office team have four shifts of 16 people working 12 hours per shift. With that in place, the teams were able to spread out in the building and practice social distancing.
Further, Each team must hand over to the next shift 10 minutes before the end of their shift and handing over virtually and then following it up with a call.
COVID-19 has forced Meshack and his team to hasten a project they were working on. The project aims to automate every aspect of work done by machines in the control center. The whole project, Meshack says will revolutionize the NOC and streamline it with the future needs of Safaricom and its customers.
“We have had to figure out how to be future-proof,” he said.
“Nobody knows whether we will ever go back to living and working as we did before Covid-19. Face-to-face interactions will reduce, and the team will need to have a better way of working away from the premises.” Meshack added.
Mental well-being is taken seriously that’s why staffs take breaks of 5 minutes to stretch and exercise led by the in-house champion trained by the Human Resource.
“Being a pressure cooker environment, if you don’t consider the mental well-being of the staff, then it can easily trip and become worse. Consciously we take care of that,” said Meshack.
The team at the center has been together so long and besides working together, they have grown into a very social group and family.
“Out of that unofficial interaction, we build a lot of bonds. It may look like it’s not by design, but it is by design. We try to make it as unofficial as possible and that and that works to our advantage if there is a major incident and we need to collaborate more closely under intense pressure,” he said.
Despite the network operations control center remain unknown to many, its contribution to the telecommunication giant remains immense thanks to Meshack and his team who ensure the blinking beacon never loses its bright light.