Jacks Of Both Trades
AV firms recruit and assimilate IT talent as convergence comes full circle.
“An IT guy in an AV world:” Kris Vollrath of Advanced AV, was a 25-year computer industry veteran when he joined the West Chester, Pa., company.
“I’m an IT guy in an AV world,” says Kris Vollrath, director of convergence technologies for Advanced AV (AAV) in West Chester, Pa. Indeed, Vollrath was a 25-year computer-industry veteran, doing everything from PC sales to running computer networks to enterprise IT management for a large health care services provider, before joining four years ago with Advanced AV’s President and Chief Operating Officer Jay Armand.
Vollrath had napkin-CAD’d an IT infrastructure for the integrator’s headquarters in West Chester many years earlier. When he reconnected with Armand, AAV was trying to integrate new products from VBrick Systems that facilitate streaming video over IP networks. That’s when Armand realized he needed IT experience on the team and pulled the trigger.
“Jay said, ‘I need someone with IT experience that understands some of these new products we’re getting into,’ ” recalls Vollrath, who was quickly brought onboard at AAV as a sales engineer, a role he considered “a science experiment” at the time.
Looking back, it turned out to be science grounded in a solid hypothesis: With the AV and IT worlds quickly converging, AAV needed someone who not only understood the new products and IP networks they run on, but who also could communicate effectively with —and earn the trust of — the IT pros in charge of these networks. Coming in with an enthusiast’s education in AV hardware, a natural acumen that let him become CTS-certified within a week of joining AAV, Vollrath has thrived in his new role.
As AAV’s system integration business has grown into a $30 million-a-year operation, Vollrath’s job has evolved to the level of director of convergence technologies, overseeing the firm’s advanced technologies group, a division charged with servicing emerging product applications, including digital signage and streaming media. Vollrath has staffed this small division with network knowledge in mind.
“The people I have working for me are all IT professionals who are fully versed in the product lines we work with,” says Vollrath. “They now have AV backgrounds, but they’re essentially IT people.”
AAV is not alone. Increasingly, AV system integrators are putting people with primarily IT backgrounds in charge of their technical operations.
“We’re in a transition period where projectors and plasmas have become commoditized, and the IT department can get them from an IT distributor,” says Paul Zielie, president of Woodbridge, Va.-based Visual Systems Integration Group, a company that distributes products supporting MPEG-4 video to AV systems integrators, and helps these clients troubleshoot networks. “When an end client wants to put in a videoconferencing system, they can just as easily go to their IT department as an AV provider, in many cases. The executive management for the typical AV systems integrator has to be aware that the IT world is going after their traditional AV jobs, and the only way to play against the IT department is to have IT skills.”
At Sensory Technologies, an AV integrator in Indianapolis, Microsoft-certified Engineer Blaine Brown is director of technology, but many of those who work under him boast serious computer business credentials as well. In fact, starting in 2000, the year Brown was hired, company Principal Andrew Sellers says, “We knew we needed expertise toward the network.”
Sellers maintains it’s not enough for the company’s AV systems to simply match clients’ network specifications. They have to be able to hook it up and test it themselves.
Rashid Skaf, president of AV control systems maker AMX Corp., has his roots in IT, landing at the company from Nortel Networks.
Credit: AMX Corp.
“It’s become more and more evident to all of us since then that our customers are pushing us into that space,” he says. “It’s no longer acceptable for us to just give our clients a videoconferencing system checked to their network. We now have to check it through their network…and we have to have the IT department’s respect that we know what we’re talking about before we make any changes to their network.”
From an engineering perspective, Sensory Technologies definitely needs to know how to speak to its IT people, says its Design Engineer Jim Slone, who once ran a radio station’s IT network. “When they’re giving us feedback or asking any kind of questions, we have to know what they’re talking about,” he says. “You not only have to know basic things, such as how to traverse the firewall. When issues arise — and they will —you’re the troubleshooting guy.”
According to Vollrath, individuals with IT knowledge are invaluable to the sales department as well as the technical side of the house.
“There have been situations where we hadn’t been involved until the last phase of the sales process, when the IT guy is saying, ‘What is this? What are you doing?’ ” he says. “We’ll have a 15-minute conference call, and he’ll say, ‘Now I’m fine with it.’…If you don’t know how a product will impact the network, or you can’t articulate what you want from [an IT staffer], he won’t be comfortable with you, and you’ll jeopardize the project.”
IT KNOWLEDGE: NATURE OR NURTURE?
InfoComm education officials refer to them as the glue guys — people with hybrid engineering skills who can serve as liaison in the relationship between a pro AV systems integrator and its clients’ IT departments.
“He’s the guy who brings both sides together and allows each to understand what the other requires,” says Kris Vollrath, director of convergence technologies for West Chester, Pa.-based Advanced AV, who consulted for InfoComm on developing its new AV/IT integration curriculum.
According to Vollrath, InfoComm officials posed a simple question to him: “What do these guys need to know to be ‘you?’ ”
As it turns out, the answer was quite involved. “It’s not going to be a three-day course and, boom, they’re going to walk out of there knowing exactly what they need to know about networks,” says Vollrath. “What they’re trying to do in this first, basic course is give the students enough knowledge to recognize what they’re hearing, and at least understand it. Some may feel a little hosed down, but at least they are getting wet, and some of it is bound to stick.”
This begs another question: If AV firms are seeking to integrate IT wherewithal into their ranks, should they train their own staffs, or should they recruit people with IT backgrounds from the outside?
“It’s something we talk about all the time, but I think the IT side is harder to learn,” says Vollrath. “That’s why I hired IT guys in my division. The amount of AV they need to know to do their jobs is easier to teach. It would be very difficult to bring somebody from the AV side and teach them everything they need to know about IT. Plus, I have a proven AV company with an excellent engineering department behind me to support the AV side of the solution when it goes beyond our abilities.”
In seeking to educate clients about his company’s streaming video products, Rich Mavrogeanes, founder and chief technology officer of VBrick Systems in Wallingford, Conn., holds the opposite perspective.
“One would have thought it would be easier to teach IT people all about video than teaching AV people about routers and such,” he says. “But it turns out that the IT people are often a little less than willing to learn about AV.”
Even with simplest videoconferencing system, Jim Slone, design engineer for Sensory Technologies, an AV integration firm in Indianapolis, says that the IT portion is definitely part of it, “but you still have to have a knowledge base of how audio and video work,” he says.
Although there is no consensus on the best way for AV systems integrators to assimilate IT knowledge, there is agreement that it is essential to get it, by any means necessary. This is especially true on the sales end, where a little hosing down is never a bad thing.
“When we do education for our [integrator] clients, we also try to educate the sales people and give them enough IT information to be dangerous,” says Paul Zielie, president of Visual Systems Integration Group in Woodbridge, Va. More and more, the customer brings along an IT person on sales calls, “and the salesperson has to be able to address any technical issues that come up.”
Intricate knowledge of the IT world also helps Vollrath communicate with vendors. “We have a very tight relationship with the vendors we’ve chosen as best of breed,” he says. “Because of that, not only do we get the road maps of how this stuff works, but we also get a tighter understanding of the way it works with today’s AV products.”
For its part, Sensory Technologies’ assimilation of IT talent includes its sales force. Derek Paquin, director of business development, says the company has a 16-member business development team whose experiences vary from straight AV backgrounds to network operation backgrounds to strictly business-to-business development skills.
According to Paquin, Sensory tries to send a clear marketing message: Its people are technologically bilingual. “From a sales standpoint, we make sure our knowledge and expertise are fully displayed as having talents” in both the IT and AV areas, he says. “We can separate ourselves from our competition very quickly that way.”
As convergence transforms the pro AV industry, people with IT-centric knowledge bases are infiltrating the ranks of AV product vendors, too, often at the highest levels. There is perhaps no better example than AMX Corp. President Rashid Skaf, who before joining the Richardson, Texas, AV control systems giant headed Nortel Networks’ Broadband Wireless Access division, among other tech-related jobs. “I came out of the telecom world, which is the ultimate in IT,” says Skaf.
With AMX products increasingly connected to network environments and managed by network operators, Skaf says it’s essential that the company’s key decision-makers grasp both the AV and IT worlds.
“We’re a completely different company than we were just five years ago,” he says. “Every piece of equipment we produce is network-based now. I think it’s absolutely essential that management understand the value of this type of [network] infrastructure. I find that, even today, a lot of vendors on the AV side put an Ethernet port on their equipment and call it network-enabled, but that’s not the case. The skill sets of our employees have evolved quite dramatically over that five-year span. We’ve added a lot of people with a network-centric understanding.”
Expertise on the IT side only comes if senior management is committed, says Rich Mavrogeanes, who founded VBrick Systems of Wallingford, Conn., in 1997, and now is its chief technology officer.
“Every product we make has to exhibit excellent network citizenship,” he says. “If the IT staff doesn’t trust the equipment, they won’t allow it on their network.”
Breaking the Mold
Once honored with Computerworld magazine’s “Hero Award,” Mavrogeanes’ background includes senior technical, marketing, and management positions at Avidia, Switched Network Technologies, Dataproducts Corp., and General DataCom. However, he spent the early part of his career as a filmmaker, which resulted in an interest in audiovisual technology.
Visual Systems Integration Group President Zielie touts a similarly ambidextrous skill set. “My background comes from integrating large-scale command-and-control projects for the government,” he says. “We started bringing AT and IT together with simulations for these networks. … You can look at us as an IT company with an AV component, or an AV company with an IT component, but we’re comfortable in both realms.”
Both Mavrogeanes and Zielie say such duality remains a precious commodity in an AV business that still has a long way to go to achieve IT literacy.
“The skill sets range from ‘I don’t know how to spell IT’ to ‘I can configure a router’ to ‘I can enable an entire network,’ ” says Mavrogeanes. “Most people in the AV business right now are on the left side of that range.”
However, most of the larger integrators have someone they identify as their “smart IT guy,” says Zielie. Even though some of his clients are beginning to cultivate IT literacy among their personnel, he says many of them still fall short when it comes to understanding the fundamentals of IP networks.
“They have plenty of people who know all about video and control systems, but most of them still lack someone who knows how firewalls are traversed, how bandwidth is properly allocated, or how the IT department itself should be interfaced with properly,” says Zielie. “I’m not saying they should become an IT shop and offer those services, but they need to control where the IT network and the AV meet.”
Daniel Frankel is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.