Survival Skills - Sound & Video Contractor

Survival Skills

New technology tends to take off like a rocket; it starts off slowly and then quickly gains great speed. In 1995, how many consumers were connected to
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Survival Skills

Aug 1, 2003 12:00 PM, Carl Bowman

New technology tends to take off like a rocket; it starts off slowly and then quickly gains great speed. In 1995, how many consumers were connected to the Internet? Only eight years later, how many can live without it? In 1995 everybody had VCRs. Now you can barely find them on store shelves. Technology and the ways people use it can change in the blink of an eye.

It seems unreal to think that the home of the future will integrate computers, audio and video equipment, telecommunications, lighting, heating, air conditioning, water systems, and security all into one system under one roof. However, if you look into the development plans of the major appliance manufacturers, you will find that they are working on products designed to do just that. This isn't limited to the drawing boards; these products are already beginning to appear in showrooms. The connected home will be here before you know it, and it's time to start developing the necessary survival skills for your business.

Last year I worked with the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) to research what skills and knowledge are required to successfully integrate products and systems within the connected home. Subsequently, CompTIA, in collaboration with the Internet Home Alliance, introduced the Home Technology Integrator (HTI+) certification.

According to our studies, the home integration market will require personnel with expertise in a variety of components and services. These include everything from audio/video systems, telecommunications and computer technology to heating, ventilation, water systems, low- and high-voltage wiring, and home lighting controls. As the technology develops, knowledge of home security and surveillance systems will also become more important, and because you will be working in your client's home, customer relations and project planning skills are essential.

Sound and video contractors are in an excellent position to profit from the sale and integration of such a wide range of products, having traditionally been at the forefront of expertise in consumer electronics. Planning and installing advanced systems in consultation with knowledgeable customers has long been a hallmark of this industry. Sound and video contractors also have a base of competent and motivated technicians from which to draw. These technicians will want to broaden their skills and enter this new and demanding arena.

It is important to note that the concept of the integrated environment will eventually extend beyond the home; developments in connected products will drive consumers to seek out the same conveniences in their offices, as well. The “connected home” in this article refers to both commercial and in-home applications.

One of the things we learned while developing the HTI+ certification was the importance of project planning and communication skills to the success of a connected home project. These survival skills include the ability to:

identify the client's current and future needs;

conduct a site/project survey that includes type of construction (for example, remodel, new construction, retrofit, single/multistory, single/multifamily dwelling), current environment (existing equipment and systems), location of equipment, systems, geographic location of house (rural, suburban, urban), and topography (mountains, desert);

develop a preliminary design proposal and review it with the client. Make sure that it includes the scope of services that you're offering, as well as practical concerns like budget, equipment, timeline, and the terms of payment;

confirm equipment list and procure required items;

develop connectivity documentation (wire charts, schematics, equipment layouts);

train clients on operation of equipment/systems;

and offer service maintenance contracts to the client.

KNOW YOUR SUBSYSTEMS

Things certainly were simpler when all you had to do was help the client specify and install a standalone system. Now, potentially, there are eight or more subsystems you may be called upon to integrate. Here is a look at three of them. I have selected these as examples to demonstrate the breadth of knowledge required. This information is based on input we received from experts during the development of the HTI+ certification.

Computer systems

Successful home integrators will be comfortable with a wide range of computer networking fundamentals, including networking hardware equipment, industry standards and protocols, network design considerations and industry practices, and network data transmission methods. In addition, home integrators working with computers should have the skills required to design, implement and maintain a home computer network. They should be comfortable with key industry terminology.

Telecommunication

Technicians will know current telecommunication standards and protocols. They will be familiar with designing a home telecommunications network, and they will understand location considerations for various devices. Troubleshooting and maintenance procedures should be second nature.

Home lighting and control

Technicians will be familiar with standard configurations and settings of networked home lighting control and management systems. They should also be familiar with standards of device connectivity. Understanding and being proficient in system design is a must, as is being able to effectively troubleshoot problems and detail maintenance procedures.

In preparing this article, I reviewed best practices for audio and video. The sound and video contractor should already be proficient in most key job tasks and knowledge areas. The only areas you might want to brush up on are the latest developments in streaming audio, streaming video, media servers, protocol standards, video formats, organizations and codes, National Electrical Code, EIA/TIA standards, IEEE standards, Electrical Contacts Association, and Underwriters Laboratories.

Connected homes give contractors an extensive range of value-added services to offer customers. Moving into the market is going to require a disciplined approach to training and professional development for you and your team of technicians.

TRAINING AND CERTIFICATION

Start by visiting the HTI+ certification page on the CompTIA Web site (www.comptia.org/certification/hti) for a detailed overview of what technicians are going to need to know in order to be effective. The site also contains information on independent courseware and training providers. If none of those suit your needs, do an Internet search for “HTI+ training,” and you will be rewarded with a host of alternative opportunities. If you are interested in self-study, do a search for “HTI+ courseware.”

The HTI+ certification is based on standards set by experts on the subject and has been verified by research. Strongly consider having your technicians earn certification directly after their training. The exams are given at Prometric (www.prometric.com) and Pearson Vue (www.vue.com) testing centers worldwide. Certification provides a mark of trust that the customer can rely on. It also can be used to promote your expertise. Sears is already requiring all of its installation integrators to earn HTI+ certification.

“Sears Connected Home wants to ensure our customers are working with certified professionals with expertise in networking products and systems — everything from entertainment centers and computers to telecommunication, broadband cable, and security systems,” said Bob Baker, director of Sears Integrated Services, business development.

The Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association (CEDIA), an association of companies that specialize in planning and installing electronic systems for the home, offers its own multilevel certifications. Information on CEDIA and its certifications can be found on the Web at www.cedia.net. The site also lists training opportunities.

The various forms of certification described in this article all have a slightly different focus. When selecting a training and certification program, be sure to look at the areas emphasized in the examination and compare those to the demands of your local market. Also keep your long-term business plans in mind. What you need immediately may not be sufficient later on, if your goals include expansion.

The important thing to understand is that training and certification go hand in hand. You and your technicians need both to gain the trust of the client.

DEVELOPING ALLIANCES

A key element of survival for the connected home contractor will be the forming of alliances with companies that sell integrated products and tools. The industry initiative under the HTI+ certification page is one place to start researching potential partners. Or try doing an Internet search for “home networking.” Also, begin developing relationships with the leading home builders and remodeling companies in your area. Establishing new working relationships and buying agreements with different companies can help ensure that you are included in projects and receive your share of leads. Attending trade events is another good way to identify potential partners. Consider the International Builders Show, the largest annual construction industry show in the world (www.buildersshow.com). The next convention will be held January 19 through 22, 2004 in Las Vegas. Another event to consider is the 2003 CEDIA Expo, which will be on September 3 through 7 in Indianapolis. Also look into events like the Consumer Electronics Show or the American Institute of Architects convention.

EVERGREEN SERVICE

In 2000 DVD players cost $300 or more. Now discount stores are selling them for less than $100. The point is that consumer electronics rapidly degenerate into commodities, eroding profit margins. The connected home offers the opportunity for contractors to provide customers with a host of value-added services that will not decline in value. In the end, this may be where the steady revenue growth will come from — a broadening of value-added services.

Survival skills change when the environment changes. Based on what we saw while we were developing the HTI+ certification, the environmental change is coming fast. Today you describe the benefits of sound and video technology. Tomorrow you will have to communicate to your customers the benefits of an integrated home system. Make sure you have the necessary skills to survive and prosper in the new reality of the connected home. Look into organizations like CompTIA, the Internet Home Alliance (a cosponsor of the development of HTI+ certification), and CEDIA. They have the information as well as the resources that can help you do just that.

Carl Bowmanis certification manager of the Computing Technology Industry Association. He can be reached atcbowman@comptia.org.

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