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10 Steps to Becoming an AV Pro, with Tips From Experts

It’s easy to see why people are interested in this industry. You get to meet tons of interesting people, nearly every project/day at work is different, and you’re constantly working with the newest technologies and coolest gadgets. Arrive at a house in a van loaded down with high-tech goodies, be viewed by your customers as some mash-up between a computer genius, wizard and super hero, and then at the end of the day, press a single button and make…magic. Unlike any other trade—electrician, plumber, HVAC, cable/telephone, gardener—AV installers are generally celebrated when they come to a house. They bring with them a head-full of knowledge and make a house a fun place to live.

It doesn’t happen as much anymore, but there was a time when one of my top “Questions from Readers” was: “How do I get a job in the Custom Installation industry?”

And it’s easy to see why people are interested in this industry. You get to meet tons of interesting people, nearly every project/day at work is different, and you’re constantly working with the newest technologies and coolest gadgets. Arrive at a house in a van loaded down with high-tech goodies, be viewed by your customers as some mash-up between a computer genius, wizard and super hero, and then at the end of the day, press a single button and make…magic. Unlike any other trade—electrician, plumber, HVAC, cable/telephone, gardener—AV installers are generally celebrated when they come to a house. They bring with them a head-full of knowledge and make a house a fun place to live.

So, if you’ve ever considered a career in the fast-paced world of audio/video installations but wondered where to start, look no further! Here’s 10 tips that will at least put you on the path to your first installation paycheck.

1. Get a system of your own
To be successful in this industry, you’ve gotta love it. And whether that means, “love movies” or “love music” or “love gaming,” it’s gonna mean having a system of your own. In fact, the one question that has proven to be more telling about the future success of an employee more than anything else is, “Do you own a system of your own?” If you don’t love the industry enough to have even a modest system in your own house, then I would seriously question whether you are right for this industry. Also, having your own system is a great way to get to know how things work; how they connect, how they install, how they configure. And, yes, actually, this IS where I started in this business.

2. Connect systems for friends/family
Before you go “pro” it doesn’t hurt to spend some time in the amateur ranks. Practice on friend’s and family’s gear. Be the guy that jumps in behind their racks and cleans things up and gets them working. This will give you some great real world experience in seeing how things look in the field, and how often you find bad work going behind other people. Clean it up, make it look pretty, and make it work. Consider that every system you play with is another knowledge BB in your jar; and you can NEVER have enough BBs in your jar.

3. Read industry mags/trade journals
This goes along with loving the stuff, but nothing will help you keep abreast with the latest technologies like reading what the pros have to say about things. Resources like Sound + Vision and Home Theater can be found at most big book sellers, and to keep abreast of the industry from the inside look no further than Residential Systems or TWICE (This Week in Consumer Electronics). These will help you to answer questions like: What are the hot new technologies and brands? How do they work? What are their pros and cons?

4. Read owner’s manuals
Way back when, I used to walk into Big Box stores and say, “I know that you can’t answer my question, so can you just get the model XXX manual for me and let me look through it for a bit?” The salesperson would then inevitably puff out their chest and with an “I am all knowing!” look ask me what my question was, and I’d hit them with the specific AC-3 (Dolby Digital) figure I was researching and then they’d say, “Oh, umm, yeah. I don’t know. Let me get you the manual.” Now you can find practically ANY manual online. And it is a great resource for getting to know how things work. It’s knowledge. And, just like GI Joe said, knowledge is power. Or maybe it was, “And knowing is half the battle!” Something. But GI Joe was definitely pro knowledge.

5. Get a set of tools
To be successful in this business, you’re going to need a tool bag with some basic items in your kit. Things like screwdrivers, tape measure, flashlight, wire cutters/strippers, cordless screw gun, hammer, level, drywall saw, socket set, pliers, wet noodle, etc. There are more advanced tools like wire tracer/toner kits, multi-meters and wire termination tools that you might need once you get hired on to a place, but these are the basics that most companies will expect you to supply on your own. Plus, since you’ll be doing all of that work for friends and family, you’re gonna need some tools anyhow, right?

6. Understand construction
A lot of this job involves construction, so being comfortable – or at least “not a danger to yourself or anyone around you” – on a construction site is important. (Did I ever tell you guys about the time I thought I could balance like 8 sheets of sheetrock against my body while I nailed up a wallbox behind it? It was HYSTERICAL how it almost shattered my leg! Ah, good times…) Knowing how to run a drill, how to read a tape, how to make sure something is level, how to tack up wiring, etc. will all be very important skills to have. Also, get comfortable working off a ladder, moving about on rafters in attics or belly crawling in crawlspaces*. If you can pick up “advanced” skills like fishing wiring through walls, removing crown molding or baseboards, repairing drywall, getting wiring under carpeting, working a multi-foot-long flexbit, or how to fabricate a pulley system to hoist some Lutron shades up to the 16th floor of a high-rise it will be an added and welcome bonus.

(* Read: “areas where you will literally be belly crawling with floor joists literally inches above your head through dirt and mud, likely through very old spiderwebs and possibly deceased rodent (?) carcasses. Live snakes/creatures optional, but not guaranteed.)

7. Look into CEDIA training
Want to get trained up like the pros do? Get CEDIA certified. CEDIA offers installer bootcamps that will come with a certification that is recognized throughout the industry and will definitely put you ahead of other job seekers. This is real hands-on training working with real tools and real gear, and you will definitely come out of bootcamp ready to be a productive member of an install team. CEDIA offers a ton of training in different areas, and if you attend the annual EXPO, there are literally *hundreds* of classes covering virtually every segment of the custom installation industry. There are also tons of FREE manufacturer classes that will help you get knowledged up on specific product.

8. Learn whatever you can about Networking
The world—and consequently this industry—is increasingly moving to being a totally connected and networked one. Televisions, appliances, security systems, power meters, you name it. This means that anything you can learn about networking is going to become invaluable. From setting up and troubleshooting basic home networks, to creating robust WiFi clouds, to locking down security and and enabling remote access, the more that you can bring to the table in this area, the more you’ll be ready to be the Custom Installer 2.0 of tomorrow. If you’re still in school—or about to go back—technical schools offer courses that will put you on the right track. And just this year CEDIA added a “Residential Networking Specialist” certification.

9. Knowing “Computer”
Anymore, the most valuable tool on the jobsite anymore is a laptop being “driven” by the programmer. When the programming is done right, magic happens. When it isn’t, it’s all just a useless pile of black boxes and miles of cable. If you’re comfortable writing code or like the idea of sitting at a desk and designing touchscreen layouts and assigning digital join numbers and triggered macro events, then programming may be for you. Companies like Crestron, Savant, Elan, Control4 and URC all offer advanced training classes where you can learn to program their specific systems. Quite a few people make a *good* living as being authorized independent programmers, hiring out their coding skills to companies in need.

10. Get to know companies in your area
If you’re really serious, start getting to know the companies in your area. Stop in and make your interests known. Ask them about the different roles in their company and how someone could get started. They might not be hiring now, but you never know when things may change. And if you give a good impression, maybe they’ll give you a try out.

This industry has opened up many opportunities for me, and there’s always room for another eager set of hands. If you end up switching to a career in this field, drop me an e-mail and let me know how it’s working out. Or, better yet, come and say, “Hey!” at next year’s CEDIA.

Want to know what other pros have to say? Here’s some job-seeking advice from other installers that have been there/done that and what they think you should do to make yourself more employable.

The old rules no longer apply. Build your skill set not only from the technical side of AV, but also in related technologies, specifically IT. You will be responsible for much more than speaker wires and HDMI cables in the very near future. Learn the basics of networking, and how wired networks and wireless networks work, add this as an important part of your tool belt and you will see your opportunities for advancement grow quickly.” – Rich Fregosa, Principal at Fregosa Design

I think that the qualities needed to be successful in the AV industry as an installer are having a love for technology, enjoying being hands on, playing with “toys,” having passion indicated by the desire to work with AV on your spare time, and most importantly, being creative and enjoying finding solutions.” – Steve Greenblatt, CTS Control Concepts, Inc.

To be an installer, you must be willing to work. It can be hard work, but it’s never going to be boring work. Installing is an adrenaline rush like jumping out of a plane; when you put it all together and you’re under the deadline of it just *has* to work. You have to be a creative thinker, able to think out of the box; to figure out how to get that wire from here to there. You can’t get frustrated and quit. An installer has to be technical yet have a personality that can deal with clients (some breathing down your neck as you are twisted into some crazy position to plug in an HDMI cable). It’s a tough breed to find… Anyone looking? I’m hiring!” — Heather Sidorowicz, Project Manager/Designer at Southtown Audio Video

Mentally prepare yourself for the ‘Just drop that TV off at my house’ jokes… there will be lots.

If you’re going to stand on the top of an extension ladder, lift a display that’s way too heavy or cram yourself into a crawlspace that’s too small for you, always stretch first. When all else fails, just go wait in the van.” – Phillip “HiPhi” Cordell, President HiPhidelity LLC

Be prepared to be the attic rat, the wire puller, and the one making the trips to Home Depot. It’s called paying your dues. We have all done it, rookie. So be efficient and bust it out without complaining. The only thing waiting on the other side is your AV dreams. Make yourself indispensable and begin with the end in mind. Oh, and never drink cheap beer; it will impair your performance.” – Jeff Terzo, Regional Sales Manager at RS Pro Sales

The CI industry is about delivering an experience. It’s not about the gear, it’s not about the widgets. All of those are important things to know, but ultimately your job is deliver a seamless enjoyable experience to your client. With that said, I would highlight a few things for a beginning installer: Attend CEDIA as often as possible. Learn how to read blueprints. Realize that this industry is not like any other (IT, Electrical, or any other contracting business). Those industries have defined standards, while ours are constantly changing. Be prepared to learn something new every day. Every. Single. Day. Figure out who the best people are in your city, state, region – and model yourself after them. Have people skills. As an installer, you are often either the last, or most common, point of contact with a customer. You can make or break a relationship with the way you treat customers.” – Doug Seaman, Audio Video Designer, Nebraska Furniture Mart

One of the most important pieces of advice I can give to an up-and-comer is to value and take care of their customers because if they don’t, someone else will. Listen to what they have to say. Ask as many lifestyle questions as you can to make the customer feel valued and not like they are being sold. This business is mainly focused on the customers, not the products or the tools. The customer is what keeps us in business. Our drive to keep the customer happy is what keeps them coming back.” – Todd Anthony Puma, President, The Source Home Theater

For those interested in going the college route, I would say that Electrical Engineering, Broadcast Communications and Telecommunications would be the closest to what we do. I graduated with a degree in BA in Communications and my internship with the broadcast team was invaluable to my career. Pulling cable, connecting projectors and camera set up gave me a solid foundation for AV. Once in the business the best advice would be to go after certifications and trainings. I feel it’s one of the best ways you can advance your career as most companies will value these and they will give the necessary documentation to move to the next level. The hands on experience plus the documentation is a good way to move from tech, to senior tech, to Project Manager or Sales. Don’t let your employer hold you back; if they won’t provide training seek free online trainings from manufactures and webinars. If the company you work for does not value training all together then they do not believe in developing their staff from within, then it’s time to seek out one that does.

CTS [Certified Technology Specialist] is your first goal if you’re searching for a starting point. Once you obtain your CTS maintaining it with credits keeps your up to date on the new technology and products in the industry.” – Chris Neto, Audiovisual Professional with AV Helpdesk Inc.

John Sciacca is principal of Custom Theater and Audio in Myrtle Beach, SC.