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Schools Out? Hardly…

The Marriage of A/V and IT Demands On-Going Training

As information technology has made its way into residential systems, traditional, A/V-based custom installers are increasingly treading across what for many is uncharted territory. No longer is IT training and certification nice to have; its a necessity.

So much of what we do is a promise of technology today and whats coming, observed Gordon van Zuiden, president of CyberManor in Los Gatos, California. A customer gives a lot of credibility for not only what you have done in the past, but where you can lead them. Since technology is definitely moving in the direction of digital connections, Internet and networking, to leave that part out would be a glaring omission.

This includes know-how in both wired and wireless systems, noted Rich Green, president of Rich Green Ink in Palo Alto, California. All of our systems have rigorously designed networks behind them, he explained. We usually cover every square inch of the property with WiFi, which can be a challenge. The technicians need to know how to set up the system from basic cable termination all the way up to subnet masks and IP addressing.

Even the nature of audio technology has progressed to the point where many systems are IT-based. For the most part, we are experts in audio and video in the home. Now, we need to be experts in the serving portion of audio/video, van Zuiden said. We all know how to hook up to service providers and getting the right equipment, but what has changed is that the content itself is no longer on a discrete platter that is moved around; its actually on a hard drive. Now it involves one source drive to potentially many rooms. Installers need to understand the principles of audio and video servers, and the distribution of that content to different clients around the house, which is really IT.

The increasing number of telecommuters has also boosted the demand for sophisticated home office systems. Custom installers tend to stay away from that office, and have the IT person from work handle those needs, van Zuiden said. The problem is, the office is becoming an increasing source of the content to the family room and home theater, and its also becoming a place of control for that content.

Green acknowledges that obtaining the right training requires dealers and their employees to make a significant investment of time, however the proliferation of online courses allows professionals some flexibility. Its hard for people that are running successful businesses where everyone is busy to commit the time to get the training and certification, he conceded. We are responding to that as best we canthats why we are putting these courses online and providing online certification. We are trying to stretch it out so that there are many dates and many places around the country where you can go and obtain these things. That seems to be helpful. There are a lot of people who are doing online training and certification now. Everyone knows that they must go and do it, because if they dont, the systems we install dont work.

Dan Schwab, vice president of marketing at D&H Distributing, acknowledged that while organized training is still relatively new, there are a number of programs available. CompTIAs Home Technology Integrator certification exam, HTI+, was launched in 2004, covering categories such as home security, A/V, computer networks, electrical wiring, HVAC, cable/satellite, broadband, telecommunications, and structured wiring, he listed. NASBA and CEA also recently launched a digital home portal that offers certification and training. Information is available at Schwab added that D&H offers seminars through the companys free reseller trade show events, as well.

Green also emphasized the importance of working with manufacturers that provide adequate information on how their systems are programmed and installed. Will West, CEO of Control4 in Salt Lake City, Utah, views the dealer-manufacturer relationship like a partnership. At Control4, we have our own certification program, he said. As a manufacturer, we dont rely on the outside world filling in the gaps; we do that ourselves. We consider it a partnership with our dealers. We need to provide the materials, and they need to be committed to learning them.

According to NetStreams vice president of marketing Petro Shimonishi, the good news is that IT may be easier for the traditional A/V-based custom installer to learn than if the scenario was reversed. NetStreams was formed on the basis of a vision that the A/V and PC worlds would merge to offer networked entertainment in the home, and that vision is certainly coming true based on the trends weve seen in the market. In order for an installer to take advantage of these future trends, NetStreams believes that it is important they learn basic TCP/IP networking, Shimonishi said. One of the things that weve learned out there is that it is much easier to learn networking skills than it is to learn about audio and video practices, so installers that have a background in A/V have a slight advantage over new entrants from the IT space.

While the value of IT training and certification is apparent, it has not reached the point where all homeowners recognize just how important it ismainly due to the fact that this industry is so young. If you walk into the office of a lawyer, doctor, or architect and you see their schools accreditation on the wall, you have a sense that these people know what they are doing. Its an established process in education, and we know what it probably took for those people to get it, van Zuiden illustrated. In low voltage and the custom installation market today, to get a CEDIA designer certification, for example, is not really well understood by the consumer. There hasnt been much branding of our skill sets. Certificates on the wall dont mean a whole lot; in our business, what means more is what the last customer said about you.

As systems grow more all-encompassing, custom installers will be driven to gain more general knowledge about everything that is available to homeowners, van Zuiden maintains. The future is really about connectivity in the home. Installers are going to have to be more general in their knowledgethey will need to know about audio, video, data, and control, he said. Having expertise in one particular area is becoming less valuable than having general knowledge across a number of fields. Homeowners want these solutions to come from one vendor. There comes a point where you dont want to take on the liability of doing security systems, for example, and that is a valid stopping point. However, as an integrator, you need to at least know a bit about them, and then partner with the right people so that you collaborate well with these other systems.

Right now, custom installers must not only obtain the training necessary to provide what is currently available to homeowners, they must plan for the future. Despite the recent changes in the launch dates, new platforms like Intels Viiv technology and the forthcoming Microsoft Vista are poised to become the gold standard in connected living rooms across America, Schwab observed. These technologies are purpose-built to accommodate the driving forces of the digital home, especially through the management of digital media, and up to and including more peripheral entertainment functions like gaming systems. Installers will also want to accommodate emerging services such as IPTV and video delivery, which will require expertise in IP networking [another strong component of the Viiv platform].

As equipment margins continue to decrease, custom installers must be able to deliver excellent service to remain profitable. The key to keeping the business alive in the future is services. The only way to do that is to beef up your training and certification for the people who are out in the field providing those services, Green said. To sell services, you must have impeccable professionalism throughout your company. For clients who are paying a lot of money per hour for a specialist to perform IT work, the work has to be right. You cant have callbacks or mistakes. Training is a huge issue; technicians must be up to speed so that the higher and more consistent labor billings can be justified.

Carolyn Heinze ([email protected]) is a freelance writer/editor.