by John Sciacca
CEDIA has an interesting social-media campaign going on right now. It's a Tweet-up, old school versus new school. And people are encouraged to side-up as they see themselves and then battle it out in the Twitter-verse as to why they do the things they do when it comes to technology, business, sales, and training. You can follow the New School tweets here and the Old School tweets here.
And this got me to thinking about my Old School time and beginnings in this industry…
When I first jumped into the car and began this leg of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride as a custom installer, I was in my late 20’s. I was eager, I was bright of eye and bushy of tail. I loved this technology and I was ready to get out there and DO. Prior to starting this job, I had spent the majority of my working career up to that point cooped up indoors in the air-conditioned, dark wood paneled and heavy carpeted prison confines of a golf pro shop. And while you might hear the occupation “golf pro” and think “Lucky bastard; spends all day playing golf,” the far more accurate truth was the soul-crushing, not-contributing-anything-positive-to-society mundane reality of standing in a golf shop for eight hours a day checking people in and out from the course and selling the occasional sleeve of Titleists or Foot-Joy premium Cabretta glove. (To be fair, we did enjoy more than our fair share of Raspberry Iced Tea Snapple.)
In truth, once you mastered the 5 or 6 steps needed to punch a transaction into the pro shop’s computer, the job could really be boiled down to just a lot – A LOT – of glad handing, smiling, and standing around. In fact, 78 percent of my job could probably have been handled by a preppily attired mannequin delivering the expected prior to teeing off pre-recorded message, “Have a nice round, sir” and then finishing the day with the same message, only with the rising inflection of feigned interest. “Have a nice round sir?” and the occasional, “You’ll get ‘em next time.” (The other 22 percent included making random lattes for people, retrieving the mail, merciful breaks out of the golf shop under the guise of, “I’m, uh, gonna go and, uh, marshal the pace of play,” saying, “I’m sorry, but you know we have a no jeans policy,” and telling some cart guy to retrieve or clean something.)
So, when I left that job, I was ready to get out into the field. To get my hands dirty. I wanted to stop being and start doing. While I knew that I could do sales and design, I wanted to be out there in the midst of it all, putting it in, hooking it up and making it work. Standing on the front lines of installer-dom and shouting, “Look what I have wrought! What I have come to be! Behold…I have made…THEATER!”
To get into the suck, as it were.
And for a long time, I did. Belly crawl through a muddy crawl space just after a giant rain storm so you can feed a network wire from one side of the house to another with just enough room to raise your head up so your face isn’t dragging in the mud but any higher and you’re banging it on floor joists? Yeah, man, bring it! Spend hours in a disgusting old restaurant attic in the height of summer, where the thermometer is reading a steady 150 degrees and you’re wading through piles of raccoon crap and random unidentified rodent remains while the guy next to you is literally throwing up into the old installation? That’s the stuff! Run a giant-ass drill bit through beam after beam during a prewire all the while it is trying its level, non-sentient best to catch an edge and then whip back and punch you over-and-over again in the face, “Oh, wise guy, eh? Nyuk, nyuk…” style. I’m a custom installer, baby! Spending day after day crouched behind a rack in an equipment closet stripping, terminating, labeling, routing, and connecting cabling until your fingers start to crack and bleed from it? Sure, sounds like a blast! Staring at a computer screen for hours while you try and figure out why the command set that should clearly be turning the TV on is, for some inexplicable reason, turning something else off, while you tweak, download, test, tweak, download, test over and over, all the while trying to ignore and overcome the first thrumming waves of an oncoming stress headache? Sign me up!
But now that I’m past my twenties, completed my thirties and have started into being forty-something, I have a different view to it all. I walked outside to get the mail and it was 101 degrees just now. It was like opening the door to an oven and then walking right on in. And I thought, as I quickly retreated back into the soothing climate controlled confines of our showroom, “Thank GOD I’m not in an attic or crawlspace or job site somewhere!” To go home not drenched in sweat and covered in wood shavings or mud or insulation or taping up cuts with electrical tape. Most days I am totally content to sit in my chair and file paperwork, and pay bills, and prepare invoices and order/receive product, and meet with new clients and run the helm of the starship USS Custom Theater. Getting off at a set time and not being chained to the nebulous “it’ll be finished when it’s finished” moving time clock of a project completion. I like knowing that I’ll be home in time for dinner with the family and that I won’t have to lie in bed all night stressing over whether or not I remembered to pull that one crucial wire.
I think there is probably a reason why the Navy SEALs cut off applicants at 28 years of age – coincidentally, exactly how old I was when I started my custom install journey. (For the record, my cousin, Chris, was past that age, and at the time that he entered BUD/S class 228, was one of the oldest applicants to ever be given permission to give it a go. But, you need special circumstances; in his case, he had a giant set of mountaineering and medic skills that they felt might be beneficial to the Teams and he had cross-trained with other SF operators. So, there’s always an exception to the rule.) Past that, you start thinking too much. Your mind gets in the way of your body, and it starts serving up the kinds of negative thought vibes that aren’t conducive to doing the hard things. You start thinking, man, I could be doing something else besides spending all night shivering and freezing in a mud pit. “Sir, I know the objective is just ahead, but, honestly, low-crawling through a quarter-mile of rocky gravel to spend another night out in the open where people are *seriously* trying to kill me? Just doesn’t seem as much fun as it used to.” You start thinking about the time away from the family and what you’ve got to lose. And after a while, being out in the suck just seems to…suck!
A while back I lamented the future of the custom install industry; how everything was changing, profits were eroding, DIY was becoming more prevalent, and how many of the things that I’d loved about this industry seemed to be evolving into something less loving. One commenter to that post wrote, “Many of us ‘veterans’ seem to have lost the feeling we had at the beginning. Along with that positive emotional involvement, we’ve let slip the energy and enthusiasm so essential to success, replacing it with a misplaced nostalgia that can only beget negativity. Perhaps the way to save our business is for old worn out guys like you and me who have lost their zeal for the business to step aside. Maybe we should make room for a new generation of energetic, hopeful entrepreneurs who see only opportunity, regardless of the odds. Or, perhaps, in spite of them.”
And while I would prefer not to unpack my adjectives with descriptors like “old” and “worn out” when auto-bio’ing myself, I think in some ways, he’s right. I still love this industry most days, and there is little like the thrill and satisfaction of handing over a controller and watching a client fire it up for the first time and watching that, “Wow! Cool!” smile spread across their face. But at the same time, I don’t think I’m the right guy for the front lines anymore. Moreover, I don’t even want to do any more of the crawling or the climbing. Been there, done that, don’t need to prove anything.
However, the industry still needs the knowledge and leadership that veterans – Old Schoolers, if you will – can provide. To organize, train-up and focus the young blood on the way the job needs to be done and the best practices for a continuing future. Let them go out and cut their teeth in the suck and get their fill. One day, they’ll have enough of it, and they’ll be ready to move inside and sit in the comfy chair.