Help Wanted: Qualified Integrators for Higher Ed

Help wantedIn my previous post, I lamented that in my corner of the market for AV in higher education, my colleagues and I have been, well, less than happy with some of the AV integrators who’ve done work for us. One traditional belief about integrators is that they bring specialized and superior skills. But I worry about how often integrators use independent contractors (temps) to fill their labor force. It seems temps are for assembly and install. And in some respects it makes sense; integrators do have to deal with a wildly fluctuating workload. We, however, have no idea what their qualifications are. And judging by some of the work out there, neither do integrators.

Independent contractors are also filling the integrator ranks in more sophisticated areas like system design and programming. That’s something we’re all learning through the proliferation of social media and sites like LinkedIn. They may work for you (the integrator) on a contract basis, but most are just as eager to work for us directly and cut out the middleman.

One local integrator (an SCN top-10 integrator) had a two-man team doing most of its work here on campus. We came to call them Tweedledee and Tweedledum. I have a projector lift and large electric screen installed backwards courtesy of them. For the lift, we were able to reverse the mount. For the screen, however, we needed the manufacturer to reverse the material on the roll because the ceiling had been closed up.

I recently saw a nice new collaborative teaching space at one of the local Cal State schools. Eight tables, each set up for eight students, multiple inputs and a monitor at each. It also had a very nicely appointed teaching station in the center of the room. It was a relatively sophisticated system. In the back room, they showed us the equipment and the hundreds of feet of meticulously bundled category and fiber cables, all of which were garroted down (at precise multi-inch intervals nonetheless) to a fraction of their original diameter by tie wraps that looked to be cinched within a fraction of breaking.

Down at UC San Diego they have an interesting situation. They do all campus AV design in-house, and send all the install work out to bid. They fought a multi-year battle to take complete control over who can do install work on campus after constantly dealing with poorly built systems. Now they test and approve every person who does AV install work on campus. Test, approve, certify.

I find it telling that new work increasingly requires that project personnel hold certifications. And I think many people see it as introducing an aspect of accountability to the integration process. Kramer Electronics was out here about a year ago, teaching its travelling CTS class on campus. Three-quarters of the people in the class were from local integrators. They were openly concerned about their ability to bid on future AV contracts if they didn’t get more of their people certified.

Project completion standards will follow right behind certifications and be the next big thing in the AV world. I welcome InfoComm’s new AV Systems Performance Verification Checklist [PDF]. It’s a good start. I wonder, though, just how often we’ll see it used on your average install. The fact that so much of it just points back to “project documentation” concerns me because what passes for documentation on most projects is pretty scary.

Certifications and standards may be the best way to convince people like me of an AV integrator’s aptitude. And hopefully they’ll grow more important than other methods…like pictures of installs on websites. No, they aren’t always easy to coordinate. If getting glossy install pictures were easy, anyone could call themselves an integrator. Oh, wait…

To me, install pictures say that fairly late in the project, the customer hadn’t chased you off the premises with a pitchfork. If they’re good, detailed pictures, we can get an idea of what sort of work you do. But spare me the pretty pastoral shot of a room with a video projector on the ceiling. You want to impress me? Put pictures of the backs of your racks online.

And customer lists are worthless. I’m amazed how often I’ll see our name listed, meanwhile everyone I know who dealt with that company has nothing nice to say about them.

There may be a bit of a reckoning on the horizon for integrators. Already, far more higher ed technology managers build their own systems than many people realize, and those ranks are growing. There is regular talk in our circles about how to break away from outside providers and bring as much capability in-house as possible, something I’ll talk about more in a future post.

It’s not an us-versus-them situation. We’re just looking for the best AV systems we can get that meet our requirements. If they’re from AV integrators, great. If not…

About Greg Brown

Greg is part of of the Classroom Technology Design and Maintenance group at UCLA, overseeing AV design, install and maintenance for most of the classrooms and AV-equipped spaces on campus. He is a member of InfoComm’s Technology Managers Council and a regular guest on AVNation’s monthly EdTech podcast. For more information, visit the Blogger Bios page.

13 Responses to “Help Wanted: Qualified Integrators for Higher Ed”

  1. Greg,

    On so many levels this rings true to me.

    I have been arguing that CTS certification means very little when qualifying integrators for some time. In fact, I have made myself a small topic of discussion it seems by writing articles stating my opinion as such.

    The checklist is a good start, I agree, however, I still think that having a client report card is the only way to assure that CTS firms are meeting the expectations of their clients. I think firms should need to submit a report card on any major project, and that a grade average should be maintained to keep your CTS Certification.

    CEU and an initial pass of the exam show you know what to do, but they do not prove you actually deliver. It is the difference between elocution and execution, and in many cases they do not go hand in hand.

    How does the saying go. . .Talk the Talk AND Walk the Walk?

    If it costs more to do the checklist and the grading system, then so be it, pass it on in the bid. If CTS firms are the only ones considered, then everyone will have that same base cost to maintain, and the field will be even.

    YES!!! on the “Back” of the racks, anyone can make the front look pretty. . .

    Thanks for sharing.

    Mark C

  2. Agreed, John Integrator Smith – interesting perspective.

    Instead of “We did not hire a good, qualified integrator”, Greg has presented the same scenario (the way I read it) as “Integrators’ work is so bad; they should be regulated… or we’ll do it ourselves”.

    However, from either perspective, the problem is the same – poorly qualified integrators are conducting these installations. So the common solution, at first glance, appears to be – do not hire poorly qualified integrators. To me, that would mean going beyond looking at pictures and lists (and certifications) on vendor websites and/or selecting the lowest bid. That is easier said than done, especially with facilities that mandate projects go out to bid.

    But, would requiring each bidder or vendor to be a “Certified Installer” of whatever sort eliminate the problem and need to know your vendor? Not likely. Would you let any lawyer who passed the bar represent you in court? Would you let any CPA do your taxes? Should any MBA be allowed to run a business? There are already plenty of “Certified Technical Whatevers” that are incapable of properly helping AV clientele.

    Back to what at first glance appears to be the solution – do not hire poorly qualified integrators. Greg’s article suggests that poorly qualified integrators are the problem. They’re not. HIRING poorly qualified integrators is the problem.

    Putting in a screen and projector backwards is inexcusable – whether you’re qualified, certified or neither. However, who chose that vendor and why?

    Choose vendors you’ve spent more time getting to know and forming relationships with. If a job has to be bid, request the bid to be by invitation only. That way, you can invite only candidates that you have researched and know (beyond what is boasted on their website), so you can be happy and confident with whomever wins the bid.

    If you’re not required to bid the job out, show your loyalty to suppliers who have always taken good care of you and whose work you are very familiar with. I’m not saying do or don’t get multiple quotes to keep them honest or see if there’s a better way to skin a cat; but, if you feel the need to do that, get the second (or third) quote from another supplier you have a good working relationship with.

    Greg also suggests that creating an internal department may be the best solution – but you won’t hire the head of that new department just because s/he is a Certified Anything. You’ll do your research and qualify them yourself as the best provider for your interests. Hiring an internal staff could work, but it wouldn’t work well without using the same techniques you should be using to hire your integrators. You would also be introducing overhead in addition to your capital expenditures.

    I believe there are plenty of good, qualified integrators. I do not believe requiring certifications is the answer to improving the quality of work you receive. Work on your relationships with your vendors – know them and the work they perform. Don’t let just anybody bid on a project – even if they are Certified Technical Whatevers.

    • Greg:

      The key word here is covered in the header: “Qualified”. Regardless of the whether an AV system is purchased from an integrator directly, by way of Design-Bid Build where a consultant designs the systems and the integrator installs that design or if the institution chooses to go the route of self installation, successful system integration cannot be accomplished without the following four elements:

      1. Qualified System Design and Engineering

      If the system is of any signifcance and the system design has not been, or will not be, provided by a CTS-D certified or equivalently trained individual who maintains a minimu of five years design expereince, the “chance of Success” decreases signifcantly.

      Beyond the design process, the system integration project must be supported by a diligent, qualified engineering effort.

      2. Qualified Project Management

      If the system integration project has been or will be, managed by a project manager (credentialed in that field or not) who does not carry CTS-I or CTS-D or equivalent, demonstrable credentials with a minimum of 5 to 8 years AV system integration experience, the “Chance of Success” decreases signifcantly.

      3. Qualified Installation Services

      Regardless of trade affiliation requirements, if the system in question has not been or will not be, implemented with direct and diligent oversight or hands-on activity by a CTS-I or equivalently trained system technician with at least 5 years AV integration experience, the “The Chance of Success” again, decreases signifcantly.

      4. Qualified System Close Out

      If the system has not been, or will not be closed out by a CTS-D or equivalently trained and experienced integration professional, the ‘Chance of Success” again, decreases significantly.

      It is unfortunate for all parties that the simple truth that the value of an investment into AV systems technology lies significantly in the hands of the personnel who perform the tasks outlined above and cannot be accomplished simply by way of a company, product or line of product that professes to pratice all of the above but effectively, fails to do so.

      In a previous reply, there was a loose reference to the costs associated with doing a project correctly and the apparent (actually demonstable) record of clients making purchase decisions strictly on price and marketing. This is a concern but the concern is not insurmountable. The requirements stated above along with other clearly stated objectives can signifcantly increase the ‘Chance of Success” so long as the purchasing party recognizes the importance of the qualifications and the ultimate purveyor ultimately fullfills the qualification requirements.

      We have seen projects by system integrators go well and we have seen projects by system integrators go poorly. I suspect that the same can be said for the process of “Self Integration”. By “well” I mean a project where the client and end users are satsified. By “poorly”, I mean projects where the client and the end user are not satisfied. In the case of the “well”, items 1 though 4 were typically carried out as stated. In the case of “poorly”, the projects were simply not carried out as described above.

      Should there be interest in the steps and actions necessary to help to insure that the qualification subject is properly covered and applied, further information is available upon request and contact with me directly.

      Hope this proves helpful.

      Tom Knauss

  3. Greg,

    (disclaimer, Greg and I know each other and have discussed these issues a bit previously]

    All very well said. As one of the other comments mentioned, one of the problems is the bid process, in which lowest number wins, and then you get what you pay for unfortunately. Many think by selling lots of boxes they are “integrators.” Yes, we both now there’s lots of freelance labor being used, and not all of those folks are truly trained and certified. And, yes, many big shops have disgruntled workers who don’t follow through, provide docs, program copies, etc. a shame indeed. I often have to attempt to “fix” systems for folks like you without any system drawings or discs, [both of which you'll get charged for creating on a large bid!]

    This is primarily because the techs are simply not respected much, seen as the lowest on the totem pole, asked to work long unrealistic hours, and “take one for the team” working late while the people saying that are already on their way home. Actually those Tehcs are extremely crucial to success, usually the last [or only] person the client see from said big Company with a schmancy website. How about PMs that are never onsite? “too Busy” Sales folks who, when asked “where should I put the rack?” reply what’s a rack?… and so on.. . At the same time, truly capable outsourced labor Is available, and has to be extremely good, in order to get called back. The outsourced sector of our Industry will continue to grow, and demands to be recognized. I often work for companies that often ask us to “pretend” we are “employees” and wear their shirts. aka LIE to their clients. Right.

    They don’t see how using specialized labor is ok, and even accepted by many other industries as often superior talent. In fact, Tom Stimson claims “if you aren’t using 40% outsourced specialists, you may be losing money!” We have every reason to care about the client and the integrator who hire us. I recently was at a huge conference, and the VP of one of the largest companies in AV actually said, “We Never use sub contracted labor”- [as if we are all low quality].. while a friend sitting next to me said, “ His company is using 6 of my Techs on projects right now!”

    As You know, I founded a Council within InfoComm to represent truly capable Install Service Providers, and we are dedicated to raising the Bar. [The ITSP, or Independent Technical Service Providers Council] we fully endorse the new checklist, and are also supporting the Standards and Labor guidelines committees, CTS certifications, etc., in an effort to help bring the Industry “Up’ and create better results. speaking up as to what the Industry needs to hear in order to change.

    All I can say is there are many working to improve things, and there are good companies sincere in providing quality, yet it’s hard to compete against those who could care less and over promise with lowball, unrealistic bids. It’s also Your job to insist that the company follows through, and keeps their promises and responsibilities. unfortunately.

    We at the ITSP will continue to support and spread these ideas of integrity and quality ,as we are only as good as our last crimp! Our New Chair, and a handful of dedicated members, [and many other councils and IC members and staff] are working hard to help InfoComm in creating realistic, useful, and pertinent info and guidelines that we need so much. Unfortunately most of that has to be done by small groups of Volunteers, while many with the real resources continue to focus on their profits not their quality.

    We will have a booth at InfoComm 2013 in Orlando, and I would ask all of you that have commented here to come by, and talk with us about how we all can help change thses important issues, meet others who see this in a similar light. You Can bring this to InfoComm, they Do care greatly and are working very hard to support all of thses ideas.the CTS is now THE cert to have and rightly so.

    btw, I agree about the pictures especially, a picture [of a real rack!] tells a thousand words!

    Every big shop shows fancy shots of the room side, hardly any ever show a real tech actually working, or there actual results in the rack. Again, Techs don’t matter to the Suits in many cases. Where at the entire convention do you even See a tech being mentioned or showcased? at the ITSP booth. why? because its built from the ground Up! by Us! thanks for bringing all this to everyone’s attention. Everyone can always learn and improve, hopefully the “Board room gang” will eventually see the value of respecting and truly supporting their Install people. Some really do, and the results are obvious!

    Mark DelGuidice, CTS

    • You say you welcome the AV project completion check list. It is quite an extensive list. Are you willing to pay for the additional labor hours to have such a list completed?
      Every year I see more and more items added to the bid specs but it appears the client is not looking to pay for the additional requests. Our employees get paid when they work. We pay them with the money we earn completing projects. How can we pay them if the end users isn’t willing to pay for the additional documentation?

  4. Well Said!

    Low Bid means low quality. Change the bid process to an interview negoiated process and quality Integrators will beat a path to your door.

  5. Greg,

    Thanks for the great article. I myself, am the multimedia and A/V manager for a modern art museum. I find that I have to babysit integrators a lot of the time, (Which is a total waste of my time!) in order to make sure the job gets done correctly. The A/V integration companies that I work with are InfoComm Platinum providers and installers. Most of their installers are CTS-I certified and their system designers are CTS-D certified. Even with them, I think they have personnel that fall through the cracks. I understand that all companies have personnel issues. People leave companies, people get promoted and leave voids within that company, but integration companies should know this and prepare for it.

    Do NOT get me started with documentation. I have had to go back through many times document things personally after an integrator supposedly sent me the as-builts. After a retrofit to our lecture hall, I had one of the integrators just throw out the box for the new Blu-Ray player, with all of the instructions and the remote inside. Because of no remote, we could not get the Blu-Ray player to communicate through RS-232. The Blu-Ray had to be returned! Costing more time out of my busy work schedule and downtime in our lecture hall.

    I think the the use of the InfoComm checklist is a step in the right direction. I think I will be asking for it from now on. Thanks again for the article.

  6. You’re the type of person and area I want to work for. I’ve been in the integration industry for 5 years doing work at a state college. I double as a PC/Network technician as needed. I would say your best bet is to hire a full-time integrator. I personally don’t want a job with an integration company. I’ve talked to others who work in integration companies and it’s not always a positive experience. Also companies are frequently being absorbed or dismantled by other companies. It’s hard to know how long your job will be available.
    I wish more businesses would hire integrators full-time. It’s better for everyone… Especially in higher education where your AV needs aren’t just a one-time deal.

  7. Interesting that the Checklist you refer to has no mention of fiber optics, either from a cabling or signalling distribution technology perspective. Yet, wireless has a section. Unless the primary integrator takes direct responsibility for optical performance in the system (link losses, quality of terminations, type of fiber used, etc.) and stops claiming “the contractor said it was ‘good to go’” the technology will always be a black art that becomes a constant weak point in system performance and reliability.

  8. You are right about the checklist referring back to project documentation all the time, and also that this is sadly lacking in many projects. This is a big part of the problem. How can you verify the system if you don’t know what it was you were supposed to be doing in the first place? If you take your designs in-house, then presumably you will have good documentation. If you use a good consultant they will provide that. If you let the contractor do it all then you will be in trouble at the low and mid-range contractor levels. If you insist on them following the InfoComm 2M design standard that would be a good start. In terms of helping situations where there is inadequate project documentation, it is likely that there will be more detail on this forthcoming from InfoComm as the performance verification standard progresses.

  9. John Integrator Smith Reply February 28, 2013 at 7:52 pm

    I have to say your article was written from an interesting perspective. I feel that higher education bid work is difficult to get since the lowest bid wins. The lowest bidder is usually the least educated and the least qualified when considering industry standards and practices. I often pass on higher education bid projects due to the fact that I cannot make enough money to pay the light bill. I would much rather work for a corporate client who will pay more for better work. How does the old saying go? “you get what you pay for”

  10. Richard McLeland-Wieser Reply February 28, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    Candor is a proof of both a just frame of mind, and of a good tone of breeding. It is a quality that belongs equally to the honest man and to the gentleman.
    James F. Cooper