Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Being an AV Pro In an IT-centric World

This is a guest post by Eric L. Byrd of Media Learning Partners

After more than 20 years in the television and audiovisual (AV) world, I became a Cisco Systems Instructor a few years ago, teaching certification courses for video conferencing systems. Suddenly, I had to adjust to a world that centered on Information Technology (IT) and Internet Protocol (IP). As I traveled, teaching classes, I found that many of my students came from both the AV and IT worlds - which aren't one in the same.

Yet they were all in the same class, learning about both areas. I was helping, in part, to bridge the divide between those industries. This new perspective made me curious. What did AV professionals really need to know in today’s marketplace to remain effective and advance?

I posed the question on LinkedIn last month, sparking an interesting discussion in several groups. I’d like to share some of the highlights from that discussion here, in the hope it will help others make decisions about their career.

Here's what I learned.

What is Information Technology?

I asked the question: “Is IT knowledge still a challenge for AV professionals?” This caused some confusion because I wasn't specific enough. My bad, perhaps, but the result was interesting.

For our discussion, it’s useful to think of Information Technology as being divided into two segments. There is transmission (Internet Protocol networking mostly) and there are applications (software). AV technology has similar segments. Some systems process signals and some transmit signals. AV transmission often uses many different signal types where IP networking uses digital signals with various protocols within the IP standard.

The online discussion included comments that blurred the line between these two, but most disagreement tended to be about the application functions (programming, control, etc). There were comments like “is it harder to program a Crestron control system or an SMTP server” and “AV techs and engineers need to know analog signaling, IT guys don’t.” I can’t play referee to those, it’s a matter of preference.

On the networking side people seemed to agree that interacting with the IP network is what causes grief on a regular basis in AV installations. Most of the struggle between “AV and IT” seems to revolve around IP networking.

Now, from the networking perspective AV devices are basically applications. They are the same as a laptop or a web server to them. IP networking professionals are responsible for delivering digital signals from one node to another. It doesn’t matter what the node is. It needs to coexist on the network, so a node must follow the rules of that network. It became clear that this is the primary “problem” between AV and IT.

There was consensus, because of this, that AV professionals should have a basic knowledge of IP networking. The trend in AV device development is towards digital communication, using IP protocol, for command and control as well as media transmission. That traffic flows across the facility IP network.

It becomes a cost saving decision for many organizations. As customers try to manage budgets they try to leverage existing IP network infrastructure to do as much as possible. They’ve invested heavily in it, so they need to maximize its usage. The trend towards sending more information over IP isn’t likely to slow down any time soon.

IT and AV Roles Are Changing

More IT departments are also taking over responsibility for audio-visual functions within organizations (see this related post on the evolution of IT/A from Cindy Davis in HigherEdTech). The reliance on IP networking may be why. If you work in AV, you’ll either be working for the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at some point, or he will be your customer.

Because of this, most people agree that audio-visual professionals at all levels (from installer to design engineer) benefit from a fundamental knowledge of IP networking. If nothing else it gives them a language they need to communicate intelligently with IT staff in any organization.

Some AV organizations grudgingly acknowledge the proliferation of IP and do the minimum. Others are embracing it fully. Some are hiring staff with IP/IT background directly to their team to help smooth interactions with customers. No one seems to be ignoring the trend, though.

Having a strong base knowledge of IP networking can be particularly important for the rental and staging segment within the AV Industry. This group lives or dies by its ability to integrate into a customer’s infrastructure or the network at an event site. It can make all the difference to have a strong IT plan to ensure a successful event, and avoid embarrassing delays or even system failures.

What’s the bottom line? AV and IT are co-mingled like never before, and that isn’t going to change; at least not in the near future. Plan accordingly.

Eric Byrd Media Learning Partners
Eric L. Byrd has worked in and around the media industry for over 25 years. From radio and TV production he shifted to the integration side of AV. In 2010 he moved into training, teaching Cisco certification courses. He currently creates original training courses on business and technology through Media Learning Partners, which he started in 2012. You can find him on Linkedin or follow him on twitter @pitchforsuccess.