The Death of the AV Generalist

If you’ve read my posts before, you’ll notice that I have rarely predicted the death of any particular technology or business model. Sure, I have my ideas on where the industry is heading or which technologies may ultimately win out in the end, but I never go so far as to say this is the only technology that will survive or the only potential outcome based on all of the variables.

In fact, you will find that in the past, when people have predicted the death of certain video transport methods or of projections screens, I have been quick to lobby a counterpoint to that technology obituary.

With that, I find myself in a bit of conflict and definitely in an odd position, at least for me, in writing about the death of the AV Generalist.

AV businesses come in all different shapes and sizes and many diverse backgrounds. They range from the 5 million dollar-a-year firm with 15 employees to the 600 million dollar behemoths with thousands of employees. The history of each company varies. They come from broadcast or from telecom or from structured wiring or from security or from home theater or from content creation. Over the years, due to their client relationships, these firms added more and more AV services to provide and connect their clients’ electronic equipment as part of their larger service offering.  This resulted in a large number of firms doing what I am calling “general” AV.

You know the job. It is the conference room that needs a TV, a couple of speakers, a microphone, an audio mixer and amplifier, a speakerphone, a camera and some type of cabling in the table to connect it all together. It’s the classroom that had a drop down projector screen, an installed projector on the ceiling, an amplifier, a couple of speakers and cables to connect the teacher’s desk back to the system. In the past, there were enough of these “general” AV jobs to feed the large ecosystem of integrators.  But as always happens, the world started to change.

Two trends have gradually eroded the once fertile ground of the AV Generalist. 

The first is the trend of simplification. Today, many of the hardware components that were once needed to make a system operational have either been moved to software or consolidated into single pieces of hardware.

The second trend really is a result of the first. Companies are bringing some AV in-house. As systems become simpler to deploy, many organizations are starting to hire and utilize internal resources to deploy them. The installation that once took a week and an AV subcontractor to complete is many times now completed in a day by an IT or facilities technician working for the company itself.

Given these two trends, companies that thrive on these type of installs are clearly in trouble. The habitat they once thrived in is being rapidly destroyed meaning that it is time to find a way to evolve.

Enter specialization. 

Lest you think this is all a tale of doom and gloom, I assure you that it is not. With the death of the AV generalist comes the opportunity for the AV Specialist to excel.

Now, of course, there are specialty markets like museums, stadiums, etc. and perhaps your firm is well suited to move into that territory, but most likely, that will take some longer-term investments in building both skillsets and relationships that your company does not yet have. This is a great way to specialize but takes investment and a longer path to ROI.

For businesses that can’t make that investment or sustain that period of time, are there opportunities for a quicker path? I have a couple ideas on how these companies can specialize as well.

So how do you decide where to shift your specialization efforts and to define your company’s role in this new ecosystem?

The first place to look is in your history. 

If you came from broadcast, for example, it may be best to refocus on that heritage. This doesn’t necessarily mean retreating to a smaller pond though. Although broadcast, in this case, maybe the historic market, it means a much different thing today than it has in the past. Where broadcast may have once been limited to outfitting TV stations and trucks, today broadcast has expanded dramatically. Any church that streams its services, any school that does distance learning, or any company doing remote all-hands meetings and creating channels of internal content is now in the broadcast category. There are many intricacies in selecting cameras, lighting, camera control and extension systems, creating secure video networks, managing content, etc. that mean the company’s internal AV staff will still be looking for assistance with these types of designs, installations, and long-term support. The same could be said for access control, security, CCTV, etc.

The second place to look is in the knowledge gaps. 

I hear industry chatter all the time about audio in conference rooms. As customers move to out of the box conferencing systems installed by their own internal AV teams, audio seems to be a place that suffers. The in-house team is great at getting everything installed and connected, but perhaps they don’t know enough about the microphone and speaker selection and placement, or DSP programming, or acoustics, etc. Here is an opportunity to shift the value proposition. Concede the installation of the video equipment and PC running the software-based codec, and instead become conference audio specialists.  Position yourself in that gap as the team that helps them by making sure everything sounds as good as possible as opposed to being the guys who hang TVs and speakers.  Take cues from the market to determine where these gaps lie and position your firm as specialists to fill these gaps based on your skillsets.

The third place to look is efficiencies and logistics. 

For those of you who have been thinking I’m nuts, and companies still need help with the simplified systems of today, especially for large rollouts, this is for you. Companies may very well need this help, but in order to get this type of work, you will need to be a specialist in logistics or supply chain. Your unique value may be that you are a specialist in labor laws and import practices. For integrators doing government work, specialize in navigating the contract vehicles necessary to meet the complicated labor and equipment requirements. For managed service companies, specialize in reporting and monitoring of systems to consistently meet the required SLAs.

If specializing still doesn’t seem like something within your wheelhouse, it seems there may, in fact, be one more option.

Work directly for your former client’s in-house AV department. 

As companies bring general AV in-house, they will need people to design, implement and support these AV systems.  The market has already shown over the years that these companies typically recruit from their current subcontractor pools. I know many people in Fortune 500 companies that have hired former integrator project managers to come run their in-house AV, and I only see this trend continuing as more and more companies move towards having basic AV support as part of their business structure.

As you can see, there are several ways to leverage your business’ legacy, skillsets and personnel to turn the corner from AV Generalist to AV Specialist or to continue business as usual, albeit wearing a new company t-shirt. The only strategy that is sure to fail is to put your head down and double down on work that is surely starting to decline.

Am I wrong? Is the AV Generalist alive and well?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

About Mark Coxon

Mark Coxon is an AV industry native and blogger for the rAVe BlogSquad. You can reach him directly at mark@marketexplosion.me.

  • PD

    I dunno. The old part and smarts/hang and bangs are still coming in hot in our market. Yeah the giant Crestrons DM jobs are limited but we get a ton of jobs simply installing some speakers and cameras for restaurants and small businesses.

    • Ronnie Anne Spang

      Same here. Being told that hang and bang is dead is hilarious when I just joined a contract to do 400 rooms. So much for death? Unless someone poisoned the coffee??? Say, I am feeling a little ….. oops, nevermind, that was just a sneeze.

  • Ronnie Anne Spang

    No, no NO. I so disagree with so much of this.
    1. AV is bigger than any one trade. There are integration programmers, audio engineers, drafts-people, video engineers, media engineers, projectionists, and conferencing engineers. But the one person who can bring it all together is a GENERALIST. Without generalists: the system will never come together. I am a solid generalist with a couple of specialties, if I were dead: my phone would not be ringing with job offers.
    2. End users (even IT) do not understand AV. IT has the expectation that it is okay for a device to lockup and require reboot. IT has the expectation that it is okay to push updates. Why? IT plays with SINGLE devices: laptops, tablets. phones where lockups are easily diagnosed. AV creates entire systems where there are 5 or more devices in a single signal chain (using source, transmitter, switcher, receiver, display example with cables in between each) where a single failure requires a tech/engineer to diagnose, hence the need for reliability.
    I could go on but these 2 items already made my point. AV generalists are NOT dead; in fact we are more in-demand than ever. If you are an AV generalist and NOT buried: I know some recruiters looking for you!!!!

    • Mark Coxon

      I think there was s a misunderstanding about being a generalist as a technician and being a generalist AV firm. If I interpret this right, you were brought on to assist with a 400 room integration. Are you working for an AV integration firm or directly for the end client? If it’s for the end client, this is exactly the point I was illustrating. The individual generalists will now work for the end users directly more and more and not for general AV integration firms.

  • I definitely see myself in my career trajectory as a generalist, then a specialist. I was forced to evolve and develop skills outside of the audio world that gave birth to me or face the fact that I would be obsolete as an employee. Now I work for a manufacturer, and my well-rounded skills have served me well.

    Why did I agree w/ Mark’s post? Simple, I do agree that the AV Generalist is a gone, but I’m here, and you’re here. I too am being called for jobs on a ridiculously consistent, bordering harassing rate. So again, why do I agree w/ Mark? AV, Technology is evolving at a breakneck pace. An AV generalist in traditional AV terms was as the tombstone reads a hang & bang tech, if you were in the install world. If you were in the support world, you were a plug a VGA in toggle presentation tech.

    I’m far beyond that, as I know most of you, if not all of you are as well. What was once “Generalist” is now a specialist, cause of the evolution of technology. I’ve grown in that I can tie different technologies for my clients together and I can put it into a solid solution.

    From a company perspective, companies needed to evolve, AV is now Content Creation as well installing digital signage.
    The offerings are so much more.

    Traditional AV is not what it once was, it is so much more specialized and specific. Video Conference, is not UC, it’s not a complete solution, if it doesn’t include end-end encrypted chat, or file sharing, it’s not just Video Conferencing anymore. So a traditional PCVE or Tandberg cert from years past, may not apply here, but doesn’t make you any less valuable.

    Everyone plays a role, and be assured that someone that knows something about everything is still in demand, just as companies offering the basics are still needed, but to stay relevant, and evolution is needed.

    So why did I agree w/ Mark, because it was something that needed to be said in order to force the industry and the people in it to take a deeper look inside and ask themselves the questions that I asked myself years ago, am I good enough, am I evolving, do I want to die out to? No, I want to keep living and keep showing that I belong here. I think it’s a refreshing look at the state of affairs not a knock on anyone or any company and the services they provide or the skills they have.

    So yes, hang & bang, plugging in the cable, will never go away, but what I take away from this, a lot of companies, especially those bringing in those services in-house require much skill, I’m 42yrs old, when I started, I was able to get by with my audio chops alone, I knew how to tune a room. But when that wasn’t enough, I had to grow, did I become a generalist? Yes by specializing in something else and expanding my skill set. If I were to start now, with the limited skills I NOW know that I had back then, I wouldn’t be able to cut it for what they are demanding.

    The same is being asked of the companies that end-users hire, they’re not just satisfied with an installer, they want a partner, who will help them develop the best solution to showcase their company culture, product, and tell their story. So it’s not just about hanging a screen anymore, these companies/firms need to be adept at crafting a narrative. At showcasing something bigger than AV, because to the client, this is a show, even when it’s a boardroom, it’s a showpiece, a look at what we did moment.

    So I think Mark’s post is about more than just skills, it’s about everything AV. Attitude, life, the next stage of AV, the future of our industry. I understand the misunderstanding, but I think we all need to look again and take a step back from our respective roles. IMHO

  • Dave McKean

    Looks like you have some detractors to your AV generalist death scenario, Mark, but I still think you’re onto something. In any event, it’s good that you suggest new opportunities for generalists. However, one of your ideas – conference room audio specialist – might lead to a dead end as well, IMHO. The culprit is, of course, advancing technology. The company I work for (shameless plug coming;), Nureva.com, makes an audio conferencing system that not only is easily installed by in-house personnel, but calibration, at installation and ongoing, is automatic. No need for an AV technician at any stage. No doubt we are part of the larger trend of innovative suppliers delivering the simplification identified in the blog as “eroding fertile ground for generalists.” I’m glad to hear that some generalists are thriving, but times are changing.

  • Randy Bonham

    Back in the day I had a mentor tell me that our Industry is 5- 10 years behind the PC industry. Back then, I bought my first PC from a local computer dealer whose value to me was help in setting it up and using it. A few years later, I bought my second PC over the phone from someone who helped identify my need at the time. My subsequent PC purchases were done via Website and drop down menus.

    While we can discuss the timing, Mark is correct in that the Hang and Bang/ Romper room model is no longer sustainable in and of itself.

    • Mark Coxon

      Thanks Randy. I was definitely thinking of that market and it’s trends. I worked for IBM Direct in 2000-2002 and saw early signs of that in the intel based PC, Server, Laptop space. That very trend led IBM to sell off those product lines to Lenovo a few years later and start focusing more on Data, AI, Watson, etc as well as in their traditional specialty heritage, RISC based systems. That was how they survived. The mushy middle became a losing game. Thanks for reading!

  • Mark Coxon

    For those following this comment thread, see my full follow up post here-
    http://www.ravepubs.com/death-av-generalist-part-two/