The AV Industry Needs to Open Up

av-openup-1115By Alan Vezina

There has been some discussion on recently about AV programmers, in particular the lack of AV programmers. It started with the AV Power Up! episode Hey, Get With the Program!, then continued with Hope Roth’s follow up article Where Have All the AV Programmers Gone? In both the podcast and Hope’s article, many points are brought up to try to explain why there is a shortage of AV programmers, and I largely agree with them. There is one problem they didn’t talk about: The AV industry is hostile to newcomers.

In order to fully explain my point let me tell you a little bit about myself. I’ve been programming since high school, went to college for computer science, and have been gainfully employed as a software engineer most of my adult life. I love building software, I write software for a living, and I write software for fun. When I’m not writing software, I’m reading about it or co-organizing a Python meet-up with over 1,300 members. I enjoy software and programming because it allows me to build things.

I am not unique, there are a lot of people like me, and that number is growing. More and more people are graduating college with computer science or software engineering degrees. There’s also a ton of people quitting their jobs so they can change career paths and attend a code school. This influx of new programmers should mean that there is growth in the AV programming world, but that’s seemingly not happening, or at least not at the same rate as other industries.

This shortage exists because the barrier to entry is too damn high. First, in order to be an AV programmer, you’ll need to purchase control hardware, which is not cheap. Second, you’ll need to get certified in order to get access to the tools needed to program your hardware. Third, even after you’re certified, you’re given a limited set of sub-par tools to work with. That’s a lot of hoops to jump through just to get started.

Let’s start with hardware, one of the biggest barriers to entry. Control hardware is not cheap, and not just anyone can buy it. Hope’s suggestion on the podcast was to set a bunch of eBay alerts so you can buy second hand hardware, which is the only way to get hardware without being a dealer, or breaking the bank. Contrast this to being a web developer, or data scientist: all I need is a computer to run my code. Any computer will do, even if you don’t own it.

Certifications are another big barrier to entry. Even if you manage to get your hands on hardware, there is no way to get access to the developer tools without the appropriate certification. Without access to the appropriate tools, your fancy hardware might as well be a bunch of bricks.

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In college, I learned C, C++, Java and X-Lisp, and after I graduated I learned Perl, Python and JavaScript in my free time. Due to certification requirements, I can’t just learn the industry languages, such as Crestron’s SIMPL+ or AMX’s NetLinx, in my free time. Certifications aren’t just a roadblock for entry level programmers. One of my old coworkers writes rocket telemetry code for Blue Origin. The code he writes is used to send rockets to space, but he’s not allowed to program Crestron or AMX systems because he’s not certified. That’s ridiculous.

Certifications are a burden for businesses as well. Certifications increase the cost and risk of entry level programmers. Netflix, Facebook, Google and Microsoft all hire out of college without having to send anyone to certification courses; instead, they put their entry level employees to work right away. In the AV world, you have to spend the time to get entry level programmers certified. What if that employee doesn’t work out? If a business has experienced AV programmers on staff, they should be able to train entry level programmers without sending them to be certified. Entry level programmers will learn so much more from real world experience than they will from a certification course.

Certifications are not normal in the software industry. Certifications do exist, but they are almost never a requirement just to get access to tools or a job. Microsoft, Google and Uber are writing the software that runs the world, and they’re doing it without requiring their employees get certifications. What is so special about the AV industry that certifications are required?

If the AV industry wants to attract high quality talent, it needs to create an open and welcoming environment. There are two solutions that manufacturers can implement. First, certifications should be made optional. A developer should be able to create an account and immediately have access to all the tools and documentation necessary. Second, developers should be allowed to purchase or lease hardware under the developer program, similar to how Google Glass and the Occulus Rift were offered to developers first. If we want to create an AV industry the world respects, we need to support the developers who help build it.

Alan Vezina is a co-founder and CTO of Jydo, a browser-based audiovisual control company. Reach him on Twitter @fancysandwiches.

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  • Leonard Suskin

    You likely should have included a disclaimer or at least acknowledgement that you are the co-founder and chief technical officer for a company seeking to compete with the more established AV control vendors by using what appears to be a more open, network-based approach. The Crestron/Harman/Extrons of the world are not only the industry leaders, but also your competition.

    That said, you DO have some very strong points which are worthy of consideration. From where I sit, I also see moves away from proprietary solutions such as SIMPL/SIMPL+ towards .net based framework (the direction Crestron is taking). I also see this as an interesting opportunity for “AV Programmers” to slowly be replaced by “programmers”.

    • Alan Vezina

      Hi Leonard, I didn’t include any information about my company because I didn’t want to be too pushy about my product, I really dislike when people do that. I had assumed that rAVe would put some sort of disclaimer about me but they didn’t.

      • Corey Moss

        Wasn’t necessary at all Alan as it appears that you fully speak for yourself and not the company or product.

        • Leonard Suskin

          Thanks Sara, and Alan for the clarification.

          I mostly agree with you, Corey, but his larger point – that AV programming can be, at times, too proprietary and not “standards based” to a great enough extent – is a line of thinking which would benefit his company. This isn’t to say that he’s wrong, or that he didn’t found the company because of these principles. It is something which should be (and now has been) disclosed.

          None of this should take away from the truth that it’s a well-reasoned and important article.

          • Corey Moss

            Thanks for making the point Leonard.

    • Sara Abrons

      I added a line about Jydo and Alan’s work there. I should have put it there in the beginning.

  • Robert Ray

    Technically speaking, you do not have to be a Crestron Certified Programmer to program Crestron systems. You have to either (1) work for a dealer or (2) work under a CSP in a programming house. Dealers are SUPPOSED to have hardware in house.

    • Leonard Suskin

      Yes, Robert, but if I understand correctly, Alan’s point was that this is unique to AV control vendors such as Crestron.

      If I wanted to program iPhones, for example, I could acquire one without having to work for a licensed Apple dealer. Because many AV manufacturers only sell through dealers there is little path for a novice to learn how to program them on their own without working for said dealers. This means that an accomplished web programmer, for example, would have trouble translating their skills in to AV systems programming.

  • Dan Lynch

    “What is so special about the AV industry that certifications are required?” – Assuming this wasn’t a rhetorical question, the answer to your question is simple. The AV industry pays peanuts and the work is often performed in uncomfortable conditions with almost no support.

    MONEY! I’m the father of a college senior who is about to graduate with a degree in computer science. Of those students graduating with a CS degree in 2016, the ones with an “A” average aren’t even looking at job offers for less than $60,000/year and they will almost all get multiple offers. The “B” average students might consider a $50,000/year position. How many AV integrators have open positions offering $50,000/year to people with no experience?

    ENVIRONMENT! When those new computer science grads do accept a position at “Netflix, Facebook, Google, or Microsoft” (or Fidelity, Volvo, Boeing, 3M. etc.), they’re going to be working in a clean, high-tech environment with a great benefits package, a concierge on-call, and company discounts on gyms, mobile phones, movie tickets, etc. If they go to work for an AV integrator instead, most of them are going to find that their company runs on a shoestring budget, is horribly disorganized, routinely sends them out to dirty/cold/wet/hot job sites, offers a minimal insurance package with a huge employee contribution, and gives them a blank stare when they ask about 401k matching contributions.

    SUPPORT! If you look at what the first 12 months of employment looks like for a new grad at a Fortune 500 company and then compare that to the first 12 months of employment for a programmer at even the very best AV integrators in the world, you’ll realize that the way our industry treats system programmers barely qualifies as second rate. You claim that “Netflix, Facebook, Google, or Microsoft” hire CS graduates and put them to work right away, but you ignore the fact that they are working within the company’s onboarding program for new programmers with months (or years) of close mentorship. Are they working? Sure they are, but they’re working within a team structure that helps them learn how to actually apply the things they learned in school. In the AV industry, a new hire will probably have a project on his desk waiting to be programmed (solo) by lunch on the first day and he’ll be expected to go out in the field, load that programming, and make sure it works. In most cases, there’s no mentorship or support structure for personal development. For DSP programming, it’s “here’s the project, make it work”. On the control system side, manufacturer certification programs are the only thing preventing that same scenario from happening.

    The manufacturers of control systems know all of these things. They also know that the touchpanel on the table says “Crestron” or “AMX” in shiny letters, not “Bob’s AV”. When the programmer from Bob’s AV messes up the programming and the customer is getting annoyed, they’re going to throw the manufacturer under the bus almost every time. If Bob’s AV installs a system that sounds horrible, does the end-user look at the Soundcraft logo on the console and decide that Soundcraft consoles are horrible? No. When Bob’s AV installs a control system with ugly graphics, missing functions, and glitchy operation, does the end-user look at the Crestron logo on the touchpanel and tell everyone that Crestron control systems are a pain in the hump? Yep.

    Control system manufacturers have certification programs because their name is right there in bright, shiny letters on every conference room table and most control systems in the AV world would be hacked together by completely unqualified people if it weren’t for the certification requirements.

    I’ve been training DSP programmers for 10 years. I know and love those guys (and gals). I’ve helped a lot of them get out of hairy programming situations, and I know that most of them are routinely expected to perform programming tasks that they’re unprepared for. That’s not their fault. It’s just “what’s so special about the AV industry”.

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