My Journey in AV

leonard-suskin-0816In an office suite in New York there was a pit. Not a dirty hole in the ground, filled with spikes and threatened by a swinging pendulum, but a cozy little nook of unfinished plywood, crowded with cables, video monitors, equipment racks laden with gear, bundles of cable running to and fro in a Gordian Knot of technology. This is the place where I came to work, where began my AV journey. How did I get there? And where did I go next? This is the story of my life so far in professional AV.

The story begins, of course, before the beginning. I wandered a bit in search of a professional home for myself. I was a central office supervisor for the phone company. An alarm installer. A residential cable install tech. A few other things which aren’t relevant to the story. I had half of an electrical engineering degree which I’d never complete. Even back then, I had a sometimes hobby as a writer.

So, this is who I was. I could write pretty words, understood enough about technology to read a wiring diagram, but not enough to draw one. I’d supervised a team, but learned enough about myself to know I didn’t really want to be a supervisor.

I was, in short, just the right candidate at just the right time for an AV integrator. The team at VCA was about to begin a large installation over about ten floors using, because this is New York, union labor. They needed someone who could quickly learn how to read AV design drawings, who could communicate requirements to the potentially non-tech savvy IBEW Local 3 team doing the work and overall be a professional presence on site. It was a terrific fit for my skill set.

I learned a great deal at VCA. Yes, I learned about the industry. I learned technology. My first month there I knew enough of the language of AV to earned my CTS certification. I learned about project management, about working with consultants.

It was also my first exposure to the tension between AV consultant and AV integrator. Sometimes it went smoothly; there’d be an issue in the field, the consultant would meet me there and I’d pretend to understand his thought process in resolving it. Eventually, of course, I didn’t have to pretend anymore. And sometimes it could be contentious. This was the beginning of learning to navigate that so at the end of the day the project would be done and, with luck, not everyone involved would hate everyone else involved.

I also learned that I liked the AV industry and that I could find a home there. I learned that it’s an industry where you can make a place for yourself, that you could move around to the roles which fit your talents and interests. The system designer at VCA had started as a warehouse manager. Installation techs moved on to be lead techs or project managers. I moved on to be a project manager, better learned how to handle construction meetings, how to write status reports. How to juggle handfuls of simultaneous projects. I felt that I was making a home for myself.

My next stop was AVI-SPL, one of the big behemoths in the industry. I started off there as a project manager, coordinating projects large and small. I worked with other parts of the team in other states, coordinated with out of town programmers, traveled from site to site. I started to learn more about the technology. I realized that the parts of the job I loved — the technology, the joy in finding a solution, the puzzle of how disparate tech items can come together to form a cohesive whole — are more the system designer role than then project manager role. So, after a chat with the integration manager, I began the process of some intense technical training to move towards the system design role.

I took a SynAudCon audio course online. Traveled to Beaverton for Biamp training, Anaheim for Extron. Drove to and from Rockleigh, NJ to meet the folks at Crestron. Learned enough AutoCAD to cause trouble. This was a great time to be moving into that part of the industry because, with the move from analog to digital and the dawn of DigitalMedia (which would eventually become HDBaseT after Crestron’s exclusive rights to the technology expired) the industry was changing enough that I was learning along with those who’d been doing this for years. It was a great time to be in the industry.

This is also where I discovered AV Twitter and the AV blogosphere. My love of technology and love of writing met as I started penning various ideas and thoughts about the world of AV; it would be years before I truly found my voice as an AV tech blogger, but this is where it began.

leonard-suskin2-0816My next step, of course, was to the consulting side of the business. Whenever I’d worked on a bid-build project, I’d wondered about the steps that went into creating the RFP, the choices that had been made, the thinking behind it. As an AV contractor, I always thought that I could, perhaps, have done it better. I finally got the chance to do so when I was hired by Shen, Milsom and Wilke as an associate in their AV team. This was a great opportunity, and one which I feel very fortunate to have had. I got to work on some fascinating and high-profile projects, including:

  • The return of the Port Authority to the World Trade Center
  • PSAC2 — the new combined emergency call and dispatch center for police, fire and emergency medical services in New York City
  • A fully network-based AV system for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Authority.

I worked closely with clients and architects, traveled from job site to job site. I saw RFP work from the other side, saw the months and, sometimes, years of discussion it sometimes takes to go from a general concept to a completed design. I grew to love the early stages of projects, in which I’d meet a new client, learn about how they work and what they think they need and try to teach them about how AV technology could fit into their lives. Sometimes they’d listen, sometimes they had their own ideas. Sometimes I’d learn something from them at the same time they learned from me, and we’d end up with a better design and a better fit.

It’s also where I got the chance to expand my role as a teacher, leading internal training classes on digital switching technology, assistive listening systems and IP-based audiovisual systems. The opportunity to teach was a great one, and was also one which helped me sharpen my own knowledge as I taught others. And then, sadly, it was time to move on.

I love the team at SM&W and loved the work there. So why has my AV journey taken another step? Two reasons. First is that, while I love the consulting world, there always remained a part of me that missed dealing with the technical details; if something didn’t work quite as expected I, as the consultant, was not often the one who would deal with the technical challenge of finding a solution. The detail work, the implementation and the feeling that we’d build something belonged, to a large extent, to our partners on the AV integration side. Also and, perhaps more importantly, my life changed. We moved from an apartment in Queens to a house on Long Island. For those not in the New York metropolitan area, this move took us about thirty miles farther from Manhattan, where Shen’s office is located. We now had our own house, complete with a yard. My commute tripled in time, from just over a half hour to an hour and a half or more — each way. That’s a lot of time to spend en route.

So, I’ve come full circle and moved back to the AV Integration world with Whitlock. The AV industry being a small place, I’m already surrounded by old friends; the consultant from one of my first project management jobs with VCA is a fellow system designer. The account executive I’m working with now was at AVI-SPL with me. Etc, etc. I’m excited to be back in the AV integration world, even if that comes with more detail work than I’ve been accustomed to over the past few years. I also feel that being an AV integrator made me a better consultant and that having been a consultant will make me a better AV contractor.

leonard-suskin3-0816The biggest change may not be in the work, but in the work location. My commute to SM&W was, as I said, an hour and a half. My commute now? Roughly zero; I have a desk phone, a laptop with dock and a webcam. I have Skype for Business and Outlook and access to shared documents on Whitlock’s intranet. In short, I have everything I need to do my job, right here in my basement. I feel that I’ve found a place where I can balance the needs of my job with the needs of my family while working with great people on new and exciting adventures.

So here I am, back on the AV contracting side of the world, continuing my AV journey.

Thanks, as always, for listening.