Colin Birney is the principal at Birney Consulting and is an adjunct instructor for AVIXA — but before that, he worked for Google, Linn Energy and Hess. His career trajectory, like so many others in our industry, is super interesting. So, I’m pleased that he’ll be giving the LAVNCH & Learn discussion during EdTech Day of LAVNCH WEEK 2.0. Colin focuses a lot on standardizing systems and the unique relationship between AV and IT — so I was glad to get a chance to catch up with him before his talk. Here are a few things you can expect if you’re attending his session!
Also, fun fact: He has the best collection of Zoom backgrounds.
This is an interview with Colin Birney, as written by Steph Beckett. It has been edited for clarity.
SB: First question: I’d like to know a little bit more about your background in the industry and how you got to where you are today.
CB: It kind of goes the path of — learned to play guitar, was a competitive classical guitarist in my teens, got kind of burned out on that, considered the band thing for a while as I went to college, and figured out that the only people getting paid were the sound people. When I got out of college, I had an industrial engineering degree, which is a lot of human system modeling and usability, which you know helped later. So, I did some installation work — the day I graduated, I shaved my hair into a mohawk, went to work pulling cables, did that for 6-8 months before being hired by SPL back in the day. I was with SPL for a couple of years, as a program and project manager and design engineer —and then I moved into corporate, and my path in the corporate world has been moving through the IT industry. So, I would say I’m still very much in AV, but I’m heavily IT at this point in terms of how I approach the world. My viewpoints play into what I like to teach on, which is: Designing a system is great — managing a system is hard. That’s where I am now, but two years ago, I left Google after a few years there and started consulting full-time, and I’m still doing it.
SB: Your position and what you do fits into your LAVNCH & Learn topic a little bit — that idea of AV supporting IT and vice versa. Can you give me a preview of one or two of the things you plan to discuss?
CB: … One of the things that we have a lot of trouble with is we have so many varying pieces that we can’t cohesively present [as] AV. We just say, “here’s a pile of stuff, I don’t know.” and everything has a [different lifecycle]. A DSP has a different lifecycle than a TV than a touch panel than a microphone. It’s like that same microphone — I could hammer into the table, and it’s going to be there in 20 years, and it will be fine. But a TV won’t be good in three years … and that’s where we need to approach it and say, “OK, how do we set standards for how we pay and sell this stuff?” And pitch it as more of a complete product. How does that translate into better management, and how do we use that standardization to create a standardized process? A corporation will have standard smartphones, standard laptops, standard desk phones, that allow them to be streamlined to keep fewer spares and be really agile — and that’s where we need to be along with the other process-driven ways of doing business.
SB: That theme you brought up of standardization — do you see this becoming more necessary in universities and schools as they’re shifting from a full in-person model to more online classes this fall?
CB: Yeah, definitely, because the things that standardization brings is the way products work. Something like a phone has a really strict set of rules and engagement between me and the customer. That’s ultimately where we want to be in this industry — I need to be able to respond to SLA requirements and meet them without feeling stressed. When an integrator sees, OK I have two hours to respond, four hours to get to site, 48 hours of resolution, they start sweating because how am I gonna do that every time? Well, you have to set the mechanism in place to set up how the system works. Standardization allows you to be more agile because you can create a really strict set of rules for engagement between you and your customer because you understand … Also, as I standardize, I have my engagement with my manufacturers downstream in the same way. An important part of [this] is in choosing strong relationships … The product might be good, but if you can guarantee me a certain time frame of being able to prepare and a certain time frame of being able to return it and support me, I can then, in turn, meet contractual obligations to my customers.
SB: Similar question: How do you see standardized AV systems meeting the needs of the customer and the end user as we shift to buzzword alert: ~the new normal~ after all this ends?
CB: I don’t know. That’s really tough because I think that people are getting used to a certain experience at home. It’s not awesome but I’m now used to [it] — I’ve been used to it for years — but now people are used to the ease of starting a meeting, and then all their stuff is selected. When they have this, they come back and expect to be able to plug into a system and have that same experience and interaction with their computer; they should be the same. That’s an important partnership between what’s available to people on a desktop level and at home and in the conference room. I like the big fancy conference room as much as the next person, but if I have to do a different set of learning to use that system, it’s less useful to me as a user. I would much rather go to a huddle room that’s got a USB cable that I plug into — and I’ve got a sound bar and a webcam, and I just have my meeting. I think the expectations are a lot stronger/stricter by users to say [the process of using this technology] needs to be easy.
SB: Keeping in mind that this coming EdTech Day will be heavily integrator-focused, what are a few things you’d like them to take away from your LAVNCH & Learn?
CB: A thing that I say fairly often — and again, I think people don’t like to hear it — is that nobody cares about gear. I don’t care what brand your TV is, I don’t care what brand your projector is, I don’t care what your microphone is, customers care about features. What does it do and how do I do it? Does it give me a big enough image for this room? Can I make a phone call? That’s how you sell something — so really the biggest thing is creating a feature set to go with a product …
You can also plan on hearing Colin discuss IT service management standards and how you can start setting a standard with baby steps. I won’t give it all away — geez. I have to leave something for y’all to learn live. Catch Colin Birney at LAVNCH WEEK 2.0 on Thursday, June 25. Register here, and visit rave.pub/LAVNCHweek2 to learn all about LAVNCH WEEK.