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.