Top Ten Tips for New Tech Managers by James Careless

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The Practices and Products that Help New Managers Succeed.

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Congratulations. Your hard work has paid off—you’re now managing an AV technical department.

Now that the celebratory dust is settling, the hard part begins. As a new manager, you need to take charge of your department and run it in ways that keep all clients well-served and happy, your staff inspired yet efficient, your projects on schedule, and your budget under control.

While everyone’s path is unique, and the AV/IT industries are evolving rapidly, these best practices will help first-time managers step up the game. We have condensed a wealth of knowledge into ten essentials to help you become the most effective technology leader possible. We’ve also tapped well-known AV managers for their insight and cross-applied lessons learned in other sectors.

Tip 1 Map Your Goals and Track the Progress

You need to know where you’re going before you can get there. For a first-time tech manager, this means that sitting down and mapping out your priorities. Items to include are project deadlines and workflows, budget preparations, and staff training, reviews, and possible hiring.

“First-timers should consider planning for a shorter time period at first, say three months or less to begin with,” advised Chris Neto, an AV consultant with AV Helpdesk (www.avhelpdesk.com). “Worry about getting your routine down and doing daily sweeps of your existing tech on a regular basis, before you get into budgets and end-of-life planning.”

A software hint: There are various scheduling solutions such as Microsoft Project 2010. It's a useful tool that lets you set deadlines, and then develop “work-back schedules.” For instance, if you have to have a videoconferencing room set up in the next two months, the workback schedule lets you factor in the deadline, the time required for each of the steps in completing the project, and the day you must start on to stay to meet the schedule. 

Tip 2 Do a SWOT Assessment.

Learn how to identify your management strengths, how to leverage them, and identify your opportunities for growth. SWOT is often used in business; it stands for Strengths, Weakness/Limitations, Opportunities, and Threats.

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Jason Spartz, director of
instructional technology at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota
A concise SWOT assessment of yourself, your resources, and your team members can give you useful insights into what your department has going for it, and where it needs help or is vulnerable.

Is the team working well together? Are you and your team members properly trained? What about in IT and or related technology areas? Is there insufficient staff to do everything that needs to be done? In this economy, “doing more with less” is the name of the game, so how can that happen? Could outside partnerships with similar institutions help your department do its job better? That’s an opportunity. And could tight budgets force you to cut staff or stall that planned upgrade? That’s a threat.

Tip 3 Wherever Practical, Utilize Video for Communications.

We’re a high-tech industry, yet how many of us use video-calls regularly? It can make sense to use videoconferencing and other forms of video, where practical, to communicate with your in-house clients (i.e. faculty or staff) and external clients/suppliers. The more you use videoconferencing, the more you prove its utility.

This is the time to get to know your videoconferencing platform inside-and-out. If you work with a consultant or external service integrator, stay up to date with system performance and optimization details. Companies like Polycom, LifeSize, Blue Jeans, and Wainhouse Research offer myriad videoconferencing trainings, free “Lunch and Learn” events, and webinars.

Lower-cost VC options are also becoming more available. (Ed. Note—Read our October 2012 feature “Clarifying Videoconferencing Options” on avnetwork.com.) TenHands is a new company delivering “Affordable HD video collaboration for businesses in a way that has never been done before,” according to company co-founder and COO Jack Blaeser. “Our attention to ease of use makes TenHands approachable to the masses in the same way that many popular/viral consumer applications are.” Blaeser explained that the TenHands name emerged from the concept and philosophy of John Wooden, the UCLA basketball coach, who emphasized the value of teamwork and insisted that all ten hands (five players) touch the ball before shooting. The TenHands vision is to enable every person and organization to collaborate more effectively.

TenHands is also a platform that others can use to deliver real-time communications in any browser-based application, from enterprise social and collaboration applications like Jive, Salesforce and Box to applications that are more oriented toward consumers such as Facebook or Yahoo.

Ten Hand’s primary target customers are knowledge workers in SMB and large businesses that benefit from person-to-person communications when they cannot do so in person. The full-featured service for free under its beta program. After beta, TenHands will continue to offer its full-feature service for free up to three hours per user/month. Unlimited, full-feature service beyond three hours per user/month will cost $10.

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Peggy Brown, director of instructional design/adjunct faculty, iSchool at Syracuse UniversitySmart peripherals, tablet devices, and new video technology platforms can also be used to help employees communicate in a more engaging and cost-effective manner than ever before.

At the same time, keep a sense of balance: “Face-to-face communications are important in dealing with your staff, and with key clients on important matters,” Neto advised.

Tip 4 Cultivate a Strong Team.

Being an effective manager means managing people as well as resources. To succeed, you will need to learn how to handle ineffective staff members, and keep the rising stars in your organization inspired. Take heart: If you don’t know how to do this, ask for help. You can ask for advice from your Human Resources department, or seek out training on your own.

Take time to think about each of your team member’s strengths and weaknesses, using data from their SWOT analyses. “Identifying the strengths and weaknesses of team dynamics can aid a new manager with assessing strategies, which will help nurture followers toward leader initiatives more naturally,” said Jason Spartz, director of instructional technology at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. “Developing the team’s abilities will help the department standout, especially when budgets are tight.”

Be sure to encourage feedback from your team members. They may have ideas to do things better if they are in the field doing hands-on work.

Give well-deserved praise, not gratuitous praise. Learn how to delegate responsibilities more effectively, and stick up for your valued team members if heat hits your department. Employees remember loyalty—or the lack of it.

Even though you have the skills to do everything, you can’t do it all yourself. A stronger team will get more done in the long run.

Tip 5 Set a Good Example.

You can’t expect people to follow you if you don’t act like a leader. This doesn’t mean micromanaging; it means outlining priorities, communicating them clearly, and then backing them up with detailed work schedules. How detailed depends on your assessment of each team member. Some will be able to be told to do a certain job in a fixed period of time, and will do it. Others may require more specific guidance. Get regular feedback.

Loyalty develops when people see that their efforts are recognized and rewarded, and that they stay valuable. Managers who throw their staff “under the bus” at the first sign of trouble aren’t leaders—and their staff members know it. Worse yet, such staff members won’t stand by such managers when things get tough—which they do from time to time.

Tip 6 Understand IT Network Design and Implementation.

“AV and IT used to be two separate disciplines, but the two are now merging into one,” explained Chris Neto. “So it is imperative that you understand IT, and that you have an excellent working relationship with your IT department.”

Staying current with IT advances is vital. We live in an IT world in many ways. The AV tech manager today must be comfortable with IT in all its aspects, especially for interconnecting and controlling AV technology in the classroom and office. Maybe it’s time to seek training with industry organizations like the Building Industry Consulting Service International (BICSI; bicsi.org) and the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA; www.comptia.org).

Tip 7 Make Your Facility More Energy-Efficient.

Commercial utilities are costly. Saving energy wherever possible is vital—and sure to win points with bosses (and accountants). This is why implementing sensors or system automation/remote management tools such as Crestron RoomView and Furman BlueBOLT are worth looking into. Saving energy is also an admirable goal, and another great example of leadership.

“Your goal should be to make every room you manage more energy-efficient,” added Chris Neto. “It’s not just about power: Leaving AV components running nonstop wears them out sooner.”

Need more ideas? Link up with Project Green AV (www.projectgreenav.com). This is an innovative industry organization with numerous clean/green AV ideas. You can also learn about “e-cycling” your old gear.

Tip 8 Make an Equipment Site Inspection List for Safety and Code-Compliance.

Critically important in the commercial industry is compliance with safety, conformity standards, and access codes, such as Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). One of your first priorities as a new manager should be to inspect your facilities such as stages and auditoriums; check the state of your technology equipment, access and seating, and confirm your business/ school is “up to code,” and or in compliance with all legal requirements.

Organization such as InfoComm (www.infocomm.com), ANSI (www.ansi.org), and the ADA (www.ada.gov) can be useful sources of information. Look through your files to see if records of past inspections (and problems) exist. As well, if you know of experienced AV managers who can offer advice in this area, work together. Keep detailed records in an intuitive system.

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Chris Neto, AV Helpdesk consultantBe sure to read our extensive feature on system testing in our November edition—Making It Systematic: Tech Managers Cannot Ignore AV System Testing.

Tip 9 Build Strong Relationships.

“No man is an island,” wrote John Donne. This truth applies to AV tech managers of either gender. You need trusted allies in every industry.

To know what is happening and to get the best products and prices, you need allies and friends in the AV industry. Try to make the time to attend events like the InfoComm 100—an annual think-tank of the AV industry’s best and brightest—and network, network, network. The people you meet could help you someday solve a problem, get a price break, or even procure a new job.

As well, make allies in your organization. To do this effectively, “Identify who should be your allies and learn their language,” said Jason Spartz. “This could be central IT talking about bandwidth, dropped packets, and subnets; or it might be academic administration talking about learning styles, instructional strategies, classroom design, and how effective use of educational technology supports learning and retention. It is all important.” Offer your expertise and skills in return.

Should you find yourself pitching ideas to your allies in order to gain their support, “Do your due diligence first and narrow the options down to just two or three,” said Peggy Brown, director of instructional design/adjunct faculty, iSchool at Syracuse University. “Whether presenting your ideas to your allies or your clients, you need their ‘buy-in.’ Being well-informed about a few options is the most effective way to sell your ideas.”

Tip 10 Keep Learning.

Arguably the most important tip of all—stay inspired and keep learning. Busy days, long meetings, project deadlines…it can be easy to lose sight of what brought you into this industry in the first place. Sit for a minute to enjoy that projection system and take pride in your hard work.

And, stay current. AV technology keeps advancing; your knowledge of it should keep advancing too. Your staff should be equally well-informed. There are lots of web-based and in-person opportunities for learning. As Chris Neto said, “Even courses offered by manufacturers are worth attending; they help you know what these products can do for you, and where these companies are going.”

James Careless is an Ottawa-based writer and frequent contributor to AV Technology, Streaming Media, and Radio World.

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