When it comes to next-level audiovisual technology, Mohammad Sigari, Uber’s senior AV engineer, is in the driver’s seat. An experienced project manager with roots in international business, he takes a bigpicture approach to integrated AV. That’s a useful perspective to have at Uber. The company, founded in 2009, is changing the way we move through the world. And it has the stats to back it up: 16,000 employees work at the company as of 2017, with 75 million global riders. You can catch an Uber ride in 65 countries and more than 600 cities worldwide. To help support such rapid growth, the company maintains 10 major offices around the globe—and Sigari believes that AV technologies are essential for team collaboration.
Of the many aspects of his work that inspire pride, Sigari is confident that the use of effective audiovisual technology supports Uber’s mission, as a company and as a cultural force.
“Uber is growing faster than a lot of companies have ever been able to spread around the world,” Sigari said, “and their product, is getting you—or things—from here to there as quickly as possible and as seamlessly as possible.”
In order to do that, Uber offices need to communicate with one another in standardized ways. The communication needs to be effortless. “The technology needs to be easy,” he noted, “and really simple for people to use, without small issues or hiccups.”
Uber’s leadership wants its AV leaders to provide exceptional systems and support, but the company also wants the technologists to stay on trend with developments in the industry, vis-à-vis new products and techniques that are available. In turn, the company, with its expansive reach, hopes to help drive the AV industry forward. To accomplish this, Sigari said, “manufacturers need the influence and input from the end user about what we actually need from a functionality point of view.” That’s why he finds value in nurturing relationships and partnering with manufacturers, like Zoom, for example. “This helps to advance their product toward something that is easy to integrate and deploy globally,” he said.
DRIVING GLOBAL AV DEPLOYMENTS
As for international, complex deployments—a topic deeply familiar to Sigari—the AV must be frictionless. “It cannot require a whole lot of parts,” he said. “Because as soon as you start talking about going global—going into all the countries that Uber is going into—you must consider finer points of import and export laws, related compatibility issues, and standards that we need to be able to comply with. The less equipment, the less that we need to deal with, the better.”
With such rapid growth—growth that doesn’t appear to be slowing—Uber partners with a variety of companies and people.
FUELING STANDARDS DEVELOPMENT
Standards are also critically important for Uber, a company growing at a breakneck pace with an ever-evolving global footprint. “Three years ago, I had to break the standards apart to help expedite delivery of equipment in all of the different regions of the world, so all the different continents,” Sigari said.
He shared an example: “We had an India standard that was different from a China standard, and that was different from a Latin America standard. Of course, that was different from a North America standard, Europe, and Africa. It was all the same functionality—it was just different parts and different equipment from different manufacturers.”
One key approach to solving this complexity of building cohesive standards while delivering exceptional AV experiences at scale is to partner with manufacturers who have a local presence when and where you need it. “For example,” he said, “Extron is in some continents that others simply are not. Others can get in there; however, it’s going to be a bigger issue with import and export fees, whereas Extron has an actual manufacturing location within the region.”
Specialty companies and one-stop shops both have advantages and disadvantages, and distribution specifics also change the equation in certain regions. Some vendors might be best in class in a specific product category, such as integrated DSP. However, if you need a solution in another country, and it takes weeks for delivery, that is problematic. “If a device is down in a room,” he said, “and you don’t have the necessary stock to keep it going, that room could potentially be down for a matter of weeks, which would unacceptable.”
Whether it is the question of projectors versus flat panels, standards have to be both coherent and flexible to be sustainable on an international scale. “We have to be flexible,” he admitted. “You have to be able to say, ‘Yes, this is a standard, and we have a standard functionality, but can we standardize 100 percent on equipment and hardware?’ That’s another question that, depending on how fast the company’s growing, you have to have flexibility around.”
REVVING UP PROCUREMENT
Similar to methods to streamline usage from region to region, Sigari takes a pragmatic, realistic approach to third-party integration. He recommends that, when searching for the right integrator for a new project, you have to “do your due diligence as the AV engineer for the company. If you are smart about it, then you’re going also to go directly to the manufacturers and make those partnerships. And if you have the time, then you’ll be able to dive into the distribution models and learn how the supply chain works.”
AV OR IT: DON’T STAY IN ONE LANE
As Uber continues to forge inroads into new regions, the AV-over-IP conversation carries new weight for Sigari and the AV team. Software-based systems offer ways to streamline rollouts and offer remote access and remote management.
There’s a wrinkle in the AV/IT convergence, though: Where it is getting “interesting,” Sigari said, is finding talent that can do both AV and IT successfully. “Traditionally, they are two completely different languages, and IT did not understand AV. But now things are getting more IT-friendly, and teaching IT to essentially AV is becoming an interesting task for us.”
Which way do you go when you are a company the size of Uber? Do you teach an IT professional how to do AV, because they already understand networking? Or, is it more prudent to teach IT to AV pros, because they will be tasked with AV support, or AV engineering, or AV operations? Both, Sigari said. Education can and should go in both directions, and the more that AV and IT are aligned, the better. “It is great to see IT professionals understand AV essentials, like, ‘Yes, this transmits audio and video,’ or, ‘It only does audio.’ AV can be overwhelming for some IT people.” This is why training and education are absolutely critical.
AV MOTORS AHEAD
There is another side to the AV-versus-IT argument, Sigari confided. “Some think that network engineers are way more important than an AV engineer, because the company is running off of the internet and they’re the ones that are maintaining the internet connection.” And he agrees. However, as more people work from home and videoconferencing becomes more essential, Sigari argues that AV is just as important as the network, if not more important.
“Essentially, AV takes on all communications of the company. I am not downplaying the importance of the network at all. But, because of AV, people don’t have to fly all over the world any more to have meetings or to get certain projects done. We can be more strategic. We can work faster. People can become more efficient if they know how to use their communication tools better.” But the tools need to work, every single time. This is why Uber places such value on VC solutions and communications solutions.
THE ROAD AHEAD FOR AV
Building a group of AV users in the Bay Area has been instrumental for Sigari. He encourages other AV tech managers to attend shows like InfoComm and ISE, and stay curious about new products. He also thinks it is important to tap into the power of the end-user community. “Ask questions,” he said. Share your best practices and new product trials. Look for new ways to collaborate.
Even with the breakneck pace of acceleration, Sigari still bumps up against fear of change. Old school systems that are not versatile or fully featured are still being implemented because of stigma of the new. “We’re still seeing people with phones in conference rooms just because they like that reliability, rather than a soft phone solution.” That’s why, with every new communications tool and every new standard he brings to Uber, Sigari is working to not only improve processes but enlighten more stakeholders on the transformational benefits of next-level AV.
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