HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR Integrated System Projects
November 1, 2006
More and more security jobs are requiring systems integration skills, and the line between systems integrators and security dealers and installers is becoming fuzzier all the time.
What are some techniques and tactics that security dealers and systems integrators use when handling their increasingly integrated installations? Security professionals responded to SDMâ€™s questions with everything from installation and technical tips, to business and customer management techniques.
PLAN FOR SOFTWARE UPGRADESTom Hagen, president of Pro-Tec Design Inc., Plymouth, Minn., suggests planning for the future of an integrated system.
â€œThink through and have a plan for ongoing support of the integration before you ever initiate the process,â€ he advises. â€œHave an understanding of how future software upgrades will affect the integration. Most of the major manufacturers are coming out with one or two software releases every year. Sometimes the new software is incompatible with whatever was previously integrated.â€
Two systems from different companies may be successfully integrated, but if one of the companies comes out with a newer version of its software, then the integration may not work with the other companyâ€™s software.
â€œWhose responsibility is it to make sure that new release is still integrated with the other companyâ€™s software?â€ Hagen asks. â€œYour customer is probably not thinking about this; heâ€™s just assuming that if you put it in, youâ€™re going to make sure it all works.â€
One solution Hagen suggests is to use just one manufacturerâ€™s products for video surveillance, access control and other systems, whenever they meet the customersâ€™ needs.
â€œThat would be the smart way to go, because you can be sure the manufacturer will make sure his system works with his other systems,â€ he asserts. â€œThat would greatly reduce the risks that are associated with ongoing support.â€
GARNER INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY SKILLSAnother tip from Hagen is to train your employees well in the systems you install.
â€œIt would be wise to have at least one and preferably more than one senior technician certified by the manufacturer to support the application software on each of the systems youâ€™re planning to integrate,â€ he recommends.
â€œIf youâ€™re not going to make that commitment, donâ€™t do the project, because youâ€™d never be able to support it,â€ he suggests. â€œFrankly, most suppliers would never undertake that kind of a project anyway, if you hadnâ€™t already made that commitment.â€
He also advises developing a training plan for technicians that moves them through Microsoft and network certifications.
Jim Henry, CEO of Henry Bros. Electronics Inc. (HBE), Saddlebrook, N.J., agrees that IT training, such as CCIE certification from Cisco Systems, is crucial.
â€œYouâ€™ve got to have network literacy. We have found it beneficial to have CCIEs on staff to demonstrate proficiency in that area, so you donâ€™t have the IT representatives of your customer up in arms when you start touching their network,â€ Henry suggests. â€œItâ€™s extremely important to have that internal literacy.â€
A tip on how to obtain IT employees is to groom them from within. â€œWe were lucky enough to have people with experience outside or in the security industry who had a real focus on these IT-centric roles,â€ remarks Michael Lamarca, director of software applications and engineering for FirstService Security, Norristown, Pa.
â€œWeâ€™ve developed that through our training program,â€ he points out. â€œItâ€™s a focus of our organization, because we really need to serve the enterprise-level client, and going forward, we try to recruit talent.â€
Another tip Lamarca suggests is to have employees who can handle middleware programming, which interfaces between disparate security systems, and to be able to have custom programs written if necessary.
David Bitton, vice president, Supreme Security Systems, Union, N.J., agrees that training is crucial. â€œLearn, learn, learn,â€ he advises. â€œTry to do as much of the project and technologies with your own personnel. Get them certified, get them trained and get their hands on it, and try not to rely on a third party to provide any part of the technological implementation.
â€œThen I can own the whole system,â€ Bitton notes. â€œWhen something breaks, I donâ€™t want to have to worry who else is responsible.
â€œIf you canâ€™t maintain [a clientâ€™s system], youâ€™re never going to sell another system,â€ Bitton insists.
BENCH TEST AS A RULEHagen emphasizes the importance of bench testing integrated systems before they are installed. â€œSet up a bench test system in your office or encourage your customer to provide a bench test system where all software upgrades can be tested prior to implementation on a live working system,â€ he advises.
â€œIâ€™m of the belief that integrated software upgrades or any kind of software release should never just be implemented on a live system without some type of bench testing first,â€ Hagen maintains. â€œIf youâ€™re working with the IT department, I think many times theyâ€™d be surprised if you didnâ€™t think that was important.â€
CHOOSE SUPPLIERS CAREFULLYA security dealer or systems integratorâ€™s success with systems is tied intimately to the ones with which he or she chooses to work.
â€œChoose the system manufacturers that you work with carefully,â€ Hagen recommends. â€œIf theyâ€™re not committed to the process of supplying integrated systems, then maybe you shouldnâ€™t be either, or else you need to find a supplier that is. Some suppliers really have developed the infrastructure to integrate their systems with other products out there, and theyâ€™re willing to support that.
â€œIf theyâ€™re not, I think an independent dealer is swimming uphill to think heâ€™s going to be able to do it on his own,â€ Hagen emphasizes. â€œYou want to make sure the manufacturer is committed to that effort, and I think that also means you are willing to make a long-term commitment to that manufacturer, so that youâ€™ll both be there over the long haul to support your customer.â€
Finally, the bottom line is the customer. â€œWork with and listen to your customer to determine what his needs are,â€ Hagen stresses. â€œMake sure the solution you offer actually solves the problem he has. There is too much bells-and-whistles technology out there and too many solutions trying to find a problem.â€
Lamarca of FirstService Security agrees that client expectations must be determined accurately.
â€œWe ask questions and listen to the answers,â€ Lamarca says simply. â€œThe best way to ask the question is, â€˜What is the benefit youâ€™re looking to get from this?â€™ Then, engineer the solution to meet that and the goals theyâ€™re trying to accomplish.
â€œIt sounds pretty fundamental, but itâ€™s shocking how often people take things for granted,â€ he concedes. To do that effectively, having employees who can speak the same language as the customerâ€™s IT people is important.
STAY CUSTOMER-CENTRICBitton of Supreme Security stresses that determining customer expectations is critical. â€œProbably one of the most important tips you can give anyone is to make sure that you assess the full scope of what the system needs to do,â€ he emphasizes.
â€œMake sure that is defined in the initial proposal and that is what gets signed off by the customer,â€ he stresses. â€œEverything has a way of morphing during the course of a project into something else.â€
Bitton has had jobs in which a clientâ€™s expectations mushroomed beyond the scope of the agreed-upon installation.
â€œInevitably, what the customer wants at the end of a project is more than what they wanted at the beginning of the project,â€ he laments. â€œIt costs more, and your client may or may not be interested in paying that additional money.â€
Two distasteful alternatives in that case are doing the work at cost or losing the customer, Bitton concludes.
Shawn Benson, president/CEO of Benson Systems Inc., Gilbert, Ariz., emphasizes that systems cannot be designed from a fixed template. â€œFirst of all, you need to understand all [of your customerâ€™s] processes,â€ Benson says. â€œHow do they function? What are their hours and mode of operations? The biggest thing is if you need more than just one level of security.â€
Benson also suggests instituting an in-house training facility to help educate customers on how to operate their systems. â€œWe offer end user training in our 4,500-square-foot training facility within our building,â€ he says, adding that it saves his customers travel costs to many manufacturersâ€™ training sessions.
He also suggests letting larger clients use the training facility for their own security employee classes. â€œThe more I offer to my big customers, the more theyâ€™re in here, the better,â€ he concludes.
STAFF MUST FOCUS ON DATABASE INTEGRATIONThe integrated systems division of Stanley Security Solutions Inc., Indianapolis, has come across many tips to solve integration challenges, reveals Jay Vaitkus, Stanleyâ€™s global product and marketing manager.
â€œOne of the things we do fairly well but it was a fairly painful route was the integration of various databases together,â€ Vaitkus notes. The return on investment for a university, for example, to integrate its access, library and meal card systems is substantial, but so are the challenges, he says.
â€œIt sounds easy and there is a significant ROI of doing it, but it is very complicated,â€ he emphasizes. â€œAny change to one field in one of the programs will affect the others.â€
His company has an eight-member software solutions group that assists salespeople in quoting such projects because of the different types of software systems a customer can use, including proprietary ones the university may have developed itself.
â€œGood upfront planning is the key word if youâ€™re doing any database integration, but the return on investment is significant to manage all your data at one point rather than multiple points,â€ Vaitkus stresses.
Sidebar: Integrators Identify New Business OpportunitiesAn aspect of integration in which Henry Bros. Electronics Inc. (HBE), Saddlebrook, N.J., has been working is emergency preparedness planning, which now is required in New York City. A tip for additional business is developing these plans for building owners.
Michael Lamarca, director of software applications and engineering for FirstService Security, Norristown, Pa., also points to a large number of projects in automated failover systems, which provide backup or redundancy for systems, and in data recovery during disasters.
Stanley Security Solutions Inc., Indianapolis, has done work with asset tracking, in which, for example, the location of expensive diagnostic equipment that is moved around a hospital needs to be known. It may not have been stolen, but employees cannot remember where they last left it. An active ID tag on the equipment is used to track it through radio signals.
Sidebar: Get out of TownSmall systems integrators should not hesitate to take on jobs that are remotely located from their regular territory, thinks Clifford Franklin, president of Sabre Integrated Security Systems, New York.
â€œWe do a lot of work out of town, which is unusual for a small integrator,â€ Franklin relates. Among the locations where the company has clients are Washington, Baltimore, Virginia and even Alabama.
â€œA lot of smaller companies shy away from that, but with good management, there are markets out there that are in their realms,â€ Franklin insists.
Sabre receives many of these projects from out-of-state divisions of companies that are their customers in New York. â€œMost are where weâ€™ve been requested by the contact in New York to go look at those jobs,â€ he points out.
Franklinâ€™s tip for this type of work is to pay close attention to the details when doing a site visit. â€œMake sure you have everything for the job before you go down there,â€ he suggests. â€œTo get that right, you have to be very stringent with your survey.â€
How a surveillance camera will attach to a wall, the types of door frames that will need electronic latching and access control equipment, and how a door is constructed are some of the details that must be studied closely.
â€œSundry items basically are the ones that screw you up when youâ€™re doing an installation,â€ Franklin concedes, such as fasteners, screws or conduit boxes. â€œIf you get all that detail in your survey, youâ€™ll have no problem.â€
Having employees who enjoy traveling for a few days or weeks is important, too. â€œWe try to get a package together before we send someone out of town where they have literally everything in hand, and off they go,â€ Franklin explains. â€œGenerally we donâ€™t get problems. If youâ€™re going away any distance, you want to know what your miscellaneous items are. You donâ€™t want to run to the hardware store.â€