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Mom Tech

Many people assume that working from home is less productive than spending time in the office. However, the opposite is oftentimes true. This is especially true now that technology allows for quick and easy communication between home and office, giving employees, especially moms, the ability to work efficiently from home while maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

When Tiffany Appleton looks back on raising her now-19-year-old daughter, she remembers how difficult it was to have a full-time job on top of the 24-hour job called parenting. As a single parent, she really didn’t have a choice whether to go to work or not — she had to find a way to balance the two.

And she did — but she also realizes how much easier that might have been in today’s world, where technology allows employees to work from home productively and sustain a healthy work-life balance.

Appleton, recruiter and director of the accounting and finance division at Johnson & Hill Staffing, finds more and more people are working from home, and sees benefits for both the employee and the employer.

“I’ve interviewed many people who have had a work-from-home schedule, and usually they say that they end up working more than they would if they were in the office,” she explained, adding that it is oftentimes easier to be productive at home than working in an office environment, with the myriad distractions found there.

“I think much of this desire for having flexibility to work remotely came from moms who wanted to have their hands in balancing both the career and raising a family, and not having to feel like they could only do one or the other.”

In fact, the work-from-home population has grown by 159% since 2005, and the number of employers offering a remote option has grown by 40% in the past five years. The start of this fairly new trend, Appleton said, can be attributed to the moms.

“I think much of this desire for having flexibility to work remotely came from moms who wanted to have their hands in balancing both the career and raising a family, and not having to feel like they could only do one or the other,” she said.

Mary Shea, vice president of digital strategy at GCAi, can attest to this. She’s a new mom of a 4½-month-old boy. She commutes from Sturbridge but works from home on Mondays and Fridays, a schedule she says took some getting used to but now allows her use her time more productively while helping her maintain a healthy lifestyle. Her position at GCAi includes building and managing ad campaigns for her clients, a job she says she can do very well remotely.

Between her long commute and having a new baby boy, Mary Shea says working from home twice a week makes a huge difference in her life.

“Most of the time, I don’t have to be in the office,” Shea told BusinessWest. “I’ve set it up where Mondays and Fridays are my set schedule. Those are the days I’ll work on things that I know are online, and then, the other three days, I come into the office or go on location for a video shoot.”

Working from home saves Shea three hours a day that would otherwise be spent in a car — time she spends either working more, grocery shopping, or fitting in some exercise. And she never feels disconnected from the company, knowing her team back in the Springfield office is only a phone call away.

“Technology today has enabled parents, particularly moms like me, to work remotely,” she said, adding that hard and soft technology like the cloud-based project-management system GCAi uses and applications on her phone make this possible. “Being able to work remotely in the situation I’m in now is pretty vital because it’s just such a busy week.”

Barriers to Success

Shea isn’t the only mom, or employee in general, who feels this way. Karen Buell, vice president of Operations at Payveris and mother of two, has been working from home three days a week for eight years.

“Some women are pushing off having a family or they’re choosing between a career and having a family. For me, I can choose both,” she said, adding that being part of a tech company makes this a pretty easy thing to do.

Tiffany Appleton says Western Mass. businesses are adopting work-from-home policies slower than bigger cities, but it is still becoming more normal in the area.

In fact, Buell says about a third of the employees at Payveris are 100% remote.

But for some employers, this can be a difficult thing to embrace. Appleton says the negative stigma that surrounds those who work from home can sometimes prevent employers from making the jump.

“I’ve found, in Western Mass., we’re a little slower to adopt it than the cities are,” she said. “Sometimes employers get scared by work-life balance and think, ‘that means people don’t want to work, they just want to have a life and pretend they’re working.’ They just assume the worst.”

This negative perception is one of the things Buell experienced in her early work-from-home days, with people telling her she’d have a hard time being visible or ever being promoted. Despite the lingering stereotype, she was promoted at Payveris just a couple months ago.

“It doesn’t hold you back. If you’re there and you’re showing up and being productive, you can do anything,” she said. “It’s not about where you are, it’s about how productive you can be.”

Another challenging aspect about working from home is maintaining a connection with those who are at the office. Both Appleton and Shea agreed this responsibility lies largely with the employee, but also the cooperation of co-workers to maintain connectivity.

“Keeping the culture of the office is probably the most important thing the employer can do when having people who are not in the office all the time — finding ways to make sure that they are included, even if they’re not there in person,” Appleton said.

This may even include something as simple as telling a co-worker not to bring a lunch tomorrow because the office is ordering pizza or letting them know that so-and-so down the hall got engaged.

“Those are the things that usually irk people,” she continued. “Making sure there are ways to include the people when they’re not there — and being very conscious to include them and make them feel like they are part of the team — is important.”

Karen Buell says employers would benefit from seeing the upside of remote work instead of focusing on the negatives.

Technology makes all this especially simple. Appleton says more and more employers are investing in the kinds of technology that can be accessed remotely, such as Freedcamp, a collaborative project-management system that GCAi uses for everyday business and communication.

Win-win Situation

With increasingly adaptive technology that allows employees to do things like videoconferencing and sending documents through group-sharing software within seconds, disconnectedness is becoming less and less of a problem.

“Taking the next step to make sure the tools you’re investing in for the office have those abilities for people to work from anywhere is crucial,” Appleton said.

When she thinks about becoming a working parent 19 years ago, she realizes how helpful modern technology would have been when her daughter was home sick from school and she had to take the day off from work. Or on a snow day, when it wouldn’t have been necessary to get in the car and drive to the office to be productive.

“It’s nice now that you can do everything you need to do from home,” she said. “I think it’s good for the employees and the employers at the end of the day.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]m

Technology

Baiting the Hook

By Jenna Finn

Vade Secure, a global leader in predictive e-mail defense, recently published the results of its Phishers’ Favorites report for the second quarter of 2019. According to the report, which ranks the 25 most impersonated brands in phishing attacks, Microsoft was by far the top target for the fifth straight quarter. There was also a significant uptick in Facebook phishing, as the social-media giant moved up to the third spot on the list as a result of a staggering 176% year-over-year growth in phishing URLs.

The report was developed by analyzing the number of unique phishing URLs detected by Vade Secure. Leveraging data from more than 600 million protected mailboxes worldwide, Vade’s machine-learning algorithms identify the brand being impersonated as part of its real-time analysis of the URL and page content.

“Cybercriminals are more sophisticated than ever.”

Microsoft has ranked number one on the Phishers’ Favorites list every quarter since the official rankings were first released early in 2018. In the most recent quarter, Vade’s AI engine detected 20,217 unique Microsoft phishing URLs, for an average of more than 222 per day. This represents a 15.5% year-over-year increase compared to the second quarter of 2018.

Microsoft phishing has become a potential goldmine thanks to the growth of Office 365, which boasts more than 180 million active monthly business users. Office 365 is increasingly the heart of companies, providing the essential services (e-mail, chat, document management, project management, etc.) that businesses depend on to run. Each set of Office 365 credentials provides a single entry point not just to the entire platform but the entire business, allowing cybercriminals to launch insider attacks targeting anyone in the organization in just one step.

Meanwhile, Facebook phishing has been on a tear throughout 2019 and advanced one spot up to number three in the most recent quarter thanks to a 175.8% increase in phishing URLs. One explanation for this rise in popularity could be the prevalence of social sign-on using Facebook accounts, a feature called Facebook Login. This is particularly attractive to cybercriminals because they’ll be able to see what other apps the user has authorized via social sign-on, and potentially compromise those accounts as well.

The rest of the most-impersonated brands on the Phishers’ Favorites report include PayPal (number 2), Netflix (4), Bank of America (5), Apple (6), CIBC (7), Amazon (8), DHL (9), and DocuSign (10). Amazon phishing URLs saw a massive spike in the second quarter of 2019, growing 182.6% over the first quarter and 411.5% year over year. This coincides with reports of a new Amazon phishing kit in May, as well as the lead up to Prime Day 2019.

In terms of the most impersonated industries, cloud companies took the top spot for the fifth straight quarter with 37.6%, followed by financial services (33.1%), social media (15.6%), e-commerce/logistics (7.7%), and internet/telecommunications (5.2%).

A large majority of phishing (80%) took place on weekdays, while Tuesdays and Wednesdays were the most popular days for cybercriminals to take their shot.

“Cybercriminals are more sophisticated than ever, and the ways they target corporate and consumer e-mail users continued to evolve in Q2,” said Adrien Gendre, chief solution architect at Vade Secure. “Microsoft Office 365 phishing is the gateway to massive amounts of corporate data, while gaining access to a consumer’s Facebook log-in information could compromise much of their personal, sensitive information. The fact that we saw such a significant volume in impersonations of these two brands, along with the coinciding new methods of attack, means that virtually all e-mail users and organizations need to be on heightened alert.”

Jenna Finn is an account manager with Vade Secure.

Technology

Pipeline to Progress

When the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center released a study last fall examining potential locations for water-technology demonstration centers in Massachusetts — thus raising the Bay State’s profile and potential in the increasingly critical field of water supply, treatment, and sustainability — UMass Amherst was a natural choice, because it’s been making connections between water research and industry for some time. A host of key stakeholders believe it can become even more so in the decades to come.

Talk to experts in the broad realm of water technology innovation, and it doesn’t take long for Israel to come up, at least in terms of government investment.

It’s not exactly by choice.

“There are countries facing severe water issues right now,” said Loren Walker, director of the Office of Research Development at UMass Amherst. “Israel is the world leader in terms of state-led efforts to purify water — because they have to. They have a real water-constraint situation there.”

But several entities in the Bay State — from the university to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) to a host of industry players, both established companies and startups — are intrigued by the potential to make Massachusetts an international leader in water innovation as well. And they’ve got plenty of progress to build on already.

“It’s obviously a big area — there’s a water crisis around the country, around the world, and it will be more critical as the years go on, so there’s a need to innovate ways to treat water, both wastewater and surface water,” Walker told BusinessWest.

“It’s an active area of university research, an active area of industrial research,” he went on, “but there’s a gap between the kind of research the universities do — federally funded, more basic or fundamental — and technologies being developed by industry that they can ultimately commercialize and sell. There’s a gap between that fundamental research and the later applied research where you’re prototyping, scaling up, and seeing what technologies really work — and that’s where you need a pilot site. You need a way to go from fundamental laboratory research to commercial-scale research.”

UMass could be that site, he said.

Loren Walker

Loren Walker says the Amherst Wastewater Treatment plant provides UMass researchers and partnering companies a flow of wastewater on which to test new technologies.

Last fall, MassCEC released a comprehensive study that evaluates the technical and financial feasibility of three potential water-technology demonstration centers across Massachusetts, including one at UMass Amherst. Such centers, proponents say, could offer a test bed to pilot new water technologies and position Massachusetts as a global leader in the water-innovation and energy-efficiency sector, providing significant business and employment opportunities.

Rick Sullivan, president of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council, said one of the EDC’s goals is to help identify and develop sectors where Massachusetts could become a center of excellence. Back when he served as secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs under then-Gov. Deval Patrick, he and the governor traveled to several locations, including Israel, to learn about water innovation, recognizing this was an issue of growing international concern.

“Water is just a really big issue, and becoming more important every day,” Sullivan said. “So we started asking, ‘can Massachusetts actually play in this water cluster?’ The short answer is, yes we can — because it’s already a multi-billion-dollar business in the Commonwealth.”

“It’s obviously a big area — there’s a water crisis around the country, around the world, and it will be more critical as the years go on.”

That figure includes everything from delivery systems to public-works projects; from filtering, purifying, and clarifying water to security of freshwater sources like the Quabbin Reservoir, he noted. “So it’s a bigger field than I think a lot of people realize.”

UMass Amherst has long been involved in water research. Then, in 2016, a $4.1 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — on the heels of a state earmark of $1.5 million from the state Department of Environmental Protection for water innovation — helped launch one of only two national research centers (the other is in Boulder, Colo.) focused on testing and demonstrating cutting-edge technologies for drinking-water systems.

All things considered, Sullivan said, UMass Amherst is an ideal spot to develop a demonstration center. A conference last October, called “Innovations and Opportunities in Water Technologies,” brought together the business and startup community, area municipal leaders who spoke about challenges to current water and wastewater systems, and UMass experts who detailed some of the cutting-edge work already being done on campus.

“At the end of the day, all of those panels and all the discussion and information kind of led back to reinforcing the idea that this is a really smart investment for the Commonwealth,” Sullivan said, noting that the investment to create the three centers was approved as part of the state’s 2014 environmental bond bill, but has not yet been appropriated in the state budget.

“When you talk to the companies that are in the innovation sector, one of the biggest needs they have is to be able to take their product and demonstrate that it works in real life — and to be able to do that not just in a lab, but out there in the real world,” he continued. “UMass has the ability to provide that infrastructure with some investment from the Commonwealth.”

In the Flow

The MassCEC study analyzed the technical and financial feasibility of three potential water-technology demonstration centers around the state: the so-called Wastewater Pilot Plant at UMass Amherst, the Massachusetts Alternative Septic System Test Center in Barnstable, and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s Deer Island Treatment Plant in Boston Harbor.

Establishing this network could create jobs, lower energy costs, and optimize municipal operations in addition to supporting water-technology research, the study noted. A test-bed network could serve existing Massachusetts-based water technology companies, help attract new companies to the Commonwealth, advance new solutions to both local and global water challenges, and provide a strong foundation for innovation.

Key to UMass Amherst’s feasibility as a demonstration center is the fact that it already acts as a pilot site for industry — albeit on a limited basis — because of its access to flowing streams of municipal wastewater at the Amherst Wastewater Treatment Plant, located next to the university’s Water Energy Technology (WET) Center.

“You need flowing streams of municipal wastewater and surface water; you need to have access to this to test your filtration membrane or electrochemical treatment technologies, whatever they may be,” Walker said.

“Those facilities are few and far between,” he added. “But we happen to have one of just a couple facilities in the country that have some of the key attributes necessary to do some of this pilot testing — access to flowing wastewater and flowing surface-water streams, proximity to a research university, and access to stakeholders and end users.”

The issue, he said, is size and scale.

Rick Sullivan says Massachusetts can be a major player in the water cluster and, in many ways, already is.

Rick Sullivan says Massachusetts can be a major player in the water cluster and, in many ways, already is.

“We have the fundamental key attributes needed to make this kind of pilot facility, but we’re limited,” he went on. “We have bays now and already have companies using the facility to do their own research and scale up. It’s already an active space for research and development collaborations — but it gets filled up very quickly, so we would love to expand it, see even more companies come in and use this space, both established companies as well as new startups.”

The center was established in the 1970s and ran as a research pilot site for decades, but fell into disrepair in the late 1990s, he explained. Since its grant-funded renovation in 2016 as a research and collaboration space, it has hosted numerous industrial collaborators. “But it’s limited how many projects can happen in parallel. So there’s a case to be made for investing in infrastructure improvements, expansion, and modernization, do more projects in parallel.”

As an example of the kind of research being done there, Walker brought up ultrafiltration membranes — nanoscale membranes that can remove contaminants when water is forced through. One problem is that the membranes tend to get fouled up by materials in the water and eventually don’t work so well, and have to be replaced regularly, which is costly.

But Jessica Schiffman, an associate professor of Chemical Engineering at UMass Amherst, recently received a National Science Foundation grant to study the use of naturally occurring biopolymers that can be used as a nanofiber’s mat to prevent fouling in these ultrafiltration membranes, he explained. “Then you have a membrane that lasts longer and is more valuable, more efficient, and processes water more effectively.”

Then there are startups like Aclarity, whose CEO, Julie Bliss Mullen, presented at the fall conference. Her company specializes in electrochemical advanced oxidation, which is essentially using electricity to decontaminate water.

“Our faculty and students are looking for real-world problems to tackle. We’re on the research side of the equation, but the real world informs what gets done here.”

“Then there are companies developing their own technologies we don’t even know about,” Walker said. “When they get to the stage where they’ve tested it at the lab scale and they know it works at that scale, they still can’t sell it; they can’t turn it into a technology and market it to anyone until they’ve tested it at the municipal scale, and that’s where a facility like the WET Center comes in.

“We already know there’s interest here, and we have more interest than we can serve presently,” he went on. “And we’re hoping we can find ways to expand and renovate the facility so we can meet that interest.”

It’s not just companies that benefit, he added. “Our faculty and students are looking for real-world problems to tackle. We’re on the research side of the equation, but the real world informs what gets done here. So it’s a very fruitful partnership, to have our basic researchers working with companies, and companies hopefully getting some value out of the investigations we can lead, and we get a lot of value from the questions they ask, which informs the research we do here at the university.”

Current Events

One end result of all this innovation and connection, Sullivan said, is a real economic-development boost in a field that promises to become more critical over the next several decades.

“Companies these days are looking for direct ties to the university for two reasons: one, the students are graduating and they need the talent, and they also want to tie back to the research and development that’s occurring with the grad students and professors and other staff, so they can stay on the cutting edge,” he told BusinessWest.

The test-bed potential, to have a site big enough to accommodate real-life testing for more companies, only enhances that potential, he added, noting that it’s only one way UMass is leading the way in connecting scientific research with real economic development, with the core facilities at the Institute for Applied Life Sciences being another.

“It’s such a resource and economic opportunity for the region,” he said of the university as a whole, “and I think a lot of people don’t understand and appreciate the potential it has and the importance it has.”

Walker was quick to add that the state and region have been taking the water-technology issue seriously for some time. For example, the New England Water Innovation Network is a nonprofit trade group that examines the water cluster in Massachusetts — companies developing water-purification technologies, university researchers at UMass and other universities, and industry — and connects those dots to help foster collaboration and innovation that will develop technologies, attract companies interested in developing these technologies, and hopefully create more jobs and an economic boost, all while attacking a major global problem.

“So there’s a need, and it’s likely only going to grow,” he said. “UMass Amherst is going to help develop some of the solutions to solve that problem and, hopefully, in the process of doing so, create some economic opportunity for Massachusetts and Western Mass. in particular.”

While UMass is ahead of the curve, Walker noted, this isn’t an unknown area for innovation potential, and other states, like Georgia, are currently looking to develop similar pilot-scale and commercial-scale projects.

“Right now we’re in a good place. We have a lot of interest, and we have a lot of expertise here, but I think that, going forward, we’ll see a lot more competition from other states and other regions that want to get in on this game. But to be successful, you have to have combination of physical infrastructure, stakeholder relations, and, critically, the expertise. That means having experts at the university level, which we have in spades here.”

David Reckhow is one of the more prominent of that group. The director of the Water Innovation Network for Sustainable Small Systems at UMass Amherst, he has traveled to Israel, Singapore, and other places to learn about global water needs and the innovation occurring worldwide to meet those needs.

“They talk about water being the next oil,” Reckhow told BusinessWest in December 2014. “We’re running out of quality water. There’s plenty of water on the planet, but most of it is not usable; the water in the ocean is not usable, or, at least, it’s very expensive to use. So, as we move forward, there’s going to be more conflict over existing high-quality water sources. We have seen it in the Middle East for a long time, but it’s going to be more widespread. It’s an issue of national security around the world.”

The intervening years have only made it more of one. And UMass Amherst has the potential, Walker said, to be a national center for water innovation that will benefit the region, but also attract players from across the U.S., both industry and academic collaborators.

“I do think it’s new enough of a cluster that it’s just starting to get some real recognition of its importance,” Sullivan said. “I think there’s a real opportunity for Western Mass., and UMass in particular, to play a role here.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Attack the Problem

By Sean Hogan

Over the course of my time as a business owner, I’ve been asked many times, ‘what keeps you up at night?’

In the early days, I would have said ‘payroll, employees, and sales,’ and maybe not necessarily in that order. Today my answer would be ‘cybersecurity.’

As things have advanced in technology, the web, connectivity, and social media, we have created an easy avenue to our data. Our exposure to hacking is one port away on your firewall, and in some cases, someone may have already breached that firewall.

Security practices in the past do not hold up to complex hacking attacks that are constantly barraging the internet. It used to be adequate to have complex passwords and updated computers with all the patches and security updates. The hackers have concentrated on the lowest-cost and easiest way to infect your computers.

Sean Hogan

Sean Hogan

In most cases, it’s a phishing attack. Phishing attacks are e-mails disguised as a reputable company with a clickable link or some embedded malware. The cyberthieves send out thousands of these attacks and lie in wait until some innocent victim opens the e-mail and clicks on the link or attachment. The malicious robot servers automatically churn out these e-mails, and before they know it, their device and network are infected.

Many of these attacks are designed to install ransomware or access all your critical data. The ransomware will lock down the machine and encrypt your data. They will contact you and request bitcoin to then release your data. Some hackers will pull your data, including contacts and personal information, and post or sell your data to the dark web.

Hacking has evolved greatly within the past few years. In the early days, we would receive a letter from the Nigerian prince, looking to transfer $7 million to you just for good measure. Modern-day hacks and phishing e-mails are very complex; they quite often mimic FedEx, UPS, and customer e-mails so you are more prone to click on the bait.

“As things have advanced in technology, the web, connectivity, and social media we have created an easy avenue to our data. Our exposure to hacking is one port away on your firewall and in some cases, they may have already breached that firewall.”

The most successful program to prevent phishing attacks is training. There are several services that offer security-awareness training (SAT). When you sign up for this type of training, you will be taught what to look for in phishing e-mails and how to respond. The SAT will also include a ‘fake attack’ so you can measure the results at your business and use it as a teaching aid to prevent against future attacks.

Businesses need to embrace a cybersecurity strategy. There are three categories to cybersecurity: Protect, detect, and respond.

Protect

Ask yourself, do you lock your car? Do you lock your front door? Think of your connection (router) as your front door to the web.

Securing this device is the first step in preventing hackers from getting in. Not only should you have the best-in-class router, you also need to maintain the patches and security updates, so the unit does not fall to the constant attacks from the internet.

Beyond the firewall, you need to secure your ethernet switches and your wireless access points. Access points are an easy target for rogue hackers; they often log into a weakly secured access point, and once they have entered, they can navigate your entire network.

Most often, malicious attacks are delivered via e-mail. Logically, it is critical to have very updated anti-spam software, as well as antivirus and malware protection.

It is also critical to have current backups; best practices recommend a full on-site backup with a virtual cloud backup. It is crucial to know that your backups are tested; if you are backing up corrupted data, then your backups are useless.

Detect

Early detection can save lots of time and potential loss of data. Most breaches are not detected for more than 100 days after the breach. Once you detect a breach, you can contain and react to that breach. This begs the obvious question: how can you detect a breach?

There are several ways to go about detecting a breach within your system. First is to engage in a dark-web monitoring service. These services have ‘crawlers’ that are constantly scanning the dark web. They will scan your company and your personal information. When they find your data on the dark web, the service will alert you and let you know what that information is and where it came from, but don’t get your hopes up; you cannot remove your information once it is on the dark web. For instance, LinkedIn was breached more than 10 years ago, and if you had a LinkedIn account in that time frame, your username and password are available on the dark web.

Respond

It’s not a matter of if, but when you are a victim of a cyberattack. Rapid response to a breach or infection is critical, and the faster you respond, the faster it will reduce your exposure. In some cases, you will need a support team to assist in cleansing machines, loading backups, and scanning your network.

The proactive approach is to engage a security operations center. This is a team of security professionals that will monitor your network and device. In the case of an infection or breach, the team will jump into recovery mode and secure your data.

Bottom Line

Above all, it’s important to stress that cybersecurity is more of a culture than a service. Cyberattacks cannot be prevented, but they can be avoided by having the proper procedures and training. Cybersecurity requires awareness and the ability to eliminate your personal and company exposure. All the tools in the world won’t prevent someone from clicking on malware in an e-mail. It is important for a company to have a stable cybersecurity policy and program in place.

Don’t wait until you are hacked to implement a cybersecurity prevention and awareness program.

Sean Hogan is president of Hogan Technology, a full-service managed IT, structured cabling, and cloud-services provider; (413) 779-0079.

Technology

Blasting Off

A team from Feeding Hills gets ready to put their robot to the test.

A team from Feeding Hills gets ready to put their robot to the test.

Seeing a group of middle-schoolers design, build, and program robots that perform specific, detailed tasks on cue is an impressive sight. But the impact of the FIRST LEGO League, which boasts teams in numerous schools throughout Western Mass., goes far beyond engineering training. It’s also teaching young people communication skills, teamwork, and confidence — all key traits to take into whatever career they choose, whether in the STEM fields or not.

As the robotic rover methodically navigated a landscape of obstacles, it relied on its programming to perform any number of tasks, from extracting core samples to angling a solar array to crossing a crater. If the programming — honed over months of diligent trial and error — failed, so did the robot.

That’s OK, though — this wasn’t a billion-dollar piece of outer-space equipment at stake, but a robot built from LEGO Mindstorm parts, and performing tasks on a colorful, space-themed table. And these weren’t astronauts or NASA engineers performing experiments, but area elementary and middle-school students showing off their prowess at the recent FIRST LEGO League Into Orbit Challenge at Western New England University.

Three dozen teams of students from Agawam, Brookfield, Chicopee, Greenfield, Holyoke, Longmeadow, Northampton, South Hadley, Springfield, West Springfield, Westhampton, and Wilbraham took part in the competition, reflecting a surge in growth for school-based robotics programs.

“It’s more than just the robots. Yes, the engineering is important — the math and the physics behind it — but more important than that is the teamwork, the critical-thinking skills, and the communication skills the kids develop.”

After competing head to head with each other, seven of those teams advanced to a statewide competition in Worcester a week later, and from there, the top teams moved on to championship events this spring.

“It’s all about taking your classroom lessons — the math, the science — and applying them in a real-world situation,” said Dana Henry, a senior mentor for the regional FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) program, who first connected students with robotics in Agawam 18 years ago.

“It’s more than just the robots,” he told BusinessWest. “Yes, the engineering is important — the math and the physics behind it — but more important than that is the teamwork, the critical-thinking skills, and the communication skills the kids develop.”

The FIRST LEGO League challenges kids to think like scientists and engineers. During this year’s space-themed season, teams choose real-world problems to solve and then build, test, and program an autonomous robot using LEGO Mindstorms technology to solve a set of missions.

Last months’s event, the Agawam Qualifier, is in its 11th year, moving to WNEU this season after outgrowing its previous space at Agawam Junior High School, Henry noted.

Dana Henry says FIRST LEGO League competitors are applying classroom lessons to real-world problems, and gaining a raft of skills while doing so.

Dana Henry says FIRST LEGO League competitors are applying classroom lessons to real-world problems, and gaining a raft of skills while doing so.

“We have four programs in Agawam, and we help other teams, at other school systems in the area, get up and running,” Henry said of his role with FIRST. “Western New England came in with the facility and some resources, and they are working with a couple of local teams themselves. It’s been a pretty great ride so far.”

Suleyman Demirhan, a science teacher at Hampden Charter School of Science in Chicopee who oversees that school’s robotics club, explained that the faculty coach’s role is to teach students the basics of building and programming the robot — and researching issues as they arise — but it’s important for students to learn how to accomplish their goals with minimal hand-holding.

“They learn a specific topic for their project, and how to design a robot and program it. The coach is there just to guide them, to provide the right materials and supplies for learning the robotics, and then we get to see their progress. We’re teaching them how to solve problems. It’s a learning process,” Demirhan said.

“Actually, they teach each other and learn from one another,” he went on. “I see it like working at a company, like being an engineer, but at the same time being a middle-schooler. They’re learning to solve all these engineering problems, and then they learn how to solve the programming problems.”

Values Added

The FIRST LEGO League, launched 20 years ago by inventor Dean Kamen and LEGO Group owner Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, now boasts 320,000 participants and 40,000 teams in 98 countries.

At the cornerstone of the program are a set of core values, through which participants learn that friendly competition and mutual gain are not separate goals, and that helping one another is the foundation of teamwork.

According to the league website, those core values include discovery (exploring new skills and ideas), innovation (using creativity and persistence to solve problems), impact (applying what we learn to improve our world), inclusion (respecting each other and embracing our differences), teamwork (understanding that we are stronger when we work together), and fun (enjoying and celebrating what we do).

The student-designed robots are all different, taking myriad approaches to tackling similar challenges.

So the goal is more than learning robotics, engineering, and programming. But even the tasks themselves extend far beyond the robots. Each year, teams are mandated to research a real-world problem such as food safety, recycling, energy, etc., and then develop a solution.

As part of this year’s Into Orbit theme, teams considered the challenges humans must overcome to travel around the solar system — such as extreme temperatures; lack of air, water, and food; waste disposal and recycling; loneliness and isolation; and the need for exercise — and research and present a project, not unlike at a science fair, that aims to solve one of those problems.

“With this year’s theme, they designed a project that helps astronauts in space travel improve their physical conditions and mental health, or it could be anything that supports astronauts,” Demirhan said, noting that his school’s two teams took on the problems of growing food in space and designing an effective trash compactor.

The competition itself centers around the LEGO robots designed and built by the students, he went on. “Each challenge needs to be solved by a robot which is running autonomously. So the students program the robots and make specific attachments that work with different challenges. They don’t only design these attachments, but design and write the programs.”

If the programming is off by the slightest margin, the robot will miss its target on the table — and miss out on critical points needed to post a high score and advance.

“With each one of these challenges, they encounter difficult areas with the programming,” Demirhan went on. “Some programs might work in a specific environment and might not work in a different environment, and they’re trying to write the best program that can work in many different conditions. For example, light could be a factor — robots have light sensors, and the amount of light in the practice room could be different than in competition. So the student needs to solve this challenge and write a really good, efficient program that can run in both these environments.”

For students inclined to this type of work, Henry said, it’s a fun way to learn to apply STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) concepts while developing critical-thinking and team-building skills, and even soft skills like how to talk to the judges about their robots in an engaging way — yes, they’re judged on that, too.

“Not only do they have to build a robot to compete on the table, but they’re also being judged on a project, and they have to adhere to all the core values throughout the FIRST program,” he added. “It’s about communication skills and critical-thinking skills. It’s much more than just robots.”

Time to Shine

Through the FIRST LEGO League, Kamen and Kristiansen always intended for young people to discover the fun in science and technology but also develop in a positive way as people. Henry said he has seen exactly that.

“We had one kid that came through the program who was very shy, ate his lunch in the corner all by himself at his junior high school, but he came into high school and absolutely bloomed. He got into college, and now he’s an engineer with NASA. I’m telling you, if he doesn’t go to Mars, he’s going to be one of the engineers that gets us there.”

Other students in the program have gone on to non-science fields, like teaching, music, and the culinary arts, he continued, but the lessons they learned about solving problems and working with others are applicable to any field.

For those who do aspire to a career in engineering or robotics, however, the FIRST program does offer a leg up, Demirhan said, both in the college-application process — schools consider this valuable experience — and gaining career skills at an earlier age than most future engineers do.

“They’re all doing real-world engineering. Once they go to an engineering school, they’re seeing problems like these and learning how to solve them. So this is really a tiny engineering program that has massive applications. We’re teaching real-world problems and coming up with good solutions to them.”

In short, students are creating ideas, solving problems, and overcoming obstacles, all while gaining confidence in their abilities to positively use technology. To Henry, that’s an appealing mix.

“The STEM part is important, absolutely, but it’s more than just that,” he said. “I can’t stress that enough. We’ve seen kids blossom in so many ways.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Creating Cyber Solutions

Tom Loper says the ‘supply chain’ project will benefit the region

Tom Loper says the ‘supply chain’ project will benefit the region and its manufacturing sector while also giving cybersecurity students a leg up on jobs.

A group of regional partners, led by Bay Path University, has been awarded a $250,000 grant from the Mass. Technology Collaborative for a pilot program that will address a host of identified issues — from a critical shortage of workers in the cybersecurity field to the need for smaller manufacturers to become more cyber secure if they are going to keep doing business with their customers in the defense, aerospace, and other sectors.

The project’s name is long and quite cumbersome.

‘Engaging Student Interns in Cybersecurity Audits with Smaller Supply Chain Companies to Develop Experience for Entry-level Positions While Improving the Cybersecurity Ecosystem in Massachusetts.’

Yes, that’s really what it’s called. And while that’s a mouthful — not that anyone actually recites the whole thing anyway — it really does capture the essence of an ambitious initiative spearheaded by Bay Path University and its emerging cybersecurity programs, and also involving Springfield Technical Community College, Paragus Strategic IT, the Economic Development Council of Western Mass. (EDC), and other area partners.

Breaking down that long title into its component parts certainly helps to tell the story behind the $250,000 grant awarded recently by the Mass. Technology Collaborative. The program, set to commence early next year, will indeed engage students in Bay Path’s cybersecurity programs in internships with smaller supply chain companies across the region. They will be working with employees at Paragus to undertake cybersecurity assessments of these small manufacturing firms, essentially identifying holes where intruders can penetrate and possible methods for closing them.

And the program will provide needed experience that is difficult for such students to attain, but very necessary for them to land jobs in the field. And it will put more workers in the cybersecurity pipeline at a time when there is a considerable gap between the number that are available and the number that are needed — a gap approaching 9,000 specialists in this state alone. And it will bring more women into a field that has historically been dominated by men and is struggling desperately to achieve diversity.

That’s a lot of ‘ands.’

Which helps explain why the Mass. Technology Collaborative, which was planning to divide $250,000 among several entities, gave that entire amount to Bay Path’s proposal and then found another $135,000 to award to two other projects, said Tom Loper, associate provost and dean of the School of Arts, Sciences and Management at Bay Path, who started with the small supply-chain companies, as he explained the project’s importance.

“These companies have a cyber vulnerability, in many cases, because they don’t have sophisticated systems and they don’t have sophisticated staff that can help create a cyber-safe environment,” he noted, adding that he took what he called a “Western Mass. approach” to the process of applying for the grant.

By that, he meant a focus on smaller businesses, as opposed to the larger defense contractors like Raytheon in the eastern part of the state, and also on schools like Bay Path (and its online component, The American Women’s College) and STCC that are graduating cybersecurity students but struggling to find them real-world experience to complement what they learn in the classroom.

Matthew Smith says that among the many potential benefits from the ‘supply chain’ project is much-needed gender diversity in the cybersecurity field.

Matthew Smith says that among the many potential benefits from the ‘supply chain’ project is much-needed gender diversity in the cybersecurity field.

Thus, the project is a potential win-win-win, with maybe a few more wins in there as well, said Rick Sullivan, president & CEO of the EDC, noting that winners include the individual students at Bay Path, the emerging cybersecurity industry, individual small manufacturing companies, and the region as a whole, which counts its precision manufacturing sector as a still-vital source of jobs and prestige.

“The large customers, the Department of Defense, the Department of Transportation … they’re really requiring, and rightfully so, very strict compliance with the highest cybersecurity techniques out there,” Sullivan said, referring to the requirements now being placed on smaller supply-chain companies. “When they go to the bigger companies, they have to certify their entire supply chains, and we have a lot of companies in this region that feed into that supply chain.”

Overall, the pilot program is a decidedly proactive initiative aimed at helping these smaller companies become aware of the requirements they will have to meet to keep doing business in such fields as defense and aerospace, and then help them meet those thresholds, starting with an assessment of their cybersecurity systems and immediate threats.

For this issue and its focus on technology, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Bay Path-led project, its many goals, and how, if all goes as planned, it will close gaps in cybersecurity systems as well as gaps in that sector’s workforce, while also making the region’s manufacturing sector stronger and more resilient.

Day at the Breach

The project summary for the Bay Path initiative, as authored by Loper and others, does a very effective job of summing up both the many types of problems facing the state and its business community with regards to cybersecurity, and also how this pilot program will address several of the key concerns.

“Entry-level job postings for information security analysts and related cybersecurity positions typically require one to two years of experience in the field, making it challenging for recent college graduates with cybersecurity degrees to fill these positions,” the summary begins. “Bay Path University, a women’s university in Western Mass., will lead a project that will engage 30 undergraduate and graduate cybersecurity students, primarily women, in a full year of challenging experiences as paid interns on cybersecurity auditing teams.

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

“The large customers, the Department of Defense, the Department of Transportation … they’re really requiring, and rightfully so, very strict compliance with the highest cybersecurity techniques out there.”

“Teams will provide cybersecurity audits at a lower cost for small to mid-sized companies in the region,” the proposal continues. “Undergraduate cybersecurity interns from Bay Path University and Springfield Technical Community College will be assigned to auditing teams led by a graduate intern from Bay Path’s M.S. in Cybersecurity Management Program. Teams will be supervised throughout the audit process by seasoned cybersecurity specialists from Paragus Strategic IT. Through the internship, students will gain insight into the breadth and scope of challenges to the cyber ecosystem and hands-on experience working with employers to implement options for addressing these challenges. Project research and evaluation will be undertaken to confirm that the internship will meet the needs of employers who require prior experience.”

Like we said, that pretty much sums it all up — at least from the student intern side of the equation. In addition to classroom learning, experience in the field is necessary to break into the cybersecurity sector, said Loper, and such experience is difficult to attain. This pilot program will help several dozen students get it.

Meanwhile, the program will address the other side of the equation, the needs of small manufacturers in the supply chain — and this region has dozens, if not hundreds of them, who face many challenges in their quest to become safe (or at least much safer) from security breaches, a pre-requisite for being able to do business these days.

For an explanation, we return to the project summary:

“The majority of cybersecurity breaches occur in smaller supply chain companies, threatening the entire supply chain. Yet these companies often cannot afford the staff or resources to address ongoing needs for ensuring a cyber-safe ecosystem,” the solicitation notes. “Partnering with the MassHire Hampden Workforce Board, the MassHire Franklin Hampshire Workforce Board, and the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, the project will engage 45 small to mid-size supply chain companies in the advance manufacturing sector in western Massachusetts in cybersecurity audits. This strategy will be disseminated as a model for how other Massachusetts higher education institutions with cybersecurity programs can partner with employers and their regional planning teams to strengthen the cybersecurity ecosystem across the Commonwealth.”

Elaborating, Loper said the cost of a cybersecurity assessment (that term is preferred over ‘audit,’ is approximately $1,500, an amount that challenges many smaller companies and is the primary reason why relatively few are done.

The pilot program will pay roughly two-thirds the total cost of an assessment, thus bringing assessments within the reach of more companies, which need to ramp up their cybersecurity systems and methods if they are going to keep doing business with most of their clients.

“Things are starting to change,” said Sullivan. “Cybersecurity and the threats that are out there are real, and this pilot program is an attempt to get ahead of all that, to educate and assess the smaller businesses here, with the next step being to hopefully address those needs so they can stay compliant, because that’s an extremely important part of our economy here.”

Sullivan said the EDC and other agencies will work to build awareness of this program and sign on participants. There has already been interest expressed by many of these smaller manufacturers, and he expects it will only grow as awareness of the project — as well as the need to be cyber secure — grows.

What the Hack?

For the record, and as noted earlier, the Mass. Technology Collaborative came up with another $135,000 to award for other pilot projects to help prepare entry-level cybersecurity job seekers to both meet the needs of employers, and address the growing cybersecurity job crisis.

The first, a $61,178 grant, involves an entity called STEMatch, which proposed a creative collaboration between community colleges, Massachusetts-based cybersecurity service and technology providers, and end-user businesses to expand the pool of potential cybersecurity to under-represented groups and displaced workers. The other, a $74,690 award, was given to the MassHire Greater New Bedford Workforce Board to advance a public-private partnership between the regional workforce boards of Southeastern Massachusetts, Bristol Community College, and the South Coast Chamber of Commerce, and employers in that region. The pilot is designed to help address the lack of skills and work experiences affecting Massachusetts employers and will utilize best practices developed in Israel to create training and work experiences for students in grades 10-12.

“The majority of cybersecurity breaches occur in smaller supply chain companies, threatening the entire supply chain. Yet these companies often cannot afford the staff or resources to address ongoing needs for ensuring a cyber-safe ecosystem.”

Those projects, as well as the Bay Path initiative, drive home the fact that there is not just a gap, but a real crisis when it comes to filling jobs in this emerging and now all-important sector.

“Companies are craving talent,” said Matthew Smith, director of Computer Science & Cyber Security Programs at Bay Path and assistant professor of Computer Science & Cyber Security in the School of Science and Management, as he attempted to qualify a problem that’s difficult to quantify.

That’s because while there are posted positions within this sector — many of them lacking candidates — many of the jobs are not posted, increasing the size of the gap.

Closing it requires not merely people with degrees in Cybersecurity, although that’s essentially a pre-requisite, said Smith, but individuals with what could be called real-world experience on their resumes, he said.

The pilot program will allow students at Bay Path and STCC to put five cybersecurity assessments on their portfolio, which should certainly help open some doors for them.

“Our students won’t just be getting a degree, but also the necessary talent to be contributing to the workforce on day one,” Smith told BusinessWest. “Once they have these assessments and use these tools that are industry standards, they’re going to be thrown right to the top of the application pool, because most of those are search-engine driven, so once they put these key words in there, they’re going to be very marketable.”

This marketability should only help further develop the graduate and undergraduate cybersecurity programs at Bay Path (both traditional and online) that are already seeing explosive growth, said Smith, adding that the industry needs not only workers, but gender diversity as well.

“Only 11% of the jobs in the field are held by women,” he said. “The gender imbalance is very real, and it’s our main mission to provide these women the skills and get them their degrees, so they jump into the cybersecurity workforce and start taking those unfilled positions and close that gender imbalance; many companies are craving diversity in their workforce.”

Securing a Better Future

As noted earlier, the name on this project is long and cumbersome. But it breaks the problem and one possible solution into one highly efficient and effective phrase.

The pilot program will set a high bar when it comes to potential outcomes and goals for achieving progress with the many significant challenges facing the cybersecurity sector and the cyber safety of individual companies.

But a high bar is necessary because the problems are real, they are growing, and solutions are needed.

This program was conceived to not only help this region clear that bar, but provide a roadmap for other regions to follow. If it can do all that, the state’s sizable investment will yield huge dividends.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Better Living Through Apps

Today’s smartphone apps are countless, with uses ranging from entertainment to enrichment. In the latter category, apps help users manage their personal finance, improve their fitness, and give their brains a workout. With that in mind, here are some of the more popular and well-reviewed apps available today.

It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when everyone couldn’t access virtually all the world’s information in their hand at a moment’s notice. Besides the accumulated knowledge available on a smartphone, myriad apps are available to help users with a wide range of tasks, from managing their finances to tracking their fitness goals to getting an education in various topics.

For this year’s roundup of what’s hot in technology, BusinessWest checks in on what the tech press is saying about some of the most popular smartphone apps.

Money Matters

Smartphones have put a world of personal finance in people’s hands. For example, Intuit’s Mint gives users a real-time look into all their finances, from bank accounts and credit cards to student loans and 401(k) accounts. The budgeting app has attracted more than 20 million users, and it’s easy to see why, says NerdWallet, which identifies the popular service as one of the best budgeting and saving tools available.

“The free app automatically syncs to bank, credit card and investment accounts, pulling data with little effort on the part of the user, and provides free credit-score information. It’s a tool for reluctant budgeters — many people fall into that category, and they’ll be happy keeping tabs on their spending with this service.”

As its name notes, You Need a Budget, or YNAB, “makes no bones about the fact you need to manage your money rather than the other way around,” according to PC World, noting that the popular program, which started life more than a decade ago as manual-input desktop software, is now a subscription-based web app that can sync with users’ financial accounts.

“YNAB includes customizable reports that break down your income and expenses by category, account, and time frame,” the publication explains. “Its greatest strength, however, is its huge community of devout users who freely share their tips on the app as well as the larger enterprise of personal budgeting. The home site is also rich with support resources ranging from help docs to weekly videos to podcasts, all with the aim of helping you get and keep your finances in order.”

For people who find it difficult to track their expenses while trying to reach their savings goals, Wally might be able to help, by giving users a total view of their finances.

“Wally’s interface is simple and easy to navigate, which makes setting your budget and entering expenses a breeze. The app delivers plenty of features without crowding the screen,” Bankrate notes, adding, however, that “what you put into Wally is what you get out of it. The app makes it simple to track your expenses in the hope that you’ll stick to your budget and reach your goals, but it largely depends on the user being diligent in uploading every expense. If you can do that, Wally will be a tremendous aid in helping you reach your savings goals.”

Finally, Acorns is modernizing the old-school practice of saving loose change, rounding up the user’s purchases on linked credit or debit cards, then sweeping the change into a computer-managed investment portfolio.

“Acorns goes after its target market — young, would-be investors who have little money to invest — by waiving management fees for up to four years. College students are ripe for this kind of service and could wind up with a nice little pot of money after four years of rounding up,” Nerdwallet says. “We’re behind any tool that encourages mindless, automatic saving. If you don’t have to think about saving, you’re more likely to do it.”

No Pain, No Gain

What if physical wellness tops one’s priority list? No fear — there are countless apps for that, too, providing users with information on what they’re eating, how to exercise, and how to stay committed to better habits.

One of the most popular nutrition apps is MyFitnessPal, which offers a wealth of tools for tracking what and how much the user eats, and how many calories they burn through activity, explains PC Magazine. “Of all the calorie counters I’ve used, MyFitnessPal is by far the easiest one to manage, and it comes with the largest database of foods and drinks. With the MyFitnessPal app, you can fastidiously watch what you eat 24/7, no matter where you are.”

Added BuiltLean, “MyFitnessPal is not a one-size-fits-all app. Personal diet profiles can be changed to fit a person’s specific needs, whether they are on a strict diet or have certain recommendations from their doctor or dietitian. The program calculates caloric need based on height, weight, gender, and lifestyle.”

Seven-minute workout challenges have become popular for their ease of use, and the 7 Minute Fitness Challenge app is among the more popular apps promoting this activity.

“I like that the video instructions are led by both male and female trainers, and they do a great job guiding you through each exercise via video, audio, image and text,” notes a review in USA Today. “When you upgrade to the paid version, you can also track your weight and visualize your progress, which might help you stay motivated. It also shows a calendar of all of your workouts and lets you see them at a glance. I’ve had this app for three years now, and they do a great job of updating it regularly to add new exercises and respond to user requests.”

Strong offers many features found in scores of other apps — creating custom routines, logging workouts, and tracking weight over time — but does some things that are particularly useful, according to the Verge.

“Each time I start a new workout for my arms or legs, Strong notes how much I lifted the previous workout. It does so automatically, and it’s amazing how such a simple thing has had such a powerful effect on me,” the reviewer notes. “Bumping that number up over time has become a game to me, and it’s pushed me to gently ramp up the difficulty level on my exercise more than anything I’ve tried short of a personal trainer. The first time I successfully did 40 push-ups, I could scarcely believe it. Previous apps I used required me to update my routines manually; automating that has made all the difference.”

What about emotional wellness? There are plenty of meditation apps available for that. For example, “the moment you open the Calm app, you might feel a sense of … calm. Relaxing sounds of falling rain play automatically in the background, but you could also opt to be greeted by a crackling fireplace, crickets, or something called ‘celestial white noise,’” according to Mindful.

The relaxation continues with Calm’s free meditations — 16 in total, lasting from three to 30 minutes. “Like many other apps, you can set a timer for silent meditation or meditate to intermittent bells,” the site notes. “For nighttime relaxation, Calm features four free ‘sleep stories’ — bedtime stories for adults on everything from science fiction to scenic landscapes to help you transition into slumber.”

App-lied Learning

Countless popular apps focus on education and learning for all ages. For kids, the Children’s MD blog recommends Khan Academy, which collaborates with the U.S. Department of Education and myriad public and private educational institutions to provide a free, world-class education for anyone.

“It’s incredibly easy to use, there are no ads, and it’s appropriate for any school-aged child that knows how to read,” the blog reports, noting that Khan Academy started as a math-learning site but has expanded to many other subjects, from art history to economics. “My kids will spend hours looking at computer-science projects that other kids have shared and incorporating ideas into their own programs. The Khan platform combines educational videos with practice problems and project assignments.”

Meanwhile, Brainscape promises to help students learn more effective ways to study with their classmates, while helping teachers track and create better study habits for students. “This app is a very effective way of using and creating flashcards in a digital manner,” Education World notes. “It’s not much different in terms of creating flashcards and learning from them; however, one cool feature is the ability to set up study reminders, which slightly deters you from procrastination.”

However, the publication notes, the paid content “is a bit of a turnoff from the app, but not to worry — it makes up for it with the ability to create your own digital flashcards. Once the cards are created, you can go through the questions and guess the answer before revealing it, just like normal flashcards.”

Meanwhile, Photomath focuses on, well, math, and does it well, Digital Trends reports. “For high-school students who just need a bit more guidance on how to isolate ‘x’ in their algebra homework, Photomath is essentially your math buddy that can instantly solve and explain every answer. Simply snap a photo of the question (you can also write or type), and the app will break down the solution into separate steps with helpful play-by-play, so that you can apply the same principles to the rest of your homework.”

For older students and adults, The Great Courses is one of the more venerable services out there, created by the Teaching Company during the 1990s with the goal of gathering educational lectures on a video format.

“What helped the Teaching Company to grow more and more famous is their strong ethic toward a lifelong learning, meaning that, for them, learning is not only a short-term journey with an end, but more of a lifelong adventure during which anyone should keep gathering knowledge,” Gria.org notes. “Users have access to an entire online digital video library, but they also get other supports, such as CDs and DVDs or hard-copy materials such as workbooks and guidebooks.”

In short, whatever you’re looking to improve in your life, as the famous ad slogan notes, there’s an app for that.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

Call Forward

Brett Normandeau

Brett Normandeau says hot communication technologies like business texting are providing new opportunities for his nearly 30-year-old company.

Brett Normandeau recalls the early days of the company his father started 28 years ago, when installing telephone systems was simpler, and even voice mail seemed revolutionary. Those days are long gone, and companies, like NTI, that succeed in the world of business communication are navigating some fast-moving waters. But they’re also making work easier and less expensive for their clients, and those are goals that never go out of style.

After eight years in its headquarters on Riverdale Street in West Springfield, Brett Normandeau said he’s looking to move into a smaller space.

Simply put, while his company, Normandeau Technologies Inc. (NTI), is growing — to seven employees at present, after three recent hires — his space needs are shrinking, since technicians are performing more work remotely than ever before.

It’s one example of how NTI reflects the very business trends that impact the services it provides to customers.

The company has been been selling, installing, and servicing telephone systems for 28 years, with voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) technology — which uses the Internet to exchange various forms of communication that have traditionally been carried over land lines — serving as its main service focus over the past decade-plus.

It’s a technology that allows businesses to stay connected even when employees are far-flung — whether they’re working from home or in an office across the country.

Smartphones, however, are changing the game when it comes to phone systems, and newer developments like business texting and mass notification services — two niches Normandeau is particularly excited about — again evolving the way employers and employees communicate.

Kevin Hart is excited too — enough to return last year to the company he worked for many years ago, this time as director of business development.

“We’re looking to grow as a company. There’s a big market right now, and we’re ready for it,” he told BusinessWest, before noting that, as technology has evolved, so have client expectations. “We’re excited that we can do this more efficiently now than ever before. Customers appreciate that. They want their stuff fixed. The industry standard used to be two to three days response time, and now sometimes it’s within the hour.”

When my father started 28 years ago, all we did was run cable and service some telephone systems. That was even before voice mail. I remember that change, and thinking, ‘are we going to take this voice mail on?’ We started doing that, and it just progressed from there.”

So, while the company continues to make a name for itself in the fields of IP telephony, IP surveillance, data cabling, and cloud services, newer technologies continually shake up the game and provide plenty of opportunity for growth.

“What attracted Kevin to come back were the products and technologies we’re offering, and the opportunities he’s got to develop our business,” Normandeau said. “Business texting is huge, and so are emergency notification systems, as well as our traditional cloud and telephone systems, which have been the bread and butter of our business.”

While traditional phone systems are slowly changing over to cloud-based systems, plenty of companies are still behind the curve, he added, noting that such systems offer more integration, functionality, and control — and lower costs — than ever before. In short, it’s a good time to be in this business.

Beyond the Simple Phone

At its heart, Normandeau communications has been trading in phone systems since Ray Normandeau launched the enterprise in Florence in 1990, using money from an early-retirement package offered by a streamlining AT&T.

As Ray built his business on word of mouth and a few loyal customers, his son Brett started working alongside his father, having been licensed as an electrical journeyman shortly before Ray launched the company. He took over as president when his father retired about 16 years ago.

At the start, clients were mainly residential, but gradually, the emphasis turned to business customers, which today comprise the vast majority of the client base.

“When my father started 28 years ago, all we did was run cable and service some telephone systems. That was even before voice mail,” Normandeau said. “I remember that change, and thinking, ‘are we going to take this voice mail on?’ We started doing that, and it just progressed from there.”

NTI’s featured partners include LG-Ericsson, whose iPECS-LIK product further streamlines communication within any size business, from small offices to large corporations with thousands of users, managing all kinds of communication — phone calls, e-mails, texts, etc. — across multiple sites, under a single user interface. It’s a useful product for multi-site organizations, such as banks and their multiple branches.

Kevin Hart

Kevin Hart, standing in front of a phone from a different era, says customer expectations have evolved along with the technology.

Hart said businesses are starting to turn away from internal server networks that need occasional upgrading or replacing.

“Cloud-based systems today are effective, and they work, where 10 years ago they were heavily contingent on bandwidth,” he told BusinessWest. “The second-generation cloud-based systems at this point are not only reliable, but they’re usually cheaper than your current telephone bill.”

Added Normandeau, “it’s an operating expense as opposed to a capital expense, and that’s very attractive to businesses.”

On the business-texting front, Normandeau uses a platform called Captivated. On one side, a company’s contacts text it on a landline or published text number the business promotes. On the other side, a text comes into Captivated and the company handles it or easily transfers it to the right department or individual.

The benefit, Normandeau said, is that people don’t answer phone calls as often as they used to, particularly from numbers they don’t recognize, scared off by the proliferation of robocalls — but they will look at texts, especially if the sender’s number is familiar.

In addition, service providers in all kinds of industries can use the system to reach customers if they’re running late for an appointment, while an auto mechanic working on a vehicle who sees additional problems can quickly get in touch with the customer and start working on the second problem — all of this, again, predicated on people being more likely to respond to texts than calls. “It’s a huge scheduling convenience,” Normandeau said.

In addition, all texts are centralized and saved in the cloud, providing a permanent record that isn’t available when technicians use their personal cell phones to contact customers.

In the realm of mass notification — a related but different technology than regular business texting — Normandeau uses the StaffAlerter platform, which was originally developed originally for the K-12 market, for campus security and other reasons. It uses templates by which messages can be sent out quickly to an entire subscriber list with the touch of a button.

“In an emergency, a schook teacher can automatically send an alert, a mass notification to all staff, that can also tie into their paging system throughout the school, so teachers can lock down the classrooms,” he explained.

But the applications are endless, Hart added, from sending alerts to snowplow drivers during the early-morning hours as a storm looms, to contacting large groups of off-duty nurses or police officers if a shift suddenly opens up. “Before, you’d have to call 30 people to get someone to come over and cover.”

Growth Pattern

Staff growth at NTI includes its new operations manager, Lindsey McGrath, who has 20 years of experience on the carrier side of the business, and Russell Diederich, a technician who spent 30 years at Verizon.

Those are the moves a company that knows it has opportunities to grow, Hart said.

“The lion’s share of companies still use legacy systems,” he noted. “Especially after the economic downturn in ’08 and ’09, they held on to what they had and were reluctant to make changes, but it’s no longer cost-effective to do it that way.”

He said he recently sold a new system to a client he had services 21 years ago, noting that “he got his money’s worth.”

“Truth be told,” Normandeau was quick to note, “a lot of those old phone systems still work. There’s a New England mentality of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’”

That said, he added, there are plenty of opportunities for companies to streamline their communications and save money if they’re willing to look into them.

Especially companies like NTI itself, which is scaling up its staff while downsizing its space because working remotely is the wave of the future.

“It makes far more sense when technicians and sales staff don’t have to come to a central point,” Hart said. “It saves a lot of ‘windshield time’ for sales and service techs when we have this platform. It’s better for customers and better for employees’ quality of life.”

That said, NTI isn’t resting on its laurels, Normandeau said, noting that he takes part in IT networks and conferences with an eye on the next big thing in communications. “I’m going to the IT Expo in Florida next month to check out the latest and greatest,” he said — and bring that knowledge back to a company that has evolved significantly since the days when voice mail was all the rage.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

Innovation at Hand

10-nintendo-3ds-xlAn on-the-go society demands on-the-go technology, and the array of smartphones, tablets, wristband health sensors, and portable game systems only continues to expand as the major players compete for their share of a growing pie. In its annual look at some of the hottest tech items available, BusinessWest focuses on those mobile devices, which are connecting more Americans than ever, 24/7, to bottomless online resources and, sometimes, to each other.

If it seems like everyone’s on their smartphone these days, well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration.

But not by much.

According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last November, 77% of Americans (77%) now own a smartphone, with lower-income Americans and those ages 50 and older exhibiting a sharp uptick in ownership over the previous year. Among younger adults, ages 18 to 29, the figure soars to 92%.

The 2017 results won’t be available until later this year, though the percentage is expected to rise even higher, because, well, it’s been on an upward trend since 2011, when Pew first started conducting these surveys. That year, just 35% of Americans reported they owned a smartphone of some kind.

These numbers don’t include plain old cellphones (remember when they seemed like the pinnacle of communications technology?). If those devices are included, 95% of Americans can reach in their pocket to make a call.

But BusinessWest’s annual rundown of the hottest technology — which, this year, focuses on mobile devices — isn’t interested in what was hot a decade ago. Following are some the most buzzworthy new smartphones, tablets, wearable fitness devices, and handheld game consoles, according to tech media.

Smarter — and Bigger

We’ll start, as many lists do this season, with the Samsung Galaxy S8 ($749), which Gareth Beavis at Techradar calls “the best phone in the world for a few reasons, but none more so than the display: it makes every other handset on the market look positively antiquated.

The camera and screen quality are both excellent, he continues, and while the phone is pricey, it’s worth the cost. “With the screen, Samsung has managed to find some impressive innovation at a time when there’s very little to be found in smartphones.”

Eric Walters at Paste added that, while the Galaxy S8 isn’t perfect, it’s the best Samsung has ever made, and an easy frontrunner for phone of the year. “It not only pushes the company’s portfolio forward, but the entire industry with its elegant and futuristic design that prioritizes the display without bloating the size. It’s an impressive achievement of design and engineering, but the quality isn’t surface deep. The entire experience of using the S8 is a rich one.”

One of the hottest trends of the past few years has been a shift to ‘phablets,’ smartphones that boast a much larger screen size than their predecessors. The Google Pixel 2 XL ($849) “improves on the first in lots of ways, but mostly it just looks a whole heap better,” writes Max Parker at Trusted Reviews, praising the device’s modern display and large size in a package that fits the hand well.

“But it’s the software that really wins here,” he adds. “Google’s approach to Android is fantastic, and the Assistant is an AI that’s already better than Apple’s Siri. The camera is stunning, too. It’s a 12-megapixel sensor that takes stunning photos in all conditions, and it’s packed with portrait mode tricks, too.”

Apple continues to be a key player in this realm, too, of course, and while the iPhone 8 Plus ($799) isn’t a big change over last year’s model, it boasts some substantial advantages, notes Mark Spoonauer at Tom’s Guide, and may turn out to be the equal of the iPhone X, to be released in early November.

“The new iPhone supports wireless charging, and its dual rear cameras are dramatically improved,” he adds. “Coupled with Apple’s new crazy-powerful A11 Bionic chipset, those lenses deliver portrait lighting — a new mode that lets you manipulate the light in a scene before and after the fact. The iPhone 8 Plus also delivers excellent battery life, lasting more than 11 hours in our testing.”

For those who prefer full-size tablets, competition continues to be fierce in that realm, with Apple again drawing headlines with the iPad Pro ($599).

“With Apple’s fastest-ever mobile processor, the 10.5-inch iPad Pro is easily the best tablet out there right now,” says Lindsay Leedham in Lifewire, who praised its camera, speakers, 256 GB storage, and True Tone display. “The iPad Pro uses sensors to detect the light in whatever room it’s in to adjust the color temperature of the display to the ambient light. The effect makes the screen look more like paper, and is most noticeable when it’s turned off and the screen switches to a bright bluish light.”

Meanwhile, for those on a budget, the Amazon Fire HD 8 ($79) is the best sub-$100 tablet available, according to Sascha Regan at PC Magazine.

“While you shouldn’t expect to compete against the iPad at this price point, the Fire HD 8 fits the bill for media consumption and light gaming,” she writes, calling its battery life adequare but praising its dual-band wi-fi. “In several tests at different distances from our Netgear router, we often got almost double the speed on the HD 8 than on the Fire 7. That made a real difference when doing things like downloading comics.”

Health and Leisure

Wearable technology, which focuses on tracking health and wellness habits, continues to be popular, although Fitbit, far and away the dominant player in this market, may be reaching saturation in the U.S., while smaller competitors eat away at its global market share, according to International Data Corp.

Still, its new products continue to wow reviewers. “Guess what: Fitbit’s newest tracker is its best one yet,” raves CNET’s Dan Graziano about the Fitbit Alta HR ($149). “For me, it’s all about design. I’ve been wearing the Alta HR for almost a month and plan to continue wearing it even after this review. It’s comfortable to wear and doesn’t sacrifice any features, but what sold me was the seven-day battery life.”

For those looking to spend more, the Fitbit Surge ($249) is a satisfyingly sophisticated piece of machinery,” writes Jill Duffy at PC Magazine. “It not only tracks your steps and sleep, but also alerts you to incoming phone calls and text messages, keeps tabs on your heart rate with a built-in optical heart rate monitor, uses GPS to track outdoor activity, and has much more functionality, especially for runners.”

Looking over the rest of the field, Marko Maslakovic at Gadgets & Wearables finds plenty to like about the Garmin Vivosport ($199), which is waterproof, comes with built-in GPS and all-day stress tracking, and counts reps and sets in the gym.

Though it’s slim and fits snugly on the wrist, “Vivosport has some pretty decent specs under the hood,” he adds. “You’ll get everything you could possibly hope for 24/7 activity tracking, including detailed info on steps, calories, distance, heart rate, activity, floors, and sleep. The GPS makes for more precise distance, time, and pace tracking, along with route mapping for your runs. It will track your swims in the pool, too. This is probably Garmin’s best fitness band yet.”

For technology enthusiasts whose tastes favor gaming on the run over, well, running, the portable-console market continues to thrive, with the longtime market leader making some new waves this year with the Nintendo Switch ($299).

“You can use it as a stationary console with your TV or transform it into a portable gaming device in literally seconds. You will keep all the data and can continue your game on the go,” Slant notes. “Nintendo Switch is light and feels comfortable in hand. It doesn’t cause any wrist strain. It also has a kickstand that folds out from the back of the console, so you can put it on the table.”

The publication also praises its graphics and controllers, but notes that it can be hard to find, lacks long battery life, plays poorly in direct sunlight due to screen glare, and doesn’t boast a wide variety of popular games — yet.

Game variety is no issue for the Nintendo 3DS XL ($199), which boasts two large screens, glasses-free 3D, and some of the best video games available on a mobile console, according to Top Ten Reviews. On the downside, battery life is not ideal.

Still, “thanks to its backwards compatibility with DS games and its huge selection of classic and new games in the Nintendo eShop, the 3DS XL is the best handheld game console available,” the site continues. “The 3DS family has the best games on a mobile category, and the Nintendo 3DS XL is the best handheld console available.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

Human Touch

NetLogix President Marco Liquori

NetLogix President Marco Liquori

Information-technology solutions providers can easily get lost in a maze of technical jargon, but that’s the last thing Marco Liquori wants to throw at customers. Instead, the technicians at his 13-year-old company, NetLogix, are trained to communicate clearly with clients about their network needs — and then meet those needs, in the background, so businesses can focus on growth, not computer issues. A recent customer-satisfaction report suggests the Westfield-based firm is doing something right.

When Marco Liquori talks about how his IT company, NetLogix, sets itself apart, he doesn’t go right into technical jargon. In fact, he tries to avoid it.

“We have some business savvy; we’re a small business ourselves,” he told BusinessWest. “We take that knowledge to our clients, and, when we do talk to them, it’s not geek-speak, but business recommendations in plain English.”

That’s actually one of the points on a list he’s prepared called “10 Things We Do Better.” Some of them — delving into areas like network security, budgeting for IT services, and the difference between proactive maintenance and reactive response — get into the nitty-gritty of NetLogix’s services, but many are common-sense goals that wouldn’t be out of place in companies in myriad industries.

Take phone calls, for instance. “We answer our phones live and respond quickly,” he said, noting that callers will always get a human being, not a recording or voice mail, and those calls are followed up by a technician within the hour — actually, the average is 12 minutes.

Those touches are part of the reason why a third-party monitoring system, SmileBack, which tracks customer satisfaction for companies, reported that NetLogix scored a 99.4% favorable rating from clients in 2016 — the highest customer-satisfaction score it recorded last year.

netlogixbuilding

“That’s unheard-of in our industry; our competitors are unable to say that,” Liquori said. But it’s not a surprise, he added; it’s a goal the company works toward. “Our techs are incentivized to get high satisfaction scores; they’re compensated not on billable hours, but on efficiency and customer satisfaction.”

Of course, part of achieving high satisfaction scores is actually getting the job done, and this is where a shift in the company’s strategy several years ago has paid dividends and grown the Westfield-based firm — which Liquori describes as a network-management, cloud, and systems-technology integrator providing end-to-end solutions for clients — to a 12-employee operation, and why his plans to keep expanding the company look promising indeed.

Entrepreneurial Itch

Liquori had worked for several other computer and IT companies — “value-added resellers was what we called them back in the day” — but business wasn’t great in the years following the dot-com bust. In 2004, the firm he was working for decided to take his business in a different direction, focusing more on application development. In the transition, Liquori decided to set out on his own — even in that tough economic climate.

“I was on my own for a year, but we grew, slowly and steadily, and we’ve been growing ever since,” he told BusinessWest. “We were originally a break-fix service — when people had issues, they would call us, and we’d go out and fix them.”

During that time, he was developing a book of business focusing on a handful of industries in which NetLogix still specializes today, including insurance agencies, law firms, medical and dental practices, and professional services like accounting firms. But the business model needed tweaking.

We try to understand each client’s business need for technology and address it. We help them overcome challenges they may have with some new technology or new processes.”

“It was a more reactive model. As an issue occurred, we’d go out and fix the problem, and we’d bill for the time we worked,” he explained. “Over the past few years, we transitioned to a managed-services model that’s more proactive in nature. We’re constantly monitoring every system out there for our clients.”

That encompases everything from preventing cyberattacks and monitoring for malicious activity to installing Windows and third-party application updates to managing firewalls and developing disaster-recovery strategies.

“We try to understand each client’s business need for technology and address it,” he said. “We help them overcome challenges they may have with some new technology or new processes.”

Under the old system, the more hours NetLogix’s technicians worked, the more money the company made. But a managed-services model is a win-win for both sides on multiple levels, he explained. “With this, the overall objective is to make IT spending predictable for the client, which helps them them budget accurately. They pay a fee for unlimited support.”

That’s an advantage over many companies that hold fast to a more reactive model, he said, adding that clients like knowing exactly what they’ll be spending — no surprises — and can focus their energies outside the IT realm, on growing the core functions of their business.

defendingagainstcyberattacks

In fact, the fixed price, all-inclusive support plan includes a commitment to resolve any issues that arise in an expeditious manner. Since everything is included in one price, Liquori explained, NetLogix is highly motivated to use its time wisely and bring each situation to a successful completion — and clients aren’t nickel-and-dimed just at the time they need the most help.

“Our goal is to resolve issues as quickly as possible, and make sure their computers are back up fully and functioning normally as soon as possible,” he said.

But he kept coming back to the firm’s security-first approach. NetLogix’s first task is to evaluate a client’s network and explain any potential risks and exposures, and recommend adjustments to protect the network and client data — which is of massive importance for companies that store patient records or financial information, for example.

“With our full suite of multi-layered security in place, none of our clients were affected by the WannaCry ransomware attack — or any other ransomware,” Liquori said, referring to last month’s worldwide attack targeting computers running the Microsoft Windows operating system, encrypting data and demanding ransom payments to free it. Within a day of the attack, more than 230,000 computers in 150 countries were affected.

“We keep all our engineers constantly trained in the latest technology that’s out there, and constantly go to security seminars and network-security training events,” he went on. “Security is the biggest thing, and we stay on top of it.”

Growth Pattern

At the heart of NetLogix’s services, though, is its strategic IT planning. Liquori said he considers himself a strategic partner with clients, listening first and offering solutions second.

“I really enjoy a challenging technical issue and being able to provide a solution that meets a business objective and saves the customer money by improving efficiencies and improving security,” he told BusinessWest. “Customers may be losing sleep over these things. I enjoy the fact that we can take that burden off them so they can focus on their business.”

Liquori said he’s certainly looking to grow beyond 12 employees, and geography isn’t the barrier it used to be in the IT world. “Most of what we do is remote, so we can work in almost any geographic area,” he explained, adding that the firm covers most of the Northeast. But face time is important, too.

“For our managed-services clients, we will engage with them proactively — quarterly or semiannually, depending on the size of the organization. We will sit with the business owner or office manager for strategic IT planning. We’ll talk about areas where they’re weak or vulnerable, get those adjusted and up to speed. It may be making sure they have a backup recovery solution, or a computer may be out of date, so we plan together for updating their computers to help them stay atop the curve.”

And sleep better at night.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]