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Special Coverage Technology

Securing a Workforce

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Tech Foundry helps people find jobs in the IT workforce.

Tech Foundry helps people find jobs in the IT workforce.

 

The information technology (IT) field in the U.S. is crying out for new talent, with hundreds of thousands of job openings and average salaries ranging from $86,000 to over $163,000. So why aren’t more people entering the field? A look at the local landscape sheds some light.

“Even prior to the pandemic, employers were having trouble filling their open positions, and that certainly has been exacerbated since,” Tricia Canavan said. “We saw from the early days, and continuing to the present, that available workers are not filling the numbers of the jobs that are available.”

For every two job openings, one person is applying to be part of this rapidly growing workforce, said Canavan, CEO of Tech Foundry in Springfield, an IT-focused workforce and economic-development organization that connects people to training support and career opportunities in the IT field, while also working with employers around the region, from nonprofits and higher education to medical organizations and corporations.

She explained that a lot of workforce-development organizations are not seeing quite as many people engaged in training as they’d hoped for.

Tech Foundry offers about 50 open slots with everything included: a laptop, one-on-one mentoring, internships, and more. Canavan thinks people don’t necessarily see themselves in the IT field, with the exception of those who have a love for video games and technology. But her organization’s mission is to connect people to living-wage jobs in IT; increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the IT sector for underrepresented and underserved people; while also helping companies thrive by being part of their talent solutions.

“Everybody in the world is completely and totally integrated with computers, and everybody’s work is supported by technology. So, regardless of the organization, you have a need for IT support staff or IT support functions specifically.”

Tricia Canavan

Tricia Canavan

“Everybody in the world is completely and totally integrated with computers, and everybody’s work is supported by technology,” she told BusinessWest. “So, regardless of the organization, you have a need for IT support staff or IT support functions specifically.”

Matthew Smith, director of Cybersecurity Graduate Studies at Bay Path University, agreed, noting that IT is one of those unique arenas that touches every industry: technology, financial services, healthcare, education, law enforcement, and more. And he stressed that cybersecurity is one of the most important sectors of IT at the moment.

“There’s not one industry that’s not touched by technology or cybersecurity,” Smith said. “And if you think you’re not, you’re fooling yourself because you’re just one intrusion of your company away from going down. Everybody is getting attacked.”

IT still grapples with a significant gender gap, with girls tending to lose interest, compared to boys, around middle school, though Bay Path, as a women-only college on the undergraduate level, is working to change that trend locally.

In Bay Path’s graduate studies, men and women are able to learn from both teachers and IT professionals about the technical world around them.

Smith explained that, in technology, especially in cybersecurity, the information changes rapidly, so before running each course, and even during the semester, he and his colleagues look at the content and tweak or change it to what’s currently relevant.

Just like Tech Foundry, Bay Path is preparing students for the workforce, providing internship opportunities for real-world experience. And any experience is important, as many corporations are requiring a bachelor’s or master’s degree to even get an interview, or requiring two to five years of experience for those who don’t have a degree. So a degree alongside actual workplace experience is a definite leg up.

For the past 25 to 30 years, there has been an ongoing debate over whether certifications or a degree is better for the IT industry. But certifications only cover certain niches. Smith explained that someone who secures a Microsoft certification and works for someone that uses Microsoft is in good shape. But if they apply for a job that uses strictly Apple sources, they may be out of luck.

“It’s kind of like you’re hanging all of your hats on one cert, but if you get your degree, it’s more broad, more spectrum … and then you can jump into that specific corporation, and they train you internally on what they’re using and what they can embed in,” he said.

Smith went on to tell BusinessWest that knowledge and experience outweigh everything. For example, in 30 years, an expert with only a high-school education is still an expert, but times have changed; people changing careers to secure opportunities in the IT workforce have to know more than people did 30 years ago.

And times certainly are changing in other ways. After the pandemic, more companies are relying on hybrid work models, allowing their employees to work more from home. But this creates a whole new set of issues.

 

Serve and Protect

The emergence of COVID-19 early in 2020 brought sudden demand for remote access. Fortunately, advancing technology made it easier to access a corporation’s network from any device at home or even on the go.

“Prior to that, I think people were a lot more resistant to remote workers. And it seems to be hanging on,” said Charlie Christianson, president of CMD Technology Group in East Longmeadow. “I think that, for a lot of our clients, the concept of a hybrid environment is where it’s going to settle out.”

Sean Hogan, president of Hogan Technology in Westfield, agreed. He told BusinessWest that he allowed remote work “before it was cool,” and that working for a smaller IT-support business in Western Mass. allows flexibility for his employees because of how often they are on the computer. As long as they have good security and bandwidth, they can work from anywhere.

“I’m a firm believer that, as a small business, we can grow in a down economy. In fact, over the years, every time we’ve seen a major downturn in the economy, we’ve come out of it very well.”

Charlie Christianson

Charlie Christianson

“On the flip side, though, with clientele, now we’re expected to support everybody’s house and laptops, so that’s a little bit more challenging because it’s a non-controlled environment, quite often, where folks are working,” he said.

Christianson added that he has to help clients understand the implications of letting someone use a home computer to access a corporate network as opposed to providing them a computer, or, in many cases, using a personal cell phone on a corporate network.

Over the past several years, CMD has spent a lot more time working with clients on the importance of cybersecurity. Recently, the company has observed a drive to adopt better practices, especially in the insurance sector. Many clients approach Christianson and his team with questionnaires provided by insurance agents to create better security measures in case of a data breach or hack.

Smith said a lot of companies have outdated security plans, some being 10 to 20 years old without any updates on the current technology available. Other businesses don’t have security plans in place at all.

Cybersecurity can be expensive, he noted, and a lot of companies feel like they can’t afford it. For small to medium-sized businesses, it’s tough to allocate money they need to direct to sales and marketing to drive their product, so cybersecurity often falls by the wayside — until a hack or attack happens. Then they recognize the importance of a proactive investment.

“If an incident were to occur, that can bankrupt your organization. You can be offline for 48 hours,” Smith said. “And by the time you pay that ransom — or you don’t, and you don’t have the specific backups to recover from — then you’re out of luck.”

Bay Path graduate students are trained to understand what to look for and how to rebuild that specific security incident plan to today’s standards, so they can incorporate that knowledge and bring it into a profession where they help protect individuals and businesses.

But companies, like CMD and Hogan, that help those businesses succeed are also focused on a threat of another kind: talent recruitment and retention.

“I think IT as a whole has a challenge for retention because you get a certain talent and a certain personality, and they’re always looking for bigger, better, smarter, faster,” Hogan said. “What happens is a lot of the folks that you bring in are looking to work in corporate America, and they want an enterprise-level job, and they want a big budget. They want to work at a big business. So you lose some folks to that.”

Even at a time when many IT professionals can work remotely, he noted, the key to retaining employees is hiring the right personality, and among the key traits is accountability to oneself. He also said new employees should pass the “beer test,” especially if they’re spending more time at work than with family at times.

“We’re looking for the person that wants to work in a flexible environment that has the right culture. In an interview, I really try to understand if they’re going to fit into our culture or not,” Hogan said. “Are they going to play well with the team? Are they a good fit? Do I want to go out on Thursday afternoon and have a beer with that guy or gal? That’s important to us because we work a lot.”

 

Progress Report

Among those hundreds of thousands of IT job openings in the U.S., employers are trying to fill about 675 vacancies in Springfield alone.

But despite that national challenge of hiring and retaining staff, both Christianson and Hogan reported a successful year.

In the past couple of years, Hogan told BusinessWest, one could hear a pin drop in his office in the last two weeks of December. This year, however, he’s been busy onboarding clients, closing deals, and seeing lead generations popping up left and right.

Christianson added that he had increased staff considerably this past year and plans to continue to do so in 2023.

“I’m a firm believer that, as a small business, we can grow in a down economy,” he explained. In fact, over the years, every time we’ve seen a major downturn in the economy, we’ve come out of it very well.

“I think, as small business owners, we just have to put our blinders on and not listen to the news and not get caught up in the hysteria around the economy and go out and do what we do every day. If you do that, you’ll be just fine,” Christianson added. “And the same applies to our industry. If you go out and work hard and treat your customers right and do the right things, you’ll grow.”

Special Coverage Technology

Defense Mechanism

future site of the SOC and cyber range

STCC’s Mary Kaselouskas tours the future site of the SOC and cyber range with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal and other stakeholders.

 

By now, Mary Kaselouskas says, the vast majority of people understand the importance of cybersecurity.

“Everyone is fully aware of the threats out there, how people become victims of cybercrime and the impact on an organization that’s involved in a breach,” said Kaselouskas, vice president ands chief information officer at Springfield Technical Community College (STCC).

What they might not know, she added, is the critical shortage in the cybersecurity workforce, with an estimated 20,000 more professionals needed in Massachusetts alone, not to mention about 1 million in the U.S. and 3 million around the world.

That’s why she, and other officials at STCC, around the state, and across the region’s IT sector are celebrating a new initiative to promote the development of a diverse cybersecurity workforce locally, with the goal of improving cyber resiliency in the Commonwealth.

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, state and academic officials, and IT industry leaders were on hand at Union Station in Springfield on Oct. 31 to announce $1,462,995 in state funding will allow STCC to establish a security operation center, or SOC, at Union Station that will provide threat monitoring and other cybersecurity services for Commonwealth municipalities and small business and nonprofit customers. The funds will also establish a cyber range, a new testing lab to mirror real-world IT environments to provide hands-on training opportunities to local companies, universities, and other cyber-focused organizations.

“We’re seeking to establish Massachusetts as the national leader when it comes to cybersecurity infrastructure. We’re bringing together leading academic partners and businesses to support cyber resiliency and workforce development in the Commonwealth.”

“I have been involved with this for quite a while, and a steering committee was established many years ago, looking at how to address a shortage of cybersecurity workers in Springfield and the Pioneer Valley,” Kaselouskas said, noting that partners on the project include the Springfield Redevelopment Authority, a new entity called CyberTrust Massachusetts, the MassCyberCenter, and local colleges and universities, among others.

As the grant recipient, STCC will staff and operate the Union Station facility in partnership with a consortia of area higher-education institutions, including Bay Path University, UMass Amherst, Western New England University, Elms College, and Springfield College, each of which bring a range of undergraduate certificate and degree programs in IT/security, cybersecurity, computer science and programming, digital forensics, and criminal justice.

The SOC, Kaselouskas explained, is “a physical location at Union Station that monitors, detects, and responds to cyber threats 24/7/365, protecting organizations’ assets. A lot of companies don’t have the resources for a fully operational SOC, or can even afford to have managed SOC operations.”

The center will have full-time employees but also offer training opportunities for students at area colleges by way of internships and work-study programs, she added. “This will operate as a business once the grant money is gone. We haven’t discussed fees, but we will have an employee working in business outreach to get customers on board that will utilize the facility.”

Meanwhile, the cyber range will allow both students and employees of companies and municipalities to experience simulated threats in a virtual environment, with hands-on training in live-fire attacks, blue-team/red-team events (in which one team attacks a system and the other defends it), and other training models, potentially leading to certification in security fields for students.

“That’s the training part of this,” Kaselouskas told BusinessWest, noting that area colleges and universities will incorporate the cyber-range software into courses. “If a student is enrolled at STCC in the cybersecurity program, they may take a few courses that use the cyber range — so it’s not a whole course, but a component of a course.”

STCC President John Cook

STCC President John Cook says the cyber project at Union Station will be transformative for the region and higher education.

The grant to STCC will cover renovation and construction of the Union Station space, which is estimated to open in the first half of 2024. The facility will include a classroom and a conference room for up to 60 people, able to accommodate those cyber-related events and to serve as a space for collaboration, in addition to separate classroom space, workstations for use by academic partners, offices for facility staff, a tech-support area, a kitchen, and storage.

As part of a site-based service arrangement, STCC will provide administrative oversight for the facility, including all human-resources functions for employees and hiring of key personnel, plus the establishment of electronic-systems management. The facility will also be overseen by a steering committee of public, private, and academic stakeholders, which will include the Springfield Redevelopment Authority, the owner of Union Station.

 

Dollars and Data

The Union Station project is just one component of a more than $3.7 million outlay to bolster cybersecurity resilience — and the related workforce — across the state. The announcements were made during the sixth Massachusetts Cybersecurity Forum at Bridgewater State University, which brought together 100 executives from companies, municipalities, and leading universities.

The awards included a $1,086,476 grant to support the launch of CyberTrust Massachusetts, a new nonprofit that will work with business and academia statewide to grow the cybersecurity talent pipeline by increasing career pathways for underrepresented groups, and promote security operations to address the day-to-day needs of resource-constrained municipalities, nonprofits, and small businesses.

The Commonwealth also announced the $1,462,995 award to STCC and $1,200,000 to Bridgewater State University to establish SOCs and cyber ranges in the two cities.

“We’re seeking to establish Massachusetts as the national leader when it comes to cybersecurity infrastructure,” Gov. Charlie Baker said during the announcement event, adding that “we’re bringing together leading academic partners and businesses to support cyber resiliency and workforce development in the Commonwealth.”

CyberTrust Massachusetts was launched to address four key imperatives for the state:

• Undersecurity, as organizations across Massachusetts, especially municipalities, small businesses, and nonprofits, are challenged to find affordable resources to defend themselves against growing cybersecurity threats and maintain cyber resiliency;

• Underemployment, highlighted by the aforementioned 20,000 cybersecurity job openings in Massachusetts, and the fact that communities of color and women are underrepresented in the cybersecurity workforce and are frequently overlooked for employment due to a lack of opportunity to obtain hands-on cybersecurity experience;

• Employee training, as businesses across the Commonwealth typically do not have a location to send their employees to receive cybersecurity training at an affordable rate; and

• Business and economic development, specifically a need to convene regional hubs for business development where cybersecurity entrepreneurs can establish and grow startups or where specific industry segments such as defense contractors can receive specialized support.

“This first-of-its-kind collaboration among business, higher ed, and government through CyberTrust Massachusetts could transform our cyber education and training, growing our workforce and creating new opportunities statewide while helping to make our communities more cyber resilient,” said Pete Sherlock, CEO of CyberTrust Massachusetts.

“No organization is successful 100% of the time when it comes to defending against cyberattacks. With the new monitoring capabilities, organizations can increase awareness, detect intrusions faster, and respond more quickly to an incident.”

In February 2022, the MassCyberCenter released a request for responses seeking interest from entities interested in establishing an SOC and/or cyber range to support the dual missions around cybersecurity workforce development and for protection against cyber threats. Seven expressions of interest were received, including the proposals from STCC and Bridgewater State.

“We see these as the initial investments in a cyber-secure future, important investments to build out our plan for a cyber-resilient Massachusetts,” said Stephanie Helm, director of the MassCyberCenter. “The key word is ‘resilient,’ as no organization is successful 100% of the time when it comes to defending against cyberattacks. With the new monitoring capabilities, organizations can increase awareness, detect intrusions faster, and respond more quickly to an incident.”

STCC President John Cook agreed, noting that “this cybersecurity award will be transformative for our region and higher education. As one of the most pervasive liabilities for our businesses and communities, these funds ensure a regional center that will be a nexus for the cyber workforce with hands-on learning, in addition to establishing a resource for protecting our community partners against cybersecurity threats.”

 

Statewide Strategy

The grants are part of the Commonwealth’s ongoing investment in cybersecurity resiliency and workforce development. The award to CyberTrust Massachusetts is from the Massachusetts Cybersecurity Innovation Fund and will support the organization’s operating expenditures for a period of six months and will fund a contract for cyber-range services for one year.

“Leaders in the state’s cybersecurity ecosystem have been contributing to the establishment of CyberTrust Massachusetts because they see the imperative to help protect the undersecured and are passionate about training the next generation of our cyber workforce, including those from currently underrepresented populations,” said Jay Ash, chair of the CyberTrust board of directors and president and CEO of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership.

Meanwhile, the grants to STCC and Bridgewater State were generated by “An Act Relative to Immediate COVID-19 Recovery Needs,” which provided $15 million to the MassCyberCenter to incentivize the creation of regional SOC services and expand the cyber workforce in the state, including a focus on “underserved and underrepresented populations.”

“Springfield Union Station is a world-class transportation hub that will now be home to a world-class cybersecurity training and security-management center,” Neal said. “The Baker-Polito administration has worked hand in hand with the city of Springfield, the STCC team, and my office to make this a reality.”

Kaselouskas believes the new SOC and cyber range can help Greater Springfield become a key region for the cybersecurity sector in the Northeast.

“Union Station obviously has a long history in Springfield, and the location is really centralized, and we’re hoping it will be a hub,” she said, adding that the facility could also bring in guest speakers for training — IT experts who hail not only from the area colleges and universities, but from large employers such as Baystate Health, MassMutual, and even the military.

“STCC is well-known and right around the corner, with 200 students in these programs right now,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re hopeful this will also boost interest in coming not only to STCC to explore these programs, but also to the other colleges we work with, which have strong programs as well.”

At STCC, she pointed out, many students hail from Western Mass. and then stay here, so any effort on the college’s part to train the future cybersecurity workforce will strengthen the sector locally.

“We’re hoping to make an impact in this area, to give back to local communities by educating students and keeping them close,” Kaselouskas added. “This program is going to be pretty big because not a lot of states do this. We expect to see this grow around the state and for Massachusetts to become a leader in cyber education.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Secure Solutions

Joel Mollison says Northeast IT

Joel Mollison says Northeast IT’s services have become more critical to businesses since the pandemic.

In a post-pandemic, technological world, one pocked with data-security threats, companies need a recovery plan more than ever. And Northeast IT is doing what it can to support small businesses during this time.

“Security is coming back into focus again,” said Joel Mollison, the company’s co-founder and president. “So we’re dealing a lot with that, making sure the people have adequate backup disaster-recovery plans. They’re able to recover the data, and their operations will be in better shape because we have certain preliminary pieces in place to protect their networks. And we’re expanding our offerings in the security sector as well, to kind of cover that.”

Northeast’s focus is on growth — steady, but controlled — in a world of change. But Mollison is no stranger to that, since he walked into college as an engineering student, but quickly realized higher-end math wasn’t his cup of tea.

“I was actually working in a computer lab at the time, and I had a personal computer at my house so I could do some of the high-end design work, and then it broke,” he recalled. “I had a Staples warranty, and it took forever for me to have someone come out to the house. In fact, it took weeks for them to come out, and then they didn’t fix it. Then I had to send it out to Worcester. And it became a huge rigmarole. And I was like, ‘wow, this is really terrible.’”

So he took it upon himself to fix the computer and, in so doing, found his love for hardware and IT. He changed his degree and graduated after the dot-com bust, at a time when jobs weren’t easily available for folks who hadn’t been in the field for a decade. So Mollison started his own firm under his name, fixing things for family, friends, and small businesses.

“I think one of the differences for us is that our growth is controlled. We’re taking on the right types of clients that really value our services, and we’re creating long-term relationships with those clients.”

“I was under that name for a long period of time, and then it transformed over time,” he said. “People thought we were too small, so I couldn’t get contracts. I ended up taking on a business partner, Brian Sullivan, in 2010, and we ended up rebranding as Northeast IT. It was all the same; it was just rebranded, and we started taking on more business clients.”

Today, Northeast IT is a managed service provider. Essentially, it acts as the outsourced IT department for companies that don’t have their own internal force, or want to augment their capabilities by doing a co-managed solution — they have a basic IT tech, but Northeast IT does the ‘heavy lifting,’ such as managing the network server, security, and more. Northeast also provides clients with backup, disaster-recovery, and cloud services.

These days, Mollison and his crew serve a broad gamut of industries, anything from financial institutions and medical agencies to engineering and municipalities.

 

Securing the Home Field

Before COVID-19, business was steadily growing. Named a Super 60 honoree in 2018 by the Springfield Regional Chamber, Mollison told BusinessWest that business was “just kind of flying” — and then the pandemic hit early in 2020.

“I wouldn’t say things stalled completely, but there was definitely a huge pivot. All of those major projects we had in the queue, people kind of panicked, and they pulled the plug. So we went from having a lot of projects and support work to a lot of support work, and then pivoting to moving people to the remote workforce,” Mollison said. “So we spent a good period of time, I would say from March through probably June, trying to transition a lot of managed clients into that remote workforce completely and cloud services.”

Because it has municipal clients, Northeast IT was an essential business during the pandemic and never stopped operating, though it did transition the way its work was done. Social-distancing practices were established, and some employees who weren’t needed in the office worked remotely for almost a year and a half. Mollison didn’t see some of his staff for six to eight months, but they were constantly out there.

With smaller providers not being able to provide services and others closing their doors, Northeast saw an influx of work and new clients, and the continuous growth hasn’t ended. If anything, the pandemic created many wins for Northeast IT.

“I think there was a shift prior to the pandemic, and now it’s starting again because there is a renewed focus on security,” he explained. “There’s a false sense of security, and there’s a million preventable measures. When you go into more of the small-business market, the data and operations of the organization require your IT infrastructure to be completely functional and your data to be protected.

“In the past 10 years, ransomware viruses have become more and more prevalent,” he went on. “They’re attacking hospitals, schools, it’s all over the news. If they get infected with a virus, all their data becomes locked; their computers cease to function. They can’t interoperate, they can’t access software, they’re frozen.”

Post-pandemic, businesses are starting to focus again on the importance of security, and Northeast has been diligent in helping them do so, especially for clients in the insurance industry.

Underwriters specifically are getting more stringent about annual review processes, Mollison explained. Clients are being asked to fill out paperwork regarding the kind of security measures they have, and Northeast IT, in turn, sits with them and answers with ‘yes, you have this,’ or ‘no, you don’t have this.’ But Mollison has come to realize that cyber-liability space in insurance is “like the Wild West.”

“What we’ve been finding is that, while a lot of the clients have always been on the fence about when to invest in these different security methods that we have available to them, they’re starting to get forced into these because, if they’re not doing it, they’re going to receive a much higher rate on their insurance underwriting, or some of them, in some cases, may not even be insurable, depending on their industry.”

 

Future in Focus

With a refocusing on IT, network security, and making sure client businesses are in good condition, Mollison remains focused on strategic growth.

“I think one of the differences for us is that our growth is controlled,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re taking on the right types of clients that really value our services, and we’re creating long-term relationships with those clients.”

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Plugged in to Opportunity

From left, STCC Assistant Vice President of Workforce Development Gladys Franco, STCC President John Cook, Upright CEO Benny Boas, HCC President Christina Royal, and HCC Vice President for Business and Community Jeffrey Hayden.

From left, STCC Assistant Vice President of Workforce Development Gladys Franco, STCC President John Cook, Upright CEO Benny Boas, HCC President Christina Royal, and HCC Vice President for Business and Community Jeffrey Hayden.

 

Christina Royal says community colleges are leaders in workforce development — and that’s why a new partnership between Holyoke Community College (HCC), Springfield Technical Community College (STCC), and Upright Education makes so much sense.

“Our focus is on how we are able to bring education and training to the area and to be able to serve the employer needs in the region,” said Royal, president of HCC. “We are specifically about educating individuals who would stay here and work here and be able to lift up our communities, as opposed to institutions with various other missions.”

The two community colleges are in the process of starting a technical program for those with a sparked interest in the technological field. Upright Education is a partner for universities and community colleges to add programs that train workers and adult learners for direct entry into the workforce, specifically in technology fields.

The programs boast an accelerated, intensive focus on specific job training for the technological workforce, ranging from 12 weeks for full-time learners to 24 weeks for part-time learners.

Participants are able to choose from an ignition course, an introductory prep course that helps determine if the boot-camp programs are right for them. Students also get the opportunity to meet with an in-house career coach who helps them identify, early in their bootcamp training, the types of jobs and settings that most interest them.

“Our programs are not on the credit side of the house; they’re on the non-credit side, and they’re specifically for workforce training,” explained Benny Boas, founder and CEO of Upright Education. “So it’s people who want to get all the skills that they need in one place and then go out and get the job that they want.”

“Upright’s mission is to expand access and opportunity to adult learners; that aligns with our mission to support students as they transform their lives.”

Upright offers a programming boot camp, training students in jobs like coding and software development. Through the partnership with HCC and STCC, there is an entirely different course that focuses on UX/UI Design.

“Essentially, students are learning how users or people interact with software and then using design skills to improve that software through research and applied behavioral understanding,” Boas explained. “So, essentially, a UX designer is what happens before anyone even writes the code or when you need to make an iteration in a project.

“Upon graduation, each program comes with digital certifications, so we work with Credly to offer digital badging for each of our programs,” he added. “So when you graduate, even from our ignition programs, you leave with verified skills showing that you know a specific technology or subject area.”

Boas told BusinessWest that he founded and ran Burlington Code Academy — a Vermont company dedicated to training individuals with the computer-science and programming skills necessary in the same format as Upright for graduation — before realizing why Upright needed to be started: there was a big hole in the distribution of this type of education model.

Gladys Franco

Gladys Franco says the mission of STCC aligns with the mission of Upright Education.

“The reason why we saw a limited adoption of this model in higher education is because it just doesn’t fit into the higher-ed curriculum offerings; it’s on a cohort schedule,” he said. “It’s not on a calendar, and instructors aren’t professors; they’re practitioners, people that are typically professionals in a specific field that they’ve been working in for a period of time, and they’re pretty pricey to spin up.”

 

Connecting to Careers

Boot-camp programs have been available throughout New York City, Los Angeles, and other big cities for almost a decade now. Smaller cities aren’t offering them through their local market because they’re expensive to run, and in order for universities and colleges to run these programs, there needs to be a large, upfront investment.

Enter Upright, which, by making these programs readily available, especially to schools like HCC and STCC that represent an underserved population, is creating opportunities for growth: for individuals, communities, and the local economy.

“We saw that there’s a really big opportunity for these colleges to address a very post-industrial economy and bring a very much-needed element to the curriculum that can be very impactful, specifically for Western Mass.; we can see that there is so much potential for the area,” Boas said, adding that there needs to be a workforce revitalization that focuses not as much on bringing traditional manufacturing and industrial jobs into the region, but targets the new economy, which focuses on “skilled labor in the tech sector.”

Through his work with the president of Vermont College of Fine Arts, Boas was introduced to both HCC and STCC. They established connections which evolved into a contractual partnership.

Gladys Franco, assistant vice president for Workforce Development at STCC, said the missions of Upright and the college go hand in hand.

“Upright’s mission is to expand access and opportunity to adult learners; that aligns with our mission to support students as they transform their lives,” she explained. “This partnership provides an option to our community for those who are looking for a fast track or accelerated pathway to get into a career with technology, the target population being adult learners.”

“Just as Westfield is now serving a number of hilltowns, we can now do the same. These towns chose us because of our team and our ability to serve them.”

She noted that, while the programs are the same, each school has its own contract with Upright. However, the two community colleges work together on a different number of initiatives to support the community.

Royal agreed, noting that, even though HCC and STCC have programs that are unique to those colleges, there is an overlap in some areas that both schools offer. “We’re trying to work together so we can work on this partnership in so many of the other ways that HCC and STCC can partner together. We can really offer the options that we need, and, in this case, for IT-accelerated change and for individuals in the Valley.”

Upright Education focuses specifically on community colleges and smaller universities because it serves demographics that could generally use the workforce advantages of having a career in tech.

Students are typically adult learners, usually over age 24. Coming from all walks of life, this underrepresented group is looking for a career change, specifically one that will impact them tremendously.

“There are a lot of single mothers, single fathers, folks from all non-traditional backgrounds that want to go from a job to a career, people who want to work from home and get the benefits of working in tech jobs,” Boas said. “We’re realizing there’s a great equalizer. They are learning tech skills and not needing the higher-education prerequisites or really even entry-level skills to get into a tech job. Students just need to be good at actually coding or doing the job itself to get into the program.”

The technical workforce is growing rapidly, and there isn’t a company that doesn’t use IT in some form, he added, whether it is to support server emails for someone carrying a smartphone in their hands, or software applications to support a business or organization. Royal agreed, calling IT professionals “absolute staples within organizational strategies.”

 

Servers of the Workforce

Now that a program like Upright is locally available, people are able to get access to the same sophisticated job training that leads to high-paid, high-demand careers that someone would get in urban centers. The hope is that these new technical careers will create vast opportunities for area students.

“There’s a need to really help strengthen and produce more IT professionals to be able to support more businesses in our community,” Royal said. “Upright’s recent cohort has a 92% job-placement rate, and on average offers about a 30% increase in salary for students who are coming from other careers. That is something that our students are also focused on: being able to receive training and education to be able to better support themselves and their families. So we welcome anything that allows us to have offerings that can support a wide variety of career paths.”

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Special Coverage Technology

A New Gig

SHELD General Manager Sean Fitzgerald

SHELD General Manager Sean Fitzgerald

‘Ahead of schedule and under budget.’

Those are the words that any business owner or board of directors would love to hear regarding a specific project or undertaking. They are not heard often, to be sure, and they are being heard even less frequently, if at all, in these days of soaring inflation, supply-chain issues, and a workforce crisis.

But that phrase can certainly be applied to the ongoing work of the South Hadley Electric Light Department (SHELD) to provide commercial and residential customers in that community with fiber internet service, a project that had the additional challenge of being launched only months before the pandemic arrived in Western Mass.

“In the last financial report we gave to the board, we were under budget and ahead of the construction schedule,” said Sean Fitzgerald, SHELD’s general manager, noting that roughly 75% of the town now has fiber service, with the rest to be built out by July 2024.

The fiber program, which had been known as Fibersonic, has been rebranded as Fiberspring to avoid any potential problems with another internet provider using ‘sonic’ in its name, said Fitzgerald (more on this new name later). It now boasts more than 1,600 customers, including residents, businesses, municipal entities, public schools, and the majority of town departments, and to say the initiative has been successful and is turning some heads would be an understatement.

Indeed, the early success in South Hadley has led to new agreements to provide internet service to nearby towns Leverett and Shutesbury, and inquiries from, and preliminary talks with, other communities, said Fitzgerald, adding that SHELD’s board of directors must now decide just how entrepreneurial it wants to be with this product.

Indeed, the Fibersonic program, similar in many ways to a fiber initiative launched by Westfield Gas & Electric — which Fitzgerald was part of — was initiated with the simple goal of providing better, more reliable service to South Hadley residents and businesses. But its pattern of success, the new contracts with Leverett and Shutesbury, and the potential to add more small towns and even larger communities (there have been talks with Easthampton) have the potential to turn this into a dynamic new profit center for SHELD.

“Customers are streaming more; they’re going into Best Buy, they’re buying a TV that is all streaming,. And with the internet of things, with everything from doorbells to vacuum cleaners connected to the internet, people are increasingly concerned about bandwidth and performance.”

“Originally, the vision from the board was not to expand; it was to improve quality of life for residents of South Hadley — that was the initial plan,” Fitzgerald said. “But in doing that, other towns became aware of us being an option; we did it very well, and we did it to what I would call the gold-standard level, so these expansion opportunities have fallen into our lap.”

SHELD has scheduled a strategic planning event for October, at which discussions will be had about where the utility can go from here with its fiber endeavor and whether further expansion should be pursued.

“That’s a discussion point that the board and I will have to have — how aggressive should we be as a municipal light plant in going after expansion of fiber?” he said, noting that, with scale, the utility can ultimately reduce the cost of the service it provides. “And these are questions we don’t have full answers to yet.”

For this issue and its focus on technology, BusinessWest talked with Fitzgerald about what is now officially known as Fiberspring (the recently detailed trucks with the brand can be seen on the roads), and what the next chapters in this intriguing story might be.

 

A New Gig

‘Big Gig.’ ‘Fiber Galaxy.’ ‘Gazoo.’

Yes, Gazoo, the extraterrestrial character from the old Flintstones cartoon show.

These are just some of the dozens of names Fitzgerald and his team at SHELD considered as they went about rebranding Fibersonic in conjunction with Darby O’Brien Advertising, the South Hadley-based firm that has developed a strong reputation for helping businesses and nonprofits with such endeavors.

As they talked about the process, Fitzgerald and O’Brien said potential new names would be tossed around, with their merits and shortcomings weighed, before most all of them would have to be discarded because they had been completely, or partially, trademarked by someone else. Such is the growth of this sector of the economy, where the word ‘fiber’ has been attached to just about every conceivable noun.

one of utility’s trucks with the new brand, Fiberspring

General Manager Sean Fitzgerald shows off one of utility’s trucks with the new brand, Fiberspring.

Oddly, and both O’Brien and Fitzgerald thought it was odd, and that’s why they made very sure that Fiberspring was not trademarked. That’s the colorful brand name — literally and figuratively — now, or soon to be, seen on trucks, business cards, letterhead, and everything else.

By whatever name it goes, South Hadley’s new telecom business has become an intriguing success story, one that begins with SHELD’s hiring of Fitzgerald in 2017 with the intent of launching a business division to bring fiber to the home. As noted, Fitzgerald had been working for Westfield G&E and had developed the business component for that municipal utility’s Whip City Fiber project.

What eventually emerged in South Hadley was a $17.4 million initiative, said Fitzgerald, with roughly $15 million going toward fiber construction, with the other $2.4 million in funding needed for advanced meter infrastructure, or AMI. It was financed mostly through a $12 million bond secured through the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Co. at a favorable 2.7% rate.

As he assembled a team to take this new business division, named Fibersonic, off the drawing board and make it reality, Fitzgerald borrowed from the successful Whip City model in many respects.

These include everything from ordering materials well in advance — a strategy that has brought dividends in these times of supply-chain issues and soaring prices — to the concept of ‘fiberhoods’ — bringing fiber to a community neighborhood by neighborhood.

As he gestured to a map of the town on a large screen in the SHELD conference room, Fitzgerald noted that there are many fiberhoods in South Hadley now, with those currently without fiber to be completed by 2024.

As neighborhoods become fiberhoods, the ‘take rate,’ as it’s called, a statistic that tracks how many households are signing up for the service, is roughly 43%, a good number that grows higher as more residents add the gig-speed service and word of mouth spreads about its speed and reliability.

And as more and more household devices and appliances are driven by the internet — everything from lighting to security to thermostats — demand for fast, reliable service grows.

“Customers are streaming more; they’re going into Best Buy, they’re buying a TV that is all streaming,” he noted. “And with the internet of things, with everything from doorbells to vacuum cleaners connected to the internet, people are increasingly concerned about bandwidth and performance.”

As for ordering materials ahead of schedule, that has been one of the keys, along with a solid team, effective buildout strategy, and staying under budget and ahead of schedule, Fitzgerald said.

“We proactively ordered our equipment and materials in advance, before we knew COVID was coming,” he explained. “I learned that in Westfield, and it was a great strategy.”

As South Hadley adds more fiberhoods, it’s becoming apparent that SHELD’s fiber-service initiative could expand well beyond the borders of that town.

Indeed, just as Whip City Fiber has moved beyond Westfield and into the surrounding hilltowns, Fiberspring is now expanding into other communities.

Shutesbury, northeast of South Hadley, was the first town to enter into a contract with the company, and Leverett, which borders Shutesbury, followed soon after. Those two communities, which both had existing networks in place, will bring another 3,000 customers into the fold.

After that … Fitzgerald said there is potential to expand the footprint in several directions.

“We could go pretty much anywhere in this region,” he told BusinessWest. “The key is the truck rolls — if you have to roll a truck to a customer, you need to be able to reach that customer in a reasonable period of time. If a town in New Hampshire or Maine wanted to hire us, we could do it, but we would probably have to put a satellite building there or a small hub or hire technicians that live in that area.

“Just as Westfield is now serving a number of hilltowns, we can now do the same,” he went on, adding that Fiberspring is now competing with Westfield and other providers. “These towns chose us because of our team and our ability to serve them.”

Moving forward, Fitzgerald said there will be several factors that will determine if, when, and to what degree Fiberspring expands.

“First and foremost, we don’t want to negatively impact the service that we provide to South Hadley — those customers are priority one,” he explained. “Second, we want to make sure we have enough resources to adequately perform any of those contracts. And third, does it make sense for our customers? The whole reason we’re doing this is to reduce the cost to the South Hadley customers and at the same time provide a good service to Shutesbury. But ultimately, we need to show cost savings for South Hadley customers, who are our owner, which we will do with these contracts.”

 

Speed Thrills

Summing up where the telecom business now known as Fiberspring is, and where it could be a few years or a decade down the road, Fitzgerald said everything is happening faster than he or the SHELD board anticipated.

That statement goes for everything from the buildout in South Hadley — again, it’s ahead of schedule — to the expansion of the business into neighboring communities.

That’s a good problem to have — if it’s even a problem — and a business story that bears watching in the months and years to come.

In other words, this new gig — as in gig — has vast potential to be a huge player in this market.

 

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

Special Coverage Technology

The Future Is Here

It’s striking to think that many young professionals entering the workforce today have never known a world without high-tech devices, many designed to be used on the go, that address every possible work and leisure need. And those devices have only become more powerful over time, with a wider array of options and price points. In its annual look at some of the most intriguing devices available, BusinessWest dives into what the tech press is saying about some of 2022’s hottest products for the home or … well, anywhere else.

 

Connecting and Computing

Among this year’s crop of smartphones, the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra ($1,199) has been getting plenty of raves. In fact, Spy calls it “the first true flagship phone to beat for 2022.” The site praises Samsung for bringing back the S Pen stylus, a popular feature with Samsung’s Galaxy Note series. “It’s also a beast when it comes to capturing photos and videos with its quadruple camera system, offering excellent image quality and low-light performance. You’ll have plenty of versatility with this package because you can get very close with its 100x space zoom telephoto lens.”

 

You’ll find no shortage of love for Apple’s newest models as well, the iPhone 13 Pro ($999) and 13 Pro Max ($1,099), which, boast the best cameras and battery life of any iPhone to date, CNET notes, as well as high-end features like the ability to record ProRes videos. “By packing the 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max with features many of us have wanted for years, including a display with a high refresh rate, Apple further defined the difference between its Pro and non-Pro phones. Three years ago, by comparison, the word Pro seemed more of a marketing term than an indication that the phone was any more professional than a regular iPhone.”

 

In the laptop world, the Dell XPS 13 Plus (starting at $1,449) “is a sleek computer that’s built around the latest and most powerful Intel Core processors,” Business Insider notes. “In lieu of click buttons, it uses a seamless glass touchpad surface and replaces the function keys with a top row of touch-sensitive function buttons.” In addition, Dell’s updated RapidCharge Express 2.0 technology can charge the battery up to 80% in under an hour. “Innovations like this,” the publication noted, “can benefit users and keep Dell ahead of rivals.”

 

Among today’s monitors, BBC Science Focus raves about the Samsung M8 smart monitor ($579). “With an affordable price tag, and an overkill of connection options, the Samsung M8 could be the perfect monitor for a lot of people. It doubles up as a TV and monitor, offering smart TV with Netflix, YouTube, and most streaming platforms, as well as connection options for most laptops, AirPlay for Apple products, and even DEX to connect your Samsung smartphone as a computer. Not enough? It also has built-in speakers, a 4K display and an added webcam.”

 

Need to keep your devices charged in the car? The Baseus USB-C Car Charger ($19) is an inexpensive device with a 65-watt USB-C port that can power up most laptops, according to bestproducts.com. A USB-A charging connector with a maximum power output of 18 watts is also included. “The product has a sleek design with translucent housing, a built-in voltage display, and onboard illumination. It has built-in tech to protect the connected devices from overcharging and overheating.”

 

That’s Entertainment

There’s no doubt that the explosion of entertainment choices we can stream on dozens of services has transformed the way we watch TV. At the same time, smart TVs have grown larger and less expensive over the past few decades. Among today’s models, Esquire praises the LG Electronics C1 65-inch OLED HDTV ($1,379). “With a beautiful picture and a sleek, stylish design, LG’s OLED TV is one of the best on the market. Plus, it can connect to Amazon Alexa devices so your whole house is hooked up.”

 

Most TVs aren’t built to survive the elements, but the SunBriteTV Veranda Series 3 ($2,899) is specifically designed for the outdoors. “In addition, it offers a few key advantages over previous Veranda models, including a brighter and much more colorful picture with support for Dolby Vision, as well as a full suite of Android TV features such as streaming media services, Google Assistant voice control, and the ability to mirror your phone,” PC Magazine notes, adding that, while the price tag is high, “you’re paying a premium for a TV you can use outside without worry.”

 

Gamers have more options than ever before as well, but for many, PlayStation still reigns supreme. Calling it “the best plug-and-play gaming platform available,” Digital Trends says the PlayStation 5 ($499), boasts “lightning-fast load speeds, a new controller, and a phenomenal lineup of launch titles (including fan favorites and new exclusives).” In fact, the magazine noted that the PS5 not only easily bests the Xbox when it comes to game selection, Sony has now brought backward compatibility into the fold, so the PS5 will be able to play most PS4 games. “The PS5 simply has the best game library out there right now.”

 

Speaking of new ways to play, “virtual reality might take its time to have its ‘iPhone moment,’ but it is still very much the next big thing for the coolest gadgets,” Spy notes, and no VR device flashes that promise more than the Meta Quest 2 ($299). Without the need for a powerful computer or special equipment, users can simply strap the Quest 2 (formerly Oculus) to their head, pick up the controllers, and move freely in VR space, thanks to its inside-out technology, which uses cameras placed outside the headset to track the users’ movement in the space around them.

 

Then there’s the Samsung Freestyle ($799), a new portable entertainment device that combines a projector and smart speaker into one compact package. It supports 1080p projection at up to 100 inches, offers access to a wide variety of streaming apps, and delivers 360-degree sound with built-in Alexa voice control. “The Freestyle stands out from other compact projectors thanks to its rotating cradle that makes it look like a portable spotlight,” Business Insider notes. “It also has automatic picture adjustments that could make it a breeze to set up virtually anywhere. It can even plug into an overhead light socket so you can project onto the floor or a table.”

 

Life on the Go

Smartwatches are all the rage, and the Apple Watch Series 7 ($329) ranks highly across most rating sites. With a bigger case and a larger screen than its predecessor, “the product also has best-in-class health-, fitness-, and wellness-tracking capabilities, powered by accurate heart-rate and blood-oxygen sensors, according to bestproducts.com. Apple offers the Series 7 with a 41- or a 45-millimeter case in a multitude of finishes, optional cellular network connectivity is available, and wearers can customize the timepiece with a wide selection of bands. “New year, new Apple watch,” Esquire adds. “The 20% larger screen makes all the difference.”

 

In the category of hybrid smartwatch, which combines connectivity with traditional watch mechanics, bestproducts.com chooses the Everett Hybrid Smartwatch ($179), calling it a feature-packed device with a built-in, always-on display and heart-rate sensor. “We like that, instead of looking like a tech product, it resembles a classic chronograph timepiece with mechanical hands and a three-button layout.” The stainless-steel timepiece is waterproof up to 30 meters, and it is available in several finishes, with an easy-to-replace band or bracelet.

 

Need a pair of quality headphones and don’t want to splurge on Apple AirPods? Then the clunkily named but sleekly built Sony WH-1000XM5 ($399) may be the way to go, BBC Science Focus notes. “These, like their predecessors, are some of the best headphones around. In terms of specs and audio, these are extremely similar to Sony’s renditions from before. They offer market-leading audio across the lows, mids, and highs, excellent noise cancellation, and you get an array of smart ambient features.” The site also praises the lighter, more minimalist design.

 

In the market for a drone? “Every year,” BBC Science Focus notes, “the DJI’s Mini series gets smaller and yet more powerful, cramming high-end specs into a lightweight drone that you can chuck in your bag. But with all those improvements comes an eye-watering price, and an increasing fear for your financial status if you crash it.” The DJI Mini 3 Pro ($759) offers advanced obstacle avoidance features, a rotating lens to film in portrait or landscape, 4K video, smart flying features like automatic tracking, and the ability to follow a subject, the site notes. “Despite its higher price, this feels like the perfect drone for beginners, those who like to travel, or really anyone in the market for a lightweight, high-tech drone.”

 

At the end of an active day, why not wind down by grilling dinner — wherever you are? The BioLite FirePit+ ($249) is a small, efficient fire pit that burns charcoal and wood. More than 50 air jets deliver oxygen to the fire for a uniform temperature and reduced smoke, while a rechargeable battery runs a built-in fan for controlling the fire up to 30 hours, according to PC Magazine. “You can cook on top of the included grill grate for direct contact with the flames or pick up a cast-iron griddle accessory. Bluetooth lets you control the flame intensity and fan speed with your phone, for a smart grilling experience no matter where you are.”

 

Around the House

Home security systems are nothing new, but if you’re looking for an extra layer of security, the Ring Glass Break Sensor ($40 for one, $70 for two) can detect break-in attempts through glass windows and doors from up to 25 feet away, Wired notes. Users will need a Ring Alarm or Ring Alarm Pro to use it, and the sensor can be configured the sensor to trigger a siren when it detects broken glass.

 

Sometimes home security means being prepared when the power goes down. The Anker 757 PowerHouse generator ($1,399) is powered by a lithium iron phosphate battery, which is the same type of battery used to power various electric vehicles, and “it’s a beast,” Gear Patrol notes. “Its multiple ports and outlets allow will allow you to simultaneously charge various gadgets, including your laptop, smartphone, and tablets, as well as power larger appliances like a refrigerator, a TV, or multiple outdoor lights.”

 

Air purification is a different kind of home safety product, and Gear Patrol touts the Wyze Air Purifier ($135), which can be purchased with one of three different filters, among the best on the market. “The air purifier works with the Wyze app, and, once set up, it can send you real-time status updates and alert you as to when it needs cleaning.” According to the company, each purifier is capable of cleaning 500-square-foot room more than three times an hour.

 

Wired has some ideas for making life easier as a pet owner, like the Smarty Pear Leo’s Loo Too Litter Box ($600). “Veterinarians say automatic litter boxes, while convenient, make it tough for owners to keep tabs on their cat’s bathroom trips — which can be useful for flagging any potential illnesses. The Leo’s Loo Too solves this with a built-in sensor that tracks how often your cat goes, along with its weight, and syncs the data to a companion app on your phone.” The device comes with additional features like UV sterilization and radar to keep the box from self-cleaning while the cat is nearby.

 

Speaking of animals, Wired also recommends the Bird Buddy Bird Feeder ($200), which “gives new meaning to bird watching. Not only does this cute little home feed birds, but its battery-powered camera offers a live feed via the connected app. If that’s not entertaining enough, it’ll snap photos of said birds, identify the species, and present a ton of facts about each one.”

Technology

How Old Is the Water?

Dr. LeeAnn Munk

Dr. LeeAnn Munk collects water samples in Salar de Atacama.

 

A groundbreaking new study recently published in the journal Earth’s Future and led by researchers at UMass Amherst in collaboration with the University of Alaska Anchorage, is the first to comprehensively account for the hydrological impact of lithium mining. Since lithium is the key component of the lithium-ion batteries that are crucial for the transition away from fossil fuels and toward green energy — as well as necessity in many of today’s high-tech devices — it is critical to fully understand how to responsibly obtain the precious element.

Previous studies have not addressed two of the most important factors in determining whether lithium is obtained responsibly: the age and source of the water the lithium is found in. This first-of-its-kind study is the result of more than a decade of research, and it suggests that total water usage in the Salar de Atacama, a massive, arid Chilean salt flat encompassing approximately 850 square miles, is exceeding its resupply — though, as the team also points out, the impact of lithium mining itself is comparatively small. Lithium mining accounts for less than 10% of freshwater usage, and its brine extraction does not correlate with changes in either surface-water features or basin-water storage.

Lithium, said David Boutt, professor of Geosciences at UMass Amherst and one of the paper’s co-authors, is a strange element. It’s the lightest of the metals, but it doesn’t like to be in a solid form. Lithium tends to occur in layers of volcanic ash, but it reacts quickly with water. When rain or snowmelt moves through the ash layers, lithium leaches into the groundwater, moving downhill until it settles in a flat basin where it remains in solution as a briny mix of water and lithium. Because this brine is very dense, it often settles beneath pockets of fresh surface water, which float on top of the lithium-rich fluid below. These freshwater lagoons often become havens for unique and fragile ecosystems and iconic species such as flamingos.

More than 40% of the world’s proven lithium deposits are located in the Salar de Atacama, the site of the research. The Salar de Atacama is host to a number of ecologically unique wildlife preserves and is also the ancestral home of several Atacameño indigenous communities, with whom the UMass team worked. Because the salt flats are so ecologically sensitive and depend on scarce supplies of fresh water, the use of water in the Salar de Atacama runs the risk of disturbing both the ecological health of the region and indigenous ways of life.

Yet, up until now, there has been no comprehensive approach to gauging water use or lithium mining’s impact in the Salar de Atacama.

“To understand the environmental effect of lithium mining,” says Brendan Moran, a postdoctoral research associate in Geosciences at UMass Amherst and the lead author of the paper, “we need to understand the hydrology in the region the lithium is found. That hydrology is much more complex than previous researchers have given it credit for.”

To illustrate the complexity, and the previous misconception about the Salar de Atacama’s hydrology, Moran and Boutt drew on the metaphor of a bank account. Imagine that you get a paycheck every month; when you go to balance your checkbook, as long as your monthly expenditures don’t exceed your monthly income, you are financially sustainable. Previous studies of the Salar de Atacama have assumed that the infrequent rainfall and seasonal runoff from the mountain ranges that ring it were solely responsible for the water levels in the salt flats, but it turns out that assumption is incorrect.

Using a variety of water tracers that can track the path that water takes on its way to the Salar de Atacama, as well as the average age of water within different water bodies, including surface waters and sub-surface aquifers, Moran and his colleagues discovered that, though localized, recent rainfall is critically important, more than half of the freshwater feeding the wetlands and lagoons is at least 60 years old.

“Because these regions are so dry, and the groundwater so old,” Moran said, “the overall hydrological system responds very slowly to changes in climate, hydrology, and water usage.”

At the same time, short-term climate changes, such as the recent major drought and extreme precipitation events, can cause substantial and rapid changes to the surface water and the fragile habitats they sustain. Given that climate change is likely to cause more severe droughts over the region, it could further stress the area’s water budget.

To return to the accounting metaphor, the paycheck is likely getting smaller and isn’t coming monthly, but over a period of at least 60 years, which means researchers need to be monitoring water usage on a much longer time scale than they currently do, while also paying attention to major events, like droughts, in the region.

Complete hydrological monitoring requires additional tools paired with these geochemical tracers. The UMass and UAA teams used water usage data from the Chilean government and satellite imagery, which allowed them to assess the changing extent of wetlands over the past 40 years, as well as rain gauges and satellite measurements to determine changes in precipitation over the same period.

Given how long it takes for groundwater to move within the basin, “the effects of water overuse may still be making their way through the system and need to be closely monitored,” Moran said. “Potential impacts could last decades into the future.”

Ultimately, this comprehensive framework, which was funded by BMW Group and BASF, is applicable far beyond the Salar de Atacama. “It’s a modern approach to water management,” Boutt said.

Technology

Protecting Yourself from IT Threats

By Charlie Christensen

 

As hackers, organized crime syndicates, and state-backed bad actors aggressively pursue ways to compromise the world’s data; business owners, leadership, and IT professionals continue to seek ways to counter these ever-growing threats to their information technology infrastructure. In this article, I will explore some of these threats, as well as the advancements in anti-virus/malware protection that are working to defend corporate and personal data every minute of every day.

Lastly, I will provide you with some key steps you should take to protect your business and data assets from attack.

Charlie Christensen

Charlie Christensen

The notion that you are just too small a company to worry about these threats, or that no one wants your data is a fallacy. Criminals are targeting small companies every day because they are easy targets.”

As someone who understands the threats we as IT professionals see every day, it is my hope that I can use this opportunity to provide the average businessperson with a better understanding of what they should focus on most urgently in today’s technology environment, and how they can better protect their business from being compromised.

• Ransomware: This is every company’s worst nightmare and is a topic that we could dedicate an entire article on. In short, ransomware is an extortion scheme that costs businesses billions of dollars per year. It most commonly spreads via malicious email attachments or links, software apps, infected external storage devices, and compromised websites.

Ransomware searches out every computer on the network and seeks to encrypt the data it finds. The only way to get the data back is to pay the extortion, usually via cryptocurrency which is largely untraceable. Not content with simple extortion, cybercriminals are now adding an additional element to the ransomware scheme.

Attackers will now download your data prior to encryption, and if you refuse to pay, they will threaten to release your data into the public domain. If the thought of this doesn’t lead you to a few sleepless nights, it should.

• Phishing, spear phishing, and whaling attacks: I think by now we all understand phishing. An attacker uses social-engineering techniques, like an enticing looking link, to get the end user to disclose some form of personal information such as a Social Security number, information, credentials, etc. Spear phishing, however, is a bit more focused and targeted. A spear-phishing message might seem like it came from someone you know or a familiar company like your bank or credit card company, shipping company, or a frequented retailer.

Whaling, on the other hand, goes after high-value targets such as C-level leadership or accounts payable. A whaling attack might look like an email from the CFO asking you to initiate a transfer to pay a large invoice. This is an incredibly common attack vector and one that relies on your team’s ability to identify it. Education and vigilance are your best defense.

• Advanced persistent threats: APTs happen when an intruder gains access to your systems and remains undetected for an extended period. They seek to quietly extract data such as credit card data, social security numbers, banking information, and credentials. Detection relies on the ability to identify unusual activity such as unusual outbound traffic, increased database activity, network activity at odd times. APTs also likely involve the creation of backdoors into your network.

• Insider threats: Although we are fixated on external threats, internal threats are more common and can be equally as damaging. Examples of intentional and unintentional threats include:

Intentional threats such as employees stealing data by copying or sending sensitive or proprietary data outside the company. This may occur via email/FTP, USB drive, cloud drive (One Drive, Dropbox, iCloud), or some other means. Often, these happen because someone fails to comply with security protocols because they are perceived to be inconvenient or “overkill.”.

Unintentional threats might include an employee clicking on a phishing email, responding to a pop up asking for credentials, not using a strong password, or using the same password for everything. It could also be a system that was not patched, a port that was left open on a firewall, or forgetting to lock a user account after termination.

• Viruses and worms: Frequently considered to be ‘old school’ threats, these still exist and can cause tremendous damage. Users should be careful about clicking on ads, file sharing sites, links in emails, etc. Their purpose is to damage an organization, systems, data, or network. However, traditional anti-virus software is usually effective at controlling them.

• Botnets: Simply put, a botnet is a collection of devices that have access to the internet like PCs, servers, phones, cameras, time clocks, or other commonly found networked devices. These devices are then infected by malware that allows criminals to use them to launch attacks on other networks, generate spam, or create other malicious traffic.

• Drive-by attacks: These are infected graphics or code on a website that gets injected into your computer without your knowledge. They can be used to steal personal information, or inject trojans, exploit kits, and other forms of malware.

While this list might seem exhausting, it only represents a few of the more common attack methods that we see daily. It also helps explain the emergence of a new generation of security products and platforms. To better understand how we look at information security, let me borrow one of the examples I commonly use when speaking to businesspeople and groups about building an effective Information Security Program.

Think of information security as an onion. Like an onion, information security programs are comprised of layers (firewall, backup, AV, email filtering, etc…) of protection surrounding the core (your data). As we build an information security program, we need to put layers of protection between the threat and the asset we are trying to protect. While the details of an information security program are outside the scope of this article, for the purposes of this discussion you only need to understand that there is no single magic product that can protect you from all threats. Anti-virus, or even the new generation endpoint detection and response (EDR) products are but one layer of protection in an over-arching strategy to protect your business from modern threats.

A brief history of antivirus (AV) products has them coming onto the scene in the late 1980s, with familiar names like McAfee, Norton, and Avast. These early products relied on signature-based definitions. Much like you look up a word in the dictionary, these AV products could catch defined threats, but they would easily fail to prevent attacks that had yet been discovered; or worse, that they had not yet downloaded an update for that would allow them to recognize the threat. Traditional AV changed very little until several years ago with the advent of Next Generation Antivirus. NGAV uses definitions coupled with predictive analytics driven by machine learning to help identify undefined threats.

The latest technology to hit the market is enhanced detection and response (EDR) or extended detection and response (XDR). These technologies continue to use traditional signature-based antivirus and NGAV, but they also introduce the use of artificial intelligence (AI).

AI is used to constantly analyze the behavior of devices so it can detect abnormal activities like high CPU usage, unusual disk activity, or perhaps an abnormal amount of outbound traffic. This new generation of software not only detects an attack and warns you that it is occurring, but it can also isolate the attack to the device(s) that are infected by automatically taking them off the network and protecting the rest of your network. Some EDR products like SentinelOne also have threat-hunting capabilities that can map the attack as it unfolds. This mapping aids IT professionals in the identification of devices involved in the attack; a process that can take days or weeks when performed manually. XDR even goes a bit further in that it looks beyond the endpoint (PC, laptop, phone) and looks at the network holistically.

A good example of how EDR systems are being used as a layer of protection is how SonicWall firewalls combine a physical firewall with a suite of security capabilities like content filtering, DPI-SSL scanning, geo-blocking, gateway antivirus, and more to filter traffic before it enters your network. Then, with the addition of their Capture Client product (a collaboration between SonicWall and SentinelOne), they integrate the power of SentinelOne EDR with the firewall’s rules. This allows you to extend protections beyond devices inside the network and include company devices outside the network as well. This helps to eliminate gaps in protection that can exist with remote users.

The notion that you are just too small a company to worry about these threats, or that no one wants your data is a fallacy. Criminals are targeting small companies every day because they are easy targets. Large companies have armies of highly educated and well-paid people protecting their networks. And while a large company might represent a big score, hackers can spend years trying to penetrate a large network. However, they know smaller organizations have limited budgets and staff to protect their network. This makes it far more lucrative to hit 50 or 100 small companies for $100,000 than a single large company for, say, $2 million.

Investing in modern security products, building a sound information security program, and educating your team will pay off in the long run, as the question is not if you will be attacked — but when. The cost of the systems to protect you is far less the frequently irreparable harm caused by a breach or infection.

Many people say, ‘I have cyber insurance,’ but fail to put the necessary precautions in place to protect their systems and data. Little do they know that when they filled out the pre-insurance questionnaire and answered ‘yes’ to all the questions, they gave the insurer the ability to deny the claim. If you do not have written policies, use EDR (or at least NGAV), have a training program in place, and use multifactor authentication to protect user logins, you could be sealing your own fate. Insurers are no longer baffled by today’s technology and are aggressively investigating cyber claims. In fact, we are seeing significantly increasing numbers of denied claims.

There is little you can do after the fact to offset missing protections or enforcement of policies. By taking the appropriate steps to protect your network and systems you can hopefully minimize the risk of falling victim to an attack and ensure that your insurer will cover such a claim. Insurance companies will go to great lengths to cover legitimate claims at great cost. In fact, they can be their own worst enemy. In many ransomware attacks, insurance companies will simply pay the ransom because it is more expeditious to do that than it is to pay for the actual remediation. This, of course, only encourages the criminals while leading to higher premiums and greater risk to our technology infrastructure.

To close, I’d like to leave you with a few things that you can do to better protect your systems, data, and network.

• Take the time to understand what protections you have in place and engage a professional to help you identify any gaps in your information security strategy;

• Educate your staff on information security best practices and the threat spectrum. An educated workforce is one of your best protections. There are several great training tools that are inexpensive and easy to implement, such as KnowBe4;

• Implement a next-generation firewall that utilizes deep packet inspection and take the time to dial in the suite of security features that are designed to stop threats before they get into the network;

• Move to an EDR system rather than relying on a traditional signature-based antivirus;

• Be sure that all systems with access to your networks (computers, network equipment, servers, firewalls, IoT devices, cameras, etc.) are patched regularly to eliminate vulnerabilities that can be easily exploited;

• Do not run unsupported operating systems, equipment, or applications;

• Establish a set of written information security policies, and make sure everyone understands that they need to live by them; and

• Limit those with administrative credentials on your network. If an administrative account is compromised, you have given away the keys to the kingdom. Make sure users only have permission to get to the resources they need to do their job.

 

Charlie Christensen is president of East Longmeadow-based CMD Technology Group; http://www.new.cmdweb.com/; (413) 525-0023.

Technology

The Best Defense Is a Good Offense

By Sean Hogan

In a recent study, Stanford University and a top cyber security organization found that more than 85% of all data breaches are caused by human error. The standard practice for prevention of breaches is enabling tools to detect and prevent breach attempts.

Most breaches are prevented with tools such as anti-virus, spam filtering, and edge protection. But what about the attempts that slip through these defense systems? That’s where education comes in to play.

Cyber criminals are constantly evolving and changing their methods for cyber-attacks. The best software and security tools can eliminate many of the known attack methods but there is no company, security, or software package that that can claim 100% success for eliminating threats. The game is constantly changing, and to keep up with unknown threats and techniques it is critical that we all educate and train ourselves to be hyper vigilant when it comes to cybersecurity.

Sean Hogan

“In a recent study, Stanford University and a top cyber security organization found that more than 85% of all data breaches are caused by human error.”

It is critical to teach your staff about cyber-attacks. I tell my clients to always question everything; if you aren’t expecting an email with a drop box link, then don’t open it, and certainly don’t click the link. Hackers have upped their game when it comes to disguising malicious content. Hackers will use credentials from sources on the dark web, and the more thorough hacker will do some social engineering and gather information about the targets on public websites and social media platforms.

The more believable they are, the more effective they can be. I recommend scanning tools to alert companies whenever there are credential breaches that have appeared on the dark web. This will allow security teams to know when credentials have been breached, where credentials were breached, and who will provide the credentials. These tools will reveal passwords, password policies, or lack thereof.

Common passwords are one of the easiest low hanging fruits to be used by hackers. Let’s pretend you use your business email to log into an online app like Uber. If Uber is breached, the hackers will have access to your Uber password, but if you use that same password or a similar password elsewhere, like in your banking app, the hacker can use scanning tools and password-hacking tools to easily get into your other accounts. The object is to make it as hard as possible to breach your accounts; don’t make it easy for a junior hacker to wreak havoc.

We recently had a client forward us an email that he thought might be a phishing attack. All the details were accurate, everything was spelled correctly. The ‘sent from’ address had one difference, it was sent from a registered .net domain not the company’s legitimate .com address. Other than that, everything was accurate. The hacker had the wherewithal to create a domain and register that domain as a .net. (Lesson learned, reserve all similar URL’s to prevent this from happening!)

This one example was a sophisticated attempt to convince the client to create a wire transfer; the client now has a policy of triple-checking and confirming any transactions with multiple steps.

The best way to teach your staff about attacks is to create a fake phishing attack. We create and run fake attacks to our staff and our clients. We have a library to choose from, and we can simulate a bank request, a Netflix credential reset, a credit card alert just to name a few. These attacks mimic real attacks. The recipient reactions are tracked, and reports are made available after the campaign has expired.

The email is delivered (allowed on purpose past our filters), the recipient can open, click, and provide data. We call this the trifecta! Normally opening an email is not malicious by itself; clicking the link can activate embedded malware. If a recipient does take the bait, then the training software will automatically play an educational video that teaches that staff how they were fooled and what to look out for in the future.

When the campaign has ended the results are tallied in a report. The report will tell you how many opens, clicks, and credentials. The report will also indicate whether the end-user sat through the educational video. This is a great tool to use from a cybersecurity perspective. Teach your staff, install best-in-class edge protection, spam filtering, end-point protection, anti-virus, dark-web scanning, and backup. Overall, don’t overlook the most important step: Promote awareness and create a strong anti-cyber culture in your office.

 

Sean Hogan is president of Hogan Technology Inc.; www.teamhogan.com; (413) 779-0079.

Special Coverage Technology

Making IT Happen

By Mark Morris

Mike Sheil

Mike Sheil, president, Whalley Computer Associates

Mike Sheil says he enjoys his work because his business — information technology — is always changing. And he acknowledges that this is an understatement, as recent events have shown.

Sheil, president of Whalley Computer Associates in Southwick, began his career with the computer reseller right after graduating from North Adams State College, now Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. After four years, he left for a medical device company where he stayed for another four years. Sheil returned to Whalley 24 years ago and rose through the sales ranks until being named president in June 2020.

His relatively new position comes with a lengthy job description, but, overall, he is charged with authoring the next chapters in what has become a long-term success story — a company that has grown exponentially from its humble roots over the past 43 years because of its ability to adapt to that constant change he mentioned.

The past two years, dominated in every way imaginable by the COVID-19 pandemic, provide a dramatic example of the company’s ability to respond to change, and, in many respects, lead clients through it.

“Before COVID you would get a quote, get a PO, order the product, it comes within a week and we can install it the next week. If we can get back to that type of normal business environment, I believe our company will experience tremendous growth.”

Indeed, a banner hanging in the production area reminds employees that, when in doubt, they are to do what’s right for the customer, the company, and the individual. This clear guidance turned out to be valuable when COVID hit and flooded Whalley with sudden demands for products and assistance. With millions of employees suddenly leaving the office to work from home, Whalley clients needed the resources to make that happen.

“We helped companies with thousands of workers to get their folks set up at home,” Sheil recalled. “Some needed monitors and docking stations, while others sought upgrades to their data center because so many more people were tapping into their bandwidth.”

In one instance, a higher education client was looking for 400 laptops to outfit staff members who had been sent home to work.

“I received the request on a Saturday,” Sheil recalled. A colleague found the product, provided a quote for what it would cost, and sent it to the client. “For the first time in my career, I received a purchase order from a public university on a Sunday.” By Monday afternoon, 400 laptops were shipped to the university.

Whalley Computer Associates’ new building

Mike Sheil, left, says Whalley Computer Associates’ new building will allow the company to better serve its clients.

Looking ahead, Sheil said Whalley will soon begin to grow its physical presence with a new 84,000-square-foot building next to its current headquarters in Southwick. Plans call for locating the OEM division in the new space as well as expanding warehouse storage and improving delivery options.

“The new building allows us to go to our clients and let them know we can do even more for them, so that’s exciting,” Sheil said. “This is an opportunity to grow our business in North America while showing our commitment to Southwick and Western Mass.”

For this issue and its focus on technology, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Whalley’s long and intriguing history, and at what’s next for a business that helps its clients get it — and IT.

 

Taking Big Bytes

Tracing that history, Sheil noted that, in the early 1970s, Agawam math teacher John Whalley purchased a small software consulting firm that had a few clients. Working out of his basement after school and during the summer months, Whalley began to add customers, and by 1979 established Whalley Computer Associates.

By 1984 he moved the business out of the basement and in 1985, left teaching to concentrate on growing his company. Whalley is now CEO of the company, which is located in a 62,500-square-foot state-of-the-art building where 200 employees provide products and services to more than 20,000 customers around the world.

Whalley customers range from small businesses to corporations, as well as educational institutions and healthcare organizations. Clients tell Whalley representatives what challenges they need to address in their computer systems. Whalley then orders the product, configures it to fit the client’s needs, then delivers and installs the product at the client’s site. There are other resellers who simply order the product and send it directly to the client, who usually don’t have the space to handle a computer system shipment. Sheil said Whalley is different because it takes a hands-on approach.

“Once we receive the product it’s completely handled by Whalley employees,” Sheil said. “From the engineers and technicians who configure the products, to the people who drive our trucks and install the systems, everyone has a vested interest in doing it right.”

And during the pandemic, the company’s resolve to do it right was certainly tested, a test Sheil said it has passed.

“COVID and supply chain issues have been challenging, yet we experienced growth during that period,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s all thanks to our people who were flexible and willing to respond to all these requests.”

The OEM division of Whalley provides custom design of technology systems for clients. When COVID hit and a major customer temporarily shut down, it affected several employees who worked directly with that customer. Instead of laying off those employees, they were sent home with a laptop and a project to work on to benefit the company.

Heather Kies was given the assignment to plan several events for the company. A project manager with OEM, Kies also had a marketing background and enjoyed getting back into this area. She handled the assignment so well, Sheil promoted Kies to Marketing Manager in January and asked her to run the company’s new marketing department, which previously existed only informally as part of business development.

Whalley Computer Associates has a long track record

Mike Sheil says Whalley Computer Associates has a long track record of adapting to change and being nimble in its efforts to serve clients.

These days Kies is working on various company events, including preparations for a major tech conference that takes place in December.

“I’m also busy getting the word out on who we are so people understand all the services we can provide,” Kies said.

While the height of COVID brought unspeakable horrors, it also forced companies to think differently about how to stay in business and meet customer needs. Sheil is one of many who believes that making the pivot and finding new ways to get the job done is a silver lining to the dark cloud that has been with us for more than two years.

“When COVID hit we had to patch different products together because we couldn’t get the materials we wanted,” Sheil said. “As a result, our people figured out how to get clients what they need despite supply chain issues.”

One of the most profound changes since COVID is the growth in hiring people who work far away from the company’s headquarters.

“Since the pandemic, we’ve brought on new employees in Tennessee, Florida, and Texas,”
Sheil noted. “We can now hire folks out of the region to grow our reach.” Whalley won a recent contract in Pennsylvania and is seeking a salesperson for that area.

“This makes sense for us because these folks live there, they know the area and we can support them from here.”

Whalley offers clients different options to store data on the cloud. Sheil explained some clients want to store all their data remotely in the cloud, others choose to split between the cloud and on-premise servers, while other clients prefer to keep their on-premise storage. Having expertise in cloud storage has helped Whalley clients get around some supply chain issues.

“When clients order a storage device and then learn it will be up to six months before they see it, we can offer them cloud storage while they wait,” Sheil said. “When their device finally arrives, they can take it off the cloud. It gives them flexibility.”

In addition to shipping products out the door, Whalley has seen growth in its managed- services area, which Sheil explained as the first line of defense for the client.

“With remote workers logging in at all hours of the day, internal IT staffs are straight out keeping their systems going,” Sheil said. “From our data center, our managed services staff may see a problem developing before it actually becomes a problem.” Using the example of a defective hard drive, Sheil said his staff would notify the client’s IT director and immediately replace the device.

“In many cases, before the client is even aware of a potential issue, there’s an overnight envelope on its way with a new hard drive,” Sheil said. “In this way we can be an extra set of eyes for them.”

Security is an area that continues to grow and remains essential.

“We’ve seen tremendous growth in the products we sell for cyber security,” Sheil said. “We also provide knowledge to our clients so they can prevent ransomware attacks and other threats.”

 

Screen Test

When he looks to the future, Sheil admits that as a sales professional for 34 years, he always sees the glass as half full. After Whalley found success despite a pandemic and a supply chain crunch that continues, he believes the company is now poised for explosive growth.

“Before COVID you would get a quote, get a PO, order the product, it comes within a week and we can install it the next week,” Sheil said. “If we can get back to that type of normal business environment, I believe our company will experience tremendous growth.”

In seven years, the company will celebrate its 50th anniversary. Sheil said he’s excited about the upcoming anniversary while he reflected on how far Whalley has come.

“It’s good to know that we’re a company where you can stay more than 30 years and have a career,” he said. “We want to keep on growing our business while at the same time remain a great place to work in the future.” u

Technology

A New Framework

 

 

The Internet of Things (IoT) is completely enmeshed in our daily lives, a network of connected laptops, phones, cars, fitness trackers — even smart toasters and refrigerators — that are increasingly able to make decisions on their own. But how to ensure these devices benefit us, rather than exploit us or put us at risk?

New work, led by Francine Berman at UMass Amherst, proposes a novel framework, the “impact universe,” that can help policymakers keep the public interest in focus amid the rush to adopt ever-new digital technology.

“How can we ensure that technology works for us, rather than the other way around?” asks Berman, Stuart Rice honorary chair and research professor in UMass Amherst’s Manning College of Information and Computer Sciences. Berman, the lead author of a new paper recently published in the journal Patterns, and her co-authors sketch out what they call the impact universe — a way for policymakers and others to think “holistically about the potential impacts of societal controls for systems and devices in the IoT.”

“How can we ensure that technology works for us, rather than the other way around?”

One of the wonders of modern digital technology is that it increasingly makes decisions for us on its own. But, as Berman puts it, “technology needs adult supervision.”

The impact universe is a way of holistically sketching out all the competing implications of a given technology, taking into consideration environmental, social, economic, and other impacts to develop effective policy, law, and other societal controls. Instead of focusing on a single desirable outcome — sustainability, say, or profit — the impact universe allows people to see that some outcomes will come at the cost of others.

“The model reflects the messiness of real life and how we make decisions,” says Berman, but it brings clarity to that messiness so that decision makers can see and debate the tradeoffs and benefits of different social controls to regulate technology. The framework allows decision makers to be more deliberate in their policymaking and to better focus on the common good.

Berman is at the forefront of an emerging field called public interest technology (PIT), and she is building an initiative at UMass Amherst that unites campus students and scholars whose work is empowered by technology and focused on social responsibility. The ultimate goal of PIT is to develop the knowledge and critical thinking needed to create a society capable of effectively managing the digital ecosystem that powers our daily lives.

Berman’s co-authors, Emilia Cabrera, Ali Jebari, and Wassim Marrakchi, were Harvard undergraduates and worked with Berman on the paper during her Radcliffe fellowship at Harvard. The fellowship gave Berman a chance to work broadly with a multi-disciplinary group of scholars and thinkers, and to appreciate the importance of designing, developing, and framing societal controls so that technology promotes the public benefit.

“The real world is complex, and there are always competing priorities,” Berman says. “Tackling this complexity head on by taking the universe of potential technology impacts into account is critical if we want digital technologies to serve society rather than overwhelm it.”

Technology

All Systems Go

 

 

One of the surprises of the pandemic’s early days was how quickly companies of all kinds were able to move their workers to remote, home-based setups. Much of the credit for that goes to the IT teams who helped them achieve that transition quickly. It’s just one way IT firms help clients navigate changes in technology, defend against constantly evolving cyberthreats, and make regular assessments of what a business needs to be efficient and effective.

 

 

It can start with a cyber breach. Or questions from an insurance company. Or a business simply realizing it needs a hand with its technology.

“Different clients call for different assessments,” said Joel Mollison, president of Northeast IT in West Springfield. “They might say, ‘we don’t know where we are with our technology,’ or maybe they have an outsourced IT department, but they’re having an ongoing issue, which triggers a call. ‘What are we doing right, what are we doing wrong?’ They want a second set of eyes on something.”

What they often find, he added, is “they don’t know what they don’t know,” and the conversation turns to this: what is the desired IT outcome?

“Every client is obviously unique,” Mollison said. “We want to work with them and understand how their business operates. We’re just an extension of their business. Our solutions need to be in line with their technology and business goals. So normally, when we work with a new business, we assess what they have currently and discuss what kind of issues they may be having or sticking points — maybe they’re not able to conduct business as fast as they would like, or their technology doesn’t work for them.”

“We’re just an extension of their business. Our solutions need to be in line with their technology and business goals.”

Or, these days, they have questions about maintaining and securing remote-work connections. Whatever the case, the high-tech side of the business world isn’t getting less complicated, highlighting the role that IT firms play for their clients.

“The goal for us is to act like your internal IT department,” said Jeremiah Beaudry, president of Bloo Solutions in Chicopee, and that means learning the ins and outs of a client’s business and how it uses hardware and software, so Bloo can make holistic recommendations about its technology needs.

Jeremiah Beaudry

Jeremiah Beaudry says his goal is to act like a client’s internal IT department, in every facet that may entail.

“Every business is different, and their needs are different. They all serve their clients differently,” Beaudry added. “Not every solution is right for every business, so one-size-fits-all packages don’t really work. We also want to know what tools you’re using now: are there redundancies that overlap, or are there other tools that are more unified and give you a more collaborative, one-pane-of-glass solution?”

Sean Hogan, president of Hogan Technology in Easthampton, recently published a blog post citing a report that worldwide IT spending is projected to total $4.5 trillion in 2022, an increase of 5.5% from 2021.

“This is a monumental amount of growth which can likely be attributed to employers embracing work-from-home or hybrid-work environments, security concerns over cybersecurity breaches, and the world’s desire to utilize cloud technology,” he wrote. “For small to mid-sized businesses (SMBs), this means that they will have more access to enterprise-level technology solutions, which will empower them to drive productivity and increase their bottom line, if they position themselves properly.”

 

Serve and Protect

It all starts with the basics, Beaudry said, with security topping the list.

“What data do you have now? How are you securing data to keep it out of bad actors’ hands, while making it easy for employees to access it? Balancing access with security is the hardest part.”

For example, people may dislike retyping a password every time they wake their computer up from screen-saver mode, but there’s a reason for that vigilance. And because passwords need to be complex — and people generally use a lot of them — he stresses the use of a password vault. “We’re getting people to adopt them instead of leaving Post-It notes all over their desk, which is a pretty huge fail.”

Bloo is putting more emphasis on end-user access in general, he went on — teaching people how to spot phishing attempts and e-mails from bad actors, and knowing what files are safe to open and download, and which aren’t. “That was important before the pandemic, but once people started working remotely, it added on variables to the mix.”

Mollison said a lot of IT security-tightening measures are being driven by the insurance industry.

“They’ve clamped down on organizations, requiring you to fill out a lengthy statement of your current security. That’s a big thing that’s happening, so there’s been a lot of discussion around that. A lot of times, folks come to us — they get that questionnaire and don’t even know how to answer it. They have an internal IT person, but it’s not their day job, just a hat they wear. So a lot of times, they come to us to make sure their business insurance is going to cover them. Actually, I’ve heard from a few firms that are paying an additional premium because they don’t have basic security pieces in place.”

Besides security and maintaining the network, Northeast also works with clients on replacement cycles for hardware and technology updates. “When Windows 7 went away in January 2020, all our clients knew about it well in advance, and had years to prepare for it and make changes. Those are the types of things we’re continuously doing to put clients in the best position in regard to technology and compliance.”

All of this has become increasingly difficult for businesses to handle in house, he added. “There are so many pitfalls, so much change. It takes a team of experts who understand the technology, the security levels, who understand all the concepts and how they relate to a particular organization.”

Joel Mollison

Joel Mollison says helping clients navigate cybersecurity is part technology, part behavior training.

Some services deal with the human side of IT and cybersecurity, Mollison noted.

“We’ve done training sessions with clients to go over common phishing techniques and what to look for to distinguish whether an e-mail is credible or not. Obviously, we promote spam filters and other security measures, but we’ll still do a phishing campaign and training videos, making sure our end users are keeping up with what they may see in the real world. Even spam-filtering technologies are not foolproof — things still get through.”

Small businesses shouldn’t assume they’re not targets, Hogan wrote — quite the contrary, actually. “For most small businesses, their IT defense strategy is to simply hope they aren’t a target; however, as larger enterprises increase their spending and become tougher to break into, unprepared SMBs will unfortunately become an ideal target.”

Sean Hogan

Sean Hogan

“All of this increased IT spending is reflective of a world that is accelerating its migration into a fully digital world, when we thought things were already moving in that direction as fast as they could.”

Mollison said Northeast doesn’t conduct free assessments with potential clients because he wants companies to be committed to the process.

“We want to develop a relationship with an organization and be their outsourced IT department and provide these types of services and help them grow, and that starts with being invested in participating in their assessment,” he told BusinessWest. “I’ve seen a lot of boilerplate, free assessments from other IT firms, and there’s not much to it, and they don’t do much for the clients.”

 

From a Distance

The shift to remote work over the past two years kept IT firms busy, but the ease of transition varied, Beaudry said.

“Working remotely is so different for each business; some clients just use Microsoft Word and Office docs, and working remotely is a pretty easy-to-accomplish task, versus some companies, which have a line of business applications and complex software, and you have to set up secure, virtual private networks to allow employees to access them.”

Businesses that weren’t already set up to work remotely found challenges early on, but they soon adapted — as the still-ongoing work-from-home revolution has made obvious.

“Most of our clients already had the technological components to work remotely, so it wasn’t a big issue,” Mollison said. “Numerous insurance agencies were remote within 48 hours. It really wasn’t a big deal for most companies — it usually boiled down to licensing and multiple security steps and VPNs.”

Whether at a business site or remotely, Beaudry said Bloo handles a wide range of IT issues for clients, including supporting the servers, hardware, and software applications; creating file shares; managing the servers; and maintaining security measures and patches.

“It’s a constant process; you have to be vigilant with those things,” he said. “We’re also dealing with end-user issues — ‘oh, my app won’t run,’ or ‘this program is giving me an error.’ It’s a lot of stuff to deal with, and now that this all stuff going remote, it’s evolving — instead of monitoring hardware, we’re having to monitor the dashboards for multiple cloud servers and take a look at 100 or 200 alerts a month; do these alerts all need action? Is it just an informational alert, or is there a pattern of things happening constantly?

“We’re a managed service provider,” he went on, “which means we are proactively doing all these things just as if you had an internal IT department. If the user is constantly pushing the limits of performance of that machine, we can see that on our dashboard.”

Speaking of which, Beaudry makes sure hardware assessments happen on a regular basis, “but we do a good job monitoring these things proactively, so we can avoid too many surprises,” he said, thereby avoiding unexpected downtime and loss of productivity. “Those surprises are what cost you the most money.”

And the bottom line matters, Hogan said, which is why companies of all kinds are investing in IT to boost efficiency and protect their assets.

“IT spending has increased so dramatically because the pandemic forced decision makers to make their organizations more flexible. They’re starting to understand the increased potential that they have to become more efficient with the latest in technology,” he wrote. “All of this increased IT spending is reflective of a world that is accelerating its migration into a fully digital world, when we thought things were already moving in that direction as fast as they could.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Special Coverage Technology

Strong Signals

By Mark Morris

When the pandemic arrived early last year and many companies adjusted to remote work for their staff, it was IT professionals who got everyone up and running from their homes.

Now, as the world begins to move away from the pandemic and companies begin bringing employees back to the office, the demand to hire IT pros is even higher than it was before COVID-19 emerged. And that poses challenges for employers.

In a normal year, said Delcie Bean, CEO of Paragus Strategic IT, the company sees about 10% turnover of people leaving and new staff being hired. During the pandemic, there was no turnover, as every one of the 50 Paragus employees stayed in their job.

In the last four months, however, as the economy has improved and COVID restrictions have eased, Bean has seen a “tremendous transition” among the IT labor force.

“Many of those who are leaving are pursuing remote-work opportunities that didn’t exist before the pandemic,” he said. “Most of these companies are not local and would never have interviewed or offered jobs to these workers in the past.”

Bean cited a number of reasons for the high demand for IT talent. During the pandemic, nearly every company increased their use and dependence on technology, which requires more people to keep systems up and running. As the economy improves, companies are pursuing more projects and thus increasing their need for IT talent. The pandemic also made it acceptable to hire people who work only remotely, creating even more opportunities for IT pros.

“With the increased dependence on technology, an improved economy, and the ability to work remotely, we’re seeing employers do things they would not have done before,” he said.

Joel Mollison, president of Northeast IT Systems, noted that, unlike others in IT support, his 18-person company does not have high worker turnover. He credits that to attracting IT staff who enjoy working with Northeast’s varied client list, which covers sectors from insurance and healthcare to manufacturing, municipalities, and even cannabis.

“Many of those who are leaving are pursuing remote-work opportunities that didn’t exist before the pandemic. Most of these companies are not local and would never have interviewed or offered jobs to these workers in the past.”

One notable challenge to retaining his workforce involves companies such as banks, manufacturers, and other industries that are looking to bring their IT support in-house, he said. “As a service provider in Western Mass., we’re competing against much larger institutions in the region who can pay IT professionals more.”

As security issues receive prominent news coverage, companies worry more about ransomware attacks and similar threats. Mollison believes this is part of the reason firms are increasingly looking for in-house IT staff.

“The larger the business, the more complex their systems are, and the more they need IT professionals to manage them,” he explained.

Bean agreed that IT security issues have increased the pressure for companies to be proactive in preventing major disruptions, pointing out that much of the job growth is the result of companies expanding their internal IT staff both regionally and on a national level.

Delcie Bean says an IT workforce that was remarkably stable in 2020 has entered a time of “tremendous transition.”

Delcie Bean says an IT workforce that was remarkably stable in 2020 has entered a time of “tremendous transition.”

“All these companies are doing this because the growing economy gives them a little more money and it can be a luxury to have your IT support in-house.”

Jeremiah Beaudry, owner of Bloo Solutions, agrees, but believes that, after companies build up their internal IT staffing, they usually return to outsourcing with an external service provider once they realize that internal IT is less cost-effective.

“Instead of paying full-time employees to show up every day, companies can hire an IT firm that knows all the technical details and address specific problems when they arise,” Beaudry said. “It would be similar to bringing a plumber on staff. Why would you do that?”

In fact, he predicts that the hiring surge for internal IT will shake out to one or two positions to oversee the main systems augmented by an outside IT service provider.

Bean said it’s common for companies to have an internal person handling technology issues as well as an outside IT service company. “Our biggest source of new business right now involves partnering with internal IT departments to round out what they are doing and give them supplemental assistance.”

 

Here and There

Like many industries right now, technology is grappling with a job market that significantly favors job seekers. Bean told the story of an employee who had previously worked in the defense-contracting industry 10 years ago.

“Because this employee’s name was still in the defense system, a contractor called him to make a job offer, sight unseen and without an interview,” he said. “They literally e-mailed him an electronic salary offer without meeting him, and it was for $35,000 more than he was making here.”

A company located in a large metro area interested in hiring remote workers will offer salaries that are competitive in their market. This can often lead to small-market workers getting big-city paydays.

“If you’re at home and take five minutes between tasks to turn around to pet your dog or do the dishes real quick, that time becomes meaningful and helpful in your life.”

“Usually, when someone makes a salary that’s attractive in Boston, it comes with the high cost of living in the metro Boston area,” Bean said. “When someone with a Western Mass. cost of living makes that same amount, they can see a 30% net increase in their salary.”

Indeed, more companies than ever are embracing remote or hybrid workforces (see related story on page 25). That means IT service providers face the same dilemma confronting many of their clients: continue to work from home or go back to the office.

Mollison tells a slightly different story. Before COVID, he said, Northeast IT was outgrowing its space in Westfield, so he suggested that staff work remotely as a short-term solution. He was surprised when almost no one wanted to work from home.

“Nearly everyone wanted to work in the office,” he recalled. “We have a kind of think-tank environment where our staff enjoy working on problems together.”

However, the pandemic forced nearly everyone to work from home for the last 16 months, a situation Mollison called stressful because many felt less connected to their co-workers. He added that a change in venue is coming. “We purchased a building in West Springfield and will be moving in at the end of August. We’ll have plenty of space to bring everyone back with social distancing; our people are really looking forward to returning.”

At Paragus, employees have been ramping up their return to the office by coming in one day a week in June, two days a week in July, and three days a week starting in August. Bean said he won’t require more than three days a week in the office, but felt that some time in the office was important.

“We have intentionally designed our office to promote collaboration,” he said. “We don’t have walls or offices, so people can listen to each other and overhear what’s going on. You can replicate some of that online, but it’s not the same as hearing what’s going on around you.”

At Bloo Solutions, Beaudry has allowed his four full-time and several part-time employees to stay remote except for occasional trips to the office or when visiting a client’s location. Collaborative messaging tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams allow him and his staff to stay in touch with each other and stay on top of client concerns.

Jeremiah Beaudry says even companies that have built up internal IT

Jeremiah Beaudry says even companies that have built up internal IT staffing often come to see the value in outsourcing that work.

“We have channels dedicated to each client so any one of us can jump in and take care of any concerns,” he said. “Because we all have access to these messages, the same information is available to all of us without being next to each other.”

Whenever possible, Beaudry makes working from home an option for his staff.

“If you’re at home and take five minutes between tasks to turn around to pet your dog or do the dishes real quick, that time becomes meaningful and helpful in your life,” he said. “When you are in the office and not near anything you need to do, that same five minutes is wasted.”

Therefore, as long as his staff are productive, he doesn’t care if they work from home or at the office.

Another reason Bean cited for having people in the office at least some of the time is to help with their professional development and to identify when a staff member might need help. He worries that IT professionals who have chosen full-time remote work won’t have the same chance to grow or develop their careers.

“They will probably be fine doing the job they were hired for, but they will be relatively unengaged and potentially stagnant,” he said. “I don’t see how they can grow or develop much in an environment where they never see their co-workers or be around other people.”

Mollison credits his low staff turnover to seeking out people who like variety in their work and have an interest in personal and professional growth.

“Because IT folks tend to be introverts, we try to help them grow personally so they can become more comfortable working with clients and developing relationships with them,” he said.

While finding people in Western Mass. with technical skills isn’t so tough, Beaudry makes his hiring decisions based on a candidate’s emotional intelligence.

“I’ve learned over time that clients would rather feel good about a conversation they had rather than having an expert solve the problem who makes them feel bad about themselves,” he said.

 

Change Can Be Good

Another reason the demand for IT professionals is increasing has to do with the growing economy. Bean said the sales pipeline for new projects has never been fuller. “In terms of new business, we’re booking clients out to October because we only book so much at a time.”

In addition to hiring temporary contract workers, he has found another way to make up worker shortages: acquisitions. Paragus recently acquired one IT-support company in Worcester and is looking at two other acquisitions.

“In the past, the goal of an acquisition was to acquire clients and market,” he said. “Now it’s about acquiring talent.”

Would Bean like to see less disruption in the labor force? Sure. He also understands that this time of transition is part of the bigger picture.

“Everybody is moving around, so we’re on the receiving end of this as well,” he told BusinessWest. “The good news is we haven’t seen a shortage of any new résumés coming in.”

While it’s tempting to dwell on the employees leaving, however, Bean has gained some perspective.

“After some reflection,” he said, “we realized that a lot of the innovation and fresh approaches we get are driven by new people coming in with new ideas.”

Technology

Life on the Cutting Edge

An on-the-go society demands on-the-go technology, and today’s array of high-tech devices — available at all price points — offer users new ways to make their home lives more efficient, manage their work, boost their health, and, well, just have fun in more eye-popping, ear-tickling ways than ever. In its annual look at some of the hottest tech items available, BusinessWest dives into what the tech press is saying about some of 2021’s buzziest items.

 

When compared to many of the other cool tech gadgets on this list, the Amazon Smart Plug ($25) “might seem underwhelming, but you might be impressed with how much you like this smart-home accessory once you start using it,” according to spy.com. “Head out on vacation and can’t remember if you left a fan or window AC unit running? If it’s plugged into this, you can simply open up your Alexa app and cut off the power. Have a lamp that you love, but it doesn’t work with a smart bulb? Use one of these to make a dumb lamp very, very smart. On top of all that, Alexa has some impressive power-monitoring tools, so that if you have more than one of these around your home, you can figure out which appliances and electronics around the house are costing you the most money, and you can adjust your usage behavior accordingly.”

 

Meanwhile, the same site says the Anker Nebula Solar Portable Projector ($520) won’t replace a fancy, 65-inch, 4K HDR TV, “but for those moments when you’re really craving that movie-theater experience at home … you’ll understand why this made our list of cool tech gadgets.” The projector boasts easy setup, too. “Barely bigger than a book, you can point it at a wall and have it projecting a 120-inch, 1080p version of your favorite Netflix movie without needing to configure the picture settings or find a power outlet.”

 

Speaking of projectors, the BenQ X1300i 4LED Gaming Projector ($1,299) is being marketed as the first true gaming projector that’s optimized for the PS5 or Xbox Series X. “The 3,000-lumen projector will play 1080p content — so not true 4K content — at extremely low latency, which is needed for competitive gamers,” according to gearpatrol.com. “Additionally, it has built-in speakers and an Android TV operating system, so it functions as any traditional smart TV — but it can create up to a 150-inch screen.”

 

Taking tech outdoors is the DJI Mavic Air 2 Drone ($799), which menshealth.com touts for its massive optical sensor, means “the 48-megapixel photos pop and the hyperlap video is 8K — smart futureproofing for when your TV plays catchup. The next-gen obstacle-avoidance sensors, combined with the 34-minutes-long flight time, mean you spend more time shooting killer video and less time dodging trees and buildings.”

 

Smart wallets offer a convenient way to store and transport cash and credit cards while protecting against loss or theft. The Ekster Parliament Smart Wallet ($89) is a smart bifold wallet with RFID coating (to protect against identity theft) and a patented mechanism that ejects cards from its aluminum storage pocket with the press of a button. It has space for at least 10 cards, as well as a strap for carrying cash and receipts, according to bestproducts.com. “Ekster has crafted the wallet from high-quality leather that comes in a multitude of colors. An optional Bluetooth tracker for the wallet is also available. This ultra-thin gadget has a maximum range of 200 feet, and it is powered by light, so it never needs a battery.”

 

In the smartwatch category, the Fossil Gen 5 LTE ($349) is the company’s first product in the cellular wearables market, crn.com notes. “The Fossil Gen 5 LTE Touchscreen leverages LTE connectivity from Verizon, the Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 3100 platform, and Google’s Wear OS to let users make calls and do texting without a mobile phone.” Fossil also makes what bestproducts.com calls the best hybrid smartwatch, the Fossil Latitude HR Hybrid Smartwatch ($195), “a feature-packed hybrid smartwatch with a built-in, always-on display and a heart-rate sensor. We like that, instead of looking like a tech product, it resembles a classic chronograph timepiece with mechanical hands and a three-button layout. The Latitude HR can effortlessly deliver notifications from your phone and keep tabs on your activities.”

 

“We don’t know who will be more excited about the Furbo Dog Camera ($169), you or your pet,” popsugar.com notes. “You can monitor them through your phone, send them treats when you’re away, and so much more.” The 1080p, full-HD camera and night vision allows users to livestream video to monitor their pet on their phone with a 160-degree wide-angle view, day and night. A sensor also sends push notifications to a smartphone when it detects barking. Users can even toss treats to their dog via the free Furbo iOS/Android app. Set-up is easy — just plug it in to a power outlet using its USB cord, download the Furbo app, and connect to home WiFi.

 

“As one of the first companies to make artificial intelligence and voice-recognition technology available to the average person, spy.com notes, “Google is still the top dog when it comes to voice assistants and smart-home platforms. And perhaps its most radical move was the Google Nest Mini ($35), a small and cheap speaker that is fully imbued with the powers to command your smart home. Once you get used to the particular ways of interacting with a voice assistant, it’s rare when you have to raise your voice or repeat yourself to get the Nest Mini to understand you, even when you’re on the other side of the room, half-asleep at 1 a.m., telling it to turn off the lights, shut off the TV, and lock the doors.”

 

Tired of housework? “If you’re a fan of the iRobot vacuum, then you’ll want to give the iRobot Braava Jet 240 Robot Mop ($180) a try,” popsugar.com asserts. “It will clean your floors when you’re not around, so you have nothing to worry about later.” The device claims to offer precision jet spray and a vibrating cleaning to tackle dirt and stains, and gets into hard-to-reach places, including under and around toilets, into corners, below cabinets, and under and around furniture and other objects, using an efficient, systematic cleaning pattern. It also mops and sweeps finished hard floors, including hardwood, tile, and stone, and it’s ideal for kitchens and bathrooms.

 

Smart glasses are a thing these days, too. Jlab Audio recently introduced its new Jlab JBuds Frames ($49), a device that discretely attaches to a user’s glasses to provide wireless stereo audio on the go. “The JBuds Frames consist of two independently operating Bluetooth wireless audio devices, which include 16mm drivers that produce sound that can only be heard by the wearer, not by others,” according to crn.com. “In addition, the device can easily be detached and mounted on other frames when needed.”

 

For a next-level experience in eyewear, “virtual reality might be taking its time to have its ‘iPhone moment,’ but it is still very much the next big thing when it comes to the coolest tech gadgets,” spy.com notes, “and there is not a single VR device that flashes that promise more than the Oculus Quest 2 ($349).” Without the need for a powerful computer or special equipment, users can simply strap the Quest 2 to their head, pick up the controllers, and move freely in VR space thanks to its inside-out technology, which uses cameras on the outside of the headset to track movement. “In a time where we don’t have many places to escape to, the Oculus Quest 2 offers up an infinite number of destinations … even if they’re only virtual.”

 

Another way to escape into another world — albeit one requiring more effort — is the Peloton Bike+ (from $2,495). “Peloton’s updated bike boasts a lustrous, 24-inch-wide screen and a game-changing multi-grip handlebar that lets you always find comfortable position,” menshealth.com notes. “And the best feature just may be auto-follow, which automatically shifts the resistance when the instructor calls for it. Translation: no escape from tough workouts.”

 

Speaking of devices with health benefits, the Polar Verity Sense optical heart monitor ($90) can be worn on the arm or temple (for swimming). “It’s designed for people who don’t necessarily wear a wrist-bound fitness tracker or smartwatch, or are doing an exercise that isn’t very friendly to wrist jewelry, like martial arts, swimming, dancing or boxing,” gearpatrol.com notes. “It’s a nifty accessory for people who use Polar Flow, Polar’s free fitness and training app, or wear one of the company’s smartwatches.”

 

Meanwhile, gearpatrol.com is also high on the Ring Video Doorbell Pro 2 ($250), the next-generation version of its well-reviewed video doorbell — and it adds two big upgrades. “First, it adds a new radar sensor that enables new 3D motion detection and bird’s-eye-view features; this allows it to better detect and even create a top-down map of the movement taking place in front of your door. And, secondly, the camera has an improved field of view so that it can capture the delivery person’s entire body — head to toe — when they drop off a package.”

 

Finally, are you looking for great sound for home entertainment? With Sonos Arc ($799), users can “get immersive audio that can fill an entire house in one slim, sleek, ultra-versatile package,” menshealth.com notes. “A whopping 11 drivers power Sonos’ newest soundbar, fueling a surround-sound experience that delivers in all situations, whether you’re playing Halo or watching Avengers: Endgame.”

 

Special Coverage Technology

Bringing a Message to Life

From left, Kathryn Taccone, Karen Webb, and Will Colón discuss a project.

From left, Kathryn Taccone, Karen Webb, and Will Colón discuss a project.

Will Colón, Kathryn Taccone, and Karen Webb all took different paths to a career in animation, but when the opportunity arose to launch their own company, they were certainly of one mind. That’s because they’re believers not only in the potential of animation in the business and nonprofit worlds, but that it’s still an underused tool, with plenty of room to grow. Four years after its inception, Open Pixel Studios is proving their conviction to be true.

Remote work might be all the rage right now, but it’s nothing new to the three partners at Open Pixel Studios.

“The future of work is working remotely, having the systems to do that, working with multiple people across different disciplines across the same project — all in a remote environment,” said Will Colón, co-owner of the animation studio he, Kathryn Taccone, and Karen Webb opened in 2017. These days, they work with freelancers across the U.S. to create content for business and nonprofit clients.

“We were doing the remote thing for quite a while before the pandemic hit,” Colón added. “The pandemic really raised the stakes on whether we were doing this correctly — it put us to the test a little bit. But there was almost no shift; our business did not waver at all.”

In some ways, COVID-19 actually provided more opportunity.

“What ended up happening was more people asked us for more work,” he went on. “Normally, a production requires filming and video and people in a studio or on a production set. Those roles diminished overnight, and everyone said, ‘what else can we do? Instead of having people on a screen, or talking heads, let’s do animation instead.’ It was a really big boost to our company.”

And it’s not all remote, even during the pandemic, Taccone was quick to note. “We pride ourselves on being able to communicate with clients in a way that’s comfortable for them. Sometimes clients prefer to be in person, and sometimes it’s totally fine sending e-mails. We try to match how the project is managed, and the way we communicate, to their personalities, so everyone is comfortable.”

Using animation for marketing and messaging is nothing new, Colón said, citing the well-known example of Walt Disney producing animated shorts for every branch of the U.S. military during World War II, putting beloved characters to work rallying support for the war effort.

“I don’t think the things we’re doing are much different than Walt Disney creating content during World War II. Those were ‘explainer videos,’ talking through the points the military wanted to talk about. So this isn’t new technology. What’s new is the application.”

Meaning, while animation has been a mainstay during the internet age — as part of websites, mobile games, and in movies and television — it remains underused by businesses. Colón, Taccone, and Webb are hoping to change that.

At one of Open Pixel’s production stations, well-communicated concepts become animation.

At one of Open Pixel’s production stations, well-communicated concepts become animation.

“A lot of businesses haven’t realized they can do amazing things,” Colón said. “Our job as a studio is to introduce businesses to animation for the first time.”

And do it, for the most part, remotely.

“We have 20 freelancers across the country, and I’ve met only a few in person,” he noted. “We’ve always been remote, always done Zoom calls, always done projects managed through cloud-based solutions. It’s been a breeze, and that’s a testament to our process. We were one of the first ‘pandemic industries’ pre-pandemic. We were ready for it.”

Now, they’re ready to move the needle even further when it comes to the power of animation in the business world.

 

Crossing Paths

Colón’s journey to the world of animation began at Hampshire College, where, during his first year in 2009, he tried to get into an advanced computer animation class, but was rejected by the instructor, Chris Perry, because he had no experience.

But after Colón excelled at an introductory course in the field, Perry — a Pixar veteran who served as a technical director on A Bug’s Life and Finding Nemo — accepted him into the advanced course.

“As I moved from the basics to more advanced stuff, I didn’t know how much I would love it, that I’d lose myself in the work, forget about time, and really enjoy the process more than the results,” Colón recalled. “I knew this was something I could go into.”

After college, he returned to the Boston area and worked at special-effects company Zero VFX, but desired a move back into animation, and landed a job at Anzovin Studio in Florence in 2013.

Characters created for a piece on Behavioral Health Network’s Crisis Healthline.

A project for Amherst College’s bicentennial

Animated messaging advocating for changes in tobacco laws

Webb, who had attended the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and worked for a time in Los Angeles and San Diego, eventually moved to Western Mass. to work at Perry’s independent studio, Bit Films — and later started working at Anzovin Studio, where she met Colón.

Their company took shape after Anzovin decided to shift his business model into animation tools, while the production team, where Colón and Webb worked, was spun off into a separate entity. The pair then decided to go in a different direction, by launching their own studio.

Taccone’s passion for animation was sparked by a high-school trip to Pixar Animation Studios in California. She later studied animation at UMass Amherst and met Colón while taking class at Hampshire, where he was the teaching assistant. After a stint at HitPoint Studios, she worked at Anzovin from 2014 to 2016, then moved to California to work in the games industry, for EA and Toys for Bob. But in 2017, she returned to Western Mass. to help Colón and Webb launch Open Pixel.

“We decided to go into a different realm, building something new that was going to be ours,” Colón said. “Kathryn came back from California, and that was the beginning of our journey.”

Speaking of journeys, hearing Taccone describe the process of moving a concept to a finished product, it’s striking how much work happens before the actual animation begins.

“A client will come to us with an idea of the message they’re trying to send; typically they’ll have a call to action associated with that message,” she explained. “We take this from the initial script phase — whether we write it ourselves or the client provides it — and bring it into an audio-visual script, which allows us all to be on the same page with what will happen with the story.”

This all happens before visuals are actually created, she added. In other words, clear communication is key — not just with the target audience, but between all the players in creating the animation, and at every stage.

“We make a choice at the concept stage whether or not something should be represented through iconography, text, characters, or just backgrounds,” she added, noting that just using animated words can often be as powerful as talking characters. “Often we’ll use a blend of those things.”

Once the concepts are established, next comes discussion of style, tone, and other elements. Then storyboards are created, laying out the content from start to finish — again, so everyone involved can envision the final piece and make changes before the actual animation begins.

“When we do the animation,” Taccone said, “we hire voice-over artists, we do music and sound effects — again, depending on the client’s needs, but all serving the purpose of matching the tone and style and direction to the story we’re trying to tell.”

While many corporate clients rely on Open Pixel’s work in their employee training videos and modules as well as marketing, a particularly feel-good part of the team’s mission is working with nonprofits on messaging that will draw more attention and support. Nonprofit leaders aren’t always natural salespeople, Colón noted, and he and his team can help them hone their message and educate the public.

“They’re trying to make the world a better place; that’s their mission,” he said. “We’re helping them close the gap between the audience and their mission. We use animation to explain what they’re doing.”

In the end, Taccone said, even the most eye-catching animation isn’t a success if it doesn’t meet the client’s needs. “In a way, the communication is sometimes more important than the art. We’re trying to make sure everyone is on the same page.”

 

Mission Accomplished

For Colón, such work is especially gratifying considering that, early in his career, he never thought about running a business. But his former employer, Raf Anzovin, encouraged that growth — and, in fact, encouraged him and Webb to branch out on their own.

“I feel like the people I met along the way influenced me in continuing this work. If those people weren’t there, we wouldn’t be around,” Colón said.

Achieving the studio’s goals in Western Mass. — a region that has been steadily growing its reputation for innovation and technology — is especially satisfying, he said. Clients run the gamut from large corporations to small outfits, and the remote nature of the work allows Open Pixel to take on projects from Boston to the West Coast.

He’s also particularly proud that the company is certified as a majority women-owned business. Noting that the history of animation has not always been a friendly one for women, he hopes Open Pixel inspires other women to pursue this field.

Through it all, he, Taccone, and Webb hope to continue to expand the work they do, but also become a destination to start a career.

“In the future, we want to be a jumping-off point for folks getting out of college,” he said, noting that it’s natural for talented graduates to depart the Five Colleges and look for jobs in New York, Los Angeles, or Boston. To encourage them to start their careers closer to home, Open Pixel has developed a pipeline of interns from Amherst College and Hampshire College. “Not only can you learn the tools here, this can be an entry point into the field.”

As for those tools, they’re much more affordable and accessible than they once were,” Colón said. “You can get a license and run a studio from your home office. But what makes us special is our process and our back end, our ability to push animation further than where it currently is right now.

“So much of it is in entertainment — games and movies,” he went on, “but we’re seeing a shift toward companies creating advertising campaigns utilizing animation because it’s so limitless. You can create anything you like. That’s what we see — unlimited creative expression.”

And always in the service of the client, Taccone added.

“We pride ourselves on being a studio that takes time to understand the balance between the client’s needs and our artistic identity. That way, we all enjoy the process as we go through it.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Impactful Gift

Michael and Theresa Hluchyj

Michael and Theresa Hluchyj say there’s a need for innovative clinical solutions where both nursing and engineering play a role.

Michael and Theresa Hluchyj are no strangers to giving back to their alma mater — and seeing their investments bear fruit.

For example, the couple, who graduated from UMass Amherst in 1976 and 1977, respectively, established a graduate fellowship program in 2008 to support students from the College of Engineering and the College of Nursing who are interested in clinical healthcare research.

One recipient of the fellowship, Akshaya Shanmugam, who earned a master’s degree and PhD from UMass in electrical and computer engineering, earned recognition in 2017 in Forbes’ 30 under 30 for her achievements in healthcare. She founded Lumme Inc. while at UMass, using her knowledge and research to create software to help people quit smoking.

That’s the kind of impact these alumni hope to see from their latest investment in the future, a $1 million gift to create a Center for Nursing and Engineering Innovation, bringing together two fields that can improve personal well-being and save lives. Simply put, they envision a place where nurses and engineers collaborate on clinical solutions in new ways.

“We are excited to support UMass in this new initiative,” Michael Hluchyj said. “Innovation is often accelerated at the intersection of different academic disciplines. The worldwide health crises resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic make clear the critical need for innovative solutions in clinical settings where both nursing and engineering play vital roles.”

The Center for Nursing and Engineering Innovation Fund will support participating students, staff, and faculty from both colleges, and provide financial support for activities and resources at the center such as graduate fellowships, seed funds for R&D pilot projects, and an annual symposium. Funds will be shared between the College of Nursing and the College of Engineering, enabling them to recruit top student researchers from the College of Engineering’s more than 2,800 students and the College of Nursing’s 730 students, as well as others from outside the university.

The center will not only provide students with an environment to work together, but will also integrate innovation and entrepreneurship into the current nursing and engineering curriculum. In the future, with support from faculty leaders, students will engage with industry partners on enhancing and inventing their own products.

“The worldwide health crises resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic make clear the critical need for innovative solutions in clinical settings where both nursing and engineering play vital roles.”

“We are deeply grateful to the Hluchyjs for their generous support of our vision to improve patient treatment and advance the healthcare industry through interdisciplinary collaboration,” said Allison Vorderstrasse, dean of the College of Nursing. “Since the onset of the pandemic, UMass nursing and engineering students have successfully partnered on projects addressing, for example, the need for rapid PPE-manufacturing technologies. This center is the natural progression of that partnership, and I am excited to see the innovations it produces.”

In April 2020, nursing and engineering researchers at UMass Amherst created one of the first COVID-related interdisciplinary teams to design an effective, efficient and low-cost face shield. The shield, created with rapid mass production in mind, was then shared for free with frontline workers in regional healthcare facilities.

Soon after, UMass established both symptomatic and asymptomatic testing centers on campus, and, with the release of the COVID-19 vaccines, has since created a community vaccination center. These centers have been, in large part, run by nursing students. More recently, Sarah Perry, associate professor of Chemical Engineering, launched a research collaboration with Michigan Technological University to develop a new method of keeping vaccines stable without refrigeration.

“As engineers, our students work tirelessly to build systems and products that solve some of the world’s most challenging problems,” said Sanjay Raman, dean of the College of Engineering. “By working in direct collaboration with nurses on projects for medical devices, they can also incorporate the insights and experience nurses have to offer — allowing them to make their designs safer, more efficient, and more end-user-friendly.

“A key element of our vision is an integrated nursing-engineering faculty and student team working on every problem we tackle,” he went on. “We are deeply grateful to the Hluchyj family for their forward thinking and investment in this barrier-breaking center.”

The impact that a nurse-engineer collaboration can make is not a new concept for the Hluchyjs. While Michael was working toward his engineering degree, Theresa was studying to become a nurse.

They currently live in the Boston area. Michael serves as a board member for Uptycs and is a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He is also an Ernst & Young New England Entrepreneur of the Year winner and has served on the Electrical and Computer Engineering Advisory Board at UMass Amherst. Theresa has served in many community organizations, including the Wellesley Service League and the Wellesley Scholarship Foundation. She is currently a member of the Newton-Wellesley Hospital Board of Advisors, a guide at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and a member of the university’s Amherst Campus Council.

Karen Giuliano, joint associate professor for the College of Nursing and the Institute for Applied Life Sciences, will serve as the inaugural co-director of the Center for Nursing and Engineering Innovation along with Jenna Marquard, professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering.

“The ability to quickly and effectively tackle everyday challenges in healthcare requires both nursing and engineering expertise,” Giuliano said. “The power of a nurse-engineer approach is derived from mutual collaboration, where the nurse identifies the problem, the engineer creates potential solutions, and, through bi-directional, real-time, continuous collaboration, iterations and tradeoffs occur until the best solutions are found.”

Special Coverage Technology

Making Connections

After a chaotic start, the pandemic has proven to be good for business in the IT world, where professionals were deluged with requests from clients to set up remote networks for their employees, not to mention a flood of new clients seeking network services for the first time. More than perhaps anyone, these IT pros have seen first-hand how COVID-19 has changed the way companies are doing business. And some of the changes, they say, may be here for the long term.

 

By Mark Morris

As the world begins to emerge from the pandemic, many businesses that survived are trying to understand what the new landscape will look like.

Right now, many business owners are trying to figure out when and if their employees should return to the office or continue to work from home. Either way, access to technology plays an increasing role in getting the job done.

For example, said Delcie Bean, CEO of Paragus Strategic IT, before the pandemic, many businesses were getting by with outdated communication and collaborative tools and depended on e-mail and phones to support their working environment.

“When the pandemic hit, they had to suddenly adopt new technologies like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or other virtual platforms to keep doing business. Almost overnight, we had to set up about 4,000 people to work remotely who weren’t previously set up to do so.”

“When the pandemic hit, they had to suddenly adopt new technologies like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or other virtual platforms to keep doing business,” Bean said, noting that, as employees in many industries were sent home to work remotely, local IT firms saw a huge influx of work. “Almost overnight, we had to set up about 4,000 people to work remotely who weren’t previously set up to do so.”

Delcie Bean

Delcie Bean

Sean Hogan, president of Hogan Communications, said the last time businesses experienced this much disruption was October 2011, when a surprise snowstorm knocked out power for thousands across the region. This time, the disruption has had a more profound and lasting impact.

“The pandemic woke up a lot of people and forced them to understand they’ve got to change the way they do business,” Hogan said, explaining that, while the pre-Halloween storm a decade ago encouraged investments in backup generators, the pandemic has shown many the importance of storing data in a remote data center, commonly known as the ‘cloud.’

In Bean’s estimation, the idea of a business keeping a server at its facility to host its network is already a legacy model that was on its way to being phased out in the next five years.

“COVID dumped gasoline on that timetable and made converting to the cloud a much higher priority,” he said. With cloud-based technology, employees can more easily access their company’s network from multiple locations and devices.

Resistance to change comes natural to New England business owners as many prefer to keep their data on a server in their office. Hogan often explains to these reluctant clients that cloud-based data centers have spent millions of dollars to make sure there is a disaster recovery set up, as well as backup systems for power, internet and HVAC.

“The average business owner couldn’t afford to make that type of investment to keep their data safe,” Hogan said. “So when people say they don’t trust the cloud we point out how much more reliable it is compared to their office.”

BusinessWest spoke with a number of local IT providers about what several of them called the ‘roller-coaster year’ we’ve just had and what’s on the horizon. As business owners themselves, they, like their clients, have had to figure out how to keep things running during a pandemic and anticipate what that means in the long term.

“I’m looking at the service tickets we’re completing while working remote, and they are right on par with where they were when we were in the office. In fact, we might be a little more efficient.”

As an IT-services vendor, Bean believes firms like his should be a little ahead of the curve so they can test new technologies before they recommend them to clients. For example, Paragus employees have been on the cloud and set up to work from anywhere since June 2019.

“So when the pandemic struck, moving our staff remotely was pretty seamless,” Bean said. “About 80% of our people work remotely, and 15% to 20% come into the office on any given day.”

Jeremiah Beaudry, owner of Bloo Solutions, said his employees are working so well from home, it’s not necessary to come into the office. He noted that productivity has not suffered, and employees have less stress.

Jeremiah Beaudry

Jeremiah Beaudry

“I’m looking at the service tickets we’re completing while working remote, and they are right on par with where they were when we were in the office,” Beaudry said. “In fact, we might be a little more efficient.”

One important thing businesses have learned from the pandemic, according to Charlie Christianson, president of CMD Solutions, is that it’s OK to work from home.

“We can do a lot more than we thought we could outside of the office,” he said. “People are far more open to remote work, and there’s no mystery to it anymore.”

 

Change of Scenery

While some of Hogan’s employees have always worked remotely, the percentage has grown, and their efficiency allows them to escape the daily commute. “They don’t need to be behind a windshield for an hour and a half each day just getting to and from work,” he said.

When companies first sent workers home, IT providers spent most of their time helping clients integrate employees into their respective networks. While they suddenly had a huge amount of work, IT professionals did not see much revenue because many clients had contracts to cover this extra work. Increased revenue soon followed, however, as many new clients sought these services.

“We signed more new customers in 2020 than the previous two years combined,” Bean said, adding that much of the new business came from companies that found their dependence on technology had suddenly increased and their IT capabilities couldn’t meet these new demands.

In addition to new clients coming on board, Christianson explained that many of his current clients, who at first only wanted a “down-and-dirty” setup for remote access, were now looking for a more permanent solution for their network.

“We can do a lot more than we thought we could outside of the office. People are far more open to remote work, and there’s no mystery to it anymore.”

“Those of us in the IT industry are very fortunate,” he said. “We have done well during this time and were not hit hard like so many other industries were.”

With the end of COVID in sight, businesses have begun looking at what comes next. Those we spoke with agree on one thing: it will not be business like it was before or even during the pandemic.

“Most of our clients want some hybrid between those two options, where there is more in-person interaction than during the pandemic, but probably not as much as there was before,” Bean said. Once people started learning videoconferencing and Microsoft 365, he noted, they saw how helpful these tools can be even when everyone is in the office.

As IT providers continue to transition their clients from premise-based servers to the data cloud, they also predict other big shifts on the horizon. For example, with so many companies using smartphones and laptop computers to make calls, the company phone system may soon be a thing of the past.

“A few years from now, the idea of having both a computer and a phone on your desk at work is going to be a very strange concept,” Bean said, especially when companies consider the economics of supporting two systems that make phone calls.

While the demise of the office phone seems inevitable, office space itself could be in for a big reduction, Christianson added. “We’ve seen a lot of instances where people are moving from bigger spaces to smaller ones. They are making the calculation that some people are not coming back.”

Charlie Christianson

Charlie Christianson

Even if it’s in a smaller space, Hogan asserted that an office presence is still vital. “I don’t think we’ll go back to the way it was before, but many people still want to return to their offices, even if only for collaboration and camaraderie.”

Because Zoom and other virtual platforms make it easy to meet with people anywhere, companies have begun to look more closely at their business travel budgets, too. CEO clients have told Beaudry they will not eliminate business travel, but will look to reduce it to only what is necessary.

“One CEO who used to travel 40% of the year said he plans to move most of his meetings to virtual platforms,” he said. “He figures to be 10 times more efficient and save his energy from traveling all over the country.”

As much as Bean would like to see some of the fatigue and expense of travel go away, he also admits that important interactions happen in person that just don’t occur in a virtual setting. He gave an example of logging on to hear a keynote speaker versus attending the event in-person.

“Oftentimes, the person sitting at my table is more valuable to me than the keynote speaker,” he said. “That person might lead to a great networking opportunity where they need my services, or maybe they have a service I need.”

 

Safe at Home

While working at home can provide many benefits for employees and their companies, IT providers say it comes with a whole new array of challenges. Looking at a business with 30 employees, Beaudry gave an example of how quickly technology issues change when working remotely.

“If half the employees work from home,” he said, “the company has gone from managing one network to dealing with the struggles of 15 home networks.”

Common issues when working at home include internet signal strength and the different types and capacities of home modems. Topping all those concerns, however, is the increased vulnerability to a company network getting hacked.

All it takes is one employee to click an attachment in a suspicious e-mail, and the whole network can be damaged by a cyberattack. When working from home, Beaudry said, employees are less likely to ask the simple questions when they confront something that looks suspect.

“You don’t have someone turning to their co-worker, saying, ‘hey, did you get this e-mail? It looks weird,’” he said, adding that he encourages his clients to call whenever they see anything suspicious. “If you take 30 seconds to call and ask, it can save you a week of losing your computer.”

Christianson said cybersecurity is a never-ending battle. “Hackers are always looking for ways into your network. They only have to be right once; we have to be right all the time.”

That’s where IT service providers come in. While today’s technology tools are better than ever, Bean said IT pros can set up a company’s system to make it work best for its needs and stay current on all the security threats.

Beaudry compares his work to that of a plumber. “People need computers for business just like they need water in their home and business,” he said.

And, just like plumbing, if security on a computer network isn’t handled properly, you can have a real mess on your hands.

Technology

What Works, What Doesn’t

By Lisa Apolinski

 

Here’s a surprising statistic from Kinsta: LinkedIn has over 575 million users, and nearly half of those are active every month (meaning they post, comment, or like on the platform). If that isn’t impressive enough, LinkedIn has its sights on further investments into Latin America. What makes LinkedIn even more powerful is that users update their bios regularly, so the connections you are potentially requesting are in the roles they have listed on their bios.

LinkedIn is a digital goldmine, especially now in the post-COVID digital paradigm. Users post on career engagement, network with others in their industry, and share expertise and advice. Unfortunately, less professional engagement can and does happen on LinkedIn. Understanding what works in the world of LinkedIn for networking, and what hinders, can help remove obstacles for engagement. Here are the five biggest blunders that can hurt credibility and, potentially, career advancement.

“What makes LinkedIn even more powerful is that users update their bios regularly, so the connections you are potentially requesting are in the roles they have listed on their bios.”

 

Blunder #1: Being vague about why a connection is requested. Some people believe more connections are better. However, some connection requests come with a note that does not share why the sender wants to network. If there is not a clear reasoning for the network connection, many of these requests appear to not help or enhance the receiver’s network. A connection request with a note can help put the connection request into context for the receiver.

Try Instead: Clearly state why a request has been sent and how the connection benefits both parties. To get a connection request accepted, think about why you are requesting the connection.

 

Blunder #2: Focusing on selling versus connecting. Many LinkedIn users complain about this practice, and it seems to have become more common. After a connection has been accepted, the next message is a long selling pitch. What is even more surprising is the immediate request for a call or virtual demo. This is a request of someone’s time without taking time to connect first. A focus on selling will not help with lead generation or brand reputation. This type of communication does little for the recipient.

Try Instead: Thank the person for the connection and share something that might benefit the new connection, such as a video or article. Sharing knowledge can go a long way.

 

Blunder #3: Not investing in a current professional photo. One of the first digital impressions from a LinkedIn profile is the user photo. Using a photo that is casual, old, or provocative is missing a great opportunity to showcase a level of professionalism. A photo is a visual precursor to a job interview or lecturer. Investment in a professional photo is also a wise one as it can be used in a variety of digital ways. By keeping the photo current, network members are also easy to identify in other settings (remember those trade shows?).

Try Instead: Even a quick shot with your mobile can work. Use direct lighting, and natural light is best (morning or late afternoon). Capture yourself from the shoulders up and minimize distractions in the background.

 

Blunder #4: Posting on politics. While most people have an opinion on the current political climate, sharing political viewpoints may not be the best decision. Posts and articles on LinkedIn should highlight expertise, provide knowledge and leadership within an industry, and share resources that can help networks. Political postings do not fall into these three categories. These may also be offputting or polarizing to current and future networks.

Try Instead: If you wish to share political viewpoints, consider posting to another social-media channel. Keep your LinkedIn channel focused on how you can provide professional leadership and insight.

 

Blunder #5: The social channel is LinkedIn, not Love Connection. With so many other dating apps and websites available to find a soul mate, LinkedIn is not the place to request a connection with the purpose of asking someone out. Not only is this request unprofessional, it can easily come across as creepy, especially to women. LinkedIn users are using the platform for career and networking and expect others to do the same.

Try Instead: Use LinkedIn for its primary purpose, namely professional networking, and save the search for love to those websites or apps specifically created for that reason.

 

Bottom Line

LinkedIn offers amazing potential to connect with experts, learn about new trends in your industry, and discover new career paths and positions as you explore options. LinkedIn can work well for digital connection and professional networking, especially if these blunders are avoided.

These small modifications can unlock new networking opportunities and strong professional engagement now as well as in the future, and help establish your credibility within both your industry and your organization. By avoiding these five missteps, you will be able to more easily harness the power of LinkedIn in your professional practice and take your career to new heights.

 

Lisa Apolinski is an international speaker, digital strategist, author, and founder of 3 Dog Write. Her latest book, Persuade With A Digital Content Story, is available on Amazon. She works with companies to develop and share their message using digital assets; www.3dogwrite.com

Special Coverage Technology

A Critical Gap

 

Margaret Tantillo clearly remembers — honestly, who doesn’t? — the day Gov. Charlie Baker started shutting down the economy a year ago this month.

As the executive director of Dress for Success Western Massachusetts, an organization dedicated to the economic empowerment of women, she started calling participants in the days that followed, asking what issues they were having. One that kept coming up was access to the internet.

“If people are not connected, they’re going to be left behind in terms of being able to participate in the workforce,” Tantillo said.

So, identifying digital equity as connectivity, access to equipment, and the knowledge and ability to use software, Dress for Success enlisted a group of volunteers to form a digital task force, providing one-on-one coaching for about 40 women and providing more than 250 hours on the phone coaching.

“For the most part, we’re helping people operate on Zoom so they can participate in training and apply for jobs and interview virtually,” she said — just one way internet connectivity is a lifeline for people in these times.

Or, conversely, how lack of it can have a crushing impact.

It’s an issue that has received more attention during the pandemic, as tens of millions of Americans have struggled with remote learning, telehealth, and the ability to work from home because they lack access to fast, reliable internet service.

This ‘digital divide,’ as its commonly known, is not a new phenomenon, but the way COVID-19 has laid bare the problem is forcing lawmakers and others to see it in a new light.

“There are still communities in Western Mass. that don’t have high-speed internet access, or internet at all,” said state Sen. Eric Lesser, who has long championed this cause. “Frankly, in the year 2021, that’s a national embarrassment.”

State leaders haven’t ignored the issue, including tens of millions of dollars for infrastructure in bond authorizations over multiple budgets and economic-development bills, Lesser said, and Gov. Baker has set a goal to reach every community.

State Sen. Eric Lesser

State Sen. Eric Lesser calls the lack of connectivity in some Bay State towns “a national embarrassment.”

“But, frankly, the fact that we have communities that don’t have broadband internet access raises very profound questions about how a high-tech state like Massachusetts, in this day and age, can allow that to happen.”

As president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, Rick Sullivan said the EDC has long taken the position — even before COVID-19 made it a more pressing issue — that the state needs to bring internet connectivity into every city and town. He noted that Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration started building the backbone, and the Baker administration has been diligent in making sure communities get financing to execute plans to bring broadband to their residents.

“For a lot of the smaller communities, that is probably the single biggest opportunity they have for economic development in the region,” Sullivan said. “People can choose to work from home, but they need to have the access that helps people choose to live in those communities, and it makes it easier to sell your properties, and that increases values in small towns.”

But even large cities have a digital divide, he added, which has been exposed to a greater extent by COVID-19.

Tantillo noted that, according to Census data from last year, 31% of households in Springfield have no internet access, and 37% don’t even have a computer. That means no remote work, no remote education, no telehealth, no … well, the list goes on.

These digital-divide issue arose during a public hearing last week in Springfield on the relicensing of Comcast. “Parts of Springfield need better connection,” Sullivan said. “The mayor was clear in his opening statements that this was an issue they would be taking a look at. But in every city and town, there are some connectivity issues that clearly need to be addressed.”

Learning Lessons

Yves Salomon-Fernández, president of Greenfield Community College (GCC), understood the need for connectivity before students began attending classes remotely last spring, but that move more clearly exposed the scope of the issue.

“The digital divide is real, especially in certain areas of Franklin County and in the hilltowns. Even in the city of Greenfield, there are places with spotty internet access, and with all of us being on Zoom right now, it slows down the connectivity we have for our faculty, staff, and students,” she added, noting that GCC had to purchase technology for many of them to teach and learn remotely.

“We also have students who are housing-insecure and may not have access to the internet. We gave them a hotspot if they have no cellphone service, and we have accommodated them on campus in various ways.”

She noted that even parts of the GCC campus contain dead zones where cellphones won’t work; the college has a phone tree set up for emergency alerts because cellular connectivity isn’t a given everywhere.

“If the college, a critical institution and a community asset, has these issues,” she said, “imagine what it’s like for small businesses and individuals.”

The flawed vaccine rollout in Massachusetts (see story on page 40) has laid bare another impact of the digital divide: access to vaccination appointments. Even if the state’s website wasn’t confusing or prone to crashing early on, Lesser said, it still wasn’t acceptable to make it the only option to sign up, which is why he and other legislators have pushed for a phone option, which was implented last month.

“You were pretty much shutting out a whole community of people, especially the 75-and-older category, when you set up a system that’s website-only,” he noted.

But vaccine distribution will be completed over the coming months; what won’t change are the other reasons people need to access the internet from home. Solving the issue won’t be easy with the patchwork of different levels of responsibility — towns, the state, FCC regulators on the federal level — when it comes to regulating contracts and service arrangements.

That’s why Lesser is high on municipal broadband, offered by a city to its residents like a public utility — an initiative that Chicopee and Westfield have undertaken, to name two local projects. “It really is like the water or electricity of the 21st century, that’s delivered by the city as well.”

More such municipal projects will also increase competition, he said, which could force other providers to lower their prices and boost speed.

Even people who have internet access through large companies often deal with higher costs than they can easily afford, Lesser said. “The costs are astronomical in the U.S. — people pay much more per month than in Europe or Asia.”

Therefore, “the state needs to look at ways to open the market more and create more competition,” he added, and that could simply entail putting more pressure on big internet companies.

“The problem is, internet service is left to the private sector when it’s a public good,” he said. “It doesn’t make economic sense for big companies to invest in infrastructure to get the internet turned on in small communities. The state may have to mandate they have to make those investments if they want to provide service for bigger locations.”

An Issue of Equity

Tantillo agrees with Lesser that society should be looking at connectivity as a utility and a basic, affordable service, but goes a step further.

Margaret Tantillo says the digital divide, if not rectified, could leave generations behind when it comes to economic opportunity.

Margaret Tantillo says the digital divide, if not rectified, could leave generations behind when it comes to economic opportunity.

“From an equity perspective, this disproportionately impacts women and people of color, so it’s also a social-justice issue,” she said. “But a crisis like this is also a big opportunity to be transformative. Springfield is considered the city of innovation. With a bold solution and reallocating resources, who knows what this community can transform into, if everyone has the opportunity to participate equally in online banking, telehealth, access to jobs, even to engage civically?”

Salomon-Fernández agreed. “In this day and age, it’s also an equity issue when you have people disconnected from the rest of the world. In the United States of America, and in one of the most technologically advanced states in the country, that’s a concern.”

And a particularly acute one, she added, in Franklin County, which contains some of the more rural and economically marginalized towns in the state. The impact isn’t just a problem in the present — it can have long-term effects.

“The world is increasingly globalized, and not being connected has negative repercussions on communities,” she added. “We are creating an underclass of people not able to take full advantage of economic possibilities through digitalization and connectivity. That has real effects, not just on teaching and learning, but also on the vibrancy of our whole region.”

The Federal Communications Commission’s latest broadband deployment report concluded that the “digital divide is rapidly closing.” But some voices in that agency are more hesitant.

“If this crisis has revealed anything, it is the hard truth that the digital divide is very real and very big,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement released along with the report last month. “It confounds logic that today the FCC decides to release a report that says that broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.”

The most recent available data from Pew Research, published in 2019, found that around 27% of Americans don’t have home broadband. That percentage is higher for Americans whose annual income is less than $30,000 (44%), black and Hispanic Americans (34% and 39%, respectively), rural Americans (37%), and those with a high-school education or less (44%).

Pew also reported, from a survey conducted last April, that 22% of parents — 40% in low-income families — whose children were learning remotely say they have to use public wi-fi because they lack a reliable internet connection at home.

Sullivan noted that some companies, like Comcast, and municipal utilities in cities like Holyoke and Westfield have made connectivity available to school children during the pandemic, which has been important.

“But going forward, it needs to be universal, and everyone needs to be able to have access,” he said. “It’s so important for education and for economic-development opportunities in every city and town. If we had that, combined with our quality of life and the cost of living we have here in Western Mass., we could be a place where people choose to live and work from home.”

Opening Eyes

Proponents of improved internet access in Massachusetts say COVID-19 certainly made the digital divide more evident, but it certainly didn’t cause it.

“I think it exacerbated that problem,” Tantillo said. “The digital divide has now become a chasm. And if we don’t solve it, generations will be left behind. I think people are more aware of that, so people are more invested in solving it.”

That awareness is critical, she said, in generating the kind of momentum that will move decision makers.

“It’s the plumbing of the 21st century, and the pandemic showed this,” Lesser said. “Vital services like education and, increasingly, healthcare, with the rise of telehealth, are critical services delivered to people through the internet. We’ve operated through a prism of treating this like DirecTV or cable television, like entertainment, an extra in your house. And that’s just not the case anymore.”

For many Americans, Tantillo added, connectivity is something to be taken for granted, but more people are realizing that’s just not the case.

“If I’m sitting there with my laptop, I’m not thinking about the 50,000 residents in Springfield without connectivity — I’m thinking about my own needs. But this is being exposed on a broader level.”

She understands — and has expressed — the negative impact of not being connected, but prefers to couch the issue in a more hopeful, visionary way.

“We know what the ramifications are if we don’t fix the problem of the digital divide,” Tantillo said. “But here’s the amazing thing: we don’t know all the opportunities and how we can transform communities when we fix this and provide digital equity for everyone.”

Salomon-Fernández certainly hopes that happens.

“I think the pandemic has laid bare a lot of the fissures, the inaccessibility and inequity in our democracy, and also the ability of different folks in different regions to reach the same levels of economic prosperity,” she said. “While many people may not have been concerned about them pre-pandemic, it’s obvious now that the cracks are wide open. Hopefully it’s an opportunity for us.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Learning on the Fly

Kimberly Quiñonez says her professors

Kimberly Quiñonez says her professors encouraged her to overcome the challenges of online learning and succeed.

Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) had a long-term plan to ramp up online and digital learning.

But then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced staff working at STCC’s Center for Online and Digital Learning to move faster than they ever imagined. The staff includes instructional designers who assistant faculty in online teaching methods they incorporate into the classroom experience.

To maintain the safety of students, faculty, and staff, STCC moved classes to remote instruction last March. Instructional designers worked with faculty over the summer to prepare for fully online teaching in the 2020-21 academic year.

Faculty and administrators acknowledge the abrupt change to remote learning created great challenges and, for some, led to a less-than-ideal learning environment last spring. The sudden need to vacate campus resulted in the use of a slew of digital tools to communicate with students, including e-mail, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, and teleconferencing by phone and Zoom.

“Many faculty had been using online tools for the delivery of their face-to face classes. However, for those faculty who were not familiar with the digital space or whose courses required hands-on instruction, the ‘lift’ to online was great,” said Geraldine de Berly, vice president of Academic Affairs at STCC. “Since the summer, STCC invested in tools and training to assist faculty in developing the best truly online experience possible, including the hiring of a third instructional designer. Today, all online instruction occurs in a single platform, supplemented by class discussions using tools such as Zoom.”

The college anticipates spending nearly $800,000 through May 2021 helping faculty develop hundreds of online classes and labs, de Berly said. Today, more than 80% of the credits are offered online, a jump from 12% prior to the pandemic. Over the coming year, STCC also expects to expand its online-only options in addition to its existing in-person and hybrid degree programs.

STCC English Professor Denise “Daisy” Flaim has years of experience teaching students on campus in classrooms, so converting to the online experience was a big adjustment. But she worked closely with the online team at STCC to prepare for the transition, and now feels confident.

“We’re learning technology, just as the students are learning technology,” Flaim said.

Daniel Misco, an STCC alumnus and faculty member in the Digital Media Production program, said he’s well-versed in the online teaching world. Today, he teaches most of his classes online, but misses the face-to-face interactions with students in a classroom.

“I considered myself a face-to-face instructor,” Misco said. “I always excelled in the classroom. I liked being there with students to build a rapport with them.”

The adjustment to online learning can be challenging for some students, but Misco said faculty try to do all they can to help.

STCC student Kimberly Quiñonez, who is studying social work, expressed gratitude for the support from faculty over the past year.

“My experience as an online learner has really been amazing, although there were times I felt like quitting,” she said. “During those times, my professors would reach out and check in with the class. In the very beginning, I must admit that it was quite challenging transferring from an actual classroom to a computer. The classroom brought security to most students because questions were answered immediately. With online learning, you may have to wait for a response through e-mail.”

Aminah Bergeron, a mechanical engineering technology student at STCC, said she found benefits to online learning, noting she has “gotten the hang of it” after a year of studying from home.

“It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. It was for sure different, but a ‘good’ different,” she said. “I didn’t have to worry about getting ready, or making sure my house doors are locked, or even thinking in the back of my head, ‘did I leave the faucet running?’ I just had to open my laptop and start my schoolwork, whether at my own pace or scheduled Zoom meetings. I also had much more time to research and not worry about calculating the time I’d lose on commuting from one location to another.”

STCC will return to face-to-face, on-campus instruction when it’s safe to do so, de Berly said, but will continue to offer online options and apply digital tools to enhance the classroom experience.

Coronavirus Technology

Remote Connections

Zasco Productions recently held a hybrid drive-in event

Zasco Productions recently held a hybrid drive-in event for a pancreatic-cancer organization — one way it’s filling the void with live events curtailed.

While most of the business world slowed gradually in March, or even ground to an eventual halt, the story was more dire for the events industry.

It just … stopped.

“When the whole country shut down, we were impacted immediately. We were one of the first business sectors to really feel the effects,” said Andrew Jensen, president of Jx2 Productions, noting that among the state’s first orders was barring large — and eventually even modestly sized — gatherings.

Within a day or two, he recalled, “we had no business left, just one or two things left for the rest of the year. Everyone freaked out. From weddings to live events to conferences to concerts, everything was gone overnight. It was non-stop with the phone calls. It was unlike anything I’ve ever felt. When there’s some kind of natural disaster or act of God, everything might be off for a while in one area, but never worldwide like this.”

After hunkering down for a while to get a sense of what was to come, it was time to get off the mat and figure out how to move forward in 2020. In Jensen’s case, like most players in his industry right now, that meant a shift to a new type of virtual, or online, event.

“Like any major shift in business, it’s a learning curve; it’s a challenge to make the transition from only live events with some streaming at them to all streaming events. It was definitely a shift not only in our business, but in the mentality of people asking to do them.”

“Like any major shift in business, it’s a learning curve; it’s a challenge to make the transition from only live events with some streaming at them to all streaming events,” Jensen explained. “It was definitely a shift not only in our business, but in the mentality of people asking to do them.”

The typical live gathering might include livestreams as a secondary factor, he said, mostly at higher-end events; smaller companies typically don’t bring in a secondary audience remotely. “We had to shift our mentality, and that was hard. Did we have redundancies and protocols in place? What if we lose somebody on the other end? How does that effect everyone?”

Michael Zaskey has been dealing with those questions, too, since the industry crashed to a halt in mid-March.

“We were the first to go, and we’ll be the last to come back in a traditional sense,” the owner of Zasco Productions told BusinessWest. “We knew pretty quickly that online and virtual events were going to be the norm for a while.”

At first, companies thought they could take a DIY approach, he added. “Initially, folks were trying to do things with Zoom and GoToMeeting. Those are awesome tools for meetings or small-group sessions, but not for producing events. You can have a board meeting or discussion over Zoom, but if you want to engage and entertain and create an experience similar to a live event, that’s not the right tool. You still need a production company.”

Jx2 Productions has boosted the technology in its control room

Jx2 Productions has boosted the technology in its control room, and out on the road, to meet the needs of a largely virtual event landscape.

The world is figuring that out. Based on projections from Grand View Research, virtual events will grow nearly tenfold over the next decade from $78 billion to $774 billion. And that puts a squeeze on businesses like Jx2 and Zasco.

“People figure a virtual event costs less than a live event because you’re not renting ballroom space, but on the production side, it’s just as expensive, or even more,” Zaskey said. “We’ve tried to be flexible with budgets, but we’re working with a very slim margin.”

It’s a challenge that will remain, at least in the short term.

“Obviously, it will be a long time before live events come back full force,” he added. “Virtual events will never replace a live event, which is so much about the networking, and people miss that. But in this time of pandemic and crisis, they’re viable solutions that allow people to connect and participate.”

 

Technical Concerns

The first thing people need to learn in this new landscape is the terminology, Zaskey said. “Like, when people started using the phrase ‘socially distant,’ I’ve always thought we say that wrong. We should be socially connected and physically distant. Or connected with technology.”

Likewise, people often mean different things when they say ‘virtual event.’ “People started throwing that term around, but it means something different for every person we talk to.”

That’s because, in his world, virtual events have often meant events that occur in a virtual space, like a corporate meeting in which the CEO stands on a virtual stage in front of a greenscreen, backed by a set created electronically, as if standing in a video game or virtual-reality environment. “What most people call a virtual event today, we use the term ‘online event.’ That’s more accurate.”

There are hybrid events, too, which mix in-person and remote elements. “Instead of 500 people in a room, maybe you have 20 smaller rooms with 25 people in each room, physically distanced, and connect those rooms electronically” — a good option even in non-pandemic times for large, national companies that don’t want to fly everyone to one location for an important gathering.

Zasco is also doing some drive-in events, like a recent pancreatic-cancer fundraiser in Connecticut that had been postponed from May. “We wanted to keep our audience engaged, so we did a drive-in event and spaced out the cars, with a large screen outdoors, and you could listen through FM radio.”

While short speeches were delivered on stage — again, in a distanced fashion — the biggest donors and benefactors attended live in their cars, with others able to watch through a webstream.

“We’ve done a number of those for nonprofits, schools, and corporations,” Zaskey said. “That’s been pretty successful. I’ve been impressed how good people have been about following the rules. People, by and large, are wearing masks and staying in their cars. I’ve been impressed, because people aren’t always known for following rules.”

“We’ve done a number of those for nonprofits, schools, and corporations. That’s been pretty successful. I’ve been impressed how good people have been about following the rules. People, by and large, are wearing masks and staying in their cars.”

One pressing issue at online and hybrid events, of course, is connectivity and having the redundancy and bandwidth to keep connections from going down. “We’ve had to think and engineer our way into … not necessarily new technology, but using it in new ways. It’s always changing and growing.”

Part of the challenge is communicating issues to attendees, he added. If a hotel ballroom loses power, all 500 people attending in person experience the same thing and know what’s going on. “If 500 people tune into a stream and lose power to the master control room, those 500 people have no idea what happened.”

Jensen agreed that technical concerns were paramount. “It was slightly challenging at the beginning for us tech people,” he said, adding that another challenge has to do with communication — not only with the crew, but with presenters who may be in different locations.

“We’ve done thousands of events over 20 years, and the process is different. We’d have a stage manager go on stage and hand someone a microphone. Now you have to make sure you have plenty of rehearsals and walk them through the process.”

Technology upgrades are a must as well, both for production companies and their clients. “A standard laptop camera and microphone don’t work — certainly it’s not high-enough quality. So we created ‘cases’ and sold a couple dozen to clients, and have some in own inventory. This allows them to have much better image and quality and make their event that much better. We all know a standard iPhone camera or computer camera is not that great.”

Like Zasco, Jx2 found a niche in drive-in events, like graduations. And because the company got into streaming at least 15 years ago, as it went mainstream, it wasn’t too difficult to shift focus to that side of the business this year. “We kind of already had a foot in the door.”

One upside to the current situation, Jensen said, is that it’s forced businesses to think differently about their events.

“It’s a chance for our clients to think outside the box and become OK with not doing things the standard way, the rinse-and-repeat event you’ve done for 10 or 20 years. You get used to doing things a certain way: guests arrive at this time, you do a cocktail hour, there’s a formula to every live event.

“Now, you’re trying to recreate something where the guests’ attention span is definitely lower because it’s virtual, and you’ve got a lower level of interaction from guests,” he went on. “You’ve got to make sure whatever you put on the screen will resonate with guests.”

Working creatively to achieve that goal, he said, can often spark inspiration for future events as well, even the live ones that will return … someday.

 

Optimistic Outlook

Zaskey is looking forward to that day.

“We’re pretty fortunate to be pretty busy, but the profit margins are not the same as they are for live events,” he said. “The entire industry is still struggling greatly.”

Much of the staff laid off in March has come back on a part-time basis as jobs are scheduled. “A lot of what we’re doing, we have to deeply discount, not just to be a good neighbor and help clients so they can pull out of this as well, but to keep our people working.”

One long-term concern is a possible ‘brain drain’ as the pandemic wears on, he added.

“The industry is at risk of losing talent, and that scares us a little bit. As people get desperate and wonder about the future, they might consider career changes. Maybe they’ll come back, but maybe they won’t — maybe someone has always wanted to be a chef, and decides it’s time to go to culinary school. When the world bounces back and live events come back, we need highly skilled people to work on them.”

And events will come back, Jensen said, if only because people desperately want to attend them. “Human nature is interactive; we want to see people, be with people, go to dinner, go on vacation. Most people aren’t homebodies. People over the summer couldn’t wait to go to the beach or go camping. You couldn’t buy a kayak.”

In the same way, “I think live events will come back massively once we get through this pandemic and the comfort level comes back up.”

In fact, Jensen predicts bottlenecks as venues book up quickly once they get the go-ahead from the CDC and state officials. “I think it’s going to be the end of ’21 into ’22 when events pick up fully. We’re a couple years out from full recovery. But people will be eager to plan these things.”

Zaskey agreed. “It’s still very, very tough, and it’s going to be tough for a long time,” he said, but he looks back to 9/11 for a possible parallel. Events suffered mightily after that tragedy as well, but 2002 through 2004 were Zasco’s biggest growth years.

“People wanted to get back to live events. And I think the same thing will happen when the pandemic is over. Getting to that point is the challenge.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Career Connections

To celebrate Massachusetts STEM Week, Oct. 19-23, Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) announced a week-long series of events.

STEM Week 2020 is organized by the Executive Office of Education and the STEM Advisory Council in partnership with the state’s nine regional STEM networks. It is a statewide effort to boost the interest, awareness, and ability for all learners to envision themselves in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and employment opportunities.

The theme for the third annual statewide STEM Week is “See Yourself in STEM,” with a particular focus on the power of mentoring.

Barbara Washburn, interim dean of the School of STEM at STCC, said the initiative represents an opportunity to learn about interesting and exciting real-world applications of STEM.

“We’re thrilled to participate in STEM Week again this year. We have several engaging live and recorded virtual events planned,” Washburn said. “As the only technical community college in Massachusetts, STCC is known for its high-quality STEM programs, and this is a chance to showcase them.

“We invite our students and the general public to participate in these free events,” she went on. “We particularly encourage people who are underrepresented in STEM to join us. They include women, people of color, first-generation students, low-income individuals, English-language learners, and people with disabilities. We want to show how everyone can see themselves in STEM.”

The following events will be held live through Zoom videoconferencing. For more information and to register, visit stcc.edu/stem-week.

 

• Monday, Oct. 19, 11 a.m. to noon: “Farming While Black: Uprooting Racism, Seeding Sovereignty.” Naima Penniman, program director of Soul Fire Farm, will give a talk about the importance and value of food production. The presentation will explore racism in food distribution, access, and other related topics. This is a collaborative event with HSI STEM, the Officer of Multicultural Affairs, the School of STEM, and the Urban Studies program.

 

• Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2-3 p.m.: “Know Where Your Food Comes From.” Speakers include Ibrahim Ali, co-director of Gardening the Community; Dr. Raja Staggers, assistant professor of sociology; and Jose Lopez-Figueroa, director of the Center for Access Services. The event features a panel discussion on the importance of food security, the prevalence of food deserts in our inner cities, the need to know where food comes from, and food access within the Greater Springfield community. This is a collaborative event with HSI STEM, Multicultural Affairs, the School of STEM, and the Urban Studies program.

 

• Wednesday, Oct. 21, 10 a.m. to noon: “Virtual STEM Careers Symposium.” Hosted by the STEM Starter Academy at STCC, this event features UMass Amherst professors and STEM industry leaders who will participate in an interactive symposium on STEM pathways and careers.

 

• Friday, Oct. 23, 11:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.: Dell Technologies will host a webinar about employees’ experience with the company.

STEM Week will also feature recorded presentations featuring faculty in specific STEM programs. The following are planned:

• Physics: “The Science of Sports and the Engineering Behind Sports Equipment.”

• Engineering: “Computer Application in Engineering”.

• Optics and Photonics: “What is Optics & Photonics?”

• Math: “The Mathematics Behind Bin Packing.”

• Manufacturing: “Extreme Precision: Splitting Hairs on a CNC Machine and Measuring Them in the Metrology Lab,” and a video created at Governors America Corp., an electronics manufacturer in Agawam.

• Robotics: A demonstration of a Fanuc robot functioning as a pill sorter with programmable logic controllers.

• Computers/IT: “What is Computer Systems Engineering Technology?”

 

While there is a concentration of events planned for STEM Week, STCC offers STEM-themed discussion and presentation for students and the public throughout the year. In early October, STCC STEM Starter Academy joined students and researchers from UMass Amherst, Florida International University, and other universities and organizations from across the globe as part of the International Assoc. for the Study of the Commons (IASC) Global Symposium on Commons Without Borders: Global Multiscale Ecosystem Frameworks. A playlist of the symposium’s presentations is available on STCC’s YouTube channel.

 

Special Coverage Technology

Taking the Long View

The idea of doctors and patients communicating across a distance, via a video connection, is not a new one, Carl Cameron notes. But COVID-19 “opened the floodgates” to making it a reality for millions.

“The barriers that have always been there for telemedicine are, one, you had to be able to see the patient, and two, the reimbursement around it. But with COVID, all that got waived,” said Cameron, chief operating officer at Holyoke Medical Center (HMC). “And the governor came out and said, ‘look, for televisits and the phone, video, however you can get the visit done, and we expect the payers to pay for it like it’s an in-person visit.’”

So health organizations started doing just that. “We started with basic things like getting some iPads, getting some physician PCs set up, and then it was, ‘OK, what are we going to use for an application?’” Cameron said, noting that they started with a mixture of FaceTime, Google Meet, and a product known as Doximity.

“A lot of doctors are familiar with that; it meets all the security requirements of HIPAA in terms of being a secure channel,” he explained. “You basically send a link to the patient, and they just click it, and it creates the connection with the doc. It even uses a virtual telephone number for the doc, so it doesn’t have to be their actual cell phone. It’s a very easy process.”

Among the physicians pleased with the expansion of telehealth is Dr. Kartik Viswanathan of Holyoke Internal Medicine.

“Before the pandemic happened, we were seeing close to zero televisits. During the pandemic, we started doing televisits to reduce the number of people coming in. Infection was rampant, and at that time, we didn’t want people in the waiting rooms, and when seeing patients, we needed to be completely in PPE and masks.”

“The barriers that have always been there for telemedicine are, one, you had to be able to see the patient, and two, the reimbursement around it. But with COVID, all that got waived.”

So government did the right thing, he added, freeing up telehealth to be billed like a regular office visit. “Remarkably, it was very popular with patients. They loved it,” he said, noting that patients appreciated not having to drive to the office, and if a doctor was running late, it was OK, since they were at home. “They weren’t upset if they were 15 or 20 minutes behind.”

Cameron agreed. “We were using it wherever possible and where the government would allow us to get paid for it. Obviously, with COVID, nobody wanted to leave their house — as a country, we didn’t have a good understanding of how the disease spread; everyone was saying shelter in place, so people didn’t really want to go out.

As a result, practices saw significant dips in volume, he went on. “But as we put the telemedicine in place, I was eventually able to bring us up to just below pre-COVID numbers for office visits. We still had some patients, depending on the acuity, who needed to be seen in the office or the ER, but we were doing 75% to 80% of our visits via telemedicine.”

Viswanathan said having the distance alternative reduced anxiety in patients during a generally anxious time. “They were happy to see us. Even with COVID testing, people had so many questions, and just the fact they could speak with us, communicate with us, really relieved a lot of the anxiety for them.”

Carl Cameron

Carl Cameron says the technology needed for effective telehealth exists, and so does patient demand.

And now, with medical practices largely back open, albeit under strict safety protocols? “Televisits are here to stay,” he told BusinessWest. “As a provider, I find it convenient, and the patient finds it convenient. I think it will still be 20% to 30% of daily visits even after the pandemic is over.”

Pros and Cons

Viswanathan conceded that televisits aren’t the same as in-person visits, in a number of key ways.

“The challenges come when we don’t know the patients from before — when it’s a new patient we’ve never seen before. There’s a little discomfort level that I haven’t seen him. But for established patients and managing chronic illnesses, it’s just great,” he said.

“It can’t replace all office visits because we really need to see some patients — there are subtle signs we tend to miss if we’re seeing only through a camera. There are procedures we can’t do on a television. If they have a rash, that is not well-examined on television. Those are some challenges.”

Medical organizations have brought up technology access gaps as well, particularly among certain demographic groups. Health Affairs, an online publication of Project HOPE, recently reported that more than one in three U.S. households headed by a person age 65 or older do not have a desktop or a laptop, and more than half do not have a smartphone. While family members or caregivers can help, one in five Americans older than age 50 suffer from social isolation.

Access to technology is also a barrier in other ages and minority groups. Children in low-income households are much less likely to have a computer at home than their wealthier classmates. More than 30% of Hispanic or black children do not have a computer at home, as compared to 14% of white children.

“We evolved from doing it very quickly and responding to the pandemic — how do we keep our patients safe and get them the best care possible? — to asking, what does this look like going forward?”

Even on the provider side, organizations have work to do to fit telehealth seamlessly into traditional practices, Cameron said.

“We need to continue to beef up the infrastructure so that it allows for effective management of both televisits and in-person visits, so that the physician can be flexible,” he explained. “They can take a laptop, go into a room, do a normal visit with a person, do their documentation, and then, for televisits, go slide it into a docking station where they have two monitors up; they’ve got the documentation and can see the patient at the same time, right in front of them.”

Like other trends that evolved on the fly during the pandemic, like remote work (see story on page 22), telehealth may have served its purpose well during these chaotic months, but to make it a permanent fixture will require planning.

“We evolved from doing it very quickly and responding to the pandemic — how do we keep our patients safe and get them the best care possible? — to asking, what does this look like going forward? With the efficiency and effectiveness I saw with our practices, this is absolutely a tool we can continue to develop.”

One of the evolutions in Cameron’s organization may be a move toward expanding the use of Doximity, perhaps in conjunction with the Meditech web portal, where parients can schedule a telehealth visit on the latter, and the link is sent via Doximity.

“It’s not like the technology isn’t there, and it’s going to continue to evolve and move forward,” he went on. “But what’s made it a reality is now, you can get paid for it, and there’s some funding out there to beef up the infrastructure.”

Peace of Mind

While primary care and certain specialties are making strong use of telemedicine, behavioral health has been a particularly fertile field. The Mental Health Assoc. (MHA) began using its own platform, called TeleWell, through its BestLife Emotional Health and Wellness Center in January, just before COVID-19 arrived in the U.S.

Through TeleWell, clients could connect remotely with a clinician, recovery coach, or prescriber for varying times and frequencies.

“The response from the community has been positive, with many individuals requesting the ability to continue receiving services utilizing TeleWell in the future,” said Sara Kendall, vice president of Clinical Operations.

“The flexibility of MHA’s TeleWell best matches the ability of individuals to receive services, while also in a location of their choice, in which they are comfortable,” she added, noting that client feedback suggests a growing role for this model in the future. “The adaptive world of today has been a benefit to the critical to needs of tomorrow.”

MHA recently announced $13,333 in grant funding provided by Baystate Noble Hospital to advance Well Aware, an information and education initiative that aims to raise awareness of the availability of telehealth services to help people dealing with the challenges of opioid and substance use disorders in the Greater Westfield area.

“The ability to connect via TeleWell can be of critical importance for people who cannot partake of services in person due to the COVID-19 crisis, a lack of transportation, or concern about the stigma often associated with seeking help,” said Kimberley Lee, vice president of Resource Development and Branding for MHA, adding that TeleWell can be an important bridge to enable people to receive the care they need from the safety of their own homes, and that, for people with opioid and substance-use disorders who either wish to enter into recovery or are already in recovery, being able to keep regular appointments with a counselor is critical for them to achieve success in staying sober.

“This is especially important during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, which has upended our society and created a new normal of social distancing,” said Ron Bryant, president of Baystate Noble Hospital. “This practice has resulted in large numbers of people who feel isolated from their families, their circle of friends, and their normal life’s routine. This in turn can result in anxiety, depression, loneliness, and an overwhelming sense of fear and uncertainty, all of which can be addressed through behavioral-health services.”

It’s not just behavioral-health professionals saying telehealth offers an easier and less anxiety-ridden experience, one that makes it more likely patients will keep their appointments. Cameron reports the same trend at Holyoke Medical Center’s practices.

“One thing we found was our no-show rates dropped dramatically,” he said. “It’s pretty easy for the patient. They’re notified at home, and all they have to do is connect. They don’t have to go anywhere.”

As offices reopened to the public, he continued, “we’re probably a mix now of 60% in office, 40% telemedicine. So it’s shifted a little bit, but our goal is to continue to push it as a tool for the providers because, in certain cases, it’s more efficient and effective. It’s actually quicker for the patient and provider.”

Cameron doesn’t expect demand to be an issue, especially as more patients try out a remote visit, he said, noting that a couple of family members recently scheduled televisits and were surprised how easy and effective a visit could be without having to go to the office.

“There’s a push by the state and the feds to keep this in place as a tool to connect with patients. There’s been a push to extend it, make it permanent as a way to get paid, and at the full rate of an office visit. There are definitely enough patients out there who want this.”

Generation Gap

Viswanathan agrees that patients have adapted to the technology. Even older patients, who might not be comfortable with technology, have responded positively when a family member or visiting nurse has shown them how to access it. “When they see the benefits and ease of using it, their acceptance just shoots up.”

Most physicians like having the option as well, Cameron said, noting its potential in on-call situations, when a doctor can send a patient a link and get connected quickly.

“It’s a great tool that gives us much more flexibility. So I don’t see this going away,” he told BusinessWest.

As COVID-19 cases subside, some practices are going back to seeing most patients in person, he noted, but HMC continues to reinforce the use of telehealth. “This is a tool we want to use for the right visits. We want to make sure we give the option to patients. And, as we beef up the technology around it, docs like it.”

One reason, Viswanathan said, is it opens up a practice’s business to patients who may live farther away than they’d like to drive on a regular basis. He also foresees a day when community centers are equipped with telehealth ‘booths’ where patients can transmit their information and be connected to a doctor.

“It will never replace a visit,” he added, “but I think there’s going to be so much innovation around this.”

Part of Cameron’s job will be to continue to educate providers on how telehealth can be an effective tool.

“We still have older docs not accustomed to using all the technology. Back in ’07, EMR was a challenge. Now we’re asking them to do person-to-person visits via telephone or video,” he said. “So I think we’re still early in the process, but I’ve seen tremendous benefit to this that I don’t think is going to go away. And our plan here is to continue to educate, build the technology around it, and make it easier and more efficient for our providers and the whole system.” u

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

From a Distance

By Sean Hogan

Hogan

Sean Hogan

COVID-19 has changed the way we all do business. The remote workforce, which was embraced by a few, is now the new norm and embraced by almost all businesses. The question lingers, though: will this revert when there is a vaccine and we go back to the normal, non-pandemic lifestyle?

Many believe that remote workforce is here to stay, and these numbers seem to be growing with each week and month. But to do that, we need to understand how to manage our remote workforce and embrace technology to support our staff.

To do this effectively, managers need to manage the technology, the people, and the culture. Let’s take them in order.

Managing Technology

Our company, Hogan Technology, has sold and configured videoconferencing and collaboration systems for 25 years. We would set up conference rooms with audio and video so clients could establish videoconferences with employees and customers.

In the past, we saw most of this technology gather dust; at first, a client would embrace video collaboration, but it would quickly be disregarded. The older video and collaboration technology platforms were clumsy and difficult to navigate. Staff would quickly give up trying to learn how to use the tech.

Today’s collaboration tools are extremely easy to use, especially for the younger generation that grew up on smartphones. COVID-19 has promoted the skyrocking popularity of services like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. These tools can be used to enhance your company communications and productivity, but we need to know how to use these tools.

Hogan has had remote employees for more than seven years; the challenge has been including those employees in the day-to-day interaction at the office. Pre-COVID, we rarely had video meetings; now, we meet several times a day via video to collaborate and share data.

“Many of my clients have been quickly thrust into the remote workforce with little or no experience with online collaboration. They have quickly learned how to host and manage online collaboration.”

Meanwhile, many of my clients have been quickly thrust into the remote workforce with little or no experience with online collaboration. They have quickly learned how to host and manage online collaboration. Hogan has adopted a platform for the security and simplicity of the service. We host several Hogan Teams meetings per week. We have fixed meetings and ad hoc meetings. Our fixed meetings are administered by our staff; we create the team, invite the necessary personnel, and share all pertinent data to the Teams site for ease of retrieval. Teams has a smartphone app, desktop app, and browser login.

We have noticed that our video meetings are more focused than our traditional conference room meetings, our data is consolidated, and our agendas are clear.

I must admit that, at first, I was resistant to host sales and client meetings through video collaboration. It took some time and some failures — I completely failed on my first large Zoom conference, but eventually, I embraced the meetings. Throughout the pandemic, all introductory sales meetings have been on Teams, and to my shock they have gone well. We print fewer documents, we save on travel expense, and we can host more meetings per day than before. If we are looking for bright spots during this COVID-19 madness, then this would be one.

Oddly enough, because meetings are so easy, we tend to meet more and share more. We understand that the end game is improving communications; whenever we have a management meeting, we are stressing the need to communicate better, internally and externally. COVID has forced us to communicate better, faster, and more efficiently.

Managing People

We have had many clients request analytics or reports so they can better track the performance of remote employees. There are several ways to track productivity, such as call-volume reports, CRM usage reports, presence activity reports, internet-usage reports, and so on. Personally, I manage my staff to their individual goals; if I have an employee who is exceeding his or her goals, then I don’t need to be very granular with activity reporting. I will use their analytics to compare to other personnel; this helps me determine where I need to focus my attention.

It is critical to protect your company’s endpoints no matter where they reside. If an employee uses a business machine at home, that machine needs to have updated anti-virus, malware protection, multi-factor authentication, and end-point detection and response.

Managing the Culture

Culture is a critical piece in all businesses. Corporate culture refers to the beliefs and behaviors that determine how a company’s employees and management interact. Often, corporate culture is implied, not expressly defined, and develops organically over time. It can be a challenge to maintain your culture while working with a remote workforce.

We have found that we need to engage our employees through collaboration. Our meetings are not just management telling staff what needs to be done and how to do it. The meetings must engage all the personnel — they need to be part of the solution, and we as managers need to stop talking and start listening. This helps cement our team culture.

The key is that we listen to everyone, and other businesses should embrace this mindset. You need to sit back and ask, ‘what is our culture?’ ‘Who are we?’ ‘What matters to our clients?’ and ‘How do we support our community?’

It’s critical to know your culture and even more critical to defend your culture. Make sure your team knows what matters.

In this time when more and more people are working remotely, it’s important to manage the technology. But it’s equally important to manage people and culture.

Sean Hogan is president of Hogan Technology; (413) 585-9950.

Special Coverage Technology

Drying Times

Excel Dryer

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal (second from left) gets a factory tour with Excel Dryer’s Denis Gagnon, Nancy Gagnon, and Bill Gagnon.

When it comes to the XLERATOR, his company’s signature hand dryer, filtration is nothing new, Bill Gagnon said.

“We’ve had an optional HEPA filtration system in it for years,” said Gagnon, vice president of Excel Dryer in East Longmeadow. “The typical HEPA filtration test you do is performed with bacteria, and it’s to particle sizes of .3 microns or larger. That’s standard in the industry. We’ve done that test; we already had it.”

But coronavirus isn’t bacterial, as its name makes clear. And its typical particle size is around 120 nanometers, or 0.12 microns — much smaller than the bacterial particles the filter had already been tested for.

“When we heard about coronavirus, we wanted to get ahead of this and wanted to test our product and its effectiveness against viruses, so we sent our product to our testing laboratory partner in Minnesota and said we want to do a virus-specific test,” Gagnon explained, adding that the lab put some 380 million virus particles through the system, “and basically zero came out the other end.”

Well, not exactly zero, but pretty darn close; the dryer’s filter lets through about one in 100,000 particles.

“This test shows our HEPA filtration system can filter [the virus] out of the airstream and gives the public assurance that it’s safe to use hand dryers — because it is,” Gagnon told BusinessWest. “Hand dryers are a hygienic way to dry your hands. This was something we wanted to test for — something we thought was important.”

Xlerator

One of the mobile units being delivered to the front lines of the COVID-19 fight.

On May 6, Excel Dryer hosted U.S. Rep. Richard Neal and local media to tour the company’s manufacturing facility and tout the XLERATOR’s virus-filtration capabilities — and an ongoing donation of 100 units, with HEPA filtration systems, to first responders and COVID-19 testing sites across the state.

“Talk about innovation and creativity — they established it,” Neal said of Gagnon and his father, Excel President Denis Gagnon, who invented the popular XLERATOR. “These are 52 domestic manufacturing jobs to compete with supply chains all over the world. If we’ve learned one lesson from a pandemic, it’s that relying on other parts of the world for our products and supplies is not a great idea.”

Neal and his aide, William Tranghese, were involved in early discussions establishing Excel Dryer as an essential manufacturer in Massachusetts, making hand dryers that play a critical role in achieving proper hand hygiene. After all, thoroughly washing and completely drying hands are listed as the top defense against the spread of germs — including the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19 — by both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Proper hand hygiene isn’t just washing your hands, it’s completely drying your hands,” Denis Gagnon said following the factory tour. “When we originally added the HEPA filter as an option to the XLERATOR, we tested for bacteria. Because of the COVID outbreak, we retested the HEPA filter for its ability to filter viruses, and it literally filters 99.999% of viruses. So I think there’s going to be healthy demand for HEPA-filter XLERATORs going forward.”

Bending the Curve

Neal — who, like the Gagnons, Excel’s employees, and guests, wore a face mask during his visit to the plant — touted hand washing as well, and said it’s among the now-common practices, including social distancing, that are flattening the viral curve in Massachusetts.

“The CDC and the WHO have all talked about the notion of hand hygiene, how important it is. I think we’ve seen in Massachusetts the curve beginning to bend,” the congressman noted. “The stabilization — and a little bit of a decline — have had much to do with, I think, adhering to the recommendations of professional health people.”

He particularly praised Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as “the most reliable voice in America” on coronavirus and related matters. “Whenever I’ve received an invitation over these years in Washington to an event where he was the speaker, I went to hear what he had to say.”

As for the COVID-19 progression, “there is some good news, but there is a ways to go,” Neal went on. “Hot spots seem to be declining in the larger urban areas, but they seem to be moving to new places. So while we have better news in Boston, New York, and even here in Western Massachusetts, other areas of the country are likely to go through the outbreak that we’ve all witnessed here.”

And if Excel can play a part in slowing the spread, all the better, Denis Gagnon said.

“We very much pride ourselves on making our product here in the United States,” he noted. “It didn’t take the inconvenience of disrupted supply chains to bring it back. We never wanted it to leave in the first place. As far as being a good corporate citizen, it’s in our blood. We’re happy to help in any way we can. This was kind of an impromptu solution, and I think it’s going to help on the front lines.”

Indeed, the 100 donated units are already being shipped out, Bill Gagnon said, to police and fire facilities, testing sites, and places like the first-responder recovery center being operated by the Hampden County Sheriff’s Office.

“If they test positive, they don’t want to bring it home, so they get quality food and bedding and a place to get healthy and stay away from their families,” he explained. “We’re donating units there. We’re just trying to find out where they’ll make the biggest impact.”

While the HEPA filters on the dryers are not new, the mobile units are. They came out of a conversation the Gagnons had with Neal and his staff about whether Excel’s work is considered essential.

“In that conversation, I was talking about getting mobile units out to the front lines,” Bill said, explaining that the company’s stainless-steel supplier had built a wall to show off the product in a trade show booth. “They said, ‘we can re-engineer that to be mobile, and we can get this thing out in the field.’ Two days later, the prototype was created, and they drove it up here and dropped it off — it was amazing. Two weeks later, we had the first units being used out in the field.

“So it was an amazing new product innovation,” he continued, “and we were working with the congressman’s office and just trying to figure out, how can we help? How can we get this virus-filtering hand-hygiene solution into these facilities? And now it’s here, and there’s a lot of interest in it, and we think it can make a big difference.”

“When we heard about coronavirus, we wanted to get ahead of this and wanted to test our product and its effectiveness against viruses, so we sent our product to our testing laboratory partner in Minnesota and said we want to do a virus-specific test.”

After all, he explained, while experts like the CDC and Fauci tout proper hand hygiene as the best defense against the spread of germs, it’s important to not forget the role of complete drying as well.

“Everyone talks about washing your hands for 20 seconds, but nobody talks about drying your hands,” Bill said. “You have to completely dry them. Wet hands are 1,000 times more susceptible to pick up or transfer germs. Drying hands is critical.”

Essentially Speaking

So are Excel’s operations, even in the midst of an economic shutdown, he added.

“We were in the same situation of a lot of other small businesses; when the federal guidelines came out and it was up to the states to put out their guidances, there were a lot of general categories” for what constitutes an essential service during the pandemic, he explained.

Excel seemed to fit multiple categories, Bill told BusinessWest; not only is hygiene important during a viral outbreak, but the company has contracts with the federal government to supply its product, which can boost a company’s chances to be deemed essential.

“There’s critical manufacturing, but for us, we’re such a niche market, no one calls out hand dryers specifically,” he went on. “But we felt like we fit under multiple categories, and that’s why we reached out to Congressman Neal’s office. We wanted to do everything we could to make sure we we’re doing the right thing, and they helped us with that. And when the state of Massachusetts put out their second round, a revision to the essential-services list, hygiene actually had its own category … and we’re certainly a critical part of that. So, yes, absolutely, we’re essential.”

And part of a mobile hand-drying solution that promises to reduce the spread of infection, Neal said. “There are simple things we can do in life to get through this, and they are going to be very important to us going forward.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Into the Breach

Cybersecurity experts say there’s still plenty of misunderstanding when it comes to the reality of data threats. For example, it’s not just big companies being attacked — these days, everyone is a target, and data thieves are becoming more subtle and savvy with their methods. That means companies need to be more vigilant — but it also means career opportunities abound in a field that desperately needs more young talent.

Everyone knows what cybersecurity is. Fewer know what people who work in the field actually do — and how much they earn.

And that’s a problem, Tom Loper said, when it comes to drawing young talent into a field that desperately needs it — and will need it for many years to come, as the breadth and complexity of data threats continue to evolve.

“That’s why we need to start with the high-school students,” said Loper, associate provost and dean of the School of Science and Management at Bay Path University. “They don’t really understand cybersecurity, and that’s a big problem because we have this incredible shortage of folks qualified to work in cybersecurity.”

Bay Path is doing its part, he said, not only with two undergraduate programs in the field and a graduate program in cybersecurity management, but by actively promoting those tracks to incoming students with undecided majors.

“We allow them to take cyber courses that first semester just to try it out, and the whole faculty is steering them toward it because the pay is so good in this field. Most of the ones who take it, believe it or not, they stay in that field,” he said, noting that about 90 students are currently enrolled in the three programs. “That’s a pretty good number for a small school like this. Now, we’re trying to get more high-school students to understand.”

“Companies are becoming more savvy. They’re asking, ‘how protected am I?’ The word’s getting out there, but unfortunately, it’s getting out because someone hears that a friend or another company got attacked.”

Loper said Bay Path’s programs are tailored specifically to the requirements of various cybersecurity careers, so students can get entry-level jobs immediately and go on to earn whatever further industry certifications they may need. “We have graduates making $60,000 to $80,000 coming out of school with these degrees. And if they get some experience before graduation, they’re worth even more.”

Tom Loper said cybersecurity is a complex challenge best tackled from a region-wide, ‘ecosystem’ perspective.

To that end, Bay Path recently won a grant from the Mass Cyber Center at MassTech to support internship and workforce experiences for students. That’s just one aspect, he said, of the way the region can build a cybersecurity hub from what he calls an “ecosystem perspective,” one that encompasses high-school and college students, workforce-development programs, government agencies, and business sectors where cybersecurity is important. These days, that’s most of them.

“Companies are becoming more savvy,” said Mark Jardim, lead engineer at CMD Technology Group in East Longmeadow. “They’re asking, ‘how protected am I?’ The word’s getting out there, but unfortunately, it’s getting out because someone hears that a friend or another company got attacked. But they are calling us and saying, ‘how can we be more protected?’”

Chris Rivers, vice president of Phillips Insurance in Chicopee, agreed that more companies are coming around to the threat potential.

“It sometimes depends on whether they’ve had an incident or a near miss,” he said, adding that, while people may hear news reports about data breaches at large companies, no business of any size is totally immune.

In fact, “smaller businesses tend to have less security, and sometimes it’s easier for hackers to get in there, taking credit-card information or any type of information, really. Think of a law office, and the risk of private information being taken and used against clients.

“Things we’ve preached over the years still hold true — they just keep changing the vector of attack. And the damage to smaller companies is more significant because they often don’t have the resources to deal with it, and it’s painful.”

“If you have a breach and data is stolen,” Rivers added, “it can get pretty costly.”

Data security has become a primary form of business insurance at all commercial agencies, but a policy to recover damages, even a comprehensive one, isn’t enough; the long-term brand damage, Rivers noted, is much harder to quantify. “Once your reputation is gone, it’s gone.”

The fact that businesses are catching on to this reality, combined with high-tech advances that will making defending against cybercrime more challenging, has created significant opportunities in what promises to be one of the most important career fields over the next decade.

Human Nature

Charlie Christianson, president of CMD and its sister company, Peritus Security, said data breaches cost companies $11.5 billion in 2019. And the threats come in many forms.

“Things we’ve preached over the years still hold true — they just keep changing the vector of attack,” he told BusinessWest. “And the damage to smaller companies is more significant because they often don’t have the resources to deal with it, and it’s painful.”

The human element to data breaches is still prominent, as e-mail phishing schemes remain the number-one way cybercriminals gain access to networks. These often arrive with URLs that are very close to a legitimate address. More importantly, phishers are ever-honing their ability to replicate the tone, language, and content of the supposed sender.

“They look incredibly realistic,” Christianson said. “A week doesn’t go by where we don’t get one and say, ‘wow, this looks good.’ For people who don’t live it every day, it can be very easy to fall into the trap. The trick is to just stop and think about it before you click on it.”

These attacks are more specific and targeted in the past, he went on, but they’re not the only way data thieves are getting in. Another is through employees’ personal devices, which don’t typically boast the security features of a large corporate system.

“Devices are hit and used to launch an attack, or they’re infected and brought into a secure environment. What’s on that device can get into the corporate network and spread,” he explained, which is why many companies have tightened up their BYOD (bring your own device) policies.

“That’s slowing down as businesses are becoming aware of the risk,” Jardim added. “We’re actually seeing a trend of slowing down the bring-your-own-device idea in the workforce; companies are saying, ‘maybe we shouldn’t do that because attackers are using those vulnerabilities.’”

The trend known as the internet of things, or IoT, poses new threats as well, Christianson said.

“When people think about securing their network, they think about their computers, their servers, their tablets, things like that. But they don’t think about the SimpliSafe security system or the time clock that hangs on the wall or the voice-over-IP phone system they use every day. You have all these devices that aren’t being maintained — they just let them run.”

He knows of one company that was attacked through its security-camera system, and said segmenting networks is one way to minimize such a threat. “That shouldn’t be on same network as your finances.”

The defenses against breach attempts are myriad, from password portals and multi-factor verification of online accounts to geoblocking traffic coming from overseas.

“A lot can be done with training,” Christianson said. “The most important thing you have in your business is your people, and educating people how to act and what to do when they see something — to make your staff savvy — is one of the most beneficial things you can do.”

Mark Jardim (left) and Charlie Christianson say cybercrime is constantly evolving, and so must the strategies businesses employ to prevent it.

It’s definitely a challenge, Jardim added. “We have to protect every single door and window, we have to be right 100% of the time, and a hacker just needs to find one vulnerability.”

Cultivating an Ecosystem

That list of threats and defenses — which only skims the surface — drives home the need for a more robust cybersecurity workforce, Loper said.

“We believe you have to take a regional approach to cybersecurity,” he noted. “We don’t believe you can just think of yourself as island unto yourself. Whether you’re a big organization or a small organization, you’re part of the supply chain, and there are opportunities for breaches. Everyone is connected.”

Boosting workforce-development programs is one spoke on the wheel. “It needs more attention. At one point, we didn’t have enough tool and die makers. The Commonwealth got behind it, and now we have enough. Something like that is going to happen in the high schools, and across this region, where we’re retraining people to work in this space just because there are so many opportunities.”

“The most important thing you have in your business is your people, and educating people how to act and what to do when they see something — to make your staff savvy — is one of the most beneficial things you can do.”

One plan is to develop a ‘cyber range,’ which is a simulated IT environment that emulates the IT structure of businesses, Loper explained. “We can bring people into the cyber range and help them deal with threats to a simulated environment.”

All these strategies are running headlong into the rise, in the very near future, of 5G wireless connectivity, which will dramatically increase data speed — and perhaps security threats as well.

“The threat we have now is going to go on steroids with 5G and with IoT,” Loper said. “The opportunties for business development will be greater than ever, and the opportunities for penetration will be greater than ever as well. It’s amazing what’s happening with 5G — it’s mostly good, but pretty darn challenging.”

Those threats provide business for commercial insurers, and that coverage is important, Rivers said, but businesses have to think about their own common-sense defenses as well.

“As we do renewals or reach out to clients, we try to bring out what policies are available to them to protect them from different things,” he noted. “It’s easy for us to recommend everything, but there’s a cost, so we try to inform them what’s out there so they can make decisions — ‘do I want this? Do I want that?’”

Rivers cited a statistic from Philadelphia Insurance Companies, which reports that the average cost of a data breach is $204 per lost record, with more than half of such costs attributable to lost customers and the associated public-relations expenses to rebuild an organization’s reputation.

“It’s one thing to take the data out, but when your brand is affected because you’ve had this incredible breach, that’s something else,” Loper added. “Your brand is what people think it is; it’s not what you think it is, like in the old days. Now, just look on social media, and that tells you what your brand is. Cybersecurity is one of those things that, if not done properly, can undermine your brand so quickly.”

In the end, Jardim said, the idea is to minimize risk.

“I always joke, the most secure machine is one that’s shut off in a locked room, but you have to find a balance,” he said — one that employs measures from simple common sense to choosing the right firewall.

“We see clients who have $5 million businesses buying a $100 firewall from Staples. You’re not going to protect your infrastructrure with that. You need the right equipment for your size. You need professional stuff for your business — you can’t use the same equipment you buy for your house for your business.”

“Well, you can,” Christianson added quickly, noting just one more way people might take a limited view of cybersecurity threats — and come to regret it.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Air Apparent

By Sean Hogan

Small businesses have been drawn to VoIP technology because of the substantial cost savings they gain when making the switch. However, as VoIP has continued to evolve over the years and moved into the ‘cloud,’ small businesses have begun to leverage VoIP in new ways to gain competitive advantages in their respective industries.

The growth of virtual companies and remote workforces has brought everyone to the same playing field, and customers across every industry are looking to work with credible, prestigious, large companies. Here are some ways in which cloud voice can make your business look bigger than it is today.

Your office just got a receptionist you don’t have to pay for. Cloud-based phone systems today include features that completely eliminate the need for a receptionist. Systems can be configured in order to route calls directly to the intended employee via a unified auto-attendant. Also, if your office doesn’t have a receptionist, systems can distribute incoming calls among specific groups.

This goes beyond simply sending sales calls to salespeople and admin calls to support employees. For example, you can use caller ID to send specific accounts directly to the CEO’s cell phone. Or if none of the salespeople answer an incoming call, it goes to the sales manager’s cell phone.

Sean Hogan

“Small businesses have begun to leverage VoIP in new ways to gain competitive advantages in their respective industries.”

Unlimited locations, one office number. With the rampant growth of startups and virtual companies, many businesses need to have a communications system that supports both in-house and remote workers while maintaining a professional image across the board. With cloud voice, calls to the main office can be sent out anywhere simply by asking the customer to dial an extension, just like how large corporations are doing.

Seamless conference calls and lightning-fast voicemails. Conference calls or online meetings are often a source of frustration for most companies. Cloud voice solutions enable businesses to host conferences during meetings so you can be face to face, even when you can’t be in the same location.

Furthermore, all technology is hosted through a single solution, so when it’s time to host a meeting, businesses can rest assured that the technology will perform as promised. Another way in which cloud voice accelerates collaboration is through its ability to convert voicemails into MP3 files, which can be sent as e-mail attachments. Additionally, voice calls can be converted to text and vice versa for easier retrieval and communication.

Collaborate on the fly. Today’s employees need to be constantly connected. Collaboration can’t always be planned out in advance, and when a good idea strikes, everyone needs to be in the loop. Cloud technology has made it easy for employees to see from their desktop what their co-workers are doing and how to best access them (e.g. instant message, voice, or e-mail) so communication can happen immediately.

There are many advantages to moving a company to cloud voice. For small business, the rewards are plentiful because they can utilize the same technology as large enterprises for a fraction of the cost and make them look just as big.

Sean Hogan is president of Hogan Technology.

Technology

High-tech Harvest

Vice President Paul Whalley

From its humble beginnings in a Southwick basement 40 years ago, Whalley Computer Associates has become a technology company with remarkable reach, providing a host of services to more than 3,000 business clients, ranking WCA in the top one-tenth of 1% of all computer resellers by sales volume. That growth has come through constant evolution in response to industry needs and trends, but also simply by making life easier for clients, who increasingly demand no-fuss solutions to their network needs.

Paul Whalley knows his company might have a larger brand presence in a larger city.

“Our biggest challenge, marketing-wise, is being in Western Mass. — because you know what they think of us in Eastern Mass.,” he said. “And then we’re in a town called Southwick, and if you look up Southwick, you see a farming community, and the name of the company is a family name. So I think people have an image of my brother and me with pitchforks, milking the cows in the morning and feeding the chickens when we get home, and maybe selling one or two computers.

“But that perception isn’t what people get when they walk through here,” he quickly added, and for good reason.

Out of its 62,500-square-foot headquarters in Southwick — it also maintains facilities in Westfield, Milford, and Providence, R.I. — Whalley Computer Associates (WCA) has grown to be the 175th-largest computer solution provider in North America. That’s among more than 200,000 such companies, placing Whalley squarely in the top one-tenth of 1%.

What started as a software-consulting firm is now an original equipment manufacturer (OEM), building computers and other devices for 25 brands, a few of them major national names. In so doing, WCA is the largest reseller of Lenovo products in the U.S. and has been the top reseller for Dell in the Northeast many years.

“I think people have an image of my brother and me with pitchforks, milking the cows in the morning and feeding the chickens when we get home, and maybe selling one or two computers. But that perception isn’t what people get when they walk through here.”

Initially, the firm served customers mostly based in Massachusetts and Connecticut. However, in the past decade, it has expanded its range, providing technology products and services across all of New England and Upstate New York.

It’s not easy to pin down what WCA does in a few words. Early in its history, it focused on imaging and configuration, delivery and deployment, and maintenance and repair. But today, services include pre-sales consultation, system design and implementation, infrastructure, data storage and management, client and server virtualization, disaster recovery and business continuance, VoIP, wireless cloud computing and cloud infrastructure services, server, storage, and network health checks — and more.

The company provides services to more than 250 school systems, 50 colleges, and 3,000 businesses, while continually expanding its range of offerings as the technology world continually evolves.

“It’s the full life cycle,” said Whalley, WCA’s vice president. “We’re consulting on what they should buy, selling them what they should buy, preparing what they bought, delivering what they bought, taking care of what they bought, managing what they bought — perhaps even remotely — and then, at the end of its life, gathering it back and disposing of it or returning it to the leasing company or giving it to a school, whatever the customer wants.”

Up from the Basement

Like many high-tech success stories, WCA grew from humble beginnings. As a part-time programming consultant in the Agawam school system in the 1970’s, math teacher John Whalley — Paul’s brother — purchased a small software-consulting firm. Working after school and during the summer from his Southwick basement, he built a small customer base.

Then, in 1979, incorporating his experience teaching his students programming on the school’s new computer, he started Whalley Computer Associates. He moved to new quarters in Southwick twice, all the while trying to convince his brother to come on board.

Paul started helping out part-time, and in 1985, they both dove in full-time, with John (still the company’s president) leaving his teaching job and Paul resigning from his position as a programmer at MassMutual, in the process becoming WCA’s fourth employee. The acquisition of customers such as Northeast Utilities, United Technologies, General Electric, and Cigna helped drive the company’s rapid growth.

Dean LeClerc says WCA’s engineering training lab helps keep the team on top of current technology.

That growth necessitated several moves in Southwick, from John Whalley’s cellar to a former hair salon, to a 1,500-square-foot office, to an 18,000-square-foot building on Route 202, to the current headquarters on Whalley Way, in the industrial-park section of town, built in 1999.

Through all that growth, Whalley said, the idea has always been to make life easier for customers. For example, the Southwick facility has hundreds of linear feet of ‘bench space’ where computers and other devices are not only built, but tested by connecting directly with the client’s network.

“The benefit for the customer is they can just walk to the desk, unplug the old one, plug in the new one, and walk away. Otherwise, they’d have to go the desk and spend 15 minutes with the product and get it fully configured on their network. It’s much more efficient and cost-effective, and allows them to work on more strategic things. Their IT staff doesn’t really want to be doing this. They’re certified at a pretty high level and want to be doing more challenging things.”

Dean LeClerc, director of Engineering, pointed out one bench that was being used to test Chromebooks headed to a Holyoke school.

“They leave here as if it had already been brought to Holyoke and connected with their network and tested,” he explained. “So they’re opening a box they already know works on their network.”

LeClerc added that Whalley can even set up each device for the individual student who will be using it, and a WCA representative will often visit sites to hand them out to specific users.

Early in BusinessWest’s recent visit, LeClerc showed off one of the facility’s newer features, an engineering training lab outfitted with WCA’s most commonly sold storage devices, switches, and servers — a half-million-dollar investment in making sure the engineering team stays on top of technology.

“Our engineers are doing it for the second, third, or fourth time before they’re getting to a customer’s environment,” he explained. “They’re not doing it for the first time at a customer’s live environment.”

In addition, if a customer is in a bind with equipment going down that could affect the flow of business, the lab might loan a piece of equipment for a day or a week to get the customer up and running again immediately instead of having to wait for shipment of a new product.

“If you listen to anybody in technology, they’ll tell you the majority of problems come when people aren’t being vigilant and open e-mails they shouldn’t be opening.”

“So we try to balance it,” he said. “This is our lab for our engineers, but if we have a couple extra pieces of equipment that we know we can bring out to get a customer back up and running, we can do that.”

Safe and Secure

WCA has evolved in other ways as well, Whalley said, mostly in response to changing industry needs and trends. Take security, for example, in the form of building security, surveillance cameras, access-control cards, and other products and services.

“We weren’t even thinking about that stuff 10 years ago, but it’s becoming a bigger piece of our business now,” he said, adding that WCA has a contract with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as an ITC71 vendor for security systems.

Cybersecurity is another growing niche, he noted. “We’ll do assessments, look at the network, and help them prevent someone from attacking them. Even the biggest companies get attacked. We’ll build up a robust system with a lot of redundancy so if something does happen, whether it’s ransomware or malware or a virus, they experience no — or very little — downtime.”

He recalled two incidents, one involving a customer of WCA’s managed services, who had invested in a needs analysis and network cybersecurity protection and monitoring. “Within seconds of a ransom attack, we shut everything down, isolating the problem to one desktop, and brought the whole network back up, so they were down for only minutes, and then worked on clearing out that one bad desktop where the ransomware came in.”

Meanwhile, another local company, not a customer of those managed services, got attacked, and it took three weeks and 100 hours of engineering time to get it back up and running, Whalley noted.

“One computer down for an hour, versus the entire network down for three weeks. One did the preparation and the engineering ahead of time to have a robust defense of their system, and because it was monitored at the point, we immediately knew there was a problem and could quarantine it and get the rest of the company working again. That’s the power of having the combination of the managed-service group and Dean’s engineers.”

WCA also sends a trainer to conduct security-awareness trainings for clients, because so many breaches result from human mistakes, he noted.

“If you listen to anybody in technology, they’ll tell you the majority of problems come when people aren’t being vigilant and open e-mails they shouldn’t be opening. So we offer a very affordable service, coming into a company and going through a two-hour presentation on how to stay out of trouble and how not to make those mistakes that put your company in jeopardy.”

Staying atop such trends and others is critical, which is why WCA presents the annual Foxwoods Technology Show, the biggest technology event in the region solely for IT professionals. Every year, it attracts more than 1,000 attendees, including 300 representatives from 60 different manufacturers.

“We’re in an industry where you either change or you die,” Whalley told BusinessWest. “Everything’s moving so fast now. You either change and embrace the change — and try to lead the change — or you go out of business.”

Growth Pattern

In a business market where 80% of computer companies fail in less than five years, WCA employs more than 150 computer professionals and continues to grow its client base. It’s not exactly a small company, but tries to maintain a small-firm spirit, through events like monthly breakfasts, lunches, and birthday parties, as well as kickoffs of baseball and football season, where employees wear their favorite teams’ jerseys. Just this month, employees gathered to celebrate WCA’s best September ever.

“We pride ourselves on being a family business,” Whalley said, with the concept of family extending beyond the company’s founders, reflecting a general spirit of camaraderie in Southwick as well as the other sites.

At the same time, its work is serious business — and a long way from milking cows and feeding chickens.

“Our challenge is to stay as ahead of the curve as we can, but provide the stability and assurance to our customers that we’re not just jumping onto the new shiny penny and abandoning our core business,” LeClerc said. “We’re large enough that we can afford to do that. We have enough resources to stay ahead of the curve but still deliver traditional services to our customers until they’re ready for a change.”

Whalley agreed. “We try not to jump around from one thing to the other; we just try to add additional capabilities and continue to be exceptional at the legacy of services and products that we provide.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Bit by Bit

From left: Patrick Fortunato, business development manager; Jitu Changela, CEO; and Marc Solomon, director of Operations. 

While growing his business and keeping his employees busy at all times is Jitu Changela’s primary goal, his mission in business is to keep his clients’ employees busy and help those companies grow.

He and his team at the IT solutions company Azaya believe this is one of the best ways to measure success in this highly competitive, still-evolving field. Indeed, companies can’t grow and prosper, and their employees can’t be highly productive, if their IT systems are down. Or if the equipment is old and obsolete. Or if a business isn’t making the most of its investments in IT.

Azaya, a 25-year-old managed-service provider based in Palmer and founded by Changela, helps clients maximize their IT systems and ensure they are reliable and sustainable, thus enabling employees to work better and smarter. It does this through a philosophy of putting the client first and continually learning from each customer experience.

“You can never know everything; we’re always learning,” said Changela, leader of this six-person tech company that provides essential technology components and service to many different types of businesses. “The best way we keep up with what’s happening in this industry is by having a variety of different clients. They’re all from different industries, so working with each one of those clients in a different industry forces us to look at all the different hardware and software solutions that are out there.” 

The company’s overarching goal is to become what a provider must be in this changing industry — a one-stop shop. And it is well on its way to becoming just that.

The company offers something it calls eZ Virtual IT, which creates a team of IT professionals available at a client’s disposal and capable of handling a variety of services, including customized systems, security, website hosting, data protection, and server system setup and maintenance.

It also provides eZ Voice, a complete solution to business phone-line needs, and eZ Projects, help with specific IT projects, which, as Changela puts it, enables the company to “audition” for the client for future partnerships.

“With our model of one fixed cost, we’re there as many times as we need to be without it being any extra expense to them. Being able to be preventive solves a lot of their problems before they become problems.”

But the company’s ongoing success and continued growth is due not only to what it provides clients, but also how — specifically a fixed-cost model that is somewhat unique in the industry and provides a number of benefits for clients.

“That’s our core focus today, providing fixed-cost services,” Changela said, adding that most companies still charge hourly rates. “What we do is very unique; it’s a win-win partnership. Clients pay us a fixed cost, and our goal is to make sure we maintain their infrastructure at a very high level.” 

Overall, the company preaches to its clients to be proactive, or preventive, and not reactive, when it comes to technology, investing in it and ultimately making the most of it, said Marc Solomon, Azaya’s Director of Operations, and the fixed-cost system helps them do just that.

For this issue and its focus on technology, BusinessWest talked with the team at Azaya — that word means ‘shelter, refuge, and support’ in Sanskrit — as it celebrates 25 years in business and looks ahead to what the future can bring for this forward-looking company.

Tech Talk

Before looking forward, though, Changela first flashed back a quarter-century or so to when the internet was young and he was looking for work.

With a strong background in electrical engineering, he knew he wanted to do something computer- or electronics-related but was unemployed and couldn’t find a job. That’s when he decided to make his own luck. 

“I just decided that I had some experience in purchasing high-level computer equipment, and I found clients that needed stuff like that,” he told BusinessWest. “At that time, the internet was very new, so they had to go through some channel to get the high-level computer equipment, and I had the source.” 

So, he provided that equipment to them. Then, the fledgling venture grew from what is called “reselling” to the next phase, which focused on providing a variety of needed services to local clients. 

 “We then became internet service providers in town here in Palmer,” Changela said, adding that the company continued evolving into a multi-layered IT solutions provider. 

Solomon joined the team after an internship while he was attending Southern New Hampshire University. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science, and has been with the company for three years. 

“I’ve always been interested in technology,” he said. “After I graduated, Jitu brought me on board and has really shown me the ropes of the managed-service-provider industry.” 

 More recently, Azaya added Patrick Fortunato as its Business Development Manager to lead the sales of IT managed-services support, digital and VoIP business telephone systems, and cutting-edge security surveillance technologies, and he has plenty of experience in the technology industry. 

“I used to replace telex machines with fax machines,” he said with a laugh, adding that technology has certainly evolved even more since then, and all three men emphasized the importance of keeping up with the changing times. 

This means finding ways to stand out within a deep and talented pool of competitors, bringing more services to a wider array of customers.

Indeed, Changela said he realized years ago that Comcast was going to take over some of Azaya’s internet business, so the company knew it had to change something up. That’s when it evolved from being an Internet service provider to a managed-service provider,

And one that features what it calls a guaranteed network uptime policy — essentially a promise to keep clients up and running all the time. 

 “It’s all about being preventive over being reactive,” Solomon said. “A lot of times, with billable hours, which is the other side of the coin of fixed cost, it’s difficult to be preventive when you’re working on a limited source of hours. With our model of one fixed cost, we’re there as many times as we need to be without it being any extra expense to them. Being able to be preventive solves a lot of their problems before they become problems.”

“Downtime is obviously not cost-effective. It costs a lot of money when employees cannot work. We want to work smart, not hard, and they want to see their network up and running all the time. Everybody is winning at that point.”

This policy, said Changela said, puts pressure on Azaya as a vendor and partner, but ensures that each party involved is happy.

“Downtime is obviously not cost-effective. It costs a lot of money when employees cannot work,” he said. “We want to work smart, not hard, and they want to see their network up and running all the time. Everybody is winning at that point.”

Overall, Azaya focuses on efficiency and security, bringing the technological support a business needs for greater effectiveness to internal business processes. Changela also says they customize services based on what the business needs, and guides companies through the process. 

This is what the team’s leaders mean when they say the company works in partnership with its clients, another key to its success.

 “We’re constantly talking to our clients and trying to figure out what technology they can utilize to best serve their needs,” he said. “We have to do some research and figure out what’s out there that can help them.”

 For Adaptas Solutions, for example, a phone system that could handle all its needs throughout multiple offices was something it lacked. Azaya installed the Cisco BE6000 in five of its locations, giving Adaptas the ability to connect all its locations seamlessly, providing the phones, servers, and phone lines all throughout the entire operation, creating a one-stop solution.

Bottom Line

While this model seems to be working well for the tech company, Changela says the team has big plans for where they want to be in the future. 

“Our biggest goal is to become that one-stop-shop,” he told BusinessWest. “Anything that is connected to the network, whether it’s printers, cameras, security cameras, or phone systems … we should be involved in it.”

Fortunato said the future of technology is related to security and speed, and Solomon added that becoming a specialty leader in multiple industries is also at the top of Azaya’s list. 

“We have clients from architects to veterinarians, so our range is quite large,” he said. “To be able to pick a vertical and become the dominant leader in that vertical is something that is on the business plan. We want to be viewed as equals in the industry, against the companies that have a little more exposure.”

Changela added that one main thing that separates Azaya from competitors is the culture of the company, with a focus on honesty and integrity. 

“It’s not always about making money, it’s about helping our clients become successful,” he said. “And at the end of the day, if they’re successful, we’ll make money anyways.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

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]

Sections Technology

Banking on Breakthroughs

 

Three UMass Amherst campus research initiatives are among nine projects across the five-campus system that are sharing $735,000 in grants from the President’s Science & Technology (S&T) Initiatives Fund.

Announced by UMass President Marty Meehan, the projects showcase a range of cutting-edge faculty research being conducted across the UMass system, from enhancing clean-energy technologies to developing materials that can autonomously release drugs and precisely target tumors.

The Amherst campus projects include:

• The Center for Autonomous Chemistry, an initiative with UMass Lowell and UMass Medical School, and led by chemistry professor S. Thayumanvanan. The project will develop the molecular design fundamentals for autonomous chemical systems, inspired by the immune system. Fully developed, this will form the basis to develop materials that can autonomously release drugs in response to a specific trigger and precisely target tumors. The grant of $140,000 will be used to facilitate one or more proposed projects to federal research agencies.

• The UMass Unmanned Aerial System Research and Education Collaborative (UASREC), led by Michael Knodler of the UMass Transportation Center. A collaboration with UMass Dartmouth, UASREC is established to advance unmanned aerial systems, also known as drones, to advance interdisciplinary and collaborative research and education. With research already funded through the state Department of Transportation, $100,000 in S&T funds will help position UASREC to become the New England Transportation Center and develop other proposals to federal funding agencies.

• The Center for Smart and Connected Society (CS2), a project with UMass Medical School, is being led by Prashant Shenoy in Computer Science at UMass Amherst and David McManus in Cardiovascular Medicine at UMass Medical Center. The project, as part of the creation of the new interdisciplinary CS2, will focus on the advancement and application of smart and connected technologies. The smart-application domains include smart health and smart living, smart buildings and energy, smart and autonomous vehicles, and smart agriculture. The one-year, $25,000 S&T grant will advance the planning for CS2 and coordination with the medical school’s Center for Data Driven Discovery and HealthCare, which also received an S&T award.

Amherst campus researchers are also involved in another of the funded projects, the UMass MOVEment Research Center, which will explore the mechanics of movement and muscle function. Led by Matthew Gage of the UMass Lowell Chemistry department, the researchers will use the $25,000 grant to plan for a UMass system-wide research center for movement mechanics, focused on understanding movement in the aging population. Faculty from Lowell, Amherst, and the medical school will explore how to combine existing research strengths at all three campuses into a comprehensive program designed to approach research questions in the biomechanics of aging from a molecular to an organismal level.

“These funds empower our faculty, strengthen our research enterprise, and spur breakthroughs that boost the economy and improve lives,” Meehan said. “I’m proud to support our faculty while advancing our critical mission as a world-class public research university.”

Now in its 14th year, the S&T fund accelerates research activity across all five campuses, drives partnerships with state industry, and positions researchers to attract larger investments from external sources to expand the scope of their projects.

Since 2004, the fund has awarded nearly $12 million to faculty, helping to generate additional funding of more than $240 million in areas such as medical devices, nano-manufacturing, clinical and translational science, bio-manufacturing, data science, robotics, and personalized cancer therapy.

S&T awards have also helped to establish important research and development centers across the state, including the Center for Hierarchical Nanomanufacturing at UMass Amherst, the Center for Personalized Cancer Therapy at UMass Boston, the Center for Scientific Computing and Data Visualization Research at UMass Dartmouth, the Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center and New England Robotics and Validation & Experimentation Center at UMass Lowell, and the UMass Center for Clinical and Translational Science at UMass Medical Center.

“Since 2004, these grants have generated a tremendous return on investment to our campuses and to the Commonwealth, strengthening our engagement in key areas, including the life sciences, data science, climate science, and advanced manufacturing,” Meehan said. “This program underscores how critical a strong public research university is to the future of the state.”

The President’s Science and Technology Initiatives Fund is one of three sources of support that help advance the work of faculty members, along with the Creative Economy Initiatives Fund and the Technology Development Fund. u

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