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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

Sections Technology

Virtual Breakthrough

Dr. Glen Brooks

Dr. Glen Brooks demonstrates how patients can adjust specifications on a screen before viewing themselves with virtual-reality goggles.

Dr. Glen Brooks, who runs a cosmetic-surgery practice in Longmeadow, says he was initially “awed” by a virtual-reality device that allows breast-surgery patients, using 3D goggles, to view their own post-surgery bodies — before the actual surgery — in a virtual-reality space. He says Crixalix, as the technology is known, has helped ease patients’ anxieties, while assuring him they’re getting exactly what they want.

Dr. Glen Brooks understands that preparing for cosmetic surgery can be an anxious time, especially for women unsure of what the end result will look like. Take breast augmentation, for example.

“The biggest fear of the patient is that she’s going too big. But the biggest fear of the doctor is that I have to reoperate because she’s gone too small,” Brooks said, explaining that, while the fear of choosing too large an implant is a common concern, the patient typically discovers she had nothing to worry about.

Still, he added, “I don’t want to do a revision, and the patient wants to get it right the first time. A revision costs someone money, takes time, and has risks. If we can avoid a revision, that’s an excellent outcome.”

If only there were a way for a woman to see the end result, on her own body, before the surgery.

Now there is.

Five months ago, Brooks, who owns Aesthetic Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery, P.C. in Longmeadow, started using Crisalix, a virtual-reality technology developed in Switzerland that allows patients, using 3D goggles, to view their own bodies — not just on a screen, but in a virtual space, as if they were looking down at themselves — exactly how they will look after the breast surgery.

“I was really awed when I watched a demonstration,” Brooks said of his first exposure to the device. “What it allows us to do is create a 3D image of someone’s chest. Then, we can image every single breast manufacturer, any size, any shape implant, and using 3D goggles, the patient can view herself from all angles.”

The result, he said, is a true ‘a-ha moment.’

“The first time they look down and see they have cleavage, they’re like, ‘oh my God.’ It’s an a-ha moment because they’re seeing themselves; it’s a real view of what they look like, not like in a mirror.”

Indeed, Crisalix markets itself as a way for doctors and patients to answer the common question, ‘how might I look after the procedure?’ The goal is to increase patient satisfaction and decrease anxiety, both during the consultation and post surgery.

brooksscreen1art

Crisalix markets itself as a leader in web-based, three-dimensional, virtual-reality simulations for plastic surgery and aesthetic procedures. The company is a spin-off from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, a fast-growing life-science cluster, and the Institute of Surgical Technology and Biomechanics at the University of Bern.

“It gives the patient a chance to see herself,” Brooks said, “and know precisely what she’s going to look like afterward.”

First Steps

But first, the patient sees herself on a screen. Brooks scans her chest and uploads the image to a tablet, where he can help the woman decide on which implant manufacturer to use and which volume and shape to use. They can test out myriad options on the screen, rotating the image to see the change from multiple perspectives.

When both doctor and patient are comfortable with a particular option, the patient dons goggles and enters a 3D, virtual-reality world where she can view herself with the new breast size and shape, and either approve the specifications or go back to the tablet for something else.

Brooks told BusinessWest that breast augmentation, reduction, and reconstruction — Crisalix is effective on all three — are more science than art, a matter of delivering precisely what the patient is asking for. What the VR technology does is help the patient clearly communicate that decision.

“The patient predetermines beforehand what volume they want to have — ‘this is what I am, and this is what I want to be,’” he noted. “It’s a very different type of technological advance because so much of the surgery is objective, but showing patients their size in advance in this way is more powerful than a verbal discussion.

“Most of the other technological advances in this field tend to be things like lasers and non-surgical devices to either remove fat or tighten skin,” he went on. “This is more on the side of patient awareness of outcomes than the actual outcome. It’s the first device that helps on the awareness side so well. There are other imaging systems out there, but this is the first true VR system, and it’s so simple to use.”

The reasons women ask for augmentations varies greatly, Brooks said, but there are a few common categories: early-20-somethings whose breasts are mismatched in size; women in their late 30s or early 40s who want a “mommy makeover,” feeling they’ve lose some volume and gained some sag after having kids; and women of any age who feel more attractive or confident with a different look, to name a few.

“This gives them a really great education in what I need to correct,” he said, adding that the technology is just as effective with reconstructions, typically after mastectomies with cancer patients, in that it can formulate a completely symmetrical look to the patient’s specifications.

According to data from the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the most common cancer among U.S. women after skin cancer, representing nearly one in three cases. Furthermore, the ACS notes, seven out of 10 women diagnosed with breast cancer who are candidates for breast reconstruction are not aware of their options. As a result, fewer than one in five American women who undergo a mastectomy go on to have breast reconstruction.

“Many women are able to get an immediate breast reconstruction performed at the same time as the mastectomy, but that option depends on what treatment is necessary after surgery,” Brooks said. “Patients with breast cancer have numerous options to help them restore a breast to near-normal shape, appearance, and size following mastectomy or lumpectomy.”

Seeing the Future

Crisalix is only the latest option to reach that goal, and Brooks said patients have been pleasantly surprised at what the virtual images tell them. The technology to convert 2D images to 3D virtual reality is currently being used on five continents.

Dr. Glen Brooks says he was “awed” the first time he used the Crisalix technology.

Dr. Glen Brooks says he was “awed” the first time he used the Crisalix technology.

“Months ago, they asked whether I would re-up next year for the software license, and I said ‘absolutely,’” he told BusinessWest. “It makes what I do so much more precise, putting together the right outcome by showing exactly what we’ll provide to patient. It’s absolutely a home run.”

And it’s far from the only potential use of VR in the surgical world. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on others, such as GE’s early-stage testing of technology that will allow a doctor wearing a Rift headset to take a virtual tour of a patient’s brain and perhaps determine how surgery might affect various parts of it, and pediatric surgeons at Stanford University Medical Center who have used a virtual-reality platform from EchoPixel, a California startup, to plan surgeries on newborns missing pulmonary arteries. Another promising use of VR may be in medical training, as universities that can’t afford to store cadavers for education may be able to rely on virtual reality instead.

Even in cosmetic surgery, Crisalix isn’t limited to breast surgeries; the company also touts its use for eyelids, faces, and other body parts, though Brooks says the impact on patients’ expectations isn’t as dramatic.

“For breast surgeries, it’s absolutely fantastic,” he said. “It’s a great feeling, seeing the change for themselves.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

View to the Future

By Janet Lathrop

With a new cluster of specialized graphics processing units (GPUs) now installed, UMass Amherst is poised to attract the nation’s next crop of top Ph.D. students and researchers in such fields as artificial intelligence, computer vision, and natural-language processing, said Associate Professor Erik Learned-Miller of the College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS).

“GPUs are critical for modern computer-science research because they have such enormous computational power,” Learned-Miller said. “They can address extreme computational needs, sol­­ving problems 10 times faster than conventional processors, in days rather than months. They can run neural network algorithms that are prohibitively slow on lesser machines. Our new network of 400 GPUs is unusually large for an academic cluster.”

UMass Amherst’s new GPU cluster, housed at the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke, is the result of a five-year, $5 million grant to the campus from Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative last year. It represents a one-third match to a $15 million gift supporting data science and cybersecurity research from the MassMutual Foundation of Springfield.

Deep-learning research uses neural network algorithms to make sense of large data sets. The approach teaches computers through trial and error to categorize data, much as human brains do.

“Deep learning is a revolutionary approach to some of the hardest problems in machine reasoning, and is the ‘magic under the hood’ of many commercial products and services,” said Learned-Miller. “Google Translate, for example, produced more accurate and natural translations thanks to a novel deep-learning approach.”

Andrew McCallum, professor and founder of the Center for Data Science at UMass Amherst, added that “this is a transformational expansion of opportunity and represents a whole new era for the center and our college. Access to multi-GPU clusters of this scale and speed strengthens our position as a destination for deep-learning research and sets us apart among universities nationally.”

He noted that the campus currently has research projects that apply deep-learning techniques to computational ecology, face recognition, graphics, natural-language processing, and many other areas.

The state funds must be used for computing hardware at UMass Amherst, its Springfield Center for Cybersecurity and for terminals at Mount Holyoke College and the UMass Center in Boston, the researchers noted.

Learned-Miller says he and colleagues are now in the first year of the grant, during which about $2 million has been spent on two clusters: the GPU cluster dubbed ‘Gypsum’ and a smaller cluster of traditional CPU machines dubbed ‘Swarm II.’ Gypsum consists of 400 GPUs installed on 100 computer nodes, along with a storage system and a backup system. It is configured with a leading software package for deploying, monitoring, and managing such clusters.

Not only do the researchers hope the GPUs will accelerate deep-learning research and train a new generation of experts, but an important overall goal is to foster collaborations between UMass Amherst and industry. For example, if MassMutual data scientists design a practical problem with high computational needs, they can collaborate with sponsored UMass faculty and graduate students to solve it on the Gypsum cluster.

Janet Lathrop is associate news editor and science writer for the UMass Amherst Office of News & Media Relations.

Sections Technology

The Best Defense

By Sean Hogan

Hogan Technology recently announced it is educating small to mid-sized businesses (SMBs) on password-protection policies to help safeguard their businesses from a variety of threats.

Sean Hogan

Sean Hogan

Password management has become increasingly important, with daily attacks from hackers specifically targeting SMBs. For example, some 6 million LinkedIn account passwords were compromised just few years ago, and the list of breaches has grown dramatically since. Anyone who has been using major social-media sites, like LinkedIn, may have received a notification forcing them to reset their passwords. This is the result of colossal breaches in Internet security, and Hogan Technology has been advising businesses on how to protect themselves.

As the Internet continues to expand in complexity, so do its vulnerabilities. In order for business owners to protect their organizations, they need to utilize best practices in password security. Here are some steps that business owners can take immediately.

1. Never use the same password twice. One of the most effective ways to prevent breaches is also the simplest: never use the same password for multiple accounts. Strong, unique passwords, with symbols, numbers, and capital letters are usually far more effective than anything else.

2. Enable two-step authentication and verification. This is one of the other simple ways a business can instantly upgrade the security of its entire network by simply passing a company policy. Two-step password authentication essentially means that, when a user logs into their account, they’ll be required to confirm that log-in attempt by replying to a text message or phone call. This best practice makes it much harder for hackers to impersonate the true account owner because it requires them to have access to multiple accounts before their hacking attempts can be effective.

3. Stay vigilant against phishing. Hackers have long relied on phishing, a common strategy in which a hacker attempts to defraud an online account holder of financial information by posing as a legitimate company. For example, a hacker will gain access to your account information by purchasing your e-mail and password on the black market, and then they will log into your e-mail and send a desperate note to one of your contacts, posing as you, something like, “John! My transmission just blew, and I’m stranded out here. My phone is about to die. Can you send me $2,000 to this account? I’ll pay you back as soon as I get into town.”

Users need to constantly remain vigilant against attacks like this because they are prevalent and have proven effective over the years. While these are a few proactive steps a company can take in the right direction, they are only a mere shadow of what is possible if they work with a true managed IT services provider. Hogan Technology partners with SMBs that need to secure a competitive advantage with advanced technology and want to remain focused on growing their business, instead of keeping up on the latest in online security.

Sean Hogan is president of Easthampton-based Hogan Technology, a business-technology company that specializes in increasing customer profitability and efficiency through the use of technology; (800) 929-5201; teamhogan.com

Sections Technology

Data Delivery

Pioneer Training President Don Lesser

Pioneer Training President Don Lesser

Don Lesser wasn’t planning on a career in computers, but the field found him through a series of opportunities that arose during the 1980s. Those became the basis for Pioneer Training, which, for more than a quarter-century, has helped companies in myriad fields navigate the ever-changing world of technology and make their operations more efficient.

The computer field was an accidental career for many people back in the 1980s, Don Lesser says, because it was so new. He counts himself as one of those who stumbled into it, and he’s grateful he did.

In 1977, Lesser earned a master of fine arts degree in fiction writing. While in the MFA course, he learned word processing, which was a boon to novel writers, who would previously edit their work and then spend two weeks retyping it. An interest in computing soon followed.

In the 1980s, he started doing corporate training and technical writing as part of the Pioneer Valley PC User Group, which he chaired for several years. As part of the group, he started teaching classes on how to use DOS word processors and other equipment. That led him to Valley Data, then a large tech company in the region, which asked him to teach computer classes.

That led to even broader opportunities, which he recognized, creating the company known today as Pioneer Training.

“Other companies weren’t happy about sending people to Valley Data for training, so we broke off and became a separate company,” Lesser said. “Everyone needed training back in those days; it was new to everyone. People didn’t even know not to press ‘enter’ at the end of every line.”

“Throughout the ’80s,” he went on, “I was using word processing, but I also got interested in programming. I asked the fateful question, ‘how does this all work?’ The answer was ‘zeroes and ones.’ But I needed to know more than that.”

In 1990, Lesser forged a partnership with two others and started offering computer classes in the Hampshire Mall in Hadley. In 1995, with a need to expand, the business moved to a suite of offices on Bobala Road in Holyoke. During these years, the company grew to seven employees and 20 consultants, and the outfit was conducting 12 to 16 classes a week.

“Once you do training for somebody, they tend to trust you,” he said, and companies began approaching Pioneer for other services, including database programming and automation. In fact, those areas of the business began to grow until, around 2003, they were outpacing the training aspect of the company. “By 2006, training had really fallen off, and programming had taken off. So we followed the market.”

The company no longer needed the large classroom space in Holyoke, so in 2008, Lesser and a smaller, core group of team members moved to their current, smaller space in Northampton, where they still conduct classes in Microsoft Access, Excel, Google Apps, PowerPoint, Windows 10, Word, and other software — but focus mainly on other services to clients.


List of Computer Network/IT Services in Western Mass.


These days, training is 30% of the business, and the rest is programming, he explained. “To be honest, most public classes don’t run frequently. But we do private classes; for example, a law firm will call us and say, ‘we need some training,’ and either we’ll go down there and set up computers in their conference room, or they’ll send people here.”

Today, Lesser, as company president works with three others — Mannie White, director of training; Graham Ridley, consultant and director of programming; and Deb Napier, consultant and programmer — to meet the ever-changing computer needs of a loyal client base. Although training is still in the name, the company does much more than that.

Breaking It Down

Take programming, for instance. “A lot of programming consists of automating tasks for departments … turning a two-day process into a 20-minute process, most of which is watching the computer work,” Lesser told BusinessWest.

“We’re smaller now, so we don’t need a lot of companies to keep going,” he said. “New clients come in, we figure out what they need, provide it, and add them to the fold. Most of our new opportunities are smaller companies in this area. And a lot of small companies are quite behind what the MassMutuals are doing. We’re bringing them up to speed; that’s where our bread and butter is.”

Some need more help than others, he added — even if they don’t think so. “A couple of companies are still in Word Perfect, and they prefer not to leave Word Perfect, and we have to accommodate them.”

Many small and medium-size companies, he explained, start out by tracking company data on Excel spreadsheets. As they grow and their operations become more complex, working with a web of spreadsheets can become unwieldy and time-consuming. So Pioneer Training helps clients move to Microsoft Access, which is a more robust data-management tool that also saves employees time.

Other services Pioneer provides might include designing a database from scratch that meets a company’s current needs; automating complicated tasks so they can be performed by non-technical users; creating custom forms for inputting data; creating standardized, yet flexible, custom reports for the most effective data display; updating an existing database to meet a company’s changing needs; creating processes for regular data imports and exports; and consolidating data for better data mining.

Clients include companies from a wide range of industries. Pioneer’s database projects, for example, include developing a process-router database for a national metals testing and finishing company, which tracks and organizes processing steps required for complex metal-plating work; and work for a local transport firm to consolidate several processes that manage its day-to-day operations into one Access database.

Meanwhile, examples of Pioneer’s office-automation clients include a regional bank in Western Mass., for which it automated the creation and printing of a certified letter form for bank letters; developed a set of macros to automate printing of letters from the bank to customers; and created a set of 42 separate charts to track loan categories. Meanwhile, for an international bioscience and lab reporting firm, Pioneer developed an automated process to extract data from lab reports, create charts based on the extracted data, and insert charts and data into a Word template for use in court proceedings. It also simplified the company’s billing by analyzing data and producing a number of reports summarizing data in various categories.

The team at Pioneer Training

The team at Pioneer Training, from left: Don Lesser, Deb Napier, Mannie White, and Graham Ridley.

As for its training arm, Pioneer maintains many repeat clients in a number of fields, from colleges to law firms to nonprofits. As one example, Western New England University wanted to offer staff the opportunity to upgrade their Word, Excel, and Outlook skills beyond the basics, so Lesser and his team designed a training program to meet the university’s goals, running a well-attended series of classes in all three applications.

On a national scale, Pioneer also developed online training courses for Pearson Education and reviewed the manuals for Microsoft Office 2000 and 2003, which involved testing every step in the book and flagging errors. “I feel like I’m one of four people in America who has written a formula for every function built into Excel,” Lesser said.

Lesser feels there’s more opportunity out there — “people still need training,” he said, “but fewer companies want to pay for it” — but the volume of work coming in keeps the four team members plenty busy, and he’s happy with the size of the business and the level of trust he has in White, Ridley, and Napier.

“We’ll tell you what works best for your company,” he said. “If people don’t feel like you’re holding them hostage, they’ll call when they need you, and they’ll be happy.”

Looking Back

Lately, Lesser has been producing training materials for Sanderson MacLeod, a brush manufacturer in Palmer.

“I started out doing corporate training, and now it’s coming full circle,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s technical, teaching someone how to use the machines to create the brushes. It’s not computers, not Microsoft Office-based, but they still need the training. I like to think of what I do as a spectrum, with pure training on one end and pure consulting on the other end, and I’m really happy to be anywhere along that line.”

Of the 50 people in that MFA program he took back in 1977, he said, maybe 20 are still writing fiction. Most of the others, like Lesser, wound up in far different fields, although he has continued to write, including a stint as a food columnist for the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

“That was the beauty of the computer industry in the ’80s. You didn’t set out to be a computer person,” he said. “I think a lot of artists — musicians, writers — fell into it. There was a lot of overlap. I’ve noticed that programming is a lot like writing. The output is different, but it comes from the same place inside me. I’ll see a problem and envision the solution fully developed. The work is getting the pieces down to make sure they work.”

When they do, that’s his personal reward.

“I think of it as moral work, in that we’re doing good for people, and we’re making their lives easier and better. I don’t want to put down any other occupation, but it’s not a matter of figuring out how to get money from someone who doesn’t want to give it to you; it’s a matter of figuring out how to solve somebody’s problem. It’s satisfying.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

Something for Everyone

Smartphones rule the world — or, at least, their users’ lives — but they wouldn’t be of much use without apps. And those apps are legion, appealing to individuals’ desire to manage everything from finances to fitness, to continually learn new things and find new ways to have fun. Here’s a roundup of some of the most popular and well-reviewed apps available today.

Say you want to more effectively manage your finances. Or get in shape. Or brush up on your math skills. Or just relax and have a good time.

As the old iPhone commercials used to say, there’s an app for that. Many, many more than one, actually. And they’re usually free, and available on both the iOS and Android platforms.

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.

Financial App-raisals

personal-capitalFor starters, smartphones have put a world of personal finance in people’s hands. For example, Personal Capital offers simple charts and graphs of the user’s income, spending, and investment performance so they can easily monitor their finances.

“Track your investments by account, asset class, or individual security, see how your portfolio compares to major indices, and find the exact percentage of each asset class that’s in your portfolio,” Investopedia explains. “A 401(k) fee analyzer and mutual-fund fee calculator show if you’re paying too much in fees. The Investment Checkup feature analyzes your portfolio and shows how much you stand to gain with a few changes.”

mintBusiness Insider reports that 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. “It automatically tracks your spending, categorizes it, and alerts you when/if you approach your budget limit. You can even ask for custom savings tips within the app,” the publication notes. “Everything is shown in simple, intuitive graphs and charts, making it one of the most popular personal-finance apps in the world.”

goodbudgetMeanwhile, Business Insider also recommends GoodBudget, an app that brings the envelope-budgeting method into the smartphone. Users create ‘envelopes’ for each of their budget categories, such as groceries, transportation, and shopping, and pre-determine how much they want to allocate in each envelope. They can then record and track how much they’re spending from each envelope. “It may not be as sophisticated as some of the other apps, but Goodbudget offers a simple way to stick to your budget and keep your spending really disciplined.”

prosper-dailyWhat about financial security? Investopedia recommends Prosper Daily, a personal-finance security service that tracks spending and protects credit cards from fraud and errors. Users can quickly view balances and recurring charges across all their credit and debit cards.

“Prosper Daily creates an alert if a suspicious charge is posted to your account, allows you to report the charge and/or contact the merchant, and will help you get your money back from fraudulent, erroneous, or unfair charges,” the publication notes. “Data-breach alerts let you know when a data breach has occurred at a place where you’ve shopped.”

Healthy App-roach

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

myfitnesspalOne 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.”

The app’s database of more than 6 million foods makes it easy to track a diet, or the lack of one, added the online magazine Greatist. “Whether you’re trying to lose weight or put on muscle, the app helps determine the best things to eat and meet your goals.”

nike-training-clubBut nutrition is only part of the story when it comes to fitness — exercise is the other key discipline. But where to start? One possibility is the Nike+ Training Club, which takes the concept to the next level, offering more than 100 workouts to choose from. Users can also opt for a customized, full-body, four-week plan. “A trainer leads you through the routines, plus you get instructional video clips of the moves,” notes Fitness magazine. “Don’t like burpees? The updated app lets you swap drills you hate for ones you love.”

strava-running-and-cycling-gpsFor those who prefer being outdoors to get in shape, Strava Running and Cycling GPS monitors running or cycling routes via GPS, notes Digital Trends. “It also gamifies your cardio workout and pairs with leaderboards, achievements, and challenges, bringing a competitive spirit to your routine.”

jefitFor a more comprehensive training assistant, Men’s Fitness recommends Jefit, which creates personalized workout routines by tracking and analyzing the user’s workout progress and diligently recording weight, reps, and time.

“Its data-heavy approach will appeal to stat nerds and workout obsessives alike. Jefit also packs the most robust library of exercises and maneuvers,” the magazine notes, including how-to videos with more than 1,300 exercises making up scores of workouts. The free version is limited, with some bare-bones workout routines and basic activity logs, while paid options are ad-free and unlock more features.

App-lied Learning

khan-academyCountless 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.”

photomathMeanwhile, 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.”

duolingoFor language learning, Children’s MD recommends Duolingo, which provides interactive foreign-language education in 15 languages so far. It’s appropriate for both kids and adults, and one independent study found that a person with no knowledge of Spanish would need about 34 hours with Duolingo to cover the material in the first college semester of Spanish classes.

“It’s simple, user-friendly, and never boring,” the blog notes. “Install the app on your phone and get your language lessons done while you are on the elevator or waiting in line.”

nasa-appLearning means expanding one’s horizons, of course, and where better to do that than the NASA App, which aggregates a wide range of NASA content. “Space enthusiasts and curious minds will love how it packs a wealth of news stories, features, images, video, and information about the space agency’s activities into this one mobile app,” PC Magazine reports.

App-ealing Entertainment

spotifyLet’s face it, though — smartphone users want apps that are just plain fun as well. For music enthusiasts, it’s hard to go wrong with Spotify. Wired notes that users can access a huge catalog of music for a small monthly fee, creating their own playlists or enjoying the app’s curated stations.

Seven years after its debut, Mashable adds, “Spotify has tons of competition in the online streaming space, but the app continues to be one of the best ways to listen to music and podcasts on demand and on the go.”

espn-score-centerSports fans might dig ESPN Score Center, which allows users to check game progress from more sports than most other apps, PC Magazine reports, including baseball, basketball, football, soccer, ice hockey, cricket, rugby, and more.

big-ovenFor those whose idea of fun is improving their cooking skills, plenty of apps do the job. Digital Trends recommends two. Big Oven features more than 250,000 recipes, and provides grocery lists based on them, lets users add your own, and import recipes from friends. “If you like (or want to like) to cook, start with Big Oven.”

yummlyBut the publication also raves about Yummly, which offers access to thousands of unique recipes. “On top of recipe and grocery-list functionality, Yummly takes user preferences into account to provide recipe recommendations, for when you just can’t decide what to eat.”

action-movie-fxFinally, if the kitchen doesn’t provide enough action and adventure, Mashable recommends downloading Action Movie, the brainchild of Star Wars and Star Trek director J.J. Abrams. The app allows anyone with an iPhone introduce movie-level special effects to their short videos.

“Not only is it incredibly easy to use and completely addictive, it’s a huge crowd pleaser,” the site notes. “Filming a Thanksgiving dinner where a virtual car can unexpectedly crash across the dinner table is guaranteed to inspire roaring laughter. Action Movie is free, but smartly uses in-app purchases to sell you additional effects, all as good as the originals. It’s the rare app that has few competitors and has maintained a high level of quality.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

Won’t Get Fooled Again?

The trouble with a phishing scam, Brendan Monahan says, is that only one person in an organization has to fall for it to put information at risk.

Or, in Baystate Health’s case, five.

“There is constantly a threat to businesses — including ours; we’re no different — from outside phishing attacks,” said Monahan, manager of Public Affairs, in the wake of a phishing attack in August that exposed the personal data of thousands of patients. “They’re often internationally based and geared toward handing over the keys to the kingdom to a hacker who, from what we understand from most experts, is looking for some financial gain out of it.”

That doesn’t seem to have occurred in this case, Baystate officials say, but the incident, which was made public late last month, is serious enough to trigger a re-examination of the system’s security protocols — and to serve as a warning to other employers in the region, both large and small.

Specifially, on Aug. 22, Baystate learned that a phishing e-mail had been sent to numerous Baystate employees that, if opened, allowed hackers to access those employees’ e-mail accounts.

Phishing is an electronic attempt to obtain sensitive information, such as passwords and credit-card information, by masquerading as a trustworthy source. Phishing e-mails may contain links to a site infected with malware, or directly load a program onto a computer that makes it contents accessible to the scammer. The Baystate scam e-mail was designed to look exactly like an internal memo to employees.

eric brown

eric brown

The best defense is to have a written information-security policy in place. Part of that is training in security awareness for employees. That way, employees can’t say, ‘I didn’t know,’ or ‘I don’t understand.’ That’s where the data risk is. It’s not from the outside; it’s from the inside, with mistakes, careless errors made by employees.”

Baystate’s investigation determined that five employees responded to the phishing e-mail, allowing the hackers to gain access to those employees’ e-mail accounts. Some of the e-mails in those accounts included patient information, including names and dates of birth, diagnoses and treatments received, medical record numbers, and, in some instances, health-insurance identification numbers. However, the e-mails did not contain Social Security numbers, credit-card numbers, or other financial information commonly used by scammers and identity thieves to enrich themselves.

“The [phishing] e-mail contained information that would be described as mimicking or mocking an internal Baystate Health HR memo. Five employees clicked on that e-mail, that immediately compromised their Outlook e-mail accounts into the hands of the perpetrator,” Monahan told BusinessWest. “Our computer research firm found exactly what was in the e-mails and what could have been looked at.”

The fact that no financial data was compromised may be small comfort for affected patients, that fact may mean the scammers have no real use for the information, and left it alone when they discovered they couldn’t profit. But that remains to be seen.

“In this case, there was no financial gain to be had from the patient information,” Monahan said. “That’s why we don’t know whether they went through the documents, but they could have.”

Still, he added, “while we have no evidence that any patient information has been taken or misused, we want to assure our patients that we take this incident very seriously.”

Next Steps

Upon discovering the breach, Baystate immediately took steps to secure the e-mail accounts and began an investigation, and also reported the incident to law enforcement.

But finding out what happened and trying to identify the perpetrators is only one step in the process of responding to the incident, Monahan said. Topping that list is ensuring — or at least trying to ensure — that such an incident won’t be repeated, and that begins with employee education and training regarding phishing e-mails and other scams.

“That was already going on beforehand, and I would say it’s being ramped up,” he explained, noting that employees can click a button at the top of any e-mail if they suspect it comes from a suspicious source, and someone from Baystate’s IT staff will come and determine if it’s dangerous or not. “We try and help them, to train them not to click on a suspicious e-mail, what a phishing attack looks like, and how to recognize it when it comes about.”

Frank Vincentelli

frank vincentelli

Unfortunately, they’re always a step ahead, and for those of us in the security industry, to prevent their success, we have to figure out what they’re doing. But if you present a soft, open belly, they’re going to dive right in.”

 

Frank Vincentelli, chief technology officer at Integrated IT Solutions in Westfield, and Eric Brown, the company’s vice president of Security Services, recently spoke about data security in the business world at the Western Mass. Business Expo, and discussed at length the critical role each employee plays in keeping a company safe.

“The best defense is to have a written information-security policy in place,” Brown said. “Part of that is training in security awareness for employees. That way, employees can’t say, ‘I didn’t know,’ or ‘I don’t understand.’ That’s where the data risk is. It’s not from the outside; it’s from the inside, with mistakes, careless errors made by employees.”

Vincentelli noted that a computer without access to the Internet or e-mail is generally safe, but not particularly useful, so businesses must strike a balance between safety and usability. “The very fact that you have access to these resources is giving the attackers a way into your system and your information.”

The entire security chain, in other words, is only as strong as its weakest link.

“Each individual user is an active part in the overall security strategy of the company,” he went on. “I’m sure all of us can think of a person in we work with who’s not necessarily technologically sophisticated, a person who usually gets a virus or is hit with CryptoLocker three or four times a year. That person is the best level of protection your organization has.”

Training every employee then, is critical, but companies must still maintain a robust firewall infrastructure, complete with early-detection capabilities to identify breaches when they occur. Still, Vincentelli said, “the most important component is the individual user.”

On Guard

Phishing scams are, unfortunately, more common in the healthcare realm than some might suspect. In recent years alone, according to data-risk consulting firm IDT911, a server operating under contract for DeKalb Health Medical Group in Indiana experienced a cyberattack that compromised more than 1,300 patient-information records; Baylor Regional Medical Center in Texas was hacked after doctors responded to phishing e-mails, exposing the patient information contained in their inboxes, including names, addresses, dates of birth, and even Social Security numbers; and Franciscan Health System in Washington was hacked in a phishing scheme that affected potentially 12,000 patients.

Norton, the developer of Internet security software, recommends several steps to avoid becoming the victim of phishing at work, including being wary of e-mails asking for confidential information; watching out for generic-looking requests for information, as fraudulent phishing e-mails are usually not personalized; and avoiding using links in an e-mail to connect to a website, instead opening a new browser window and typing the URL directly into the address bar.

“This is constantly a threat that we have to be wary of as employees, in part because we have a confidentiality policy and handle health information and other protected information,” Monahan told BusinessWest. “We have to be good stewards of that. There needs to be a sense of vigilance, and we have to enforce it. With almost 13,000 people who work here, there’s no one piece of software that will block this particular type of attack. It comes down to workforce training.”

The attacks can be subtle, and often play on human psychology — including people’s natural curiosity. Brown asked his audience at the Expo what they would do if they found a USB stick on the ground before answering his own question.

“Obviously, if you find a USB stick and don’t know who the owner is, you don’t want to touch it,” he said. “That is one way people get malware infections. If I wanted to infect a company, I’d take 30 USB sticks, put a virus on them, and toss them in a parking lot. I guarantee a half-dozen people would pick them up and stick them in their computers.”

Vincentelli called cybersecurity a cat-and-mouse affair, adding that “I’m not sure who’s who.” But it’s clear that hackers are constantly honing techniques to exploit security weaknesses, and when the target develops a defense, the hackers create a better weapon.

“Unfortunately, they’re always a step ahead, and for those of us in the security industry, to prevent their success, we have to figure out what they’re doing,” he said. “But if you present a soft, open belly, they’re going to dive right in.”

Baystate mailed letters to people who may have been affected on Oct. 21, who were directed to call a phone number staffed by an outside contractor hired by Baystate to walk patients through the process of learning if they had been victimized, Monahan said. In the meantime, the health system vowed to raise their level of awareness of threats that continue to evolve in sophistication.

“There are a million cyberthreats out there in the world, and this is one of them,” he said. “We are constantly working to train our workforce to recognize these threats and stay ahead of them — because the threat is always changing.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

Code Talkers

Blair Winans, president of Rhyme Digital

Blair Winans, president of Rhyme Digital

Blair Winans had forged a successful small business in website development when a larger company from across the state came calling. The acquisition that ensued brought more frustration than growth, and lasted just over a year. But it did generate lessons for Winans and his team, who regrouped in Easthampton, rebranded as Rhyme Digital, and refocused their efforts on not just designing websites, but helping clients understand how to get the biggest marketing bang for their money and time.

Blair Winans’ professional journey has weathered a few bumps. But those bumps have been valuable, he said, by teaching him what he and his Easthampton-based company, Rhyme Digital, do best.

When he launched his website-design firm in 2005, it was known as Winans Creative, and over the next several years, he built up a cadre of loyal clients and a small staff. Things were on the right track — he assumed.

That all changed three years ago, however, when Winans was approached by HB Agency, a much larger marketing firm in Boston, about a possible acquisition. The company lacked digital capabilities and wanted to offer such services to its clients, and they thought the expertise of Winans Creative would fit nicely into their business model. Winans agreed.

“We were excited about it, and a bit nervous,” he said, but he took the leap, acting as vice president of digital marketing in what was essentially HB’s Western Mass. satellite office. “But it brought all sorts of challenges. As a satellite office, it’s tough to merge cultures, which was a tough stumbling block. It also turned out that a lot of our existing clients didn’t fit in with this new company’s business model, and those clients were let go in favor of bigger ones. A lot of us were upset about it; that wasn’t part of the expectation.”

After a year, it was clear that the acquisition wasn’t bearing fruit for either side, and Winans was given the opportunity to take his firm back. And he did, in February 2015, bringing his five employees with him.

“It’s not a scenario where everyone looks back and says, ‘that was a fantastic time,’” he told BusinessWest. “But, in retrospect, we learned who we are and what we’re good at — and what we don’t want to be, which I think was a really helpful part of that process. Thankfully, we came out of it with all the same team; that’s one of the things that really helped us become stronger.”


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Taking the company back was also a chance to reassess the company’s direction, he went on. He and his employees wanted to stress the team aspect of the operation, hence the name change to Rhyme Digital. They also sensed increasing opportunity in not only building websites for companies, but teaching them how to turn their online presence into an effective marketing tool with measurable results.

“We were great at building and designing websites, and a lot of times clients think a website is the end-all, be-all,” Winans said. “But a lot of what we do revolves around helping people market themselves and build an online brand presence and sustain that over the long term. That’s where we shifted the focus — not just building these tools, but helping people understand the different pieces to it.”

That’s an issue today, he said, for companies that have websites and receive reports back from digital marketing firms that don’t really tell them anything. Rhyme’s goal is to track and clearly communicate not just a website’s hit count, but where the traffic is coming from, which campaigns potential customers are responding to, and what they’re doing on the website once they’ve arrived.

“We’ve had clients come to us saying, ‘I signed up for this digital marketing package, and I get reports of how many clicks are coming through my website, but not much more than that. Can you help me?’ We sit down and show them what’s happening once people come through. Once you make the connection, you can really put a dollar amount on the traffic coming onto your site.”

In other words, there’s a technical component to setting up a website and its features, but the end result has to bring return on investment, and ways to effectively measure it. “The question a client needs to ask,” he said, “is not ‘can you build me a website,’ but ‘I need my website to do x, y, and z.’ Or, ‘I need my website to be a lead-generating tool.’ We’re going to give you all the data to help your company continually improve what it’s doing online and in all its marketing.”

Come Back Home

After the failed acquisition, Winans said he was gratified — but perhaps not totally surprised — when Rhyme reached out to the clients it been forced to drop and was met warmly.

“The response was fantastic,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re really thankful we have a loyal client base; we’ve been working with some of them for more than 10 years. They see us as a partner and a resource. That always makes us feel good.”

The most successful relationships between Rhyme and its clients are the ones that have grown over time to the point where Winans and his team understand everything about the client and its marketing goals — both in online and traditional advertising.

Blair Winans

Blair Winans says constant advances in website coding, graphic design, and marketing strategy lends his work variety and keeps it fun.

Rhyme’s clients run the gamut from manufacturing to retail (both brick and mortar and purely online); from outdoor adventure sports (Zoar Outdoor is one of its longest-running clients) to publishing and nonprofits.

“We end up treating each client as its own specific case. We’re never going to be a one-size-fits-all solution,” Winans explained. “We do a bit of e-commerce development, and no e-commerce store does things the same way another one does; they have very specific differences and needs.”

Rhyme helps its clients consider the many possible facets of an online campaign — banner ads, search-engine optimization, Google AdWords, and, especially, landing pages with optimized content that gets visitors to take action, not just click on through. Then there are newer, cutting-edge tools such as radio-frequency identification and geofencing, which are used to target potential customers by location.

“The possibilities are enormous right now, better than they ever have been before, and we help clients set up these types of campaigns,” Winans said, noting that, for one of his clients, a publisher targeting first-year law students, he used geolocation to focus mobile pitches around college campuses. “One of the best things about digital marketing is that fluidity, and the ability to pivot based on the data that comes in.”

It’s also more cost-effective to test multiple messages digitally before deciding on the best one and launching it through larger, traditional-media campaigns, he went on. “We’re helping people make the most of their budgets, looking at how technology plays a role, and helping them figure out where they should be spending money.”

Websites weren’t Winans’ first career path, or even his second. He enrolled in college looking to be a lawyer, but then switched gears and transferred to the Boston University College of Communication to study advertising, marketing, and public relations. It was a field where he could put his graphic-art skills to good use, doing branding and design for a number of companies.

This was the late ’90s, a time when websites were first coming online, and he had a chance to play around with early marketing models, including working with Dunkin’ Donuts on its first website. “It’s kind of the equivalent to what’s happening now, with all these different technologies, seeing which ones are panning out,” he said. “I learned a lot of different stuff very early on; actually, I taught myself how to do it.”

In addition to leading a team that now numbers seven, Winans characterizes his day-to-day work at Rhyme as half coding, half design, and appreciates the variety offered by both — and the challenge of keeping abreast of the latest developments in the world of dynamic websites.

“For my development team, every week there’s a new platform or technology or script or language they need to be aware of,” he told BusinessWest. “We don’t just want to sell our clients a bunch of tools, but the right set for what they’re trying to do. It puts a lot on our shoulders — but it’s fun. We love learning about different types of technologies and seeing what these capabilities are. It’s an ongoing process.”

What makes it work here is, we’re all interested in the same thing: to make our work the best it can be and push each other — and in the process have fun. In our business, you never know what kind of work you’ll get on any given day. You could be coding something one day, working on the checkout process for an e-commerce site another day.”

But one, he said, made easier by the closeness and longevity of his team. “Everyone here is excited about coming to work every day, excited about who they’re working with and what they’re doing for clients. We’ve been through some ups and downs as a team as part of the whole process, but we’ve built something we feel is more than just a business. That’s important.”

There’s the Rub

That’s not to say website design and marketing it’s sometimes stressful, Winans added, but the team at Rhyme — based out of an airy space in the Eastworks complex — has created an environment where everyone encourages each other and helps each other out, and nobody is afraid to step up and ask for help.

“What makes it work here is, we’re all interested in the same thing: to make our work the best it can be and push each other — and in the process have fun,” he said. “In our business, you never know what kind of work you’ll get on any given day. You could be coding something one day, working on the checkout process for an e-commerce site another day.”

The reward, he went on, is seeing the sites go live.

“There’s a pretty big sense of excitement when we look at all the projects we’ve done and hear the way our clients talk about them, when they come back and tell us, ‘we get nothing but praise for our site now.’ A couple of clients go back 10 years, and they’re on the fourth iteration of their website, and you see the transformation. We have archives of sites we’ve done, and it’s fun to see the progressions in them. When we can help businesses utilize their sites to their fullest capacity, that’s what really makes what we do worthwhile.”

In other words, Rhyme Digital is certainly not going to the dogs — unless you count Winans’ two furry friends, a yellow lab named Butters and a pug named Flora, who join him at work every day. The other employees are encouraged to bring their dogs occasionally as well.

“They provide some comic relief,” he said. “When things get stressful or we’re under a heavy deadline, and Butters is upside-down on the floor, wagging his tail hard, you realize we’re not doing brain surgery. Sure, you’re dealing with deadlines, but there’s always time for a belly rub.”

For someone who’s been coding websites going on two decades and still finds excitement in the details, it’s a healthy perspective.

“You get to learn something new every day here,” he said. “It’s a good spot to be in.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

Small Businesses: Embrace Big Data

By John Costello

John Costello

John Costello

The term ‘big data’ is wearing out its welcome.

From Silicon Valley to Madison Avenue, big data has been in the collective conscious of the business community for the better part of the new millennium. At this point, it has been relegated to buzzword status in the minds of many eye-rolling small-business owners. The inability to see how big data can actually make an impact on the bottom line has led many to dismiss it rather than embrace it.

However, big data isn’t a term that deserves the disdain associated with hollow boardroom jargon. It’s time for big data to earn back the reverence it deserves.

Whether by texting our friends, posting a video to Facebook, or buying a product online, we’re all creating tons of data. IBM has noted that 90% of the world’s data was created in just the past two years. IDC predicted that, by 2020, there will be more than 44 zetabytes of data in existence. That number falls into a category alongside ‘infinity’ and other quantities that are large beyond human comprehension.

This data is driving more innovation and ingenuity than at any point in history. Researchers are poised to use big data to enable monumental scientific and technological breakthroughs that will uncover details about pre-human existence and explore the possibilities of artificial intelligence. Projects that have their roots in the scientific community are using an unfathomable amount of data to fundamentally alter the course of humanity and science. Small-business leaders need to take note of the science community’s devotion to big data.

The first and only non-human Jeopardy! contestant exemplifies big data’s crossover from scientific research to truly impactful business application. IBM Watson is a technology platform that uses artificial intelligence to reveal insights from large amounts of unstructured data. Most people think of data in the binary sense, but 80% of all data today is in the form of things like text, sounds, photos, and videos which computers could never easily read. IBM is using Watson to solve that problem and give researchers and businesses the ability to quickly extract insights, patterns, and relationships from this data. Its database consists of more than 200 million pages of documents taking up four terabytes of disk space. At one point, its database was home to a copy of Wikipedia in its entirety.

Watson has mastered big data and the necessary management of that data to search millions of documents to find thousands of possible answers, and redefine our understanding of the possibilities of artificial intelligence. Even if it yielded a couple of goofy incorrect responses on Jeopardy!

One key differentiator between the commercial and scientific approach to big data is that the scientific community has mastered the management of these unfathomably huge databases. But you don’t need to be an enormous enterprise with high-powered server farms and a staff full of STEM PhDs to make data work for you in the digital age. In fact, if you’re a small-business owner, you’ve probably already used the one tool that will help you embrace big data. You probably used it several times today.

Mary Shea, vice president of digital strategy at Springfield marketing agency GCAi, puts it simply: “the most powerful tool available to marketers is right at their fingertips: Google.” All that data that everyone is creating through their online habits is logged, categorized, and made accessible by Google. While it can’t tell you exactly who searched for what, it can aggregate data into highly targeted personas that can give marketers insight into what a specific segment of users tends to search for.

Google allows marketers to reach users based on their inferred interests and demographics. This is helping small businesses refine customer-acquisition strategies, pivot to new product offerings, and gain valuable competitive intelligence. Google even lets marketers advertise directly in its search platform. With all the data it has available, it enables a level of targeting and personalization that no billboard or 30-second TV spot could ever achieve.

It lets marketers and small businesses shift from a ‘spray and pray’ model of traditional advertising to reaching a precise buyer persona in a non-interruptive way that increases the likelihood of them making a purchasing decision. Google uses behavior and search history to categorize users as pet lovers, running enthusiasts, foodies, beach-bound travelers, political junkies, and more. Marketers are then able to use the platform to put the right ads in front of the right audience at the right time.

“While users browse websites, like JCPenney or Porter Airlines, Google stores an advertising cookie on the user’s browser to understand the types of pages that user is visiting,” Shea said. “For example, if a user views a lot of recipe pages or watches cooking videos, Google may put them in the foodie category and show them a more food-related ad.”

Terms like big data are used regularly in the media and in boardrooms, but small-business owners may not have realized how accessible data is and how much value they can extract from it. As more organizations learn to use data, it will be the most valuable currency in the coming years. Big data is truly one of the most significant and dynamic forces shaping the course of science, business, and humanity.

There’s no doubt that overexposure has caused the business world to grow numb to the idea of big data. But make no mistake, while big data as a descriptor is overused, big data as a practice is still vastly underrated by small-business owners and marketers — in other words, those who can benefit from it the most.

As an experienced public-relations professional working with global tech companies, John Costello has helped major brands and ambitious high-growth startups break into new markets worldwide with international launches, local market intelligence, and integrated marketing campaigns. In his current position as account executive at Boston-based Corporate Ink, he drives marketing and PR initiatives for B2B clients in enterprise IT, marketing automation, financial services, and supply-chain management; [email protected]

Sections Technology

Doing More with Less

By Steve Shaw

Steve Shaw

Steve Shaw

Now that we’ve begun the process of normalizing relations with our neighbors to the south, those of us in the IT world could learn a few things by talking with a Cuban auto mechanic.

Take a walk in Havana, and you’ll find dozens of pre-1960 automobiles looking shiny and new, but held together with duct tape and a tailpipe fashioned from a Cold War-era Soviet tank. For decades, Cuban mechanics have been forced by necessity to do more with less, compromising on features while focusing on efficient use of resources.

So what’s the tie to IT?

It’s no secret in just about every industry that seatbelts are being tightened. Increased government regulations, automation, the ‘Internet of things,’ and the ever-increasing threat posed by cybercriminals are putting downward pressure on IT departments to ‘make it work,’ but for less. IT budgets are leaking oil, and CIOs are finding it harder and harder to find the mechanic and the manual to fix it. The bottom line is that everyone is being asked to find ways to do more with less.

Here are a few ideas that may help.

“IT departments are inherently inefficient,” said Mike Feld, interim CTO at Baystate Health and CEO of consulting firm VertitechIT. “But if we simply looked at standardizing the tools we use, we could save time, money, and resources that would make even the most jaded bean counter sit up and take notice.”

Most large and mid-size businesses have literally hundreds of applications sitting on servers in data centers and cloud environments across their infrastructure.

The collection has grown organically over the years as software developers play the never-ending game of ‘can you top this?’ And while all may have their own unique qualities, many applications can perform many of the same functions (while we continue to use just a fraction of the features built into them). The result is more expense, more manpower needed to service them, and capital dependence to keep things current.

You may need to compromise on features, but reducing the number of vendors and making broader use of a smaller number of products can have a dramatic bottom-line impact. Feld suggests you “ask yourself if 95% of what I want from these 12 areas work with a couple of products, rather having a dozen different products fulfilling 95% of my needs.”

The standardization and weeding-out process can also have a trickle-down effect on personnel resources. More efficient programs and processes free up people to be redeployed to work on projects that have been neglected for lack of available time and manpower.

On the architecture side, standardizing computing, network, and storage on commodity hardware using software-defined methodologies will also offer up significant savings. Hyper-convergence makes your network more efficient (cutting storage costs in half by using virtual instead of traditional storage methods) and allowing for the elimination of personnel silos as teams of people dedicated to each area now work as one.  It also makes them more effective, reducing service provisioning and delivery time from days and weeks to, in some cases, just hours.

In Cuba, doing more with less is a way of life. There’s an IT lesson in there somewhere.

Steve Shaw, vice president of marketing & communications at Vertitech IT, has spent more than three decades in the marketing and communications industries; [email protected]

Sections Technology

Hard Data

BankingITdpLayersARTYoung people studying information technology in college, or IT professionals seeking a career change, don’t always think about the opportunities afforded by the banking industry. But perhaps they should — banks are increasingly clamoring for top IT talent to support their digital platforms, maintain network servers, and tackle thorny cybersecurity threats. The challenge is wooing these individuals to a career path they may never have considered.

Steven Lowell occasionally visits high-school career days and speaks with students, so he knows how young people perceive banking jobs.

Steven Lowell

Steven Lowell

“Everyone thinks of the bank as either the teller or the loan officer,” said Lowell, president of Monson Savings Bank. Which is why students with an aptitude for information technology (IT) typically don’t think of the financial world as a viable career choice.

But they should, he said.

“Technology has come to the forefront and is a huge part of banking,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s definitely a lot of potential there for people who might be interested in a career.”

Indeed, opportunities have risen for IT talent in the era of online and mobile platforms — both to build and grow those platforms and in the broad realm of cybersecurity and data protection, for starters.

“From a cybersecurity perspective, there’s really a big push right now to make sure we have that talent on staff. It’s critical,” said Joseph Zazzaro, senior vice president and chief information officer at PeoplesBank. “People want their banking data as safe as possible. That’s what we strive to do. We all want that convenience, but it comes with a challenge from a security perspective. We’re always concerned with how to make things safer, always monitoring things, and you need the right people on staff to do it.”

The question, then, is how to attract those ‘right people’ to a field that doesn’t necessarily have cachet with young IT talent.

Joseph Zazzaro

Joseph Zazzaro says bank mergers often pose opportunities to hire another bank’s IT talent if their role is being phased out.

“If you have a technical hotshot and there is an option of going to a more traditional financial services bank or to Google, that’s a pretty hard sell for a financial-services company,” Judy Pennington, director of human capital in the financial-services industry for Deloitte Consulting LLP, told Payment Source.

Meanwhile, Bruce Livesay, chief information officer at First Horizon National Corp., told American Banker that “the banking industry has gotten so much negative publicity through the past several years, it has made it more difficult to recruit people. We’re seeing fewer people feeling motivated to get into banking.”

Financial IT leaders offer plenty of reasons why they should change that way of thinking, however, starting with the fact that banks don’t start and end with the teller and loan officer.

Multiple Paths

Gary Urkevich, executive vice president, Information Technology & Project Management and Berkshire Bank, ticked off a number of areas where banks need strong IT talent, with those roles including project managers, business analysts, program managers, systems analysts, developers, report writers, infrastructure engineers, help-desk support technicians, desktop support technicians, and information-security analysts.

Gary Urkevich

Gary Urkevich

Business analysts are a good case study, he said, in the way some finance professionals span the IT and business worlds.

“Typically, BAs are fairly technical, but, more importantly, they have a keen understanding of the line of business that they support,” he explained. “So a BA that supports mortgage lending would be expected to be well-versed in mortgage lending originations, operations, and compliance. This would be similar for BAs supporting insurance, finance, or deposit operations. Many successful BAs have transitioned to IT from long careers on the banking-operations side.”

Meanwhile, Urkevich went on, program managers own the IT oversight of a particular line of business, such as retail lending. Infrastructure engineers ensure that the e-mail, network servers, circuits, and phone systems are properly sized and working properly. Help-desk support technicians handle calls from users who have questions or issues accessing the banking systems. And information-security analysts work to ensure that the bank’s network, customer data, and company data are protected from malicious intrusion.

In short, that’s a long list of roles with widely varied responsibilities, but they all require some level of IT expertise at a time when computer technology is more critical to the industry than ever before.

To hear Lowell tell it, the recent technological evolution in banking is a direct response to what customers crave: convenience.

“Everyone wants to their bank to be more convenient, and the way to do that is through technology,” he said. “We’ve got people accessing us through all kinds of devices and through all kinds of different networks. We need to be able to serve all those needs.”


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Banks access IT talent to develop applications that are easy to use, and also to offer live support to customers who have issues accessing them, he noted. On the commercial side, they help businesses interact with the bank’s systems efficiently.

Of course, the more robust the digital platform, the greater the need for security, Lowell noted. “That has become such a huge issue. You cannot afford to have a breach in your financial system, so that’s getting a lot of emphasis right now. We’re constantly testing out the network to make sure we don’t have any openings, so people can’t get in and steal information. Cybersecurity issues are huge now.”

Urkevich agreed. “Cybersecurity has become a critical area of focus across many industries, including banking,” he told BusinessWest. “We are routinely investing in staff and systems to ensure that our network is protected.

Zazzaro said one key to attracting and retaining customers is offering competitive, easy-to-use products, and to maintain those products, IT staff are critical.

“We need to have the right personnel in place, supporting the infrastructure for customers on many channels, from digital channels to voice service, the call center. People want convenience, but they want to be able to talk to someone.”

At a time when digital channels are only expanding, though, banks often struggle to make their case to career seekers with a techie bent. One factor is that people see banks constantly merging and fear their career won’t be a secure one. Millennials are also known for seeking employers they believe in on a philosophical level, and banks don’t tend to occupy that ground in their psyche.

Which is why banks often wind up drawing talent from other banks.

“Most of us network to an unbelievable degree, so there’s a great opportunity for us when a merger occurs,” Zazzaro said. “I network with people all over New England, and I’ve seen employment positions filled by a person who lost their job, or their position changed, or they were able to find another great opportunity in the banking arena.”

Lowell agreed. “It’s difficult to find good people. We have a very experienced IT person who worked at another bank, and we were able to hire him because he lives in Monson, and it was a great move for him.”

In most cases, he added, strong tech skills are more important in a potential hire than financial experience, because banks are willing to provide plenty of internal training in their specific processes. “It’s very specific, so we know they’re not always going to come in with that knowledge, but it is something they can learn, and we provide opportunities to do that.”

By All Accounts

Considering the opportunities for skilled IT talent in banks, and the fact that continuous training is a given, Zazzaro asked simply, why not seek a job in banking?

“It’s cutting-edge,” he said. “A lot of things go on with banking, whether in house to support greater efficiencies or what’s happening in the back office; whether it’s customer-facing, bricks and mortar, or on the mobile side. All these things are extremely critical. If a young person is coming out of school, a bank can be a great opportunity to further their career and gain additional training — not just for greater efficiency for the bank, but to help build their careers, too.

In the end, Lowell said, IT talent ranks right up there with regulatory-compliance experts as critical 21st-century needs for financial institutions of all sizes.

“If someone was looking at a career,” he concluded, “I think they’d be well-advised to consider a bank.” u

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

Model Business

3DprintingDPart

3D printing is hardly a new development, but its applications have rapidly expanded over the past decade as companies use it to produce both inexpensive design prototypes and large runs of manufactured parts. Connecticut-based ACT Group has been at the forefront of this revolution regionally, selling and servicing 3D-printing equipment for a wide range of clients in myriad industries. Its success mirrors that of a technology that, clearly, is no longer flying under the radar.

 

When it comes to the capabilities and applications of 3D printing, Nick Gondek said, “the sky’s the limit.” Which is why he’s glad his company, ACT Group, has established a strong presence in that field.

Specifically, the firm — based in Cromwell, Conn. and formerly known as Advanced Copy Technologies — sells and services 3D printing equipment to a wide range of clients in fields as diverse as aerospace, medicine, and shoe manufacturing.

The company’s bread and butter, said Gondek, the company’s director of Additive Manufacturing and applications engineer, is a process called rapid prototyping, by which manufacturers can produce individual 3D models of potential products much more quickly and cost-effectively than previously possible.

Take, for example, ACT’s clients in shoe manufacturing, which include Timberland, New Balance, and Puma. Rapid prototyping using 3D printing — also known as additive manufacturing — can produce full-scale models of new designs, which can be easily modified numerous times at little cost, compared to making changes after manufacturing a large run.

Nick Gondek

Nick Gondek

“The technology has been around for some time, but flew under the radar,” said Gondek, whose parents, Greg and Cindi Gondek, purchased the company in 1999, when it focused solely on office-equipment supply. “Now it’s got everyone’s attention.”

They rebranded as ACT Group a couple of years ago to reflect a broadening in scope, including the company’s rise to prominence in the 3D-printing world.

“Five or six years ago, my father was traveling in Europe and was introduced to 3D printing,” Nick Gondek said. “After doing some research to better understand the clientele, he saw opportunity in this industry, on the service side of things.”

3D-printing technology allows users to create three-dimensional, solid objects using a computer-aided design (CAD) program. With a 3D printer, companies can now print a single part, or even complete product, in a matter of hours, when it used to take months. The technology can be used to create both precise, durable prototypes and final products for businesses of all sizes.

“We have a good customer base,” said Gondek, noting that ACT also services clients of 3D Systems, one of the nation’s premier 3D-printing companies, in the Northeast region.

The testimonials and success stories, as shared by Gondek with BusinessWest, are numerous. Daniel Copley, research and development manager at Parker Hannifin, which engineers products for industrial, hydraulic, and aerospace applications, said the company’s in-house 3D-printing capabilities reduced lead time for its prototypes as well as the number of iterations needed, and are saving some $250,000 a year in the cost of prototype parts.

Other clients have similar stories of efficiency and cost savings. Powermate, USA, a provider of power-supply-converting solutions, reports that prototype models of its products can be created in a half-day, with a 65% cost reduction over traditional production.

Meanwhile, John Reed, master prototype specialist at Black & Decker, noted that, “while a design may look good on the computer screen, there is really no substitute for actually holding something in your hand.”

Toby Ringdahl, computer aided design manager for Timberland, cited a dramatic reduction in prototype costs and turnaround time, resulting in more prototyping, better designs, and increased revenue, noting that 3D printing has succeeded in “compressing our design cycles, lowering our costs, and helping us produce better products for our customers.”

Expanding Scope

The 3D-printing process begins with a concept, which is digitally modeled using CAD software — in effect, creating a virtual blueprint of the object to be printed. The program then divides the object into digital cross-sections so the printer is able to build it layer by layer.

The manufacturer then chooses a material, which is sprayed, squeezed, or otherwise transferred onto a platform. The 3D printer makes passes over the platform, much like an inkjet printer, depositing very thin layers of material (each about one-tenth of a millimeter) atop each other to create the finished product.

ACT Group

ACT Group was formerly known as Advanced Copy Technologies, which focused solely on office equipment before expanding its scope, including its recent success with sales and service of 3D-printing equipment.

ACT first specialized in servicing this equipment for its client companies, but, not long after, saw opportunity in the sales of 3D printers, incorporating that end of the business as well.

Increasing numbers of manufacturers are turning to 3D printing, not only for prototyping, but for design, tooling, and delivery of parts and products. Cindi Gondek told Forbes that jewelers can use it to create new pieces, while museums can use it to reproduce rare items for study or display, just to name two applications that might not seem obvious at first.

3D printers can produce precision parts with impressive accuracy in a variety of materials, Nick Gondek said, including plastics, ceramics, wax, and metals.

Invisalign braces, manufactured by Align Technology, are a good example of a rapid-prototyping application most people have heard of, he went on. They are built using CT scanners and 3D printing techniques to fabricate a product that’s different for each user — to the tune of 17 million sets per year.

“Invisalign has a very unique production capacity. They have mastered customized production; every person’s braces are specific to that patient. They 3D print all the models and basically build a retainer over the custom-made molds,” he noted. Without the rapid prototyping allowed by 3D-printing technology, this process — and product — would be much more expensive and labor-intensive.

In fact, the broad field of medicine provides fertile soil for 3D printing, Gondek said, starting with the education and training of future doctors and other medical professionals.

“We have technologies that mimic the properties of human bone for pre-surgical practice, with students cutting bones, drilling bones … and we now have technology to mimic tissue as well, so we can cover them,” he explained.

The technology is also used for designing patient-specific braces and implants to mend broken bones and aid in surgery, Gondek added. “In the news, there’s a lot of talk about printing human tissue. No machine can print organs today, but that’s something that might become a possibility in five or 10 years.”

One ACT client is Maimonides Bone and Joint Center, which produces a 3D color bone model quickly and accurately from a CT scan. This 50% scale model helps doctors discuss medical issues with patients and assists with surgery practice sessions. “I found the 3D model invaluable in patient education, surgical planning, and physician training,” said the company’s Dr. Howard Goodman.

Meanwhile, Battelle Center for Mathematical Medicine developed a full-color 3D model of the F protein, which aided in the development of new perspectives on how respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) works, which promises to aid in vaccine research. “Even with prior access to stereo-3D monitors and professional graphics cards, nothing compares to a full-color, physical 3D model,” said Dr. William Ray, principal investigator and faculty member.

From the Ground Up

Additive manufacturing is also revolutionizing the architecture, engineering, and construction world, Gondek said, producing scale models of buildings faster and at lower cost than before, and allowing designers to make earlier decisions and reduce time to market.

Andrew Chary of Andrew Chary Architect PLLC, another ACT Group client, characterizes 3D printing as a natural outgrowth of building information modeling (BIM), which generates digital representations of buildings in the design phase. “BIM doesn’t reach its full persuasive potential on a computer screen,” he said. “The model comes to life when you hold a 3D print in your hands.”

The dominant material for prototyping is a liquid plastic that turns into a solid when exposed to UV light, Gondek explained. A ceramic material is typically used to mimic human bone, and any number of metals may be used when manufacturing industrial parts.

The move into 3D printing required some major shifts at ACT. The equipment involved in that realm is so different from the traditional office products the company sells that a dedicated team was established for 3D sales, service, and support. They were sent to MIT for professional education in the latest processes. “We couldn’t have their traditional 2D salespeople sell this equipment,” he explained. “The applications are too diverse.”

Thus, ACT Group continues to keep up with the latest 3D printing technology — a rapidly expanding field.

“We do our homework to a high extent so the customer fully understands the capacities as well as the limitations. We can’t be everything to everyone,” Gondek said. “But this is pushing the boundaries of what is possible.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

Easy Access

By JAMES DZIOBEK III and RYAN MARLING

 

Patients are looking for convenient ways to access healthcare services when they are unable to be physically present for a traditional office exam. Over the past couple of years, some physician practices across the country have started using telemedicine technologies in innovative ways to increase patients’ access to services.

A successfully implemented telemedicine service can increase access to care, and may also improve the operational efficiency of the practice and patient experience. Several factors are contributing to the spread of telemedicine, including a greater demand for convenient healthcare, improved technology to facilitate virtual visits, and the need for a focus on care coordination in many emerging payment models. Telemedicine may serve as a mechanism to help bridge the gap between patient demand and managing population health by providing improved access and convenient care.

While many interesting use cases exist, there have been a number of concerns raised about telemedicine. These include reimbursement, identifying appropriate patients for telemedicine visits, the ease of use of the technology, maintaining continuity of care, and concerns about providing care for patients across state lines. If you are thinking about implementing telemedicine in your practice, here are a few key considerations and best practices:

• Target your patient populations. Consider which patients in your practice may be candidates for use of the technology. Consider the clinical and demographic factors that may make video visits a practical solution.

• Be sure to designate a virtual visit champion. Having a clinical and administrative champion is important in developing your practice’s strategy for telemedicine. Champions would strategize and monitor the processes both administratively and clinically to ensure the healthcare needs of participating patients and physicians are met.

• Ensure a smooth virtual visit. Consider what the process and responsible person will be to ensure that requisite logistics are set up and a test run is completed prior to the virtual visit. Make sure that the patient is able to use the technology and that all systems are working properly in advance.

• Determine how virtual visits are incorporated into physician schedules. Will virtual visits be scheduled during a virtual-visit block, or will they be handled at certain points during the day? Advance consideration in this area may help with enhanced efficiencies for both virtual and in-person encounters.

Although it might not be perfect for all patients, telemedicine could help boost patient satisfaction and allow patients to be seen sooner during some routine follow-up visits. Telemedicine may also help physicians connect to patients in new ways outside of traditional care settings.

James Dziobek III is a research and data analyst at the Mass. Medical Society (MMS). Ryan Marling is an intern, Practice Solutions & Policy Research at the MMS. This article first appeared at massmed.org.

Sections Technology

Class Act

Andrew Anderlonis

Andrew Anderlonis says Rediker Software’s products are designed to require as little time or fuss as possible from their users.

As a chemistry teacher in the late ’70s, Rich Rediker was simply seeking a way to generate tardy notices more efficiently, using a computer which, by today’s standards, seems impossibly inadequate for … well, anything. But that humble machine became the foundation of what has evolved into an international leader in school administrative software, doing business in every state and 115 countries. Through four decades of innovation and growth, one goal has remained constant: to make life easier for teachers and administrators, so they, in turn, can spend more time with the kids.

 

The Commodore PET was a late-’70s computer with a tiny, calculator-like keyboard and a whopping 4K of RAM.

It was also the foundation on which Rich Rediker built a software company that today employs 125 people at its Hampden headquarters and around the world, and has grown to become an international leader in what’s known as administrative software for schools, with a presence in all 50 states and 115 countries.

“The company started before the Internet existed, before Windows, even before DOS,” said Andrew Anderlonis, Rediker’s son-in-law and the firm’s second-generation president. What did exist, though, back in 1980, was a need.

Specifically, as a chemistry teacher at Longmeadow High School, Rediker needed an easier way to track student tardies and generate notices. So, using the PET he had scraped up enough money to buy, he designed a program to do just that — and also helped the school’s secretary produce a daily bulletin faster than before.

“He kept working on it, tinkering with it, and it became useful to the school,” Anderlonis explained, to the point where he offered to sell his program to other schools, beginning with St. Mary’s High School in Westfield in 1981. After a couple of years dividing his time between teaching and broadening his tiny software business, he left LHS and dedicated himself full-time to what is now known as Rediker Software.

Two generations of Rediker leadership

Two generations of Rediker leadership: Rich and Gail Rediker (right) and Andrew and Amy Anderlonis.

At first, Rediker ran his business from the basement of a house in Hampden — a story with echoes of the way giants like Amazon and Microsoft were birthed. As he developed more sophisticated programs to run other administrative tasks, sales took off, and in 1998, he moved into the building at the center of Hampden that still houses the enterprise today — that is, after a needed expansion in 2006.

“As the software evolved, he converted it for DOS, converted it to Windows … now we’re tackling mobile-type things. It’s amazing,” Anderlonis said. “Not many technology companies have been around four decades.”

Because of that long history, he added, “we’re convinced that we were the first student-information system on a PC. There were mainframe systems, but not on a PC.”

Covering the Bases

Today, the company serves public, private, charter, and religious schools with administrative software. That’s a broad category Anderlonis said, one best explained by some of the company’s key products, including:

• Administrator’s Plus, which manages data on students and staff. Schools can use the system to track attendance, create report cards, manage discipline, and build student schedules. Teachers can use the integrated web gradebook, TeacherPlus, to calculate and enter grades. School administrators can create digital portfolios for each student and staff member, and use them to electronically store documents and class projects. The system allows schools to batch e-mail report cards and other documents to parents, eliminating the need for paper and postage. Families can log into the system from home to see their children’s grades as well as other important school information. Finally, teachers can maintain web pages for their classes as a learning resource;

• Admissions Plus Pro, an enrollment-management software program that streamlines the admissions and enrollment process, while reducing extra work and duplicate data entry. The system can help private schools increase the number of applications they receive by allowing parents to submit them online;

• Teacher Evaluator, a web-based application available as an app for iPad but also accessible with any web browser. The application helps schools schedule and complete teacher evaluations; and

• School Office Suite, a product that complements Administrator’s Plus and folds in other areas of school functions, including cafeteria, library, and school-nursing services, in addition to basics like applications, admissions, and academics.

Rich Rediker (center) with his staff

Rich Rediker (center) with his staff in Hampden, just some of the 125 employees based across the U.S.

“Our products cover anything that has to do with student data — attendance, report cards, grades, discipline, general demographic information, billing information, and more,” Anderlonis said. “The admissions product allows schools to customize the admissions process. Our goal is really to provide a complete product suite. When kids apply and enroll, they’re brought into the system, and their information can be shared with parents.”

The goal, he went on, is user convenience — specifically, as much automation, and as little time spent fussing with data, as possible.

“The end goal is for schools not to have to spend a lot of time managing data,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re building systems that are easy to use and easy to understand, and part of that hinges on great customer support.”

It’s an element Rediker has invested in, with an in-house call center in Hampden. In fact, 75% of the company is built around customer support and product development; half the firm’s employees are developers, tasked with creating new products and improving existing ones.

One sign of progress is the way the software has evolved beyond something only administrators used, to products that teachers and students interact with directly. “We’re approaching nearly 2 million students using portals, and close to 100,000 teachers; we’ve seen really substantial growth in the adoption and use of our portals.”

Since his arrival at the company four years ago — Anderlonis’ wife, Amy, is Rediker’s daughter and the firm’s public-relations manager, while Rich Rediker continues to act as CEO — he has made an effort to expand the ways in which Rediker interacts with customers, including delivering software through the cloud; partnering with Microsoft, Apple, and Google to open up new channels for its products; and finding new uses for its expertise.

“We’ve moved into products for mass notification, allowing schools to mix text, call, and e-mail notifications across the system,” he noted as one example. Another is a deeper commitment to designing school websites, an effort for which Rediker has partnered with Wild Apple Design Group in Wilbraham.

The bottom line, Anderlonis said, is that schools always have room for improvement in the way they incorporate technology. “Schools in general typically lag a little behind on the tech highway. They’re obviously constrained by what’s in the budget. But most schools are going to spend on classroom technology; we’re trying to provide software tools that enable them to be more constructive.”

The last two years have been an especially fruitful time, he added, when it comes to developing next-generation technology at Rediker. “We’ve looked at where we’ve had success and how we can continue that success and continue to grow. We have a very tight-knit family atmosphere here — we promote family and a great workplace culture — and make sure that, as a family business, we take care of our employees because, in the end, they take care of our schools.”

Next Generation

In short, Anderlonis said, he simply wants to make sure Rediker stays ahead of the technology curve and carry on an impressive record of growth.

“Rich has done an amazing job ensuring the company is profitable every year since the company was founded, and we continue to do that through product innovation,” he said. “My goal is really to set the company up for the next generation of management and success with these products, and to create a strategic vision going forward. With the products were introducing to the market, we’re focused on providing even more robust, powerful, and flexible tools for schools to utilize. We really feel we’re one of the top vendors in the U.S. with student-information systems, and we consider ourselves the market leader.”

As a preferred vendor for Massachusetts schools, Rediker software is employed in more than 80 districts and charter schools, but it has also forged a solid reputation in Catholic schools, recently winning a contract with the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C, one of many large dioceses the company boasts among its clients.

Public or private, Anderlonis said, “we want  our customers to feel comfortable choosing to partner with Rediker. We want schools to call us when they need help. Schools call us all the time, and we’re there to talk to them.”

In addition, the company hosts three week-long workshops annually, each one drawing up to 100 educators from across the U.S. and around the world. “They interact with staff, train on the software, and get to network with other administrators. There’s a really tight-knit community around our products, both domestically and internationally. It’s pretty neat.”

As part of an effort to stay on top of advancing technology — while helping to cultivate the next generation of software developers — Anderlonis launched a summer internship program that brings a handful of promising high-school and college students on board to work on real-world projects.

“They experience the full life cycle — they’ll develop a product all the way from an idea on the whiteboard to possible customer interaction,” he explained, drawing from the skills they’ve been learning in school. “It’s not just a superficial internship; there’s a lot of depth. We give them a lot of autonomy. We’re essentially giving students in the local community an opportunity to use their abilities on real-world applications, but at the same time, they’re helping us.”

The company also connects to the community through a program called Rediker Cares, a volunteer program that allows employees to volunteer at local organizations and events during company time. As a result, employees have made significant contributions to local organizations, particularly Link to Libraries, the regional literacy initiative that was given workspace at Rediker free of charge; Anderlonis sits on the nonprofit’s board.

“Our company is a primary sponsor of Link to Libraries; they’re a great organization,” he said. “That’s another way we can give back — by helping promote literacy. Our employees have a chance to volunteer there and other ways in the community as well.”

That commitment echoes, in a different way, Rediker’s mantra of giving teachers more time with students, and developing software that allows them to have that.

“Technology is such a foundation for everything today, including education,” Anderlonis told BusinessWest. “Walk into any classroom nowadays, and you’ll see incredible technology — computers, tablets, smartboard projects. That’s the hardware, but what’s behind it? Our goal is to be part of the software that can help schools run more efficiently and effectively.”

Still, he added, as the company continues to branch out and diversify, it will do so at a measured pace, as not to lose the personal touch Rich Rediker has emphasized from his Commodore days.

“We’re not the biggest company, and we’re not the most aggressive,” Anderlonis said, “but we’re passionate about what we do, and we take care of our customers.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

A Critical Skills Gap

CyberSecurityAmerican employers have realized the vital importance of cybersecurity — but that realization has created a near-term shortage of workers that may require long-term solutions.

Cybersecurity was once the province of defense contractors and government agencies, but in the third edition of its annual cybersecurity job-market analysis, Burning Glass found that hiring has boomed in industries like finance, healthcare, and retail.

A glance at the headlines is enough to explain why. In addition to the federal Office of Personnel Management, recent cyber breaches have hit major consumer companies like Chase and Target. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ 2015 State of U.S. Cybercrime Survey, a record 79% of survey respondents said they detected a security incident in the past 12 months. Many incidents go undetected, however, so the real tally is probably much higher.

Yet, we are also seeing multiple signs that demand for these workers is outstripping supply. Job postings for cybersecurity openings have grown three times as fast as openings for IT jobs overall, and it takes companies longer to fill cybersecurity positions than other IT jobs. That’s bad for employers, but good news for cybersecurity workers, who can command an average salary premium of nearly $6,500 per year, or 9% more than other IT workers.

Or, put another way, there were nearly 50,000 postings for workers with a CISSP certification in 2014, the primary credential in cybersecurity work. That amounts to three-quarters of all the people who hold that certification in the U.S. — and presumably most of them already have jobs.

This is a gap that will take time to fill. The skills for some IT positions can be acquired with relatively little training, but cybersecurity isn’t one of them. For example, five years of experience are required to even apply for a CISSP certification. That doesn’t even consider the rising demand for experience in a specific industry, like finance or healthcare. This suggests that the shortage of cybersecurity workers is likely to persist, at least until the education and training system catches up.

Among the key trends in cybersecurity jobs:

• These jobs are in demand and growing across the economy. The professional-services, finance, and manufacturing/defense sectors have the highest demand for cybersecurity jobs. The fastest increases in demand for cybersecurity workers are in industries managing increasing volumes of consumer data, such as finance (+137% over the last five years), healthcare (+121%), and retail trade (+89%).

• Positions calling for financial skills or a security clearance are even harder to fill than other cybersecurity jobs. The hardest-to-fill cybersecurity jobs call for financial skills, such as accounting or knowledge of regulations associated with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, alongside traditional networking and IT security skills. Because finance and IT skills are rarely trained for together, there is a skills gap for workers who meet the requirements of the ‘hybrid jobs.’ Meanwhile, more than 10% of cybersecurity job postings advertise a security-clearance requirement. These jobs, on average, take 10% longer to fill than cybersecurity jobs without a security clearance.

• Cybersecurity positions are more likely to require certifications than other IT jobs. About one-third (35%) of cybersecurity jobs call for an industry certification, compared to 23% of IT jobs overall.

• Cybersecurity employers demand a highly educated, highly experienced workforce. Some 84% of cybersecurity postings specify at least a bachelor’s degree, and 83% require at least three years of experience. Because of the high education and experience requirements for these roles, skills gaps cannot easily be resolved though short-term solutions. Employers and training providers must work together to cultivate a talent pipeline for these critical roles.

• Geographically, cybersecurity jobs are concentrated in government and defense hubs, but are growing most quickly in secondary markets. On a per capita basis, the leading states are Washington D.C., Virginia, Maryland, and Colorado; all have high concentrations of jobs in the federal government and related contractors.

Burning Glass is a Boston-based firm that delivers job-market analytics that help employers, workers, and educators make data-driven decisions. Its full report on cybersecurity jobs is available online at burning-glass.com/research/cybersecurity.

Sections Technology

Growing Concerns

EpiCenter President Jeff Glaze

EpiCenter President Jeff Glaze

Jeff Glaze was happy running a successful family business, a manufacturing company that, at its peak, employed 120 people. But when the climate changed in that industry — at a time when he was becoming heavily involved in a business-consulting model known as enterprise resource planning (ERP) — Glaze decided to transition into that latter business full-time. He called his new enterprise EpiCenter, and, almost five years later, once again finds himself at the forefront of his field.

 

Jeff Glaze thought the second-generation manufacturing company he led in Westfield would survive a lot longer than it did, “but the rules changed.”

It’s a story with a happy ending, however — not that it’s anywhere close to ending. Instead, EpiCenter, the business-consulting company that emerged four years ago from his previous enterprise, is growing by some 20% per year, boasting a national and international reach.

“We were a contract manufacturer of metal nameplates, labels, and signs; 80% of our business was making nameplates for companies,” Glaze said of a family business called Decorated Products that his father launched in the 1950s and peaked in the 1990s with 120 employees at the Westfield plant.

“Frequently, our niche was items that had to be UL-approved, giving safety information. They weren’t just pretty; they had to be functional also, carrying a serial number and critical information about how to operate the equipment safely,” he explained, with national clients including Black & Decker, Singer, Craftsman, and Tappan Appliances.

“In 2007, we won the Pioneer Valley Business Excellence Award, modeled on the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award,” he went on. “We wanted to be the very best we could, to set the highest standards so our customers would be happy with us and know we were providing the best-quality products.”

But by then, the writing was already on the wall.

The turning point came in 1994, when President Clinton granted most-favored-nation status to China, opening up the Chinese market for American companies, which started moving to China and building factories and paying workers 5 cents an hour instead of $15, Glaze recalled.

“I’ll never forget the day Black & Decker called,” he said, noting that Decorated Products manufactured a stainless-steel gauge for a radial arm saw. “For 10 years, we were shipping 4,500 parts a week. In 2001, the Black & Decker guy called during lunchtime and said, ‘well, Mr. Glaze, it’s $4.15 from you, $2 from China. So, how much inventory do you have?’ And that was that. We were losing customers.”

However, a parallel story was emerging. Decorated had been working with an enterprise resource planning (ERP) provider that went out of business during the late 1990s. “Any large manufacturing facility has this type of system; it’s a necessity if you’re going to be efficient and meet customer requirements,” Glaze said.

An ERP system — essentially a suite of business-management software and consulting services that helps clients manage business functions ranging from IT to accounting to human resources —  is so critical, in fact, that Glaze and several of the failing provider’s other clients hired one of its employees to keep those functions afloat.

Eventually, Glaze became involved with Epicor, an international leader in ERP. “They had a great product and had grown over the years, and I wanted to make sure we partnered with someone who’d last a long time; I didn’t want the same thing to happen again.”

The EpiCenter team

The EpiCenter team includes about 25 local employees and dozens more scattered across the country.

Soon, he got involved in a local Epicor user group, a group of committed users who provide suggestions and feedback on service changes and enhancements. Later, he became president of Epicor’s New England user group, started attending national conferences, and ascended to president of a global user group in 2005, representing 20,000 users of the software around the globe.

Consulting for Epicor had become a major part of his business — so much that, in 2006, Glaze told BusinessWest, “the president of Epicor said, ‘why don’t you become a partner? We’ll give you some training, and you can do the same things you’re doing now, helping customers use the software, but we’ll pay you to do it.’”

A few years later, Decorated Products was no more, and EpiCenter was born.

Avoiding Disaster

There was, of course, the issue of all the employees that had worked at Decorated — for a long time, in many cases. The manufacturing business didn’t seem viable anymore, a sentiment Glaze’s children seconded and thirded.

“They said, ‘realistically, it’s not a great business model; we’re not really interested in continuing it.’”

Still, “nothing is more hurtful than laying people off,” he continued. “Fortunately, I had a friendly competitor in Stafford Springs, called Willington Nameplate. I said, ‘why don’t you buy my manufacturing company so my remaining employees have a place to go?’”

Willington agreed, and the vast majority of Glaze’s workers joined the Willington team, and EpiCenter emerged as a full-time ERP business — and a successful one, with about 60 employees scattered across the U.S; of 140 Epicor partners worldwide and 100 in the U.S., it ranks in the top five in overall size.

“A company might buy software from Epicor or someone else and ask us to implement it for them. We can sell to them as well and implement our expertise in all facets of running their business — accounting people, tech people, operations,” Glaze explained. “We try to become an ongoing resource for our customers, too. We’re their outside ERP firm.”

Enterprise resource planning is used by organizations to collect, store, manage, and interpret data from many business activities, including product planning, costs, service delivery, marketing and sales, inventory management, shipping … the list goes on, and ERP systems are highly adaptable to each client.

EpiCenter has some financial-services clients, but 80% of its customers are in manufacturing and distribution. “We have expertise in capacity planning and scheduling, job costing, and much more,” Glaze saide. “This is very important to all kinds of manufacturing companies.”

While some companies might opt to handle those functions internally with Quickbooks and other software, he continued, they often wind up with a hoghepodge of systems that don’t talk to each other, and they require human capital to enter information from one system to another.

An effective ERP solution, on the other hand, can cut overhead by 30% to 50% in certain cases, he went on. “Nobody has to re-enter information three or four times. As a result, you have better communication, reduce inventory, improve scheduling, improve profitability, keep overhead down … it really is a necessity. When you have a company that’s doing $10 or $20 million in sales, especially in the manufacturing world, it’s pretty hard to operate without that.”

Because the software is scalable, Glaze said, some startups will become partners, and the ERP expands as they do. “Those are the fun ones. It’s really great to see those success stories in Massachusetts. A lot of biotech companies we have as customers have certainly followed that model.”

Most EpiCenter clients are small to medium-sized businesses. Large, Fortune 500 companies may opt instead for platforms like Oracle and SAP. “Those systems are much larger and require a large, technical staff to keep them going. They do a great job, but they’re not appropriate for smaller companies.”

About 25 of EpiCenter’s employees work in Westfield, while the rest are spread out across the country, either in satellite offices in New Jersey, New Mexico, and Minnesota, or working from their homes, ready to travel where clients are.

“The limit on growth, for us, is finding qualified people. We need people with all these different backgrounds,” Glaze said. “We recruit nationally; it’s a very rigorous screening process and very vigorous training process. Basically, I need to add one or two consultants a month.

“Customers don’t want to train us in how to run their business, so the qualifications to be a consultant with us are pretty stringent,” he went on. “We have, in a few cases, hired people right out of school and brought them along with lower-level support work until they get enough experience to do consulting, but they’re much better off with a degree in business or engineering and five to 10 years experience using the EPR system, so they can hit the ground running. If we can’t find those people, we’ll certainly train.”

More Than Customers

Glaze was quick to stress that EpiCenter clients are more than customers. He told of one Worcester company whose IT official needed to donate a kidney to his son, so EpiCenter sent one of its own people there to do his job until he returned to work. “That’s the level of support we give. We feel very strongly that our customers are like our family, and we want to treat them right.”

That said, he concedes that, for a company doing $500 million annually in sales, EpiCenter is a bit of a secret in Western Mass.

“We work nationally and go where people ask us to go,” he told BusinessWest. “But we’re a great option for companies in Western Massachusetts.

“We’ve been in a tough economy, and while there are some bright spots, this region has lost a tremendous amount of manufacturing,” Glaze went on. “But there are some niche areas that are doing well, and that’s great; we’re serving those industries that are doing well — and we can make them that much more successful.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

An IT Diet for 2016

By TERRY GROGAN

Terry Grogan

Terry Grogan

How come New Year’s resolutions always seem to center around dieting and getting in shape?

You spend your holiday dinner enjoying all of the spoils of the season and then try to talk yourself into a ‘lifestyle change’ once the ball drops.

It’s a lot like that around the old IT department, too. We’re all being asked to do more with less, economize personnel resources, and limit capital expenses. To put it another way, senior management is telling us to lose some weight without investing in an entirely new wardrobe.

But how did we get so fat?

Remember that tome on business success called Good to Great by Jim Collins? It’s a book that I try to make my bible, though I don’t always live up to it as well as I should. (Yes, it’s my annual New Year’s resolution!) The book suggests that a central theme of all truly great businesses and individuals is the ability to create annual goals and objectives. But in order to do that, I think you also have to take a look back at what you might want to change.

When I walk into companies for the first time, usually as part of an IT gap assessment, and ask, “when was the last time you looked at the things you should stop doing?” I’m often faced with blank stares and puzzled looks.

Any IT organization that’s been around for a while has accumulated, shall we say, a little tire around the midsection. The telltale signs are the processes and procedures “we’ve been doing for years,” especially if the IT staff has also been with the company for a while.

These processes and procedures were put in place (no one quite remembers when) because someone wanted a new type of report, a filter to keep out that ‘virus of the day,’ or a custom workflow to make it easier to put a new server online. However, once that new process, procedure, or deliverable was in place, most IT departments rarely looked back, moving on to the next task or crisis at hand.

The old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” became a rule to live by, and as the years went by, the old processes and procedures were carried forward. As a result, companies generate the same reports, build servers the same way, and approve or disapprove access or technology for the same reasons, even if doing so requires a large amount of work, major upgrades, or more money to support.

No one goes back and examines these things until a high-threshold pain point or sentinel event occurs (e.g. the process is no longer supported by a major upgrade of a product, a merger causes re-evaluation of a technology, etc.). When this happens, we’re often surprised to find that what we may have been doing for the last few years is either no longer necessary, is very inefficient, or isn’t useful to anyone.

We shouldn’t need a sentinel event to move us to action, but since ’tis the season, let’s resolve to review old processes and procedures the same way we review (or should review) policies: vowing to do it every year. You probably won’t hit all of them, but pick a few every 12 months and examine them.

Ask your staff for their opinions. It’s amazing the answers you get when you ask everyone to “tell me the three things in your job you’d stop doing or do differently, if you were able to make the rules.”

Experience suggests that the first few times you undertake this exercise, you’ll actually find things that you and your staff are doing that are of no value at all. Stopping them frees up resources and/or makes forward progress easier (look at Microsoft’s abandonment of Active X in the new Edge browser).

But even after you hit the low-hanging fruit, continuing to create a ‘stop-doing’ list annually will help you look at those new tasks, processes, and projects that maybe aren’t as important as others. It will help create a focus on the things you really should be doing and create a literal lifestyle change when it comes to adopting processes in the future.

In short, you start thinking about new things with a critical eye, asking, “should we even begin this?”

So, as you begin making your list and checking it twice, consider simply taking stock of what you already have in place. Shedding those extra data-storage pounds or slimming down your infrastructure may be as easy as just asking a few questions.

Happy new year.

Terry Grogan is a 17-year veteran of the business and healthcare IT industries and is chief information officer of Holyoke-based VertitechIT, one of the fastest-growing business and healthcare IT networking and consulting firms in the country; [email protected]

Sections Technology

Always Connected

Apple Watch OS2

Apple Watch OS2

An on-the-go society demands on-the-go technology, and the array of smartphones, wristband health sensors, and tablets 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 this year on those mobile devices, which are connecting more Americans than ever, 24/7, to all the data they could possibly want.

In an increasingly connected world, mobile technology continues to advance in ways both predictable and surprising, with the final market potential still unclear.

Take the newest iteration, the ‘wearable tech.’ A recent Forbes study reported that 71% of 16- to 24-year-olds either use or want wearable tech, which includes the Apple Watch, the Fitbit, and the Microsoft Band. Those products are where BusinessWest begins its annual look at the most popular and best-reviewed technology available, with a focus this year on mobile devices.

Apple is banking on continuing demand by improving its Apple Watch OS2 ($339), which Digital Trends calls “a piece of wearable tech that feels friendly and has a little bit of quirky character about it. It’s not without its issues, but they’re not too bad. The effort to learn the interface feels worth it to us.”

CNET calls the product, which packs the apps of a smartphone into a small package that fits on the wrist, “a beautifully constructed, compact smartwatch. It’s feature-packed, with solid fitness software, hundreds of apps, and the ability to send and receive calls via an iPhone.” However, it continues, the battery doesn’t last much more than a day, and the interface can be confusing.

Still, Digital Trends notes, “the world of wearable tech has been crying out for a product that engages people — something that operates as a companion device to our phone, but also goes a step further. For Apple, that step was using it to connect people in unusual, fun ways.”


Go HERE for a chart of area telecom/voice/data providers


As Apple Insider explains, initial response to the Apple Watch has promoted competition in the marketplace from upstarts like Pebble, which is offering a new model starting at $250 — almost $100 cheaper than the Apple Watch — in addition to models above and below that price point.

Many consumers love wrist-worn devices for their health-tracking capabilities, a category currently dominated by Fitbit. “I think back to when fitness wearables first emerged — devices like the Fitbit — and wonder, what made them so great? Why did people get so excited?” CNET’s Scott Stein asks. “Was it really the fitness, or was it the idea of turning fitness-based into something fun?”

He noted that the devices counted steps like their pedometer predecessors, but made a game of it — hit a goal, get a reward; share progress with friends and compete. “Gamification, a catchphrase a few years ago, is exactly what these [devices] provided: they’re carrots on a stick to motivate exercise.”

Fitbit Charge HR

Fitbit Charge HR

That said, he likes what he sees in the Fitbit Charge HR ($139), which adds heart-rate tracking to the mix and syncs all data to the user’s smartphone. “The more expensive $250 Fitbit Surge does practically the same things, but adds a larger watch display and can track runs via standalone GPS.”

But, while $150 for the Fitbit Charge HR is a good price for a full-featured device, Stein adds, “in practice, something about the Charge HR feels a step short of exciting. It’s how Fitbit handles heart rate. It’s how it feels to wear. And, it’s how useful — or not — I found the addition of heart rate to be in my daily routine. It’s one of the best wrist-worn heart-rate trackers out there, but it’s not the complete slam-dunk fitness band I expected it to be. It is, however, the best Fitbit band currently available.”

Microsoft Band 2

Microsoft Band 2

Microsoft is a player in this field as well, and Yahoo’s David Pogue calls the just-released Microsoft Band 2 ($250) “a smartwatch with more sensors and fitness-monitoring capabilities than anything else you can buy,” from original features like a GPS antenna to track runs or bike rides, a heart-rate monitor, UV light detectors, and a skin-temperature sensor, to new additions including a barometer for measuring elevation (a bonus for hikers and climbers) — 11 sensors in all, in fact.

It’s not for everyone, however; Pogue declares the Band the winner for serious exercisers, but says the Fitbit Charge HR is better for the all others — those who aren’t hardcore about exercise but could benefit from gentle reminders and motivators.

Smartphones Everywhere

Of course, smartphones remain the go-to mobile device for most Americans, with 64% of all adults and a whopping 85% of the 18-29 age group among their users, according to the Pew Research Center.

PC Advisor notes that fierce competition in the smartphone market means there’s a quality device for everyone at just about every price point — and consumers are typically happiest with the operating systems they are comfortable with.

“Although there are others around, it’s best to stick with the big names, including iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and potentially BlackBerry. If you’re already using one, then it might be best to stay in that camp — especially if you’ve invested time and money in its apps. However, it’s not difficult to switch, so you should consider them all.”

Design will come down to personal taste, the site adds, and most of the top smartphones now have a very thin and light chassis. “The best smartphones typically use premium materials like glass, aluminum, or even steel, and on this front you’re best off trying a phone out in the flesh to see whether it feels good for the size of your hand.”

Despite the greater competition, most of the tech press still places Apple’s iPhone and Samsung Galaxy atop their lists of best phones.

Samsung Galaxy S6

Samsung Galaxy S6

For example, TechRadar calls the Samsung Galaxy S6 ($499) “a brilliant phone that shows Samsung still has what it takes.” An improvement from the Galaxy S5, the latest edition boasts improved camera performance and audio quality, and the sharpest video display on the market.

In addition, “the design is finally something we’re pleased to hold in our hand, rather than the plastic cheapness of last year,” TechRadar notes, and “it’s actually extended its lead at the top thanks to some amazing price drops — so you can now get the best phone on the market for an incredibly low price these days. A no-brainer.”

PC Advisor piles on the praise as well, calling the Galaxy S6 the best Android phone of 2015. “It’s fast, it’s well built, it has a gorgeous screen, and the software isn’t overly intrusive. The fingerprint scanner is vastly improved, the heart-rate scanner a potential draw for some users, and the wireless- and fast charging welcome inclusions.”

But Apple’s iPhone 6S Plus ($499) tops many rankings as well. CNET praises the latest version’s improved speed, better camera, always-on Siri, pressure-sensitive display, longer battery life, and bigger, higher-resolution screen — all improvements over the 2014 model. In fact, the screen size has grown so much that some people might consider it too bulky. “The iPhone 6S Plus has a few key advantages that give it an edge for serious iPhone users, but its big body may not fit for a lot of people.”

iPhone 6S Plus

iPhone 6S Plus

Meanwhile, Phone Arena says it’s not surprising that the iPhone 6 is the world’s bestselling smartphone, citing the 3D Touch display and Live Photos as desireable improvements, as well as an improved system chip and better battery life.

“Put in simple words, the new iPhone has a much faster processor and memory. It also comes with a new, 12-megapixel camera that now is able to capture a more detailed images than before and records video in the trendy 4K resolution, plus it supports new slo-mo options. Add to this the rich iOS ecosystem that continues to secure the best apps and games first, and one starts to understand the huge appeal of the iPhone 6s.”

Still, Apple and Samsung have some competition in the market. PC Advisor offers praise for Sony’s Xperia Z5 ($349), which comes with an aesthetically improved rear cover and adds a fingerprint scanner, but keeps much of its previous design.

“Once again, the camera is great, but it’s tough competition out there, and arriving late in 2015 means rivals are now available for a decent chunk less,” the site explains. “Once the price drops, which it will, this will be a great option for those of you looking for a waterproof flagship with a Micro-SD card slot.”

A Bigger Canvas

Smartphones are far from the only tech battlefield, however. The tablet market continues to be hotly contested as well. According to TechRadar, Apple still tops the game with its iPad Air 2 ($599) — a remarkable improvement over even the “remarkable achievement” that was the original iPad Air.

iPad Air 2

iPad Air 2

“It’s even thinner and lighter than last time around, and to a noticeable extent. The screen is better, with more vibrant colors, it’s more powerful thanks to its A8X processor, and the battery life holds up just as well. It even benefits from Touch ID and Apple Pay, and while these features aren’t as exciting here as they are on phones, they’re still nice to have. In short, the iPad Air 2 really is the complete package, and while you can always find things to niggle about, there are no significant flaws.”

As always, however, Apple has competition. PC Magazine touts the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 ($399), calling it an improvement over its predecessor in every way, including a thin and light design, upgraded performance, and better-quality camera.

“Do tablets matter anymore?” the site asks? “Samsung would like you to think so. Despite releasing some very large phones recently, the company still believes there’s a home for tablets in a market crowded with enormous phablets. And Samsung’s latest offering, the Galaxy Tab S2, definitely makes the case that, yes, tablets are still very much relevant.”

It’s the same story told in many different ways — Apple continues to set the pace, but its main competitors keep closing the gap. That’s healthy for consumers, no matter which device they prefer to take on the go.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at  [email protected]

Sections Technology

How Come the Message So Often Gets Lost in Translation?

By STEVE SHAW

 

Steve Shaw

Steve Shaw

Most companies and organizations do an admirable job when it comes to communicating with employees. That rumored merger, those pending layoffs, a change in leadership, or implementation  of a new health plan are the classic reasons for reaching out and touching someone in the cubicle down the hall.

So, how come the message from the IT department often gets lost in translation?

Technology can be a scary thing, and oftentimes, it’s treated that way. The IT department is happy to be left alone to its bits and bytes, while the communications department says, “just let us know when we’re going to be down for maintenance or need to teach people how to use that new software.”

That way of thinking is no longer valid in today’s technology-driven economy.

According to the global professional services company Towers Watson, companies with highly effective internal communications had 47% higher total returns to shareholders versus companies with the least effective internal communications programs over the last five years.

A Gallup poll says 70% of U.S. employees are not engaged and that disengaged employees cost our economy $450 to $550 billion a year in lost productivity. The Work Foundation, a U.K.-based, nonprofit think tank, says organizations that increase practices related to engagement by just 10% increase profits by an average of $2,400 per employee per year. Do I have your attention now?

One of our healthcare clients, a mid-sized hospital system with 12,000 employees, is implementing a new hyper-converged infrastructure, totally revamping its approach to networking, data storage, and computing. This two-year effort comes at a time when hospitals, mandated by the federal government to adopt expensive electronic health record (EHR) systems, are asked to do more with fewer resources.

The new infrastructure will do that, cutting datacenter construction costs by millions and allowing the IT department to become faster and more efficient. They’ll even be able to monetize their new technology investments by offering services to the outside world. But that’s what’s in it for IT. What about the doctors, nurses, and administrators who just want to be able to access their work data from any device, anytime, from anywhere?

We recommend beginning the communications process by putting yourself in your customer’s head. They want the software they depend on to do their jobs to be available whenever they need it. They have little sympathy for outages, maintenance windows, and the availability of a technician to fix an issue when it arises. In most cases, they have little concern for operating systems, storage hardware and software, or data-center design.


Go HERE for a chart of area telecom/voice/data providers


In that case, IT communications to an organization should come down to answering three basic questions.

• What are you doing and why? Use metaphors and real-life examples to put the answer into an easily relatable context. Try something like this: “why are we implementing a new network infrastructure? Think about how much data we all produce, share, and store each year. If you printed it all out, the paper alone would fill an 80,000-seat football stadium. Now, think about the secure network needed to handle that information, the machines needed to store it safely, and the system needed to protect it all in the event of a natural disaster. That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

• How does the technology directly benefit the ability of people to do their jobs? Eliminate the jargon. The people who know the difference between ESX and Hyper-V will seek you out if they want to get technical. Your message? “Our new network will practically eliminate outages, support service times will improve dramatically, maintenance windows will go away, and if a piece of hardware fails, our backup kicks in immediately with virtually no interruption.” People generally don’t need to know how it works. They just want to know how it affects them. Resist the temptation to explain further.

• What do I need to do now? Be specific, but be reassuring. People customize their desktops and develop their own unique way of working. They also feel that, just when they finally get the handle on how to access the ‘E’ drive and navigate to where their data is stored, someone in IT decides to perform an upgrade that has them throwing a shoe at their computer screen. Sympathize. Produce easy-to-read checklists, develop logical implementation schedules, and communicate on a regular basis when things change. A single e-mail won’t do the trick.

The bottom line when it comes to communicating IT initiatives is this: you’re asking people to change (sometimes in a big way). There’s natural resistance to it, and it takes time. Don’t just tell them what, when, and why. How it will make their life easier is most important. Don’t be afraid to ask for input. You know what you want people to do. You just want to get them to think it was their idea.

You can’t communicate too much if the message is relevant and substantial. You can communicate too much if it’s overly technical and isn’t easy to internalize. Finally, choose your vehicle wisely. A one-time e-mail or fancy newsletter may find its way to the “I’ll read it later” file. Be creative. A mixture of written communication, live events, and interactive forums are critical for long-term buy-in.

Remember, IT is highly technical, but it’s not rocket science. Don’t confuse communicating the end result with a need to tell people how you got there.

Steve Shaw has spent more than three decades in the marketing and communications industries as a television reporter, production agency founder, and multi-media network executive. He is the vice president of Marketing and Communications for Holyoke-based VertitechIT, a business and healthcare IT networking and consulting firm; [email protected]

Sections Technology

Capturing Attention

Amy Scott, Eric Belliveau, and Rory Hurlburt

Amy Scott, Eric Belliveau, and Rory Hurlburt offer a next-generation model of marketing, expressed in their tagline, “Marketing Agency, Evolved.”

Amy Scott and her team at Wild Apple Design Group say technical expertise is a must when designing websites that engage customers, but so is an element of “surprise and delight.” The goal, she insists, is to create relationships with clients that are transformational, not transactional — and fun to boot.

The little critters are called Worry Eaters.

Their names are Betti, Bill, Flamm, Polli, Enno, Saggo and Schnulli, and more than 2.5 million of the plush characters, with zippered mouths that allegedly ‘eat’ a child’s worries when they are written down and fed to them, have already been sold in Europe.

“Let us carry your worries so you don’t have to,” they shout on their newly developed website, which includes a video in which a worry eater banishes a little girl’s fear that a monster is lurking under her bed.

The website launched earlier this summer, and purchases can be made on an e-commerce shopping cart, thanks to Wild Apple Design Group in Wilbraham, which was hired earlier this year to introduce the toy to the North American market by the Haywire Group, a Springfield-based game designer and manufacturer.

The result is not only endearing, it earned the company marketing awards from the Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts. Wild Apple was recently feted as a Silver winner for consumer-product website design in the Summit Creative Award competition for its work on the Worry Eaters microsite, and received a Summit Creative Bronze for website redesign for its work for Kino West Media, a cinematic videography company in Palmer. In addition, that website redesign earned Wild Apple a Silver Creative Award.

Overall, the firm is known for its unusual creativity, and founder Amy Scott says that, although clients don’t expect it, there is always an element of “surprise and delight” in their finished product.

“Our major goal is to create a relationship with our clients that is transformational, rather than transactional,” said the director of project management and business development. “We want to listen to them, learn about their goals, then surprise and delight them by exceeding their expectations.”

This stems from work done by Rory Hurlburt, Scott’s brother and the company’s creative lead, art developer, and senior designer.

“Clients usually have no idea that we will do something fun,” Hurlburt said. “But we’re a modern marketing agency, and these things make someone want to watch a video or talk about what they have seen.”

However, the lure of an attractive site has to be backed by technical expertise, and that’s where Eric Belliveau enters the picture.

“There are many considerations and elements that go into a website and digital marketing; for example, it requires science, analytics, and technology to get someone to add something to an e-commerce shopping cart, then complete the sale,” said Wild Apple’s director of operations, technology, and Internet marketing, who explained that Worry Eaters are sold at a number of retailers, and creating the e-store was an important piece of the development process.

“It had to be responsive, which means it was built so the different characters could be viewed on smartphones,” he told BusinessWest. “But this all takes place behind the scenes, and the user is completely unaware that the intersection of more than one technology is required.”

Amy Scott

Amy Scott says her company was one of the first in the area to design responsive websites, which work on multiple platforms.

A new site for LEAP Bookkeeping in West Springfield and Greenfield was just launched, and although it contains all the pertinent and necessary information potential clients need to know, there are also unexpected — nee, delightful — surprises: Bakers showing off rising dough, a panting dog, two people raising their fists and giving each other a high five, and a woman wearing a cape with the LEAP logo on it, who is standing on the edge of a building that overlooks a city skyline, which seems to suggest she could easily leap into those buildings to help them solve their bookkeeping problems.

Hurlburt says creating such a finished product is neither quick nor easy, and it requires not only technical acumen, but a complete understanding of the clients and their needs.

“I live, eat, and breathe the project I’m working on at any moment in time,” he noted. “I want to understand as many facets of the business or organization as I can, and also seek to learn who the client is, and how that personality can shine through the company or organization.

“But technology is behind everything we do; we’re experts at leveraging it and provide outstanding designs with a ‘wow’ factor,” he went on, adding that data is brought together into a visual design that represents the brand they are working on.

Scott said that’s important. “Almost every company has a website. But they often have an unfulfilled dream to convey their business digitally in a way that draws more prospects and tells their story.”

Talent Merger

Scott says she cut her teeth in marketing during a stint in the garment-manufacturing industry.

“I was the buyer, not the provider, but always felt there was so much room for improvement in leveraging the multitude of services required to drive successful marketing campaigns,” she said. “I was driven to create them.”

That drive compelled her to embark on a career change, and in time, her vision, energy, and success in graphic-design artistry inspired her to open Wild Apple Design in 2000, focusing on print marketing.

However, Scott occasionally collaborated with Belliveau. He began working in the field of web development in 2000, shortly after the dot-com crash, and eventually opened his own web-design and development company, which included consulting services.

Scott also called on her brother for help with a number of projects. Hurlburt was working as a freelancer and started his career with the idea of pursuing comic-book illustration, but soon found he enjoyed layout and design. “I spent 15 years designing for everything from web to print, which taught me that being well-equipped with information and strategy increases the value and viability of any well-designed art,” he said.

Although the trio had worked together on an occasional basis, their collaboration morphed into something much larger in 2009, after it became clear that the combination of their honed talents and expertise made them a unique team.

At the time, ABC decided to film an episode of the popular show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition in Suffield, Conn.  Scott was hired to do the publicity, and after being told she needed to create a website, she contacted Hurlburt. Coincidentally, Belliveau got in touch with her and asked her to create a logo, explaining that he had a few clients serving as vendors for Extreme Makeover.

The trio ended up working together for ABC, and after overcoming a multitude of challenges, they decided to do another project together.

Eric Belliveau

Eric Belliveau says it requires science, analytics, and technology to get someone to add something to an e-commerce shopping cart, then complete the sale.

That happened in 2011 after Scott was awarded a contract by Rockville Bank to build a website for the institution. Although the project turned out to be larger than they expected, their success resulted in a major decision to work together on a permanent basis under Scott’s umbrella.

She rented space in Post Office Park in Wilbraham and was joined by Hurlburt and Belliveau, who left his business, then religiously began evaluating every available technology.

Today, he focuses on digital marketing and the complex mechanics involved with setting up and maintaining websites. Meanwhile, Hurlburt is responsible for the creative-design work, and Scott focuses on marketing.

It’s all come together nicely, but when they first joined forces, their new, combined venture was a gamble.

“We felt we could do better and more business together, but it was an investment that involved blood, sweat, and tears; when we moved into this building, we were not sure if it would pay off,” Hurlburt said. “At the time, our goal was simply to survive.”

Fast-forward to 2015, and the company has not only survived, it is thriving. Rows of awards line the walls, and a year ago, Wild Apple created the tagline “Marketing Agency — Evolved,” which is indicative not only of its success and the wide range of services it offers, but the risks it has taken, which includes a foray into the world of responsive websites.

“We were one of the first to adopt the technology. When mobile traffic started to increase, it only involved an avenue or two and was an innovative area,” Belliveau recalled, explaining that, four years ago, sites were built either for desktops or mobile devices and typically didn’t function for both.

“But today, it’s becoming standard; all sites need to be responsive and function on tablets, smartphones, desktop computers, Kindles, and tablets,” he said, noting that the smartphone is usually the first point of contact.

“Roughly 40% of a website’s traffic will be on a mobile or handheld device; it’s also the place where most people access their e-mail,” Belliveau continued, adding that responsive websites need to be tactile, which means they can be manipulated by swiping or touching the screen, then clicking on an option.

The firm’s entry into this arena resulted in a world of experience, and today Wild Apple is able to deal with the entire ecosystem of marketing, which can include a responsive website; e-mail; social media; print, TV, and radio advertising; and a logo, branding, and identity design.

Detailed Process

When the firm gets a new client, Scott conducts an in-depth interview to unearth its specific goals, needs, and vision for its products and services.

Once she has gathered all the information she needs, Hurlburt puts pencil to paper and begins sketching, and typically comes up with three or four ideas.

Rory Hurlburt

Rory Hurlburt takes pride in the creativity he brings to websites developed by Wild Apple Design Group.

“What he creates has to align with the client’s goals, have a ‘cool’ factor, and yield results, which means grabbing someone’s attention,” Scott explained. “First impressions are important, as the general rule is that you have between eight and 10 seconds to get someone’s attention.”

Since about 35% of their clients are schools, creating surprise and delight can mean showcasing their colors, mascot, or “whatever their pride and joy is, in a unique way,” Scott continued.

For example, she discovered that the mascot for Cross Schools in South Carolina was a stingray, but they weren’t using an image of one. So Hurlburt took that information and created a happy little sea creature which has been imprinted on the students’ uniforms as well as the school’s signs, website, and marketing materials.

However, Belliveau’s expertise is also critical to the development process. “I’m in the forefront of emerging technologies such as responsive mobile website design and deploying the next generation in content-management systems,” he said. “I keep the team up to speed with the latest and greatest technologies so they can articulate what’s new or, in some cases, what’s changed in the ever-evolving landscape of web-based software.”

This work is ongoing for many clients as well as those who come to Wild Apple for an initial visit. “They want our critical eye on their brand. It’s about how it will hold up in a mobile environment, which involves more than aesthetics,” Hurlburt said. “And that’s what makes us different: we have design, marketing, and technology well in hand.”

Thanks to that winning combination, the company’s clients are unlikely to need to unzip the mouth of a Worry Eater and feed it to banish their marketing fears.

Sections Technology

Data-center Migration

By GERRY GOSSELIN

Gerry Gosselin

Gerry Gosselin

“OK, twist to your left. No, your other left! … wait, sorry, you were right the first time. Now I’ll go higher. Stop, stop! Put her down for a moment.” And so it went until the couch finally squeezed through the front door.

This is how my team and I felt maneuvering a 500-pound UPS package off a short pickup truck, onto a loading dock, in the rain. “Next time we’ll check for a height difference — have someone with a big umbrella,” I noted.

Planning a data-center migration is one of the most time-consuming and underappreciated aspects of the job, and as those of us who have performed dozens of these exercises over the years know all too well, the planning can’t just wait until the last minute.

The Packet Pushers podcast (packetpushers.net) recently ran a wonderful 90-minute show on data-center migration. Guest Chris Church contributed an outstanding outline to the podcast’s show notes that brought so many of those simple but integral tasks into focus. Here is a collection of his (and our) 10 overlooked items that you might want to add to your data-center-migration checklist.

1. I can do this, right? Don’t let the inspector test the big red button after you’ve gone live in production. If you just built your own datacenter, get your permits and inspections scheduled far ahead of time. Municipal inspectors operate at 56k-modem speed.

2. Put your print on it. If you’re moving into a high-tech, collocated facility, make sure everyone has proper access to the data center. This may be as simple as the correct name on a list, or as advanced as biometrics. Packet Pushers even relayed a story of their moving truck breaking down and the new truck not being allowed up to the data center’s loading dock because it didn’t match the original make and model.

3. Don’t touch that.  Single-phase, 3-phase, 220, 110. The right time to learn what that means is before you hear a pop (ask me how I know). Make sure you humbly chat with facilities folks about power.

4. More inter-tubes. If you can, order new circuits for your new data center and pay the extra cost (rather than cutting over from your old data center to the new during the move). This gives you an opportunity to test and configure well in advance. As a veteran in the ISP space, trust me when I say that you do not want to get in touch with your ISP’s provisioning department at 3 a.m. Saturday morning.

5. We’re live in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Remember to adjust your external DNS TTLs a week in advance. The lower you can set your TTLs, the faster the world will find your new data center. You simply can’t do this on a moment’s notice.

6. Fifteen minutes could save you 1,500%. If you are moving gear yourself, ask your company if it has adequate insurance. Are you legally able to move gear yourself? Some equipment leases can be moved only by the vendor.

7. Anyone have a camera? Simple snapshots of the monitoring systems before the move assure that, afterward, all the proper services are back in the same state they were before you started. Your team doesn’t need to be troubleshooting an application that was broken eight months before the migration even took place.

8. Where’s the boss? Stakeholders should be available after the migration to test all of their systems and give the thumbs up before your team leaves the site.

9. Snacks, sleeping bags, and essentials. This will be a long, tiring night or weekend. Everyone will perform best when they’re well-fed, have a place to grab a quick power nap, and thoroughly know their tasks, how to validate when their task is complete, and who to check in with along the way.

10. Go team! Data-center migration is a team sport. It’s best to ensure some non-technical folks are on your team who can objectively deal with timelines, coordination, and communication with the executives who may be waiting at home for an update. Your team should also include folks outside of your organization (vendors, consultants, or VARs). You may do this type of migration only once every decade, but your consultant does it several times a year. Pick up the phone.

With every data-center migration, there will be a couch-twisting-in-the-doorway moment. Time spent working on a great plan can facilitate a smooth migration and keep your door jambs intact.

Gerry Gosselin is director of Technical Operations for VertitechIT, a rapidly growing healthcare and business IT consultancy. He is a nationally known expert in systems programming, automated network monitoring and management, as well as network engineering and administration; (413) 268-1621; [email protected]

Sections Technology
IT Industry Confronts a Perplexing Shortage of Workers

Dave DelVecchio

Dave DelVecchio says technical skill is important in a prospective employee, but so is a willingness and desire to learn new things.


Around the turn of the millennium, when dot-com startups were riding high, computer science was an attractive career option for college students choosing majors. Ironically, however, although technology has become even more pervasive in daily life over the past 15 years, the number of people entering the IT field has plummeted, slowing growth at high-tech companies that would be expanding faster if they could only find the talent. The key, industry leaders say, is working together to reignite interest in what remains a well-paying, in-demand, often exciting field.

As a mechanical-engineering major in college, Joel Mollison didn’t expect to one day own a successful computer-services business. But then he taught himself computer repair, which — along with his growing distaste for his chosen major — led him to change direction, and eventually launch what’s now known as Northeast IT in West Springfield.

That means he’s always looking for people like him, who at some point discover a love for computers and information technology and are skilled at it. But finding those people has not been easy.

“Technology encompasses such a vast range of jobs,” he told BusinessWest. “Programmers and coders are a completely separate thing from people who do what we do, providing managed services, managing people’s networks … and that’s totally different from, say, web design.”

By all accounts, opportunities in those fields and many others in the IT realm are only growing. Yet, at the same time, the number of young people graduating from college with the necessary skills to succeed in IT is falling.

Indeed, according to Code.org, a national nonprofit dedicated to expanding participation in computer science, by 2020, the U.S. will have 1.4 million computing jobs available, but only 400,000 computer-science graduates available to fill them.

That’s a reflection of two colliding trends, the organization notes. As computers increasingly run virtually every facet of our lives, fewer college students are choosing to major in computer science. Specifically, 60% of all jobs in the broad realm of math and science have a computing element, but only 2.4% of all college students majoring in a math or science field are choosing computer science.

“We’ve absolutely been dealing with this for the last five years, and the problem will only get worse before it gets better. In general, we need a lot more folks than there are out there,” Mollison said. “There are a lot of different facets to IT, and each requires its own unique skill set, although there is some overlap. To be a professional in any of these sectors, you need to possess a vast range of knowledge.”

Dave DelVecchio, president of Innovative Business Systems in Easthampton, has experienced the same struggle.

“The pool of qualified talent is not deep enough to provide the exact mix of talent we need,” he said. “Typically, we somebody to come to the table and demonstrate they have the ability to learn — someone with good, broad-based knowledge to draw from, but also a desire and willingness to learn new things.”

Delcie Bean IV, president of Paragus Strategic IT in Hadley, understands the scope of the national problem, but also how it affects his firm, one of the country’s fastest-growing IT companies, on a daily basis.

“Being a top-paying career and the second-fastest-growing career, it’s absolutely the right career to be in, but fewer people are graduating today than 10 years ago; interest is actually shrinking,” he said. “And when we talk about where women and people of color fit in, it’s abysmal.”

He cited statistics from Code.org noting that women, who claim 57% of all bachelor’s degrees, earn just 12% of all computer-science degrees. Meanwhile, at the high-school level, 3.6 million students take the advanced-placement computer-science exam, but only 3,000 of those seats are occupied by African-American and Hispanic students.

Combined, all these numbers tell Bean there’s plenty of untapped potential to draw students of all demographics into an IT field that desperately needs them.

“Paragus, at any given time, has four to eight open positions,” he noted. “Every open position represents an opportunity lost, because every employee has ROI and generates profit. If a position isn’t filled, that’s profit we’re not capturing.”

The net effect is that a company that has been growing at 25% to 30% per year could be growing at 45% to 50% if the talent gap wasn’t an issue and Paragus could hire whenever it wanted to.

For this issue and its focus on technology, BusinessWest examines some of the reasons behind a drought of IT workers that could become critical in the next decade — and what both public- and private-sector entities are doing about it.

Digital World

It’s ironic, Mollison said, that the more people rely on high-tech devices to run their lives, fewer young people are interested in computer science as a career.

“Everything runs on computers now,” he noted. “Because of that, there’s a wide array of services, a wide array of products out there. Career opportunities are growing exponentially, and there are not enough people out there with the experience to fill those gaps.”

Thinking back to his college days 15 years ago, Mollison recalled there were a lot of people entering the IT field drawn by the promise of making a lot of money in an exciting, fast-growing field. It’s a different time, though, and Millennials are known for following their passions, not necessarily just a paycheck.

“If you don’t have a true passion for IT, if you’re not exposed to it at a young age, and if the desire isn’t there to begin with, I think a lot of people may be overwhelmed by the time they reach high school and college, and are figuring out what they want to do with the rest of their lives,” he said. “The tech field can be a bit overwhelming if you’re not absolutely sure that’s where you want to be.”

With the goal of increasing exposure to computer science at an early age, Bean serves on the advisory board of the Massachusetts Computing Attainment Network, or MassCAN, which has developed a set of standards, now being considered by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, for making computer science part of the K-12 curriculum.

Joel Mollison

Joel Mollison says young people often don’t grasp the sheer breadth of career opportunities available in IT.

“We really thought about what kindergartners should learn, what eighth-graders should know, what high-school graduates in the Commonwealth should be able to do in computer science,” he explained. “It’s as much a way of thinking as anything else. We’re not just talking about specific technology skills; what’s needed is critical thinking, troubleshooting, problem resolution, abstraction — traits that are of value in whatever industry you go into. If someone is an amazing critical thinker, I can teach them IT.”

The standards would likely be recommendations to start, Bean said, “but if they were to make it mandatory, it would put Massachusetts ahead of the curve in graduating some of the best talent from the K-12 system. And we’re already known for our higher-education system.”

Training young people in computer science is something Bean takes seriously, which is why he launched Tech Foundry last year. The Springfield-based nonprofit, which trains promising students to enter well-paying IT jobs right out of high school, recently graduated its first class of 24 participants.

DelVecchio sees, in the promise of Tech Foundry, echoes of Javanet back in the mid-’90s. A locally based Internet service provider, that company was later acquired by RCN, a large, regional player, which created large numbers of entry-level positions in its call center and support services, providing opportunities to work in the IT field when interest in such careers was peaking.

Then, “when RCN decided to move its call center to Pennsylvania, all those folks scattered to the wind — but many of them ended up pursuing a career in IT,” DelVecchio said. “We’ve got four people who have RCN on their résumé.”

In fact, he went on, many local IT companies were seeded with those former RCN workers, who have moved up to management-level positions. A decade or so down the road, DelVecchio hopes a vibrant IT industry in the Valley will be similarly peppered with Tech Foundry graduates. “You might not see the impact this year, but it will benefit the region 15 years from now.”

Bean certainly hopes his brainchild has such an impact, because it’s not just small computer firms that crave IT talent, but some of the region’s largest employers.

“It’s a huge problem with a national impact. Look at MassMutual. Look at Baystate. If they don’t have good tech employees, that’s a problem for them — and a problem for everyone.” Many companies, he added, have experimented with outsourced or even offshore IT services, but find that in-house talent is more efficient and produces better return on investment.

But the talent lag has everyone struggling to meet those needs.

“All we’re doing is shifting people from one company to the next,” Bean said. “There’s a lot of poaching going on — giving someone a raise to be your employee. We all have to do a little bit of that to survive, because the talent pool isn’t wide enough. But it’s not good for the region.”

High-tech, High-touch

When Bean and others talk about IT skills, however, they’re not thinking only about the inner workings of computer hardware and software, but also about ‘soft skills’ — in particular, communication skills — so critical to today’s IT world.

“That’s one of the really big challenges facing a lot of companies like ours,” Mollison said. “We have a lot of people who have to face the public, and you can have great technical people, but if they’re unable to communicate, if they don’t have those soft skills, they’re not as great an employee as they could be; it’s difficult to send them out into the world.”

Some of this reflects one particular type of person who embraces technology early in life, he added.

“A lot of folks are introverted and love computers — it’s a way for people to escape into another world; that’s how they get into it,” he explained. “But as they grow in that facet, and become technically mature, they can lose those soft skills, not being a part of day-to-day life.

“Personally,” he added, “I’ve seen some people who have been sheltered, not been outgoing, who have been turned around. But they need to be exposed to a group of tech people who are more outgoing, who can help break them out of their shell and be more personable, so they can work in a job where they deal with people on a regular basis.”

It doesn’t help, DelVecchio said, that too many IT graduates of the region’s highly regarded colleges and universities take their skills to the Boston area or out of state completely. This talent drain is one of the top-priority issues of the Hampshire County Regional Chamber, of which he’s a founding member.

“This region has vast assets we bring to the table,” he told BusinessWest. “We hear stories of people who moved away for job opportunities, then moved back because this is a place they want to raise a family. We need to be louder about the fact that they don’t have to move away; they can start a career, they can thrive here, and raise a family in the Pioneer Valley. That’s true not just for IT careers, but for many industries.”

Bean hopes the network of entities actively working on the IT talent problem — from state departments to regional workforce-development agencies; from community colleges to initiatives like Tech Foundry — will start to make a dent by not only cultivating young people’s interest in IT, but helping them attain both computer expertise and the soft skills necessary to work with a public that, again, is becoming ever-more reliant on technology.

“I think it’s about exposure,” he concluded. “Typically, people choose their career path based on what they’re exposed to in school — and computer science has really dropped off the radar.”

He noted that CSI: Cyber, the latest iteration of CBS’ popular criminal-forensics TV franchise, is one media entity showing an attractive and exciting side to IT work.

“I’m interested to see its impact; I think that will do more for computer science than anything else. Four years ago, there was a huge increase in students wanting to be physicists, and they traced it back to The Big Bang Theory. I think we underestimate how much exposure pop culture has to do with career paths.”

Meanwhile, his work — and that of others — to promote the computer-science industry locally continues.

“If we can get people more exposure to IT jobs, how exciting this field is, how much it pays, how fast it’s growing,” Bean said, “we can really start to move the needle.”


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology
Effective Planning Can Turn an Obstacle into an Opportunity

By GREG PELLERIN

Greg Pellerin

Greg Pellerin

“The budget evolved from a management tool into an obstacle to management.”

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci was talking about government spending when he made this comment, but he may as well have been referring to those days leading up to the start of a new business budget year. It’s that time when executives go scrambling to either spend what’s going to be lost or, more than likely, find more money to fund an important project.

There is no shortage of priorities for most IT departments. Strategic initiatives, the need for infrastructure upgrades, and software-licensing mandates are a constant challenge. Yet, hiring freezes and the redirection of funding within an organization often make implementation difficult. In my opinion, the answer to those once-a-year budget woes can often be found in four areas: prioritization, funding, implementation, and monetization.

 

Prioritization

It seems simple, but you’d be surprised by how many times the cart is put before the horse.

Virtualizing desktops and networks is a major investment with a cost-saving upside, but unless a company has clearly defined its ‘bring-your-own-device’ policy, a VDI plan shouldn’t even be considered.

Moving the data center to accommodate growth? Carefully and objectively reviewing hyper-convergence and public cloud potential is critical, because the best time to implement any or part of this solution is during a data-center migration/upgrade.

Perhaps it’s time to get rid of that old PBX phone system and institute a truly unified communications approach. By their very nature, VoIP solutions are software-based and are meant to evolve as business priorities change. A new, unified communications platform with the latest videoconferencing, instant messaging, and speech-enablement capabilities may be overkill and a real budget buster (you can always add capabilities later on).

Prioritizing actual versus perceived needs is the better course of action.

 

Funding

Critical IT investments can often be made by simply finding creative ways to reduce or redeploy existing budgets. A telecom-expense-management audit (often funded by the savings it incurs) takes a look at existing wireline and wireless contracts and often reveals thousands of dollars, if not tens of thousands, in unnecessary broadband spending. One of our clients was being charged $10,000 a month for a high-speed connection to an office they had closed years before!

Sometimes you can save big time by simply getting your suppliers to pay. Companies like Microsoft set aside millions of dollars each year to supplement new technology assessments and investments. All you have to do is ask.

Implementation

Oftentimes, the high cost of implementing IT solutions can be borne by outsourcing or staff augmentation.

Can’t handle incremental project workload with existing staff? New technology requiring specific expertise, and spikes in workload as a result of short-term projects, can be handled less expensively — and, in many cases, more efficiently — by temporary personnel.

You don’t need to outsource the entire project, but management may be the most logical place to start. A project manager can attend and lead facilities and departmental meetings, coordinate and manage critical milestones, and, most importantly, train your staff to take over the role once he or she is gone.

By focusing internal resources on core business functions, training time is reduced without adding permanent overhead.

 

Monetization

Everyone want to make money off of their investments, yet IT departments often find this difficult to accomplish.

Do you have an internal engineering-services department that handles maintenance and repairs to critical technologies? Does your data center have excess capacity?  These are just two areas where organizations can find monetization opportunities, but unfortunately, they are two areas that often fail miserably.

Before launching any effort to monetize internal resources, be sure that senior management establishes priority protocols that allow those resources to respond to external client needs with the same level of urgency as internal requests. This will ensure the success of most monetization efforts and a way to fund other IT initiatives without breaking the budget.

The budget process has become a necessary evil in today’s competitive business  climate. Creative planning approaches can turn it from an obstacle into an opportunity.


Greg Pellerin is a 15-year veteran of the telecommunications and IT industries and a co-founder of VertitechIT, one of the fastest-growing business and healthcare IT networking and consulting firms in the country; (413) 268-1605; [email protected]