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Special Coverage Technology

Strong Signals

By Mark Morris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Here and There

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeremiah Beaudry says even companies that have built up internal IT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Change Can Be Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technology

Life on the Cutting Edge

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Special Coverage Technology

Bringing a Message to Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And do it, for the most part, remotely.

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

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

 

Crossing Paths

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

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

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

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

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

A project for Amherst College’s bicentennial

Animated messaging advocating for changes in tobacco laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mission Accomplished

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Impactful Gift

Michael and Theresa Hluchyj

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special Coverage Technology

Making Connections

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

 

By Mark Morris

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

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

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

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

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

Delcie Bean

Delcie Bean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeremiah Beaudry

Jeremiah Beaudry

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

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

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

 

Change of Scenery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie Christianson

Charlie Christianson

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

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

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

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

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

 

Safe at Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technology

What Works, What Doesn’t

By Lisa Apolinski

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

Bottom Line

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

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

 

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

Special Coverage Technology

A Critical Gap

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State Sen. Eric Lesser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Issue of Equity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opening Eyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salomon-Fernández certainly hopes that happens.

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Learning on the Fly

Kimberly Quiñonez says her professors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coronavirus Technology

Remote Connections

Zasco Productions recently held a hybrid drive-in event

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

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

It just … stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jx2 Productions has boosted the technology in its control room

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

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

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

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

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

 

Technical Concerns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Optimistic Outlook

Zaskey is looking forward to that day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Career Connections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

• Engineering: “Computer Application in Engineering”.

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

• Math: “The Mathematics Behind Bin Packing.”

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

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

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

 

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

 

Special Coverage Technology

Taking the Long View

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carl Cameron

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

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

Pros and Cons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace of Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Generation Gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

From a Distance

By Sean Hogan

Hogan

Sean Hogan

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

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

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

Managing Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Managing People

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

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

Managing the Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special Coverage Technology

Drying Times

Excel Dryer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xlerator

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

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

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

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

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

Bending the Curve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essentially Speaking

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Into the Breach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cultivating an Ecosystem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I always joke, the most secure machine is one that’s shut off in a locked room, but you have to find a balance,” he said — one that employs measures from simple common sense to choosing the right firewall.

“We see clients who have $5 million businesses buying a $100 firewall from Staples. You’re not going to protect your infrastructrure with that. You need the right equipment for your size. You need professional stuff for your business — you can’t use the same equipment you buy for your house for your business.”

“Well, you can,” Christianson added quickly, noting just one more way people might take a limited view of cybersecurity threats — and come to regret it.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Air Apparent

By Sean Hogan

Small businesses have been drawn to VoIP technology because of the substantial cost savings they gain when making the switch. However, as VoIP has continued to evolve over the years and moved into the ‘cloud,’ small businesses have begun to leverage VoIP in new ways to gain competitive advantages in their respective industries.

The growth of virtual companies and remote workforces has brought everyone to the same playing field, and customers across every industry are looking to work with credible, prestigious, large companies. Here are some ways in which cloud voice can make your business look bigger than it is today.

Your office just got a receptionist you don’t have to pay for. Cloud-based phone systems today include features that completely eliminate the need for a receptionist. Systems can be configured in order to route calls directly to the intended employee via a unified auto-attendant. Also, if your office doesn’t have a receptionist, systems can distribute incoming calls among specific groups.

This goes beyond simply sending sales calls to salespeople and admin calls to support employees. For example, you can use caller ID to send specific accounts directly to the CEO’s cell phone. Or if none of the salespeople answer an incoming call, it goes to the sales manager’s cell phone.

Sean Hogan

“Small businesses have begun to leverage VoIP in new ways to gain competitive advantages in their respective industries.”

Unlimited locations, one office number. With the rampant growth of startups and virtual companies, many businesses need to have a communications system that supports both in-house and remote workers while maintaining a professional image across the board. With cloud voice, calls to the main office can be sent out anywhere simply by asking the customer to dial an extension, just like how large corporations are doing.

Seamless conference calls and lightning-fast voicemails. Conference calls or online meetings are often a source of frustration for most companies. Cloud voice solutions enable businesses to host conferences during meetings so you can be face to face, even when you can’t be in the same location.

Furthermore, all technology is hosted through a single solution, so when it’s time to host a meeting, businesses can rest assured that the technology will perform as promised. Another way in which cloud voice accelerates collaboration is through its ability to convert voicemails into MP3 files, which can be sent as e-mail attachments. Additionally, voice calls can be converted to text and vice versa for easier retrieval and communication.

Collaborate on the fly. Today’s employees need to be constantly connected. Collaboration can’t always be planned out in advance, and when a good idea strikes, everyone needs to be in the loop. Cloud technology has made it easy for employees to see from their desktop what their co-workers are doing and how to best access them (e.g. instant message, voice, or e-mail) so communication can happen immediately.

There are many advantages to moving a company to cloud voice. For small business, the rewards are plentiful because they can utilize the same technology as large enterprises for a fraction of the cost and make them look just as big.

Sean Hogan is president of Hogan Technology.

Technology

High-tech Harvest

Vice President Paul Whalley

From its humble beginnings in a Southwick basement 40 years ago, Whalley Computer Associates has become a technology company with remarkable reach, providing a host of services to more than 3,000 business clients, ranking WCA in the top one-tenth of 1% of all computer resellers by sales volume. That growth has come through constant evolution in response to industry needs and trends, but also simply by making life easier for clients, who increasingly demand no-fuss solutions to their network needs.

Paul Whalley knows his company might have a larger brand presence in a larger city.

“Our biggest challenge, marketing-wise, is being in Western Mass. — because you know what they think of us in Eastern Mass.,” he said. “And then we’re in a town called Southwick, and if you look up Southwick, you see a farming community, and the name of the company is a family name. So I think people have an image of my brother and me with pitchforks, milking the cows in the morning and feeding the chickens when we get home, and maybe selling one or two computers.

“But that perception isn’t what people get when they walk through here,” he quickly added, and for good reason.

Out of its 62,500-square-foot headquarters in Southwick — it also maintains facilities in Westfield, Milford, and Providence, R.I. — Whalley Computer Associates (WCA) has grown to be the 175th-largest computer solution provider in North America. That’s among more than 200,000 such companies, placing Whalley squarely in the top one-tenth of 1%.

What started as a software-consulting firm is now an original equipment manufacturer (OEM), building computers and other devices for 25 brands, a few of them major national names. In so doing, WCA is the largest reseller of Lenovo products in the U.S. and has been the top reseller for Dell in the Northeast many years.

“I think people have an image of my brother and me with pitchforks, milking the cows in the morning and feeding the chickens when we get home, and maybe selling one or two computers. But that perception isn’t what people get when they walk through here.”

Initially, the firm served customers mostly based in Massachusetts and Connecticut. However, in the past decade, it has expanded its range, providing technology products and services across all of New England and Upstate New York.

It’s not easy to pin down what WCA does in a few words. Early in its history, it focused on imaging and configuration, delivery and deployment, and maintenance and repair. But today, services include pre-sales consultation, system design and implementation, infrastructure, data storage and management, client and server virtualization, disaster recovery and business continuance, VoIP, wireless cloud computing and cloud infrastructure services, server, storage, and network health checks — and more.

The company provides services to more than 250 school systems, 50 colleges, and 3,000 businesses, while continually expanding its range of offerings as the technology world continually evolves.

“It’s the full life cycle,” said Whalley, WCA’s vice president. “We’re consulting on what they should buy, selling them what they should buy, preparing what they bought, delivering what they bought, taking care of what they bought, managing what they bought — perhaps even remotely — and then, at the end of its life, gathering it back and disposing of it or returning it to the leasing company or giving it to a school, whatever the customer wants.”

Up from the Basement

Like many high-tech success stories, WCA grew from humble beginnings. As a part-time programming consultant in the Agawam school system in the 1970’s, math teacher John Whalley — Paul’s brother — purchased a small software-consulting firm. Working after school and during the summer from his Southwick basement, he built a small customer base.

Then, in 1979, incorporating his experience teaching his students programming on the school’s new computer, he started Whalley Computer Associates. He moved to new quarters in Southwick twice, all the while trying to convince his brother to come on board.

Paul started helping out part-time, and in 1985, they both dove in full-time, with John (still the company’s president) leaving his teaching job and Paul resigning from his position as a programmer at MassMutual, in the process becoming WCA’s fourth employee. The acquisition of customers such as Northeast Utilities, United Technologies, General Electric, and Cigna helped drive the company’s rapid growth.

Dean LeClerc says WCA’s engineering training lab helps keep the team on top of current technology.

That growth necessitated several moves in Southwick, from John Whalley’s cellar to a former hair salon, to a 1,500-square-foot office, to an 18,000-square-foot building on Route 202, to the current headquarters on Whalley Way, in the industrial-park section of town, built in 1999.

Through all that growth, Whalley said, the idea has always been to make life easier for customers. For example, the Southwick facility has hundreds of linear feet of ‘bench space’ where computers and other devices are not only built, but tested by connecting directly with the client’s network.

“The benefit for the customer is they can just walk to the desk, unplug the old one, plug in the new one, and walk away. Otherwise, they’d have to go the desk and spend 15 minutes with the product and get it fully configured on their network. It’s much more efficient and cost-effective, and allows them to work on more strategic things. Their IT staff doesn’t really want to be doing this. They’re certified at a pretty high level and want to be doing more challenging things.”

Dean LeClerc, director of Engineering, pointed out one bench that was being used to test Chromebooks headed to a Holyoke school.

“They leave here as if it had already been brought to Holyoke and connected with their network and tested,” he explained. “So they’re opening a box they already know works on their network.”

LeClerc added that Whalley can even set up each device for the individual student who will be using it, and a WCA representative will often visit sites to hand them out to specific users.

Early in BusinessWest’s recent visit, LeClerc showed off one of the facility’s newer features, an engineering training lab outfitted with WCA’s most commonly sold storage devices, switches, and servers — a half-million-dollar investment in making sure the engineering team stays on top of technology.

“Our engineers are doing it for the second, third, or fourth time before they’re getting to a customer’s environment,” he explained. “They’re not doing it for the first time at a customer’s live environment.”

In addition, if a customer is in a bind with equipment going down that could affect the flow of business, the lab might loan a piece of equipment for a day or a week to get the customer up and running again immediately instead of having to wait for shipment of a new product.

“If you listen to anybody in technology, they’ll tell you the majority of problems come when people aren’t being vigilant and open e-mails they shouldn’t be opening.”

“So we try to balance it,” he said. “This is our lab for our engineers, but if we have a couple extra pieces of equipment that we know we can bring out to get a customer back up and running, we can do that.”

Safe and Secure

WCA has evolved in other ways as well, Whalley said, mostly in response to changing industry needs and trends. Take security, for example, in the form of building security, surveillance cameras, access-control cards, and other products and services.

“We weren’t even thinking about that stuff 10 years ago, but it’s becoming a bigger piece of our business now,” he said, adding that WCA has a contract with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as an ITC71 vendor for security systems.

Cybersecurity is another growing niche, he noted. “We’ll do assessments, look at the network, and help them prevent someone from attacking them. Even the biggest companies get attacked. We’ll build up a robust system with a lot of redundancy so if something does happen, whether it’s ransomware or malware or a virus, they experience no — or very little — downtime.”

He recalled two incidents, one involving a customer of WCA’s managed services, who had invested in a needs analysis and network cybersecurity protection and monitoring. “Within seconds of a ransom attack, we shut everything down, isolating the problem to one desktop, and brought the whole network back up, so they were down for only minutes, and then worked on clearing out that one bad desktop where the ransomware came in.”

Meanwhile, another local company, not a customer of those managed services, got attacked, and it took three weeks and 100 hours of engineering time to get it back up and running, Whalley noted.

“One computer down for an hour, versus the entire network down for three weeks. One did the preparation and the engineering ahead of time to have a robust defense of their system, and because it was monitored at the point, we immediately knew there was a problem and could quarantine it and get the rest of the company working again. That’s the power of having the combination of the managed-service group and Dean’s engineers.”

WCA also sends a trainer to conduct security-awareness trainings for clients, because so many breaches result from human mistakes, he noted.

“If you listen to anybody in technology, they’ll tell you the majority of problems come when people aren’t being vigilant and open e-mails they shouldn’t be opening. So we offer a very affordable service, coming into a company and going through a two-hour presentation on how to stay out of trouble and how not to make those mistakes that put your company in jeopardy.”

Staying atop such trends and others is critical, which is why WCA presents the annual Foxwoods Technology Show, the biggest technology event in the region solely for IT professionals. Every year, it attracts more than 1,000 attendees, including 300 representatives from 60 different manufacturers.

“We’re in an industry where you either change or you die,” Whalley told BusinessWest. “Everything’s moving so fast now. You either change and embrace the change — and try to lead the change — or you go out of business.”

Growth Pattern

In a business market where 80% of computer companies fail in less than five years, WCA employs more than 150 computer professionals and continues to grow its client base. It’s not exactly a small company, but tries to maintain a small-firm spirit, through events like monthly breakfasts, lunches, and birthday parties, as well as kickoffs of baseball and football season, where employees wear their favorite teams’ jerseys. Just this month, employees gathered to celebrate WCA’s best September ever.

“We pride ourselves on being a family business,” Whalley said, with the concept of family extending beyond the company’s founders, reflecting a general spirit of camaraderie in Southwick as well as the other sites.

At the same time, its work is serious business — and a long way from milking cows and feeding chickens.

“Our challenge is to stay as ahead of the curve as we can, but provide the stability and assurance to our customers that we’re not just jumping onto the new shiny penny and abandoning our core business,” LeClerc said. “We’re large enough that we can afford to do that. We have enough resources to stay ahead of the curve but still deliver traditional services to our customers until they’re ready for a change.”

Whalley agreed. “We try not to jump around from one thing to the other; we just try to add additional capabilities and continue to be exceptional at the legacy of services and products that we provide.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Bit by Bit

From left: Patrick Fortunato, business development manager; Jitu Changela, CEO; and Marc Solomon, director of Operations. 

While growing his business and keeping his employees busy at all times is Jitu Changela’s primary goal, his mission in business is to keep his clients’ employees busy and help those companies grow.

He and his team at the IT solutions company Azaya believe this is one of the best ways to measure success in this highly competitive, still-evolving field. Indeed, companies can’t grow and prosper, and their employees can’t be highly productive, if their IT systems are down. Or if the equipment is old and obsolete. Or if a business isn’t making the most of its investments in IT.

Azaya, a 25-year-old managed-service provider based in Palmer and founded by Changela, helps clients maximize their IT systems and ensure they are reliable and sustainable, thus enabling employees to work better and smarter. It does this through a philosophy of putting the client first and continually learning from each customer experience.

“You can never know everything; we’re always learning,” said Changela, leader of this six-person tech company that provides essential technology components and service to many different types of businesses. “The best way we keep up with what’s happening in this industry is by having a variety of different clients. They’re all from different industries, so working with each one of those clients in a different industry forces us to look at all the different hardware and software solutions that are out there.” 

The company’s overarching goal is to become what a provider must be in this changing industry — a one-stop shop. And it is well on its way to becoming just that.

The company offers something it calls eZ Virtual IT, which creates a team of IT professionals available at a client’s disposal and capable of handling a variety of services, including customized systems, security, website hosting, data protection, and server system setup and maintenance.

It also provides eZ Voice, a complete solution to business phone-line needs, and eZ Projects, help with specific IT projects, which, as Changela puts it, enables the company to “audition” for the client for future partnerships.

“With our model of one fixed cost, we’re there as many times as we need to be without it being any extra expense to them. Being able to be preventive solves a lot of their problems before they become problems.”

But the company’s ongoing success and continued growth is due not only to what it provides clients, but also how — specifically a fixed-cost model that is somewhat unique in the industry and provides a number of benefits for clients.

“That’s our core focus today, providing fixed-cost services,” Changela said, adding that most companies still charge hourly rates. “What we do is very unique; it’s a win-win partnership. Clients pay us a fixed cost, and our goal is to make sure we maintain their infrastructure at a very high level.” 

Overall, the company preaches to its clients to be proactive, or preventive, and not reactive, when it comes to technology, investing in it and ultimately making the most of it, said Marc Solomon, Azaya’s Director of Operations, and the fixed-cost system helps them do just that.

For this issue and its focus on technology, BusinessWest talked with the team at Azaya — that word means ‘shelter, refuge, and support’ in Sanskrit — as it celebrates 25 years in business and looks ahead to what the future can bring for this forward-looking company.

Tech Talk

Before looking forward, though, Changela first flashed back a quarter-century or so to when the internet was young and he was looking for work.

With a strong background in electrical engineering, he knew he wanted to do something computer- or electronics-related but was unemployed and couldn’t find a job. That’s when he decided to make his own luck. 

“I just decided that I had some experience in purchasing high-level computer equipment, and I found clients that needed stuff like that,” he told BusinessWest. “At that time, the internet was very new, so they had to go through some channel to get the high-level computer equipment, and I had the source.” 

So, he provided that equipment to them. Then, the fledgling venture grew from what is called “reselling” to the next phase, which focused on providing a variety of needed services to local clients. 

 “We then became internet service providers in town here in Palmer,” Changela said, adding that the company continued evolving into a multi-layered IT solutions provider. 

Solomon joined the team after an internship while he was attending Southern New Hampshire University. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science, and has been with the company for three years. 

“I’ve always been interested in technology,” he said. “After I graduated, Jitu brought me on board and has really shown me the ropes of the managed-service-provider industry.” 

 More recently, Azaya added Patrick Fortunato as its Business Development Manager to lead the sales of IT managed-services support, digital and VoIP business telephone systems, and cutting-edge security surveillance technologies, and he has plenty of experience in the technology industry. 

“I used to replace telex machines with fax machines,” he said with a laugh, adding that technology has certainly evolved even more since then, and all three men emphasized the importance of keeping up with the changing times. 

This means finding ways to stand out within a deep and talented pool of competitors, bringing more services to a wider array of customers.

Indeed, Changela said he realized years ago that Comcast was going to take over some of Azaya’s internet business, so the company knew it had to change something up. That’s when it evolved from being an Internet service provider to a managed-service provider,

And one that features what it calls a guaranteed network uptime policy — essentially a promise to keep clients up and running all the time. 

 “It’s all about being preventive over being reactive,” Solomon said. “A lot of times, with billable hours, which is the other side of the coin of fixed cost, it’s difficult to be preventive when you’re working on a limited source of hours. With our model of one fixed cost, we’re there as many times as we need to be without it being any extra expense to them. Being able to be preventive solves a lot of their problems before they become problems.”

“Downtime is obviously not cost-effective. It costs a lot of money when employees cannot work. We want to work smart, not hard, and they want to see their network up and running all the time. Everybody is winning at that point.”

This policy, said Changela said, puts pressure on Azaya as a vendor and partner, but ensures that each party involved is happy.

“Downtime is obviously not cost-effective. It costs a lot of money when employees cannot work,” he said. “We want to work smart, not hard, and they want to see their network up and running all the time. Everybody is winning at that point.”

Overall, Azaya focuses on efficiency and security, bringing the technological support a business needs for greater effectiveness to internal business processes. Changela also says they customize services based on what the business needs, and guides companies through the process. 

This is what the team’s leaders mean when they say the company works in partnership with its clients, another key to its success.

 “We’re constantly talking to our clients and trying to figure out what technology they can utilize to best serve their needs,” he said. “We have to do some research and figure out what’s out there that can help them.”

 For Adaptas Solutions, for example, a phone system that could handle all its needs throughout multiple offices was something it lacked. Azaya installed the Cisco BE6000 in five of its locations, giving Adaptas the ability to connect all its locations seamlessly, providing the phones, servers, and phone lines all throughout the entire operation, creating a one-stop solution.

Bottom Line

While this model seems to be working well for the tech company, Changela says the team has big plans for where they want to be in the future. 

“Our biggest goal is to become that one-stop-shop,” he told BusinessWest. “Anything that is connected to the network, whether it’s printers, cameras, security cameras, or phone systems … we should be involved in it.”

Fortunato said the future of technology is related to security and speed, and Solomon added that becoming a specialty leader in multiple industries is also at the top of Azaya’s list. 

“We have clients from architects to veterinarians, so our range is quite large,” he said. “To be able to pick a vertical and become the dominant leader in that vertical is something that is on the business plan. We want to be viewed as equals in the industry, against the companies that have a little more exposure.”

Changela added that one main thing that separates Azaya from competitors is the culture of the company, with a focus on honesty and integrity. 

“It’s not always about making money, it’s about helping our clients become successful,” he said. “And at the end of the day, if they’re successful, we’ll make money anyways.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Mom Tech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barriers to Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Win-win Situation

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

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

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

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

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]m

Technology

Baiting the Hook

By Jenna Finn

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

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

“Cybercriminals are more sophisticated than ever.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenna Finn is an account manager with Vade Secure.

Technology

Pipeline to Progress

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

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

It’s not exactly by choice.

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

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

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

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

UMass could be that site, he said.

Loren Walker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Flow

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

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

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

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

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

The issue, he said, is size and scale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Current Events

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Attack the Problem

By Sean Hogan

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

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

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

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

Sean Hogan

Sean Hogan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protect

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

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

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

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

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

Detect

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

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

Respond

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

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

Bottom Line

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

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

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

Technology

Blasting Off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Values Added

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to Shine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Creating Cyber Solutions

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

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

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

The project’s name is long and quite cumbersome.

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

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

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

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

That’s a lot of ‘ands.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day at the Breach

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

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

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

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

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

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

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

For an explanation, we return to the project summary:

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

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

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

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

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

What the Hack?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Securing a Better Future

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

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

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

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

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

Technology

Better Living Through Apps

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

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

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

Money Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Pain, No Gain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

App-lied Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

Call Forward

Brett Normandeau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond the Simple Phone

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin Hart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Growth Pattern

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

Innovation at Hand

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

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

But not by much.

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

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

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

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

Smarter — and Bigger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Health and Leisure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

Human Touch

NetLogix President Marco Liquori

NetLogix President Marco Liquori

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

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

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

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

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

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

netlogixbuilding

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

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

Entrepreneurial Itch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

defendingagainstcyberattacks

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

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

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

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

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

Growth Pattern

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

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

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

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

And sleep better at night.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Technology

Banking on Breakthroughs

 

Three UMass Amherst campus research initiatives are among nine projects across the five-campus system that are sharing $735,000 in grants from the President’s Science & Technology (S&T) Initiatives Fund.

Announced by UMass President Marty Meehan, the projects showcase a range of cutting-edge faculty research being conducted across the UMass system, from enhancing clean-energy technologies to developing materials that can autonomously release drugs and precisely target tumors.

The Amherst campus projects include:

• The Center for Autonomous Chemistry, an initiative with UMass Lowell and UMass Medical School, and led by chemistry professor S. Thayumanvanan. The project will develop the molecular design fundamentals for autonomous chemical systems, inspired by the immune system. Fully developed, this will form the basis to develop materials that can autonomously release drugs in response to a specific trigger and precisely target tumors. The grant of $140,000 will be used to facilitate one or more proposed projects to federal research agencies.

• The UMass Unmanned Aerial System Research and Education Collaborative (UASREC), led by Michael Knodler of the UMass Transportation Center. A collaboration with UMass Dartmouth, UASREC is established to advance unmanned aerial systems, also known as drones, to advance interdisciplinary and collaborative research and education. With research already funded through the state Department of Transportation, $100,000 in S&T funds will help position UASREC to become the New England Transportation Center and develop other proposals to federal funding agencies.

• The Center for Smart and Connected Society (CS2), a project with UMass Medical School, is being led by Prashant Shenoy in Computer Science at UMass Amherst and David McManus in Cardiovascular Medicine at UMass Medical Center. The project, as part of the creation of the new interdisciplinary CS2, will focus on the advancement and application of smart and connected technologies. The smart-application domains include smart health and smart living, smart buildings and energy, smart and autonomous vehicles, and smart agriculture. The one-year, $25,000 S&T grant will advance the planning for CS2 and coordination with the medical school’s Center for Data Driven Discovery and HealthCare, which also received an S&T award.

Amherst campus researchers are also involved in another of the funded projects, the UMass MOVEment Research Center, which will explore the mechanics of movement and muscle function. Led by Matthew Gage of the UMass Lowell Chemistry department, the researchers will use the $25,000 grant to plan for a UMass system-wide research center for movement mechanics, focused on understanding movement in the aging population. Faculty from Lowell, Amherst, and the medical school will explore how to combine existing research strengths at all three campuses into a comprehensive program designed to approach research questions in the biomechanics of aging from a molecular to an organismal level.

“These funds empower our faculty, strengthen our research enterprise, and spur breakthroughs that boost the economy and improve lives,” Meehan said. “I’m proud to support our faculty while advancing our critical mission as a world-class public research university.”

Now in its 14th year, the S&T fund accelerates research activity across all five campuses, drives partnerships with state industry, and positions researchers to attract larger investments from external sources to expand the scope of their projects.

Since 2004, the fund has awarded nearly $12 million to faculty, helping to generate additional funding of more than $240 million in areas such as medical devices, nano-manufacturing, clinical and translational science, bio-manufacturing, data science, robotics, and personalized cancer therapy.

S&T awards have also helped to establish important research and development centers across the state, including the Center for Hierarchical Nanomanufacturing at UMass Amherst, the Center for Personalized Cancer Therapy at UMass Boston, the Center for Scientific Computing and Data Visualization Research at UMass Dartmouth, the Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center and New England Robotics and Validation & Experimentation Center at UMass Lowell, and the UMass Center for Clinical and Translational Science at UMass Medical Center.

“Since 2004, these grants have generated a tremendous return on investment to our campuses and to the Commonwealth, strengthening our engagement in key areas, including the life sciences, data science, climate science, and advanced manufacturing,” Meehan said. “This program underscores how critical a strong public research university is to the future of the state.”

The President’s Science and Technology Initiatives Fund is one of three sources of support that help advance the work of faculty members, along with the Creative Economy Initiatives Fund and the Technology Development Fund. u

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

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

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.