How Do You Do…Your Engineering?

Being David in a world of Goliaths. Part 2

According to Wikipedia, engineers, as practitioners of engineering, are people who invent, design, analyze, build and test machines, systems, structures, and materials to fulfill objectives and requirements, while considering the limitations imposed by practicality, regulation, safety and cost. According to Merriam-Webster, audiovisual means possessing both a sound and a visual component, such as slide-tape presentations, films, television programs, church services and live theater productions. Audiovisual engineers, therefore, are responsible for the development, implementation and installation of audiovisual systems.

Officially, it sounds simple enough. But, of course, we know there are more nuances than we can count, and they make our jobs (and lives!) complicated. Personally, I define our job as being a co-creator and implementer. We typically meet with others, and we have to take their ideas and visions and turn them into reality…into something that actually functions. That, to me, is quite a challenge. At the same time, it’s quite exciting—even after what, for me, is now approaching 40 years. With that experience, I seek to make our lives less complicated by sharing what I, and others, have learned.

Going back to my last column and the approaches to engineering, let’s visit the one-man (or woman) shop. This individual does the marketing, sales, design, engineering, installation and servicing of AV systems. This unique set of abilities is likely one of the biggest distinguishers from the other types. In my experience, most engineers don’t talk very much and, when they do, they might not use the best terminology to convey their point to a layman. By contrast, among salespeople, although words flow that a layman can understand, that’s typically because a salesperson doesn’t have strong technical abilities. Having a high level of technical skill and being able to discuss it with others in a way they can understand is unique, don’t you think? Those who run one-person shops bring together the sales engineer, design engineer and project engineer roles. Let’s look at each of those roles in turn.

A quick note: The examples I am about to give are not “trunk-slammers”! I’m referencing those who take our industry seriously and do good work.

In the role of a sales engineer, the ability to close complicated deals is strong because someone in that role really knows what he or she is talking about; such an extreme level of confidence is a distinct asset when selling. That person will be able to close a deal with both laymen and the most tech-savvy clients. (Hint to sales folks: Knowledge—get it, and know what you’re talking about!) Selling is an important facet of what we do because, after all, without sales, there’s no work!

In the role of a design engineer, individuals have been in the field extensively, installing what they sell. They’ve pulled wire through conduit, under floors, over ceilings, through walls, etc. Therefore, when discussing solutions to a client’s wants and needs, they will make fewer mistakes by promising something that cannot be delivered! They’re also less likely to miss something in the design. (Account managers never forget to include client needs—right!)

And, lastly, in the role of a project engineer, practitioners again have the distinct advantage of having been in the field extensively. This experience translates well when it comes to documentation; they know about having clear and precise drawings that make sense. Their picture of what the client wants is extremely clear, because they’ve been involved in every step of the process. That’s a real advantage as compared to being the third person in a chain and having to extract information from documentation that’s poorly written—or missing entirely. And, because they’re up to date with manufacturers’ products and technology, there tend to be fewer misunderstanding-related “gotchas”!

The best one-person shops reflect all of those aptitudes and strengths, giving those shops a competitive advantage. And here’s one last advantage: money. Working out of your garage (so to speak), with no payroll, you have very little overhead. That makes you more competitive—even if paying higher prices for gear—than larger companies. That’s also a distinct advantage.

All of that sounds pretty good…until you look at the darker side of being a one-person shop. Your enemy is time. Do you think you’re busy? Try wearing all those hats, accurately scheduling each phase for your deliverables and getting them there on time! You’ll also have to make time to meet all the manufacturer’s reps and know their product lines. And let’s not forget setting aside time for training and certification!

But suppose you’ve done all that and you’re feeling on top of the world. Then…there’s a scheduling conflict, and the best tech team you work with is unavailable. Installation is hard, and it cannot be done by one person. Whoops! One-person shops have a pool of subs they use to help; unfortunately, at times, they’re likely working for larger companies. That leaves you calling a friend who might have gotten in at 4am the night before. Sound familiar?

And what about service? Imagine a Friday night…you just sat down for holiday dinner with the family. A client calls to say the system won’t turn on. Guess who gets up from the table and drives for an hour to find out that one of the amplifiers was turned off? At a one-person shop, it’s going to be you! And remember, if you’re a one-person shop, there’s no time for vacation. What happens if you’re on vacation and a client—either existing or new—needs work done and can’t wait? They’ll go somewhere else! So, not only did you spend your money on the vacation, but you also just lost money from that sale—and maybe a client, as well!

Advantages and challenges—it goes both ways. What I just discussed are memories from when I worked as an independent many years ago. (There’s more to the story…another time….) Now, as I start this series, I find myself wondering if there are many independents left out there. It must be much harder to compete these days, when warranties and service have become so important. That, perhaps, limits the size and scope of one-person shops’ projects.

Imagine a one-man operation, working out of his house, coming across a bid for the United States Merchant Marine Academy—complete designs for four buildings’ PA systems. I won that bid (as a one-man shop, working out of my garage), and I even got a special compliment on the sound quality from the Admiral. I doubt that that—the ability to bid, not the quality of the work—would happen today. In fact, I’m sure it wouldn’t!

I sometimes wonder if there are still independent, one-person operations out there. If you are/were a one-person shop and do/did good work, I’d like to hear from you, ask you some questions and include your answers in a follow-up article. Please send any comments to

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