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For many partners, the day-to-day operations of a channel business are an all-consuming affair. But with emerging technologies entering the mainstream at an increasing pace, firms must do more to stay relevant with their customers.
AI, IoT and 5G are just a few of the developing technologies that have generated both excitement and concern among channel partners and their customers. At CompTIA Inc.'s ChannelCon 2019 conference, held Aug. 5 to 7 in Las Vegas, the nonprofit IT trade organization offered insight into the directions top emerging technologies are heading, as well as practical tips for how evaluate the technology and develop business strategies.
"We have never had a point since the dawn of the technology industry ... that this many potentially paradigm-changing technologies in the industry [existed] all at the same time," said Todd Thibodeaux, president and CEO of CompTIA, at ChannelCon 2019.
Thibodeaux acknowledged that some new tech, regardless of the enthusiasm around it, will fail to take off. He cited radio frequency identification, electronic health records, mobility and green IT as examples of hyped-up opportunities that were disappointments for channel partners.
What is important for partners, however, is to stay informed so that they can field questions from customers. "If you can only talk to [customers] about the [technology] that you know in your immediate day to day, ... you are at a disadvantage relative to somebody else ... who might have that [information]," he said.
Why channel partners need to stay well informed
Members of CompTIA's Emerging Technology Community, which provides guidance around new IT trends, echoed Thibodeaux's assertion that channel firms must stay abreast of the latest industry developments, even if the real-world applications have yet to take shape.
In a panel discussion, Rob Rae, vice president of business development at Datto, said he needs to see money-making potential for partners before he takes an emerging technology seriously. Nevertheless, it is in partners' best interest to keep tabs on technologies as they evolve, he said.
"I think it is important. As much as we maybe don't see the application of where we are going to make money when it comes to drones, big data or IoT, ... we are at least cognizant of where everything is going because there may be an opportunity. ... Some of this stuff may fall by the wayside, but some of this stuff may turn into real opportunity for the channel," Rae said.
Top 10 emerging technologies
The CompTIA Emerging Tech Community has compiled a list of the 10 technologies that channel partners should keep on their radars. Sobel of SolarWinds MSP noted that the criteria for developing the list included that the technology presented a channel business opportunity within a few years:
He also suggested that having conversations with customers about emerging tech can help secure client relationships. By educating customers about the tools of the future, those customers will be more prone to turn to the channel partner when they finally decide to take the plunge.
"[Becoming] a thought leader before delivering a service is totally fine," added Maddy Martin, head of growth and education for Smith.ai, a receptionist service provider that uses AI to enhance receptionists' responsiveness.
"You can be the one who is ... informed about these things so that your clients do think to come to you when they hear about emerging technologies ... that they don't yet see as part of your service list," Martin said.
CompTIA launched an online educational resource, futureoftech.org, to inform channel firms and their customers on what's ahead in IT. Online modules currently cover big data, cybersecurity, digital health, AI and IoT.
First steps into delivering new technology
Staying informed is one thing. Building new business around emerging technologies is another.
Dave Sobel, senior director of managed service provider evangelism at SolarWinds MSP, an MSP software vendor, said many partners, after taking a broad look at emerging tech, are unsure about how to get started.
Sobel said partners can get over this first hurdle if they latch onto a particular technology and dig into the solutions they can deliver and markets they can address. "Go and get that level of specificity to it. That's where we see success," he said.
He also noted not all channel firms need to be on the bleeding edge. As long as partners are up to date on how a technology is progressing, they can enter the fray when it best fits them as a business.
Getting started in IoT security
At CompTIA ChannelCon 2019, Rory Jackson, senior network engineer at Syber Networks, based in Las Vegas, said he entered IoT security using his firm's existing knowledge and resources.
"If you are an MSP already, ... you already pretty much have the skills to eliminate the threats of these devices. You just may need to learn a few new tools, a few new strategies," Jackson said.
Syber Networks' IoT services starts with assessing a customer's networks and devices. The firm then designs IoT strategies for the customer to combat potential security failures.
Jackson said he expects to the IoT security practice to attract new customers opportunities, driven in part by widespread concerns for security. "Most of these devices that are out there, they are not made by security companies. ... So we effectively have to make [the devices] secure," he said.
"It is okay if you are not the experimenter. If you are not the experimenter, wait for it until it gets concrete. But if you come up with the idea, take the risk. It's wherever you fit on that spectrum," Sobel said.
Martin cautioned partners to not jump-start a new business based solely on customer interest. Breaking into a new industry often requires taking on high risk and making large investments. "You have to be very careful [about being] overly responsive" to clients' interests in an emerging technology "where the brunt of the risk and the costs is on you," she said.
Reality check as a service
With so many online educational resources available, customers are increasingly reading up on hot technologies, often buying into the hype. As a result, an opportunity has developed for partners to strengthen their consulting services.
Customers interested in 3D printing technology, for example, can put partner firms in a position to deliver a reality check. "The lens to put [on emerging technologies] is practicality. What markets are right for what technologies?" Sobel said. "There are certain areas where 3D printing is going to be super cool. [For] most people? No."
Dave Sobel Senior director of MSP evangelism, SolarWinds MSP
Sobel said there is an underlying channel opportunity in what he calls digital ethics and privacy management. Partners have an ethical obligation to advise customers on the implications of adopting new technologies. Those implications can relate to the customer's company, its employees, and end customers. He said partners need to ask not "Can I do this?" but "Should I do this?"
"The best consultants are always the ones who don't just say, 'You told me this is what you want, so I am going to deliver it,'" Martin said. Instead, consultants should be trying to identify and explain solutions that best fit their customer's business needs.
Sobel said he predicts the next big IT industry trend will be a healthy dose of skepticism. "As technologists, it is easy to get excited. ... But you have got to then take the critical eye and go, 'Which one of these [technologies] is actually relevant? ... And which one am I going to actually do something with?'"
He pointed to AI as an exciting space but said, "A very small number of companies will actually be building [AI], and most of us will be leveraging it."
"Technology is an amazing enabler, and I don't think we are ever challenging that. I think what we are saying is, 'Let's make sure that we are applying it right, in the right places, and give the extra thought to the implications,'" Sobel said.