There’s an old adage that says “A chain is only as strong as the weakest link.” While people typically use this in terms on saying that teams are only as strong as their weakest member, I look at it through a different lens. In my former life as a Value Added Reseller (VAR) engineer, I spent a lot of my time working with technologies that needed to be linked together like a chain.
You have probably seen the lamentations of a voice engineer complaining about fax machines. If you haven’t, you should count yourself lucky. Fax machines are the bane of the lives of many telecom folks. They aren’t that difficult when you get right down to it. They’re essentially printers with a 9600 baud modem attached for making phone calls. Indeed, fax machines are probably one of the most robust pieces of technology that I’ve encountered. I’ve seen faxes covered in dust and grime from a decade or more of use still dutifully churning out page after page of low resolution black-and-white print.
Faxes themselves aren’t the issue. The problem is that their technology has been eclipsed to the point where interfacing them in the modern world is often difficult and time consuming. I usually counsel my customers to leave their fax machines plugged directly into an analog landline to avoid issues. For those times where that can’t be done, I have a whole bag of tricks to make it work with a voice over IP (VoIP) system. Adaptors and relays and other such tricks help me figure out how to make this decades-old tech work with a modern PRI or SIP connection. And don’t even get me started on interfacing a fire alarm with an IP phone system.
The best VARs in the world don’t make their money from reselling a pile of hardware to a customer. The profits aren’t found in a bill of materials. Instead, they make money in the glue business. Tying two disparate technologies together via custom programming or knowledge of processes needed to make dissimilar technology work the right way is their real trade. This is their “glue.” I can remember having discussions with people regarding the hardest parts of an implementation. It’s not in setting up a dial plan or configuring a VM cluster with the right IP address. It’s usually in making some old piece of technology work correctly. A fire alarm or a Novell server or an ancient wireless access point can quickly become the focus area of an entire project and consume all your time.
If you really want to differentiate yourself from the pack of “box pushers” out there just reselling equipment you need to concentrate on the point where the glue needs to be the stickiest. That’s where the customer’s knowledge is the weakest. That’s the point that will end up causing the most pain. That’s where the money is waiting for the truly dedicated. VARs have already figured this out. If you want to make yourself valuable to a customer or to a VAR, be the best a gluing these technologies together. Understand how to make old technology work with new tech. There’s always going to be new technology coming out to replace what’s being used currently. And there will always be a customer or two that want to keep using that old technology far past the expiration date. If you are the one that can tie those too things together with a minimum of effort, you’ll find yourself the most popular peddler in the market.