Why I Joined the Channel: A 23-Year-Old's Take on Our Industry

There's nothing harder than explaining my industry to my friends.

James Anderson, Senior News Editor

September 14, 2018

8 Min Read

“What the heck is a channel partner?”

Sure, I didn’t say it out loud to the person interviewing me for the internship, but I thought it all the same. The recruiter briefly attempted to explain the industry that I would be writing about as an editorial intern — but realizing the futility of describing the channel, she stopped herself and simply said, “It’s about technology.” And I was sold. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I was sold.

This entrance into the channel is not an unusual story to hear. The recently formed Channel NX2Z is recruiting and equipping the next generation of tech professionals to guide customers through an increasingly digital and data-driven world of business. The nonprofit addresses the glaring age gap between those who create and sell technology, and those who use it. And we believe that by connecting baby boomers, Gen Xers and millennials, we can bridge this gap.

I was 20 when I stumbled into the indirect IT and telecommunications sales channel. I was a journalism student slowly coming to grips with the fact that print news was dying. I liked to write but didn’t know what to do with the skill. My previous internship at a local newspaper ended on the same day, as once again layoffs hit our editorial team (luckily, unpaid interns can’t really get fired, but that’s a story for another day). It was in this crisis of career uncertainty that I turned to the channel. Or whatever that was.

I assumed it had something to do with TV channels. Maybe we were helping people set up their cable packages? It was the best guess I had.

Craig Galbraith, my supervisor fondly referred to as “The Voice of Telecom,” sat me down the first day. It was time to have “the talk.” It went something like this:

“Do you know anything about the industry you’ll be writing about?”

“It’s about technology, right?”

He explained to me that many manufacturers of business-oriented technology do not sell their products to customers. Wuuuuut? Rather, third-parties resell the solutions.

“So it’s like Best Buy.”

“Well, no, it’s a little more complicated than that …”

So there are these things called value-added resellers – whatever that was – and managed service providers (at least I knew what all of those words meant individually). And then there were master agents, which I assumed were telecom agents, but bigger. It seemed complicated, but I decided that I’d fake it til I made it. That’s the entrance story that most people in our industry share, especially the young people I meet. Brett Brockman, who works for the distributor Jenne, sold kitchen cabinets. Dante White of RingCentral had been a bouncer and an an auto body shop owner. Kyra Augustus of Telarus was a retail manager.

“No one ever told me, ‘Hey, you could have a career in indirect sales and telecom.’ But now that I’m in here, I can not imagine another career,” she told me.

Most of the people I’ve met in this industry were not “tech people” to begin with, but their common characteristics are twofold: a knack for problem solving and …

… an interest in forming and maintaining relationships.

Many of us started as sales people, but for the majority of us, the channel’s growing focus on building long-term rapport with customers is a breath of fresh air. Eventually I realized this was why the people I interviewed for articles kept saying the phrase “trusted adviser” over and over again. Businesses would rather work with a technology group that gets on their level to understand their needs and desires, rather than buy from a giant, impersonal vendor that’s just going to throw products at them (maybe a little simplistic of me to say, but I guess they say millennials see the world in black and white).

The weirdest aspect of the channel is that it combines geeks and sales people — two groups I never thought could coexist. I go to conferences and witness a weird kind of role reversal. The stereotypically reserved and intellectual “IT guys” are jabbering on and on about go-to-market strategies and the stereotypically extroverted and superficial sales folk won’t stop talking about SIP trunking and all of the network tiers (side note: wow, there are really a lot of network tiers).

I personally am a self-styled Luddite, but even that is changing. I keep trying to start conversations with my geeky friend Chris about SD-WAN, thinking that his job as an IT guy would make him an expert on the subject. He pretty much just rolls his eyes and complains that “everything is software-defined these days,” but I think that’s just because he doesn’t know what it is.

I showed my friends one of my columns, and now they won’t stop making fun of me for how much I write about MPLS and SD-WAN (they pronounce it “sid won” to get a rise out of me, and for what it’s worth, most of them are in favor of a hybrid approach).

The people in the channel are an odd bunch to interact with, but what you’re seeing is a group of people who are interested in becoming more well-rounded. They’re learning to adapt and better themselves in order to improve the lives of their customers, and they’re not just in it just for the money. Not that there isn’t money …

But here’s the problem. A lot of smart people say this industry is dying. CompTIA predicted that by 2024, 40 percent of channel-company owners will have retired. But although millennials comprise the largest portion the overall workforce, according to Pew, all you have to do is look at the people attending channel trade shows to see that our industry is not keeping up with the rest of the U.S. business landscape.

And the problem isn’t simply that there aren’t enough young people. The goal is not to fill up a hiring quota, but to find new talent that propel the industry through a time of upheaval. Forrester Research’s Jay McBain said this year that a new type of channel partner is emerging. A “shadow channel” of companies that don’t come from the traditional telecommunications space are increasingly playing the middleman between vendors and customers. More and more IT companies are incentivizing independent software vendors (ISVs) to work with them. Digital marketers and legal agencies are getting into the action.

Sunandini Verma is on of those disruptors. She’s a marketing wunderkind who started Amrev Media, a company that helps customers with everything from marketing to IoT to app development to managed IT. It’s not your parents’ channel partner.

“I’ve heard ‘no’ many times because of my age,” she said in a recent Q&A. “A part of why I started my own business was so …

… I didn’t have to prove myself or have to break through the resistance of people older than me.”

But statistics show that traditional channel partners are stuck in their old ways. I recall asking a couple of years ago why consultants weren’t considered part of the channel ecosystem. It seemed that they were the definition of a trusted adviser. But strangely, most of the industry experts I interviewed either pooh-poohed the idea or simply didn’t have a category for it.

But our industry is paying a price for our fixed mindset. Our uniformity and lack of flexibility – oh, and not to mention our incessant use of acronym-saturated technobabble (of which I am guilty) – keep us from reaching new customers.

Telarus CEO Adam Edwards threw out this number – 60 percent – for the number of VARs that will go out of business.

“The broader channel is aging out,” Jay McBain said. “We’re not having a funnel of new people come in and start companies fast enough to replace those that are retiring.”

It’s the opinion of Channel NX2Z members that every aspect of our ecosystem needs to evolve. We’ve assembled a team of that, in our view, represents a diverse array of channel companies. Galina Marcus of LANtelligence comes from the vendor side and brings to the table a strong vision for the future of our industry. TBI’s Bryan Reynolds and Caitlin Birck, and WTG’s Erik Prentice are making waves in the master-agent community. And business owners Sundandini Verma and Catch Cloud‘s Kyle Burt are working on the front lines. They’ll share their insights with entrepreneurs at the upcoming Channel Partners Evolution Business Innovation Hackathon.

These are some of the young people that want to make a difference, in addition to the Gen Xers and baby boomers whose mentorship and advice we need badly. We’re all in this together, and the goal is not to replace our older counterparts, but to walk alongside them, teaching and learning from one another.

I see plenty of companies in our industry that are buying in. HTG 360 CEO Chris Ichelson told me that his company hopes to expand its internship program to become a key source of talent acquisition. Master agent Intelisys has been highlighting millennial all-stars with the NextGen Channel group. And the millennial meet-up at our spring show saw multiple young faces who came to the event for the first time on behalf of their companies.

There’s a movement going on here, and it’s exciting to be part of it.

Join us for the Channel NX2Z Career Symposium, Oct. 10, at Channel Partners Evolution. There you’ll hear from me, Channel NX2Z co-founder Aaron Leveston and a multigenerational panel of people that are passionate about the transformation of our industry.

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About the Author(s)

James Anderson

Senior News Editor, Channel Futures

James Anderson is a news editor for Channel Futures. He interned with Informa while working toward his degree in journalism from Arizona State University, then joined the company after graduating. He writes about SD-WAN, telecom and cablecos, technology services distributors and carriers. He has served as a moderator for multiple panels at Channel Partners events.

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