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Q&A: Keys to SI Success in 2021

Insider Perspective: A Conversation with Tech Data

The challenges of 2020 have led to huge changes in the way we work. But systems integrators have a lot to look forward to in 2021. The tech industry’s rapid response to the global pandemic means that SIs can now offer their customers a wide array of return-to work solutions.

To learn more about the opportunities, we spoke with Tom Digsby of global distributor Tech Data, which has created an award-winning tool to get SI solutions to market. He revealed his tips for success in the year ahead.

Looking Towards a Post-COVID World

Kenton Williston: Tom, what’s your role at Tech Data?

Tom Digsby: I manage a group of vertical consultants and technical consultants. What our team does is help our partners—or resellers—understand IoT in a vertical context. Our focus is on healthcare, it’s on smart cities, industrial manufacturing, and also retail and commercial.

Tech Data is a solutions aggregator, and we have a lot of value that’s more than just ordering from us. We help partners take a solution to market. We have pre-packaged solutions that you can take to the market today, and we also have a vast ecosystem of partners.

Kenton Williston: During the pandemic, systems integrators, regardless of what market they’re serving, are being asked to very rapidly deliver all kinds of new solutions—fever checking, contact tracing, mask compliance. How has this been impacting the business that systems integrators have, and where do you see things trending in 2021?

Tom Digsby: We have seen end users place their purchasing projects on hold because of the pandemic, and to reserve and preserve capital that they may need. The systems integrators have really had to shift their focus, and we’ve helped do some education around COVID-19 and the return to work. A lot of buildings are empty now, and there have to be some safe measures put in place, and we have some solutions. We have about 20 COVID return-to-work solutions.

I’ll give you a few examples. Temperature pre-screening, right? Someone comes into the building, you can grab their temperature and make sure they’re good. Telehealth: having a virtual conference with your doctor. Air quality monitoring, social distancing, alerting, digital signage. Those kinds of solutions make people feel safe. And when people feel safe, they can return to the normalcy that we knew before the pandemic.

We had a partner approach us and say, “We need to look at the office as kind of like a hotel for desks. I want to make sure that we’re cleaning the desks. I want to make sure that there’s not more than six people in this one area, and there’s not more than X number of people on the floor.” That’s an example of returning to work, and some of the things that can be put into place technology-wise.

The Changing Role of the Systems Integrator

Kenton Williston: What about the role that systems integrators play in a solutions landscape? Do you see the ecosystem evolving in any way, either because of the response to the pandemic or for other reasons?

Tom Digsby: We at Tech Data take our solutions aggregator role very seriously. Our expertise is vetting the vendors—understanding the solutions that can be aggregated and brought to market. As we all know, no single vendor OEM or partner can deliver that everything that one end user needs, right? We have an extensive ecosystem partnership with a lot of different types of skilled partners.

When you’re looking at the solution, it has to have a business outcome. If the solution doesn’t have a business outcome it’s a science project, and no one’s buying a science project. It has to have the business outcome, and then helping you drive the business value through the analytics side of the house.

Kenton Williston: You’ve just used the word “aggregator.” How does that differ from a distributor?

Tom Digsby: So, a distributor has relationships with a lot of different vendors, right? And their primary role is to buy a product and make a little bit of margin, and ship the product. We have a solutions specialty practice. How do we educate our partners so that they can sell solutions, rather than just ordering a point product?

A lot of times when we get a call from a partner, they’ll say, “I need 16 tablets or 160 tablets.” And you’ll say, “What are you going to use that for?” “Oh, we have a blah, blah, blah, solution that we’re going to take to market.” And you start digging into it. And it becomes part of a bill of materials that someone’s needing to fulfill a technology need—a business-outcome need.

So, we dug a little bit more and what it was, was they were wanting the tablets to be able to access the information for the manufacturing floor. So, we dug a little bit more and discovered, “Hey, you need some sensors, you need some more information.”

We basically cobbled together a solution for them as part of the business outcome: “Oh, you need to centralize this information. You need to be able to deliver it in this way. And you need to be able to see the data on those 260 screens that you just wanted to order.”

They were so appreciative, and that that’s what spawned the Practice Builder. So, our value is teaching our partners how to solution sell. What is that business value for the end user? Not just buying product and shipping it.

We have a business tool that we use, and what that simulator does is it sits down and understands the pricing, the cost of goods, your additive services, your third-party integration, your OEM price from all the different vendors that you’re aggregating. It’s one place to look at the whole picture of, “What does this cost, and how much margin can I make out of it?” The tool and the process work together, hand in hand.

Kenton Williston: It sounds like a big part of what you’re doing is bringing to bear technologies and expertise from many different sources. So a systems integrator can focus on their own specialty, but be able to leverage best-in-class solutions for all the areas where they’re not experts, and don’t want to be experts.

Tom Digsby: I think that’s a great summary. Our partners are very appreciative of the value, and all we ask of them in exchange is, “Hey, we’re going to teach you this methodology, and all we ask you to do is source the equipment from us—the software, the hardware, the things that are needed to put the solutions together.”

Customizing Solutions for Systems Integrators

Kenton Williston: How do you work with systems integrators to tailor these technologies for their end customers?

Tom Digsby: Let me start out by going through a little bit of the Solutions Factory process. As we bring a solution—what we think is a great solution package—together, we bring it through our Solutions Factory process, and that’s where we vet the vertical industry, the aggregation of the technology. We make sure that the business outcome is there. Has it been deployed? What’s the ROI?

Kenton Williston: Do you also help systems integrators find each other, and other kinds of service providers to fill in wherever they don’t have the right expertise?

Tom Digsby: Oh, absolutely. When I talk to people about our different types of partners, or the skills of different partners, I often draw out three circles. One on the left, one on the middle, and one on the right.

The one on the left I talk about as implementation and assessments. So, if you need to go out and assess an environment for where should the cameras be placed? How many cameras need to be placed? How far apart are the cameras? How are you going to aggregate that camera data? How many gateways do you need? Do you need switches? What kind of equipment is in place today? They may have a vendor preference that we need to take into consideration when we’re looking at all that.

Then the middle circle is the resellers who say, “Hey, I have an opportunity. I’m really good at creating demand. I can get face-to-face with a customer, and I need things to sell.” Those are the folks who are really good at selling and identifying opportunities, and then matching up the technology with what it is the client needs.

And then on the right-hand side, the third circle, is all about that business outcome. What is it that we need to capture? How is it that we need to capture it? It could be dashboards. It could be video feeds. It could be learning from the video itself and doing some AI interpretation of it. It could be machine learning.

Then we can cross-match. So, if an organization is looking for a skill set in any one of those three that they don’t have, we have a vast ecosystem and contracts with the partners that can deliver those kinds of services. It’s really just a matter of a little bit of speed dating, and introducing them.

Accelerating Digital Transformation

Kenton Williston: How you see the concept of digital transformation factoring in? There’s been a lot of talk about the pandemic accelerating digital transformation.

Tom Digsby: Digital transformation is a multi-step process. And when you’re looking at improving the ability to talk through the equipment, or learn from the equipment, or get the data from the equipment and then be able to autonomically monitor the plant efficiencies in a manufacturing environment, for example—once you have that, all kinds of things open up.

When you have that base level of automation you can gain efficiencies, but, more importantly, you can also create revenue growth. Meaning, if you have certain machine data and you’ve gathered it over time, now that you’ve transformed your environment you can actually monetize some of that data and put it into data sets. And you can actually offer that as a different revenue stream for the same kind of industry that the partner, the end user, is in.

Kenton Williston: What do you see as the key to succeeding in this environment?

Tom Digsby: One of the things we really home in on is what we call, “What is your killer feature? Why would I buy it from you versus partner X down the street?” So, having that differentiation: if you’ve got 16 years of manufacturing experience, people want to know that. And we capture that, and we hone it even to a finer point in the Practice Builder. The Practice Builder takes out the guesswork.

What we’re doing is looking at the repeatable solutions, because no one wants a one-off solution. You want to be able as a reseller or a systems integrator to say, “Hey, I could sell at least 80% of this over and over and over, right?” That’s what we call a repeatable solution.

The Future of System Integrators

Kenton Williston: What is Tech Data doing to continue improving its value proposition?

Tom Digsby: We’re always looking at our role as an IoT-solutions aggregator by gaining insights from vendors like Intel and the suppliers that we buy from. We look to strengthen our knowledge. We were having a knowledge transfer the other day about Edge processing and what the software from Intel looks like. And OpenVINO was one of our conversations.

We’re working with Intel to make sure that we’re identifying the solutions, and we’re mapping that with the problems and the business outcomes from the catalog of IoT solutions that we have, so that they can leverage the technology and our expertise and can really go to market. We support our partners in that way, and they appreciate our value.

I think if you bring us a solution, we can work with you. Just last week we had a partner bring a solution to us that revolved around SAP environment. And I was like, “Oh yeah, we can absolutely do the same kind of methodology and same Practice Builder.”

 If you have a solution that you want to bring to market, and it has distinct business value, and someone will actually buy it, and you’ve implemented it, or need to take it to market in a repeatable fashion, we’ll work with you.

Related Content

To learn more about SIs role in 2021, listen to our podcast on Keys to SI Success in 2021.

About the Author

Kenton Williston is an Editorial Consultant to and previously served as the Editor-in-Chief of the publication as well as the editor of its predecessor publication, the Embedded Innovator magazine. Kenton received his B.S. in Electrical Engineering in 2000 and has been writing about embedded computing and IoT ever since.

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