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IT Gurus — Tech Trek: Search for Stars

September 2008 By Cheryl Adams
Managing Editor
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WHILE IT applications in the printing industry find their roots in the early '90s, their diverse applications in today's digital environment is where they are finding their true calling. And calling is exactly what customers are doing--requesting more IT-based products than ever before.

Computer programming, database management, variable data printing, Website design, Web-to-print storefronts, PURLs, hybrid workflows, fulfillment. These are increasingly hot button requests. And, more printers, turned marketing services providers, are expanding their product offerings. As they do, they need IT people--the programmers who will turn their virtual dreams into a literal reality.

IT people are highly prized employees, whose skills and capabilities are quickly becoming a treasured asset, if not necessity, for successful graphic communications providers. Employees with a print background who have strong computer skills--database and programming experience to manage mailing lists and such--are ideal candidates. Those skills are very much in demand, says Arnold Kahn, president of the PrintLink executive search agency in Rochester, NY.

IT, Print Expertise Needed

"IT positions in the printing industry are relatively new, and small- to mid-size printers are struggling to find qualified people. Most IT people have worked outside the printing industry, and printers are eager to find qualified IT candidates with printing industry experience. Some of the larger printing firms have recognized the need for IT initiatives several years ago and have a leg-up on those just becoming aware of the need now," he adds.

Starting on the ground floor is very difficult when you're starting to incorporate IT applications into a printing business. It's extremely important to define what the IT person will be required to do. Basic IT experience, or experience in another area of IT, is not necessarily a good fit with printing applications.

Before a printer brings in any IT capabilities, or before upgrading to newer ones--for example, Web-to-print, JDF and automated workflows--the company must define the jobs and describe the requirements.

Kahn advises: "You only have a fit once you know what the job is and whether the applicant can do that job. The IT core of any company begins with the right software and the right person to program and maintain it. Offering IT services is a way to expand business, but if the game plan (the job description) isn't adequately defined, or if the IT person doesn't have the right skill sets to run it, the program may fall on its virtual face."

Much in the same way printers have kept up with other technologies in the past, "they must be investing in IT applications and IT managers today--and even that's getting off to a late start," he insists.

One of the problems is that with today's economic downturn, printers may not have the funds to invest in IT or any new technology, for that matter. However, Kahn stresses that investing in tomorrow's applications, which customers are increasingly demanding today, is critical in keeping your business alive.

"When the economy turns around, more customers will be asking for digital and electronic products, and printers need to be ahead of the demand," he says. "IT requests will only grow, and investing in the technology and people to employ it is one business venture that printers can't afford to miss."

Big printers have the capital to attract IT people; they have the ability to grow their IT departments. And, their pockets are deep enough that the growth pangs, quirks and mistakes won't prevent them from moving forward. However, most printers aren't big, and building an IT department takes time.

Al Kennickell, president and owner of Kennickell Print and Global Marketing in Savannah, GA, knows the value of incorporating IT services into his graphic communications company. He reports that about 15 percent of his company's total sales comes from products that require programming. In fact, he says, 50 to 60 percent of all new business has programming involved. Also, having programming capabilities helps his sales reps get in the door for new business opportunities.

"We sell the PURL sites, VDP, etc., and we get in the door--and get the work. Most of our business today and much of it tomorrow will involve programming," he adds.

Kennickell plans to add more programmers in the future, and since he's already got an IT department, his IT crew will help pick them.

David Torok, president of Padgett Printing, is adamant that having extensive IT capabilities is a competitive advantage for his Dallas-based operation. "Every time you touch data (a product), it costs money, about 4.5 cents for each touch. Adding ancillary services, like IT and electronic applications, you don't have to touch the data, and you save the customer money.

"As we add more of these services and tie them in with customers' enterprise systems, we're becoming more valuable--irreplaceable--to them," Torok emphasizes. "We do so much for them; it's harder for them to leave us."

When Padgett first implemented IT in 1991, it was an internal venture, and the printer's first programmer came onboard to set up an IT management system. Padgett got into digital printing in 1998, and its goal was to concentrate on variable data applications. In 2001, the printer started offering mailing services and hired a full-time database manager. In March 2007, a chief information officer position was created.

In 2007, Padgett also implemented Web-to-print capabilities, which Torok calls "ePadgett," a Web portal that allows customers to not only order printed products online, but create their own e-storefront.

Earlier this year, Torok appointed a full-time e-storefront manager. "The e-storefront manager was a prepress operator with a design background who had very good computer skills," he says, adding, "Someone with preflight skills should be able to transition into IT well. It's harder to train a computer person about printing than it is to train a printing person about computer or IT skills."

Today, Padgett's IT department is budgeted for four, plus an intern.

As years go by, Torok predicts that offset printing will become more of a commodity, so companies must invest in ancillary services today if they're going to survive tomorrow.

"As we developed more successful IT solutions, our sales guys starting selling those solutions to clients. Now, our sales reps are on the street selling e-services, electronic storefronts and the like. They've become 'virtual salesmen' or, rather, salesmen that sell virtual services.

"If you're going to stay in the printing business, you must understand where printing is taking your business," Torok points out. "The long-term strategy is to embrace new technology, so that you can offer myriad services, like a Web portal that allows you to sell to areas across the country--markets you've never been able to serve before."

Right now, IT isn't a profit center--but it will be soon enough, Torok predicts. "In the future, IT will surely be a revenue stream. It gives us the ability to tie into our customers' enterprise systems, which, in turn, allows us to take orders 24/7." PI



Groovin' With Geeks

Printers are competing with other industries for IT people. So the competition isn't just between printers; it's between a whole lot of industries. Competition can be especially tough when printers seek candidates with a printing background or related skill sets.

Brian Regan's staffing agency, Semper International, headquartered in Boston, tests applicants to see if they fit the bill. "At the moment, IT isn't a huge segment in printing, but it will be soon," he says. "Right now, printers are just starting to use recruiters and placement firms, and a lot of IT people don't know about the printing industry."

So, where does an executive recruiter find IT people who might be interested in a career in printing? At 40, Regan realizes that when trying to find young, talented programmers, do as today's young people do: social network online. Through niche Websites like Twitter and LinkedIn, where "tech people are wired," Regan embraces the virtual world.

But tapping into social networking sites, he warns, can be tricky. "You have to be savvy. You can't just jump in there and try to recruit someone. There's camaraderie between techies. When you become a comrade, you're accepted, and they'll listen to you. You can't go in there with guns blazing."

Regan says niche Websites can work a lot better than the big e-employment services like Monster or Career Builder because, often times, IT people won't use those Websites to look for jobs because they don't want to be bombarded by potential em-ployers.

Al Kennickell, of Kennickell Print and Global Marketing, started his IT search in his own backyard. "We hired our first guy because he was needed for our fulfillment operation and expanded his work into programming for our printing operation. We've also found luck with the Website Creative Coast, which is a high-tech site where programmers are listed."

At Padgett Printing, David Torok admits that IT people can be hard to find because the technology is so new to printing. Padgett looks for IT applicants by using local sources, word of mouth and placement services. "We're very diligent in our search for the right IT people--those with a printing background, Web development experience, etc. We interview lots of candidates to find the right one."
 

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