Magazine Article | April 20, 2012

The Marriage Of Network Security And Higher Education

By Jay McCall, networking and managed services editor, Business Solutions magazine

By partnering with local colleges and universities, this MSP (managed services provider) is attracting low-cost IT talent, which is playing an important role in its 85% projected revenue growth.

Nate and Kelly Freeman, president and CEO, respectively, of MSP Network People, have been in the business of protecting their customers’ networks for more than 16 years. The MSP focuses primarily on the SMB market, which is in dire need of help from solutions providers. According to Symantec’s Internet Security Threat Report, cyber criminals are finding that SMBs tend to have fewer network security measures in place than their larger counterparts. Additionally and unfortunately, SMBs often have limited IT resources and budgets to handle and prevent security threats. By creating an end-to-end network security solution tailored to these problems facing the SMB market and employing college interns to help offset is support costs, Network People is in a position to help its cash-strapped SMB customers while achieving 85% revenue growth this year.

Find The Right Network Security Combo For SMBs
Nate and Kelly Freeman spent the better part of the past two years developing a bundled security offering for SMBs that protects customers against internal as well as external attacks and offsets SMBs’ staffing challenges with RMM (remote monitoring and management) services and help desk support. The culmination of this effort resulted in an offering the Freemans call “the Red N,” which is a proprietary solution that comprises a combination of firewall; intrusion prevention and detection appliances; antivirus, antispam, and antispyware software; and services in a single dashboard, which Network People sells for $10 per endpoint per month and help desk support starting at $39 per hour. (I know, cheap, right? We’ll get to that in a minute.) The Red N managed security, which just came out of beta testing and became an official offering as of April of this year, is already proving to be a huge success with the MSP’s existing customer base (i.e. its beta testers). In fact, more than half of Network People’s current client base has already transitioned to this managed services model for protecting their businesses.

College Interns: Your Best Resource For Level-1 Support
One of the main differentiators with this MSP’s offering — and a primary driving factor behind its projected 85% revenue growth this year — is the way it’s able to keep its support costs low, yet still be profitable. Like so many IT service providers, finding and hiring IT talent is one of the most challenging aspects of the business. Rather than taking the approach many VARs take, which is to try and poach IT talent from competitors (at a premium rate), Network People turned to higher education for help. Based in the Tampa, FL, area, the MSP is within 30 miles of a couple of colleges that offer various IT programs, such as St. Petersburg College and Pinellas Technical Institute. “After attending an Ingram VTN (VentureTech Network) event a few years ago, we learned that these local colleges have a business need to produce employable graduates, and their IT students need real-world experience before they graduate to get goodpaying jobs in their fields,” says Kelly Freeman.

Shortly after the partner event, Kelly led the effort to reach out to the local colleges and to create an internship program at Network People, which the MSP calls its College Tech Program. Each college put Kelly in touch with its internship coordinator, and in a very short period, the Freemans were starting to interview students enrolled in various IT programs to find potential candidates who would be a fit for their business. Nate admits there are a lot of choices he and his wife had to consider, and it took nearly two and a half years to get the program working smoothly. “One of the things we had to consider was whether we would offer paid or unpaid internships,” he says. “There are lots of students out there who will accept unpaid internships just to be able to add the job experience to their resume, but we realized early on that if a person’s not paid for their work, they rarely take ownership of their job duties.” The MSP also had to take into consideration that college students think in much shorter terms than a typical employee. For example, three to four months is a long time to them. “They’re geared to think in terms of semesters, not in terms of a five-year plan,” he says. “We needed to focus the program on what the interns would get out of the next three months.” The first step was to pay a college student a stipend at the end of their probation, a 90-day period that includes two full days of orientation training, followed by three months of closely supervised hands-on training with Network People’s engineering team. “One of the hardest parts about creating the College Tech Program was figuring out the right kind of training as well as the right length of training,” recalls Nate. Before putting a formal training program in place, some interns were put in front of customers without having the right customer service skills. “Without proper, formalized training, interns were killing their credibility with clients before they even had a chance to resolve any IT issues,” says Nate.

Once an intern makes it through the probationary period, Network People bumps up their pay to minimum wage. From that point on, interns are evaluated every 90 days and can receive promotions based on passing certification exams, performing well in front of customers, and demonstrating adherence to the MSP’s corporate values. “In a short period, interns can double their hourly rate, plus they can earn bonuses such as paid business travel and certification expense reimbursements,” says Nate.

Another process the MSP honed over the past couple of years was its interviewing. With the input of their five senior IT engineers, the Freemans developed a multiple-choice test with 50 questions to assess each candidate’s IT knowledge. “The test isn’t designed to weed out candidates, but rather to help us know where to focus our training efforts,” says Nate. The MSP has found there’s one question that best determines whether a candidate is going to work out or not. “At some point in the interview, we ask each candidate, ‘Do you love technology?’ In some fields you can become a decent employee without loving what you do, but when it comes to IT, you have to love computers to be successful.”

One additional piece of advice Nate offers, “Don’t make the mistake of having a junior technician train your interns,” he says. “It’s your top IT talent that they need to be around in order to develop the knack for identifying and troubleshooting problems.” When Nate and his team find an intern with a good work ethic who also has the inherent ability to solve technical problems, he realizes there’s a good chance the intern could become a future full-time employee at Network People. To date, 12 interns have come through Network People’s facility and 3 have stayed on to become full-time employees (25% of his workforce). “A lot of times an intern will start out looking at their work at our company as just a stepping-stone toward meeting a graduation requirement,” says Nate. “But, after they start working and get around experienced IT workers who like what they do and are good at what they do, the intern’s perspective starts to change, and eventually they approach us about wanting to come on board with us full time after they graduate.” There are also instances where Nate has to confront an intern, who time after time just doesn’t seem to ever catch on to how to troubleshoot IT problems. “I’ve told a few people that I didn’t think IT was the right career path for them,” he says.

Network People’s current and future interns will play a key role in the MSP being able to support its Red N offering with low-cost, level-1 help desk support. “More than 80% of all help desk calls can be handled by a level-1 tech,” says Nate. Some examples of typical support calls Network People’s interns can field include:

  • Remotely cleaning PCs of malware, spyware, and malicious code and educating customers on what they can do to prevent future outbreaks
  • Remotely troubleshooting printers
  • Reestablishing customers’ passwords and helping them access their data
  • Assessing a customer’s computer to determine why it may be running slow

“We’ve been up front with our customers that we’re working with college students to handle the support, and we’ve found that business owners are very accepting of the fact that young people are knowledgeable about computers and capable of helping them in these matters. They also understand that there are instances where a level-1 tech isn’t able to handle an IT issue and the problem needs to be handled by a more qualified technician and at a higher hourly rate. “The bottom line is that the cost of outsourcing their IT security and help desk support to us ends up being about a third of the cost it would be if they tried to manage everything themselves.”

After experiencing success with the internship program, Nate and Kelly decided to take it to another level. In 2011, Network People expanded its office space, which the Freemans envision will enable them to eventually take on as many as 30 interns at one time as the business grows. “One of our partners, St. Petersburg College, has been so happy with the success of the program, that they’ve asked us to share our business model with other departments at the school,” he says.

Working with interns does require the MSP to have a flexibility it wouldn’t otherwise need, however. For example, interns sometimes need to work special hours to accommodate their class schedules. “We also know to expect the occasional absence from work to finish a report or special project,” says Nate. “We have no problems offering those perks.” With growing customer interest in its new network security offering and the potential to take its business to a whole new level, who wouldn’t be willing to have to make a few concessions?