The Gig Economy Comes To The Channel


As Steve Stark ramps up his five-month-old solution provider business DigX Solutions to tackle the booming digital transformation market, he faces a stiff challenge familiar to many in the channel: It’s tough to find and hire the top-tier technical talent needed to fulfill every project.

With the Groton, Mass.-based company’s focus on providing services around infrastructure, collaboration, security, social cloud and analytics, Stark needs a bench of engineers with skill sets that command a premium.

But as a startup he can’t afford to invest in hiring high-priced technical talent that he might not be using full time. So as he accelerates operations, Stark is turning to Field Engineer—an online marketplace that connects solution providers with network and telecommunications engineers for on-demand jobs—to hire freelancers to help fill his network configuration and Tier 3 support jobs.

“I want to have those resources whenever and wherever I need them. This provides me with the flexibility to have the right resource in the right area. I can have much more scale, and I can go anywhere. These are resources that are nationwide and even global,” he said.

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“For me, it’s less about the savings and more about the opportunities,” Stark said. “I can compete for opportunities that I would not have been able to bid on.” Stark said his goal is to realize revenue of $500,000 this year, his first year in business, a target he could never hit without using contract engineers from Field Engineer.

“I’m looking at least a half-million dollars in opportunities with Field Engineer,” he said. Without it, he’d be limited on the number and size of deals he could pursue, reducing his expected revenue to a couple of hundred thousand dollars this year, less than half his goal.

“I wouldn’t get close,” he said.

Utilizing contract engineers also will allow DigX to focus more on providing higher-value services to customers that generate margins of 20 or even 30 points. Otherwise he would be looking at more product-focused deals that generate, at most, 10-point margins. “It is a significant reason to really focus on engineering services,” he said.

“If I don’t use Field Engineer to build my own stable of engineers, I wouldn’t be able to compete,” Stark said.

On the other side of the equation are people like Gerald Monks. Monks has a full-time job, working the midnight shift Sunday through Thursday in his employer’s network operations center to provide system support. But on weekdays, during the daylight hours, the network engineer works on a freelance basis for solution providers and network integrators, doing “rack and stack” installations of communications servers and routers, implementing IP telephony systems and troubleshooting telecom network issues.

Monks began working with Field Engineer in 2016, doing a couple of jobs each week in the Chicago metro region, northern Indiana and western Michigan. With his Cisco Certified Network Associate and other certifications, Monks is in demand, and he’s now doing as many as five jobs a week—sometimes several in one day.

“I thought it would just be occasional jobs. But it got really, really busy after a while,” Monks said. “Right now the economy is doing really well for IT work.”

The Rise Of The Gig Economy

Stark and Monks are prime examples of the “Gig Economy,” the name given to today’s increasing use of freelancers and independent contractors to perform functions once handled by full-time employees, replacing the traditional employer-employee model that has long-defined “work.”

The Gig Economy accounts for 34 percent of the U.S. workforce, a figure expected to climb to 43 percent by 2020, according to a 2017 survey by software vendor Intuit.

A Gallup report issued in August 2018 concluded that 36 percent of U.S. workers participate in the Gig Economy for either their primary or secondary jobs. While that includes professions like farmers and plumbers, where self-employment traditionally has been the rule, it also includes a growing number of people who take on short-term jobs on a contract or freelance basis.

Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, which have disrupted the taxi industry worldwide with their thousands of freelance drivers, are among the most visible evidence of the Gig Economy. But it extends to a broad range of industries, jobs and skills.

That certainly includes the IT industry—and the channel—where a number of trends are driving expansion. Globalization means the channel has increased demand for workers in remote locations. While a solution provider and a customer may both be based in, say, Chicago, the customer may have business operations all around the world and relies on the solution provider for IT implementation, maintenance and support services for those far-flung operations.

Solution providers also take on major implementation projects that require specific technical skills they may not have in-house or skills that are only needed for short time periods and don’t justify a full-time hire.

With the Gig Economy, solution providers can hire highly skilled engineers or engineers with specific certifications for short-duration jobs, engineers they could not afford to hire full-time. They can expand the scope of customer engagements they bid for and increase service revenue. And the ability to hire freelance engineers almost anywhere in the world makes it possible to meet customers’ needs for service far from their home base.

For the Gig Economy to work most effectively, however, prospective employers need an efficient way to find contract workers with the right skills in the right location. Freelance workers need a way of staying informed of contract work opportunities for which they may be qualified. And both sides need an easy and efficient way to communicate.

Shyam Raju knows all about the challenges associated with lining up engineers and technicians to service business customers and resolve their IT installation, maintenance and break/fix problems. Before recently striking out on his own as a strategic business transformation consultant, he worked at DXC Technology managing the systems integrator’s portfolio of cloud services in the Americas.

“This is a platform that can help solution providers achieve business efficiencies,” Raju said of Field Engineer’s services. “I see tremendous value in this.” He has been recommending Field Engineer to his consulting clients, including systems integrators, VARs, infrastructure and cloud MSPs, telecom and network carriers, and IT/network manufacturers.

“Today it’s all about productivity and resource utilization,” Raju said of the platform’s benefits to solution providers. “And it helps maintain service-level agreements, which leads to customer satisfaction. To me this appears to be a total game-changer.”

Playing Matchmaker

Founded in late 2015, Field Engineer has developed a platform that incorporates sophisticated algorithms, artificial intelligence technology and mobile applications, all with the aim of bringing the right engineer with the right skill sets to the right job. The company began beta-testing the platform in 2016 and went live in mid-2017.

“The core value proposition is that our service makes it easy for companies to connect with freelance engineers, to find the field engineers they need to complete their customer jobs, offering more choice and reducing transaction costs,” said Malik Zakaria, Field Engineer founder and CEO.

“All companies need to do is post a job, review applicants, assign a job and approve the completed work—all through our system. We streamline the costly search for talent by working with employers and engineers on our platform,” Zakaria said.

Zakaria sees the channel as a natural fit for the company’s services. While IT manufacturers use Field Engineer to hire contract workers to service their products and businesses do so for in-house projects, Field Engineer’s main target for its contract engineer matchmaking service is VARs, OEMs, systems integrators and telecommunications service providers. “

Solution providers, resellers and systems integrators— they benefit from using our services for a few reasons,” Zakaria said. “They need to hire talent as needed to meet the demand for unique skills and boost their workforce numbers during critical periods, such as when they have a major deployment project and need an on-demand workforce.”

Field Engineer is especially focused on providing contract engineers for telecommunications, networking and data center tasks. The company’s database has qualified, vetted and certified engineers with network, telecommunications, wireless, voice, network security and cloud technology expertise, along with architects, project managers and technicians who can tackle everything from short-term break/fix jobs to long-term installation projects in networking, voice, cloud and SD-WAN systems.

That positions Field Engineer to play a pivotal role as the Gig Economy becomes more pervasive, and even disruptive, in the IT industry and in the channel.

“You can’t have the expertise in place for every project,” Zakaria said. “It may be a project that goes on for just a few months, then it’s done. Or you need talented people to work at sites far from your home base—if you are Denver- based or New York-based and you need people in, let’s say, the U.K. or Europe, Singapore or Malaysia, any country,” he added.

“This allows even small solution providers to expand globally. We’re creating an opportunity for the channel to provide global solutions. They don’t have to be restricted just because they don’t have the workforce in those countries,” Zakaria said.

Filling The SD-WAN Void

Solution providers can engage Field Engineer for contract jobs that range from more routine network/telecom system maintenance and troubleshooting tasks, to system implementation jobs such as installing a network router or PBX phone system, to more complex network design projects, said Syed Ali, vice president of professional services at Field Engineer.

Field Engineer also is building up its roster of engineers with network security expertise and certifications in Fortinet and Palo Alto Networks security technology. “They are very much in demand,” Ali said.

But perhaps the biggest demand right now is for engineers with expertise in SD-WAN and certifications from leading vendors such as Cisco, Riverbed, Silver Peak, Velocloud and Versa. Zakaria said SD-WAN alone could account for as many as 50,000 work orders through Field Engineer this year.

“Software-defined networking skills are pretty hot in the market nowadays as more telecommunications companies are adopting SD-WAN and customers are looking for SDWAN solutions,” Ali said. Field Engineer executives also expect demand for engineers trained in 5G networking technology to accelerate as telecoms ramp up deployment of 5G mobile networks.

In addition to offering a path for the channel to find skilled labor, the Field Engineer platform benefits solution and service providers and their customers by making it possible to quickly schedule and complete jobs—often within days rather than the one to two weeks or even 45 to 60 days it can take for service companies and carriers to do the work.

The ability to quickly respond to customer needs means solution providers can better meet customer service-level agreements. It also means they can start billing for services sooner and generate cash flow more quickly.

Field Engineer has facilitated 15,000 freelance engineer jobs or “work orders” since its service went live in 2017, about 70 percent of which were in the U.S. The company expects that number to quickly climb into the hundreds of thousands this year as it ramps up its business.

Field Engineer’s growing database currently has about 45,000 engineers in 188 countries with more than 1,200 skill sets spanning a broad range of network and telecommunications technologies, vendors (Adtran, Avaya, Cisco, Juniper Networks and Mitel, to name a few), and certifications—from basic cable installers up to highly sought-after Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) engineers.

“I think what surprises people is the amount of tech talent that’s really out there and that’s available,” said Gary McCauley, Field Engineer’s vice president of global sales. “That’s one of the real strengths of our platform. We have a lot of different skill sets and a lot of different certifications. Now you can get very high-end talent.”

Engineers who want to get into Field Engineer’s database for contract jobs download its mobile application and provide their work history, expertise and certifications. When solution providers submit work orders for contract jobs, the Field Engineer platform identifies the most qualified candidates for the job, based on expertise, location and other criteria, and notifies the freelance engineer of the opportunity through the mobile app. Freelance engineers indicate their interest in taking on the job and the hiring solution provider is given a list of available, qualified candidates from which to choose.

By 2022 “on-demand labor platforms will emerge as a primary driver of economic growth in developed and emerging economies worldwide,” predicted Accenture’s Workforce Marketplace report, part of its Technology Vision 2017 project.

Companies like Field Engineer will play a critical role in making the Gig Economy work for the channel.

“Solution providers are taking on large projects, deployment projects, and they need engineers with a variety of skills all the time,” Zakaria said. “But they don’t always need full-time engineers. We are making guarantees for [solution providers] to get the right workforce.”

And that resonates with DigX Solutions’ Stark.

“There’s some good people out there,” he said. “I want quality engineers and the engineers want quality work. The flexibility this gives me as a business owner is key.”

When it comes to the Gig Economy and its reshaping of the business landscape, Stark said he only sees the model accelerating in the years to come.

“I do see this as the way the world is moving,” he said.