YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Spending money on assistance and upgrades for business technology is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity, local experts say.
From providing and servicing the technology that allows remote access for employees, to protection from cyberattacks, there is more for IT specialists to do than ever before.
The pandemic forced companies to let employees work from home, says Ralph Blanco, CEO and owner of Executive Computer Management Solutions Inc. (ECMSI), a managed IT service provider based in Struthers.
According to Gallup, nearly a third of remote-capable workers in June were working exclusively remotely with another 49% in a hybrid situation. Even following a push by some employers to return employees to the office after Labor Day, there is little doubt many employees will remain at least partially remote for some time.
Although business culture will suffer if everyone is at home, Blanco says he believes companies will continue to offer a hybrid.
“The key to that for me, from an IT perspective is, they need to have work devices [at home],” says Blanco. “They can’t be logging on from their home computer. That’s got all kinds of security issues. We’re not managing that [home computer], so you don’t want to be letting someone connect into your internal network from their home computer.”
Marsha Gazy, owner of TeamLogic IT of Youngstown, says statistics show about 20% of new jobs are designed to work exclusively from home.
But there are a lot of distractions for employees working at home, and Gazy cautions they can lead to phishing attacks that can breach the company’s entire network.
“We take 20 seconds to wash our hands so can we take 20 seconds to look at each email before we act,” Gazy asks.
She says most breaches happen because of human error and it’s important to train employees to look for common warning signs. Make sure a sender’s email address is the correct one, she says. When in doubt, call the sender before opening an email.
TeamLogic IT offers realistic simulations to help clients better recognize a problem.
“Train your people. I cannot stress that enough, train your people,” says Gazy. “If you don’t know how to do it, let us know. We will help you. That’s why we’re here.”
Robert Merva, CEO of Avrem Technologies in Canfield, says phishing attacks seem to be increasing in the past 45 days. His company offers a Powerpoint presentation for clients.
“All the securities precautions and protections in the world can’t help you if you click the wrong button and let something in. So we’re going to make an effort in 2023 to up the education factor. That goes a long way,” Merva says.
Merva has always been a big supporter of work from home, even before the pandemic. Avrem tends to hire some staff who work remotely, giving the firm a larger talent pool of highly qualified people.
But for IT specialists, the remote trend has led to more challenges, including the logistics of moving equipment and poor internet service in rural areas, something that quickly became apparent during the pandemic.
Even companies that do not believe they are a target need to take IT and cybersecurity seriously, says Merva. Skimping on cybersecurity can lead to bigger expenses down the road, he says.
Blanco says cyber insurance companies want more assurances that their clients are doing as much as possible to protect themselves. Small businesses need to make sure they are complying with all insurance requirements.
“That’s going to be one of their biggest challenges – how do they protect themselves, and if something happens… how do they make sure they are covered,” Blanco says.
An IT management firm can make sure the company has a recovery plan in place before a cyberattack occurs.
“People don’t look at it until you see these companies get breached and they’re down two or three weeks, trying to recover data,” Blanco says. “But you don’t want to be thinking about that after the fact. You want to make sure you understand your strategy before it happens.”
Additionally, Blanco says insurance companies are limiting the amount of cybersecurity coverage. It can be expensive, for instance, for a medical facility to inform patients that their private information has been stolen and to deal with the outrage that follows.
“Your reputation can be very costly,” Blanco says.
During the first two years of the pandemic, local IT firms found it difficult to get some of the supplies they needed to replace or upgrade systems and make repairs.
Merva says his purchases of servers have been backlogged nearly two years and 30 webcams he ordered in March 2020 never came and were eventually canceled by the supplier. But four webcams ordered recently came the next day.
Parts from Dell and HP are coming in swiftly again, Merva says. But he is waiting up to six months for items from Cisco.
Blanco agrees that delivery times are better than they were six months ago, but not for everything. Switches and routers are still tough to come by, he says, with suppliers unable to say when they are coming.
Like most companies, ECMSI has adjusted its buying habits to better protect against unavailability.
Prices are still up 15 to 25% and Merva says he is not sure that will significantly change anytime soon.
“Peak pandemic pricing, a $700 computer was sometimes close to $3,000, $2,500. We were seeing laptops in the $3,000 range that were normally $1,000… It was bad, it was really bad for awhile,” says Merva.
Blanco says as long as fuel prices and labor prices remain elevated, it will be difficult for the prices of technology to decrease.
But failing to invest in technology is not an option for businesses, whether it is for cybersecurity or hardware and software upgrades.
Some companies are behind the technology curve in this region, Merva says. Avrem continues to coax small businesses to upgrade their systems.
Blanco suggests putting together a five-year strategy, allowing the business to determine depreciation from an accounting standpoint and estimate what IT investments will cost down the road.
Letting things go can lead to what Blanco calls “technical debt,” where old equipment can start costing a company both monetarily and with efficiency.
“The old adage of ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it,’ that’s not really a good way to look at IT. Because all of those little nuisances and disruptions of your business – when it does start to happen – costs you a lot more money than being proactive and making sure you’re current in your environment,” Blanco says.