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Security. Market transitions. The future of technology delivery.

All of these and more are on the mind of Todd Thibodeaux, the CEO of CompTIA, the industry trade association that is holding its annual ChannelCon extravaganza in Austin, Texas, this week.

ChannelCon is one of the industry’s oldest and most important events on the industry’s calendar. It’s a setting where vendors, distributors, developers, sellers, integrators and media converge to get the latest on trends and developments. This week’s theme is, “Be the Change.”

Not having a clue as to what that meant, I turned to Thibodeaux for insights. He explained the meaning behind the theme for this week’s event, and shared his perspective on a variety of other topics including security, business model evolution and more.

We started off the conversation discussing his tenure at the helm of CompTIA, which was undergoing a transition of its own when he joined CompTIA nine years ago. He is most proud of the team and the culture he has built—from the research arm to the lobbying team in Washington to the industry relations unit to the events team and more. “When I came into the organization, there were lots of challenges and we were able to overcome those quickly and put together a great group of people… [T]oday the breadth and depth of things that we are involved with is quite a bit better,” Thibodeaux says.

That said, he concedes that there are things the organization should have done sooner. This includes developing content around its training and certification programs, buying a professional IT trade association sooner, etc.

His most interesting thunderbolt? The idea that some partners are serving customers that have eschewed digital transformation to the point that they might “go out of business before you.”

Here are some outtakes from the interview, edited (lightly) for clarity. (For more on Thibodeaux’s thoughts, including his view on channel education and career development, check out the next edition of “The Channel Podcast,” which will go live Aug. 1.)

The Doyle Report: “Be the Change” is this year’s theme. What does that exactly mean?

Thibodeaux: We have some people out there that have some options when it comes to going forward. Do you want to become the provider of a wide range of cloud-based SaaS applications for people to run their businesses, whether they relate to accounting, HR management, payment processing, ERP, CRM… [or] do you pursue great opportunities in break/fix, project work, things related to hardware revenue, software licenses, etc.? When do you make the jump into the former and when do you make more of a wholesale transition to deep-diving with your customers to find out about areas of their business that you could impact with cloud-based applications services that you haven’t done up to this point? That’s a topic that has come up again and again as people have started to think about and talk about the “new channel,” which is really code for talking about cloud-based SaaS delivery of applications and services that extends beyond Microsoft Office 365.

Then there’s the new breed of partner that is building its business around this from scratch. So how do legacy people compete with [their focus and capabilities]? Do they add cloud services to their offerings? Then there’s another question that partners wonder: “should I specialize in security?” The opportunity that you have with a new security portfolio is probably a lot bigger now than it was a few years ago when your portfolio may have included some anti-virus, may have included some firewalls, etc. Now it’s broadened to include disaster recovery, mobility protection, cloud security, etc. You can help customers understand the vulnerabilities of the applications they are using, help them answer “what to do when I get hit with a ransomware attack,?” how to deal with phishing threats and more. The portfolio of things that you can do as a pure cybersecurity provider has grown. The opportunity [to build a practice] around that has grown. But it requires retraining and reorganizing your team, bringing in some more specific cyber-expertise, and/or partnering with someone to provide the basic services that you have chosen to not provide any more.

Finally, there’s looking ahead to the next wave. When I came to CompTIA, the MSP wave was really  starting to take hold. We then had healthcare IT come along, mobility and then the cloud, along with different variations of those. But what is the next wave? You hear people talking about IoT, AI, BDR, smart cities, etc. How does the channel sort all this out? I think people are looking with one eye on the current and one eye on the future.

So “be the change?” It’s our way of providing some perspective across all of those ideas.

Todd Thibodeaux, CEO, CompTIAThe Doyle Report: Shifting gears. I agree the security thing is a huge opportunity. But at end of day, security is still horizontal, infrastructure stuff. So let me ask you: how well do you think partners are doing in transitioning from being providers of basic, and in some way commoditized, products and services into being providers of advanced digital services that solve real business challenges of a higher order?

Thibodeaux: A few years ago, I would have said “not so well” because people were doing okay with what they were doing. Some thought, “I’m making enough money now, do I really want to take the risk to adopt an entirely different business model, a new compensation model for my salespeople, and a new set of metrics and dynamics by which to measure my business?”

I think the people that have remained in the market that have not either sold out or consolidated with somebody else are certainly recognizing the opportunities that are out there. The thing is we always jump the gun on how impactful new technologies are. When you had people two years ago saying “IoT is everything…?” C’mon: no it wasn’t. Not at that point and not even now. So we tend to jump the gun too early and people then get worried that they are not on the cutting-edge wave when they don’t need to be at that point. That said, we are at a point certainly with cloud that if you’re not fully bought into the cloud delivery model, you’re really behind. You have actually decided that you’re just not going to adopt it. I’m not sure we are there with some of the other new stuff that’s come along. Certainly not AI. Certainly not VR. Not automation. But if you’re not bought into cloud and the cloud-based SaaS delivery of a range of business applications delivery to your customers, you will fall behind.

The Doyle Report: Is it realistic to expect that a sizable percent of those that provide horizontal technology-infrastructure stuff today can reinvent themselves to become business-technology consultants perhaps with a vertical market, organizational function or customer segment focus? Or is that just not going to happen?

Thibodeaux: I just don’t think that that’s going to happen with the current breed that are in the market. That need will be taken care of by the people coming into the market now. If you’re entering the market today, you’re entering with that kind of mindset.

The Doyle Report: So there is a “new channel” forming as you were saying?

Thibodeaux: Yeah. At the same time you have a bigger cyber tool kit available to you so maybe it makes sense to develop a cybersecurity practice. If you’re running a business itself—regardless of whether it’s a hospital or doctor’s office or law firm or retail store or restaurant—the tools that you have at your disposal are much broader now. So if you’re a partner and not [pursuing] them with the solution that runs across that broad spectrum, they are not going to use you. That’s what the people coming in to the channel have recognized. They are starting their businesses with this notion in mind, as opposed to serving people in a function that is more narrow—i.e. IT. What this means is that non-committal partners are serving non-committal customers. The committed partner is going to look for committed customers. You might get a little bifurcation of this. In other words, a partner may stick with certain customers that are not [pursuing digital transformation]. That might work for a while. But eventually those people are likely to go out of business. In some instances, there’s a higher likelihood that your customer base will go out of business before you.

The Doyle Report: You use the expression “coming in.” We hear about a lot of new companies that are “coming in” to the channel. But are they? Or are we artificially extending our definition or boundaries of the channel to include them? Will they see a home for their business here, in the channel? Or is it like when you’re 40 years and 10 months old and the AARP sends you a packet that welcomes you to the world of senior citizens that you don’t see yourself yet belonging to?

Thibodeaux: That’s a really interesting question and one our channel advisory board, which is one of the new advisory boards we set up to help our board of directors, was wrestling with this year. Is it even important to tell some of these new companies that they are part of the channel? Some don’t care. They’re just there to serve customers and make business. They don’t really care. One key [reason] is that there is not an intermediary there. There’s not a tiered-distribution [pipeline] as with the traditional channel. You have a vendor which is using partners to go directly to customers. There’s no distribution in that. At the same time, there’s much more likelihood that these vendors are also going to have direct sales as well. You don’t see as many of these people going exclusively though the channel or their partner base. The way I seen it is these companies have grabbed everything that they could in their immediate sphere of influence on their own to build up a basic business. Now they have reached a point where they are beyond their capacity to do that... So now they are building a partner base to help dig out customers that they don’t have the capability to find or serve alone or have quick access to. That’s natural; it happens in every industry. But whether those people consider themselves part of a channel, I don’t think is that important.