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Meet the… applications engineer

Clear-Com's Sarah Koehler reveals how a passion for theatre lead to her working with Dante, MADI, and SMPTE 2110

Sarah Koehler, applications engineer, Clear-Com

Talk us through an average day in your role: 

There really is no average day in this role, which I appreciate, but to boil it down I have three main types of days: travel days, on-site days, and work-from-home days.  

My travel days start bright and early.  I like to catch the first flight out to avoid delays/weather, then check email/call customers back at the airport and during layovers. On the plane I either catch up on emails if the Wi-Fi is working, or relax with a podcast (I like the Blinkist app.) When I land, I rent a car, drive to the hotel, get dinner, and video chat with the family, or if I am flying back home, I pick up the kiddo from daycare early for some extra play time together after having been away for several days. 

On-site days are my favourite. I like the new places and people but mostly I like getting hands-on with the gear!  My job is usually to either upgrade an older system or commission a new system. Commissioning usually involves helping with networking questions, loading the software, getting all the endpoints connected, and setting up Dante, MADI, or SMPTE 2110 connections to external devices if needed. I complete a thorough test of all the devices and programme the software based on the end users’ requirements.  Commissioning days are usually 1-3 days of onsite work which normally includes some level of training. (Usually, it’s a broad training for anyone who uses the endpoints and then a more in-depth training for the maintenance/programming team on the software and other hardware.)

Work-from-home days are spent prepping for the next onsite trip, beta testing new firmware, writing field reports, helping with training videos, filling out expense reports, booking travel, responding to customer questions, and helping them troubleshoot issues. Internal sales support and marketing support can also fill my day. And I occasionally get assigned a remote commissioning project, which can be tough! It’s an exercise in patience and how to be extremely detailed with directions over the phone. If time permits, I’ll do some personal growth training or work on conceptual projects in our home labs.

How did you get started in the media industry?

Happenstance, I suppose. I started in theatre. I fell in love with theatre by the age of five after seeing Hansel and Gretel at the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre. I cried my eyes out as the witch was burned alive. She didn’t deserve to die! Then during the curtain call, the Witch, who I thought was dead, came running back on stage, smiling broadly to a roaring crowd to take her bow. It was all pretend. A suspension of disbelief. And in that moment I was hooked. I spent the next 30 years doing whatever I could to be close to the theatre: working as a theatrical carpenter, electrician, audio engineer, sound designer, audio designer, etc.  Theatre was life, so I’ve been around communication systems since…forever.  When Covid struck and the entertainment industry took a hit I reached out to friends and contacts for work and was so happy when Clear-Com had a job opening!  Comms is so important to both theatre and media and I am pleased to be part of both industries now.

What training did you have before entering the industry?

I have a B.A. in Technical Theatre and Design, but most of my training occurred post-college, learning from colleagues, taking numerous side jobs mixing musicals, learning the ins and outs of different consoles, creating sound designs that paid mostly in experience, reading manuals, pushing buttons, being curious. It’s a lifestyle; the technology keeps developing so the training never stops.

Why do you enjoy working in the industry?

I like that it doesn’t feel stale. There is always something to do, something to learn, new people to meet, new places to visit, and you don’t get bored. It’s just unconventional enough to mesh with a quirky personality but conventional enough for a healthy work-life balance.

What piece of advice would you offer someone looking to explore a role similar to yours?

Be curious. Get experience doing anything and everything you find interesting because it will all play a role in your development. Be kind, studious, and helpful. The people you meet could become your best assets. Every job I’ve ever gotten has been based on people putting in a good word for me. It wasn’t my education or resume that got my foot in the door; although important, having the right work ethic and personality type is valuable. Keep an open mind and keep gaining different experiences doing the things you love. You may end up in a job you never knew existed that was made for you, and all your past experiences will suddenly become relevant.