By Robert Frank for The New York Times
When Graham Lefford started working as a butler in 1989, his daily tasks usually involved planning formal dinners and carefully arranging the daily breakfast tray with coffee and a newspaper.
But on a recent afternoon, Mr. Lefford had to tackle a more modern butler problem: a giant TV screen that had failed to descend from the ceiling. He spent nearly an hour troubleshooting the electrical system, testing the drop-down motors and scrolling through the multimedia TV controller before finally rebooting the home’s universal software interface to get the screen to pop down.
“These homes are so complicated and filled with so much technology,” said Mr. Lefford, who works for a wealthy family in New York. “If you don’t have basic tech skills, you can’t do the job anymore.”
The life of the butler has been transformed by the digital age. As the homes of the rich become filled with new status symbols of technology — such as retinal scanners, iPad-controlled door locks, hidden flat-panel screens and underwater lighting shows — butlers are becoming more like one-man I.T. departments.
Rich homeowners are increasingly looking for house managers and butlers with corporate technology experience or engineering degrees. Butler schools are teaming up with home-software companies to better train students, while home-staffing companies are increasingly recruiting from tech departments at big companies and hotel chains. Butlers themselves — who were transformed into more corporate-style “household managers” in the 1990s and 2000s — are now struggling to balance their core job of pampering their finicky bosses with managing temperamental smart-home systems.
“There is no silver tray anymore,” said David N. Youdovin, chief executive of Hire Society, a household staffing firm based in New York. “If you can’t set up a secure wireless network or sync an iPad or use the Crestron or Savant, it’s hard to be considered for these jobs,” he said, referring to two home-automation brands.
Granted, even the nonrich struggle with increasingly complicated home technologies. But in recent years, the rich have taken smart homes to a new level — and assigned their household staffs to keep them running. Weber Tysvaer, an estate manager and chief of staff to several rich families, said one home he worked in had so many motherboards and servers in the basement, the connecting wires formed giant, multicolored columns along the walls.
“It looked like a cathedral organ,” he said. “It was actually quite beautiful — unless something went wrong.”
Mr. Tysvaer worked in a Manhattan triplex, owned by a Middle Eastern prince, that was loaded with state-of-the-art technology and security. Yet systems were often crashing: The Wi-Fi rarely worked, the home-software system always had to be restarted, and a set of “Star Trek”-like doors designed to open and close with a smooth whoosh at the push of a button that often failed to close. The entire tech system for the home had to be redone, at a cost of about $500,000, a little over a year after it was built.
Mr. Tysvaer has worked in other homes where an iPad can be used to dial up a movie, change the music, set the lights, turn on a waterfall or have special custom-made scents pumped through the ventilation system. But many times the systems don’t work together, he said — and finding the root of the problem can take hours of calls with product manufacturers and software teams.
The buyers may not realize that these systems “are far more powerful and complex for what they really need,” he said.
Mr. Lefford, who travels between his home in Michigan and his employer’s home in New York, said technology had given him more freedom, but also more headaches. He can manage his employer’s New York home remotely with an iPad, setting the heat, shutting the blinds, turning off the lights and locking the doors with the tap of a screen. He even accepted a flower delivery at the home in New York, and selected bouquets for each room, while sitting in Michigan.
But one Sunday night, when Mr. Lefford was off duty, his boss couldn’t turn on the lights on an upper floor of the house. “To fix it, I would have to remove a panel from an electronics cabinet, unplug something else and hit a reset button,” he said. “They just decided to leave them off till I came back the next day.”
Butler training schools and associations are forging closer ties to the companies that make tech gear for high-end homes. The Domestic Estate Management Association says it’s working with Crestron and Savant to create training programs to teach butlers how to run and troubleshoot smart-home systems. Other schools are adding courses in I.T. networking and programming.
“It’s part of the standard training now,” said Matthew Haack, president of the association.
In many homes of the superrich, technology is so complicated that owners are hiring specialized techies to work alongside butlers and household managers. Kevin G. Johnson, founder of Green Baize Door, a London-based placement agency and advisory firm, said he recently placed two I.T. specialists in mega-homes in Britain. One had been the chief engineer for a big London hotel group while the other came from a corporate I.T. department. They are now earning higher salaries, “in the six figures,” according to Mr. Johnson.
Mr. Youdovin of Hire Society also recently helped place two personal I.T. experts. One was for a hedge fund manager in New York who has a sophisticated trading system set up in his home. The other was for a Hamptons homeowner who wanted a searchable video system allowing him to watch certain moments from scores of professional sports games. Both workers are making over $150,000 a year.
Sometimes a butler’s toughest tech task is to get rid of technology. Mr. Lefford said a previous employer got so frustrated with his remote digital thermostat systems that when he started planning a new state-of-the-art home, he requested the old-fashioned Honeywell dials. But the company installing the home’s heating and cooling system kept pushing for a more expensive digital controller.
“My employer insisted on the dial,” Mr. Lefford said. “He said, ‘I want to be able to change the heat in my own damn house.’”