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Project Management

Does your engineering firm need a tech stack?

Learn how to develop or fine-tune an integrated tech stack at your engineering firm

By Karen Pierce July 17, 2020
Courtesy: David Troyer, Stantec

 

Learning Objectives

  • Evaluate the current status of an engineering firm’s technology.
  • Learn to set technology goals that are both innovative and attainable.
  • Understand how to build a technology roadmap.
  • Start a pilot process for new technologies.

Business owners in the architecture, engineering and construction space are particularly diligent in keeping tight control of company operations as efficiency correlates directly to the bottom line. With the pace of business and development of deliverables, a well-developed tech stack with the right elements can have a significant impact on a business’s success. Many business owners, principals and executives struggle to determine where to start when approaching this side of the business.

A tech stack is a set of technologies used by a company to complete project work and support business operations. In the case of an AEC firm, this could include anything from tools used to store assets and resources, to the systems leveraged for automation of customer relationship management. Figure 1 shows a typical straightforward tech stack for an AEC firm.

Of course, things cannot be this simple. In addition to developing a reliable tech stack model, tools should be integrated by the team to enable collaboration and standardization for clients and customers. An integrated tech stack includes a range of software tools, all of which relate to one another.

State of the technology industry

When it comes to the use and deployment of technology, the AEC industry is particularly fractured. Governing information and data exchange in building information modeling models with ISO 196650-1 and ISO 19650-2 standards are generally widespread, but the technology and workflows used are often unique to each firm.

Some firms leverage technical resources very effectively while others struggle to move beyond the fundamentals of their work with the help of digital tools. This disparity is due to the absence of an industry technology standard as well as a multitude of software solutions to address a wide variety of specific workflow issues.

Consequently, firms typically must build their tech stacks from the ground up. Owners or executives who are inexperienced with computers or technology may assume that traditional methods work best for their business, as that is the way “we have always done it.” Firms may look to technology to enhance status quo rather than considering how workflows evolve in the context of technology. Also, some simply lack the ability, financial motivation or desire to integrate new technology into their company’s workflows and hesitate to do so.

The hesitance for adoption is often rooted in the overhead required to accommodate a learning curve for new technology and the need to slow down before going faster. The learning curve and complexity of many of the tools limits the impact of the tools produced by Autodesk, Trimble, Bentley Systems and others.

There are a variety of different AEC technology and software providers available and many have worked hard to evolve their software to aid in addressing the challenges outlined above. Unfortunately, the implementation and user adoption are major barriers and support from the leaders in the business as champions for technology is required to evolve and build an effective tech stack with the necessary collaborative tools internal resources need.

Figure 1: A tech stack is a set of technologies used by a company to complete project work and support business operations. This shows a typical straightforward tech stack for an architecture, engineering and construction firm. Courtesy: UNIFI Labs

Figure 1: A tech stack is a set of technologies used by a company to complete project work and support business operations. This shows a typical straightforward tech stack for an architecture, engineering and construction firm. Courtesy: UNIFI Labs

COVID-19 and AEC technology implications

The COVID-19 outbreak has shaken the globe, including the AEC industry. This worldwide crisis has disrupted delivery networks, closed offices and have put construction projects on hold. Many offices that closed scrambled to adapt and improve their tech stacks to enable remote work and digital collaboration.

Many AEC firms worked exceptionally quickly to enable their teams to collaborate with one another remotely. These firms are using collaborative design tools such as Autodesk Revit with BIM360 Design, video conferencing software such as Zoom and file-sharing platforms such as Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive. While this work is not easy and cybersecurity challenges abound, the benefits can be staggering and many companies are going to be carrying this forward once the outbreak has settled.

Gartner performed a study into the business impacts of COVID-19, talking to 317 companies and asking a range of different questions. A significant theme they uncovered is that more than 74% of businesses plan to keep 5% or more of the new remote workers working from home permanently. Shifting to an increasingly remote workforce comes with a variety of benefits, decreased office space costs at the forefront. It has become clear to many companies that remote workers can do their jobs without a dedicated office. It seems this could have significant implications in terms of business expenses and can impact commercial real estate moving forward.

While we have not yet seen the lasting impact of COVID-19, it is clear there are many changes for business and society as a result of this global pandemic. Necessity is the mother of skill and one of the positive impacts is the collective improvement in the ability, as an industry, to work remotely with distributed teams. As other difficulties arise in the future, learning from the current crisis advances the ability of AEC companies in the use of technology to overcome future obstacles.

Figure 2: Stantec designed the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, providing full architectural, engineering, interior design and landscaping services that met functional and sustainability targets for this LEED Gold project. UNIFI Labs ensured the project team had the same modeling content from a single source, providing consistency and increasing efficiency. Courtesy: David Troyer, Stantec

Figure 2: Stantec designed the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, providing full architectural, engineering, interior design and landscaping services that met functional and sustainability targets for this LEED Gold project. UNIFI Labs ensured the project team had the same modeling content from a single source, providing consistency and increasing efficiency. Courtesy: David Troyer, Stantec

Evaluating current status

The process of updating or adjusting technology software or workflows within an AEC firm begins with a detailed evaluation to develop a baseline for the status of existing technology. This first step is crucial to ensure there is a clear understanding of the critical aspects of a tech stack, identify challenges and enable a clear path forward for optimization.

One option is to leverage tools available from partners such as Autodesk. Autodesk offers a free assessment called Autodesk Construction Health Check to assist in the evaluation phase.

In developing this tool, Autodesk surveyed 200 construction industry professionals to develop an understanding of key metrics used to measure success. As a result, a short but powerful test can determine where technology can improve business operations. The health check covers a wide range of issues from the construction documents developed to the level of productivity achieved at a team level. The health check results are easy to interpret and can be applied immediately for the improvement of the firms’ tech stack.

Figure 3: Showcasing automation, the Dynamo image shown swaps all defined line styles to a company standard. Courtesy: UNIFI Labs

Figure 3: Showcasing automation, the Dynamo image shown swaps all defined line styles to a company standard. Courtesy: UNIFI Labs

Technology and the workforce

In addition to using tools such as the Autodesk Construction Health Check, additional self-assessments define the scope and efforts required to move toward the desired outcome. Evaluating the size and structure of the current workforce is a crucial step in the process, as it has a significant influence. Significant factors to consider in the context of the workforce issues influencing the tech stack of an AEC firm are:

Size: While smaller teams generally have limited budgets for innovation, they can spend time organizing themselves, standardizing workflows and sharing information without substantial investment. Collaboration and communication in a framework of tightly knit teams are critical for AEC companies. For larger teams, tools need to be put into place to facilitate collaboration fluidly. The larger the team, the more difficult collaboration and communication become. Hence, more tools are required to develop a smooth system with a focus on ease of use.

Technical skill: Computer and technology skills vary, so the aptitude within the team must be evaluated and considered before rolling out sophisticated tools for the entire user group. Onboarding users in a manner that aligns with their technology proficiency fosters quick adoption and avoids wasting valuable team member time in a struggle to use the software provided.

Current practices/policies: Many companies do exceptionally well in provisioning teams with the tools to collect data, share resources and work closely together. A prevalent challenge is a failure to issue usage policies and to enforce the use of technology. Users must understand expectations for the use of the technology tools provided and processes to follow when executing projects. Clearly defined practices and rules of engagement to follow in project execution paired with the practices put into place have a positive impact on the overall effectiveness of the effort. Executive support is critical, particularly when it comes to driving adoption for new resources and enforcement of practices and policies.

Current technology inventory

Having a good understanding of the technology currently used within the business is crucial when it comes to modifying and improving incumbent systems. Not only will this impact the work to be done to bring the AEC firm up to the adopted best practices or defined standard, but it also influences budgeting for the desired upgrades and modifications.

A prudent starting point is building an inventory of current technologies to ensure visibility into the tools currently in use throughout the business. Inventory systems can be simple or complex; they simply need to be inclusive, so documentation of the variety of technologies is required. Some companies find simple spreadsheets sufficient while others, particularly more substantial firms with distributed offices, require more sophisticated inventory tools.

Laptops, smartphones and other powerful devices can all be adapted to meet the needs of the business. Information technology inventory management tools like those from SolarWinds automate the discovery and storage of asset data and detect configuration changes.

In addition to managing hardware, software management is also required. Software typically has a more significant impact on firm workflows than the hardware and adoption of new software is where most opportunities for improvement are.

For instance, updating software to add new features and functionality is a much simpler process than adding hardware with IT burden and cost. Once used, hardware and software are known and documented and the assessment of technology/software maturity moves forward. A mature approach to technology indicates the business is using its hardware and software to full capacity. Although few, if any, companies manage to achieve total maturity with tech, advancing toward a defined goal of ideal state helps with focus when working toward an improved tech stack for the organization.

It is critical to consider both strengths and weaknesses in this process. As an example, consider how the business could be using data to automate marketing, perhaps the same information can be used to measure team productivity, but the organization fails to do so.

Tech stacks are multifaceted. Every element of the tech stack is to provide employees with the tools required to execute work in the most efficient manner possible. A holistic review of data surfacing techniques and consumption is a critical element in improvements planned for the various technologies deployed.

Big data

“Big data” is defined as extremely large data sets that are analyzed to reveal patterns and trends.

Data are becoming one of the most valuable resources for business, but collecting the right data, structure and defined schema is critical to value realization. Tools such as Autodesk Construction Health Check can assist in the development of understanding the sort of information that is available and what data to capture. Namely, should data be not collected regarding errors and constructability issues, the designer would not have the ability to avoid them in the future. In evaluating and advancement planning for a firm’s tech stack should include a review of data, various teams require to be more effective in their role.

For example, it makes sense for the marketing department to have access to information about recently completed projects so they can make posts on social media and add new information to the firm’s website. Data silos for the department makes locating this information challenging and wastes valuable time. With intentional effort around data and understanding the needs of various departments, collaborative tools minimize time wasted in duplicate efforts.

There are two main ways to ensure the capture of required data: automation and policies. Automation, addressed at the software level, can report generation capabilities built into the software. While policies can be complicated, a well thought out policy ensures that individuals are recording the data per the policy. A defined standard, documented in a manner to address data handling and capture, is critical to ensure value is derived.

Figure 4: This graph analyzes the results of more than 300 companies and their plans to keep their new remote workers working from home permanently. Courtesy: UNIFI Labs

Figure 4: This graph analyzes the results of more than 300 companies and their plans to keep their new remote workers working from home permanently. Courtesy: UNIFI Labs

Setting technology objectives

Once the current status of the business technology is understood and goals for the tech stack established, it’s time to address near-term needs while also maintaining forward focus in considering technology advancement as it relates to the objectives for the organization. The process is challenging and many AEC firms struggle to strike a balance between the various objectives. Outlined below are the critical elements to success in this effort.

Recruit a technology executive A focused technology executive within the business can serve as the internal champion equipped to represent technology requirements as well as tech stack goals, budget, data strategy and similar issues to senior leadership. The support at the executive level is critical to ensure company leadership understands the value of a controlled and uniform approach for the technology within the firm. Most importantly, the technology executive uses their expertise to improve strategy for the business, especially if there is experience working in other AEC firms.

The role of the focused technology executive varies and size of the organization, complexity of the business, influences the persona for the role. Every company has unique needs; hence the role can widely vary as driven by business needs. They typically are responsible for ensuring the tech stack and associated team are working as effectively as possible with the technology on hand. The technology executive typically would also oversee improving the current technology, analyzing data reports and developing the long-term digital strategy for the business.

Identify the digital strategy The digital strategy is a long-term plan designed to enable the business to set and meet technology goals. The plan should span between five and 10 years and also be adaptable to consider advancements in the AEC field. It should include a range of improvements as well as prioritization and budget estimates to address the objectives of the organization. Examples to consider in the development of the strategy:

  • Hardware improvements: While modern computers handle a vast array of varied tasks, it makes sense for businesses to consider the current and ongoing improvements required as the business evolves. Procurement for new laptops, servers and smartphones is a significant business expense, so evaluating these issues at the forefront and establishing budgets is a crucial component of the digital strategy.
  • Automation: Automation is becoming a fundamental element of many technology forward businesses. Some tasks are harder to automate than others and it may take some time before the automation of tasks is more mainstream in AEC businesses. Nevertheless, it is prudent to consider and work toward automation goals.
  • Internal development: Creating custom software packages is an option to consider. Building software from the ground up presents challenges, particularly with the proprietary nature of this type of development. Maintenance of the technology, ongoing upgrades and similar issues drive business overhead expenses. If application programming interfaces are available, risks offset as the focus is on integrating platforms rather than creating them from scratch. This option to access features and functionality that are not available or unaffordable elsewhere. However, development and programming such features is a lengthy process.
  • Staying ahead: Keeping up with the latest developments in technology requires a proactive approach. Many companies find value in meeting quarterly to discuss recently developed technology and how it could benefit their workflows. These meetings are another factor that supports the successful development and ongoing advancement of the tech stack.

Process for innovation

Changing how a business operates can be an expensive process with some degree of risk. For instance, if the plan includes integrating automated marketing into the tech stack and it proves unsuccessful, significant time and money are lost. If there’s not proper diligence, firms may find themselves wasting a lot of time and money and having a process in place to evaluate the effectiveness of technology after its implementation helps to solve this sort of problem.

Having an innovation committee is one of the most common ways to handle this. The technology executive is responsible for bringing ideas to the table and has the chance to propose them to other members of the company. The innovation committee process includes a detailed discussion, followed by a vote and only the ideas agreed upon by the majority moves forward. An innovation committee sets goals for the technical team, providing direction and an idea of what improves the business.

Setting aside a budget for this is essential. Implementing technology is a costly process and taking money from other parts of the business slow down the team’s ability to innovate. Furthermore, it is worthwhile to offer the broader team an opportunity to make suggestions that help the business to innovate.

Saving time and money

Improving any aspect of a firm’s tech stack is an expense. Many companies struggle to justify this cost and work as hard as possible to avoid any unnecessary spending. Selecting tools that yield a significant return on investment is key in obtaining budget approval. A positive return on investment entails a goal or product paying for itself as soon as possible.

For instance, if the firm wants to improve the content management system, evaluating the feature sets of platforms such as UNIFI is an excellent first step. If it takes several weeks to train a team to use a tool properly. Spending far more than what there is to gain from the software is likely. The technical executive and vendor should be able to help reduce the adoption time, but the firm needs to ensure that affordability and time to value are priorities.

Building for the firm

Searching for a software product that simply does not exist can be frustrating. Some of the more complex requirements of an AEC firm are hard to meet with products off the shelf. These requirements do not mean that firms should sacrifice on the requirements list, but instead, build a custom tool.

There are countless open APIs available that can be customized to handle a massive range of different tasks. There is diverse feedback on the Revit API. However, the .NET API shell generally provides users with a more stable experience and it is additionally better suited to users who are not professional developers. The .NET shell makes it easier for the firm to develop this skillset internally.

Another Autodesk product, Forge, is a platform of web service APIs that allow integration of Autodesk software as a service products into existing workflows or to embed some of the components used in those Autodesk products into custom web or mobile applications. Forge streamlines the complexities of an organization and connects users, components and processes.

Of course, developing software with an API is not simple and there is a need for someone with the right skill set to assist with this. A full-stack developer is perfect for such a role, but considerations are possible having someone within the business train for the job. A tech-savvy mind is much more adaptable to this process and can be successful, given adequate time to learn how to leverage API to develop required custom tools.

Technology in AEC firms

AEC firms tend to use an array of technologies with building design software at the foundation. While this software is a good starting point when looking to create a collaborative workflow for a team, companies such as Autodesk offer a range of cloud options that assists with this. Those tools make it possible to send designs, floorplans and other design work to the relevant parts of the business.

Using tools such as these enable each element of the teams to collaborate and share information seamlessly. Not only does this make the working lives of each team member easier, but it also saves a lot of otherwise wasted time and money.

Figure 1 accurately illustrates how each element of the tech stack should connect. Information needs to be able to be passed between each point as efficiently as possible and this means implementing automation. As always, having humans double-check things does not hurt.

Understanding the technology that an AEC firm requires is not easy. There are many options on the market and many do not fit together. It is paramount to find or make solutions that work for the firm while maintaining healthy solid plans and goals for the future. Fortunately, as time goes on, more and more tools are becoming available, which continually ease the process of implementing a successful tech stack.


Karen Pierce
Author Bio: Karen Pierce is a senior BIM specialist at UNIFI Labs. She has 10 years of experience in the AEC industry and has led the charge on expanding BIM technology in various roles.