After rejoining Timmons Group at the end of January, this week marked my six-month anniversary back in the saddle as a CAD/BIM manager. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, these first six months have been everything I expected them to be, while also being nothing like I thought they would be at the same time. Recognizing just how abstract and contradictory that statement is, I thought it worthwhile to take a step back to reflect on this small milestone.
My Journey back to CAD/BIM Management
Before I reflect on my observations over the last six months, let me begin by sharing some insight into the nature of my role itself. My official title is "Design Technology Manager," and I am a salaried, full-time CAD/BIM manager without production responsibilities. With no direct production responsibilities, the broad objective of my role is to help our production teams be more productive by best leveraging the firm's investments in design software.
Supporting that broad role objective, I had two goals to achieve during my first six months with the firm. The first of those objectives was what we defined as a process objective and focused on me conducting a firmwide assessment of the firm's usage of design technology. My second objective was a training objective and focused on the design technology training we provide as part of our employee onboarding process.
That's where things started in late-January. After getting settled into my new office, I spent most of February defining the process, schedule, and assets I would use to perform a firmwide analysis of how our teams leveraged design technology, namely Autodesk Civil 3D. After many meetings with my manager, our division managers, and even the CEO, it was time to begin the assessment.
I made it through my first end-user meeting before the world was turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic. Suddenly the aggressive schedule of office visits and face-to-face meetings were no longer possible as everyone started working from home. Soon after that, our CEO asked me to shift my focus to building a firmwide training program to support both new and existing employees by summer.
Seize New Coronavirus Opportunities
The coronavirus pandemic was a curveball few anticipated. In the blink of an eye, my focus on performing a firmwide Civil 3D assessment and building a foundation for our onboarding experience shifted to developing a comprehensive training program objective. In other words, my training objective went from building a couple of courses for new employees to building an entire training program. The opportunity to fast-track our training program development was as exciting as it was terrifying.
My plan was always to build a comprehensive training program; I just expected that process to take a year or more, not a month-and-a-half. Developing a training program in roughly 45-days would be akin to landing an airplane on a runway construction workers were still building as the wheels of the plane touched down.
While I was more-or-less starting from scratch at Timmons Group, I was not starting from scratch regarding training program development itself. I'm fortunate to have a robust training background spanning roughly fifteen years. In addition to my experience training, I've also hosted several Autodesk University sessions on the topic. The most recent of those being the Autodesk University 2017 session "Overcoming the 7 Deadly Sins of Corporate Training Programs" that I delivered with my former colleague Jason Kunkel.
Although the idea of building a training program wasn't foreign to me, making one in the middle of a pandemic was. In the entirely uncharted sea of a global pandemic, about the only thing we knew with certainty was our training delivery would be very different from how it had been in the past. While classroom training was, and still is, our preferred delivery style, we knew we would have to adapt to the realities of today, not our pre-coronavirus world.
With so much change thrust upon us, it's easy to become pessimistic. While remaining optimistic was difficult on more than one day, our focus remained on finding the opportunities for our new norm in lieu or mourning the training opportunities we had lost. We knew that in-person training was no longer possible, and so our focus became how to best leverage Zoom for our training.
We ultimately deployed many strategies to leverage the unique opportunities a virtual classroom provided. One of those strategies was breaking what is usually a three-day Civil 3D Fundamentals class into six half-day sessions. That allowed us to experiment with new training schedules not previously available to us.
While Zoom-based, we hosted our Civil 3D Fundamentals class for interns using our conventional three-day format. That was out of necessity, as the coronavirus pandemic shortened our intern program by a month. For our new full-time employees, we've now hosted one class where attendees gathered for a half-day session twice a week for three weeks, and a second class where attendees gathered for a half-day once a week for six weeks.
Our core strategy behind the non-continuous schedule was to make the class less like drinking from a firehose, and more like drinking from a garden hose. It's still a lot of information to take in over a relatively short period, but students not only receive less information at once, but they also get to apply what they learn between each class. Feedback for both six-session courses has been positive, but we've chosen to stick with the six-week schedule for the class we'll start next week.
Separation from IT and Alignment with HR
During my previous tenure as a CAD/BIM manager, my role, like most other CAD/BIM managers I know, was a function of IT. Everything ultimately rolled up to the Director of IT, who then reported to the COO. In my mind, that was the hierarchy of CAD/BIM management in a nutshell. You can probably imagine my surprise when I learned the Director of Human Resources would be my new manager.
Initially, I questioned how CAD/BIM management even remotely aligned with HR, but six months later, I wonder why it's so often a function of IT?
Fundamentally, HR focuses on the people of an organization, and IT focuses on the technology used within that organization. While CAD/BIM straddle both sides of the fence, I believe the role of CAD/BIM management is more about people than it is technology. The most successful CAD/BIM managers I know go well beyond software configuration, but also find a way to motivate their workforce to leverage it. Although people before technology has been a longstanding belief of mine, it was a belief I struggled to articulate in the right way.
That was until I came to learn of a role HR professionals call Organization Development (OD). The central tenet of OD is helping organizations improve production capacity by developing, improving, and reinforcing strategies, structures, and processes. Is that not just another way of stating the objective of my role and CAD/BIM management in general; to help our production teams be more productive by best leveraging the firm's investments in design software?
If like me, the concept of Organization Development is new to you, I'd encourage you to do some research into the topic. I think you'll begin recognizing many of your lofty aspirations as a CAD/BIM manager encapsulated in a job title your HR department knows by a different name.
Regardless if you find yourself going down an Organization Development rabbit hole or not, I believe my alignment with HR was key to our training program successes. That alignment also gave me direct access to my firm's leadership as I started my program development work by understanding their needs and motivations behind training during the middle of a pandemic.
Not having to navigate traditional institutional barriers was a catalyst to quickly scaling our training program to focus on more than just CAD/BIM. The program we now have in place includes a mix of technical skills and soft skills like public speaking and project management.
Don't Forget to Document
While the overall Civil 3D deployment I inherited was maintained and in working order, very little of it had was documented. Luckily the key players who kept the CAD ship floating since our former CAD/BIM manager left the firm roughly seven years ago are still with the firm. I genuinely couldn't do my job without the team I have assembled around me. Each member of what I've started calling my Advisory Council represents the power users of the power users of my firm.
Thankfully my Advisory Council is forthcoming with that they know. While we have a great relationship, the reality is, much of what they know is tacit knowledge. Very little of what they know is written down, so converting the wealth of tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge has become its own project on many fronts.
With this reality in mind, the good news is we're currently planning our Civil 3D 2021 upgrade. Rather than aimlessly wandering through our existing Civil 3D deployment, the upgrade project has provided a clean slate to begin documenting. While authoring documentation is not the most exciting task, my expectation is it will prove invaluable as we sit down to plan our next upgrade after Civil 3D 2021.
Recognizing there's more to document than anyone will reasonably have time to author, I'm focused on establishing two documents. Those documents are a well-defined Civil 3D upgrade project plan and a comprehensive technical specification of our deployment. While authoring those documents is slowing our progress today, my expectation is it will allow us to more rapidly complete Civil 3D upgrade projects in the future.
Here's to Another Six Months in Our Strange New World
So many of my plans for starting a new CAD/BIM manager role focused on having face-to-face interactions with our production teams. Like so many, the coronavirus pandemic completely redefined all of that in what seemed like an instant. I have no idea how it will shape the next six months, but I'm confident it will be no less exciting – albeit certainly challenging.
I'm fortunate to work with an outstanding team and feel even more fortunate to be able to help that team grow in new ways. Especially as my company upgrades to a new version of the software, I expect training to remain a cornerstone of what I spend many of my days doing. What I'm unsure about is the long-term impact the coronavirus pandemic will have on our training program and the way we support our team.
As we navigate the entirely uncharted seas ahead of us, new discoveries seem inevitable to me. While I think we'll ultimately be better for it, I do not yet know in what way that will be. I see a bounty of unrealized opportunity in that unknown, and I can't wait to discover what they might be.