Author: Michael Donahue

What Is A Virtual CIO And Why You Need One?

What Is A Virtual CIO And Why You Need One?

As companies grow, the technologies they use become more complex. At the beginning, it might be easy for you to handle your software, customer data, and cybersecurity needs on your own. However, once you pass a certain number of employees, this task becomes more challenging. At that point, you could consider hiring a virtual CIO, or Chief Information Officer. A good vCIO can perform all the tasks of an in-person employee, but at a much lower cost.

For example, they might assess and improve your technology, improve cyber security, implement complex IT solutions, and handle any issues related to compliance. Most of the firms we work with at Flying Buttress are SMBs that need to set up a tech department but don’t have the means to hire their own full-time CIO. With our help, they can receive the support they need while remaining flexible and allowing for future growth.

What Is a Virtual CIO?

A chief information officer is a person or entity that handles and coordinates the technology, suppliers, and teams of a company. The CIO isn’t involved in the day-to-day operations as much as the strategy and long-term implementation of new ideas. Because they are overseeing the entire business’s IT solutions, they have to be agile, flexible, and experienced.

Traditionally, the CIO is an employee of the company. However, it can be hard for many SMBs to hire a full-time information officer, who requires a high salary. Therefore, many businesses choose to employ a virtual officer. This allows the business to save money without sacrificing quality.

Assessing the Company’s Current Technology

When you first get in touch with your vCIO, they will analyze your company’s current technology strategy to find out where you’re doing well and what improvements might be necessary. Some of the aspects they might investigate include your productivity software, your methods for keeping track of inventory, your accounting system, your customer relationship management systems, and your business intelligence tools.

They will also check whether your company has implemented enough cyber security measures and how your customers’ sensitive data is stored. If there are any problems, your officer will let you know and help you come up with a better plan. Over the next weeks or months, they will implement advanced solutions and improve the way you integrate technology into your business.

Improving Cyber Security

Cyber security is one of the most important aspects of technology management because it can have such an impact on your operations. A breach in security or a data leak can not only cost you thousands, but it can also put your reputation at risk, since your customers might no longer trust you with their sensitive information. Your vCIO will check that you are doing all you can to protect your data.

Some of the strategies they might use include implementing authentication factors like two-factor authentication, improving your infrastructure so it can handle enhanced security options, conducting phishing simulations with your employees, and organizing training courses for everyone in your company. Your CIO will also focus on remaining agile, since the tactics used by cybercriminals change rapidly.

Implementing Complex Solutions

Sometimes, complex solutions are necessary to optimize the use of technology within a firm. For example, you might need bespoke software if you’re providing a unique service, or you might want to use a customized ERP system. Your CIO will coordinate large-scale projects and help you manage each stage, from the initial planning to the execution and maintenance.

At Flying Buttress, our managed It services business we have over 80 combined years of experience, and we have built up a lot of expertise during that time. What’s more, we have the necessary contacts to complete projects and we can recommend excellent designers. In the long run, letting an expert plan your complex technology solutions is cheaper and easier than attempting to do it yourself.

Handling Issues Related to Compliance

As technology has taken over many areas of our lives, it has become more difficult for governments and companies to handle. For this reason, more and more guidelines and specifications have been developed. A good example of this is data protection legislation. In the US, there isn’t a single law that governs data protection, but instead, there are hundreds of regulations, both at the state and at the federal level, that are meant to protect people’s data.

In other countries, the rules might be different. Managing customers’ data can quickly become overwhelming for businesses, especially those that operate in several states or multiple countries. By hiring a CIO, you can hand over the responsibility to someone who has been trained to handle it, and you can therefore reduce your risk of making a mistake.

Do You Need a VCIO?

Now you understand what a virtual CIO does, you might wonder whether your company could benefit from hiring one. While it depends on your individual situation, most SMBs with more than a handful of employees could increase their revenue and reduce their risk by planning their technology solutions more carefully.

A good virtual information officer is an invaluable asset that allows your business to get the help you need and save money at the same time. Additionally, hiring an IT service company allows you to take a flexible approach, so you can adapt to changes in your industry and the wider business environment.

You Need the Help

Most small businesses handle their own data at the start, and they don’t need any help. However, this changes once they hire several employees and increase the complexity of their technological solutions. If you have a small company with a few employees, you could benefit from the top-down approach a CIO provides. As your company becomes more well-known, the officer can make sure that you don’t run into compliance or cybersecurity issues.

You Want to Save Money

Unfortunately, hiring a full-time CIO can be extremely expensive. In the US, the average salary for this position is $170k, and the most experienced officers can earn over $250k per year. For many SMBs, spending that kind of money on a single employee is impossible. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from a great CIO. There are virtual solutions available for almost every budget.

An online CIO doesn’t have to be a person. Instead, it can be a company offering top-down technology solutions. For SMBs, this can be a great solution because they can benefit from the same services offered by an information officer but at the fraction of the price. A managed IT service provider works with many companies at once, so the costs can be split.

You Want to Remain Flexible

At the moment, market conditions are changing rapidly, and there is no guarantee that your company will still be providing the same services in a few years’ time. If you want to survive in the long term, you have to be flexible and open to change. Hiring a virtual information officer can be a great first step because they will look at your company’s technology solutions from a long-term perspective.

The plan they come up with will span many months or even years, and it can be adapted to your company’s changing needs. What’s more, when you work with a virtual service company, you can change your plan whenever you need to. If your company grows, you can switch to a more comprehensive service, and if you change your specialty, you can request different solutions. This is a much more flexible approach than hiring an in-person CIO.

How to Find the Best Chief Information Officer for Your Company

Once you’ve decided that hiring a CIO is the right move for your company, you’ll have to find one that suits you. Because this position is remote, you don’t necessarily have to hire someone from your own geographical area. Instead, you can browse CIOs from all over the country and select the one that suits you the best. Start by looking at the website of candidates to figure out whether they could be a good fit.

Most CIOs specialize in a certain industry, and you want to make sure the person or entity you’re hiring has worked with clients in your field before. For instance, we at Flying Buttress mainly serve the Architecture, Engineering, and Design community.

Hiring a CIO

Before you hire a CIO, you should get in touch with the company, either by email or by phone to find out whether they are a good fit. During this initial contact phase, you can assess their communication style, and you can also ask them questions about their previous experience, their other clients, and their process. If necessary, you can ask for references.

For many successful or rapidly growing companies, a virtual CIO is an excellent solution because this professional can perform a range of advanced technological tasks. The Chief Information Officer might assess and improve the business’s current technology, improve cyber security, and handle compliance issues. Contact us to find out more about our vCIO services and to book a strategy call with us.

Filed under: Blog

What Computer Technology Do Architects Use?

What Computer Technology Do Architects Use?

Architecture is a career that has attracted creative, design-oriented minds for centuries, and in that time the profession has undergone countless changes as it adapts to the technology available to the architects of the day. In an age in which computer technology has revolutionized the ways in which every profession works, this means architects are always on the hunt for the best architecture software to help them get the job done.

Indeed, something that has not changed in architecture is that the end goal is for the architect to be able to design and share their ideas, and eventually to see them come to life out in the world when they are built. This is why, in this article, we will explore how modern architects use computer technology and then take a look at some of the most popular architecture software available to architects working today. Read on to find out more!

Notes on the Best Architecture Software: What Computer Technology Do Architects Use?

What Do Modern Architects Do?

Many people have an archetypal image of an architect as a professional hunched over a large blueprint on a drafting table, designing buildings both cutting-edge and functional to populate the skylines of our cities and towns. While there may be some truth to this, there is a lot more to being an architect in the present-day job market than many people probably know about, and changes in technology have more or less removed the need for that big drafting table.

For example, modern architects can now choose from a wealth of computer programs and different technologies to help them design buildings and work on projects. Nowadays, more often than not, architects use computer technology to create highly detailed, accurate, and easy to understand plans and specifications for the buildings they are working on, which will then help the rest of their team (engineers, designers, etc.) to actualize those plans.

How Do Architects Make Use of Computer Technology in Their Day-to-Day Jobs?

In many ways, computer technology has streamlined many aspects of the work that architects do, creating more opportunities for their unique abilities and ideas to shine through and inform the work of other members of their team. For example, computer technology can be used by architects to run simulations to better understand the complex structures that they design and work on, and to create presentations with which to share their findings.

More specifically, though, computer technology can be used by architects to quickly and accurately create 2-dimensional construction documents and to render detailed 3-dimensional models of their plans. Where these kinds of documents used to require a lot of time and effort to draw out by hand, architects can now render detailed models of entire buildings, or sections of them, to accurately demonstrate the use of lighting, texture, and design in that building.

What Computer Technology Do Architects Use?

As mentioned above, there are a huge variety of tasks that architects can use computer technology to assist with. They can use 3D printers to create prototypes of their designs, or different programs that can run calculations on building specifications or that quickly pull up existing information on things like environmental regulations and zoning rules in areas that they are designing for.

Homing in on the creation and modeling of their designs, however, one of the most commonly used and useful computer technologies available to architects is a technology known as CAD, which is short for Computer-Aided Design. This is a powerful technology, and one which allows architects to avoid (if they wish to) the often-arduous task of designing buildings by hand, as they used to have to do!

What Is Computer-Aided Design (CAD)?

Computer-Aided Design, or CAD, is a revolutionary technology in the field of architecture. Not only does it more or less eliminate the need for hand-drawn designs, but it also provides architects with a suite of additional features that can make their designs more effective and more easily understood and analyzed by other members of their team and by their clients. This allows for a new transparency in their designs that did not exist to this extent. before

Some of the powerful functions of Computer-Aided Design programs include architects being able to create and present different variations and design layers to their work, and to create renderings so realistic that they can demonstrate everything down to the way the lighting interacts with the design elements in individual rooms. And this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of CAD programs’ functionality for modern architects!

What Other Functions Does CAD Have?

Once a design is built in a CAD program, architects can create animated walk-throughs (or fly-throughs) to help present their designs to clients, providing a new level of immersion and visualization to the design process. Additionally, the architect can edit or add new elements to the design even once it has been built, and the program will update the design automatically, allowing for real-time changes to be made according to the client’s wants and needs.

CAD programs can also help architects to keep track of all of the different layers of design and data that go into creating a functional building plan, but which a client may not necessarily be looking to see on their virtual walk-through. This includes digital models of the building’s underlying structure, ductwork, plumbing, and more. There are a wide variety of CAD programs available to meet the needs of any architect, including the following programs.

SketchUp: Easy-to-Use and Functional

One of the first widely available 3D modeling programs, SketchUp (formerly known as Google SketchUp) puts an emphasis on being user-friendly, while still maintaining an impressive range of design features. The program operates via a patented, easy-to-use “Push and Pull” method, which allows users to easily create 3D shapes and designs out of flat surfaces simply clicking and dragging an item until it looks how you want it to look.

SketchUp’s easy learning curve makes it a great program for architects looking to create quick, effective 3D models of their designs, allowing for the creation of buildings, rooms, and even the population of those rooms with furniture. SketchUp is available in a freeware version (SketchUp Free) but can be upgraded to a premium version (SketchUp Pro) that comes with more of the functions that many architects find useful in their professional lives.

AutoCAD: The Most Recognized CAD Program

AutoCAD, like SketchUp, is a Computer-Aided Design program that allows users to create 2D and 3D models of their designs, with myriad possibilities for what you can develop and present. AutoCAD was created by one of the biggest names in architecture software, AutoDesk, and has since become one of the most recognized and widely-used CAD programs in the industry.

Part of the reason AutoCAD has become a standard in the industry is the wealth of features that make designing and creating models easier and more accurate. These features include automatically centering lines, offering multiple views of 3D models, photorealistic lighting in models, and more. AutoCAD is a perfect choice for architects looking to bring their ideas to life without sacrificing any of their plan’s dimensional specifications or accuracy at all.

Revit: Augmenting Designs with Building Information Management

While Revit is similar to CAD programs like SketchUp and AutoCAD in some respects, it is technically classified as a Building Information Modeling (BIM) program. BIM programs focus more on the creation and management of data around design, construction, and management of buildings, so it can be used by the multi-disciplinary teams that collaborate to design and create buildings.

For architects, then, Revit has the benefit of being a program which can support their plans throughout all the phases involved in the design and construction of a building. Revit was created by AutoDesk, the same company which created AutoCAD, and is often used together alongside programs like AutoCAD to design, create, and actualize architects’ plans and ideas.

Newforma Project Center: Managing and Sharing Designs and Projects

Newforma is a web-based program which allows architects (and the rest of their team on construction projects) to share designs, information, and data with one another in an easy-to-use and accessible interface. It allows team members to review and mark up designs from different locations, and to request approval for updates and changes. This feature is especially helpful for architects working in the age of work-from-home and remote offices!

While this program is not a Computer-Aided Design program per se, many architects find it an invaluable companion to the designs they create in CAD programs, as it allows their team to manage the immense amount of data and specifications that is required for architectural designs and construction projects.

These are just a few examples of some of the best architecture software available to architects today. In a rapidly changing industry, the options and possibilities for professionals are endless and ever-evolving. For help finding the perfect technology solutions for you or your business, and for IT and technology support that you can count on day or night, If you are considering a manager it support provider, we hop you consider Flying Buttress.

Filed under: Blog

Work From Home 2: Electric Boogaloo

Microsoft recently released a set of reports regarding “remote work and collaboration”. The cool, easy-to-digest version can be found here and the underlying data can be found here. I highly recommend, especially if you’re in a leadership role, perusing the former link.

The problem is that Microsoft can’t really speak to the *quality* of collaboration, or indeed the direct impact of remote work on collaboration due to the subjective nature of the subject. What they can, and tried – to do was to metric out the patterns and behaviors that encourage collaboration.

My own takeaway is that there are far more negatives inherited from WfH *from a firm leadership perspective*. There are also significant negatives for the workers as well, but their situation is strongly influenced by leadership actions and attitude.

From a purely collaborative aspect, Microsoft found that while digital comms increased between tightly-knit teams, communications outside the team dropped dramatically.

This makes sense. If you can’t lean over and ask the person next to you a question, you need to IM/email/call them. What used to be instantaneous and personal has transformed.

Additionally, the “external” outreach decline also seems to make sense. When I think back (oh so long ago) to my office days, a very large percentage of my external contact came from organic connections. Wandering around the office. Hanging by the water cooler. Seeing someone I knew well talking to someone I didn’t know well, and being able to join the conversation. And of course, the post-meeting hangaround. The walk and talk. The “oh hey, can I ask you…”.

Nowadays, I feel guilty IMing or emailing people I think are swamped busy. Casual / minor items don’t make the cut. When you can visibly see if someone is engaged or not, seems stressed or not, or even just asking “hey, got a sec?” those are all performed much easier in person than in IM or email. Even for the most digerati of us.

Keep in mind the distinct difference between Productivity and Collaboration. Yes, they may influence each other, but each require different soil in which they thrive.

Many of our clients say productivity is as good or even better than before. According to Microsoft, that’s true, but only because people are working far more hours and absolutely exhausting themselves. Remember being worried about the line between work and home life? They’re both now in the same wok.

Ultimately, your Senior Leadership will be the ones to determine if the firm, as a whole, is maintaining whatever design/creativity/collaborative production as it did pre-covid. Are you as innovative? Do the sparks still happen? Is your work product that relies on collaboration and creativity still winning projects?

But regardless of that, Microsoft makes some strong claims about the worker force and productivity. Let me intertwine them with some of my own observations.

  1. WfH is here to stay. Mike says: maybe. I wouldn’t assume it as a forgone conclusion. In a low-unemployment economy, yes, WfH can be a talent attraction/retention component. When firms have the upper hand, they’ll default to whatever their middle management is demanding, which leads to:
  2. Leaders are out of touch with employees and need a wake-up call. Hey, Microsoft said it, not me. But yes, yes they are. 61% of managers say they are “thriving” as opposed to 38% of staff.
  3. Gen Z is at risk and will need to be re-energized. Some of our clients have the full range – Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Zoomers. Generational gaps have a huge impact in terms of varying culture, not to mention technology adoption and usage. 60% of Gen Z polled said they were either “merely surviving” or “flat-out struggling”.
  4. Talent is everywhere in a hybrid work world. If you truly believe in a full remote option, you can now source from anywhere in the nation, anywhere in the world. Time Zones now matter more than distance from the office.

My own gut feeling is that the Senior Leaders I’ve spoken to are split roughly down the middle. A large percentage feel like this is a Good Thing, better for the staff, and hence, better for the firm. The other half view it as a necessary evil, but with some potential (financial) benefit. The latter tend to be the types where a vocal set of project or studio leaders really, really want their staff back onsite and in the office. Whether for communication, collaborate, or even ease of management, who knows.

If you are one of those in charge of plotting the course for your company, I would make the following suggestions:

  1. Hoteling really doesn’t work. Desk sharing *really* doesn’t work. Hotels are great if someone is coming in for a meeting and wants to stay an hour or two before or after, but in general, why work at a hotel station if you can work from home? And desk sharing? Even with two people? Fugghedaboutit.
  2. Understand the massive inequality of meeting experience between people in the room and people joining remotely. It’s nowhere near the same, and significant effort should be taken to attempt to equalize the field.
  3. Don’t half-ass the home work environment. If you’re really going to do this, make sure that work done from home is as close to a replica as being in the office is. That means good equipment, multiple monitors, etc., etc. No personal devices. It needs to be factored in to WfH budgeting, and doing it sloppily will hurt a lot in the long run.

Happy to hear from those who think I’m wrong / an idiot / a luddite / a Browns fan. The fun part is, time will tell.

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Gen 2 AED IT Leadership

As troublesome as it is to write this – I’m entering my third decade of IT in the AED space – it does allow me some sense of perspective.  There is a change underway in our IT leadership, and it is an opportunity for firms to step up their game, tech-wise.

For as long as I’ve known CIOs in design firms, they’ve always “fallen” into the CIO role.  They were Architects with some level of technical expertise or interest, one thing led to another, and boom – CIO.  Larry Rocha at WATG.  Ken Young at HOK.  Even Joseph Joseph of Gensler, with a deep IT background, started as an Architect.

If you consider the timelines involved, it makes sense.  While our industry didn’t accept the shift to digital as quickly as some others, once the ball started rolling, it started rolling quickly.  In a rush to catch up/get current, firms first looked internally for whoever had even a basic understanding of pcs, servers, and networking.  I’ve heard stories of people being tapped on the shoulder just due to their knowledge of WordPerfect.

It worked for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, these trailblazers were already familiar with the unique culture of design firms. Second, their knowledge of the business allowed for close alignment of technology with firm leadership. Maybe not all spending was optimal, maybe there were skinned knees from the learning process, but it was an effective, practical solution.  This differs significantly from other support groups such as HR or Accounting.

The downside – if there was one – is that people were needing to learn a new career from scratch.  They had gone to school to be Architects, and now a significantly different path lay before them.  For many instances where technology was truly someone’s passion, I’m sure there were those who accepted the role because it was a safe landing space for continued employment.  For some, with a decent-sized pay raise.

These leaders – predominantly white and male – just a side note – started entering into their 50s and 60s in the 2010s.  As they transition into (happy!) retirement, firms now have a wider range of choices for their replacements.

The good news is that we are now seeing the first wave of “pure” technical professionals.  Those who always intended to have a career in technology.  Those who have an existing knowledge base accompanied with a passion for the work.  And in many cases, they can still come from within AED firms.  If we consider the Larry Rochas of the world as Gen 1 CIOs, the time is now for Gen 2.  IT from the ground up.

The pluses are that there will be a deep understanding of technology, the ability to discern cutting edge from bleeding edge, the ability to implement and manage with a lessened reliance on external contractors.  And if they’ve spent their career supporting designers, they’ll understand the culture and the business.

However, even with a common culture, firms have their individual quirks.  One of these is the perception of support groups vs. the designers.  I’ve worked with firms that considered support groups to be monolithic, faceless automatons that just get replaced as needed.  Only the voices of designers held any weight whatsoever.  If this is your firm, a “pure” IT CIO will struggle to achieve that which a “hybrid” CIO can do – even if the hybrid CIO is demonstrably worse – due to the oversized emphasis on a design background.

I’m not passing judgement on that per se; as one of the Morlocks, it’s easier to see that stratification.  Every firm is different.  But I would contend that firms that can promote that pure IT leader – the Gen 2 – will benefit from it.  As much as Gen 1 was critical for the evolution, Gen 2 will be as the Internet Age matures.

 

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WfH in AED – fun while it lasted?

TEN months ago, I did a web panel with four AED leaders from various-sized firms about their approach to Covid and the work-from-home ramifications. The video can still be found here.

The takeaways from that call – and from what we’ve heard in the months since – is that firms expect the WfH / Flex split to continue on, post-covid. The primary reasons given are:

  1. Talent Attraction/Retention. Quite often, especially in major markets, finding high-end, experienced staff can be a challenge. The ability to offer WfH can both attract potential recruits, and to keep existing staff happy.
  2. Productivity. Productivity – at least that which can be measured – didn’t seem to suffer much. I think the jury is still out in terms of individual’s productivity levels, but especially from a production standpoint, it was same-as if not better.
  3. Office Space. The only thing firms spend more on more than IT are staff and space. With WfH, there’s a current of “can we shrink our floorplan” and “if we do a every-other rotation, can we use hotel stations at half the existing number?”.

A very small number of our clients have defined plans in terms of who comes back, when, and in what manner. We have achieved a technical equilibrium, for the most part, for home users. It really is now about people and process.

THAT’S where everything falls apart. In the panel conversation, I’m pretty clear that I don’t think WfH works in a collaborative environment. For Architects and Designers (and yes, you too Engineers), that is essentially the work product. The requirement for effective collaboration to produce excellent work isn’t uncommon in professional services, but the A/E/D space relies on it *much* more heavily than say, insurance, legal, or other service types.

I’ve found over the years that AED firms aren’t much on “soft costs” – natural, given their constant adherence to project budgets. But that collaboration requirement goes beyond an undefinable metric. A firm’s ability to execute collaboration well can be a make-or-break component.

There’s a reason why studios are clustered physically in offices. There’s a reason why clients pay for first-class tickets to get everyone into a charrette. There’s a reason why the predominant seating layout is a U-shape with an A0 or A1 sized flat-top cabinet in the middle. Because we know, at some instinctive level, that close teams create better work. That the “magic spark” of great design can not only sprout from a single talented designer, but from a team all standing around a set of plans.

But with understanding that, and missing that, it may not be the biggest obstacle to a long-term WfH flex.

THE biggest deciding factor may be the unwillingness of leadership and project managers to take on the headache of managing remote teams.

Let’s be honest – it is just harder. I’ve been doing it for a long time and I’m still Very Bad at it (though last year, I was Terrible, so improvement!). Harder to communicate. Harder to review. Harder to engage. Harder to gauge productivity.

Architects and Engineers are extremely conservative in terms of approaching change in the industry – see “years to adopt CAD” and “years to adopt Revit”. This is the classic case of we know what works vs. what we’re still unsure of. Don’t underestimate that rip curl of thought in the company.

BUT Mike, you protest, what about tech? What about A/R V/R X/R drones and 3d printers and all the other twenty-first century tech? Why can’t we recreate the office virtually?

Two reasons. First – the tech isn’t there yet, and honestly, not even close. There’s few offerings now – The Wild is one of the few that look promising- but as much as a leader it can be, we’re still below achieving 50% of that in-person experience.

Second – and this is a hard truth – I apologize in advance – but leadership in A/E/D *loves* shiny things. Where that comes from – and I suspect it may be in part due to the Keeping Up with the Joneses effect – contrasts a bit with their normal conservatism. If I had a dollar for every dusty laser cutter, 3D printer, VR station, VR goggles, I’d have… a lot of dollars. Which is not to say the tech can’t be effectual. It’s just that the shiny-shiny aspect of a tool isn’t always matched by the necessary level of effort, support and training to *make* it effectual.

BOTTOM line – We will ease back into normal work conditions in much the same way we eased out of them. All it takes is a few key firms making the decision to bring everyone back, and the rest will follow suit. Hotel stations are a horrible idea that sounds great but never works in practice. Managers (and staff) don’t want the continual exhaustion of Teams meetings. And if the decrease in collaboration capability hasn’t shown itself yet, it certainly will in time.

Once leadership feels they won’t lose staff due to the Great Come-Back, they’ll accelerate. Then pressure (of various sorts) will be placed on those not coming into the office, even if “technically” allowed. Or people will be offered a choice to accept a remote/flex position, but at a significant pay cut.

And I’m not criticizing this in any way. It is what the industry is. But 10 months from today, the 50/50 worker will be the exception, not the norm.

Tell me why I’m wrong. I probably am. 🙂

Filed under: Uncategorized

Security in the AED industry

I’ve been doing IT for a long time – a healthy chunk of that within the AED industry. There’s a bunch of variances that set apart the AED world, both within IT and without.

One of my favorites is how open most firms are. They’re open internally – “we want all staff to be able to see all projects” and they’re open externally – “sure, yes, let’s share what worked or didn’t work with them”.

A deeply cynical person might say that these are due to the desire to easily shift labor resources around, and to maintain the “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses” culture that’s fairly prevalent.

But as cynical as I am (I make Diogenes look like an optimist), I don’t buy those reasons. Leadership I’ve dealt with do want to make project information widely available, for all sorts of reasons. They do want staff seeing different approaches, different methodologies. Hell, many firms spend thousands every year sending people to Knowledge Management conferences, which, to be honest, I *am* deeply cynical about.

They do enjoy sharing information with other firms. The associations I’ve been part of – AECIT, LFRT, etc., have been a great resource due in large part to the willingness of firms to be open about things other industries would jealously guard.

I am going to make some general statements here. They’re all worthy of commentary in and of themselves, but here, they’re just laying the context for the security vs ease of access conversation.

  1. Most firms follow a traditional career ladder system, where leadership is comprised of older (50+) staff.
  2. Those who were born prior to the Internet, in general, have a harder time adjusting to new/different technology.
  3. C-suite individuals, whether in AED or other verticals, have a bottom-line approach and don’t like to be mired down or impeded when trying to do their job.
  4. AED firms tend to govern by consensus rather than mandate. (Engineering firms are a *bit* more ok with mandates than Architects/Designers, but not by much.)

Just putting those out there. There is no judgement attached, but if you disagree with me, please let me know – I’m always keen to hear other takes.

For the first 10-15 years I spent in AED IT, nobody really cared about security. Let’s be honest. Do we have the basics covered? Yup? Ok. Moving on. Any security discussions were had post-event, never before. And if they did, they were brought up by IT, not leadership. The problem was, that proactive conversation was always had a cost component (we need better A/V-Backups-Firewalls-etc). And explaining how big a risk there is between using Defender ATP vs. Webroot is *really* hard to explain, let alone explaining that doubling your expense is worth it.

So firms would be lax on anti-virus, and then there’d be a virus, and then the anti-virus would be an important expense. And then there’d be a virus from email, so anti-spam/email anti-virus became a big deal. But in general, when IT expenses result in *soft cost* savings rather than *bottom line* savings, it is hard to get AED leadership on board. Which I don’t think is purely unique to AED, but when you’re dealing with people who *always* think about the bottom line, project budgets, profitability, resource planning – the concept of soft costs is even a bit more ethereal.

But that has changed in the last five years, just a bit, and *really* has changed in the last two years.

Obviously, the anonymity Bitcoin provides is part of it, but really the explosion came with the massive increase of Office 365 migrations. When email is hosted with Microsoft, it is very easy to just attempt to log in as a user. *Everyone* gets their webmail by going to outlook.office.com.

So if your work email is floating around out there – be it one scraped off the company website, or one used on a different site that was breached – the attackers now have 2 of the three items necessary to get into your mailbox. 1) “where” it is on the internet. 2) your username. The last third comes down to your password. As you might expect, this is not as hard as you might expect. The need for dozens of accounts for various websites means people keep passwords simple, keep passwords for a long time, and use the same passwords on a bunch of different sites.

This is why MFA (multi-factor authentication) is an *absolute* must have. No discussion. No “but this, but that”. No. Shoosh. But across our industry, IT continues to run into roadblocks concerning MFA and security in general.

There is a one-to-one correlation between security and ease of access. A great example of this is MFA. Before it was, go to website, punch in username/password, hit go. Now it is go to website, punch in userinfo/password, get an MFA prompt, get your phone out, get a code, punch the code into the site, and go. There’s a dozen variations on that, but it can be a hassle.

This goes into all aspects of internal security as well. Restrictive permissions on a project? “Why can’t I go there?” Requiring passwords on file links sent via email? “Why can’t they just click it?” As security increases, access decreases. To increase ease of access, you lower security.

The true trick, the true slight of hand for IT, is to attempt to increase security to a decent level with the minimum of headache for end users. Because there isn’t a lot of buy-in, especially at the leadership level. Yes, you can implement MFA, but not for the C-suite. Well – they’re the ones who need it most. I can cite a dozen instances over the last two years where firms have lost money due to impersonation via email.

So if you are in leadership, please take these suggestions onboard.

  1. Set the example. It is hard enough to enforce security measures of any stripe if others know you’ve decided to ignore it.
  2. Understand that email impersonation fraud is the #1 risk right now. If hackers encrypt your files, you can go get backups (or pay them off). There is *no* backup of your bank account.
  3. Many of the frauds that occur happen because there is no secondary verification. Almost all of the frauds are “this is urgent, I need this asap!” requests. Train your staff that when any email is received with a nonstandard request regarding money in any way, especially if it is urgent, to have them *call* the originator. It takes ten seconds. If it is a legitimate request, it shouldn’t bother the requestor. Another step? Yes. Important? Very.

For the AED IT folks:

  1. Don’t give up when security is concerned. Your obligation is to the best interests of the firm, and if that means sounding like a broken record, so be it.
  2. Try to right-size your security stance with what your firm does. Firms with DoD contracts, for instance, will require a unique posture.
  3. Don’t stop with MFA. There are many items you can take to increase your O365 security, not the least of which are Conditional Access rules and some other fairly straightforward policies which don’t necessarily impact end users directly.

 

In summary – I think everyone gets it. We work in a culture that strongly values openness and sharing of information. But we need to figure out together how to accomplish that while still protecting the firms we work for. If that means another 10 seconds out of your day, or a small fractional increase of the IT spend, so be it.

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The Incredible Disappearing CAD/BIM Manager

I’ve danced around this topic a bit before, but let me strike at the heart this time.  One of the benefits of only having customers who are Architectural firms means we get to see some of the trends that happen in the industry, sometimes even a bit earlier than those working directly in it.

One such trend is the minimalization (is that a word?) of the role of CAD Manager, or BIM Manager, or Design Technology Manager, whichever your firm calls it.  In the early days of CAD (when papyrus was used), the CAD Manager bordered on semi-deity.   Computers were scary enough – CAD on computers (yes, redundancy, I know) was even scarier.  Licensing. LISP. Confusing commands, whole other languages!  Users (and leadership) had no problem signing off on the idea that a CAD Manager could be 100% non-billable, and that was still perfectly OK.

Fast forward 10-15 years, and that “unassailable” guy or girl?  Not so much.  The mystique started to roll away.  Many of the functions that CAD Managers had created in LISP became integrated into the product.  Then Revit hit, and the window was cracked open slightly for BIM Managers.  The reality today, however, is that *most* firms use Revit simply as AutoCAD on steroids.  Plans, elevations, and some modelling.  “True” BIM, or BIM as part of IPD, is still some way away.  So whatever awe that BIM Managers were first held in disappeared shortly after leadership realized, hey, we’ve moved X percent to Revit, and we’re doing just fine.

So a devaluation of the position based on the perceived ease of using both AutoCAD and Revit has contributed, but there are other factors.  Someone I respect opined that the reason Leadership doesn’t value the role is that the decision-makers are all right-brained, design-oriented individuals; and that the actual CAD/BIM production process can be very left-brain. And because of that, they have a hard time valuing the role.

Another opinion is that the proliferation of technology in general has devalued technology support roles overall;  that a much higher comfort level with technology – at all levels, including leadership – leads to more questions of “why”, rather than blind acceptance.

Personally, I think all of those contribute, but right now, the economy plays a large role.  A number of AEC firms are slowly emerging from this economy with a much greater desire to be aware of, and to control, finances.  Unlike when we’re all fat and happy, there is a huge focus on the absolute bottom line – what are my dollars in, and what are my dollars out.   In scenarios like those, “soft costs” tend to play a very minor role in comparison to their big, hard cost brother.

And that, in a nutshell, is why the CAD/BIM/DT Manager is slowly fading away.  It isn’t malevolence, it’s just a case of “I have this person who costs me X dollars and they generate Y dollars”.  If Y-X is positive, you’re OK.  When it isn’t, look out.  Because that is a black and white, very easy to see calculation of how you are contributing to the firm’s bottom line.  And it isn’t reasonable to yell at Leadership for thinking this way; too many people in the negative, and no more company.

Many of you have participated in group/individual personality labeling, for more effective communication.  You’re an INTJ, they’re ENFP, or you’re a muffin and they’re an orange, however your particular program divided up people.  At the end of the day, however, most have the same goal: how do you effectively communicate to an ENFP/Muffin?   Current CAD/BIM/DT Managers should be looking at their *organizations* as a personality type that likes cold, hard facts dished up in an analytical, unbiased manner.

So what does that mean?  Metrics.  Stats.  Black and white numbers, without the BS.  You can say to Leadership “I play an essential role”, or “CAD standards are hugely important to productivity” and you’ll get a nod and a “uh-huh”.  You need to be saying “My role saved this firm $250,000 worth of billable man-hours last year”.

This is *not* easy.  Much of what you do *is* soft.  You help.  You create.  For all intents and purposes, every hour you spend non-billable is a complete money sink.  That’s the hard view.  As difficult as it may be, you should start trying to create actual metrics – statistics – for your role.  Especially those that pertain to supporting billable hours or overall productivity.  An easy one is Save-to-Central times.  Let’s say, because of your optimization efforts, each project STC averages 5 minutes faster, and each staffer saves 4 times a day.  And you have 100 Architects.  And they average bill at $150/hour.  Congrats, that’s a million dollars worth of labor saved over a year.  Or how much time is saved from reusing families you’ve created.  Or how much time is saved by team members who move from one project to another not having to learn a new file structure.  Those metrics are out there.  You need to start finding them, and start assigning numbers that aren’t crazy or unrealistic.  They need to pass the B.S. test.

Thusly armed, go forth on a marketing mission.  You can have the best stats in the world, but they won’t help you one bit if no one knows about them.  Don’t wait for the day when they come with bankers boxes.  Either team up, if your firm is small, or find someone in Leadership who believes in your role, and have them help you craft a simple presentation.  Make your case heard, at the very minimum, of once a year.  If you belong to a group, make sure the group leader is doing this at an executive level.

Because believe me, the case needs to be made.  I believe in your role – very strongly – but I’m bucking the trend.

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Technology Debt in IT Operations

There’s a new buzzword making the rounds in appdev circles called “Technical Debt” – basically, the concept that as a project grows/changes, that there is effort required to manage all the implications of the change, and the longer you ignore that work, the more costly it is to correct down the road.

I’m not above plagiarizing (my Facebook page is basically a subReddit) – and I think there’s a corollary to be found when it comes to traditional IT Operations.

Flying Buttress is a consultancy. People don’t reach out to us when they think things are going great internally, that they have everything covered. We get contacted for three basic reasons:

1) Things are a mess, and they need help.

2) They have a ton of work to do, and not enough internal resources.

3) They want an outside ear and outside eyes to give a different perspective or to provide advice.

Personally, my favorite situations are the encounters of the first kind. If you work in IT, you know the satisfaction that comes when you’re able to see the results of your efforts in a tangible way. The mess-cleaning situations are like any other cleanup operation; there isn’t a lot of complexity – plan well, spend well, and put in a lot of elbow grease.

But over 20 years, when I’ve seen bad IT situations, it is usually because firms have accumulated too much technology debt. One of the main concepts of proper IT management is that it requires a constant annual spend. Major fluctuations, either upward or downward, can have severe long-term effects (i.e., dropping a huge amount of money to replace all the computers which means they all end-of-life at the same time rather than in a controlled, staggered manner).

In Architecture firms, my *very* loose rule of thumb is that the IT spend for a firm in standard, non-aggressive IT mode is about 6% of NSR (Net Service Revenue). As revenue goes up, projects come in, bodies get hired, spend goes up; and conversely, bodies lost means IT spend down. But if you start grossly cutting that into the 2-3-4% range, you start accumulating technology debt.

It is not an uncommon situation. Things get bad over time, so leadership goes out and says “hey, we’re in trouble, let’s spend a bunch of money and fix all this”. Consultants brought in, new hardware purchased, and yes, things get better. And soon – sooner than you might think – that need for a consistent annual maintenance spend is forgotten. There’s a “coasting” effect of that injection of equipment that doesn’t always speak to the multitude of components that comprise IT operations.

If you’re Leadership, and reading this – I’m not making this argument to get you to spend money. I’m making this to save you money. Because in IT, that technology debt doesn’t just have a hard-dollar connotation. You will lose far more money over time in outages, lost data, speed issues, and general productivity than you will that 5-6% of NSR. I’ve seen it.

Here’s the dumb car analogy. I’m the mechanic. I’m telling you you need to spend about $100 a year taking care of the various parts on your car. This amount varies based on how nice of a car you have. You tell me, well, I just spent $300 two years ago getting the brakes done. That’s great, but you still need your fan belt changed, wiper fluid, and your left taillight is out. You can pay me $100 a year now to make sure those are taken care of, or we can wait until you’re broken down on the freeway.

I am willing to have philosophical discussions about the relevance and importance of technology to Architecture, but I’m also able to just view it in cold black and white numbers. And technology debt – especially debt that can come due at the worst possible time – is just not good for business.

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Metrics, metrics and more metrics

IT always feels a bit behind the corporate 8-ball when it comes to justifying costs. There’s two main factors for this – the first is that for almost all firms, IT represents the biggest pure overhead money suck (behind labor), with usually zero net income to show for it. Second, IT workers tend to make more money that other support group functionaries, from entry level to skilled labor.

So for 99% of firms, when the c-levels look at the balance sheets, the IT spend is just seen as a painful cost of doing business, with it appearing a bit like the Pentagon’s Black Ops budget – money going in without a good understanding of *what it all means*.

None of that is going to change anytime soon. But with Architects and Engineers – who live and die by exact hour calculations, meticulous details, and precise metrics regarding WIP and profitability – it’s an uncomfortable state. And the default reaction is to try and get IT metrics through a ticketing system.

There’s a bit of built-in conflict here; never, ever do the execs want to force users to open a ticket to get help – but at the same time, they want to see exactly how busy IT is – how responsive it is, how many tickets we did this year compared to last, and more importantly, do we really need that tech in Buffalo?

While this makes perfect sense on the surface, for Architects and Engineers, this is a trap. And here’s why.

1) It is not the statistic you should be caring about. It is very possible that your team does 1000 tickets a year, and the staff hates IT. You can do 900 tickets a year, and the staff loves IT. What is it you really want? Do you want IT to be perceived as responsive, supportive, with excellent customer service? If so, the number of tickets opened/closed will tell you absolutely nothing in that regard. What will? Customer surveys, annually/biannual/quarterly. Identify what the users think you’re doing right/doing wrong, and adjust accordingly.

2) Your IT staff will focus less on customer service, and more on ticket creation/closing. Once IT realizes that the metric leadership cares about is tickets, *that* becomes their focus. User wants a mouse? Ticket. Forgot the wifi password? Ticket. Is it ridiculous to imagine that if a tech knows they’re “short” that month on tickets, that they create some? We all know how police work with their ticket quotas. Is that really what you want IT focused on?

3) It’s a slippery slope. The next logical progression to this becomes the “you need to open a ticket” comment. The phrase users hate hearing. Once ticketing becomes the be-all, end-all, however, the mandatory ticket comment isn’t far behind, either by de facto or de jure.

And that’s not for design firms. Architects and Engineers are high-touch professions. You’re used to getting the same level of service you provide to your clients in turn. That means that the IT guy is sitting out on the floor with everyone else and not in a call center in India, which would be a hell of a lot cheaper. When you’re on a deadline and can’t save a file, you don’t want to talk to “Rick in Bangalore”, you want to talk to a guy you know, and you sure don’t want to have to open a ticket to talk to him.

Tickets have their place. In very large firms, when you have a team or staff who never leave their cubicle, whose only task is to churn through ticket after ticket remotely supporting users, it can help. But that just doesn’t exist in firms under several thousand staff. And it certainly isn’t conducive to providing the highest levels of customer service.

It’s easy to understand the desire to try and tie down some aspects of the ethereal IT spending pit. But it needs to happen in reverse. What do you truly want from your IT organization? And is that goal measured by how leadership and staff feel about IT, or about whether Sally opens 8 vs. 10 tickets in a day?

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Interview with a BIMmie – Gautam Shenoy, Steinberg Architects

This week’s interview is with Gautam Shenoy, BIM Director with Steinberg Architects.

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