13 min read
Ep. 4: Construction Technology Needs Purpose-Built Solutions
By: Elizabeth Sholes on Dec 21, 2021 7:00:00 AM
Ian Feinberg is a Senior Product Manager at Trux. He has a proven track record of creating construction software solutions with over 8 years of experience both at Trux and previously at Viewpoint.
The key to tech-adoption in construction: purpose-built solutions
With ian feinberg
Ian joins us today to talk about his experience creating technology for the construction and aggregates industry, including the ways it is different from designing and building technology for other sectors. When creating solutions for people doing hands-on work - there is only one approach - to get hands-on yourself.
Tune in, or read the transcript below, to learn more Ian’s process and approach to researching and designing software for the construction industry (transcript edited for length and clarity).
Can you tell us about your background and experience in the construction industry?
Ian: Sure. And thank you for having me -- it's really great to be here. I have nearly nine years of experience in the construction industry. I worked for Viewpoint Construction Software for much of that time. I was working with the ERP software specifically, as well as the platform and system security. I've worked with thousands of customers throughout my time, figuring out their construction needs and giving them solutions via software.
If you're designing software for somebody that's working solely out of an office, that’s different from designing software for somebody who is in and out of the field.
What do you think makes designing products and software for the construction industry so unique?
Ian: That's a really great question. The industry has very specific business needs and processes. Efficiency improvements are a must. Inserting anything into the existing processes that they have that isn't going to help with that. It is going to be problematic. Determining where change is both needed and will be accepted by the employees in the business is important in this industry. Every business is different too.
You talk about where people can fit software into their existing process, which is interesting because this is a hands-on industry. Knowing how hands-on people are, what are the unique challenges that come with designing a product for this audience?
Do they have more specific requirements or needs out of a software tool than somebody else might?
Ian: Oh, definitely. Many of the customers expect solutions to come out of the box, and to be able to solve their needs. The fine point here is that every customer or business is really unique. They have different busy seasons, and the time they have, the opportunity for change, is also very much different from each other.
Being behind or not understanding your tools really gives your competitors opportunity, and your customers doubt.
Finding the time to make sure that you can get the right tools, and understand the right tools, and bring them into play in your business to become more efficient is the only real way to keep up with the changing environment that we have right now.
Also, you want to be able to learn as much as you can about what you're utilizing. I've seen in the industry that everybody is turning to hands on. It doesn't matter if you're a controller, if you're an IT director, if you’re a foreman, project manager, or whatever you may be. I've had them all in my past conferences. Asking questions, learning how to utilize the software and sharing with each other, tricks and ways to do it better.
This is an industry that talks a lot to one another. What I've found in my experience is that not only are people doing some research online about who to trust for a software solution, but they're also talking to their peers.
Thinking about utilizing technology seems to be a collaborative process for people within their own organization too, as well as speaking to peers.
Ian: One hundred percent. Having the opportunity to really share what you are doing and learn what others are doing in your same business is very beneficial. It was very surprising to me at the very beginning with how much they shared with each other. But there is so much in common where you can help each other, that it happens so often. It's really close.
When it comes to technology, it’s been said that the construction industry isn’t leveraging tools and solutions to their full advantage -- they’re behind. Technology hasn't made its way into construction like it has in some other industries.
But the fault shouldn’t be placed on the industry. I think that no one initially designed solutions for the industry.
What kind of impacts does that make for a company when they're using technology, but they're having to manipulate it to make it work?
Ian: Yeah, that really puts people in a box. I've seen that repeatedly throughout, as well as where they had a solution that was implemented that doesn't really meet what they're doing as a business -- but to get off that solution would be very hard for them as well as learning something else would be very hard for them. So, they adapt their business to meet a lot of these solutions and that makes them less efficient. And the process is much harder. Also it puts a lot of subject matter expertise into certain people's heads as well, and makes it very siloed.
Having solutions that meet the construction needs, and that can adapt with construction needs and understand the pain points is really a must. And if it's something that is worse than the ability that they had previously, they're going to ditch it along the way or not fully adopt.
It’s one thing to have technology to leverage, but it's another to actually get people to adopt it and use it every day and actually view it as an asset, not just something they're forced to use.
I’m struck by the different types of technology that exist in the industry today, and how each department might have their own tool. What kinds of impacts do you see when companies have a siloed approach to technology? They don’t necessarily have one provider that's helping the entire company, but there might be two or three different companies.
Ian: That provides a lot of manual input and a lot of duplication of work. You have to hire an entire team to manage the data. To figure out time to make sure that the data is correct and performance is correct, and that people are getting everything that they need.
There are a lot of talented individuals and a lot of these corporations that can make a lot of homegrown solutions that can meet a little bit of the need they have. Unfortunately, a lot of those don't scale out, and it makes it really hard for organizations to be able to meet their needs anymore. Having a solution that is maintainable, scalable and not just home grown, in a lot of cases, has shown to be the best where it's not manual input. You can integrate. It has all the end points and it's something that you can trust. You don't have to worry about it security-wise as well.
Great point. And I do admire the people that are doing homegrown solutions in one sense, because they see the need, they see the challenge. But I think your point about being able to scale is huge.
Do you have any suggestions for people who have a homegrown solution but maybe want to invest in software now?
Ian: If you're looking at new solutions, what I always recommend is definitely first talking with the ones you're interested in and getting some references. Especially companies that are similar to what you do, your size of corporation, or what you're trying to be. Then you can speak with some of those references and figure out how they're utilizing the software or how they're doing it for their business. How it's improved them, and then start to think if that would help you as well. You’re going to have specific problem points or pain points yourself. Have those ready as well and see if there's something that both the vendors, or maybe some of these references have solved themselves.
Another thing to really consider long term is we know how much movement in the industry there is. There's a lot of merging of companies. There's a lot of you companies that are breaking up into a bunch of different companies at this point, and when that happens, having a software that's either homegrown or not easy to understand has become a big mess for a lot of companies. I've seen it over and over again where there's six or seven different solutions. Once a company has acquired a bunch of other ones and getting data governance or the ability to use one software has taken a lot of arm wrestling and politics. I think a trial is the best way to have users who have pain points.
It’s important to think about what works today -- but also thinking about 5-10 down the line, what will work then? You want software that will integrate to other solutions in the future.
Is thinking about a software purchase from the perspective of different roles and different jobs within the organization important? For example, will dispatchers, foremen, the sales team, and the back office team all have access? What are their needs?
Ian: That's another really great question. I’ve taken just about every feed I can think of, no decision or functionality, even down to the appearance that’s ever done in a box. What you really want to do, at the very least, is design for the 80 percent. When you hard code a design for the minority, you end up changing and having to support way too much and it never really meets needs.
Working with customers that determine the best for the majority has been my approach. Learning every workflow that you can from every specific individual to know how they're doing things, what's coming into play already, where paper is, where you can help and improve, and where things may not be ideal for them. That’s important.
Continue to learn roles from other companies as well, and you start to see where the pain points are common, or areas where you can start writing solutions that are going to make it better for them. And once you start to find that area, you work back with them and make sure that there are discussions, trials and proof of concepts.
Everybody's always very into helping find solutions for themselves and for the industry as well.
Now it’s pretty universal that people are using their cell phones. But getting the placement of things, even getting colors right is a challenge. Those things surprise me. Is that something that you are constantly thinking about or paying attention to? How is this going to look on mobile?
Ian: Absolutely. That is something that comes into play for every single solution that I've done. You want to make sure that if you're in the office -- and I’ve heard it from both ways -- to be more streamlined has created problems as well. A lot of the back office folks like to use things that are just their keyboard. And they go through things very quickly, and changes in that regard in the past has shown me that they are not too happy when you give them too many mouse clicks or whatever.
In terms of cell phones and mobile devices, and being out and with your team, or in the field, or on the in the truck driving, absolutely, having the right appearance inside of there to do your workflows and you're not going to be able to go through many tabs or go to a bunch of different areas like you would be on the desktop.
You want your devices to be able to meet your needs, and so having the same solutions available in all regards, but having the buttons in the right place, having the workflows in the right place, being able to easily get between things as you would expect to on a mole device or a tablet, is a must.
You won't be able to do something just like you do on other applications where you have it on your desktop, and then you also have it on your phone. They don't actually look exactly alike. That is because you wouldn't be able to do the same needs on your mobile devices on the fly, and have the same performance and be able to do it as quickly.
Those little things end up making a huge difference when you're thinking about somebody having out in the field. And this is a tool that's meant to digitize. It's a tool that's meant to streamline. It's a tool that's meant to bring more efficiency. But little things like that chip away at that efficiency.
Ian: Absolutely. For the email field, not having your lookups as well as you have on your desktop and the ability to go into something to have it find your material. Or if you're starting to put in an email address and have it figure out what you're trying to do, those are things that you are very much used to as you're back on your desktop vs. when you're on a cellphone, having to put in an entire email address or put an entire material. To have the ability to quickly get to those same data points without having to fully put in everything is a must.
My final question for you is how much of your time over the past 8 or 9 years have you actually spent talking with customers? There’s a perception that people are in a dark room, writing code, and not out in the field getting the stuff done. But I know from talking with you that you've had a wealth of experience in the industry.
How critical has it been for you to get out into the field and meet with people to be able to design and think about the software you work on?
Ian: Oh, that is the most important thing in my role -- the ability to have hands-on experience. To visit the spots and understand exactly what we're trying to solve, has been very key to me. Without that ability, as we've noticed during COVID, where it's been a lot more virtual, it's a lot harder to understand what you're trying to solve, especially when there's specific pain points, like maybe the scale system, or maybe some of these homegrown solutions.
Talking with customers virtually is a lot harder than being there on site as you're trying to show all the cool and unique stuff that you're producing and the solutions you're creating. Having the ability to do trade shows exposes you to customers themselves and you can understand what they're trying to solve. When the show is immense as well as it really helps you create your road map and understand other areas for improvements.
None of us in this entire world has the ability to know everything about what we're trying to solve. And if we don't work directly with the people inside the spaces that are doing it, we’ll be guessing forever, and I definitely believe hands-on, in-person meetings are a must, especially for a product manager. But in this field -- in the construction field, it’s a must, every single time to have that opportunity. I haven't seen anybody in my role succeed without having both the ability to get on a call, often with customers, speak with them, understand what's going on, and try to help them, as well as do the hands-on stuff.
Be there and travel out to the industry's places. Go to these trade shows and learn exactly what you're trying to solve.
I think that's definitely the right mentality and approach to take when it comes to this, and I think it's important that people know just how passionate you are about that side of this because it is so critical.
I have a few rapid-fire questions for you… The first question is what do you think the biggest challenge the industry is up against right now?
Ian: The timing of that question is perfect. Travel is what I would say is the biggest challenge right now. Finally we're able to see customers and prospects. And do trade shows again. Being completely virtual was really impossible for a lot of that. And so that was one of the bigger challenges -- the ever changing landscape we've had over the last year and a half and how that's affected the industry.
Where do you see the industry going in the next five years?
Ian: Personally. I see vast adoption of software. How it integrates with many other solutions, including those homegrown solutions, and then making many more jobs easier across the board.
We know in this industry that there's plenty of jobs coming. The road map for construction companies goes a decade out. What we want to do in the next five years is make it easier to adopt software. Make it easy to integrate and then work to make jobs get done quicker.
If somebody is thinking about a career in construction or in bulk materials, what's one piece of advice you would give them?
Ian: Be ready. It's a very exciting field. There's no project or problem or solution. The opportunities are really endless and there are so many incredible companies that are looking for great talent. Be open. You know your worth and find where you want to go.
Do you have any trusted resources that you go to to find new information or industry news?
Ian: Locally, there are quite a few groups that we have out here that we meet up with for the technology needs and go through a bunch of brown bags. As well as I'm part of a group called Northwest Construction. We do a bunch of similar type things to share a bunch of information. I listen to many different podcasts and then I'm involved in many industry specific groups and that's about it.
If you could see somebody else interviewed on this podcast, Who would it be, and why?
Ian: I've only been at Trux for a little while, so I’m going to jump back to somebody else who is also here. And I'm not sure if this person has already done it previously, but I would love to see Tom Spencer on here. His history and vast understanding of the needs of the industry as well as many of the problems that he solved along the way is interesting.
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