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Apps and Web-based Software: A Tale of Two Trends

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

application and web-based softwareBy now, we’ve all heard that famously coined phrase, “There’s an App for that!”
As mobile computing devices such as tablets and smartphones are becoming more and more a part of our lives, apps are too. But what exactly is an “app?” It’s shorthand for “application,” but do they really belong in the category of products we call software applications?


I like to think of apps as “software-light.” Apps are simple tools designed to do a handful of tasks. For example, I have a mobile banking app on my smartphone. With it, I can check my balance, see transactions, and transfer money, but I can’t apply for a loan on my phone like I can on the bank’s website.

In other instances, apps may be designed to perform a specific task for people in a particular role. My daughter recently got a new smartphone and was searching for the Groupon app. The search results produced a Groupon app for consumers as well as a separate app for merchants participating in Groupon programs. If we apply this to construction, imagine having an app that only allows you to view project documents. But if you want to markup the documents or perform a quick takeoff, you’d have to use a different app or open the documents on your computer.

Browser-Based Software

Another technology emerging in large part because of increased smartphone and tablet computer use is browser-based software. This is software designed to run within a web browser – and so it’s designed to be accessible using any Internet connected device with one of the popular browsers. When folks think of web or browser-based applications, they typically think of sites like Google or Amazon. Like apps, these online services provide easy-to-use functionality, but they don’t come close to being considered “enterprise” software.

Unlike apps, browser-based software is beginning to offer the full functionality of software that we are used to purchasing and installing on our own computers. The same way we might log in to Amazon is becoming the same way we will log in and access our construction software. With this kind of functionality, we can access information and tools anywhere, anytime, from any connected device. The good news is that you can work anywhere, anytime. The bad news is that you can work anywhere, anytime. Now there’s a dilemma.

Two trends, one technology

I’ve heard people debate whether the increased use of tablets and smart phones will have an “oversimplification” effect on the software industry, turning sophisticated applications into “single-serving” apps. In some instances, it may be better for a worker to have an app rather than a full software application. The key is understanding how people work and then providing tools for them to do their job more efficiently and effectively.

Because of the increased use of mobile computing devices in construction, where we work on the move and collaboratively with a constantly changing set of partners, vendors, owners, etc., software has to become simpler. It must become easier to use and not dependent upon a particular hardware platform. In this environment, there is a place for single purpose apps for tasks such as time tracking, punch lists, etc. But there remains the need for complete operations management and collaboration software.

The continued growth of one technology – the Internet (a.k.a. “the Cloud”) will keep driving developers like me to deliver increased functionality over a new platform – the Web. So look for more apps coming your way, but also look for a completely new way of buying and using construction software.

Are you using tablets and smartphones in your business? Are you using construction-specific apps or a web-based software system?


Cloud Computing: Is My Data Safe?

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

data security in the cloudAnyone working in accounting or human resources has access to immense amounts of personal data. A compromise of this confidential data could result in identify theft or even company fraud. So it’s no surprise that whenever I talk to companies about how they store their data, the number one concern I hear is in regards to security.

At Dexter + Chaney’s 2011 Users’ Conference, we announced that we were moving to a completely web-based platform for our construction software. Clients were excited about our new user interface and enhanced accessibility, but we did get a lot of questions about security – where would data live (it can be stored on premise or as a hosted solution), how safe would the data be, who would have access, etc. To discuss the important topic of data security, I’ll share the insights of my friend Eric Carter, President of Approach Technology, to provide some insight:

Data Centers vs. Do-It-Yourself Security

I think it’s safe to say that when most people say they’re concerned with security, they’re concerned with mitigating the risk of fraud, both internally and externally, and physical access to the data. According to Eric, most of his clients have “far humbler” security checkpoints than what a data center can offer. After all, the highest security data centers have a number of security checkpoints and even use biometric security, such as palm print scanners.

These data centers specialize in keeping data safe, so the measures they take typically exceed what a company would implement for themselves, for example having backup generators and cooling systems. In fact, a recent study indicated that most companies spend more on coffee than they do securing web applications. While Cloud providers aren’t immune to hackers, the reputation damage and potential lost business they incur when a security breach occurs incentivizes them to implement the most stringent security measures possible.

Today’s Cloud Security

According to Eric, the degree of data security depends quite a bit on the company. For example, banks and other financial institutions put in stronger measures than many other industries. He noted, though, that while almost all banks protect secure transactions through the common HTTPS encryption, most of the security measures are implemented on the back end with multiple networks, firewalls, and layers of encryption. The biggest security issue he actually sees is from user passwords being too simplistic.

For most companies, security isn’t a primary function, but it is necessary. To keep your data secure, you might want to consider outsourcing the security functions. Most providers can create a plan to meet your needs, not to mention budget. Security measures will continue to evolve, particularly as adoption of cloud computing increases. The U.S. Department of Defense recently started using public clouds to support some of its infrastructure. Eric even predicts that down the road, information will be protected with not only a password, but biometrics, such as a fingerprint.

What measures does your company implement in order to ensure your data is secure?


Integrated Project Delivery (IDP) – What is it?

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Integrated Project Delivery My cousin is in the Army, and when he talks about his job, he can’t help using acronyms like BOG, DOD, FARP and such. Did you know that there’s even an official list of approved Army acronyms? ALICE is one of my favorites of the 205 Official Army Acronyms. The construction industry is no different. Acronyms are everywhere – RFI, CCD, EP, UNO, WDW, HSS and on and on. Sometimes, as you know, project documents can devote an entire plan sheet or spec section to a list of abbreviations and acronyms.

One of the newest construction industry acronyms is IPD, or “Integrated Project Delivery.” What exactly is IDP? Wikipedia says, “IPD is a collaborative alliance of people, systems, business structures and practices into a process that harnesses the talents and insights of all participants to optimize project results, increase value to the owner, reduce waste, and maximize efficiency through all phases of design, fabrication, and construction.” Whew…that’s a lot of words! I don’t know about you, but I think simple is usually better, so I’ll boil this down. IPD is all about teamwork – bringing the design team and the construction team together early in the project delivery process to resolve issues and streamline processes.

One of the keys to successful IPD is effective, efficient communication. Design and construction teams consist of a lot of people with a lot of specialized and valuable skills that are located over a wide area. Each of these team members has a vested interest in receiving information about the project and, in return, contributing their expertise to the project. A lot of this communication revolves around the project documentation. But, with a variety of systems, drawing types, documents, forms, and data in a variety of electronic formats, efficiently communicating project information is difficult. Technology makes efficiently sharing and using this information possible. Construction software that can view, edit or create information using a variety of file types helps incorporate this information into the project whenever it’s required.

So, whatever your definition of IPD, teamwork and communication are key. You’ve read what I think about IPD, how about you? What’s your definition of IPD?

BTW (that’s “By The Way” for us old guys) – ALICE stands for All-purpose Lightweight Individual Carrying Equipment (sounds like a fancy name for a “backpack” to me).


Contractors Seeking Credit Should Prepare to be Prepared

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

I’m pleased to introduce Doug Helm from Mountjoy, Chilton, Medley LLP as this week’s guest blogger. Mountjoy, Chilton, Medley LLP is a CPA firm with a team of accountants dedicated to construction accounting.

construction project financing tips Bank lines of credit are lifelines for many contractors, yet convincing a bank to provide or renegotiate a line of credit is not easy. Building your case beforehand can certainly help and makes you look better in the eyes of the bank. I would like to share the following tips to use before approaching the bank(s) or other financial institutions for additional financing, and some non-bank financing options.

1. Crunch the numbers – Banks like proactive business owners. Bring all your financial documents to the initial meeting. The banks want to see all of the following:

  • Analyzed projected balance sheets
  • Projected future earnings
  • 3 years of year-end financial statements

You’ll also need to realistically assess how large of a line of credit you’ll need. Lines of credit are meant to be a short-term cash solution while you’re waiting for accounts receivable to come in. Being fully extended on your line of credit can make it harder to obtain surety bonding and can be viewed as a weakness by the banks. Plan to use the funds for basic operational items — not capital purchases, such as construction equipment.

2. Choose the right lender – Depending on your needs, you might be better off with a locally-owned or community bank versus a large national bank. On the flip side, the larger banks will typically have more funds to lend and may have more in-depth knowledge of the construction industry. When you approach your chosen lender(s), be open about your financial situation, including any typically slow work and cash-flow periods. It is well received by banks when you are aware of your weaknesses and are seeking ways to mitigate them.

3. Other alternatives – Banks aren’t the only source of funding out there. Many contractors negotiate payment due dates with their vendors to get themselves out of short-term cash binds. There are also some approved finance companies, such as GECC, that will finance heavy equipment purchases. One caveat: The fees and interest rates in these arrangements are typically higher than those in traditional lending.
Banks are attracted to profitable business. They also, however, are attracted to smart and proactive business owners. Being prepared for these crucial meetings with your bank is essential for greater chances of success.


Hazard Communication?

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

I’m pleased to announce that this week’s blog is written by David DeVita, President of Carolina Safety Consultants.

I was talking with the owner of a company the other day. He said they had just received a penalty from an OSHA inspection. The violation was regarding Hazard Communication Program, or I should say, the lack there of. The owner looked at me and said, “We train our employees about the hazards of the job and how to control them.” He also goes as far to say that they have a good comprehensive safety program and a great safety record. He is only partly right. They have had luck in their favor that nothing bad has happened in a long time. His heart seems to be in the right place, however, he has failed to take the next step of having a designated safety person in the company to make sure that they are up to speed on the OSHA standards. If this sounds like you, please take action and take the next step.

Complying with a bunch of laws should not be the driving force behind your safety efforts. If it is, you are on the wrong track. Complying with the laws is just a piece of the safety puzzle. It is a part of the foundation, however, not the cornerstone. Your safety culture and desire to do what is right and keep your employees safe should be that cornerstone.

This story is just one example of the many discussions I have with owners and upper management regarding safety. There are many approaches to safety and to developing a program that works for you. Don’t buy one of those canned written programs and just put your name on it. You know your demographics better than anyone and what would or would not work for your company. At the same time, however, keep an open mind and be willing to go outside the box with your thinking. You are only limited by your imagination with the development of an effective safety program.


Tablet Computing and Enterprise Software

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

construction software is changing in order to adapt to tablet computing Tablets are back – and this time, they’re not made of stone. Every so often I see an article listing devices that future generations will never know about, such as VCRs and record players. With the invention of the tablet computer, some tech experts are predicting the inevitable end of the personal computer. Whether or not you plan to do away with your PC and adopt a tablet-only way of life, one thing is certain: software must adapt to the new environment.

A Lesson from the Music Industry

It may not seem obvious as to why business software needs to change with the adoption of new hardware, but if we look at the music industry, the answer is clear. Not all that long ago, people used CD players to listen to their music. A selling point for cars was the number of discs the CD player in the car could hold. Then the iPod and other MP3 players came long, and with them, a whole new way to access music. No longer do you have to purchase a CD in order to listen to music; you can now purchase it and access it from multiple devices wherever you can connect to the Internet.

Simplifying the Complex

The software industry is currently going through a fundamental change like this, as developers try to adapt their software to the new hardware trends and the growing acceptance of web-based applications. Their success depends on whether their applications can be adapted for use via web-browser and how well their applications can be translated to non-PC devices.

I’ve mentioned in previous blogs that cloud computing isn’t really cloud computing if the software is just being accessed from a remote computer. This virtualization model just gives you the PC environment on a tablet computer, rather than optimizing the software for the tablet environment. In order to create tablet-ready software, developers must more than likely redesign their user interfaces to be simplistic without losing functionality, which is no easy feat!

No Waiting Around

Discussions about tablet computing often come up in the construction industry groups and forums that I belong to. Usually people are wondering if and how others are using tablet computers in the field, as well as the benefits of using tablets. I’ve even read of contractors creating their own applications to fit their business. While not every contractor has the resources to create their own “app,” the need for construction applications is present, and demand is growing. Current software providers can jump on the bandwagon, or risk losing out to new developers, or perhaps even these specialty apps created by contractors.

Do you use tablets in your office or on the jobsite? What are the pros/cons?


World of Concrete 2012: Products Get Smarter, Interfaces Mimic Streamlined Design of Smart Phones and Tablets

Monday, February 6th, 2012

The mood was positive, and the aisles were crowded at this year’s World of Concrete. According to Hanley Wood, this year’s show attracted 52,088 professional registrants and showcased just over 1,200 indoor/outdoor exhibitors who occupied 40,000 more square feet than last year’s exhibitors. CBO was on hand to learn about the latest innovations that will be coming your way.

Just like we expect our smart phones to alert us of daily events and provide us with apps that are easily accessible, contractors are expecting more from their machines and software. The new equipment on display this year proved that manufacturers are in tune with these expectations. Now, more machines have built-in intelligence that helps mitigate operator error, sophisticated electrical systems with smart sensors, and more and more products deliver information through a user-interface that would make Steve Jobs proud.

Here are some examples of the kind of intelligent products we saw, in brief:
Caterpillar introduced new K Series small wheel loaders with intelligent power management. The new machines include an electronically controlled hydrostatic drive system, which allows independent control of ground speed and engine speed for more efficient operation of hydraulically powered tools. These Stage IIIB/Tier 4 Interim machines also incorporate emissions-control technology; a diesel particulate filter automatically regenerates without interrupting normal operation.

Navistar highlighted how the WorkStar shares many features with their rugged MaxxPro MRAP Life-Saving Armored Military Vehicles manufactured for the military. How does this truck work smarter? The International Diamond Logic electronic control system delivers features such as directional drum control, drum stop warning and an automated chute lock.

Case introduced a 621F wheel loader. To meet Tier 4 Interim emissions standards, the Case F Series wheel loaders use selective catalytic reduction (SCR) technology. This smart machine also features a new dual-mode shutdown feature maximizes fuel economy and monitors vital engine components. Using the fuel-saver mode, the operator can limit the time the machine will idle. The automated engine shutdown feature claims to provide up to 30 percent in fuel savings.

Dexter + Chaney launched version 14 of their accounting software at the show. The biggest change? It moved from a windows-based system to a 100-percent Web-based system. Previously, before it was a menu-driven system; now users will use a dashboard to navigate the software. This new design will be intuitive to anyone who has ever used a smart phone or a tablet.

Hllti is another company that places a premium on intuitive design. Taking home two red dot design awards last year, this company showcased the PS 1000 X-Scan Radar Detection System designed to produce large-area images of what’s inside concrete structures. Scans can be analyzed immediately on the s X-Scan display. With the aid of the PSA 100 monitor, objects can be shown as 3D images for easy on-the-spot interpretation.

Tekla had a message for contractors at the show: Don’t wait until you are contracted on a job to utilize the power of BIM (building information modeling). They highlighted their online resource: Tekla BIMsight. It’s a construction collaboration tool that lets everyone in the industry tap into the BIM (Building Information Modeling) process for free. Aimed at contractors, architects, engineers, detailers and fabricators, it allows users to combine models, check for clashes and collaborate on any construction project.

The Tekla BIM models work seamlessly with Trimble’s Field Link tablet based solution, which allows field crews to view 3D DWG and DXF design models in the field make more informed decisions when problems arise. Trimble announced that they will be introducing more memory and more features on the hardware device in the next month or two.

Topcon introduced the first in a new series of total stations with the ES. Featuring a security and maintenance system (TSshield) and a long-distance wireless communications system (LongLink).

Multiquip’s machinery gets smarter too. Mikasa Reversible Plates with COMPAS compaction analyzing system help contractors improve efficiency avoid costly over-compaction. A series of LED lights indicates the progress made with each machine pass.

At the show, Honda Power Equipment announced the launch of the EB10000 Industrial Series—available in early summer 2012. It features a Digital Auto Voltage Regulator (DAVR) to improve the output capability of the new model, holding the voltage stable within one percent over time during standard operation.

For more highlights of the 2012 World of Concrete show, see our video coverage at www.constructionbusinessowner.com.

The Issues around Construction Issue Building

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

Issue tracking requires good document managementAs a general contractor a few years ago, I was working on a tenant improvement project. One day I remember starting the demo on a wall. We took off the drywall and found out that there were all kinds of wires and pipes running through it. These did not show up on the drawings. So, I took some photos, wrote an RFI attached the photos to the document and sent it to the architect noting its urgent status. Then I waited, not knowing if he had even received the RFI. So, I called and left a voice message – and waited some more. Eventually I received a response to the RFI, but not without losing time sending and following up on the RFI.

While we don’t always encounter projects that require significant mid-stream alterations, there are nearly always questions, that must be submitted tracked, resolved and ultimately, if everyone agrees, incorporated into the project. And because of the environment we work in, there are procedures to be followed, communication channels to be adhered to and process that has to happen to keep things legal and everyone properly informed. In addition to the initial question, there is usually additional correspondence, drawings, sketches, submittals, email discussions, sub and vendor input, design team input, owner input, pricing and other information, which, can be quite a pile of “stuff” to keep track of. All of these items, whether in an RFI, ASI, or other communication create an issue.

Some issues are easier to resolve than others, but for the ones that are more complex, or involve multiple disciplines or take a while to resolve, it’s important to have an easy way to check on status. A lot of contractors track these issues in an Excel spreadsheet, which is great, but takes time and energy to keep current. Do you have a quick way of finding all of your outstanding issues? Do you have a process for organizing, storing and attaching all supporting documentation for an issue?

Some, if not most issues revolve around document management and project team communication. Without good document management, you may lose emails, plans, sketches, and correspondence related to the issue. Obviously, this can result in costly errors. In an ideal world, you should be able to search for an issue and see all of the supporting documents for that issue, without having to do multiple searches through files, folders and emails. What happens if one sketch or specification change affects multiple issues? How do you track that and how do you make sure that all issues have current information? Lots of questions about a difficult area.

Do you have any tips or tricks for tracking issues? Let me know what your method is by commenting below.


Leadership – Up and Down Was Easy, Now the Tough Part ….

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

I’m pleased to announce that this week’s blog is written by Jim Schug of FMI. Jim is a senior consultant with FMI and specializes in building profits by developing tailored operations strategies for his clients.

construction leadership During the last upturn of the mid 2000’s (remember the glory days?), leadership decisions were relatively easy – who to hire, where to grow, which jobs to bid and how much margin to put on them. If leadership success was measured only on profitability, then there were certainly many “great leaders” sitting in the CEO position of many contracting companies.

During the difficult downturn of the past three years, leadership decisions for companies in distress were simple, yet relatively limited and certainly not pleasant to make – decisions that boiled down to who and how much to cut back. For these companies, staying afloat depended in large part on how successful the company was when the “easy” decisions were made during better times.

Companies I’ve encountered who are doing better than getting by in what has been called our “muddle through” economy are those whose leaders accept that change and transformation are inevitable, but also that a stabilizing vision is key. I’ve created some questions to ask yourself and your staff that may help develop your company avoid a “muddle through” mentality.

How do you create a strong relationship with your employees while transforming the company?

Difficult times are engines for change, yet many organizations are unfamiliar with how to effect change at the organizational level. New best practices, new strategies, and new productivity programs are necessary in order to cut costs and create efficiencies, but even when the upper management embraces the need for change, the transition can be difficult. Mid-level managers are often the pivotal leaders within an organization, and they are the ones most likely to struggle with incorporating new guidance from above while still managing day-to-day operations, often with fewer resources than ever. Consider how you can help the key “field leaders” in your organization effect necessary changes while still holding them accountable for results.

How do we pull legacy values through these tough times?

“We take care of our people” is a common and heartfelt sentiment among most every contractor. Yet, during the downturn, many companies have had to cut 401k contributions, have gone through several rounds of layoffs, and have not been in a position to pay bonuses for perhaps three years. While it would be great to reinstate everyone and everything in the name of leadership, it isn’t feasible. Yet it is vital to future success that employees do feel that their interests are at least part of the hard calculations that need to be made to get through difficult times. Consider how you can maintain motivation and stay true to core company values in the face of the financial rationing we’re all experiencing.

How do we create a vision for the company in this volatile market?

The military acronym VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) defines the conditions you find in modern urban warfare (those of you who know me are likely not surprised I weaved a military example in the blog!). While our economy and the construction market certainly aren’t comparable to complex and dangerous military operations, there is no denying that they share many “VUCA-like” characteristics. In these conditions, true leaders can shine and they do so by shining a light of vision and direction. When people know the objective and their role in achieving it, they are fortified against a difficult present and an uncertain future. Consider what you are doing to create and share a vision for success with your staff.

I realize that I’ve posed questions here, not specific answers. But the first step to transforming your business is asking the right questions, so I hope this has stimulated some forward thinking. What are some things YOU are doing to lead your company through this ‘muddle through’ economy?


Is it Time to Play Moneyball?

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

I just saw a great movie! (Yes, I know this is a lame conversation starter, but bear with me.)

“Moneyball is a film based on the true story of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane’s successful attempt to put together a baseball team on a tight budget.

I can see why this movie and book have become so inspiring. We’re all trying to make our dollars stretch, especially during this economy. In fact, I often wonder how smaller construction businesses with tighter margins can compete with the gigantic firms who have unlimited resources.

Beane didn’t achieve success by drafting players based on his emotional judgments or media-based hype. With the help of a Harvard number cruncher, he developed “sabermetrics,” a method of judging players by on-base percentages. Though many scouts and baseball experts doubted his technique, Beane had the last laugh. His 2002 team successfully competed with powerhouses, and even though they lost in the playoffs, the team won 20 consecutive games that year.

In the February issue of CBO, FMI consultant Gregg Schoppman points out some important lessons every construction business owner can learn from Beane’s story. When evaluating estimators, he says, “Business owners should not base estimating success simply on jobs awarded. In the end, jobs must translate to bottom-line profitability.” In this article, Schoppman explains how business owners should evaluate construction professionals on specific criteria to enhance margin, improve productivity and hedge construction risks.

What do you use to evaluate your team? With the state of the construction industry predicted to remain relatively flat in 2012, it may be time to play “moneyball.”

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