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Is There No Free Lunch or Construction Software?

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

sandwichIn life, the best things are no doubt free. But in business we’re told there is no free lunch. As someone who thinks a good lunch is one of the best things in life, I’m in a bit of a quandary. But in all seriousness, if something is free I don’t think I’m alone in wondering “where’s the catch.” I may have forgotten a lot from my economics classes, but the fact that there is always a cost related to a benefit has stuck with me.

As a construction software developer, I have always been dubious of any software that is given away for free. Because I know it certainly isn’t free to develop, and in general you get what you pay for. When one looks into free software, one usually finds it is being given away either as a loss-leader for another purchase, as a way to establish a customer base without relying on value, or as a marketing expense to build brand awareness.

I decided long ago to charge for my own product – enough to put money back into a growing company, and enough to buy a decent lunch (I recommend the sandwiches at Mohito restaurant near our office). I’d let the market vote with its dollars and hopefully choose my product. Enough votes have been cast to keep us going and growing for over 30 years, so a big thanks to those readers out there who are also customers.

But recently I decided to do something I never thought I would. Give away software for free. Not for any of the reasons above – and I suppose not actually for free. But when we re-designed our construction management software to be web-based, we realized that since there was no client software to deliver or even download, there was no reason why everyone at a client’s company shouldn’t have access to the dashboard and some basic applications they could use. And when we launched a new web-based project management product recently, we decided that a client should be able to let their subcontractors and other partners use aspects of the system without having to pay to play.

My message here is not about my products. My message is that I think one of the results of construction software moving to the Cloud will be the availability of more applications that are free – provided folks still understand that there is a price to pay at some point. Developers like me can more easily afford to make a subset of applications or functionality available to a larger group of people because of the inherent efficiencies afforded to us by using the Web as a software platform. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s lunch time…

www.dexterchaney.com

Top 5 Trends in Construction Software

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

Top 5 Trends in Construction SoftwareThere’s a saying that I’ve heard over the years, “write about what you know.” So, I’d like to take this week to talk about a subject I really know – construction software – something I’ve been doing for more than thirty years.

Anyone who regularly reads this blog or keeps up with technology can tell you that software, especially software for construction companies, is changing. There are a number of ways it’s changing, which are not just limited to software technology, so here are my top five trends to watch in construction software.

1. The Cloud

One of the biggest trends is the move to the cloud, but that’s really just the beginning of this technology story. Cloud computing is actually serving as a catalyst for all the other significant changes in the construction software industry…

2. (New) Mobile Construction Software

Nearly everyone I know has a smart phone, and more and more people are adopting tablets, particularly for construction field operations. With web-based software, these mobile devices are capable of running complete versions of a company’s enterprise software, resulting in real-time information flowing freely from the field to the office and a true collaborative environment.

3. Merger of Construction Operations and Business Software

Contractors are realizing that the typically separate operations and business management sides of their companies work better when they work together. After all, without operations there wouldn’t be a business to manage. Contractors and software vendors alike keep looking for better ways to connect the two. The solution emerging in the market is software that is centered around the construction project which, after all, is the essence of a contractor’s business. Look for software that does a better job providing applications based on the workflow of a project from cradle to grave, and that provides web-based anywhere-any time visibility into job progress, profitability, change management, and more for everyone who involved in the success of a job.

4. Next Generation of Document Management

For construction companies to function efficiently, they need documents to flow smoothly. Document imaging and management has been around for a while. I know because we were the first company to provide these solutions to the industry as part of a construction software package. But these methods of management are mainly task oriented, such as routing invoices or time cards for approval. Today, we need more process-oriented document management. Look for systems that do more than provide generic data and document storage – look for systems that apply intelligence, automation, and collaborative tools so that project documents are easier to use, easier to access, and more relevant to everyone on a project team.

5. Open Access

For construction companies to function efficiently, they need documents to flow smoothly. Document imaging and management has been around for a while. I know because we were the first company to provide these solutions to the industry as part of a construction software package. But these methods of management are mainly task oriented, such as routing invoices or time cards for approval. Today, we need more process-oriented document management. Look for systems that do more than provide generic data and document storage – look for systems that apply intelligence, automation, and collaborative tools so that project documents are easier to use, easier to access, and more relevant to everyone on a project team.

What trends are you seeing in construction software?

www.dexterchaney.com

Committing Intentional Project Communications

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

Project communication centers around project document managementSometimes in the evening when I’m working on a few things, such as this blog, I’ll also try to carry on a conversation with my wonderful and patient wife Sallie. Once I’m deep into the work, my end of the conversation decays into “uh huh,” “really?” and similar witty and relevant remarks. Clearly, I’ve stopped having an intentional conversation.

As I’ve been mentioning, construction project communication is vital to project success, and furthermore, communication has to be intentional – it has to be something to which you devote time and attention. The quality of your communications matters. For example do you know how easily your project team can access construction plans and specs? Or if everyone is aware of the project changes and issues that affect their work? If you’re not sure (or answered with an “uh huh” or “really?”) – please read on.

Project Document Management: Your Communication Strategy

In construction, creating better communications doesn’t have to be an abstract goal. Because some very specific documents are created and used throughout the life of a typical construction project, these documents can serve as the center of your communications strategy. The degree to which you control, share, and track communications around these documents is a reasonably good measure of how intentional and effective you are at project communication. So focusing on a plan to improve project document management is a great start to better project communications. Let’s look at a few important improvements that most contractors can make.

Document availability

It’s obviously to your advantage if your partners have easy access to your project documents – from owners or other contractors employing you to the subs and vendors you employ. Web-based repositories are the obvious answer for solving the easy access challenge. But this raises other concerns, security usually topping the list. With good administration and strong encryption, web-based storage can be made just as secure as your own company system.

Document relevance

Accessing the often vast amount of information surrounding a project is just step one. To paraphrase what the owner of an electrical contracting company told me not long ago, “We do our best to go through all the plans, RFIs, etc. But much of it isn’t relevant to our part of the job and it’s often anybody’s guess whether we’re looking at the latest document version.” An effective approach to sharing project documents must include a way to ensure that everyone is using the same (and latest) version, and that there is structure to the way the documents are presented – so folks like my electrical contractor friend can quickly find the information that matters to them.

Document Tracking

Project managers are used to logging information – job progress, change orders, labor, weather, and so on. Logging the activity surrounding your project documents should be no exception. And with the right system in place, should be no additional burden. Document systems designed for construction should generate audit trails of changes and additions to the body of information associated with a project. And should provide the project manager with visibility into who’s been accessing, reading, and marking up what documents.

Companies I talk to are starting to think more seriously about how they communicate and share information. But the level of sophistication in addressing this important issue varies greatly – from companies who just use a public drive to share information with their own staff to those using construction-specific systems that manage the flow of information for all partners and participants.

Where do you fall in this range of solutions? Let me know – I’m really listening!

www.dexterchaney.com

4 Criteria to Consider When Choosing a Hosting Service

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

Criteria to consider when deciding on your hosting solutionIn the construction business, there are rarely ever any easy decisions. As companies adopt web-based construction software, they find themselves faced with a number of not-always-easy decisions surrounding where and how to host their applications and data. One common and understandable misconception is that cloud computing always means subscribing to software as a service and accessing your applications in the public cloud. In reality, and especially for business management software, most applications will still be purchased and deployed in private clouds where you have more control over your hosting services. Which means it’s important to understand and explore your options. Here are four considerations that should play a role in your decision making:

Cost

One of the most important decisions to make is whether you should host your own cloud applications or use a hosting service. Like anything, there are costs and benefits going the do-it-yourself (DIY) route. The following are the primary costs to consider for both options:

Hosting Services:

  • Server resources
  • Data storage

DIY Hosting:

  • Server hardware
  • Data storage (onsite and offsite backup)
  • Server software
  • Facilities (space, racks/cabling, power, cooling)
  • Labor

Infrastructure

Whether you self-host or you outsource, moving more software resources to the cloud will mean changes in bandwidth usage at your company. Generally, you can expect greater demands on both upload and download requirements between your facilities and the Internet. If, however, remote or field staff are big users of your cloud software applications, then company network loads can actually go down. The only real way to know is to establish regular network traffic monitoring and look at trends over time.

Technology

Most of the time, we get what we pay for, and it’s no different with hosting technologies. When considering your options, be sure to compare how much money you are spending, investing or leasing and compare that to the data speed and safety services you’re receiving. Without going into detail, here are some technology topics to ask your service providers or vendors about:

  • Dedicated server resources
  • Fast and redundant link to the Internet
  • Intelligent routing protocols
  • Load balancing
  • Geographically secure data backup
  • Data snapshots
  • DDoS protection
  • Disaster recovery

And last, but not least…Security

Security may be your number one concern when choosing your hosting solution. After all, you’re talking about storage and access of vital and sensitive company information. Previously I discussed the relative security of cloud computing solutions. When properly deployed, a hosted application can be as secure a place for your data as a server behind your company firewall. Here are the primary requirements that you’ll want to ensure are part of your cloud deployment:

Standards

  • SAS 70 Types I, II, III, or…
  • SSAE 16 (with SOC 1, 2, 3)

Transport

  • SSL to TLS (asymmetric key cryptography)
  • 128-bit (“strong”) encryption

Physical Protection

  • 24/7/365 on-site security
  • Data center access protection (biometrics, etc.)

I know this is a lot of information to consider, so if you have any questions, please leave a comment.

www.dexterchaney.com

Choosing a Cloud Host – Part 2 Data Redundancy

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

Consider data center redundancy when choosing a hosting providerIn the last blog, I mentioned that I saw an informal LinkedIn poll that asked if people were going to move to the cloud in the next year, to which 70% said “Yes, we are.” Obviously, one of the key components of a cloud solution is the data center or cloud host where the data and even the programs that use that data are housed. So, what should we look for when choosing a cloud host? Last time we discussed security. This time, let’s look at data redundancy.

Local Data Redundancy

Basically, data redundancy means “Does the center have backups?” Redundancy occurs at several levels. The first is the local level. Does the data center have processes and procedures in place at the local level to provide backup in case something fails? Does it have redundant processors and storage appliances? Does it have redundant routers, hubs and data pipes?

Regional Redundancy

Not only should it have local redundancy, but it should have regional redundancy as well. So, if the data center in Seattle goes down for some reason, the redundant site in Atlanta picks up and your data is available.

Fault Tolerance

Finally, the data center should have good fault tolerance. This is how all the redundant items are tied together. How does the center switch over if one item fails? How long does it take to switch over? How is the data backed up?

Cost of Redundancy

Data redundancy is essential to successful cloud implementation. But, keep in mind that the more redundant the system is, the more it’s going to cost. So, you could have data stored locally that has redundant back-ups regionally, nationally and internationally, but the cost for that would be huge. Keep in mind what is realistic for you and your data.

The “Cloud” is where things are heading and an integral part of that is data center hosting. Moving data to the cloud shouldn’t cause any heartburn so long as we make good, thoughtful, careful decisions about where to put our data. Data redundancy is one key to sleeping well at night.

www.dexterchaney.com

Silos: Great for Grain, Not so Great for Business

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

Connect the office and field to remove construction business silosOne of our clients does industrial electrical work on projects around the country. One of our employees recently visited one of their locations in Iowa where they have built out the electrical power and control system for a large grain processing operation. During this tour he learned that there is quite a lot that goes on behind the scenes to keep a silo operating – it’s much more than a simple storage structure.

As he was telling me about his experience, I started thinking about silos in our clients’ construction businesses. For those not familiar, a silo in business terminology refers to a part of a business operation that works in isolation from other parts of the business. It’s hard to think of examples where this is a good idea in any business. In general, the more connected your employees are, the better, right?

The Office, The Field, and Technology

There’s no better example of the business silo in construction than the separation that many companies experience between field operations and office management. Recalling my experience in Iowa, I realized that, like grain silos, business silos are not simple structures – they are supported by technology and processes. So the way to break down the business silos would seem straightforward – combine the technologies and link the processes that are used in the office and field silos.

This remedy is easy to state, and far less easy to achieve. Most technologies, software in particular, have been built specifically to support either the way the office or field operations work, not both. And for good reason, since the way accounting and business management use software is much different from the way construction operations and project management use it.

But the point at which the office meets the field – where job progress is tracked, profitability is calculated, invoices and change orders are processed – this is the point where bad (or no) communications between the field and the office results in diminished performance and profits. So construction companies and technology vendors alike keep hammering away at ways to better connect these disparate parts of a contractor’s organization.

I personally believe that the technology does hold the key to more efficient operations and better collaboration between the field and the office. For example, web-based construction software that can be accessed as easily by a PM using a tablet in the field as a Controller in the office is a big step toward leaving silos to the agricultural industry.

What technologies have helped you bring your teams closer together?

Choosing a Cloud Host: Data Security

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

Data securityThe other day, I saw an informal poll on Linkedin that asked, “Are you looking at cloud initiatives for 2012?” 70% of the respondents said, “Yes.” Now, the poll wasn’t scientific, but I think that number indicates where the industry is heading.

One of the key components of a cloud initiative is the data center or cloud host where the data and maybe even the programs that use that data are stored. So, what should we look for when choosing a cloud host? One key issue to consider is data security.

Onsite Hosting and Security

Many people are nervous having their data outside the walls of their company. It’s kind of like having my tools and materials stored in my shop. It just feels better having my stuff where I can see it and know it’s there. People treat data the same way. They’re more comfortable when the data is stored on a computer physically located in their building where they can see it and know where exactly it is.

However, is your data really more secure at your business? Or, is it more secure at a site where professionals design and maintain the servers to be as secure as possible? Would you rather store your tools in a yard surrounded by a chain link fence with a padlock on the gate, or in a concrete building with electronic locks and a guard at the door?

Questions to Ask Hosting Companies

Many people steer clear of data centers because they are afraid of what could happen to their data if the data center goes out of business. That’s a valid concern. It’s like a product warranty. The warranty on the roofing membrane is only as good as the company standing behind it. If the company goes out of business, the warranty is worthless and you’re on the hook for a new roof. The same scenario can apply to your data. If the hosting company goes out of business, you may be on the hook for retrieving, restoring, or recreating your data and getting things back up and running again. That’s a huge deal and a potential company-breaker.

The key here is asking lots of questions before signing up:

What do the hosting company’s operations look like? Particularly, how stable is the company and do they have sound financial backing?

What are their data backup policies, and are you on the hook for the recovery costs?

Is all the data stored on-site or are the backups stored off-site?

The cloud is where things are heading and an integral part of that is data center hosting. Moving data to the cloud shouldn’t cause any heartburn so long as we make good, thoughtful, careful decisions about where to put our data.

What questions do you have about moving your data to the cloud?

www.dexterchaney.com

Got (Construction) Apps?

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

construction appsIt seems like there truly is an app for everything today. Personally, I’m pretty sure I’m downloading more apps for my mobile devices than complete software applications for my computer. This started me thinking about the difference between the two. Here is how I differentiate between apps and applications:

1. Apps are for single tasks. Download an app for your phone or tablet and chances are it will perform one primary function. Most software applications, particularly for business, have multiple features, functions, and uses.

2. Apps are transaction based. Most business apps are about processing many individual transactions, not about managing complex processes. Move past basic data entry, communications, checklists, etc., and you have moved into the realm of the full-fledged software application.

3. Apps are portable. The model of the app, particularly as delivered by Apple, is a widget that you load onto a portable device such as a smart phone or tablet and that you use on the run (or sitting – at the airport, the hotel, the DMV, etc.). Software applications might be remotely accessible, but they have historically been something you settle in at a “proper” computer to use.

I’ll Take a Side Order of Apps, Please

*Spoiler Alert!* Things are changing, lines are blurring, and the culprit is the cloud. Cloud computing is allowing full-blown software applications to be accessed remotely on virtually any device. The distinctions I made above don’t hold as much water as they once did.

However, as we’ve all experienced, complex software applications can do a great job taking simple tasks and making them complex. So in the domain of business software that is starting to move to the cloud, there is still a distinct place for the app. Common repetitive tasks such as time entry, drawing logs, punch lists, safety records – I could go on – lend themselves to the ease-of-use and intuitive interfaces provided by the app.

Can these two worlds – the domain of the app and of the application – coexist? I know the answer is yes, because my company’s construction software has enabled the delivery of apps that work within the main software application. And other software systems in other industries are moving in this direction as well. Complex processes and workflows are handled by sophisticated software that’s up to the task, while simpler tasks can be handled by apps distributed to those who need them.

When you’re looking for something to make managing your construction business easier, consider applications that manage complex processes but provide a “side-order of apps” for when you simply want to do one thing. But enough about technology. I need to figure out a word worth 150 points to win this game of Words with Friends…

Customer Collaboration & Construction Software

Monday, May 7th, 2012

construction software assists collaborationNo matter what industry you’re in, collaboration seems to be the latest “thing.” From applications that make your meetings and webinars more collaborative to document management and social media apps to help you and your team organize, it seems collaboration is everywhere. But because it’s everywhere, collaboration has become a bit of a buzzword.

I am a believer in real collaboration – after all, we did just launch a new product created specifically for project collaboration. And nothing demonstrates a real collaborative environment more than our annual Users’ Conference. Each year at this event I’m reminded that collaboration is vital to our construction industry.

I’ve written before about how construction is a team sport, and how important it is to connect all the players of your team. But what reenergizes me every year is seeing this communication and teamwork in action at our Users’ Conference. I’m reminded that as a company, we wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for collaboration. I feel confident in saying that we’ve never created construction software on our own, sitting in our Seattle offices. Every new release has been driven by our clients.

If we stop to think for a minute, we realize how few of our successes, whether personal or professional, are because of just one person – we usually find success because we’re a part of a team working together toward a common goal.

How have your clients inspired you? How does your team collaborate?

Form, Function and Construction Software

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

Construction software should be built for functionality.There’s a commercial for a local kitchen design company that I often hear on the radio that starts, “The form has to follow the function…” According to Wikipedia, this phrase comes from a modern architecture and design principle that says to base the shape of a building or object on its intended purpose of function. So what does this have to do with construction software?

Function Follows Form

Although this phrase refers to architecture, it still has a place in software architecture. For various reasons, many developers unfortunately put the form before the function when designing and creating construction software. One reason this occurs is that software programmers become tied to a particular sets of programming languages, tools, or protocols. When standards are chosen for use by a development team, it’s often difficult to change them. So, if you’ve ever used a piece of software and thought, “I wish the menus functioned differently,” you’re probably experiencing a case where the function followed the form.

Programmers sink a significant amount of resources into creating software on a certain platform or with a particular coding language. It’s then expensive and time consuming to change what’s already established. So rather than changing the form of the software to meet the intended function, software developers keep building with what they already have established, resulting in function following (and often being limited by) form.

Web-Based Construction Software & Form

The good news is that there is light at the end of this construction software tunnel. As more software applications move to a web-based environment, programmers will be redesigning their user interfaces, resulting in a better user experience.

And you’ll be able to tell the difference between software that really has been redesigned to take advantage of web-based accessibility and flexibility. Those developers who simply take their existing product and drop it onto a server somewhere for remote access will be delivering the same product experience. The fundamental way their product functions will still be tied to the form of their continued development environment.

Those developers who capitalize on the advantages of using the Internet as a platform – a.k.a. those who build true web and browser based applications – are the companies redesigning the way software works. They are letting the new forms of information management follow the new ways individuals and teams are functioning in the construction industry.

Is the way your software works keeping up with changes in the way you and your company works?

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