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We invited Dan Conery on the podcast for a conversation about the importance of connecting the industry through data. Dan is a Product Strategy Manager with Trimble’s E-Builder Enterprise and ProjectSight. He operates his day to day thinking the opposite of “if it ain't broke don’t fix it”. Through this lens, Dan brings some interesting views to how we can look at address connecting as an industry through legal framework, personal connections, and data flow.
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Well guys, this one's a longer episode for sure. So we're just going to get right into it this week. So here is our interview with Dan Conery.
All right. Well Dan, thanks for being with us today, man. Why don't you tell us who you are and what you do?
Sure. So, actually I got to shout out, cause I'm proud to be here, shout out your podcast. I'm an avid listener of the podcast and like you guys, I'm a builder. That's a big part of what I like to do in my personal time. I'm also an avid avid learner. It's why I build, I can see a physical manifestation of what I'm learning. So love woodworking, I have a fully outfitted woodworking shop in my basement. And I just recently, this summer tried my hand at masonry and I built an outdoor fireplace and I did it because I had some bricks and I wanted to figure out if I could do it.
That's awesome, man.
I love that. I love that you've got the hard road builder. That's one thing that, you know, from listening, we're very big on around here. So very cool. Now you are not only involved in the bricks and sticks building that you're doing, but you also have an interesting role at Tremble. So why don't you tell us a little bit about how you're helping the building industry become more interconnected?
Sure. Yeah, so you are right. So at work, so what do I get paid for that? Certainly none of my hobbies, yet. So I really oversee the product strategy for a group within Tremble and specifically focused on two products, one called e-bill or enterprise, which is focused on the capital owner. So those who do repeat building kind of in the several millions to several billions of dollars, it can be anywhere in that stream. And then another product called project site, which is focused on project controls for owners. So really, what I do at Tremble is I ask a lot of questions. I am the anti, if it ain't broke, don't fix it guy. I'm the guy who says, if it ain't broke, we're not pushing hard enough. So that's really what I do. I go out and talk with tons and tons of customers then work with our internal teams and just figure what problems are worth solving. So, that's my role at Tremble.
And back to your specific question. For the last several years and now our strategy for the next four years, so until 2025, is about connecting the industry. So you're going to hear that term frequently and everything that I talk about in any answer I give you a question is how do we connect the industry? Because we're a technology company so we're focused on how do we connect the data in the industry? So I'm sure you guys can appreciate this. If you think about the supply chain, subcontractors, contractors, suppliers, general contractor, owner, architect, design engineers, and then you have something called an RFI. Every single group that I just said has the same dang copy of the same dang RFI, and they type it into their different systems, and that infuriates us at Trimble and it personally infuriates me.
Well, so that's one great example of how we are not interconnected. Kind of flesh out a little bit of what you see, I mean, what other ways are we lacking connection that you guys are really trying to address?
So, I'll answer the spirit of that question in a moment, but one of the areas that we're definitely not connected in, it was a component of one of your earlier episodes, is legal framework. So this industry, and this is the God's honest truth guys, I am amazed as a Testament to people like yourselves and other people that work in this industry, that a project ever actually finishes. Because this industry is contractually built to make sure that does not happen. I've never seen, well actually that's not true. The only other industry I've seen like this is the movie industry. I actually had a chance to sit behind the scenes of some movies and I was mortified. I saw the sausage making and when I left that, I was like, I can not believe a single movie has ever actually gone to the theater in my entire life. Similarly, I'm shocked that a building or an asset or a piece of infrastructure ever gets completed.
So, one of the areas that needs to be connected is in the contract language. When I talk with people, it's a game of risk and if you don't know that you're at risk, then you're the one losing the game, and that is mortifying to me. So you've got to fix the way contracts are written. I had big hopes, and it's fading a little bit on integrated project delivery, or IPD, where the risk and the reward is shared by everybody on the project, because that would increase the chance for collaboration. But at Tremble, really what we're focused on, at least my part at Tremble, is RFI's flowing through the system. So an example would be daily reports. One thing that infuriates me is there's no reason that human beings should ever be filling out a daily report. Technology can capture all that stuff. One of the criticisms I hear is you can't use weather.com to get your weather because it could be not raining at the weather station, but raining at your job site. And that rain will cause a delay as a result. Well, now your phone can be a weather station. So you can wear a weather station everywhere you go, and you can track weather within a foot of where you are at all points in time, not everything about weather. So anyways, not having to capture weather, not having to capture what equipment is showing up on site, what laborers are on site, what materials were onsite, what materials are being installed, and pictures. All that narrative that's being captured that can be captured seamlessly and then available to everybody on the project team.
So what happens? You guys fill out a daily report. Somebody is collecting that from you. The general contractor is aggregating all your daily reports and then sending it to the owner. And then of course they're obfuscating some of the things in the daily report because they don't want the owner to know that stuff. We just want all that stuff that needs to flow between the different people to flow seamlessly and effortlessly.
You know, one of our questions was finding out some of the weak spots in our communication chain and kind of identifying those. But it seems like you've just identified one there, which is just the paperwork, and tracking all of that is just, it's a headache. What other things are we missing though, beyond just the paperwork? What are the things that we are losing time and profit on?
So in fact, even the comment you made about paperwork, as each generation comes on, the amount of actual papers has gone down precipitously. I was at a large contractor down in the South, pre COVID, and I was pleasantly surprised by how little paper there was, specifically I'm thinking drawing sets and spec sets. You talked in one of your other episodes about the thousand page specification document. So, the good news was there wasn't a ton of it, but there was still some of it. So one of the things though that happened is most "innovation" in our industry simply took paper and made it digital. You didn't improve anything other than you can fill it out faster and it's more portable than paper was. So it was a paper form, then it became a PDF when Adobe showed up. But it was the same dang form, just now it's electronic. But nobody asked, why are we collecting all this information?
So, one of the things we are realizing is, how about we just get rid of the form? We shouldn't even have to fill it out. Our focus, and I'm not saying it's the only focus inside Tremble, nor is it the only focus in our industry, but our focus is about productivity. That's the area we're attacking. We want to increase the productivity, the throughput. So it's how much can somebody get done over a period of time? And we're just trying to attack the, how much you can get done. We want to drive the numerator of that as high as possible. But we're also on a quest to say the best way to do something fast is just to not do it at all, just eliminate it. So we are both focused on the efficiency when you have to do it, but also questioning why do you have to do it?
Yeah. We talk a lot about automating what you can automate so that we don't have to think about it anymore.
I think one of the things that keeps us from getting more stuff done faster, in some cases, is the amount of data that we produce. You know, there's so much that we have at our fingertips that it almost gets in the way. And so, I guess my question is how do we keep from going insane with all of this data? And how do we maintain that profitability in a job to keep things moving instead of just brute forcing it but by actually have some plan?
So you hit on several really, really important and good points. One is the data collection side. So the first thing I'd say is ask yourself why you're collecting it. One of the things that I heard, and it was actually a fairly depressing statement I heard early/middle part of my career, was when somebody told me "I'm no longer a project manager, I'm a project information manager. I don't manage projects, I manage information about projects and I hate them". That's what the individual said. And I said, challenge accepted. Let's make it so you're not managing information. So the first thing you do is go through and ask why the crumb are you collecting this at all? So maybe you're collecting too much information. I watched RFIs when I joined the industry, 25 years ago, change from having like six fields on it, to now having like 60. And you're making some poor person fill out all 60 of those fields. So one way to do this is, just don't have the person collect it. Fine, we'll collect 60, in fact, we'll collect 600, but instruments and tools will do that, the human doesn't have to do that. So that's good. But Tyler, that doesn't answer your other thing of, how do you not go insane with all the stuff you're collecting? Just cause, one thing I learned from my parents, just because you can doesn't mean you should, right? So, then you have to ask, well why are you collecting the information? What are you going to do with it?
And that's another area that I'm super excited about at Tremble, and you guys talked about this in one of your other episodes, is artificial intelligence and machine learning is coming into bear. So I'm about to contradict something I said a moment ago, and you'll learn from me if you talk to me ever again, that I'm a world full of contradictions. But, another attitude we have is you actually should collect data on everything and here's the reason why. You want to make sure you have the information to answer questions tomorrow that you don't know you have today. That's why people collect information. If you think about all these insane warning labels that are on stuff, why is that? Like my ladder says don't lean against an electrical wire. Well, why is that there? Because somebody did it, so let's collect information, collect tons and tons of data so we won't have to make the person do it. And the reason why is now we can implement machine learning and artificial intelligence. Because as people we get overwhelmed, but I'll tell you right now, what doesn't get overwhelmed is a computer. It can sit there and crunch that stuff and all we need to do is be insightful about what we want to ask the computer to analyze on our behalf. We're actually coming to a point of collecting data, don't make the human do it, and then bringing machine learning and artificial intelligence to sift through the data. At which point, you can bring the human back in when it says "here's something I'm noticing, but I now need you human to figure out what to do about it."
A quick example outside of our industry is radiology and medicine. If you think about now what's happening around reading test results, how many tests results could you or I possibly go through as a person relative to how many test results a computer could? A computer could compare my blood work with every blood work ever collected in human history. A computer can do that. You and I, maybe 10 or 20 test results. So that's how you solve that problem of how to not to go insane. Unless you believe, and I do by the way, in science fiction. So either Skynet or Hal, that type of stuff, but computers don't go insane. So I am qualifying my statement.
I'm interested in the data collection that you mentioned. Obviously a phone is a data collection point that we can use, everybody's got one and they're on site, but I know Tremble is kind of known for their gadgets. And so what are other mechanisms for data collection that you guys are leveraging over there?
Yep. So what I would say is Trimble's focus is on high precision. So one of the last episodes of y'alls that I listened to was you're talking about LIDAR on the phone, right? And so you can do what you guys called, and I love this statement, good enough. Here's the problem a lot of people have, they go for perfection rather than just getting something done. You may not do a final detailed design. You may not manufacture off of what your phone can get, but you want a good proximity. Your phone is going to be good enough. You guys talked about cameras, cameras on the phone, versus a super high end Nikon camera. That level of difference is for 1% of the population who care about that level. For the other 99% of us, my iPhone is perfectly good enough. So, what Trimble does is when you say I need precision down to the millimeter level, that precision is important, then you're going to bring somebody like a Trimble on board. But we're, hyper-focused on ways that you can drive cost down and the good thing is that a phone costs you a heck of a lot less than a Trimble X seven scanner. Is the phone always appropriate? Absolutely not. But you're seeing a convergence of super easy and low cost and high precision.
Yeah. And the accuracy, I was going to joke around with you, you know, what the heck's a millimeter? I don't deal in millimeters. Is that like a 16th?
Sorry. Yeah. And I grew up on the English system too, but in college I was forced. This is, now I'm going to be into my festivus moment, I was forced to do every single engineering problem, I'm a mechanical engineer, in the English units or Imperial units and in Metric. So anyways, I'll tell you what a millimeter is. It's a hell of a lot easier to go from millimeter to centimeter to kilometer than it is to go from 16th to a quarter to three quarters, et cetera. So it's just easy for those of us who aren't good at math.
That's what I hear. You know, and every time I have to work with somebody who gave me decimal feed, I'm reminded of that fact. So, thank you to everybody who thinks that's a good idea. The accuracy you're talking about on some of these scanning units is like 300 meters, right. And you're looking at a three millimeter accuracy, you know, and this is off the top of the head type of stuff. But being able to collect to that point it's not always necessary, but insane that we can do it. Managing that data, the big data type of thing, is that insanity that Tyler's mentioning, like just trying to keep it all. Trying to house it.
Yeah. Which one's the most current scan that we have, or is that the old one or is this the old one? And you know, we inherit that a lot working for fabricators where we'll get one set of drawings sent over to us and then we'll put that in our work file and then we'll get another set of drawings sent to us and we'll put that in our work file. Then I tell somebody to go grab something and they're looking at it like "Hey, which one's current" because I didn't do a good job naming it. And so there's that people management side of it it's involved. You've got to stay on your a game, otherwise you're going to lose your mind and your whole team's going to lose their mind too. So, my question for you is how are these technologies going to start saving us time there? And just making us more accurate and quicker to get answers?
I want to jump in there just to say a little part of my soul dies every time I hear "what's the latest version of the document" and the impediment to that is because somebody didn't name a file. And so one of the things that we're really hyper-focused on is making sure you never have to ask that question again. And a human shouldn't be responsible for following some process in order to ensure that you have the accurate answer to that question, because that is guaranteed to fail. The one thing that's true about us as people, we are fallible. It will happen. But if you can figure out a way to train a computer, for example, so this goes back to machine learning, it's far less fallible. I want to say infallible, I really do, but I know that's not true because humans program these things. So there is always an area of fallibility in there and it's a part of us. Still today, in 2021, I hear about people doing rework because somebody used the wrong set of plans. When I hear this I go, how can that happen in 2021? We should have solved that problem, but we haven't yet and I see that going there. But it goes back to your scanning comment. One of the things I heard earlier is "scan everything". Well, it's expensive both in time and money to process those point clouds, right? The scanners put together a point cloud that approximates reality. So you don't have to render it, just score the point cloud and when you need it, it's there. And one of the things that's big at Tremble is this concept, I think you guys may have talked about it before, of digital twins. So we want, and we see a path to the model, the digital version of the project, and the physical asset will be so close together, they'll be indistinguishable. This goes completely counter to how I was educated when I got my MBA. The model will always be an approximation of reality and the more time you spend trying to get the model closer to reality, you get quick diminishing returns. That was what I was taught. So don't waste your time with it. And I've realized that entire concept is collapsed. We are at the time when the difference between the digital manifestation of a project and the physical manifestation will be indistinguishable. It's like, if you think about, again, back to movies, the animation is getting so close in movies that sometimes I forget I'm watching an animated movie and not actual live actors.
I'm telling you what, marijuana is a great example of that. I just, man.
I would love to hear some examples of data saving the day for some people. Have you ever heard, or do you have some stories of some companies that collected all of this data that they just had stored and then they figured out a good way of using it and that ended up saving them time and money and resources down the line?
I think about my life in three epics. My first decade, my second decade, and now my third decade of being in this industry. So, in my second decade an example of that was an email. This was an instance where an architect was in debate with an owner about work that they had done. At the time payment was due, the comment was made "I never authorized that work. Don't know why you did it, but I didn't say okay, so therefore I don't feel I need to pay you." Using technology, that owner was able to go through I think it was on the order of 60,000 email messages, literally within seconds, found the email that not only did the owner authorize the work, but they were gung-ho about the work and just forwarded it off to the owner and said, are we done here? That was, I believe, it's been a while so my numbers may be slightly off, but I believe that was around a $60,000 switch that got flipped. So, the ability to go back through and mine, to answer your question more specifically, before that technology existed there are instances where they knew the email existed, but it would cost too much money to go find the answer that they would just eat the cost. Now, 60 grand, somebody will probably pay somebody to go read all the emails. Let's say it was instead of 60 grand, it was $600, a thousand dollars. I bet you guys have, I'm not going to ask you, but I bet you have examples where you knew you were right, it's just not worth the cost. What I see with technology is it is worth it because it's not expensive anymore. So that would be my most profound example of where somebody was able to use technology in order to save real money.
The other more roundabout answer I'll give you is when we see technology helping. You asked me past, this is more future, but it exists in other industries and it's called sentiment analysis. It's the ability to go through written text to try to understand intent. And it's far more important to understand relative intent than absolute intent. In other words, are the RFIs getting more nasty over time or are they getting less nasty and/or more litigious or more confrontational? And so systems exist today where the computer can sit there and say, "Hey guys, notice a trend in these email conversations/RFIs and the written communication that shows this is probably going to be a problem."
An example of how people would solve this problem with people rather than technology, this is going back now into my first decade, is using a very large contractor, which does still exist today. They eat billions of dollars in gross annual revenue plus their project managers, based on time to resolution of any issues that were identified on their projects. And the logic was the earlier you get the problem solved, the less likely it's going to be a big problem later. So don't sweep it under the rug and hope it's not a problem because those turn into claims, let's resolve it now. So they used people to solve that problem. Now we're saying just scan everything, let the computer scan through all this stuff and determine, in the specific example, whether the tone is turning bad. One of the things in my second decade, I was working with architects, and the tool we brought to bear for them is, "Hey, by the way, when you see a large spike in RFIs on your project, one of two things has happened." One, somebody is finally reading your documents or two, somebody is in trouble so the contractor is in trouble and they're going to bury you in questions in order to say their problem is actually your fault, even if it isn't. So we were building stuff that would look at that and say, Hey, by the way, we're seeing a non-normal trend upwards in RFI volume and of all your hundred projects you're managing, this is the project you should focus on because something's going on and you need to get to the bottom of it. So those are some examples of how technology can help. Cause us as people we're in it, right? You're in the day-to-day, it's the forest for the trees. In your subconscious, you know, this is a weird number of RFIs to be getting but, I just got to answer RFIs or the owner's gonna yell at me. Cause the contractor, I'm thinking of the architect, the contractor is going to tell the owner I'm not responding in a timely manner. So I'm just going to respond in a timely manner instead of stepping back and saying, why the crumb am I getting so many RFIs? So, and I'm sorry, I have one more story around this. It was another in my first decade and I had a profound moment working with two large companies. I won't name, even though I'm sure I'm outside of any statute of limitations or nondisclosure agreements, so I'll be safe. I will say it was a large chip manufacturer and a very large theme park/movie company. They were customers of a product that I had and it's RFIs, so that was the conversation. And we had built, this is early two thousands maybe late 1990s, a really nice workflow capability. So they were workflowing out their RFIs and we had a meeting and they were sharing about how much time have we saved. Chip manufacturer goes up and says, we took RFI turnaround time from two weeks down to two days. Wow, I'm like, holy crap. I'm super excited. I'm thinking press release, case study, yada yada yada. The entertainment company comes in and said, I eliminated 90% of RFIs on my project. And I'm like, Oh my God, that's the actual goal, it's not getting it done faster, it's about not doing it at all. So what they spend all their time doing is, and you guys are on the receiving end of this, figuring out why the crumb does the contractor keep asking for so many RFIs? One of the reasons is the design document sucked on this project. They were terrible. So they went and they paid the architect some actual real money to produce better design documents because it's in their best interest to do that because then contractors don't have so many dang questions. It comes back to perspective.
Novel idea is that if we make our design documents better than it saves us time on the tail end. Interesting idea. Dan Conery. Interesting idea.
But here's the problem. You're talking about two multi-billion dollar owners. Multi-billions of dollars that both of these companies are building. Half of that didn't get that. So when you wonder why isn't the architect... Because what happens is the contractors like to crap all over the architect. What we're trying to say is, Hey owners, you're not sitting here not guilty. In fact, I would argue, this is really mostly your problem. This gets back to the supply chain comment, you're the one who's setting the rules for how the kids are going to play in your sandbox. If you sit there and you're high-fiving yourself, because you squeeze the architects design fee by 30% and you're high-fiving yourself, you're probably paying like 600% penalty. So congratulations. You just cost yourself more money, but it doesn't sound intuitive because people are focused on the wrong thing. A quick example I'll give you is a procurement story. One company decided to incentivize their procurement people on how much money they saved. Money meaning I came to you and said, guys, it's going to be $10 and you can beat me down to $5. That drop, the Delta, is what they cared about. So all of a sudden everything started costing far more money, even though their procurement people are making huge bonuses. The reason why is that the suppliers were just jacking their prices up. So I'm going to charge you 20 bucks, but I'll let you beat me down to $10. You cut the price in half, yet you're paying twice as much as you should be because I should be charging you $5. The other thing that happened was there was an instance where a better company. Their product was better in every demonstrable way, every single way, lifetime etc. The only thing it wasn't better in, is it was 10% more money. That procurement person didn't buy that product because they weren't going to hit their bonus goal because that supplier was unwilling to get the same discount as the crappy supplier was. I'm like, dude, make sure you're measuring the right thing to get exactly what you measure. Sorry, I'm off that soap box guys.
No, I mean, this is not a new thought. An ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure, but we don't apply that in design and we don't apply that in construction. Then we're surprised when we get the results and then we do it over and over and over again, which everybody's heard that old saying too of what that equals. And so even though it makes no sense, it is what we do and we're in desperate need of an Exodus from that strategy, desperate need.
Right. At Tremble we are focused because we work with owners, that's on our e-build enterprise side, we work with contractors, and my group is with project site. Then tremble is a massive organization so there's a bunch of other technologies we bring to owners, to contractors, and to designers. So within our own four walls, so to speak, we have solutions we're driving into those different parts of the business. But one of our other major goals is education. I won't get the quote exactly right but the point is still made. You talked about the fact that during the bidding phase, the owner's in charge, but the moment the contract gets signed, the power shifts over to the contractor. I won't say, because this is a negative word, that you guys said this, but I call it hostage taking. And what we're educating the owner on is that their being hostage by choice.
There's a great book I think called broken buildings, busted budgets, something like that and it talks about exactly what you just said. So if you think about it, cause this is in the public domain... (So the Apple campus that's I'm guessing is still being built. I've lost interest in it) but they fired two general contractors on that project. So normally you'd say you'd never fire a general contractor on a project because even firing a subcontractor can be painful because you got to bring somebody new in and they're not gonna know what the other person did. I don't know if this is true, you guys would tell me if it is, but typically in software development it's true that if you take a software developer off a project and you bring in a new software developer, the first thing the new person does is crap all over the other person. They look at everything and say, this is complete garbage. I gotta refactor it, I gotta rebuild this entire code base. And you're like, but I already paid the other person to do all that work. So I don't know if that's true like if you pull a sub on/off a job and a new sub comes in, but certainly from a general contractor perspective it is. And yet that project went so sideways that it not only happened once, but it happened twice. So what we're trying to educate the owners on is to not to do that and it to avoid getting yourself into that situation. We spend a big portion of our time educating owners and we're starting at the upper end of the marketplace, large owners that do a lot of repeat building. But our goal is to drive that downstream into smaller owners and smaller owners who don't build all the time. Like me as a home builder, I am completely at the mercy of my general contractor when I do work around here. It's part of the reason I build, because I want to be better educated. Somebody comes in and says, it's going to cost $20,000 to do this. I'm like, I don't know what the right answer is, but guys, that's not it. Then I ask a lot of questions. Well, why is it? So I dig into why it costs this amount of money. So, how do you help the less sophisticated ie non repeat builders, figure this stuff out.
Well, Dan, this has been an absolute pleasure. And I think it's about time to ask you our megaphone question. So if we gave you a megaphone that the whole industry could hear in 60 seconds, roughly, to answer, what would you say?
Awesome. So I have two things, one quote, that's my first thing and this is from Warren buffet. "Go to sleep smarter than you woke up." Should be every day, go to sleep smarter than you woke up. Number two, especially when talking with technology people, there's three things I want folks to focus on. It's people, process, and technology. Those three things. Technology is an enabler of the first two. I watched people come in and say, we got to go by, fill in the blank. My question is, why? Do you have the right people in place? And you have the right process in place because otherwise your technology is only going to help bad people do bad things faster. And I don't mean bad morally, by the way. All I'm saying is if you've automated a crappy process all you've done is you produce crap faster. I usually, if this wasn't a family show, I would say that with a stronger word, but you get my meaning. The other thing that I would really ask the supply side. So the general contractors, the architects, the owners, but I will speak specifically to the contractors. Make sure you're not overpaying for technology. You shouldn't overpay for things that are enabling you to do your job. I don't go and find the most expensive hammer at the store. I go find a good hammer at a good price, cause guess what? It's a hammer.
So anyway, so that, that's it. Just make sure you're not overpaying. And the reason I mentioned that is I spent my first decade with contractors my second day decade working with designers. And then I started my third decade working with the owners. And as part of that, I was brought back to the contractors. And in the intervening time, I've watched the cost of, specifically around project control technology, RFI, submittals payment applications, go up 10 X . I can't tell you right now in 15 years, the value hasn't gone up 10 X zero question in my mind. That's true. So make sure you're not overpaying. And the final part is, and I made this point earlier, is to understand on the supply side, that the demand side ie the owner is not in the business of building they're in the business of trying to save lives, build vaccines, educate the next generation, build infrastructure, roads, and bridges. That's what they're in the business of and we're here to serve them. So I'd ask people out there who are listening to understand that we're servants, and we should take a servant attitude towards the industry. Rather than blaming each other, because that's the other thing I've watched. Contractors for 10 years told me how crappy architects were. So I went and learned about architects. I'm like, they're not bad people. They're good people but then they told me what's wrong with the owners and what's wrong with contractors. And I work with owners. They're not bad people. You guys are all good people, man. Get together, solve some,