School Trip To See A Computer!

How many times have you heard this – or something like it? Maybe it’s you that is struggling to keep pace with the incredible rate of change we are experiencing in technology in the modern age.

The title of this post is a quote from my Boss, and the funny thing is that we are not that far apart in age. It seems like computers just dropped into schools 30 years ago and for those of use that grew up with computers around us, it seems second nature to have one around. For those of us that never had to use computers during their education it seems much more difficult to get to grips with computers during their working life.

It’s all too easy to see computers as a ‘Black Box’ with some idea of what goes in and comes out – but with no idea of how to manage the process. However let’s go easy on those who didn’t get the benefit of computer classes during their schooling.

It’s common in the UK construction industry for workers to leave school early to start an apprenticeship. After completing 3 years of practical training, a few years on site is just what’s needed to give you the experience you need to go with all that new knowledge. And then, when you get landed with your first ever ‘management’ role, there on your desk is a computer which you are expected to use with no training whatsoever. No wonder many of the management in the UK construction industry don’t want to engage with their IT systems.

Maybe it’s also not surprising that there is some scepticism about the usefulness of subjects like computer programming in the construction industry? After all – with all this sophisticated software around surely you just need to find the right software package and you’re done right?

Sadly – no. It’s a common misconception that if we all just used the same software, or if one piece of software did everything we wanted, all would be easy. Let’s just think about that for a minute. Saying that we should all use the same software is a bit like saying that all our companies should do exactly the same thing in exactly the same way.

Your company offers something unique. That’s what makes your company stand out. That’s what gets your company its work. The combination of tools that you use will need to be as unique as your company’s process. And this is the key. People first, then process then tools. You shouldn’t expect to get an off the shelf IT solution for your unique workflow, any more than you would expect to use a Swiss Army knife for every job on the building site.

Many of the large software companies supply their software with an API (application programming interface). To put it simply, this allows you access to the software programmatically, rather than by using the on screen user interface. The great advantage to this is that you are therefore not hampered by the workflow that the software programmers imagined when they wrote the software. You can make the software conform to suit your business process – rather than changing your business to suit the software.

My prediction is that it will become increasingly common for companies to use many different software tools in the future – with the common theme that all of the tools are accessing and manipulating the same data. The data is the common thread; the tools we use to access our data will depend on how we want to query or change the data.

You may have heard about a new tool that is becoming available in the construction industry. This new tool may shake the industry up as much as CAD did 25 years ago. The new tool is Called BIM – Building

Information Modelling, and the key word here is Information.

A building design is all about information. BIM uses a 3D model to coordinate the database of information that is the building design. You can run queries on the data to find out what you want to know. A drawing is one kind of query – a door schedule is another. You don’t need to know how to write SQL queries to access the BIM database, but understanding how databases work will help you to extract the information you need.

The internet itself can be thought of as one big database. Web pages are in fact user interfaces. They may look very different but they are all doing the same thing. They are allowing you to query one small part of the internet’s database (the website) to help you find the information you are looking for. Modern web designers are multilingual – designing web pages with graphic software while at the same time designing web sites using programming languages such as HTML, CSS and PHP.

The Internet can be thought of as one big ‘Mash up’ of software and services that you can access from anywhere you want at any time. The advantage of running software on the ‘Cloud’ (on servers rather than on desktops) is that computer power is extensible. You are no longer limited by the power of your PC. For example, complex structural calculations can be outsourced to a server, freeing you up to do other work on your local machine.

Data storage on a server is also extensible, and is therefore practically unlimited. You can feed your structural calculations back into a 3D model of your building structure which can be compared with the Architectural and mechanical models in real time. All of this could be done from a tablet computer – essentially using the tablet PC as a ‘remote control’ to manipulate the data on the server.

As more and more desktop software moves to the ‘Cloud’ I predict that we will see a greater separation between the data – and the software that is used to access it. Want to write your own iPad App to allow your staff to access the latest drawings from your server – why not? Do it your way.

Michael Gove recently announced a welcome initiative to shake up the teaching of computer sciences into schools. Children will be moved away from simply learning how to use software, and will instead be encouraged to learn how computers and IT networks work and how they are programmed.

Would you have benefited with some computer based training before you left school? Do you wish that the candidates for job roles at your company had better IT training before they came to you? Do you think that your kids will benefit from training in how to understand computing before they learn how to ‘press buttons’?

It is a simple fact that computing has reached every area of our life and work, and there is no going back from here. So the decision to make the most of your computers, software and IT networks should be simple. Sink or swim?

Paul Munford

Paul Munford –

Paul runs CADSetterOut which is an online blog where he posts tips, tricks, tutorials primarily on Autodesk software for the construction industry.

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