Excuse me for being too direct at times but this goes out to all the managerial dinosaurs; those stuck in the ‘old school’ ways; those wondering how to ‘force’ their staff to follow standards; all new college grads; those looking for advancement in this technologically driven world but are just generally confused about it; and to those simply wanting to be more productive but are unable.

To be successful in the survey, engineering, and construction business thirty years ago all it took were some ‘smarts’ and a good calculator. Those ‘smarts’ could have come from a good education, experience in the industry, or working closely with someone who had racked up a winning combination of either of those two elements.

Fast forward to present time.

In this day and age things are a bit different. In most cases that ‘hand calculator’ has been replaced with a monster (as some people might see it). That ‘monster’ is a computer or ‘machine’ that can do things faster and more efficiently than could have ever been imagined several decades ago. This impact has been felt throughout the ‘field-to-finish’ work process.

Historical Chatter

Let’s narrow our view for a moment and take a look at the ‘design’ piece of the puzzle.

Over the years, computers, and primarily CAD, have changed the face of the engineering plan production world. In the early Eighties, a project on CAD was a specialized activity done by a select few (and usually billed out at a premium rate). Well, times have evolved, and today CAD is a necessity, and probably among the most asked questions of a potential new hire.

It’s important to understand how CAD has affected engineering plan production to set the stage for success in implementing a CAD package. For those of you who have lived this change from the boards to computers, you know what this about. Prior to CAD and specialized civil software add-on packages, there were certain tasks that were a time-consuming effort. The general category of these effort-intensive activities were either 1) drafting (such as drawing cross sections, placing mathematical layout information on project geometry, manually stationing and re-stationing a long roadway project, plotting the ground line on profiles or drawing contours) or 2) engineering (such as generating earthwork volumes on a site or roadway project, breaking down survey field book notes or calculating Superelevation). These tasks now are relatively simple operations with the advent and subsequent improvements in the civil software industry. In fact some of these tasks are literally a button click (or two) away from completion.

But don’t get excited yet, because there is more to it than meets the eye.

Software programs are heavily reliant on accurate and reliable input, and some of the time saved by automation needs to be re-invested into other areas. What has really occurred is a shifting of effort from one set of tasks to another, some of which never even existed before in the “board” days (like trying to find a problem in a 3D surface model).

Let’s take earthwork quantities as an example. Formerly time-consuming, this has been reduced down to a magnitude of minutes (depending on the scope of the project). But the time saved now needs to be re-invested in the construction of an accurate surface model. The time it takes to “engineer” the elevational aspect of the design and input this information into a surface model is a new and added effort.

Luckily, the payoff over the life of a project is in favor of the newer automated methods. The extra time invested in creating the existing surface model, precise typical section definition, precise horizontal and vertical alignment layout and development of CAD standards does not approach the speed and time saved in cutting profiles and cross sections, generating earthwork volumes and reports, and creating plan and profile sheets.

But in order to do do this, the software used must be well understood and its tools effectively applied. The need to “do more with less” is so prevalent in the workplace today that if one isn’t pushing the production into more efficient heights then their survival is questionable. But even with that strong a motivation success isn’t guaranteed.

So What Has to Change?

What does it really take to improve and increase productivity? The finer details of that answer may be released in a separately focused article to be published at a later date, but one counter-productive element of efficiency is induced by the undeniable, persistent, and ever-present gap between management and production, especially as it applies to CAD software.

“Management” (using this term loosely) is ultimately responsible for the success of a project or organization. However, it is the actual hands-on “production” teams and individuals that create the work that eventually delivers the production drawings on schedule and within budget (or not).

“Management” are like gamblers. They are risk takers with project resources deciding when and how much to put on the table …or not. But they want to keep as much in their pockets as possible.“Production” on the other hand sees this differently. Just think about it for a moment.

The variation between the tasks and goals of the ‘management’ staff and those of the ‘production’ staff inherently create this chronic partition, and cause it to persist. Add to this the fact that much of ‘management’ has been removed from the hard core production world; and the production folks aren’t fully aware of the pressures that bear down on the management layer, and the gap becomes deeper.

The root of the problem is primarily a gap in understanding – the inability of “management” to understand “production” and “production” to understand “management”.

But there is more to this enigma than meets the eye. And if the previous statement were all that there was to it, it really wouldn’t be much of a problem. That’s because there is another more insidious problem that is the real stickler. And it’s the understanding regarding exactly what it takes to get the job done … with the required software (the topic of this article).

This ‘problem gap’ becomes a seemingly bottomless chasm when the production staff themselves really don’t know exactly what they are doing. This is not a joke or an imagined situation … it’s real and can be discovered by simply talking with production staff and truly listening to what they are saying. Try it, don’t put words in their mouths, encourage them to be brutally honest, but be prepared to hear something that you don’t want to hear, let alone have to deal with solving.

More demands than ever before are being placed on engineers, designers and technicians, and the requirement that they not only know the principles of engineering are compounded by the expectation to understand key software packages.

Can Computer Software Make You Smarter?

Software is a tool used to assist an engineer, technician, designer or drafter toward the ultimate goal of getting a set of design documents out the door and onto construction.

Whether you are a skilled professional experienced in the civil engineering field or a new college graduate, the software will help you with your project needs. But ‘software’ is not going to turn a drafter into an engineer, it’s not going to turn a poor engineer into a brilliant one, and it’s not going to create a successful project all by itself. The project engineer and the team are still in charge and responsible for the engineering technical know-how and application of that skill to the benefit of the project.

The good news is that, whatever the current understanding of the software happens to be, there are ways to increase it measurably.

The efficiency and effectiveness of using software is influence by several things:

  • Individual Software Knowledge – This refers to how much the actual users know and how well they have been trained. This gauge of knowledge should not be relative to other internal staff as reference points, but should be looking at how well they understand and can use the package as a whole, based on what the software was intended to do. For example one user may be significantly more proficient with the software compared to others in the office, but still not be using the software anywhere near its potential. This is probably the key factor when it comes to effectively and efficiently using the software.

  • Overall Software Configuration – This refers to how complete the software is set up for your office, your clients, and your users. This is a very key point about that is often overlooked. Each software package has specific configuration that should be done to allow the software to be used for different agencies as well as to achieve integration with the overall corporation using the software. This includes, but is not limited to, ensuring that the software has the correct CAD standards integrated into its functions.

  • Software Support – This refers to how quickly the users can find answers to the questions that they run into with the software when going beyond their own personal understanding of the tools, or using unfamiliar tools, or using new versions of the software. When a user runs into a problem, what happens? Production stops. Efficiency stops. And time moves forward and dollars are wasted. To the degree that the user is unable to find quick answers, more and more time (money) is lost. When the user can’t find the “correct” answer, what happens? He finds “an” answer that may or may not be the right answer. It could be a “long way” or it could be the “wrong way”. Good support channels keep production rolling and educate users at the same time. Consider it a sort of ‘on-the-job-training’ investment.

  • Software Documentation – This refers to how clear, comprehensive, and specific are the reference materials and internal documentation that your users have access to. These range from purchased books from other high quality authors to internally written guides that cover the exact steps that a user should be doing to ensure they are using the software correctly and per the required standards.

Each of these areas needs to be taken into consideration whenever high level software is used in a production environment. This is even more critical when the software being used plays such an important role in the overall production of construction drawings, engineering design, data collection, or construction staking. InRoads, InRoads Survey, MicroStation, Civil3D, AutoCAD and similar programs are not the same as Word, Excel or PowerPoint. They are not even close to being in the same league. Hand one of these ‘engineering’ programs to someone who has never used it before and their production will grind to a screeching halt. Just sit a watch them as they scratch and claw their way up the learning curve inch by painful inch. Straining and struggling to get ‘anything’ out of the software program – reinventing every version of every wheel that has ever been invented. Without effective education or access to answers they are like kindergarteners tackling a geometry problem. They’ll go nowhere and burn time and money all along the way.

Some civil software programs such as InRoads or Civil3D have enormous capability and high levels of sophistication and rarely can be learned on the job without a very long learning curve. And even with a long learning curve the techniques and processes that are sometimes ‘self-developed’ may or may not actually utilize the capabilities of the software. This is also true for workflows that have been handed down over many years from more experienced users since the way things were done many years ago may have been significantly improved by recent changes in the software itself.

Reasons to Support the User

There are several good reasons why someone would want to acquire a quality software support contract or train their staff:

  1. They are implementing and / or rolling out a new software product or system

  2. They are upgrading to a newer version of the software that incorporates significant changes, enhancements or improvements.

  3. They are simply wanting to use the software more effectively and efficiently

  4. They are working on a either a high demand project, or within a high demand environment, that requires quick answers to keep everything on track and on schedule

  5. They are concerned about standards and want to prepare internal workflow and procedural documents for staff to follow to better ensure CAD standard compliance

Things to Consider:

In order to decide which how far you go to assist your users, consider these points:

  1. If you are configuring the software with internal staff and are not extremely knowledgeable and proficient with all aspects of the software it is advisable to procure an “advisory” support contract. This will allow you quick access to answers to technical questions that may be beyond the skill level of your existing staff.

  2. New users just getting started with the software tend to have more questions as they begin using it. Once a user gets higher on the learning curve their questions tend to taper off. Therefore support contracts tend to start with heavier use and then become used less and less, unless newer users or software upgrades come into the picture.

  3. A user that spends the majority of his time using the software will gain confidence and proficiency faster than someone only using the software sporadically. Sporadic users tend to have more questions simply because of the lack of repetition.

  4. Workflow documents, Design Guides, and Procedural aides greatly reduce support services and are highly suggested for those that sporadically use certain aspects of the software.

  5. Support services tend to be less in environments that contain well-defined configuration files and CAD standards. Getting these in place and configured properly is very important in meeting “software savings” expectations. But setting up the system is not the end; all the users must be educated in how the system was set up and how to ‘use’ the information that was set up for them.

  6. Environments with fewer users tend to have more support questions per person since the ‘sharing of knowledge’ is limited. Individuals in larger groups, over time, are likely to develop specialties. These ‘specialists’ can then, if allowed, very effectively support the others internally.

  7. Developing the usage of the correct software tools will set the stage for proper software utilization. It has been witnessed over and over that some users have only learned from their peers, who in turn have learned from their peers. And likewise teach new users what they know. This ‘copy of a copy of a copy’ has some inherent problems. First, there is often a lack of understand regarding ‘why’ things are done the way they are done. Second, these ‘hand-me-down’ procedures can be based on old software versions that have been improved. Third, there are sometimes key aspects to the workflow or procedures that can get lost in the ‘verbal hand me down’ process of explaining the software to others.

  8. Users that do not have direct access to helpful quality support services can develop cumbersome and lengthy “work-arounds” to their problems that may be inefficient. This is really an extension of the early item but can also include poorly documented ‘standard’ software techniques.

  9. Internally, you may want to have all support issues pass through a central person. This may delay the response; however it might make sense when you are required to fit this support into an existing internal support system. It should be noted that in many cases it is faster to resolve issues if technical support staff speak directly to the user with the problem.

  10. Support videos that illustrate and capture the resolution of a problem can be an effective tool when others need to be brought up to speed on any workflows or new tools. Written documentation can also be provided to capture the resolution of any problems, and these can be turned into a FAQ document for internal use.

It is obvious that a production environment can be made more productive and efficient with good technical support received in a timely manner. But this is not to say that every work situation requires this type of service. The staff and their needs should be properly assessed, along with alternative support channels. If this is difficult to evaluate, it is suggested that a short-term ‘pilot’ support contract be put in place to determine its effectiveness. Periodic evaluation can then be done to review the actual need or usage.

And please don’t forget to discuss any support program with the users themselves. Assess their needs and their desires for support to ensure that a plan is put in place that is conducive to the realities of their production issues.

Potential Scope of Services

Software support services can cover a number of areas and these topics are unique to every software package, user, or group of users, but there are some broad areas including (but not limited to):

  1. Software Configuration

  2. CAD Standards integration with engineering software such as Civil 3D and InRoads

  3. Typical Section creation

  4. Documentation services

  5. Custom workflow-based training

  6. Basic / Intermediate / Advanced training

  7. Training / Reference Material and documentation

  8. Software Standardization / Orientation roll-out

  9. Detailed Needs & Workflow Analysis

  10. Project specific support

  11. Software Utilization Analysis study

There are not near as many quality engineering software support companies as there are engineering, survey and construction firms. And it’s critical that you obtain the best bang for your buck when entering into a support contract.

To wrap this up, make sure that you:

  1. Correctly assess your staff to determine if there is a need for technical support. And be honest.

  2. Determine how much you are willing to have done by internal staff considering the impacts to production if you choose to use technicians that are usually 100% billable.

  3. Locate a high-quality software support company and scrutinize their qualifications and procedures.

  4. Clearly define the guidelines of the support contract and your specific needs.

  5. Get everyone in sync with the support rules and players

  6. Use it whenever it makes sense

  7. Monitor any productivity gains and re-evaluate the need for continued support periodically.

  8. Make sure you have a system in place to ‘share’ the knowledge gained by the support services

It’s not about luck – you have to develop a plan, get everyone on board, and start becoming more efficient with the tools that are right in front of your nose.

Mark S. Ditko

President – Zen Engineering


  • "Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up."

    – Thomas Edison