Monday, March 23, 2020

Eyes Forward…The Role of Learners in a Technology Driven Society

I recently wrote an article for AUGIWorld (, that I hadn’t really put a lot of planning to but instead tried to speak from the heart, and from what I’ve learned in the 59 years I’ve been here. The response has been overwhelming, and I’m humbled by all the attention and feedback. I didn’t realize what a nerve it would touch, and how many people from different aspects of the design industry would even be intrigued enough to read it. It’s interesting how different emotions drive what and how we do the things we do, and what spurs imagination and thought.

As I returned to work on this follow up, I’m struck by how quickly our perspectives can change. We are currently in the midst of a societal upheaval, with uneasiness and fear striking out from a virus that we know little about. Playing the “what if” game drives everyone crazy, and if you own a business or manage one, you’re having to make a lot of tough decisions.

And in the midst of all of this, narrow eyes can’t see the learning experience we are all waist deep in…how we work, where we work and the benefits to so many things that can be had, if we simply look beyond these fears. I can’t express enough how happy I am to be working for Gannett Fleming – the response we’ve had from our IT services group, and the support from everyone on the board of directors down to the core staff that makes our firm go, has been amazing.

We’ve pulled off something I never thought would happen – take thousands of workers, and shift them to a remote access, work from home business model, where we can continue to do what we need to and serve our clients. I’ll admit – I was nervous, and so were a lot of us that are responsible for making this happen. But I also have strong faith, that guides us and provides the direction and vision we need. It’s amazing what we were able to pull off – but it was the team approach and commitment that made it work, with minimal issues.

Back to the original article - there were a couple of responses that questioned the premise of the article, and a couple more that pointed out phrases that struck home. All were great points, but one response made me think about the one paragraph that no one said anything about – the personal responsibility of your own growth. As we now sit in our homes, and learn new ways to work, you’re gaining a little time – time not spent commuting, traveling or getting to wherever you think you need to be. You’ve been given this gift of time, so how do you best spend it?

The role of college education in a technical society

With our eyes forward, it’s time for a little prognostication. As I sit here and review what our users need to learn in order to help us adapt to this type of change, it’s time to start being honest with ourselves. Based on my own personal experience (and yea, this is my own opinion – I expect everyone’s experience to be different), I’ve gotten far more use of my technical degree than the 5 years I spent wandering through the colleges. This is not a criticism of the schools, but more of my own responsibility.

We need to be realistic that even with all of the critical items an engineer, architect or scientist needs to know, not everyone needs to be in that role. We’re all in a desperate search for that unicorn, as it’s so often referred when searching for that BIM designer, or design technologists that can effectively use today’s tools. We need that design-oriented individual that can create custom structural shapes, form new types of wall assemblies, define the target and source relationship between engineering systems and coordinate the myriad of infrastructure that lies below the dirt. That can do it with a minimal amount of supervision, but with the faith and trust needed to let them get the job done. They’re the ones that can pull the miracle out on a project and get it out the door on time, under budget and with a happy client. Face it – our issues with getting more people into STEM fields are not so much getting younger individuals into the four-year college programs but become the technology experts that can still assemble the building, the structure and the site.

So what does this have to do with the typical four year school? It’s easy – incorporate what we’ve been doing as part of the two-year associate type degree program as the core for the advanced career fields. We get far too many architects and engineers that don’t have the technical capabilities of today’s design platforms. While some colleges are adding BIM, PIM and horizontal design to their curriculum, it’s not nearly enough. This has led to a shortage of technically capable designers that can get 3D models, systems and more assembled in the most efficient way possible.

We’ve also tuned our path for architects and engineers to move almost exclusively towards higher management type positions, such as the project manager, project principal and general business manager. Where is the technical career path that leads this generation towards the deeper thought process needed for simulation, creativity and expression through the tools we continue to improve? Generative design ought to scare the he-double hockey sticks out of every old school professional. The fact that design automation, which can eliminate the redundant CAD and document tasks that continue to control our budgets and schedule, can create its own concepts of how a wheel, chair or building to be designed, should be enough for the design world to stop. We need to start evaluating and altering both technical and professional college programs to move us to lead concepts like generative design and AI – to shape it and make it so we can create the changes to our world that we need.

Make your OWN path

With all of this being said, there’s only one person who can make the choice about the direction for your life and career. In order to break free of the traditional roles and constraints we place on ourselves in the STEM fields as well as our professions, we need to be able to make an honest assessment about our own career paths. But it’s a choice that we as individuals must make. You must be able to challenge yourself…

One great pointy-eared science officer once asked…“Is this all I am? Is there nothing more?”

This past year, as part of my new role, I’m taking the responsibility of redefining our technical training curriculum and programs. The logic I’m using is simple…where do you want to go? We are obligated to maintain our skills in the roles we take. For example, the architect still has to be the great aggregator, pulling all of the different pieces of the built environment into a cohesive structure. We have the job requirements clearly defined…the classes created…the expectations and goals needed to fulfill the job’s obligations clearly enumerated.

The hard part is getting outside of the role and looking at the right kind of “what if” scenario. Not a negative consequence, but a personal growth, desire or ambition. Let’s say I give you the opportunity to define the role in your own image. What would you do different? What do you need in order to be able to make this kind of a change?

OWN can become a simple acronym…opportunity, wants, needs.

How do you take advantage of the opportunity to define your own path?

How do you clarify what you want to accomplish?

What will be needed to make it to this goal?

By taking some of the gift of time we’re being given to do a little self-assessment, you’d be surprised what you may come up with. With the help of our online training providers at Eagle Point, I’m setting up OWN Learning paths, that each employee in the company can fill out. We’re going to provide them access to all of the training materials we have in our system. No limits. No restrictions. But a chance for them to challenge themselves; document it; and pursue it. The system can hold them accountable for reaching this goal – but it’s still up to them to take the steps. The employee has to be willing to make the commitment to themselves and make an investment of their own time.

The Rule and Conclusion of a Happy Business Life

Knowing the difference between the company’s obligation and your own personal responsibility…that’s a tough one for us to take. If you listen to today’s politicians, which in most cases can’t even be honest with themselves and much less us, one side would have you believe that a “corporation” is nothing but pure evil. But the other side knows that corporations are people. And in some cases, allows them to take advantage of their staff, driving them towards unrealistic conditions that make it impossible to have a satisfying career.

So where does training and career development fit in? Where’s that fine line, the tune that strikes the right note, the right pitch, and makes everyone go…ahhh?

It’s a trade off. It always has been.

So here’s some comments that as an employee, you should never make.
“I’m entitled to free training.”
“If I’m not getting paid for it, I’m not going to training.”
“It’s not my responsibility to learn how to do that.”
“I don’t have time.”
“My clients don’t want it, so I’m not going to do it.”
And my personal favorite…”I’ve always done it this way, and don’t see a need to change it.”

At the same time, the employer can’t carry these rationalizations forward:
“There’s no money in the budget for training.”
“Learn on your own time.”
“I expect you to do this, and I don’t care how you figure it out – just get it done.”
“You should already know how to do this.”
“My way or the highway.”
And of course, my personal favorite…”We’ve always done it this way, and don’t see a need to change it.”

Here’s the big takeaway – in order for a business to have a successful relationship with their employees, it has to be sold and delivered as a partnership. Training, learning, education…should all be part of the employment experience. Great managers know that their role has always been one of service – so from the business standpoint, we have an obligation – and the employee does NOT have a right – to train. I always loved the quote that it’s better to train someone and have them leave, than not train them and have them stay. The greatest way to cripple a business is to become a static point in time, where they no longer see the need or benefit for improving and changing what they do. Ask anyone who still has a boom box or eight track player if they’ve reached the pinnacle of life…if you can still find them.

But at the same time, the employee needs to approach the business as an owner. You have to take the responsibility of owning your skill set.

Of not settling for the static point in time.

Of challenging yourself.

Of taking your own time to learn.

It’s tough to do. Life is busy. It takes. It also gives back what you invest in it.

We blind ourselves to what others need because it’s easy. We cripple ourselves, because we allow others to dictate to us what we’re capable of. But this biggest shame is when we don’t try. When you get to a point in your career when you think you learned all you can, you let yourself down.

But with your eyes forward, the objective is to get past previous mistakes, missed opportunities and failures, where you can stop looking at what’s holding you back, and get to where we all want to be.

I’ve been in it myself now for approaching four decades. And with all that life is throwing at us, the last thing we need to be doing is giving up on ourselves and our potential for what you – and we – can be. I’m not quitting on being a learner…are you?