Monday, May 18, 2015

14 years and it still resonates

In my last post, I reposted an article I wrote for PC Trans Magazine 14 years ago.   One of my favorite things about writing that column was the feedback I got from the readers.  It always amazed me that they took the time not only to read my column but to send me comments via email.  One such email that I have kept for all these years was one from Charlie Hodge in reply to my “Back to Basics Puhleez” article.  It resonated with me for two reasons.  One was that I had heard Charlie speak at the first engineering/computing conference I ever attended in the late 80’s.  Second and most important was he concisely explained what I had always suspected but could never quite put into words.  I have re-read the email numerous times over the past 14 years, and it is still as true today as it was then.  Possibly more so if you just change the word CADD to BIM.   I hope it resonates with you as it did me. 


I always enjoy reading your columns in PCTrans. I read with wonder and amusement. Wonder, because I wonder when you'll reach the threshold of knowing "No one gives a damn." Amusement because I’ve been saying the same things for much longer (I'm a quarter-century older than you), and I reached that conclusion several years ago.

But your latest "rantings & ravings.'' "Back to the basics. puhleeez," hit a special note with me. I discovered long ago. civil engineers don't engineer: they managed, it doesn't matter where they work, public or private sector, when they reach the position of "responsible care" they no longer design things…they manage projects. This was a great personal disappointment to me: I spent four years of my young life getting a civil engineering education because I wanted to design things, and found out that civil engineers grow up to be "suits."

But I'm not about turning that around: no, no, no! That's the career path that is set out for them and they have little control over the way things can get changed. That's why your call for staff engineers to get involved in CADD falls on deaf ears: it's not their job! They are not judged on their engineering skills They are judged on their ability to bring the project in on-time and under-budget. To that end, they get others to do the engineering -- they don't have the time, nor the inclination: their bosses don't care who does the engineering, they want successful projects.

(As a personal Note. I did modify my personal career path very early (within two years of graduation) to work with computing in civil engineering and avoided the civil-project management role altogether. That decision didn't effect my career too much, I suspect, since I recently retired as the CIO of a West Coast consulting firm.)

I have spent nearly 30 years talking to the civil engineering community about the benefits (and pitfalls) of computing in civil engineering. And mostly, I feel they don't care. You were about five years old when I programmed a COGO-like program for the IBM 1620. Management didn't care. The project managers didn't care. Those that did care were the people that did the real design the designer-technicians. We were doing ROW for NYDOT interstate projects and this program saved thousands of hours. I was a hero with the ROW guys, but the PM's could care less. Some of the right-out-of-college engineers were eager to learn how to use the computer, but when they got their Professional Engineer licenses, they staged "shuffling paper rather than doing 'real engineering '" as you so clearly put it.

So this leads to, at least in my mind, the obvious: Computers are for specialists who can use them to the best advantage for their organizations. CADD will be done by those that can do CADD. PM's may use computers to track their projects and communicate with others (email. memos, etc.) but it's not in their best interest to do CADD. It's not in the organizations best interest for PM's to use CADD.

In my efforts to educate the civil engineering community, someone raised the question: Who uses CADD? This is really an easy question to answer. CADD users are those people who need CADD to do their jobs! Well, who are those people? This question is a little harder. If an engineer is doing design layout, in other words, creating drawings, then the engineer will use CADD. If engineers are managing projects, then they won't use CADD. In my personal observations of several public and private organizations, right-out-of college engineers will use CADD because they are responsible for the engineering and for creating drawings. Once the graduate engineer gets responsible-charge of a project, then someone else gets to do the engineering, and he/she no longer uses CADD. (I suspect that most architects use CADD because they do create drawings. But as you suggest that's probably for another magazine).

However. I have observed there is a cadre of designer-technicians (para-professionals if you like) that are the keystone of the CADD effort in their organizations. Wherever I go, I see these CADD users editing CADD drawings from hardcopy blue/lines just as you describe. In my own experience. I could never get any PM to use a mark-up or so-called red-lining program, though I tried several. This leads me to the rest of your column: CADD standards.

The reality is that the PM's and other "suits" of organizations don't care about CADD standards. Oh you may get lip-service, but they really don't care. CADD standards improve the working conditions of the CADD designer-technicians, not project managers. It's obvious to you and me that PM's and the whole organization will benefit if CADD standards exist and are used properly. But who will pay for them? PM's can't take time away from managing their projects to put them together. Upper management never budgeted for them. The real authors of CADD standards should be those people that are responsible for creating the drawings but they have no authority!

And so it goes. I have no cure for our plight we'll be decades before we have meaningful CADD standards for general civil engineering projects such as roads and bridges, water/waste/storm water transport and treatment, and civil site development. Despite all the noise about NIBS and their efforts to bring about the National CADD Standard, it has little to do with much of the civil engineering community (here we go again with the architect jokes).

But I don't want to discourage you. You need to keep lifting that bale and toting that barge. You need to keep ranting and raving. Maybe someday there'll be a killer-app that'll bring the PM's into the fold.
Charlie Hodge

As always I would love to know what you think, feel free to leave a comment or drop me a line at