Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Software is not soft

Among my other duties at work, I'm a member of the CAD helpline. The CAD helpline is made up of mostly conscripted people from different project teams who learn more about CAD than everyone else in order to help their coworkers when a routine problem arises. If one of us can't solve the problem, that's when we call Sarge. That still happens more frequently than he'd like, but hey, we're still learning.

Every other week, the office buys us lunch, and we sit around a table and learn about the latest CAD stuff or new problems to solve. Lately, we've been learning about a new type of drawing software called Revit. Revit is owned by the same company that makes ADT (the Software Formerly Known As AutoCAD), but it's poised to surpass ADT as the most-used architectural drafting software. In our case, it's a matter of the partners at Design Associates got it from somewhere that Revit is the shizznit for drawing in 3D and it's the next step in software. At first, the partners wanted Sarge to just flip every project in the office over to Revit in, say, a month. Sarge advised them against this, explaining that the learning curve on Revit would shut DA down and the frustration of teaching Revit and dealing with the waves of ensuing questions would cause him to douse himself with kerosene and light himself up like a Vietnamese monk. Sarge convinced them to scale back their aspirations simply to converting all projects to some kind of 3D drawings, be it Revit or ADT. Since some project teams are using Revit now, we're having to learn how to use it in the event that we might have to help someone solve problems in it.

Here's the deal: software, schmoftware; if the user isn't on board with the whole shebang, it's pointless. There are a variety of reasons why the person doing the drawing wouldn't learn or use new software:
  1. The user is understaffed and pressed for time. This is the most valid of reasons, and not just because it happened to me while working on Wheatlands. When working 7-day, 60-hour weeks for months on end, and one is forced to choose between learning the hippy-dippy software and just getting phone calls returned and plans and casework drawn for the next client meeting, one will inevitably choose to do architecture in lieu of doing cool-ass software stuff. This happens time and again when project managers promise mad deadlines and pass a heavy workload onto only one or two people.
  2. The project team is unstable and there's no continuity of learning. Quel coincidence. This also happened on Wheatlands. In the last month of design development, Howie finally put a very bright and talented coworker on Wheatlands, just in time to help my intern and me finish up. However, my new help had no experience with my software and was forced to go back to basics in terms of drawing. My intern was pulled off Wheatlands a month later, so he didn't even get to develop a full understanding of the software and use it through an entire project, while my other coworker had to keep on with the old system of drawing due to time contraints (see Reason #1 above). If the same people don't get to work on and learn the software while applying it to a project, then they never really learn it. And then you can never really use the software. Reasons #1 and #2 have caused problems on Pomme de Terre as well. But the worst reason of all is....
  3. The user is a fucking idiot or stuck in his or her ways. Sadly, this happens more often than we'd like. I can tell when Sarge has been helping one of these people because he has a resigned look on his face and marks on the side of his head like he'd slammed it in a car door. Some people simply cannot--or will not--retain new information when it's given to them: they won't write it down, make a note, repeat it back to whoever taught them, whatever. Just as difficult is a user who's been doing CAD for several years and refuses to acknowledge that technology is changing. These people especially suck when they are the only members of the project team not using the software correctly--suddenly, everyone has to drop what they're doing to help them navigate a drawing or they open a drawing and fuck it up, so then someone has to fix the drawing. Or, they can't fix it and call oneof us on the CAD Helpline. And then we can't fix it and have to call Sarge, who arrives with a baseball bat in one hand and a bottle of NyQuil in the other. This makes for an unpleasant afternoon.

I wish I had something better to talk about than software, my dear new WAD Readers, but it's such a huge part of what we do. You do a lot of hand drawing and drafting in college, but precious little hand drawing in the workplace. Projects are ALL drawn on computers, and when the way we draw is made difficult, it makes...architects...drink.

I'll have a more pleasant post tomorrow after something happens after work. More architectural enlightenment to follow....

6 comments:

faded said...

\I send my condolences and sympathy to Sarge. I had his job at the last firm I ever worked for, Pickles, Pickles and Pickles. I had to bring the office forward from using pin registration drafting to using Autocad. This was a small 12 person firm.

I found the only way to enforce standards was to hide them behind buttons. I wrote a custom menu extension in auto lisp that provided a series of buttons for the user. The buttons would say things like 24x36 or 30x42 or Insert Layers. The users were happy to click and not worry about it. It was a pain in the ass to set up but the users liked it alot and they enjoyed their ignorance. I finally extended the menus to include some parametric drafting routines and standard constructs that were inserted into the drawings. You could give the thing a set of inputs and it would rough out the wall section or door detail you wanted. A lot of this is now part of Autocad AEC and Revit. The idea was to hide the complexity of the system so the architect could select and interact with things they knew about. It worked very well.

Our concentration at the time was to reduce the labor required to build construction documents. We cut the time required by 30%. However the overall time to do a project was not reduced at all. I wanted to find out where the time was going. I proposed a way to find out by modifying how time and activities were tracked in the firm. Knowing this information could have made PP&P into a very profitable firm. I laid out my proposal to Mr. Pickle and he fired me. How he did it is story for another day.

BaxterWatch said...

I thought ADT was a security system for your house...

ha ha

I hate CAD. Everything should be easy like using the draw tools in Office. ~snerk~

Seriously, CAD makes my head hurt. Having to learn more than ONE system like that would seriously consider my vocation. Like, "gee, I'd rather clean up vomit and bed pans than do this. I'm off to nursing school! At least I'll get paid for taking care of babies."

Sarge said...

Lordamercy!!! I love seeing your take on things. If I weren't so busy trying to crush my skull with the car door, I'd see more humor in it. Alas, back to the parking lot...

Mile High Pixie said...

Actually, if you're a CAD manager, your already *are* being paid to take care of babies....

faded said...

In your post you never sited a reason for the software upgrades. You indicated that the upgrades were going to happen but never stated why.

Has the feature creature taken over your office? The feature creature causes the owners and managers to lust after the latest bells and whistles with out any consideration of the usefulness of said features.

The feature creature can consume huge amounts of time and money and give you nothing but frustration and decreased productivity in return. Everyone wastes time learning useless stuff and suffering the constant confusion of never ending upgrades.

The only upgrades that should be made are ones that reduce your cost of doing business. In this case the upgrade should help make your design and project management processes more efficient.

If the feature creature lives in your office stop Sarge from slamming his head in the car door . The two of you need to smash your heads together like Klingons do in Star Trek.

Mile High Pixie said...

Faded: Star Trek? No you di'int!

The latest thing for software is to truly build your building virtually in 3D. Essentially, it solves a lot of your conflicts in the fields and also makes it really easy to cut real, buildable, and eventually detailed sections, interior elevations, exterior elevations, and details. It expands your SD and DD phases but shrinks your CD phase and supposedly/hopefully makes your CA pretty painless. The CA on Wheatlands has been fairly easy, I must say, due to a combination of good software and CDs and a good, skilled, conscientious contractor.