The Must-Have Technology Tools

Depending on your age, the technology on your desk has probably evolved quite a bit since your first day there. Whether your beeper was going off at your hip or you were punching away at an encyclopedia-sized laptop, technology today makes those days seem archaic in retrospect. But the best part is there’s a good chance you haven’t even seen the best of today.

Every day, an innovation emerges with the potential to propel your work day into the Jetsons’ era faster than you could have predicted. Many of these developments will be bought by the likes of Google or Facebook, who will then find a way to incorporate them into something you already use or an unreachable luxury for high-class nerds. But some will find their way into what I will call your "Tech Toolbox." These are the technologies that can and will impact personal and corporate bottom lines and whose value far outweighs the minimal capital investment required to employ them. Most are cloud-based, some are free, some are $1.99 in the app store and some are business suites with annual subscriptions well worth the price tag, but all of them can transform your work day.

All Things Google
Using Google Docs is like taking your entire Microsoft Office suite online. With a Google account and no additional fees, users can create spreadsheets, documents, presentations, forms and drawings, save them online and invite others to edit and view through this comprehensive resource. Everyone can work on files simultaneously, view all editing in real-time and use the comments feature for discussion and monitor all revisions. Documents can be downloaded, uploaded, emailed and converted to various file types for centralized storage, sharing and distribution. With offices on different continents, my company lives in Google Docs and the collaboration capabilities have been invaluable.

BIM is being adopted across the industry and products like Autodesk Revit, Vico and Bentley Systems are fighting for the growing market share of BIM users, but many professionals, especially estimators, haven’t started the learning process or simply don’t have the budget to invest in micro or macro BIM solutions. This is where I’d strongly recommend Google’s alternatives, such as Google Sketchup, a free product that allows users to model entire buildings in 3D and to start basic takeoffs and calculations using the 3D models. Users can even take the designed models and render them into higher resolution conceptual images, or drop the models onto Google Earth to show an owner what their building could look like on the site they have selected.

Speaking of Google Earth, this platform combined with Google Maps offers some excellent options for viewing and analyzing composite imagery of the specific jobsite you’re looking to build on when it’s not possible to visit the site. Google Earth and Maps have done an excellent job – made even better by launching their own imaging satellite – of combining high-resolution satellite imagery with their revolutionary "Street View" imagery. Further, they have combined imagery from photo sharing site Panoramio and other data sources to provide as much potential aerial and street level-imagery as possible.

Thanks to the proliferation of the cloud, most general contractors now realize the cost savings in going paperless. The entirety of preconstruction documents and data can be shared online with the click of the button via preconstruction software like SmartBidNet or file sharing sites like DropBox and YouSendIt, eliminating the need for printers and scanners and putting documents and communications, that are too big to email, online with viewing and/or editing access to all those you approve. Solutions like Cloud Takeoff are elevating collaboration in the estimating phase of projects by offering "Google Doc-style" real-time collaboration on estimating takeoff. General contractors and subcontractors can access files at the same time, share comments and messages and always have access to the most updated files in a centralized and secure online database. 

Online networks like Jobsite123 also offer free services for growing vendor and subcontractor networks and building a portfolio of peer referrals within the industry. General contractors no longer have to procure and request the detailed information they require for every job, subcontractors and suppliers are putting it out there and looking to be found, and the best bid-management systems are opening up their applications to easily accept and sort this data.

Scheduling & BIM
Cloud Takeoff has a positive effect on takeoff, much like Horizontal Glue does on Building Information Modeling (BIM). Eliminate file exchange issues, send notices and RFIs, manage clash detection and perform quantity takeoff and budgeting on all models, with everyone involved. Glue allows project management and BIM systems to communicate directly and connects general contractors and subcontractors via an online platform where changes are recorded and all files are stored for central reference. The fact that Autodesk just purchased Horizontal is only going to mean more integration with their entire BIM suite. Having run through some demos of Glue, I must say that I’m quite impressed with how well their system works, how easy it is to navigate a model through the web browser, and what this will mean for GC/Sub/Supplier collaboration.

Social Media
And for those of you hoping to avoid the social ever-growing network, it’s probably best you give in now. Not only do sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Google+ help you connect with industry personalities and brands that could lead to business opportunities and partnerships, they are also powerful project management platforms. LinkedIn Answers is basically a human-powered search engine, ready at all times to poll the professionals you’d like to hear from, both inside and outside your personal network, and provide feedback for everything from which software provider is most reliable to how LEED certification affects investor interest.  Facebook groups and pages can give project teams an online space to share events and discussions. Twitter can be a powerful jobsite, project, news and job notification tool to reach internal and external stakeholders. If you haven’t tried a Google+ Hangout yet, I highly recommend you try it now. With 70 percent of daily mobile device use being social media, it is one of the best mediums to communicate with employees, clients and prospects alike.

Mobile Tech
These days you probably spend more time on your smartphone than any other device. All these other applications and services are great, but the ultimate question is, can you get them on your phone or tablet? If the application is up to industry standards, they’ve got a way to sync data to your mobile device. I would start by using Google’s entire suite of products, especially Google Earth for mobile. Beyond that, Autodesk is aggressively rolling out an impressive suite of mobile products that allow you to do everything from viewing and measuring a plan format on your iPad (AutoCAD WS) to design review (DesignReview). Vela Systems has long had an iPad app for their project management solution as has our own product, SmartBidNet.

Putting it Together
I’d like to conclude with this video: All the technology I’ve mentioned is now converging to create the "augmented reality" hinted at in this video. Things like Project Glass will bring together all the data you depend on, from all its various sources, and essentially create an alternate reality accessible on everything from contact lenses to tablets. Augmented reality will change everything from the way you pitch projects in the boardroom to how your subcontractors view 3D project plans on the space they are building. If you’re still not sure if these technologies are really worth your time, don’t say I didn’t warn you when it’s time to integrate it into those reading glasses of yours some day.

About the Author
James Benham is founder and president of JB Knowledge Technologies, Inc. an information technology services provider and maker of the SmartBidNet and SmartCompliance software solutions. JBKnowledge specializes in enterprise application and database development, electronic data interchange, strategy consulting, mobile solutions and web design and development, focusing on the construction, real estate, risk and insurance industries.