Five minute CIO: Jim McDonnell, John Paul Construction

7 Aug 2015

Jim McDonnell, IT manager, John Paul Construction

“We live and die by being able to provide reliable services and we have to keep a constant eye on new innovations,” explains Jim McDonnell, IT manager at John Paul Construction, one of Ireland’s leading international construction firms.

John Paul Construction is a leading international specialist in construction, infrastructure, fit-out and asset management.

Jim McDonnell has been with John Paul Construction for four years where he oversees a small IT team with a big task to ensure that up to 40 sites across the company’s network from Ireland to Saudi Arabia are functioning at all times.

He is also overseeing the implementation of new Building Information Modelling (BIM) technology, which is transforming construction projects worldwide.

Prior to joining John Paul Construction McDonnell was IT operations manager for Global Diagnostics.

Can you outline the breadth and scope of the technology rollout across your organisation and what improvements it will bring to the company?

It can be varied. Technology is ingrained in everything we do. People think of a construction company as guys with shovels and diggers but IT is key to how we deliver our work. We have four main offices in Ireland and the UK and a main office in Riyadh and the guys are on 30 to 40 site across the UK, Ireland and the Middle East.

We issue them with Citrix technology so they can work in the same IT environment regardless of where they are or what device they are using. We also ensure people can communicate effectively through unified communications tools like Lync.

What are the main points of your company’s IT strategy?

To help facilitate the business objectives and to provide good value in terms of time and in cost to ensure we have reliable, fully-functioning IT services. Also being small and adaptive is key. We live and die by being able to provide reliable services and we have to keep a constant eye on new innovations and trial and test if they might improve the IT workload or improve the experiences of our users. We are willing to take a chance on trials and see if a piece of software or new upgrade will work and if it does we will it integrate into our everyday users.

Can you give a snapshot of how extensive your IT infrastructure is?

It’s a combination of many types of systems. We have a main document management system that includes a lot of our accounting from a contracts perspective. We have technology rolled out throughout where guys are using snagging apps as well as being able to share drawings.

The infrastructure we are supporting at the back-end is about 90-odd virtual servers and in terms of users it’s a case of what technology suits — from smartphones to tablets to laptops.

In terms of applications, they vary depending on the roles: everything from building information modelling (BIM) systems to accounting to Lync for unified communications. We also have a number of offices with Cisco phone systems, which we are looking to upgrade shortly.

In terms of the infrastructure itself, the back-end infrastructure is virtualised and that gives us great flexibility and allows us to separate and simplify applications and not be trying to leverage off single hardware or servers.

In terms of the estate itself, every user has two or three devices depending on what role they have. It is something that is putting a lot more pressure on the IT department to cope with because the users also have personal devices at home that can give incredible performance, but they don’t realise that in order to implement that in an enterprise company there is much more to consider to make sure everything is working the same way.

In terms of managing IT budgets, what are your key thoughts on how CIOs/heads of technology should achieve their goals?

Value for money and value to the business is key. Every implementation or budget we put into we consider three or four years out, the long-term plan, where costs are going and we are identifying and reviewing where money is going on a project-by-project basis and having project under consideration of the overall picture so we can control where everything is going so that there is a uniform approach to what we are doing.

Often what we do in terms of budgets, it comes down to what the business will get and how much will it cost; what’s the impact on the team here and the impact on the users. Those are the key things we consider when we plan our IT budgets.

Make sure it is reliable, uptime is second-to-none, and users feel like they are getting a good service and to keep them as productive as possible.

Do you have a large in-house IT team, or do you look to strategically outsource where possible?

We have a very small IT team of five managing the entire IT infrastructure, so we work with key vendors to help support specialist systems. Because we are so geographically spread, we deal with reliable local vendors to be able to strategically leverage their services.

We do it on an ad hoc basis, but when we find good service providers we tend to use them when available on the remote sites – everywhere from John O’ Groats to the Middle East. It’s not really a workable model for a small team to send guys out to sites. So we work with local service providers to help support our users down there.

What are some of the main responsibilities of your own role, and how much of it is spent on deep technical issues compared to the management and business side?

More and more these days [I am spending time on the management side], especially with the construction industry looking at a lot of changes in terms of BIM finally getting a foothold in the industry, embracing new standards. IT has been heavily involved as part of the planning and implementation of those type of projects. We are always trying to involve IT with business issues as soon as possible so that we get their input rather than at the very last minute. Rather than being reactive we are quite good at being proactive in terms of getting IT involved early on in projects.

What are the big trends and challenges in your sector, and how do you plan to use IT to address them?

As I previously mentioned, BIM is one of the major changes in the construction industry in the last few years and it has become compulsory for UK public contracts starting next year. We have been wrking to get our BIM workflows in place for years. It involves working with 3D models rather than 2D and requires new IT apps and methods to deliver BIM.

It is managing a building project but at the core of it is the model itself and that is used to help everyone work off the same page. It means to a lot of pre-planning to budget and limit spend and become more efficient. You can find out prior to a project beginning where the costs will be rather than coming up with solutions during a build itself. We have already found in the UK that BIM is contributing to a 15pc to 20pc saving on materials for projects because of being able to accurately order in to meet the need, so waste isn’t there.

This is something the entire construction industry is embracing and it is something we are finding is making technology more ingrained in the industry itself.

What metrics or measurement tools do you use to gauge how well IT is performing?

Feedback from the board is always key and always we encourage our users to give us feedback in terms of how they are doing on a daily basis, any issues we are not getting to. That said, we always look at our budgets and uptimes and we know from reliability and uptime of services whether IT is doing an adequate job. But it is usually down to the end user — that is the key feature that gives complete feedback to know if the IT department is doing well for the company.

What other projects do you have lined up for the year, and what will they contribute to the business?

We’re constantly working on projects. In the long-run, upgrades to our security is taken as a given. Improvements to our main document management systems we are looking to bring in will include extra features that will allow us to bring lots more functionality in-house rather than using third party applications.

That in itself will not only save money in terms of the services we purchase from other third-party apps but also allow us to work from a single unified location and leverage that.

BIM will be an ongoing project for the next two or three years as each tender and contract will require higher and higher specifications.

Completing the Lync rollout for the company will see two offices brought over to the unified communications system.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years