Conor MacCabe, director and head of IT at Henry J Lyons architects, describes his problem-solving approach to technology and why cloud technology lets the business focus on its core service: designing buildings.
Can you give me a sense of the scale of Henry J Lyons as an organisation?
We are probably one of the top 3 architecture firms in Ireland. Five years ago, that would have meant we were pushing towards 200 people. These days, a lot of our competitors have retrenched, and we are at about 50-plus people. Like everyone in the construction industry, we have dropped in scale a lot but we are growing again slightly.
How dependent on IT are you as a company, or could you – pun very much intended – go back to the drawing board?
No, we couldn’t. We have one drawing board. We have been more or less completely CAD-dependent, certainly since I’ve been here and probably about 10 years before that.
What are the main IT applications the company uses?
The main tools – AutoCAD is one. Increasingly, people are moving to things like Revit, which is an information-rich 3D model. Once, people would have done drawings in two dimensions; now you would create a model of a building which would have information for all of the different disciplines that go into a project: architectural, structural and engineering. That’s the future of CAD: we’re not quite there but it’s getting there.
The other major tool we use is mail and correspondence. The vast bulk of our correspondence is by email. We need to be able to create drawings and drawn information and then correspond with people across the life of a project, which can be years long.
There’s a shift away from traditional email to more instant messaging tools and other collaboration apps: have you started to see this yet?
Email is the bedrock of correspondence at this point, but I could see a shift into other formats of messaging.
We’ve been quite reliant on things like Google Drive. We built Google’s own headquarters [the Montevetro building in Dublin] using Google Drive as an information-sharing platform. There are various solutions to that, and we tend to run a number of them.
We also use Asite, Buzzsaw, BIM – there are construction industry-specific tools.
A lot of architecture firms were heavily hit by the property crash and the recession – did that have an effect on your approach to IT?
Before, in the boom, we invested quite a bit in IT – particularly in CAD servers, which sit in this building. We had servers in Dublin and Cork which replicated to each other and we used them for backup.
It was probably over-specified as a system and was very expensive. That was one element of legacy IT systems that we were left with when the downturn came.
We never had a proper infrastructure in terms of contacts, or a project database. There was a need to integrate things like mail, contacts and so on, and we had never managed to integrate those. There were bespoke solutions but they typically cost a couple of hundred grand.
Moving to Google Apps allowed us to do a lot of that for far less money. It doesn’t completely deal with storage of CAD files but I think the technology will catch up with that.
Why did you decide to move to Google Apps: purely a cost consideration or was there a strategic element to it, as well?
Four things: the first driver was the difficulty in dealing with mail storage and large format files. People will still send us a lot of large format files. We deal in them all the time and we were finding management of people’s inboxes difficult under the old system.
Two, we were using public folders in Outlook as a means of storing mail, which was not ideal.
Three was cost. Typically, we were looking at a bill of €200,000 to integrate CRM software, documents and so on, and we got a lot of the functionality for far less money.
The fourth reason was agility. We have jobs in the Middle East now and again. We also had an office in Shanghai and we still do work in China if the opportunity presents itself, and this just makes the set-up of that much easier.
In the last year or so, tablets are coming to the fore and people are on sites, making up documents or files and it’s a lot easier to integrate that using Google Apps.
Have tablets reduced your dependence on paper, and are they a cost saver in a way?
It’s a cost saver but it’s definitely a time saver. You don’t need to spend 10 minutes waiting by a printer for a set of minutes for a meeting, you just know that they’re on a tablet and you just walk out the door to that meeting. Nor do you come back from one and chuck the paper in the bin.
Another big part of our job would be getting presentations or documents that are partially complete while you’re out on the road, and marking them up or commenting on them, and that’s made far easier with a tablet. And there’s a presentation tool, as well.
How much of your own day-to-day role is given over to technology?
Not much, is the answer. We have one employee who spends his time on IT full time and principally that’s maintenance, setting up stuff then a helpdesk type of role.
That was another big driver, really. We looked down the years, we engaged with companies providing bespoke architecture solutions and not only was it a big spend but it was time: it was a project. We tried to do something with SharePoint at one stage and we spent a lot of money to develop something customised.
We also trialled Gmail as a system about five years ago and it didn’t work at the time but we came back to it about a year and a half ago. It had come on as a product, and the marketplace had evolved and there were more off-the-peg add-ons that did what we needed.
The switchover was quite painless, really, which is a credit to Baker [Google Apps partner which implemented the system for Henry J Lyons]. We trialled it with a group of key users, they got comfortable with it and it hasn’t taken much of my time.
What are the business benefits of using Google Apps, and why didn’t you adopt it before?
One of things I really like about Google is they keep improving stuff. You don’t have to load new updates or a new version; it’s just incrementally improving all the time.
One of the principal reasons we didn’t use it five years ago was, while Gmail was good, we couldn’t share emails between people [on a project] and that was still the case until recently.
We now have a Google App called Grexit, which lets you share labels and it creates an email archive for anything with a particular label on it. It’s not a Google feature; it’s an app in the marketplace.
We can add a feature like that in an hour. It’s great not having to worry that it’s a two-week IT project to do something like that.
Do you think your own background, as an architect and a project manager, gives you a different perspective on IT compared to someone who’s only ever known a computing discipline?
I think it probably would. Architecture is somewhere between problem solving and design, so certainly it gives you a strategic view. Nor do we want to pay a full-time person to think about how to do things if we don’t have to.
How has IT changed over time and how has it changed how you do your job?
When I first joined it was reasonably functional, it was set up to mirror a paper-based structure. And then the infrastructure was generally fine but now and again it went down. Touch wood, it hasn’t gone down for a long time but if it did, we’d have a completely different recovery strategy.
I think it works a little better now [than before]. It’s easier, cheaper, takes less time and we have more people as a proportion of our staff focused on drawing buildings.