Management

Making It Work with IT (CAD Manager Column)

1 Jul, 2007 By: Robert Green

Collaborating with your IT department can make CAD management easier.


During the past six years, I've surveyed CAD managers about industry trends, and one of the sharpest changes I've seen is the convergence of CAD management and IT. Approximately one-third of CAD managers now report through the company IT infrastructure, but almost all CAD managers must work with an IT department to resolve workstation and network issues. Long story short, CAD managers increasingly need to work with IT, so we might as well make it a positive experience.

Reporting through IT

I'm often asked if the CAD manager position should be an IT position or an engineering/design position, and I'd like to address this issue right up front. Historically speaking, CAD managers have reported through engineering or architecture departments because they've been responsible for production as well as management. What's more, most CAD managers are engineers, designers or architects. There-fore, CAD managers have found themselves working in departments that embrace their design talents more than their computer skills.

As CAD has branched into 3D design and BIM (building information management), people have begun to realize that a CAD manager is more than an architect or engineer who's handy with a computer. Savvy companies are becoming aware that managing these CAD tools more effectively can make a difference in the bottom line, and as such they have moved CAD managers to a central support agency such as IT. In fact, CAD managers may actually be freer to support, teach and enhance CAD systems in IT than they would if they had to remain billable on a variety of projects.

Truth be told, I don't think it matters much which department you report to—so long as you're free to do your job and can learn and advance your career.

Acknowledging Differences

For two parties to work well together, they must first understand and respect each other. For IT departments and CAD managers to reach an accord, the different emphases of both parties must be acknowledged and accepted. In my experience, the IT department's emphasis always has been to deliver computers and networks that work and to secure the company's data from loss; the CAD manager tends to judge everything based on speed and ease of use for the CAD users. These different emphases can lead to frustration if the parties don't explain themselves to one another. Here are the two methods I've found that have worked for me:

Explain file sizes/permissions to IT. If the IT staff doesn't understand why you're so fixated on speed and ease of file access, it's probably because they've never suffered through resolving a 4MB externally referenced base plan over a painfully slow password-protected connection. Simply showing the problem to the appropriate IT personnel should demonstrate your concerns clearly. Always remember that a lot of people in IT don't know much (if anything) about CAD, so you'll just have to teach them.

Accept IT limitations. If, after you've expressed your speed concerns to IT and it becomes apparent that things are slow simply because the network connection is overtaxed and can't be upgraded, then you need to accept the technical limitations and look for other answers. After all, the IT department has budget and technical limitations just as you do, and it can't always do everything you'd like.

Simply loop and repeat the process of teaching and listening, and you'll notice that both you and the IT department are learning about each other as you work together more naturally. Keep at it, stay positive and you will see results!

Build Your Skills

When you're working more collaboratively with IT, you'll be well served to inventory your knowledge of the IT-centric skills of which CAD managers should be aware. I'll present these IT-based skills with a brief explanation of each.

Basic network administration. This function encompasses creating user accounts, manipulating passwords, creating network-shared directories and manipulating user groups/permissions to keep data files secured. There's nothing glamorous here, but for CAD managers the pay-off is independence—you'll no longer have to ask your IT staff. And even if you do work through your IT staff for these basic network items, they'll appreciate that you know what you're talking about.

Data backup and restore operations. These tasks include the essentials required to protect data from accidental user deletion or overwriting. In most company environments, it entails using some sort of semiproprietary backup software with a timed mode of execution and rotation of digital backup tapes. While it's unlikely that a CAD manager would take over backup/restore operations for the entire IT department, you could run your own backups.

Hardware budgeting/planning. The computers and networks for which your IT department plans today will be what you'll have to live with tomorrow, so hardware budgeting and planning probably determines your future success more than anything else. CAD managers can—and should—provide vital support in this phase of IT planning, because only CAD managers understand the unique hardware demands that CAD applications impose on user desktops and the overall network infrastructure.

Software integration (programming) with other applications. Most CAD managers know that it's possible to link their CAD applications to databases (locally deployed or via the Internet), spreadsheets or purchasing systems, but they don't have the programming experience to make it happen. Typically, this expertise is more abundant in IT environments in which Web servers and wide-area databases are relatively common. Looking for some programming knowledge? It's already in IT.

WAN file/user management. A WAN (wide-area network) is built as company sites are linked together with data lines, routers and switches, and CAD management becomes much more complex as a result. Because office-to-office file transfers will be much slower over WANs than when working on your own server, users will be tempted to copy files to their own machines, causing a data synchronization nightmare. Replicating files to remote offices via hardware solutions or software replication and maintaining user accounts that work over multiple servers become very important CAD management concerns.

Be Helpful and Learn

Of course, the IT department will always enjoy working with a CAD manager who provides assistance as opposed to one who constantly places demands on the department. So what sort of action steps can you take to be seen as the sort of CAD manager with whom IT likes to work? Here are a few hints I've found useful over the years:

Be proactive about planning. If you know that new software versions require new operating systems, graphics cards or substantial hardware upgrades, tell the IT group immediately. And while you're at it, gather data from software manufacturer Web sites to show your IT leadership that you know what you're talking about. Being proactive not only helps you get the hardware you need, it also helps IT gain budgeting support from senior management.

Offer to take over a task. Let's say you want to understand more about your company's backup processes but you know your IT staff can't take hours to answer all of your questions. Why not offer to run the backups for a couple of weeks in exchange for being able to learn about the process? That way you'll learn what you want to learn in real-world mode and provide an incentive for the IT staff.

Be a CAD translator. Many times, IT departments don't understand CAD users the same way they would a general office user, and this difference can lead to misunderstandings about everything from hardware to peripheral devices. So why not offer to educate your IT staff about the peculiarities of CAD software, input devices, plotting, large-bandwidth file relationships and data management? In my experience, the IT department wants to understand the CAD environment but doesn't have the background to do so. If you step in, you'll be rewarded with an IT department that is more CAD savvy and, therefore, more likely to assist with all things CAD.

It's What You Learn

There's an old adage in employment that work isn't just about what you earn, it's also about what you learn. And for CAD managers who work in larger company environments with established IT/networking groups, there's plenty to learn from existing IT staff. And because established IT departments handle the load, you're more able to learn at your own pace without the pressure of having to figure out everything.

Contrast the larger company environment with a small company that doesn't have a formal IT/networking group, and you realize that being able to learn from someone is a luxury on which you should capitalize whenever you can.

Building a Partnership

I hope I've made the case that working more closely with your IT department can make your CAD management life easier. I'd recommend reading back through the major points of this "CAD Manager" column to assess your IT skills and weaknesses. Then you can form a game plan outlining all you can do to work better with your IT department. The worst outcome would be that you learn something about IT, right? I think, however, you'll find that the more you know about IT, the more in control of your CAD department you really are.

Robert Green performs CAD programming and consulting throughout the United States and Canada. Reach him at rgreen@greenconsulting.com.


About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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