CAD Manager 101

29 Feb, 2004 By: Robert Green

Excel by cultivating these essential skills.

When I speak at user conferences, I'm often asked, "Exactly what should I do as CAD manager?" When I hear this question, it's obviously not about technology, but about the managerial aspect of the job. Though it may be clear that CAD managers must keep software and networks running, the prospect of unknown managerial pitfalls makes even the best CAD managers jumpy. In this column, I offer up common managerial expectations for CAD managers and try to give you some practical advice on how to excel along the way.

Communicate Well

Nobody will ever tell you directly that you should communicate well, but that's the message you should hear whenever a conversation centers around business writing, reviewing employees, creating budgets, and briefing management on your plans. All these tasks require clear communication, yet they vary widely in technique. You need to be well-versed in the following areas:

Writing. Convey your ideas to management in short, executive summary–style memos. Understand that if you can't convey your ideas in a single page with a few well-crafted paragraphs, management probably won't take the time to read it thoroughly. Shakespeare said that brevity is the soul of wit-he must have written a few executive summaries!

Reviews. Concentrate on using solid business writing to capture the intent of your employee reviews prior to the actual review. Use your written documentation as a road map for conducting reviews and append them as required after the review. When you use this method, you conduct better reviews, and you automatically finish your personnel paperwork as you do so.

Budgets. Craft your budget using a spreadsheet program (most likely Excel) and format it so it's easy to read. By using a spreadsheet you gain the benefits of automatic math functions to reduce errors. You also send a clear signal that you're serious about using management tools, which shows that you're serious about your position.

Presentations. If you don't already know it, learn PowerPoint basics so you can create professional presentations. A great place to start is with a copy of a presentation you like from a speaker you enjoy. Then take time to craft your own sample presentations by rehearsing with a laptop machine at home. Speaking along with PowerPoint presentations is an absolute must for corporate presentations. Remember the grade-school adage: Practice makes perfect!

Staff Development

CAD managers can have great impact on the productivity of their department and others by fostering staff development. You can view staff development in any number of ways, but the following areas are key:

Build motivation. This is best done by constantly challenging and prompting CAD staffers to learn as much as they can, not only about CAD but also about the products and projects they work on. If you set an example of constant improvement and demand the same of your staff, you'll be surprised at how many people accept the challenge.

Train. Decide which areas of CAD productivity are most crucial for your company and then build a targeted training program to deliver training resources to meet the challenge. This doesn't mean opulent training programs that last for weeks, but rather focused training that improves the bottom line in a few short sessions.

Weed. As you motivate and train users, you'll see many step up to the challenge and, alas, some who don't. In the current economic climate, there's simply no reason to accept poor staff performance when good people are looking for work. Sometimes the best thing you can do to build your staff is weed out the dead wood. Make no mistake, your staff already knows who the dead wood is, and they'll respect you for taking the initiative to fix the situation.

Your Development

In order for you to be at your peak, you must continue your CAD management education. It helps you do your job better and in turn makes you a better manager. It's key that your office management understands that being a CAD manager is an isolating job and that you have no peers to turn to for advice. At the minimum, you should:

Read. Continue to read as much as you can about CAD and current computer technology. Cadalyst and InfoWorld are two of my favorites.

Network. Consider attending user conferences or similar local events, such as Autodesk University, where you can talk with other CAD managers to share ideas and get inspiration. You never know where your next great thought will come from, but chances are that being around a bunch of other knowledgeable people will help.

Evaluate. Take advantage of local resellers that offer technology evaluation workshops or new product showcases so you can stay on top of new technology without running up a big tab. Sometimes you can get great tips or ideas for doing things better from an applications engineer at these sorts of sessions.

Business Perspective

Ask yourself the following question: Are you a CAD manager because your company wants you to know everything about CAD, or because it expects you to keep the CAD department running well so the company can make money? Isn't it funny how thinking about your job from a business perspective refocuses your purpose in the organization? How often have you thought of your CAD management duties in relation to efficiency and profitability in the past year?

The key concept to remember is that CAD management should always strive to make CAD easier to use and push for ever-more-efficient use of CAD to lower project costs. Here are some suggestions for ways to use the business perspective to help you achieve CAD management success.

CAD standards. Push the idea of standards as a way to lower rework, interact with vendors more easily, and lower training costs for new CAD users. Stress that when standards are in place, costs drop and work becomes easier. This way you won't have to argue bits and bytes but dollars and cents. Trust me when I say management wants to talk dollars much more than bytes.

Work procedures. When you see inefficiency in your company's current work procedures, don't be afraid to challenge them, but be sure to frame the debate in terms of efficiency. Rather than saying, "We need to change this because I don't like it," say: "We need to change this because it's wasting money!"

Management will be very receptive to changing work procedures if doing so will save money. Focusing on cost savings also tends to depoliticize the situation because nobody can argue against savings.

Summing Up

Having been a CAD manager for 14 years, I understand that it's not always easy to juggle the technical and managerial aspects of the job. But as you tackle the managerial aspect of your job with enthusiasm and vigor, it becomes easier. Ultimately, I've arrived at the point where I really enjoy that part of being a CAD manager.

Why not take an hour or so to think about how you can use these hints to beef up your management skill set? Your career can only improve as a result.

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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