Coping with CAD Burnout

31 Oct, 1999 By: Mark Middlebrook

At an Autodesk University party not along ago, CADALYST editorial advisory board member Roy Salume and I discussed the role of the CAD manager. Implicit in the “manager” part of the job title is the notion that the people who bear that title spend some of their time overseeing, organizing, and motivating other people. Roy pointed out that, because many CAD managers rise to their position thanks to their computer and drafting prowess—and not their managerial skill—often the “people” part of the job is the most difficult and mystifying.

The CADALYST CAD Manager column usually muses on the technological aspects of managing CAD—AutoCAD features and applications, training, upgrading, standards, drawing exchange, and so on. We do throw in the occasional piece of advice about how to inspire your CAD users, plead with your boss, and pacify your clients, but most of our advice concerns the inanimate objects with which CAD managers work: hardware, software, and drawings. Roy and I agreed that, if the “manager” in CAD manager is supposed to be anything more than lip service, the human aspects of the job deserve more attention.

When CAD users go bad
One problem that you’ll have to deal with at some point—in your CAD users or yourself—is job burnout. In these and other management situations, it helps to recognize two characteristics of human nature:

Sharp people need to be challenged.
Human endurance has its limits.

Burnout is usually a result of violating one or both of these principles for an extended period of time. That is, people burn out because they’re bored, overworked, or both.

Purists might argue that the results of boredom are a slow, dying smolder rather than a spectacular comet-like burnout. But whether the phenomenon more closely resembles a fizzle or a flame, the results are the same: people who used to be motivated and productive get fed up. They either leave or become so unreliable and unpleasant that everyone else wishes that they would leave.

This month, let’s focus on full-time CAD drafters: people who use AutoCAD all day long to turn out drawings. These are the people most likely to burn out on CAD work simply because they spend so much time doing that.

CAD casualties
You probably know the syndrome. You finally manage to hire a talented CAD drafter to help out with the seemingly endless amount of work that’s keeping everyone busy days, evenings, and weekends. You spend time acquainting her with your office’s CAD standards, procedures, and projects. After a few months she’s cranking out drawings, and everyone finally is spending most evenings and weekends someplace other than the office. Then a year later she delivers her two weeks’ notice and is gone.

I’ve seen this syndrome play out over and over again in various companies. In these flush economic times (in other words, when everyone is way too busy), it’s often a case of companies using up a talented person. Good CAD drafters are a precious commodity—in many industries they’re more scarce than good engineers or architects. Thus, when a company gets hold of a good one, the tendency is to milk him for all he’s worth. When the person realizes that he’s become a Sisyphus—pushing the same boulder up the same hill for all eternity—he begins to wonder whether there’s not another job with more interesting terrain (or at least smaller boulders).

Of course, crunch times occur in most offices and industries, and one characteristic of a motivated employee is the willingness to pitch in with extra hours and effort to help get a job out the door. But when crunch time turns into all the time, then the CAD manager must deal with the imbalances in staffing and scheduling if they expect to keep good people around to handle future crunches.

Preventive medicine: keep CAD drafters healthy
Beyond the obvious (but sometimes difficult) measure of trying to create a sane working schedule, here are some suggestions for how to raise the odds that good CAD staff will stay around.

Keep them learning. Most computer users get jazzed when they learn a new, time-saving way to do something or master an aspect of a program that was unfamiliar to them before. Not only does their work become more efficient and less tedious, but they realize that their current job is helping them develop additional skills. You can keep people learning in many ways, including subsidized training classes, short in-office training sessions, lunch-time presentations or roundtable discussions, and “tips of the week.”

All approaches, though, involve an ongoing commitment to training. See the October 1998 Manager’s Corner column “Sharpen Your Users” for training strategies and ideas.

Challenge them. Really talented CAD users have active, curious minds. If you don’t let them feed that curiosity, they’ll grow bored and start looking around. Keeping work interesting for these kinds of people involves giving them additional responsibilities so they don’t feel like all they’ll ever do at your company is to create the same kinds of drawings over and over.

Finding additional responsibilities can be tricky, because there are only so many extra responsibilities to go around. But you may be able to delegate small customization or documentation tasks to people who have skill and interest in them. Try pairing a CAD hot-shot who has good communications skills with someone who needs a bit of extra training or support. You’ll reduce the burden on yourself, give the hot-shot some extra responsibility, acknowledge his or her expertise, and help the less-skilled drafter.

Involve drafters in decisions that affect them. One of the worst things you can do is to create a dictatorship in which all decisions, especially CAD-related ones such as standards and methods, come down from on high to be obeyed by the peons. It doesn’t matter whether the dictator is you or someone above you—the situation breeds discontent.

Most people like to have some say in the decisions that affect them, and resent rules whose only justification is “because I (or we) say so.” When you develop or revise CAD standards and other procedures, try at least to give everyone who will be affected a chance to express opinions. Consider including the more advanced users in meetings or decision-making. If you make them allies rather than enemies, they’ll be happier and also be more likely to push rather than impede the new cause.

Don’t create a CAD ghetto. If CAD is an island unto itself in your company, with its own rules, language, and social habits, make sure that the inhabitants don’t stay completely isolated from the other tribes. Help CAD drafters learn more about what others do and how CAD fits into project workflow.

Good drafters develop an intimate understanding of what the engineers and architects who feed them work do, and they know how to organize their CAD work so that it makes the entire design and documentation process as efficient as possible. This understanding doesn’t develop overnight, but it’s essential if a drafter is going to become anything more than a glorified tracer.

Protect them and fight for themwhen necessary. Good CAD managers must watch out for their CAD staff and be an advocate for them when dealing with managers and other groups in the company.

Drafting, and therefore CAD, is viewed as less glorious work than design and analysis in most offices, so there’s a tendency to treat the CAD staff as drudges who are less worthy of special consideration. For example, some managers don’t understand why CAD people should need more training with a new AutoCAD release, because they already should know the program.

I point out to these managers that engineers and architects are expected to take continuing education classes to improve their skills and keep up with changing building codes, materials, and design and analysis techniques. CAD software changes much more quickly and radically than any of those areas, so shouldn’t companies encourage and support continuing education for CAD drafters?

Remember that you can’t win ’em all. Accept the fact that, despite all of your best efforts, some people leave. Some factors are beyond your control, and even if the deciding factors were under your control, it’s not worth beating yourself up over the situation. Put your energy into finding a talented replacement and creating an environment in which that person can thrive.

Know thyself
So far, we’ve discussed CAD burnout as something that happens to other people and something that you, the CAD manager, are supposed to do something about. What happens when you’re the one suffering from burnout? Many of us have been immersed in CAD-dom for a decade or longer now, and it’s only natural that the work would lose some of its savor for some of us. If you’d like to read more about the subject or you have your own tale of burnout suffered and perhaps overcome, e-mail me and I’ll delve into this topic more in a future column.

About the Author: Mark Middlebrook

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