Getting Better - What Should You Learn? (CAD Manager Column)31 Mar, 2008 By: Robert Green
By learning more about your software and its intricacies, you can create a more productive work environment.
CAD managers are responsible for helping their users learn more about software, work procedures, and standards. But what should CAD managers be learning to do a better job themselves?
This reasonable question has many potential answers. In this month's installment of "CAD Manager," I'll endeavor to make some recommendations that will benefit all CAD managers and provide resources to assist in your knowledge quest. If appropriate, I'll present tips for communicating your learning needs to your boss so you can get it approved.
Your Peer Group
Before we talk about anything else, let's acknowledge that being a CAD manager is a solitary existence. Most companies have only one CAD manager, so there's nobody to turn to for advice and help. Therefore, you need to find ways to connect with your fellow CAD managers, both in person and digitally, and build a virtual peer group. Where do you find these resources? Here are a few ideas:
User groups. For Autodesk customers, try AUGI (www.augi.com) for lists of local user groups. For Bentley customers, try www.be.org; and for SolidWorks customers, try www.solidworks.com. Also contact your software reseller who may have its own local user groups. If in doubt, use Google to find local resources. The key is to find user groups that are frequented by power users and CAD managers and then attend meetings and get to know people.
Discussion groups. Check your software manufacturer's Web sites for CAD manager groups (most have them) and also check the Cadalyst CAD Manager forum at http://forums.cadalyst.com. Start posting questions and read the answers that come back from fellow users.
Industry events. If your software manufacturer has an annual technical conference such as Autodesk University (from Autodesk), the BE Conference (from Bentley), or SolidWorks World (from SolidWorks), then seriously consider attending. These types of events get you in close proximity with large numbers of CAD managers and vendors that you'd never get to meet in person otherwise.
I know this seems simple, but it's something that gets overlooked more often than you might think: To serve your company best, you must know the application software you use backwards and forwards. In fact, you need to know the software so well that you even understand the features you're not using in case productivity enhancements might be lurking there. You need to do everything you can to immerse yourself in the software, and you need to do so at least as often as each new release.
So how can you continue to learn your software? Here are a few hints that have helped me over the years:
Beta programs. If you're not involved with your software company's beta-testing programs, you should be. It's the only way to get the jump on new technology before the general public gets it. Activity in beta programs allows you to evaluate and understand new technology before your users start asking you questions. You'll also find that many beta programs have blog communities that give you great feedback from other beta testers. Ask your software reseller about beta programs or search your software manufacturer's Web site to get started.
User groups. Use the resources I outlined above to ask other CAD managers about software features you don't understand. Ask for advice about how others are making productive use of features you don't understand. You'll be amazed at the great ideas you can glean if you ask.
Update training/industry events. I'm not a great fan of sending everyone in a company to software update training, but I do think CAD managers should go. They should also attend the industry events that I outlined above. These types of training environments get you in a room with other people from whom you can learn, and they give you great access to training staff while allowing you to focus on the task at hand (instead of a constantly ringing phone). Ask your software reseller about the programs it has available, sleuth out those industry events, and then get going.
Tip. Make sure your boss knows that you can find new productivity ideas, solve existing problems, and cut support time by proactively educating yourself. After your boss understands that he or she will receive good value for the money spent to train, he or she will be much more likely to approve your attendance.
The most effective CAD managers I know have the ability to customize their CAD software via programming. I've benefited tremendously from my programming background, as it has made it a lot easier to use AutoLISP, Visual Basic Automation (VBA), and menu/toolbar customization. The key to programming is starting your learning curve at an appropriate skill level (so you don't feel overwhelmed) and then jumping in and forcing yourself to learn. The hard part is figuring out where your starting point should be and then finding the resources to help you get started.
To this end, I recommend you read my October 2007 CAD Manager column, "Programming Resources for CAD Managers," and start learning based on the instructions offered. As you progress, you'll want to explore Cadalyst's "Hot Tip Harry" column, which contains all sorts of programming routines from easy to complex; they'll help you solve CAD management problems while you learn. Also check out the "Get the Code!" page on Cadalyst.com for a well-indexed and searchable base of all the code examples published in Cadalyst over the years.
Taken together, these resources should get you started in your quest to learn — or learn more — about programming as it relates to CAD systems. And I promise that the more you know about programming, the more you'll be in control of your CAD systems.
Tip. Every problem you can solve with your own programming skills is a problem you won't have to pay someone else to fix. When your management understands that benefit, you'll be more valuable as a programmer and it should embrace your efforts to learn.
I don't believe that CAD managers need to be IT managers, but I do think they need a working knowledge of networks. Because CAD managers need to deploy software over wide-area networks (WANs), local-area networks (LANs), the public domain Internet, and virtual private networks (VPNs), they need to understand how these various topologies work and how they can affect the performance of the software they manage.
The first step in building your networking skill set is to understand the terminology so you'll have a clue when the IT guys start talking. To that end, I recommend spending some time on About.com in the Computing and Networking section (http://compnetworking.about.com). You may want to start out in "Networking Basics," which has a great summary section to build your IT vocabulary and acronym recognition. After you get beyond the basics, you can spend time in the "LAN Networking" and "Speed Tests and Tweaks" for more information about bandwidth and performance characteristics and how they affect CAD performance.
Of course, you can always use Google to find a million resources on the Internet for any given networking topic, but About.com's content is well organized, well indexed, and approachable no matter your skill level. I find it to be a great starting point in any network topic search.
Tip. Your IT department will love that you understand their environment. In fact, you may find that they'll actually want to learn more about your CAD problems as a result.
I can't give you a Web resource that helps you understand your users, but I do know how imperative it is to understand their needs and frustrations. CAD managers are most effective when they make it easy for people to be productive, right? So make it your mission to figure out what your users need to be productive and build a list of action items. Listen to user complaints, questions, and concerns — and I bet you'll have no shortage of things to work on.
Start using the software, network, and programming knowledge you've acquired to solve user problems much more effectively. The more you learn technically, the bigger help you will be to your users.
Tip. Your management team really wants you to focus on productivity. By showing your management team that technical proficiency and user productivity are intertwined, you'll win points all around. Spend your time gaining technical knowledge, but stress the productivity to your senior management.
Getting a real handle on CAD management requires not only knowledge, but the discipline to acquire it. I hope that you can prioritize the topics on which you need to work and then use the resources I've outlined in this column to build your skill set. And lest you think the quest for CAD management knowledge will ever cease, rest assured that there will always be new software and technology to learn.