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Lessons from 2020: Refocusing on CAD Management Basics

9 Dec, 2020 By: Robert Green

CAD Manager Column: What can we learn from this chaotic year that will help guide our CAD management strategy going forward?


Now that we’ve all endured most of 2020 — with all its ups and downs — can we look back at what this exceptional year has taught us and draw a few conclusions? For my part, I’ll tell you that the whole experience has refocused me on the basics.

In this edition of the CAD Manager’s Newsletter, I’ll share a broad range of responsibilities that today’s CAD manager must deal with, identify some of the complicating factors to be aware of, and set out strategies for dealing with CAD management during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Here goes.


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It Really Is About the Basics

As we’ve navigated working from home, remote software licensing, virtual private networks (VPNs) and Teams/Zoom meetings, one thing has come into sharp focus for me: Being a CAD manager is all about the basics of getting work done, and everything I do must support that mission. And what are those basics, exactly?

Making production happen. When it comes down to it, the number one thing we all do is facilitate production. If work can’t get done, the company can’t make money, and then we’ll all be out of a job. So, making sure production is working smoothly is our first priority.

Making sure software supports production by maximizing function. Since production happens on software we already have in place, it stands to reason that maximizing existing tools will help us most. Time to put aside crazy notions of radical changes and spend more time on the fundamentals of how we can best support our users with the tools they already have in place.

Saving money. This year has shown us that business can be unstable, and that there is never a bad time to save money to prepare for future surprises. To that end, ask yourself, “Where can we save money?” You may be surprised at some of the options (more on that shortly).

Securing the files. As more people work remotely, the business of keeping CAD files/models safe and secure becomes tougher. When you can’t depend on “yelling over the cubicle wall” to keep projects coordinated, you’ll probably need to stress how users can keep all their information properly stored and backed up. Which brings me to the next item on the list …

Managing standards formulation and deployment. Creating, optimizing, and rolling out standards — particularly around file security and best usage practices — becomes even more important in remote work environments.

Training users. Though training is tough to do remotely, it may be our only option for a while longer, so we simply have to devise training schedules that allow us to communicate our standards via videoconferencing. We cannot allow the COVID-limited work environment to kill our training programs!

New Tech Creates New Problems

Now that we’ve laid out the back-to-basics responsibilities we all must deal with, let’s consider how new technologies — whether they’re hardware, software, or IT based — will make the job more complicated. I’ll also draw a few conclusions about where you might want to delay new tech, given the COVID-19–driven work-from-home paradigm:

Facilitating production. Increasing complexity of any sort means more opportunities to make mistakes, and mistakes tend to impede production. Therefore, does it really make sense to roll out new software platforms if you can’t sit at user machines to troubleshoot? Will you lose so much time in implementation that new technology isn’t even worth it? These questions deserve critical thought.

Forecasting software needs. Software is changing rapidly as standalone software becomes cloud software, licensing models are changing, and software bundling seems to change annually. Simply put, it is a lot harder to forecast what you’ll need and what it’ll all cost in the coming years. I find it best to forecast next year’s usage on existing software usage patterns, unless I see truly compelling reasons to change platforms (such as cost reduction).

Planning hardware purchases. Workstation hardware grows more powerful every year as costs remain about the same, but the remote workforce shift has made far more of us laptop users than before, and it’s hard to see that trend changing.

In the past, the decision was simple: We simply bought the fastest machines we could afford. But now the type of workstation required for cloud-based software and remote computing is making it harder to plan, and new laptops aren’t cheap. My only strategy here is to assume more of us will be on laptops in the future, and to modify hardware budgets accordingly.

Saving money on your budget. Since software and hardware uncertainty makes planning more difficult, it stands to reason that budgeting will be more difficult as well. But in tough business environments, one thing never goes out of style, and that is saving money. Your management team is far more interested in savings than they are in new technology at the moment, and anything you can do to save right now is worth your immediate attention.

Securing intellectual property. As files are increasingly stored on cloud-based platforms such as Dropbox, Box, OneDrive, etc., and users can access those platforms with tablets, smartphones, and home-based computers, security is much more complex than in the past. In many ways, file security has become a far worse problem as the cloud has become more prominent — and a greater number of remote workers has only made it more so.

Training users. Perhaps the bright spot in all the COVID-19 mess has been that we’ve all learned to better use remote technology, and that users have become familiar with the concept. For CAD managers, this should mean that your users will be more willing to attend virtualized training, and that the experience should feel familiar after all the hours we’ve spent videoconferencing this past year. So, move your training to virtual and don’t look back!

Working closely with IT. CAD managers haven’t always had to be IT-aware in the past, but that has totally changed in recent years. As CAD requires more security, more remote access, more cloud, and ever-more-complicated licensing schemes, IT needs to be involved more than ever.

Coping Strategies

Given the technologically evolving CAD environment and the non-negotiable requirement that all the CAD work must get done, the question becomes, How can the CAD manager deal with all these issues? Here are some strategies I use to better manage the chaos:

Become much more IT-aware. Some of the biggest changes in the CAD environment now aren’t CAD issues, they are network and IT issues. Think about how comparatively little a program like AutoCAD, Inventor, or Revit has changed in the last five years as compared to how networks, cloud programs, and smart devices have changed! The only solution is to learn all you can about IT and how it will be implemented in your company. Don’t guess at how IT changes will affect you, go learn about it!

Expect longer time frames. Making changes to key infrastructures like networks, security procedures, hardware implementations, and cloud software rollouts don’t happen overnight, so your planning horizon needs to be longer. And when your workforce is all working from home, the problem is even more acute. So, start thinking about CAD resource planning as a 2- to 3-year exercise rather than an annual issue, and don’t get too impatient if things take longer. Remember that getting the work done always trumps making system changes.

Think much more about security. CAD is no longer limited to a bunch of DWG/DGN files in a server directory. The reality is that we must now maintain large collections of files scattered across multiple branch offices, using shared storage to get our work done.

How will you provide security for those files to prevent data overwrites, inadvertent deletion, or outright theft of digital property? How will this all work when all users are remote? Don’t assume that IT knows the answers to these questions; be vigilant and verify for yourself that things work as they should.

Question everything. In a rapidly changing technology environment, it is safe to assume that your CAD environment will experience disruption and change as well. The more you ask how these changes will impact you, and ask to verify all proposed changes, the better prepared you’ll be to deal with them. Never assume that everything will continue working just because it is working today, and never change what is working today just for the sake of change.

Summing Up

So, what has 2020 really taught us, and how might we better plan for 2021 as a result? Hopefully this edition of the CAD Manager’s Newsletter has given you some things to consider, but you can be assured we’ll dig further into these topics next year.

If you have any items to add to the list of “basics,” or comments you’d like to see included in upcoming issues of the CAD Manager’s Newsletter, please email me at rgreen@greenconsulting.com. Until next time.


About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green