How design technologists can best contribute in a design firm

Whenever we see each other socially, my colleagues and I inevitably lapse in to talking about work. We’re all eager to better understand how each of our organizations addresses design technology, in hopes of improving our own groups. Are we part of IT? Perhaps a separate group? Do we work on projects? If so, how much, and what are our responsibilities? Are we primarily support, or more strategic?

Back at the office, there’s an ongoing, pervasive, vigorous, conversation about my team’s role. In a broad sense, it’s about how design technologists can best contribute in a design firm. Expectedly and reasonably, we often end up talking about how billable my team members are.

I am far from alone. Just about everyone I know in the industry who’s in a similar role is deeply involved in their own firm’s internal dialogues. Are design technologists most valuable doing project work, or when given some space to research and develop? And how much of what they do should be “support” versus “production”?

My DTS Management Group wanted to address this seemingly universal challenge in a creative way. We came up with the idea of polarizing the issue, and presenting the benefits of each side in an op-ed style article. Realizing that everyone’s solution will most likely lie somewhere between the two poles, we hope that each perspective can offer some food for thought when finding the right mix for your firm.

Billable

The AEC industry, simply put, generates revenue through the projects we develop. While we recognize our ‘service’ business is a creative one, we still need to remain focused on strategic research and process improvement. Our design technologists’ — or DTs for short — first priority is to in producing and assisting teams with projects we undertake. They contribute visibly and significantly to our projects which generate revenue and sustain the firm. Through that work, we realize our business objectives of innovation, clarity, accuracy, and efficiency.

Project work incentivizes the technologists with a sense of clarity and focus that can be difficult to achieve in an environment absent of deadlines or pressing constraints. Those directly involved in project work more clearly understand the needs of projects and teams, since they’re in the midst of the issues every day. While some may be mundane, many are rich and challenging and address the very root of our practice. Devising thoughtful solutions to project challenges great and small enable us to innovate while maintaining a revenue stream. And with experience, individual projects’ solutions can mature into more holistic tools, workflows, and best practices.

Part of any professional development involves building one’s knowledge base and developing self sufficiency in foundational skills. As teams’ engagement with our DTs deepen, they work together to identify and solve the same challenges, which strengthens trust and team building. Each sees the others as possessing skills valuable to doing a successful project. Each can grow beyond their current comfort zone by learning from the others. The product of this cross-learning is that teams and individuals become more skilled with their tools, and the DTs are ideally situated between the tactical realities and strategic aspirations of the practice.

Having more than one DT on staff is essential. Being embedded in — and responsible for — a variety of project related items, DTs need to strike a careful balance between the needs of a single project and the support needs of an office. And that can’t be done by one person. Strategically, we are a forward-looking firm, in matters of technology and beyond. Project-based DTs elevate us in the most relevant way possible — by innovating and optimizing our design process and work.

Success in enabling and encouraging the office’s entire work force yields even more success. We can easily identify how process improvement and innovation improves our work and our bottom line, and we do it in line with projects, not having to create and sustain overhead R&D budgets. Besides, a purely overhead position is an extremely tough sell to my partners. We are all expected to be billable on some level, and it’s only fair that others within the firm are as well.

Growing our DT staff is also more easily accomplished in a billable context. New talent hiring is more easily justified, since project work funds the majority of their salary and costs. A billable position can also shadow or reference existing career paths, meaning DT positions are also easier to hire for and afford us a greater array of candidates. Billable positions also offer wider ranges of experience, and DTs have the choice of moving beyond a specific skill set to a more broad position of leadership should they choose.

We favor billable DT positions for their direct relevance to our work, applied research strategies, integrated team structure, and an array of opportunities for professional development. There is no better option.

Overhead

Remaining competitive in our industry requires a level of commitment and focus to a great many facets of our business. Too often we find our design technologists (DTs) unable to take our research to the next level because of their project and deadline based roles in the firm. Decoupling their day-to-day routine from the realities of project delivery affords them the ability to think through software-and technology related solutions with a level of thoroughness otherwise unattainable.

It has been said that every new project is a new project type. Our projects and clients are a diverse lot, and we would no sooner propose an identical design solution to any two of them. However, we are often able to streamline some basic business processes regardless of project type and scale. In the case of design technology, we seek to find that which is common, that which unifies us as a firm, and look for opportunities to improve our design processes. Dedicating staff to address problems on that scale and timeline is fundamentally different than devising a hyper-specific project solution, especially when many of the issues we face are similar.

We want to be able to understand how individual teams are finding ways to work better — more innovatively, more efficiently, and more creatively — and apply those ways to the entire firm. By assigning this responsibility to an overhead position, the billable individuals remain focused on their project responsibilities while the technologist can take a wider view of the entire firm. This makes it easier for us to develop the particularly great ideas that arise without compromising our immediate project needs. As an example, our firm’s content development continues to advance regardless of immediate, pressing project deadlines. Another, more pragmatic issue follows: The need for support increases because our technologists are developing tools and processes for in-house use and developing and refining more efficient workflows.

Documentation, standards management, software upgrades, and the like are a full-time job.

And while we are on the subject of tool development — if we develop our tools by paying for them ourselves (not charging the client for time or materials) we retain full ownership and control over the tools and custom processes. That is crucial in meeting our efficiency goals and maintaining our competitive advantage.

DTs’ expertise can be extremely deep, and, while it can benefit our business greatly, its applicability and breadth in any single project can vary. It would be unfair for any single project to bear the costs of this important, strategic position. By structuring this position as an overhead-based one, the entire firm can benefit without impacting particular projects’ profitabilities. By moving DTs into an overhead role we effectively form a cohesive unit which helps to promote a cogency to their output. They are better able to communicate and work as a team on standards, software solutions, experiments, and can often use one of our projects’ content as a testing environment for their proposed solutions and tools. And like other ‘knowledge groups’ in the firm, providing the team with a scope of responsibilities allows them to grow as professionals, and truly ‘own’ what they do.


As the senior digital design manager in the New York office of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, Robert Yori’s role is to explore innovative uses of technology to better design, visualize, and deliver SOM’s projects. He manages technology-related R&D efforts, provides strategic guidance to project teams, designs and maintains learning curricula and content, and trains team members. With his counterparts in the other SOM offices, he leads the Firm-wide Digital Design initiatives, including knowledge sharing, big data analysis, and computational design literacy. He has presented at ACADIA, KAConnect, Autodesk University, BIMForum, and RTC, has been published in the Journal of Building Information Modeling, and is an adjunct instructor at New York University.

DTS is a community in which design technology practitioners engage and interact with each other in a friendly, intimate atmosphere. Organized around the themes of management, collaboration, and innovation, it is a forum for ideas about improving practice through advancing and maximizing the benefits that technology can bring to organizations.