Developing great solutions is as much about much big picture thinking as it is about the tech.
For Stephen Thomas, Building Engineering & Design Co’s Head of Software, one of the most critical aspects to being a great developer is having the ability to look at a problem from multiple perspectives and think broadly, or outside the scope of what’s in front of you. “When I was studying engineering, I was often given similar problems to solve and I wondered why we kept doing the same things over again. As I matured I realized that we were being taught to tackle a challenge in more than one way, and this has given me very strong problem solving skills that I can apply to just about anything in life”.
“If you have a good general problem solving mindset then you can go build a car, or a house, or an AI platform - you can adapt to each different situation”.
Having spent his career researching and studying computer vision abroad as well as building intelligent cameras for consumer products and the Defense Force, while the application of Stephen’s skills here at BEDC is different, inherently the underlying technology and the algorithms are very similar.
On the development process at Building Engineering & Design Co In his role at BEDC, Stephen leads the technical team that is responsible for back end development. Stephen’s team of nine consists of full stack developers and people with artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and computer vision backgrounds, and they are tasked with identifying and developing emerging technology that helps solve the challenges estimators face. And this is where Stephen encourages his team to think about solutions not just from a technical perspective, but also what the user needs.
“A lot of the estimation problems we solve are large - an estimator will tell us what they need, and technically-minded people are very good at understanding specific problems and working out how to solve them. But it’s not just the technical perspective that we need to consider, it’s actually about looking at the bigger picture and understanding what the different aspects to the estimator’s role and process are. It’s one thing to make a bug-free, high quality piece of tech, but if it doesn’t meet the needs of the user then they won’t perceive it as quality. We maintain closer relationships with our clients to make sure we understand every aspect of what goes into their jobs so we can develop something that really meets their needs. We focus on the end-to-end process, even if parts of that process aren’t what we are solving for, because what we do may have an impact”.
On creating a more efficient and accurate construction industry While the construction industry has been ripe for disruption for some time, it is one of the slower sectors to undergo a digital transformation. From Stephen’s perspective, small technical steps have been taking place, but no-one has come into the industry and looked at the end-to-end process and figured out how to make it more efficient. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be one company creating one solution, but there’s opportunity for greater integration between the different pieces of the construction puzzle that would enable a smoother, more efficient, accurate, and cost effective process”.
“If you take what we are doing here at BEDC, the problems we are solving for estimators had not been addressed when we started out, so we’re breaking new ground in terms of the way we are applying AI. With the sheer number of different components needed to solve one small problem, you can see why this is a new space for AI. From where we sit it’s incredibly exciting”.
“We’re helping to improve efficiency and accuracy for one aspect of the construction process, but it would be great to see this level of transformation happening more across the board”.
On balancing innovation with business as usual
This is the technical conundrum - striking the balance between focusing on the big, shiny, innovative solutions, and working within a cadence of small but constant iteration and improvement. For Stephen it’s about building a great product and getting it released to BEDC’s clients to use and increase efficiency and accuracy as fast as possible, but also creating the time to research solutions against real world problems and identifying opportunities to change the game.
“Sometimes I’ll see an opportunity that might take six or twelve months to stand up, but will be a significant step forward in what we are trying to help our clients achieve, and I have to balance this with an iteration that might make a 5 per cent improvement that can be stood up in a very short period of time. You have to keep improving the product for your clients and you want to keep getting new releases in front of them for feedback, but you also need to do the big shiny things too”.
And finally, on why the Karate Kid film has good lessons for those wanting to get into software development
For those wanting to follow in Stephen’s footsteps, he echoes his earlier sentiments about the importance of general problem solving skills and bigger picture thinking. “Sometimes when you’re in a learning environment and it isn’t always clear why you’re doing things over and over, once you put all those skills together the bigger picture becomes apparent. Like ‘wax on, wax off’ in the Karate Kid. It’s the same for anyone wanting to get started in software development - start with a foundation of really strong analytical and problem solving skills that you can apply to any situation, and they will always set you in good stead for the challenges you’ll face in software development”.
To find out more about how Building Engineering & Design Co can help transform your estimation process, speak to our team today.