How Top Performing Engineering Firms are Managing Their IT

It’s hard not to be excited about the technical advances in the engineering industry. BIM, digital twins, alternate/ virtual/ mixed reality, and others are all amazing new tools, but they put big demands on your IT systems. Your network needs to keep up the pace.

To get the best performance out of their IT infrastructure, engineering firms are focusing their IT efforts and budgets in a few key areas. Their goal is to get the best results out of the network and applications they run today, while leaving open the opportunity for newer and better tools without limitations.

Where top performing engineering firms are focusing their IT efforts:

  • Use proven and reliable collaboration tools
  • Embrace the cloud (but not blindly)
  • Set backup and disaster recovery priorities
  • Prioritize network performance and stability
  • Structure their approach to IT support
  • Set high standards for IT support

Read on to learn more about how engineering firms approach IT to help them succeed. There are many ways you can begin to implement some of these best practices to improve the performance and reliability of your own network.

They use proven and reliable collaboration tools

Email may always have a place, but it’s far from efficient when it comes to the collaboration demands of engineering firms. Real-time collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams, Slack, or even components within some project management platforms are becoming increasing commonplace among successful companies.

Collaboration needs to go beyond chats and kanban boards, however. Sharing files and resources in real-time, working simultaneously on a file, and scheduling meetings are all part of working together more efficiently and making better decisions. And successful firms are extending these collaboration tools beyond their own staff to include external partners, clients, and stakeholders.

Navigating the bells and whistles

You can’t possibly test drive all the different options out there for collaboration tools. You may already have some form of collaboration within your project management system, or access to something like Microsoft Teams with your existing Office 365 subscription. Those firms who have successfully implemented a collaboration tool understood from the beginning what they were hoping to achieve with the tool, engaged team members for feedback and recommendations, and considered how different tools would integrate with their existing systems. Platforms like Microsoft Teams will often come out ahead because its comprehensive, based off the Microsoft functionality most of us are used to, and is available as part of existing subscriptions.

Sharing files securely

Not only are many of your files too large to email, they can also contain sensitive information that demands more security than simply attaching it to an email and hitting send. This capability doesn’t exist within all collaboration tools, so successful firms give their teams the tools and protocols to share sensitive information externally. As an example, Microsoft offers you this capability through both OneDrive and SharePoint – likely part of your existing Office subscription. Modern VPNs can also function in a similar capacity.

Implementing these best practices at your firm:

  • Before looking at new tools, as your team what tools would be most helpful to them. Do they have a wish list of functions? Have they used tools in the past that they thought were helpful?
  • While signing up for free trials is a good way to test something new, it can be time consuming and distracting. Start first by looking at the tools you already use to determine if there are features or functionalities that you’re not using yet. Consider starting with your PM system and your Microsoft subscription as a place to start.
  • Don’t forget about your clients. Implementing a tool internally that also requires your external partners, clients, and stakeholders to buy into the system might be an uphill battle. Choose something that’s universally accessible without subscriptions.

They embrace the cloud, but not blindly

Most engineering firms have moved some component of their business into the cloud. It may be the use of cloud-based applications or a virtualized server for data storage. Those that move into the cloud successfully approach it in stages and understand where the cloud has a role, and where it doesn’t.

The right fit for the cloud

Some aspects of the cloud are no brainers. You may use a CRM or accounting software that is cloud based – and possibly not even available as a downloadable product. You may even be running your Office 365 applications in the cloud. This gives your IT team easier access to install updates and patches, assign user access, and manage multiple devices.

The cloud also plays an important role in how engineering firms are managing their increasing volumes of data. Some don’t want any internal servers, while others prefer to create a combination of internal and cloud resources. They’re taking a modern approach to their data so that the growing demand for storage is a manageable one.

Most modern operations are looking to the cloud to give their employees access to the tools they need from wherever they work and on whatever device they choose. For example, virtual desktops let employees use a single sign-on to access all their applications and files. It removes limitations and can have a positive impact on productivity.

Where we aren’t ready for the cloud

Someday running resource heavy applications like BIM and AutoCAD in the cloud will be simple and reliable. But today, many firms still prefer using these tools with on premise servers. The technology is improving however, and it won’t be long before better tools become available.

Addressing the myths

Undoubtedly, the biggest myth when it comes to the cloud is security. When you choose the right cloud service provider however, security and uptime will be more reliable than if you’re keeping everything on-premise. Even if you have someone on your team who’s an expert at security, it’s unlikely they can achieve more than a full team of experts who manage large data centers.

Your data in the cloud is always your data. Just because it’s stored in a data center with that of other organizations doesn’t mean anyone, but you, have access to it. Your team will always be in control of who accesses your data and assigning user access and restrictions.

Implementing these best practices at your firm:

  • Don’t think you have to take an all-or-nothing approach to the cloud. Decide what’s a priority and migrate things at your own pace. A hybrid approach lets you move something like you’re email to the cloud first for example. Other components of your business can migrate on their own path.
  • Evaluate how you’re using your existing servers and determine if there is a better way to maximize them. For example, could you move your email from an internal server to the cloud and allocate that server to Autodesk for better performance.

They know their backup and disaster recovery priorities

A disaster will always impact your business, but how big that impact is depends on the backup and disaster recovery system you have in place. The ideal scenario for successful engineering firms includes a disaster recovery and backup plan for all the major IT systems without relying on internal infrastructure.

Automation and testing

Backup and disaster recovery are not “set it and forget it” processes. While most backups can be automated, smart firms are conducting routine testing. This means not only confirming that their backup is working, but that the recovery process works as well – and the people charged with doing it know what to do. It also tests that the recovery standards and expectations are met.

Move it to the cloud

More and more engineering firms are seeing the benefits of using a cloud-based backup solution. On-premise backups are risky and can involve costly hardware. Cloud solutions are more cost effective, easy to scale, and reliable providers will provide industry leading security of your data both in transit and at rest.

Prioritizing RPO and RTO

More and more engineering firms are focusing their business continuity in two key areas: Recovery Point Objective (RPO) and Recovery Time Objective (RTO). RPO establishes the “age” of the files to recover from backup should the system go down. Different types or sources of data can be assigned a different RPO (from seconds to days) based on its priority. For example, archived files would have a different RPO than active project files. Determining the RPO also helps determine backup frequency. RTO defines how quickly something should be recovered and to what standard. Like RPO, different systems and files are critical and have a short RTO while others are less vital and have a longer RTO.

Implementing these best practices at your firm:

  • Know the cost of downtime at your firm. Every hour your team can’t connect to the CAD server are hours of lost billable time and delays to project deliverables. Understanding the impact of a disaster helps you identify your priorities.
  • If you don’t have up to date network documentation, it’s good to update it and assign priorities with a goal to establish RTO and RPO standards across your network.
  • Regardless of what backup and disaster recovery you have in place, be sure it’s automated and tested on a regular basis so you know it works when you need it.

They prioritize performance and stability for their network

Downtime or slow performance impacts billable hours and deliverables. It’s increasingly important for engineering companies to secure and maintain their network to minimize disruptions and provide a trouble-free work environment for their teams. To do that, engineering firms are focusing on putting the right resources in the right places and prioritizing maintenance and monitoring.

Maximizing server space

Trying to run resource heavy applications like AutoCAD or BIM on a server that’s not up to the job impacts productivity. Not all servers are appropriate for the high demands of today’s engineering firm. An older server may quickly start to show it’s age. Forward thinking firms do some capacity planning to determine what works best today but also gives them capacity to grow. This sometimes means moving things around to achieve the best performance for all systems. A dedicated server for something like Autodesk Revit is becoming increasingly common.

Network maintenance priorities

Proper network maintenance (including patches, updates, installations and configurations, and troubleshooting) is just like the maintenance for vehicles. It keeps things operating the way they should. Engineering firms that get this right are taking a structured approach that starts with network documentation, automating whatever is possible, and creating procedures and schedules for routine maintenance. Gone are the days of reactive maintenance that waits for something to go wrong to fix it.

Continual monitoring – security

It goes without saying that industry-leading security techniques will prevent some of the issues that will impact performance – like malware or compromised data. Today’s cyber security tools are increasingly sophisticated and better at identify threats – even before they enter the network. Improving security doesn’t have to be costly, with small and midsized engineering firms already moving in this direction.

Continual monitoring – performance

IT professionals have a selection of tools they can use to constantly monitor a network for poor performing or failing components to stay ahead of bigger issues. This is how some engineering firms are staying on top of consistency and performance of their network and keeping response times and uptime at their best.

Implementing these best practices at your firm:

  • Assess your existing server capacity to see if it’s having an impact on performance. Slow access to applications or files is a good indication that there might be issues.
  • If it doesn’t already exist, develop a maintenance schedule and automate some of these tasks so it’s done on time and not missed or forgotten.
  • If you don’t have a cyber security expert on staff, consult with someone who specializes in this are to determine if you could be doing more or if your current approach leaves you with any vulnerabilities. They should be able to identify critical issues and others that you can resolve over time.
  • Review how you’re monitoring your network and if you have the right tools to stay ahead of major performance concerns.

They take a structured approach to their IT support

Much like how you manage your projects, your IT support should have clear and well-defined processes with a mechanism to determine how things are performing. Companies with efficient and effective IT departments have a competitive advantage. They manage to transition from IT simply serving a function and being part of their overhead expenses to an IT department that evolves into a strategic contributor to the company. Some of the tools being used to build that efficiency include ticketing systems, process and response documentation, creating a coordinator role, and automation tools. The companies who don’t want to create this structure themselves sometimes turn to a co-managed IT approach to achieve the same end goal.

Ticketing systems

A formal IT ticketing system can’t eliminate all your IT problems, but it can reduce as much as 1/3rd of the bottlenecks that are common to IT teams, regardless of size. It’s those bottlenecks that are the main source of inefficiency, inconsistency, and frustration and successful engineering firms have found a way to eliminate them. Their ticketing systems manages the lifecycle of an IT request from submission to resolution to reporting and benchmarking so they can continually make improvements.

Defining processes and response expectations

Successful companies have processes, including for their IT. Frequent issues or requests should be resolved the same way every time. This also helps manage expectations so when someone requests access to a new application for example, the IT team knows step-by-step what to do, and the staff member knows how big of a priority it is and how soon they can expect it to be resolved.

Automation tools

The right automation tools can entirely switch the focus of your IT team from performing routine (but required and important) tasks all day to solving issues and proactively making improvements. Engineering firms with large IT teams might look to products like LabTech or Kaseya while others focus more on tools that give their IT staff remote access to a computer to troubleshoot it. Another priority for successful firms is automating regular maintenance. Patches and antivirus updates are vital so should be done automatically to avoid issues.

Co-managed IT

A co-managed IT approach means you split your IT responsibilities between your team and an external service provider. Most commonly, engineering firms would start by designating the day-to-day and routine activities to someone externally so they can focus on other priorities inhouse. Backup, regular maintenance, and the helpdesk are common starting points. However, more specialized areas like security, disaster recovery, or migrating to the cloud are other functions that are passed onto an external partner because they have the expertise.

Implementing these best practices at your firm:

  • Keep emailed IT requests as an option but create a universal IT email address like so you can manage and route requests appropriately.
  • Categorize your requests and assign them a priority. This helps your IT team focus on what’s most important and lets staff understand what they can expect for support.
  • Put your regular system maintenance on cruise control so it doesn’t rely on team members finding time or remembering to schedule it.
  • Consider finding an external partner willing to partner with you to provide IT services to your staff. Some service providers have an all-or-nothing approach so it’s important you know that there are other options.

They set high expectations for their IT support

Whether their IT support comes from an internal person or team, an external service provider, or some combination of both, successful firms are demanding high standards. This is more than just quickly resolving IT requests from staff, it extends to creating and maintaining the entire network, providing industry-leading security, and pro-actively staying on top of the technology most important to the engineering industry.

Exceptional response time

The one thing that touches all employees is the ability of the IT team to quickly resolve issues, especially critical ones. Prioritizing and creating a ticketing system are important, but at the end of the day, the IT team needs to have the expertise and experience to be sure issues are resolved, don’t persist, and create minimal disruption to day-to-day operations.

Expertise with AEC industry technology

The engineering industry has unique requirements that require expertise beyond that of a typical business. AutoCAD, BIM, project management tools etc all have unique requirements and big demands on the network. It’s not something all IT professionals know or understand, so finding someone with that expertise is an advantage.

Pro-active solutions

The best IT support is both highly responsive and always investigating new technology and new processes to make the systems and network better. The companies who achieve this standard are the ones who take a strategic approach to their IT, so it’s not just about trouble shooting and “keeping the lights on”, it’s about making and doing things better to support the bottom line.

Internal vs external resources

Most engineering firms struggle with finding the right resources to support IT. Often, it’s a technical person on staff who has some expertise or interest in IT and gets designated into that role on a part time or as-needed basis. Many companies are moving away from this model because it reduce that employee’s billable time and can be a liability when they don’t have the expertise to manage more demanding issues. Increasingly, engineering companies are either outsourcing the entire role to a services provider or taking a co-managed approach and keeping an internal IT staffer but designating components of the role to another firm.

Implementing these best practices at your firm:

  • Assess the skills of your on-staff designated IT person to determine if they can offer you everything you need to get the results you want. Are their gaps you need to fill? Also consider the lost revenue if they could be assigned to billable work on a project.
  • Confirm if you have a backlog of IT requests or unresolved issues that are impacting performance and identify a plan to tackle them.
  • If you’re not using or struggling with the performance of some of your high demand applications like Autodesk Revit, consider finding an external services provider who has industry expertise and can help you assess the situation and make recommendations.

The success of your firm relies on more than just great engineers

When your team is productive and efficient, your projects are on schedule and budget, and your clients are happy. The performance and reliability of your network plays a vital part in your ability to get work done. Top performing engineering companies make industry-leading IT systems and support a priority. It helps them compete and deliver.

Do you have questions about implementing some of these strategies at your firm? Request a free quote today so we can start the conversation.

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