If you haven't invested in information technology (IT) at your company, you may feel like a marathon runner with two days of training and a worn pair of shoes — you'll quickly lag behind your competitors and may even be forced to drop out of the race. By the time you identify the technological advancements of your closest competitors, they will have already crossed the finish line.

To stay ahead of the pack, some of the nation's largest engineering firms have created a chief technology officer (CTO) position to oversee their IT divisions, improve relationships with clients and vendors, and increase the efficiency of their firm's employees. CTOs monitor, evaluate, and select technologies that can be applied to future products and services, according to a white paper titled “The Chief Technology Officer: Strategic Responsibilities and Relationships” by Roger Smith, CTO of Titan Corp. They also serve as advisors to senior-level executives in identifying technologies that will generate the highest rate of return and aligning business strategies with IT strategies.

Ron Moritz, CTO of Symantec and author of the book, Inside the Minds: Chief Technology Officers, says one of the key roles of the CTO is to provide the technical vision to complement the business vision, setting the tone and direction for the company's technologies. “Leadership, in this context, comes from being able to set the technical course and from being able to define what the company's products and technologies may look like in two, three, or more years,” he says in the book.

At the nation's largest engineering firms, the CTO often works closely with the CEO and a team of technology experts. The rapid changes in technology have also forced small to mid-sized firms to assign these IT responsibilities to a chief information officer (CIO), information technology director, or another individual with an IT-based position. But no matter what title these individuals are assigned, they're often responsible for helping their firm to develop a long-term strategic plan based on new technology and adapt to changes in the industry. And more of these individuals are gaining a seat at the executive table by earning the respect and trust of their CEOs. A study of more than 400 construction company executives found that 80% of the CIOs were considered equal contributors to the strategic decision-making process, according to an article in Engineering News Review.

And according to a recent online EC&M survey of the Top 40 electrical design firms, more than 60% of the respondents employ a CTO at their engineering firm. This article will profile two CTOs from two of the nation's largest engineering firms — New York City-based Parsons Brinckerhoff and Overland Park, Kan.-based Black & Veatch — and discuss the IT corporate structure at Baltimore-based RTKL Associates; Baton Rouge, La.-based Shaw Group; and Fort Worth, Texas-based Carter & Burgess.

Driving innovation and change. Doug Eberhard, CTO and vice president of Parsons Brinckerhoff, says because his firm was founded on innovation more than a century ago, it became critical for the firm to create the CTO position in order to continue to innovate in the future. “Given the rate of change in the global marketplace, coupled with the exponential rates of change in computing and information technology, it's more critical for us to have a road map for where the technology is headed, especially with the increased competition and outsourcing,” he says.

Because the firm has 9,000 employees worldwide, Parsons Brinckerhoff also has a CIO. According to the white paper by Smith of Titan Corp., many organizations have a difficult time separating the roles and responsibilities of the CTO and the CIO. Smith states that the main responsibilities of a CIO are to oversee the application of technology for internal operations, such as computer systems for accounting, billing, and security, while a CTO identifies the role that certain technologies will play in the growth and future of a firm. For the maximum benefits, CIOs and CTOs should have clearly defined divisions of responsibility and have a complementary and supportive relationship to improve the firm's profitability, according to the white paper.

Eberhard says he and the CIO have developed a strong partnership in order to successfully implement information and innovation technologies across the firm through Internet collaboration and training, conference calls, and one-on-one sessions. But while Eberhard's focused on driving change in the technology, the CIO is focused on establishing consistency, which can create some tension, he says. “You don't want disruption in IT, and when you're driving innovation, many times what you're introducing is disruptive,” he says. “We have to strike a balance between not only new technologies and innovations, but how to introduce them to the firm.”

While the CIO oversees all of corporate IT and reports under the operational side of the firm, Eberhard is under the umbrella of corporate development. He has a staff of five technologists and collaborators who are responsible for building consensus and momentum, capturing process and innovation, and finding effective ways to build consistency and sustainability into the entire innovation and technology evolution process. His direct reports include gurus in visualization, geospatial, business process, software engineering, coalition building, and administration.

In the 20 years since his first experience with the PC back in 1985, Eberhard's directed and managed computer visualization, video, interactive CD-ROM, and Internet solutions for more than 200 different design, engineering, and construction projects. His recent accomplishment is the creation of the PB Computer Analysis and Visualization Environment (PB CAVE) laboratory, which gives clients 3D options for picturing project alternatives and improving the public's understanding of a project.

The term CAVE used to refer to a multi-sited flight simulation environment, but Eberhard's team redesigned it for use in project collaboration. “Typically when you have a meeting, people bring different information in the form of paper, drawings, schedules, photos, and information, and they lay it all out on a table or pin it up on a wall,” he says. “Team members then talk, point, and wave their hands as they try to describe their ideas and provide valued input. We needed to find a better way to make decisions using that information.”

Today, team members gather around a computer screen in a CAVE environment and use real-time markup and annotation tools to present their digital and design information. “One of the biggest opportunities we have is to model, visualize, and test projects in the computer before we ever dig the first shovel of dirt,” he says. “By doing that, we're able to model the critical or most expensive parts of projects before we ever show up on the jobsite.”

The effective use of technology is a large part of Eberhard's job at Parsons Brinckerhoff. He views his primary responsibility as driving innovation and change throughout the organization. By having a background in construction, he says, he's better able to understand the needs of the engineers within his organization and the workers in the field. “Working my way up the ranks has helped me to gain an appreciation for both the continuity and the discontinuity of information that flows from the top to the bottom of a project,” he says. “It helped for me to be able to see where gaps and overlaps exist in the entire process or the life cycle of design, construction, and operation.”

Looking into the future. Engineering firms may try to increase their productivity and revenues by hiring a CTO, but if the executive simply buys software programs off the shelf, he or she isn't contributing to the company's long-term success. Rather than trying to buy solutions in a box, a CTO needs to stand back and not get blinded by the technology. “The latest technology is available at your nearest store, and it will never be the basis of being competitive,” says John Voeller, CTO of Black & Veatch. “State-of-the-art is only the best the other guy can do. It's not the best that can be done.”

CTOs, in the classic sense, spend about 15% to 20% of their time overseeing the IT division, and the remainder of their time scanning the competitors' technology and evaluating the technology of current vendors, but Voeller says he's redefined the CTO role to go beyond gadgetry and routers. “I think one of the key discriminations that I've seen in CTOs is that this is the person who loves to play with the bits, monkey with the tools, and go out and do competitive analyses on 20 vendors' products,” he says. “While looking at the gadgetry can be fun, I think it's more important for a CTO to look at the company's overall business strategy and correlate it with the technology that will appear in the future.”

Voeller, who is currently serving at the Office of Science and Technology Policy for the Executive Office of the President of the United States in Washington, D.C., says he's able to serve as the “corporate futurist” and look a decade ahead by evaluating the primary drivers of the economy, the business structure, the industry, and the providers. He's spent the last 20 years developing an annual watch list of the 50 most influential technologies to his business. Voeller says the definition of a technology can be expanded to also include a major social or demographic change. For two decades, globalization and the commoditization of engineering have been high on his watch list.

Voeller, who started at Black & Veatch as a nuclear piping engineer 30 years ago, performed the role of a CTO before his company even created a title for the position. The company's CEO came to the conclusion that the only way to be successful was to do something that their competitors hadn't thought of yet. As a result, Voeller had free rein to conceptualize a different formula for how the company performed work. Their ideas turned out to be about a decade ahead of their time and helped the firm grow from a $250 million company to just short of a $2 billion global engineering firm.

Voeller is currently focused on creating a new knowledge management approach called Cygnet, which is based on decision-centric thinking. This concept is centered around the idea that everything you do is designed to allow you to make a decision or is a consequence of a decision. Once you develop a decision-making process that's a subset of the total work process, you can pick it up as a fragment and reuse it in a future job. For example, if you have two jobs that are similar, the decision fragments can turn into business processes, and you can reuse the bulk of them with very little change. “If someone wants to design a two-stage pre-filter system for a water plant, you can download the necessary programs, set up the interface, enter a few pieces of data, and let the system design the plant,” he says.

Voeller says many engineering firms may think they will gain maximum productivity from CAD stations, but as the machines get faster and faster, they'll eventually spend the bulk of their time waiting on humans. As a CTO, he oversaw the creation of programs that can automatically generate thousands of drawings from the data with no intervention. As a result, the firm not only experienced a dramatic increase in productivity, but also performed tasks never thought possible.

For example, engineers often have to draw thousands of circuit diagrams for a large power plant. If one of the major components changes in the middle of a project, they have to go back to their CAD stations, reload the drawings, and change them. The automated system allows engineers to make one change in the database to trigger the machine to regenerate all of the drawings. Black & Veatch accomplished double-digit improvement in productivity by using this approach and went from 14 engineers working on drawings for five weeks to one person spending half of his time working on the drawings for two weeks. Voeller says by having a CTO, firms can anticipate future changes in technology. “Whatever technology any engineering firm builds, supplies, integrates, provides, or maintains, there's going to be massive growth and changes globally that will require a view beyond the quarter and the year to ensure that inevitable change brings value and not impact or confusion,” he says.

A different approach to technology leadership. The nation's largest electrical engineering firms may be able to hire both a CIO and CTO, but if your firm doesn't have billions of dollars in revenue or offices around the world, you may decide to hire just one executive to oversee the technology at your company. The majority of mid- to small-size firms, and even some of the country's largest engineering companies, have opted to hire one IT executive and a supporting team of technologists. For example, RTKL Associates had to combine the two positions under the CIO title seven years ago when it hired Ardie Alaindust for the position. In that dual role, he's responsible for improving productivity and quality and making strategic IT decisions.

He says the need for a CIO or CTO depends on the size of the engineering firm and the division of executive leadership within the organization. “If you go back to 1993, technology wasn't like it is today,” he says. “Architecture and engineering firms were not fully computerized, so there was no need for full-time dedicated technologists or CIOs. They then got to a point where they wanted to standardize the organization and make it fully automated.”

At Shaw Group, the CIO and CTO roles are also combined. CIO Patrick Thompson, a winner of the Top 100 CIO Award from ComputerWorld and CIO magazines in 2000, says he must carry out both duties because the integrated technologies that are both part of internal work processes are also part of their delivery to their clients. “Keeping these technology deliverables aligned is key to being a cost-effective engineering and construction firm,” Thompson says.

He says the CIO role received visibility at the executive level about 12 years ago. Before that time, an MIS director or a vice president of IT was the highest position available in IT, and these employees would report to the financial executives at an engineering firm. In the past, CIOs were primarily responsible for developing and supporting accounting systems, while a CTO handled the technology end of the business. Some engineering firms, however, have changed their outlook on the CIO position and combined the roles and responsibilities into one executive title, he says. “Because of the technology that was spun out of the dot-com era, some companies suddenly embraced the concept of a CTO while others never felt like it needed to be two people,” he says. “Now it's come full circle back to just one person with some very strong infrastructure beneath him rather than splitting the CIO and the CTO role into two.”

Carter & Burgess, a 65-year-old engineering and architectural firm, decided to establish the position of CIO three years ago, but because an IT staff of about 40 plus 30 office-based IT professionals was able to support the firm's 2,500 employees, the company didn't have a need for a separate CIO and CTO.

Gary Soward, acting CIO, reviews different technologies, improves collaboration within the company, and oversees the IT division. In the past, the firm's IT team was primarily responsible for fixing the PCs, the servers, and the network. Times have changed, however, and the division has shifted from a support group to a services-oriented group.

To be successful, an IT division must create a collaborative environment where teamwork is encouraged and must be composed of hard-working and knowledgeable employees with a passion for technology. “It's a full-time job just keeping up with technology, understanding what's out there, and aligning that with the business,” Soward says. “But I love technology and helping to build our vision for the future.”

To make sure your firm is leading the pack rather than lagging behind, you may want to consider creating the position of a CTO. Then you can cross the finish line before your competitors and maybe even win the technological race.




Sidebar: What to Look for in a CTO

If your company's technology needs are growing, you may want to look into hiring a CTO. Executives from some of the nation's largest electrical engineering firms suggest you consider the following characteristics when filling this position.

  • Strategic thinker with complete fluency of the architecture and engineering industries.

  • Ability to motivate the team to meet strategic corporate objectives by setting a clear vision of the initiatives and implementing stringent yet realistic milestones and timetables.

  • A technical background in order to understand how systems and products integrate.

  • Ability to identify and implement innovative and cost-effective systems to continually improve a company's performance.

  • Looks at process and business value as strongly as he or she looks at the technology, and is completely unbiased toward one user community or goal set.




Top Technology Trends for the Future

Would you like a heads up on some of today's most important technological advancements in the engineering and architecture industry? Gary Soward, acting CIO of Carter & Burgess, reveals the four trends to be aware of.

Intelligent designs. Today's computing power coupled with modern communications is making intelligent designs a reality. Traditionally, engineering designs consisted of line drawings and specifications. They now contain intelligent objects that represent manufacturers' products and product attributes, such as price, color, life cycle, dimensions, and weight. Intelligent designs are becoming less expensive and time consuming and can be used to produce accurate cost and construction schedules.

Geographic information systems (GIS). GIS is another growth area for organizations to develop and manage campuses, airports, hospitals, and highways. Integration of different types of data into easy-to-use systems gives management new and innovative ways to look at and manage their assets.

Internet collaboration. The way engineering and architecture firms work, collect data, collaborate, and present ideas is rapidly changing. Increased speed and access to the Internet allows people to effectively work from anywhere. Field personnel can use GPS survey equipment, cameras, PDAs, laptops and other specialized equipment to gather information from the field and instantly communicate it to the rest of the team. Project collaboration through extranet Web sites keeps the team up to speed. All this information is easy to find and to track. It can be accessed in many forms, such as 2D or 3D drawings, video, schedules, financials, and other formats and is available in real time.

Working in real-time with clients. Multiple entities often perform large design projects, and drawing files are traditionally transmitted between organizations at various stages. Today partnerships are working on live designs jointly, connecting their networks, and referencing live production work across companies.