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Interview - January 2003
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EMAIL INTERVIEW - Al De Wachter & Ken Sinclair

Al De Wachter has worked in the Building Automation industry for over 30 years. He has held senior positions with Honeywell, Landis/Siemens and TransAlta Energy. He is the president of ICS (Independent Control Specialists Inc), where he has directed the development of advanced productivity software for Building Automation Contractors since 1990.

Al De Wachter, President, ICS (Independent Control Specialists Inc) 
www.ics-controls.com


New features in High-Tech Contractor Cost Estimating Software.

Sinclair: In last month's talk we decided to revisit the benefits that come with the latest high-tech estimating software.  (Ref: articles "Beyond the Technical Issues" and "BAS Cost Estimating Issues"). 

De Wachter: Indeed we did. We had touched upon the features of our newest release, Concerto Suite©, and had planned to expand the information. It's a daunting task to discuss all new features in these few minutes, let alone the legacy features of the preceding SOCC program on which Concerto Suite was built. But we'll give it our best shot, and offer additional information off-line to interested parties.

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Sinclair: If SOCC is the foundation of Concerto Suite, why not give us a quick overview of the former, and expand on the latter?

De Wachter: SOCC stood for "Sales and Operations Cost Calculator", which implied that after a Sales estimate turns into an order, the Operations people inherit the project. In reality, a good sales estimate is a very valuable and practical tool for the design and installation group. A vague estimate tends to increase execution costs. 

When we looked at successful contractors, one thing kept coming back: they have a good estimate, and execute well according to a plan that includes a sensible project breakout in smallish, bite-size chunks that the team can envision, evaluate, measure and handle. That's easy to say but hard to do. In practical terms, putting together a clear plan that leads to "execution as sold" is where things fall down for many contractors. Without proper tools, this task can be very time consuming and if done improperly, can invite failure instead of success. A good plan will blend project specifics with existing knowledge and historical standards. That's important to reflects reality: while every big building is different, at the smaller 'system' level there is typically a high degree of repetition and use of known elements. In other words, installers do a lot of familiar work, and that can pay off in the planning effort.

Sinclair: Obviously true, but how does that relate to estimating? Isn't an estimate just a way to establish a price for the client? And surely you're not expecting estimators to create a job plan?

De Wachter: Highly successful contractors would likely argue those points. An estimate is certainly a prerequisite to know what your own direct costs will be. Yes, it will have a bearing on the sell price, but there are many other factors that determine how low or high the final price will be over the direct cost. 

However perhaps equally important is the estimate's ability to 'pre-dispose' a project to success by making a good plan 'easy', even a 'byproduct'. If the estimating system naturally breaks a project into 'pieces' that project managers and installers use to plan and execute the work, then the result is a major advantage. As we already know, execution according to a plan is a necessity for success. If the estimators can envision the job in the same way that the installers see it, the estimate will likely reflect realism. And if the installation crew is comfortable, it also allows projects people to provide knowledgeable feedback to estimators about where they can reduce labor hours on the next project. 

This brings us to the first key aspect of the legacy SOCC package: its estimates lay the foundation for job breakouts that can be easily used to plan and execute a project. And it does so without a bunch of extra work for the estimator. In fact, it helps the estimator structure his estimates logically, so he does not miss important pieces. It also allows him to make adjustments to those parts of a project that are either easier or more difficult than the rest of the job. With a minimum of practice and some pointers from the project managers, estimators can make sure that this estimate segmentation naturally flows through to the execution stages, and 'feeds' the job plan easily. 

So while the estimators are not creating the plan, they are assembling a detailed estimate, using standard elements, that easily translate into a job plan.

Sinclair: Last month we spoke about the importance of databases. How does that fit in?

De Wachter: That's the second cornerstone of SOCC: the database is assembled to satisfy both the estimators and the execution team. We can't stress this too much: if we estimate 1 hour for a task, and the field team requires 2 hours, the project is doomed. That's a no-brainer but it's amazing how often this scenario plays out in real life. Our goal is to find the "correct" time needed to perform the various tasks given a set of known conditions, so that estimators can determine a realistic cost based on what it 'really' takes to do the work. Obviously this implies realistic expectations for both groups: the estimated hours must be sufficient to do the work, but not too high or the estimated cost will be excessive and there will be no orders.

Reliable Controls Sinclair: Now we have an estimate that is primed for project success, and a database that supports good estimating. What's next?

De Wachter: Applying it! We have learned that SOCC does not do things that experienced people haven't already thought of. We did not reinvent the wheel. However with the help of many users and after much fine-tuning, SOCC became the vehicle that allows estimators to put their knowledge to effective use. Because knowing what to do is one thing, however having a tool to do it effectively is quite another. SOCC provided that vehicle. It was built to 'work like an estimator'. It was freed from spreadsheet limitations and simple 'addition' scenarios. It allows for use of known cost elements from a true database, and arranging those cost elements into a logical manner so that the estimate is sensible, repeatable, transparent, accurate, and quickly assembled. It also allows a user to make changes and 'what-if' tests so that he can assemble his estimate quickly and accurately. We built in assemblies (kits) that allow estimating in one step the multiple items that typically go together as a related set. We built in templates that administrators could pre-set so that new estimates could be created from known baselines. We built in adjustment features that recognize such things as building heights, construction types, retrofit work, and special conditions. A user can copy systems from one estimate to another, temporarily de-activate systems or areas to evaluate 'what-if' steps. And of course an important part is that the database supports the labor categories and tasks that are typical of high-tech contracting work to that planning tasks can be derived from the estimate. 

We created reports that are suitable for the high-tech industry to allow quick review of global one-page summaries and multi-page drill-down details. Nothing is hidden - there is no magic. The result is a system that people can live with for both estimating and execution.

Sinclair: Sounds great. So why was there a need for Concerto?

De Wachter: Computer software technology changed a lot since the Windows version of SOCC was released. (There even was a DOS version before that…). And also, more user feedback and expectations prompted further development. There were ways to simplify the user interface so it is easier to learn, and navigation is simplified. And the new MS Windows features also provided opportunities to streamline some functions and screens. 

But most importantly, additional features were suggested that made the development compelling. While the list is too long to mention even in short form, here are some of the key additions: 

These are some of the features that people can easily relate to. There are many others that are less obvious unless one experiences how they make the estimator's life simpler.

Sinclair: Will the program handle both small and large projects?

De Wachter: Over time we have been asked for features that are handy for small projects, while others are really designed to address large project challenges. We are releasing four different versions or 'levels' of Concerto to match the needs of various clients. This means that contractors who do a lot of repetitive work with small projects can benefit from a streamlined program version, while contractors that get involved in larger projects have access to a full suite of features. However all versions share the same databases and interfaces, so there is a lot of value at all levels.

CatNet SystemsSinclair: Those sound mostly like estimating features. What's in it for the execution team?

De Wachter: All the features are also available to a designer or project manager. However we built in special modes that allow the Concerto Suite package to 'act' differently depending on whether the user is doing a sales estimate, client presentation estimate, project design, as-built design etc. Some of these 'modes' are connected through user 'privileges' that are assigned by the site administrator. Different users can therefore unlock and experience different program features depending on their assigned privileges, which are accessed via their login password.

Sinclair: Does this release signal the end of development for Concerto?

De Wachter: Not at all. We have several Concerto enhancements in the labs right now, including even more detailed reports, purchase modules, export modules, marketing analysis modules, and others. All of these will be released under the Concerto Suite banner. After being in development for well over 3.5 years, Concerto Suite will continue to change the landscape of professional high-tech estimating for Controls Contractors, and other advanced technology Facility Automation contractors like Access and Security professionals.

Sinclair: Obviously this is not a trivial subject. How can our readers get more information?

De Wachter: They can talk with their fellow contractors in a dealer association or buying group who may already use our programs. Or they can visit our website at www.ics-controls.com  and get additional information.

Ken, thank you for this opportunity to discuss our estimating tools.


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