Information Technology: The virtual team

November 2006 » Feature Articles
Tap into your firm's far-flung resources without sacrificing the local presence, relationships, and small-business "feel" you've forged with your clients.
Peter Z. Armata, Jr.

Five tips for using your firm's global resources for local project delivery.

Ten states and 1,500 miles. That's what separates Vermont from Florida, and me from my Southern coworkers. Nevertheless, for the past year we have been working together to design a 5-mile, four-lane roadway in St. Cloud, Fla., taking advantage of each other's particular skills and expertise despite our geographic separation.

Many clients—and especially municipal clients—like having a "hometown" project team. They know the engineers, they know the company, and they trust their work. Our staff in Florida had already established that sort of relationship with the client; we are a local company as far as they're concerned.

But in reality, our firm, Stantec, has more than 6,000 employees spread through 80 offices across North America. Needless to say, numbers like those provide a nearly endless supply of experts, technicians, computer networks, and other resources, and drawing from those resources undoubtedly produces a better product.

So for this roadway project, we created a project team from staff in five different offices on the East Coast. The project manager and the lead project engineer were located in Florida. They were the locals who knew the client and knew the site. But many of the supporting team members—CAD technicians, traffic engineers, IT support staff—worked from offices far removed from the project site.

So how did we do it? How do you tap into your firm's far-flung resources without sacrificing the local presence, relationships, and small-business "feel" you've forged with your clients? The following tips illustrate how we were able to draw successfully from those resources to create a tailored team of specialists who worked together to produce a top-notch product—and a happy client.

Tip 1: Establish constant communication

As with almost every project, communication is essential. As the following examples show, today's technology certainly makes this task much easier:

E-mail—E-mail keeps everyone in the loop, especially when you use the "cc" function. And while reading and responding to e-mails seems like a never-ending task, including other project team members in information-sharing helps make sure everyone is up to date. E-mail also provides documentation of any changes or electronic "conversations" about the project.

Telephone—The telephone seems to have fallen to the wayside since e-mail came along, but calling colleagues is almost as good as walking into their office—you get a feel for their personality, attitude, and sense of urgency about the task at hand Conference calls can also give the whole group that same familiarity with each other.

Internet conferencing—Using Internet meeting programs, such as NetMeeting or WebEx, allow one team member to demonstrate a software program, application, or other on-screen use while other team members watch on their own computer screens. For instance, if your team needs training on a new software program, you can demonstrate the program on your screen while they watch and listen from their own computers. Many of these conferencing programs also allow participants to ask questions and speak with the presenter.

Project managers should also hold regular meetings with the entire team using any of these methods. For the St Cloud project, we held a conference call every Friday to apprise each other of our progress and determine what we needed to do during the upcoming week.

Tip 2: Assign specific roles

With clear roles, your team members will know who is responsible for what, avoiding duplicated efforts or neglected work. Some roles to fill at the outset include the following:

Project manager—Most likely, this role will already be defined at the project's start. The project manager oversees the project as a whole, keeping an eye on the budget and serving as the client's contact.

Project engineer—This person is the point of contact for all design and engineering issues. He or she works closely with the project manager and should attend client meetings to answer their design-related questions.

CAD manager—Identifying a CAD manager early in the process allows one person to manage quality control throughout its duration. It also establishes a "go-to" person for current data and standards.

IT support staff—IT staff should be onboard to test all programs and make sure all software is linked properly.

Tip 3: Set up a centralized data network

When you have team members spread through various offices, they all have their own local computer networks where they store their files. But a centralized data network, sometimes called a wide-area network (WAN), allows team members to store and manage their files just as if they were all in the same office.This data sharing is possible through special software, such as Availl, that replicates and synchronizes data so that changes to one file are automatically mirrored in the others. The software stores a master file directory on each of the linked servers, and when changes are made to the local server, those changes are copied to the others.

Using this type of network is yet another way to make sure all team members are using the same information and not duplicating each other's work. With this software, there's no need for creating multiple versions of files as changes are made, which can be confusing. Also, users no longer have the frustration of finding a file locked while another team member is using it. This system also saves work for the CAD manager, since he or she will not have to reformat every copy of every drawing.

For example, let's say three people in different offices are working on different sections of an intersection—the curb layout, the striping, and the drainage. If the curb drawing is replicated, then the others can use that drawing in their respective drawings. If changes are made to one of the files, those changes are reflected in the copied files on other servers, so everyone still has the most up-to-date version of the drawing. (For more information about this technology, see "Better remote office CAD file access below.)

File transfer protocol (FTP) sites can also be useful for transferring copies of files to each other. FTP sites are less taxing to your server, and your clients can access them as well. However, FTP sites only relay whatever data is included in the file posted. If changes are made to a document that was posted on the FTP, the CAD technician needs to reformat the new copy, repost it on the FTP, and alert everyone that they need to download the new file.

Tip 4: Select and define CAD and design standards early

This may seem obvious, but the whole team needs to discuss and agree upon the design standards for the project right from the start. For our project, for example, we decided to use the CAD and design standards set by the Florida Department of Transportation. With those standards set, everyone knew where to look for specifications and other information when the project engineer or CAD manager wasn't available. This agreement early on in the project ensures that all team members are using the same information and guidelines, which will result in fewer inconsistencies and a faster quality-assurance process.

Tip 5: Handle quality control as you go

Because you are not at your coworkers' sides throughout the project, saving quality control and assurance efforts until a task is nearly completed could result in a lot more work. Instead, go through the quality control process when just part of a task has been completed, and then finish it after any issues are resolved. That way, potential discrepancies or other problems are caught right away, and everyone knows how the task should be completed. While that may seem like an extra step, it ultimately can save a great deal of time and effort by not redoing and reviewing work.

Reaping rewards

Thanks to constant communication, clear organization, and efficient technology, our multi-office teaming was a huge success and rewarding on many levels. I got to work on an exciting project that I may not have otherwise been involved in. I had the chance to work with colleagues I may never have had the opportunity to meet. The project benefited from the expertise of utility, drainage, civil, traffic, paving, and construction specialists all over the company.

And best of all, our client was thrilled with the results. In fact, they were so impressed with our work that they made it a point to tell us that Stantec is one of the best firms they have worked with and that they will be spreading the word about us and our "one team, infinite solutions" motto.
Great work, great project, and great results, all thanks to a great (virtual) team.

Peter Z. Armata, Jr., is a senior CAD technician in Stantec's South Burlington, Vt., office. He can be contacted at parmata@stantec.com.


Better remote office CAD file access

Traditionally, design-intensive organizations used product data management (PDM) packages to allow effective sharing among local team members. PDM acted as department traffic cop, enforcing rules for "one user at a time" and "no one ever works on an old version" so teams could share files effectively. File updates across locations usually were reserved for late at night when users were asleep.

Such an approach works when all users are in the same building. However, CAD teams today have users working on designs simultaneously, many of whom need constant access across a wide-area network (WAN) time zones away. Unfortunately, this creates the following challenges:

Opening large files from a distance—Whether in PDM systems or on a virtual private network (VPN), users in remote offices must endure lengthy waits from 5 to 20 minutes per file, far too extensive for productivity.

File locking breaks down if the data repository is split—There is no unified, check-in/check-out mechanism to eliminate WAN file open times when files exist in multiple locations.

Managing bandwidth and costs—Bandwidth costs over a VPN vary across the globe, creating a major pressure point for IT budgets. PDM solutions don't reduce WAN traffic and are often costly.

WAFS: Assuring file lock coherence

A wide-area file system (WAFS) represents a significant improvement for branch/distributed office file access performance. WAFS will address age-old problems of remote CAD teams, such as how to make rapidly changing information simultaneously available at any number of sites, using virtually no bandwidth.

The right WAFS means that file lock coherence, including the application's normal locking message to users, is projected in real time across the globe. It will let CAD teams accomplish the following:
• overcome network concerns to eliminate 95 percent of bandwidth, securely. For example, Availl's technology as used at Stantec and others sends only byte level differences of file changes, then compresses and encrypts them.
• have files open from the local file server disk, in each office. This also provides 100-percent access, even if the WAN is down.
• ensure a true, real-time mirror copy is accessed from the local servers. File version coherence is ensured because the latest version exists at each office server, even as it changes at any other location across the globe.
• achieve file lock coherence, so only one user ever has a read/write copy and all others get a read-only version—anytime.
• achieve transparency, so files remain in their existing Windows folders, and are 100-percent fully usable by any number of users, 24/7.

Local file access speed

At V3/Landmark Engineering, engineers in multiple Southwest U.S. offices handle land planning, water resources, public infrastructure, and surveying projects. Sharing AutoCAD files across the expanse between offices often meant a 5- to 10-minute wait for some files to open—sometimes even longer. Because some users relied on transferring files and updating them only once nightly, multiple collaborators were working on the same file during the day, leading to multiple versions of the same file.

The firm ruled out product lifecycle management solutions available as an outsourced service because they accelerated only AutoCAD files (not other applications) and did not provide file locking across the WAN. While newer WAN optimization appliances and "branch in a box" approaches could speed some consolidated data across a WAN, they did nothing for the key issue of ensuring file coherence, so these weren't an option.

V3/Landmark purchased Availl WAFS in mid-2004 because it was the only WAFS solution on the market providing real-time file locking across any number of sites. As a coherent storage mirroring approach to WAFS, Availl projects native file locking across the WAN in real time, so users cannot conflict on the same file, even when working at different remote sites.

Within a few weeks, Availl WAFS had reduced file access times to a matter of seconds—even files that were currently in use by colleagues elsewhere—and allowed V3/Landmark to deploy its engineering workforce more effectively. Engineers based out of a satellite office no longer found themselves needing to copy or e-mail files, or even drive to the other office when files resided there, to work productively.

Multiple companies, one file system

Coherent WAFS solutions such as Availl also can unite multiple companies using secure, behind-the-firewall files. For example, five companies used WAFS in the recent O'Hare International Airport Runway 10C relocation project. One company, Milhouse Engineering, installed Availl WAFS software on a central server, and four partner firms installed Availl WAFS on their office servers as well. Availl kept a coherent mirror copy of all files everywhere. It allowed all firms to share AutoCAD and other files on a WAN as if their computers were all within the same offices, with no file access delays or versioning conflicts.

— By Craig Randall, vice president of operations, Availl Inc.


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