Why apps are adjusting to the user

Isaac Sacolick

Isaac Sacolick is CIO of McGraw Hill Construction, where he leads MHC’s technology strategy and execution.

Isaac Sacolick of McGraw Hill Construction explains how personalized apps create business value.

Interview conducted by Vinod Baya and Bo Parker

PwC: Isaac, can you please tell us about your business and your role there?

IS: Sure. I work for McGraw Hill Construction as the business unit CIO. We provide essential data, news, insights, and intelligence to better inform construction professionals’ decisions and strengthen their market position. Our primary customers include general contractors [GC] and building product manufacturers.

Historically our products were in print format. More than a decade ago, we started providing our content in digital form. That transformation seeded our data business. During the past few years, we have been transforming from a data business to an intelligence, analytics, and insights business that provides intelligence on relationships, such as which GCs and architects owners work with, and forecasts on industry trends. Our offerings help businesses in the construction ecosystem size market opportunities, target and build relationships, and optimize their sales activity. Dodge, which is our key database of construction project information, has more than 5,000 project updates reported each day, so the data stays fresh and actionable for all participants in the ecosystem.

Most of my responsibility is for the customer-facing products and our internal operations—so, the systems for business intelligence, product delivery, content management, CRM [customer relationship management], lead generation, and others. Over the last three years we’ve established a global agile software delivery practice and new data technology platforms that have enabled us to launch five new products. I spend very little of my time on things such as data centers and infrastructure, which our corporate IT organization provides to us as a managed shared service.

The reality is that our sales force does not spend much time at desks researching and absorbing information, because much of their time is out in the field. They need real-time interfaces and insights that fit into how and where they do their work.

PwC: What are your key priorities today as they relate to the future of enterprise applications in McGraw Hill Construction?

IS: Our strategic priorities are to continue moving beyond pure data services. Reporting and analytics are a big part of that, as well as applications that integrate analytics within the context of how our internal and external users work. For example, our sales force uses our solutions in the context of selling. If they are targeting a manufacturer or general contractor, the salespeople need to know how the target is performing, the target’s past and future contracts, market share, lost bids, and so on. We deliver some of that information to them.

The reality is that our field sales force does not spend much time at desks researching and absorbing information, because much of their time is out in the field. They need real-time interfaces and insights that fit into how and where they do their work. Mobile apps will play a big role in this requirement, as they allow me to integrate data and context with the workflow.

Another key priority is to ensure that all departments have the ability to leverage data from our business systems (CRM, financial, marketing), operational data, and proprietary Dodge data to discover insights and enable smarter decision making. We’ve done that by rolling out internal BI [business intelligence] tools and allowing individuals to develop their own dashboards. I’m fairly passionate around data-driven organizations, self-service BI, and agile practices, and I cover it in my blog Social, Agile, and Transformation.1

PwC: Are there challenges you are addressing as you advance on this vision?

IS: One challenge is that our legacy systems were not developed with the anticipation of sharing the information broadly across the enterprise. Integrating these sources for both our internal and external customers is ongoing, and we’ve started by developing APIs [application programming interfaces] to our primary databases and content repositories. The APIs have enabled us to deliver multiple web and mobile products in record time and ensure consistent experiences in using our data.

A growing challenge today is creating mobile apps that balance the need for easy navigation with the continuous growth in data that is highly relevant to the job. Mobile devices offer smaller screen sizes, so the presentation of information should be deeply thought out ahead of time and not left to users to create on their own.

Also, the improving economics of big data is forcing everybody to get ahead of the curve on using large amounts of data as a source of distinctiveness—or risk becoming less competitive. We now are living in a world where if you fall too far behind, you’ll have a hard time catching up.

PwC: How have your methods of application design and development changed over time, and how are they evolving?

IS: Agile methods are a core aspect of our development methodology. Everything we do here is based on agile. We’ve introduced agile principles and methods to our businesspeople, for example, and they think about their business needs and how to prioritize requirements using agile. When we develop the user stories, we use them to surface workflows, describe different user personas, and establish acceptance criteria.

We have also followed many technology best practices employed more commonly by software and SaaS [software-as-a-service] businesses. We’ve developed multiple products and applications efficiently by developing APIs. In our largest products, we automate QA regression tests to ensure that we can continue to add features and maintain testing durations. We analyze product usage to help improve products and prioritize enhancements.

PwC: Can you give us an example of an app that supports users in their work?

IS: Sure. Dodge BidPro is our product for smaller contractors. It provides targeted leads to contractors. This product is an in-the-office as well as an on-the-go solution for finding, qualifying, estimating, and bidding on projects. Smaller contractors are unique and have particular needs. They tend to work on certain types of structures and in certain regions of the country. They also tend to work on fewer projects simultaneously. These are people who will be at their desk for a very small portion of their day.

On the other end, our Dodge BI products can be leveraged by the strategic, planning, and business development people at larger GCs and building product manufacturers. So if they are exploring new market opportunities, these dashboard tools provide insights on sizing markets; for example, knowing regionally where hospitals are being planned. They can then use the BuildShare to target owners developing hospitals and develop relationships with them.

So our challenge was how to get the right mix of information to the users across multiple channels—such as mobile, web, e-mail, APIs, and printouts—so as to optimize the amount of time they can spend collaborating, bidding, and finding their future work. We studied their contexts and defined a simple interactive experience that can be carried out in short bursts of time.

We provide features that map to the manner in which they do their work. For example, it allows them to save searches; track projects; get leads based on location, trade, or project specialty profile; qualify projects; get alerts on changes; receive information on who is bidding; and so on.

PwC: Are they also collaborating with others?

IS: Indeed. BidPro allows contractors to track, share, and collaborate on bids with other subcontractors. Timeliness of information is very important. If you’re a GC and there’s a deadline to respond to a bid, a day matters a lot as the GC must reach out to subs [subcontractors] and get that process started. If you’re a sub, the GC will alert you about a project and give you a deadline. The app enables the sharing of targeted information, simplifies navigation, and tunes the overall user experience to the constraints of less time and less screen space even while processing more and more information.

PwC: How is this different from what you had before?

IS: Our legacy products presented one experience to all user types, the big and the small contractors. That worked for us, because we developed one product and we sold one product. But it was problematic for users. In the legacy product, the GC had to use search interfaces that were big and complicated. It was derivative of a world where the largest contractors were using many fields [search categories] to find specific projects from a long list. This complexity was a bad fit for the smaller contractors, who generally track only a few projects at a time.

The [app] products today are personalized to the user role. BidPro has a very simple user interface for the smaller contractors. The Dodge Global Network is a richer interface for the larger GCs and allows them to do a lot more configuration and share information with multiple users. Our Dodge BI products are designed to provide strategic information leveraging multiple years of historic data; market forecasts that we develop; relationships among owners, contractors, and architects that we expose; and detailed product information that we extract from building plans and specifications.

PwC: How do you personalize for the user when the data sources are common?

IS: If we could build the perfect blue-sky architecture, there would be a complete decoupling among the workflows, the data services, and the user interfaces. Then I would have the freedom to source data as needed from any internal or external source. This is in essence what we are trying to do.

We have an API strategy that we’ve successfully used to build internal products. We’ve designed the APIs so that customers can tap into or buy an API—buy our data as a service through the APIs. They will have the flexibility to integrate our data and intelligence with any app able to access our APIs. That’s a different service model for us and a different integration model for our customers.

1. http://blogs.starcio.com