To Beep or Not to Beep

Vince Bailey

March 2008

This writing is a heartfelt testament to a dramatic conversion I underwent a number of years ago. Its purpose is to coax the foot-dragging, nay-saying bean-counters in our industry from the security blanket of their Stone Age takeoff methods, and help to convince them of the technological advantages available to them in the digital era.

Not that any of my colleagues would dream of labeling me a technogeek, or anything close to it. Actually, many of my digitizing skills can best be described as pre-emergent. In fact, I have to get one of my kids to turn on the TV for me. It’s pathetic. My point is that if I can make the leap, nearly anybody who still has all of his fingers can, too. And thanks to the tireless prodding of a forward-looking mentor, and my own fixation with professional self-preservation, I devoted a significant chunk of well-spent hours to learning the basics of one of the more popular computerized drywall estimating programs. It’s been 10 years now since I traded such relics of the past as "the wheel” for the audio-visual stimulation of a beeping digitizer pen, and the difference it has made in my professional life has been startling, if not staggering.

For those few of you who are stubbornly cowering in the shadows of obsolescence, most estimating programs consist of two main components: the takeoff program and the estimating/management program (some programs have integrated the two, but they are essentially still distinguishable). The takeoff portion generally consists of digitizing hardware—an electronically plotted plan table/grid and a digitizing stylus, or pen, which beeps when it registers scaled lengths or squared quantities according to the plans, which are overlaid on the grid. The estimating/management portion of the program imports the quantities determined on the takeoff program and organizes the information for evaluation, modification and dissemination in a logical, useful format.

What can all of this mean? Higher volume, greater accuracy, ease in modification, better organization, concise analysis, clarity of results.

In a word: much.

Oh, I know, for some of you, it’s almost beyond belief that scale-tape dinosaurs and techno-holdouts in our business still exist in any significant numbers, but trust me—they’re still out there. I’ve seen them … I’ve talked to them … and they don’t even know they’re dead! Maybe, just maybe if I regurgitate a list of the excuses I’ve heard them use to cling to an antiquated past, and try to de-bunk these weak rationalizations one by one, I can dispel some of the unfounded resistance. Here’s a sampling of what I’ve heard:

The learning curve appears too difficult, too time-consuming. Actually, most programs offer a number of differing approaches to learning as part of the package, any number of which are designed to conform to individual students’ differing levels and styles of assimilation. These approaches include hard-copy manuals, computer tutorials, telephone tutorials and classroom seminars. Most programs are organized into logical, easy-to-learn segments, and are well within the grasp of any reasonably intelligent student. During my own transition period, I availed myself of all of the above approaches, and was able to turn out well-analyzed estimates on average-size commercial projects within a week’s time.

Probably not compatible with other software my company is running. Pooh. Virtually all estimating programs run with current versions of Windows or Mac. In fact, many programs interface with common accounting programs, and can import or export data with the click of the mouse.

Too complicated for my simple operation. Only if you want it to be. The variety of sophistication in programs available on the market ranges from those suited to small residential "Ma and Pa” outfits, to those custom-tailored to meet the needs of multi-million-dollar commercial operations with specialized scopes of work.

Too costly; can’t afford it. Can’t afford not to. With all of the competition and the diversity of sophistication, programs can run from less than a thousand dollars to in the tens of thousands, and higher. The counterpoint is this: In terms of volume, accuracy and professional efficacy, the gains that the available technology now allows can easily offset the costs in a matter of months.

Obviously, my brief attempt to share my techno-conversion with wheel-spinning refuseniks barely touches on the advantages that a Jurassic Age estimator can realize with a little investment of resources. When pressed to sum up my argument for a progressive path, I’d have to cite the sadness that the very mention of obsolescence invokes. And say what you will about construction estimators, sadness in no way describes our lot. So if I have persuaded even one of you colored-pencil relics to budge from the shadows of antiquity, into the beeping and flashing excitement of the digital era, my effort in this writing has been rewarded.

Vince Bailey is an estimator/operations manager for San Juan Insulation and Drywall, Durango, Colo.