Computerized Estimating Systems

And Other Horrifying Tales

S.S. Saucerman / April 2019

Just so we’re clear, computers are the bomb. I’m 61 now, but I took my first sip of computer Kool-Aid back in the late 1970s, and I’ve been guzzling ever since. I also (through no design of my own) wound up being one of a singular group of professionals whose career arced in almost perfect trajectory with that of the personal computer revolution. In fact, later on when my children would complain of their iPods® running slow, my go-to, can’t-miss dad-joke was, “Slow? I had to stoke my first computer with wood to keep it running!”
    
My kids don’t call anymore.
    
This doesn’t mean, however, that I bought in blindly from the start. There were many pitfalls back then, and it’s safe to say the most ardent PC advocate would admit to the first decade or so as being a bit, well, bumpy. In the beginning, crashing wasn’t something your PC did, it was how it operated. Nothing was compatible with anything, and tech support was just a silly notion. In the far off-chance a support number was available, the experience could prove less than fulfilling: “Please hold. Your call is very impor … [click!] …”
    
Your adventure began with you dialing a non-800 phone number made from symbols and characters not immediately available on American telephone dials. Once connected, your call would immediately be slotted into a three- to five-hour automated queue where you’d be mercilessly assaulted with German neo-techno music rejected by Guantanamo for being “too harsh.” At a pre-determined point late in your wait period, your call would be mandatorily cut off and the process would begin again. You would do this approximately 10 times; the effort would fill an entire morning. After lunch you’d begin fresh, and somewhere around 3 p.m., some poor hapless soul on the other end would slip up and accidentally pick up your call thinking he was about to order Chinese food using the credit card number borrowed from a previous caller.
    
Realizing he’s trapped (you can hear his “supporters” teasing and jeering him in the background), he greets you in a practiced tone of boredom and disdain. You state your dilemma and then enter in to a brief and soul-crushing verbal exchange wherein you discover his accent is not only not local but may not even be that of a mammal. Exhausted and defeated, you hang up the phone, ignore the problem for three weeks and then buy a different product. You then repeat the entire exercise anywhere from two to five more times depending on how long it takes you to find another job.

Knowledge Is, Like, So Hard
To stalwarts like me, these events were chalked up as growing pains. So around 1983 I abandoned my Apples II for my first IBM, the mighty XT. Once the thrill of waiting six hours to download a two-meg file wore off, I upgraded to the 486-AT. About this time (1986–1987), Japanese clones started to flood the market, and with so many similar but different products muddying the market, computer magazines sprang up like sunflowers attempting to sort it all out. I read them all. Most rags featured an in-house stable of geek-columnist types who analyzed, reviewed and commented on product features in a way that left most readers 99 percent certain they were just making everything up. Reviewer: “I was particularly impressed with the 57.8x Stegahertz Merklejammer, far surpassing the old Mortimer Fratastat of which I always thought came off a little sarcastic.”
    
But after a while, something strange happened. It seemed to me the more I read, the dumber I grew. It was so much. It was all too technical and too complex and too much (what’s the word?) work. I couldn’t keep up. So, I made a seminal decision to forestall my goal of achieving computer mastery through knowledge and instead dedicate myself to the far more pragmatic and personally achievable goal of buying whatever PC Magazine told me to buy. It wasn’t my proudest moment, but that stuff goes away if you refuse to think about it. Besides, it turned out to be a good system. I’ve no doubt that since then, it’s saved me countless wasted and frustrating hours better suited for alcohol consumption.
    
Not that I was a fool about it. I smartly anticipated the real possibility that someone, somewhere, at some appointed time in the future may ask me to explain a computer-related issue. Since self-accountability had not revered itself as a strong aspect of my personality prior to this, I therefore found it particularly prudent to create and have in my personal arsenal a foolproof plan to veil my complete lack of computer acumen, should the need ever arise.

The Importance of Social Skills
From that moment on, whenever I purchased new computer hardware or software (more aptly, when I whined incessantly enough to force my company to purchase it for me), I made it a concerted and disciplined regimen to memorize all the notable buzzwords and bullet points surrounding the product being purchased. This way, in the event of an emergency, I could at will launch into a well-rehearsed and highly choreographed regurgitation of manic techno-speak (RAM-ROM-microchannel-graphical-interface-wysiwyg-bluetooth-cloudblock-chain!) in a manner so abrasively pedantic and haughtily condescending to render even the stoutest opponent paralyzed with regret at having approached me and, if I was in good form that day, begin showing signs of losing all will to live in under 60 seconds. My personal record was Toby Shilling from accounting: fully erect to fetal position under the breakroom table in 6.4 seconds.
    
With my fortifications securely in place, I was now free to turn my attention to my chosen trade: construction cost estimating. As mentioned earlier, I’m very old. This means I am one of those fossils you only read about who started out doing cost estimates by hand (I’ll give the millennials a moment to collect themselves.) Do you remember those long, yellow-orange lined pads adorning every old contractor’s desk back in the 1970s? Well, I used them. I even have some in my cabinet—in case I’m ever faced with a power outage that sends us back 55 years.
    
With so primitive a starting point, can it be any surprise that, once indoctrinated, spreadsheets proved to be an absolute panacea for me and those of my ilk. From the moment I @SUM’d my first column, I was a huge fan. As the years flew by, I cultishly navigated my way through Lotus® and then QuatroPro® and finally to MicroSoft Excel®. All the while, WordStar®, Corel WordPerfect® and then MS Word® were making my proposals and correspondence sound way more professional and grammatical than I deserved. In time, 5 1/4-inch floppy drives gave way to 3 1/2-inch disk drives, which in turn fell to the mighty CD. It seemed like something changed every day.

Change Is Inevitable
It was around 1990 (at least by my reckoning) when software applications specific to the construction industry began finding a genuine audience among medium-size contractors like us. The “big boys” had been beta-testing early packages with some success, but the cost and staff requirements were still prohibitive to the average Joe on the street. Also, the early software was plagued by rumors of bugs, glitches and complications that included chronic crashing, integration (with existing systems) issues and charges from users that the software was “cumbersomely complex” operate and maintain.
    
So, let’s recap:
    
1. The early versions of packaged construction software programs didn’t work and may have even been designed by Satan.
    
2. The only way you could truly be 100 percent certain that fact #1 was true was to pay a ridiculously ludicrous amount of cash to a company with which you had no history, all the while absorbing a professional risk that no sane, rational businessperson would contemplate, and so ...
    
One sunny Tuesday morning in 1990, my new, young boss, Skippy, marched into my office and announced we were switching over to a computerized estimating system. He’d come across the software at a recent trade show while circumnavigating the labyrinth of hospitality rooms at his hotel, all sponsored by vendors from the trade show floor. Skippy was three cocktails deep when a very nice salesman named Larry caught his attention. Larry recited the many features of his company’s new estimating software system while refreshing Skippy’s drink. Larry promised his new system would “increase company efficiency by 200 percent,” even though no one—in the history of time—has ever been certain what that means.
    
Skippy listened intently but hadn’t really taken in details and particulars (he always described himself as a big picture kind of guy) but came away highly impressed with Larry’s conviction and the shiny, black box holding the software. He agreed to the purchase. As he leaned forward to shake Larry’s hand, the umbrella from Skippy’s pińa colada slipped away and floated to the floor. The initial “investment” was $18,000 (just for Skippy; he was a ‘friend’ now), but Larry had mentioned the possibility of minor, ancillary costs popping up as the system is fine-tuned.

And They All Lived Happily Ever Af …
Less than two years later, we abandoned the software and returned to using spreadsheets for estimating. Unfortunately, the events unfolding during that time are too tragically complex and too horrifically plentiful to recreate here in a manner worthy of their just due. For now, suffice it say that upon the merciful and whimpering end to our sordid cyber tale, there was a bittersweet blend of despair and relief in the air as we took up:

  • The 32 3 1/2-inch floppy disks containing the original software program.
  • The overnight envelopes/boxes containing more 3 1/2-inch floppy disks filled with software patches, bug fixes, updates and experimental hail-Mary beta apps that never once altered or fixed any problem with our software.
  • Boxes and torn bubble-packs stuffed with proprietary and specialty computer hardware equipment, digitizers, x-y axis tables, security plugs, cables, adapters, sound/video cards and miscellaneous fasteners/connectors.
  • Reams of technical manuals, details, clarifications, memos, emails, letters and legal correspondence.

And we unceremoniously chucked all (now) $47,000-worth of it into cardboard boxes lining one full wall of the storage room. There it would have rested forever had we not later touched on a brilliant tact wherein we salvaged the digitizer table and stylus pen from those boxes and along with an old computer, monitor and printer we had laying around, connected the whole works back together in an empty office available at the end of the hall. We plugged nothing in. We then 1) vacuumed the office, 2) placed a plastic potted plant in the corner, 3) set a dead phone on the desk and surrounded it with scrawled-upon notepads, and 4) spread a handful of old blueprints along the back counter. From then on, the room served as a vital promotional tool whenever we wanted to showcase our “computerized estimating system” to prospective clients during office walk-throughs.

Opportunity from Aftermath
I stayed with the company another year or so before seeking greener pastures. Little did I know at the time that I would go on to (incredibly) repeat this “buy-then-abandon-a-computer-estimating-package” exercise two more times in my career! Eventually I came to view the boxed estimating systems with an enthusiasm akin to how the “kid from the wrong side of the tracks” in the movies regards his single-mom’s boyfriends—in the picture one moment and gone the next. And like that character, I found it was better to not get too emotionally attached. But our story doesn’t end here. As if things weren’t already satisfyingly surreal, it came about that I somehow developed a reputation as an unofficial expert in setting up these packaged estimating systems. Word of mouth landed me a number of side-gigs wherein I’d consult or assist contractors (sometimes even my own competition) with setting up estimating programs that they’d purchased but then failed to get working properly.
    
Of course I was conflicted because I knew from experience that even after I’d correctly installed the program, my client was damned to a period of discovery where they would learn firsthand that these programs were effectively too cumbersome, too fraught with errors and glitches, and far too reliant on continual updates and data management to be of any real practical use at all. But then again, they’d only asked to me to set it up correctly. I satisfied my conscious by telling myself the rest of the matter was out of my control. Still, I braced for some level of backlash. I knew the level of investment—both financial and emotional—that went into bringing these systems to life, and it seemed more than justifiable that these owners would be upset over the outcome.
    
But surprisingly, repercussion never came. Instead, it went something like this: Most of my clients had (like me) had grown so embittered, haggard and exhausted during the whole affair that by the time the whole thing trickled down to me, they had long resigned themselves to the possibility of never actually using the product. They now seemed as interested in assuring themselves that the problem didn’t lie with them. It was a (strange) pride thing. Most were OK with the prospect of being stuck with a bad product; that happened every day. But one thing they couldn’t stand was not knowing exactly who to be mad at. They were to the point where they simply wanted a tangible, targetable villain other than themselves. This way, the blame could be adequately assessed and they could return their focus to spreadsheet development and in cleaning out of the spare office for their new promotional display.
    
It was a great time to be alive.

S.S. Saucerman is a full-time commercial construction estimator and project manager for a large upper-Midwest general contractor. He is also an established freelance writer and author whose work spans 20 years. In addition to construction and writing, Saucerman also taught building construction technology part-time for 11 years at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill.