February 18, 2021

Fiber Broadband Infrastructure Construction with a Platform that Digitizes Workflows End-to-End

The following transcript has been edited for time and readability. Listen to the entire discussion here on The Broadband Bunch.

Craig Corbin:

Hello everyone, and welcome to another edition of the Broadband Bunch. Alongside my colleague Brad Hine, I’m Craig Corbin. Thanks so much for joining us today. Anyone who has ever been part of a team responsible for communications infrastructure construction projects will tell you that complexity and continual challenges most certainly come with the territory. Vitruvi based in Calgary, Canada, harnesses cloud-based technology and best practices in project management to solve the challenges that have long confronted these construction projects, especially those of scale.

Craig Corbin:

Our guest today is Bryan McIver, Founder and CEO of Vitruvi.  He led the project management team, which deployed the first private GPON network in North America from ’06 to ’08, and also designed and built one of Canada’s first Brownfield municipally-owned Fiber to the Premise networks in 2012.

Craig Corbin:

One of the things that intrigues me is that you embrace, as a company, the concept of servant leadership, and that it seems to run through all aspects of Vitruvi. To get us started, give us a 30,000 foot overview of the company and how it all came to be.

Vitruvi – Fiber Broadband Infrastructure Project Management

Bryan McIver:

Part of it starts with my story. I left university looking for an office job in traditional consulting fields. While I was doing that, I found myself back working in the field of utility construction, which is what had put me through university. So I started out in the field and then moved into the office to begin managing some of these projects. It wasn’t very far after that, that I found myself building these custom software solutions to solve construction management challenges. I was pulled right into infrastructure and telecommunications construction management as a career. Then had a chance to go work for some bigger construction operations in North America, building transport and backhaul networks in the early 2000s. Then later ended up working on some of the first FTTP GPON builds in the US and in Canada.

Bryan McIver:

While we were doing that, these were networks where many of the manufacturers that we all know today were trialing their first passive and active components and firmware software and hardware, and many of them for the first time. We had a big Japanese company that was using offshore teams to rebuild a CMS (cable management system) every night. Tyco was developing some of their first versions of their NAPs and their termination products. And well we actually put one of their first FPHs on our project. Then at the same time we were engineering it and designing the build on the hood of a pickup flying down the fast lane. We needed to know where it needed to go when it got to us, so we didn’t frustrate those guys.

Fiber Broadband Infrastructure – Construction Management Challenges

Bryan McIver:

That was really the furnace that we were living in. I guess just being young and stupid, I was up late at night and until the wee hours of the morning, working on software and databases to automate and trying to solve for the efficiency that we needed in these construction management challenges. Obviously got a good sense of the problems and some of the challenges that you face when you were trying to solve these and automate them.  Obviously, I had a great experience there and I learned lots and lots of things the hard way.  Then I transitioned off that program to start my own company -consulting, designing, and building these networks. That was a smaller company and this is in the early days of last mile fiber builds.

Bryan McIver:

We mainly worked for municipal and rural operators, and again, it was an opportunity to touch every piece of the operation and the process, both in the field and the office. Because we were small, it was a bit of a change now because we were doing everything.  One day we were accounting premises, the next day we were designing networks, drafting in CAD, and then applying for permits. After that, we’re downtown negotiating builds with tier one operators. Then the next day we’re back jetting fiber cable in minus 20 degree weather. We really had to do all these things. In the past, when I’d been a manager and assigned these to people, I was doing them myself. I remember when we installed our first fiber distribution frame in the customer’s brand new CO and on paper, I used to oversee the installation of many of these fiber distribution frames, but now I actually had to do it myself.

Bryan McIver:

After showing the customer that we knew what we were doing, we’re drilling the concrete floor to place the lag bolts for the frame, and we have our shop vac at hand, to ensure this is a dustless operation, but someone had forgotten to put the filter on the vacuum. Instead, we pumped a couple of dozen pounds of concrete dust into every inch of that CO.

Bryan McIver:

They didn’t fire us. They brought in the cleaners and we actually ended up building out every last foot of that network. It’s actually the town that I live in now and I’m a customer on that network. It all ended up going quite well. I think that that highlights the point about getting to understand where the inefficiencies and the challenges are at every level of these deployments.

Bryan McIver:

Then the last step in terms of how we got to where we are with Vitruvi was when we took that understanding and merged that into a construction company. We had a very successful construction operation working for Tier Ones – doing design and build. Then in 2014, our construction company was acquired by AFL, and I went to work for them on their engineering and construction operations. I had a chance to see the large capital programs from the highest level of capital investment and planning and execution. Then I came to understand the bottlenecks and inefficiencies that are priced into each one of these large projects.  These inefficiencies are then obviously passed on to the asset owners and those are passed on to the rate payers. There’s a real opportunity there for everyone to win by creating some efficiencies.

Bryan McIver:

As we scaled our volume and our revenue, (by 10X), we ended up just getting the back office costs pretty much in a linear fashion. We were still pretty smart, and we knew what we were doing, but it always ended up that had to hire more people to, as we said, hump spreadsheets. It was at that point that I turned to the CEO and said we really need to go out and build the right vertically integrated end-to-end platform to run these projects. It’s not about working harder; it’s about working smarter. There is a better way to do this and we need to go build it. Let’s build a platform that truly digitizes the workflows end to end. Let’s try to bring the same types of efficiencies we see on the factory floor to the construction field. That was really the impetus for kicking off what at the time was called Project Lighthouse and it ended up turning into Vitruvi.

Building Fiber Broadband Infrastructure Efficiently with Vitruvi

Brad Hine:

Clearly at Vitruvi, you focused on the bottlenecks and the inefficiencies in deployment and how to get around those. Is there a particular place where you started with the software to build this platform?

Bryan McIver:

We really started with the design side of things. Not that we’re a design shop or a design tool, and we’re not solving for that, but I think every time you find an inefficiency in this process, you can largely map it back to the fact that there’s this breakdown in between engineering design and construction. What typically happens is that designs are done on very sophisticated GIS-type platforms, and that design is really packaged up. Then it’s handed off in large part in a hard copy like a PDF file which is just an electronic hard copy format to construction. When that happens you lose all that fidelity from the design. When you lose all that fidelity, you actually create a whole bunch of additional workflows down the line.

Fiber Broadband Infrastructure – Digital Construction Management Platform

Bryan McIver:

You’re going to have to recreate all those datas and structures. You can get the data structured to go back into your system of record. That breakdown in between the silos of engineering and construction is really the main thing that we felt needed to be solved for, because if you can actually fully digitize that handoff, that enables you to solve a bunch of the downstream challenges. That’s where we started with saying, let’s ensure that we have a construction management tool that’s fully integrated with and can fully encompass the entire sphere of what is in the digital design from a GIS perspective. That’s where we started. And then, from there, it was just an outflow of layering on all of the construction and project management and field reporting type aspects, but always connecting them back to those design elements that you got directly from that design.

Brad Hine:

With the COVID pandemic causing many people to work from home and people needing more connectivity, construction can’t happen fast enough to connect all the underserved and the unserved communities with broadband. Would you say that this is the beginning of a digital transformation revolution in what you do?  Because a lot of what you do is you’re integrating other data systems, but you’re also making it easier for people to interact with all the different data through one platform.

Bryan McIver:

I think the headline here is it’s the rise of the digital construction platform. (I actually borrowed that from McKinsey. I didn’t invent that myself.) It’s interesting, you mentioned this shift that obviously the pandemic has brought into a post pandemic world. We see that shift is not going to go away. It’s not going to be reversed.  But even prior to the pandemic, as we started out in our journey, we knew that horizontal infrastructure had a very different set of challenges than vertical construction. Building infrastructure versus building buildings. When you build a building and you get to that building site, there’s only one way in that site, everyone walks to the exact same job trailer and then the same people will do their work on that site, so that you can control a lot of things.

Bryan McIver:

Whereas on horizontal linear infrastructure, pipes and cables, workers are spread across not just an entire city or an entire state, but even an entire country in all these different regions. Anyone can walk them to the job site from any angle or any place in the neighborhood, if you will. It’s a different set of challenges that you’re solving for. That was kind of our first view of saying there are different tools to solve for this. And then with the onset of COVID, then you have the same thing happening now for your office before it was just your workers that you have to deal with, that we’re all spread out, and now your office environment, as everyone works remotely, not everyone can go by the same whiteboard in the office to see what’s going on with jobs.

Bryan McIver:

None of them can walk by the same job sheet in box and grab their next hard copy package of PDF prints to go in and type into various systems because now they’re not going into the office. So now, I need to really think about how to create a digital collaboration platform for the folks in the back office as well. I do think the onset of COVID has really driven our customers and really everyone that needs construction to think about how to move their operations onto a truly digital construction platform.

Brad Hine:

What a great thing for people to have data at their fingertips through this whole construction process. Now you mentioned that when you started in the industry, everything was homegrown systems, that probably didn’t speak to each other. And that there was overuse of spreadsheets and paper. How important is it to your teams now that you’re not dealing in spreadsheet talk, but in more analysis with automated reporting and with real time data.

Bryan McIver:

It’s interesting what you just said there, Brad, it really speaks to the change management for the folks that are managing these projects and how they have to get their minds wrapped around a new role – but it’s a more powerful role.  In the past, they were very focused on being the person that was able to collect all this data and put it into tables and into trackers, which is really just being a Q&A PI.  With the onset of a digital construction platform, all of that data entry work really evaporates, maybe not entirely, but 80 or 90% of it goes away. As it goes away, these people have to think about their work in a new way, because before where they found value in being the person that can create the magic spreadsheet tracker, now it’s not adding a lot of value. When that’s done for them, they got to shift their focus now to think about making strategic analysis of the data that’s at their fingertips.

Bryan McIver:

Now let’s be strategic about how we organize the work, where we place resources. Let’s look at the data that’s at my fingertips, take a look at productivity rates and then be much more strategic in their role. We’re empowering folks in the PMO to be more strategic, but that’s also a big change management piece with them too, because they’re going to have to stop wanting to do the one thing, which is collecting the data and building the trackers and being a data entry clerk, and then shift their focus to say, I can do more strategic things with the data that’s at my fingertips. That’s just a shift in terms of their role but that’s a pretty big impact to the team.

Fiber Broadband Infrastructure – Building with Best-in-Class Technology

Craig Corbin:

Bryan, it’s obvious that you guys are using best in class technology. You mentioned the savings in so many different areas that result from this approach to construction projects. What kind of responses have you and your team gotten when you have shown what Vitruvi can bring to the table particularly from service providers who want to use this platform to enter the market much quicker than before?

Bryan McIver:

The response is pretty universally positive.  Certainly in the early days people were surprised that this product was out there.  They were surprised that someone had actually gone and simplified the process of solving these challenges and that it was too good to be true. That’s been pretty universal in terms of response, but then at the same time, because of the fact that it’s the change management side of this. It’s a big choice and it’s a big gap. It’s a big undertaking to just say, “Hey, we are actually not going to adopt this digital platform.”

Bryan McIver:

That can be somewhat scary and some of the intimidating, because people have to be aligned across a number of different levels of the company to say, “Hey, we’re going to do this, and we’re going to drive this change and we’re going to lead this change, and we’re going to realize these benefits.” Really that, that’s the reaction saying, “Wow, this is too good to be true. And then let’s look at each other and make sure that we’re ready to do this.”

Brad Hine:

It really boggles my mind how many people are involved in this whole fiber infrastructure construction process. The number of stakeholders that require constant coordination from design to close out process is really staggering. That starts with the engineering designs, the need for work orders, the need for file sharing and even mobile connectivity for scheduling. Once you start getting into red lining things, you start that whole process over with more work orders, more budgeting, more need for analysis. How have you seen this being accepted by the industry as a whole?

Bryan McIver:

It’s a very interesting story – in the last couple of years, when I was working on a large deployment for a tier one operator, my customer contact across the table was a gentleman named Zuhare.  We were building hundreds of thousands of premises per year for him. We came to our meetings to provide status where we thought we were and what was going on.  We had our version of the truth in terms of what our trackers told us, and his team had their version of the truth and what their trackers told us. As you can imagine, no one’s trackers ever said the same thing. Everyone had a different version of the truth, and it led to some very tense meetings and tense interactions.

Bryan McIver:

I certainly remember having certain feelings in my heart about Zouheir – and we’re going to get back to Zuhair in a second, and there’s a happy ending to that story, so don’t worry – and I said what I really want to solve for is this animosity that builds up between these teams that are actually trying to help each other and trying to serve each other, we need to solve for that because it shouldn’t be there. Everyone really just had the same truth because there is only one source of truth. It’s just a matter of what is it. If everyone had that, we could reduce this tension and we could actually solve I think an even more important, kind of a soft challenge that these teams face with this emotional challenge.

Bryan McIver:

That was a big part of saying, let’s get all the stakeholders on a single platform where they can interact and have one single source of the truth. As it happens, we actually ended up having Zouheir come on board because I knew he had great insight and we’d struggled through this together. And then he jumped on the management team for a year or so to actually help us dig into this and help continue to solve this. We got to work together and then build a bigger relationship. And so now he’s actually back on board as our Chief Customer Officer.

Bryan McIver:

But again, that all started with these different stakeholder teams coming together and not having a common view of the truth. And that’s what we’ve provided. Vitruvi’s created a platform where actually the owner can be there and the contractor could be there and the subcontractor can be there and even a third-party right-away owner, who’s also got a big stake in this project, can also be there to see the information they need to see. No one has to keep track of their own spreadsheet or their own magic tracker. They can all just look at one source of truth and use that to drive their status reporting and their interactions.

Brad Hine:

It’s so important for everybody to be on the same page and having accurate information that everybody’s sharing in real time – especially for a company like Vitruvi that is not just a North American based company as you’ve also spread into other continents. Tell us a little bit about that.

Bryan McIver:

Our software is all around the world, we white-labeled by one of our great partners in Europe and included in this software suite. It’s a company called TKI and they are just great partners to work with. Then we have other large multinational, publicly traded companies and customers who then take our shop for their projects in the APAC region. What the software provides is really finding its way all around the world. Again, I think it just speaks to the point that the challenge that we face here in what we’re trying to solve, this is pretty universal when it comes to infrastructure construction. Then also coupled with the fact that the whole globe is investing billions, if not trillions of dollars in this type of infrastructure over the next five to 10 years. We need to be as efficient with that capital as we can, so we can build as much as we can, as quick as we can.

Fiber Broadband Construction Management Software

Brad Hine:

Are you seeing much variance in your approach to some of these different technologies, different network types across the globe? Are you able to create a standard approach?

Bryan McIver:

We’re definitely seeing that the fundamentals of construction management are pretty universal. I think everyone’s obviously got their own terminology, obviously different cultures and different countries have their own way of calling things. But the fundamentals of what these customers are trying to solve for is really all the same. It’s very interesting. It doesn’t really matter where we go on the globe, customers come back and we see in the platform that they solved something a certain way. And it’s perfectly identical to what they’re doing in Europe, to what they’re doing in the United States to what they’re doing in Canada. They’ve just got the nuances in terms of terminology, but it’s all really quite consistent. It’s largely because everyone’s trying to solve for the same thing, which is how to build a transport, distribution and local access networks.

Brad Hine:

Do you have any unique stories that come to mind either recent or in the past that would be a neat education for our followers and listeners?

Bryan McIver:

Yes, certainly. One of our larger customers in their operation as they kick off a project, need to instantiate a bunch of activities in terms of the PMO to set up all the systems and do quality takeoffs and create the schedules and the budgets and the work orders, which is common across pretty much every operation that gets involved in these kinds of construction projects. That typically took them 56 person hours per project or per job. These were larger jobs that they were dealing with. After they took the time to move their operation over to Vitruvi, they saw that go down from 56 person hours to 4 person hours! Because virtually all of that became automated. There were just a few tasks that were left for a couple of folks to click the buttons and fill in some of the fields. That was obviously a big win for them and a big enabler for them to scale their operation and do more with less.

Bryan McIver:

That was also coupled with something we’ve been seeing more and more of and that is as we have new people entering the industry, as there’s a push to draw on resources to build all these projects, there’s a lot of folks coming to a telecom or the telecommunications trade practice, who don’t have a lot of experience and they’re new to this. To get them up to speed, typically their employers have to take time, so several months for them to actually learn best practices around how to set up, how to manage and how-to status these projects and how to go about creating all these different tests that what we call the spreadsheets and bubblegum that has been in the past. Now that that can all be encapsulated in a platform, they’re actually able to drive those best practices across new entrance to the organization and reduce the training time. Then also minimize the mistakes that that new employees would make, and actually get them up to speed at a quicker rate.

Fiber Broadband Infrastructure – Driving Quality &  Best Practices

Craig Corbin:

Related to this training aspect perhaps is a part of the Vitruvi portfolio called, Vidflex a video based training tool. Would you give us a quick overview?

Bryan McIver:

Great. That’s exactly related to this. That’s this concept that in terms of driving quality in the field, you have technicians joining your workforce every day. They need to get trained and understand how to install the materials that go into these networks. At the same time, because it’s a telecommunications and advanced technology, those materials and equipment are also teaching on a fairly regular basis. There’s always something to do to stay abreast of. On the material platform, we’ve partnered with a technology called Viflex, which allows us to take the training with the associate of, any material or equipment and link those training videos to that material equipment inside Vitruvi. Any time that material or equipment shows up on a particular work order, those training videos are at the fingertips of the tech when they click on their mobile device, or on the web, if they’re working on the laptop and they can get a refresher course in terms of how to install that particular widget or piece of equipment and ensure higher quality, fewer truck rolls to revisit and fix deficiencies.

 

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