When You’re a CAD Manager and You Don’t Even Know It

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In small architecture and engineering firms — those with fewer than 10 CAD operators, for example — it isn’t common to have a fully dedicated CAD manager on staff. The economics simply may not justify the salary in firms of that size.

But someone still needs to manage those CAD users and the CAD deployment in the office. That means handling software upgrades and fixes, making hardware purchasing decisions or recommendations, organizing training and choosing and enforcing standards for CAD work done by the team — all the tasks that a CAD manager handles.

If you work in a small company and those responsibilities fall on you, guess what? You’re a CAD manager and you don’t even know it. You may not have all the duties of a CAD manager at a large firm. You may not hire and fire. You probably have little time for management work. And those on your team probably don’t defer to you — to them, you’re just one of the team. You’re “expected to stay billable, just like any other technician,” according to Rick Ellis, longtime CAD consultant, trainer and president of CADapult Software Solutions.

“There are a lot of people basically performing the duties of a CAD manager but without the title or compensation,” says Ellis. If this sounds like you, Ellis has some tips to help you juggle your responsibilities and manage your team effectively.

These aren’t tips he necessarily invented — he’s gathered them over the years from the many CAD managers he’s worked with, and gives particular credit to Robert Green, who’s written about this topic extensively. “These are tips that would help any CAD manager,” Ellis points out, “but if you’ve been newly thrust into the role, these are some of the first things you’ll want to consider.”

#1) Translate technical details into things people care about.

A big part of your job is communicating technical needs to non-technical or less-technical people — like your boss. “If you’re trying to get money from your boss, you need to put that in terms they can understand,” Ellis says. “If you need new computers, for instance, don’t go in talking about RAM and hard drive specs. Translate that into ROI and productivity improvements. That’s the language they speak.”

He recommends trying to make this communication as concrete as possible. For example, you can make the case that faster processors will deliver specific savings, if by using them team members will save four hours per month in rendering time. Multiply what each unit will save by the number of people on the team (say five) and you can realistically claim to save 20 man-hours every month, or 240 hours every year. Multiply that by an average man-hour cost, and you can make a persuasive claim to save the company thousands every year. Depending on the price of the hardware purchase, you can then calculate how quickly the hardware will pay for itself.

#2) Get more than financial support from your boss.

Getting your boss to support purchases is important, but a CAD manager has to do a lot more than just buy stuff. “It’s equally important to get their support on things like establishing and enforcing standards, adopting new processes and workflows,” Ellis says.

Even with a team of five, everyone still needs to follow the same standards on their work — from file naming to color selection for certain layers to the way you lay out designs. And without the official title of CAD manager, the rest of the team may wonder why you get to decide. “No one likes to change, everyone has their own way of doing things that they’ve learned, but you can’t standardize by giving everyone their way,” Ellis says. “You have to make a decision. If they don’t have to do it your way, they probably won’t.”

To counteract this, it’s important that your boss communicate the importance of adhering to standards, and back you up as the person to establish those standards. You can and should take input from senior people on the team, but ultimately, you need to make the call. “It’s the only way to establish a company look and feel,” Ellis says.

#3) Document your work…and your achievements.

Again crediting the work of Robert Green, Ellis recommends keeping track of the management tasks you carry out and the benefits you drive for the company. “From the documentation side of things, it’s important to quantify what you are doing,” Ellis says. “Much of this time is not billable to a specific project and your boss may ask why you have this non-billable time. You need facts to back that up, justify what you’re doing and make a case for yourself.” This may come up in a review when you are told you need to be more billable to justify a raise. Documentation will help demonstrate your value to the company beyond the billable time.

Likewise, you should document the effects of decisions you’ve made and managed. For instance, if you advocated for new computers based on a certain estimated ROI, keep data on the real impacts those computers had. Record how long renders took with the old rigs and compare that with renders using the new ones, so that you can provide an authoritative report on exactly what kind of return your purchase delivered.

#4) Take training seriously. Plan carefully.

You may not be a teacher by training — in fact, you’re almost certainly not. You’re a CAD technician! But when you’re managing other CAD technicians, training is important. Since you’re the one in charge, that’s your responsibility.

You’ll need to decide what training approaches will be best for your group, your budget and your schedule. If you think self-paced training will be best, go with that, knowing that you can give people options of printed materials or videos. “Some people like something they can hold in their hands, others would rather watch a video,” Ellis notes.

You can also lead trainings yourself. “Lunch-and-learn modules can be good ways to go,” Ellis says. “People will almost always show up if you feed them, and they don’t take away from billable hours.” But you do need to prepare good content, which may mean spending some time on your own the night before.

Instructor-led training is a third option. It’s an additional expense, but often worth it even for small groups. Ellis points out that many of his training engagements are for firms with fewer than 10 technicians.

“Whatever way you go,” Ellis says, “recognize that, at the end of the day, you’re the leader and you need to know your group and determine the training they need. And how you teach matters.”

#5) Meet other CAD managers.

Being a CAD manager is a lonely job, even if you don’t have the title. The only way to connect with others who share your challenges and responsibilities is to get out of the office. Ellis recommends doing this as often as you can.

Find networking events and conferences where you can meet and talk with other CAD managers. You may not have the exact same responsibilities as they do, but you’ll have a lot in common. And your peers are the best repository of knowledge about the latest software releases, hardware specs, and training options. And this is insight you often can’t find anywhere else — CAD managers are often on the leading edge for their industry.

Ellis recommends Autodesk University as one good place to network, as well as Autodesk User Group International (AUGI) conferences, and any other user conferences related to CAD work. If travel is a problem, there are CAD manager forums online where you can ask questions and share knowledge. Use them.

A CAD Manager by Any Other Name

Being a CAD manager is a challenging job. It’s made harder when it’s not in your job description or on your business card. But this is a fairly common situation in smaller firms. So Ellis recommends that, if the mantle is laid on you, “Embrace the challenge, but don’t fool yourself. There is a lot more to being a CAD Manager than just being really good at AutoCAD.”

This article first appeared at Cadalyst, a source of essential information about computer-aided design (CAD) and related software and hardware technologies for AEC, manufacturing, and CAD management professionals.