How to Become a Better CAD Manager: Identifying Seven Uncomfortable Truths of CAD Management

Better CAD Manager Feature

The role of CAD manager is an interesting one. The title says we manage technology, but in my experience, that’s the easiest part of CAD management. The truth is, while our titles say we manage technology, the most significant part of our role isn’t technology. It’s people.

We often frame our roles through the lens of the systems we support. Although those are important, the real measure of success has almost everything to do with the people we support. We can only be as successful as the weakest member of the teams. Similarly, our actions can only be as positive as the most negative person within our firms.

Building upon The Seven Deadly Sins of CAD and BIM Management session I presented with Jason Kunkel at Autodesk University, I’ve compiled what I view as the seven uncomfortable truths of CAD management. Like the class, these truths rely on heavy self-reflection and honest internal talk.

Have I mastered and overcome each of the truths of this post in my role at Timmons Group? In a word. No.

Of course, I don’t know mastery is the point. While I’ve met plenty of outstanding leaders, I’ve never met one who would proclaim themselves as a master of leadership. Leadership is about humility, and humility is about recognizing where we can always get a little better.

Getting better. That’s the objective of this post.

So, if becoming a better CAD manager sounds good to you, let’s dive into the seven uncomfortable truths of CAD management.

Truth #1: Silence Is a Decision

No matter how many things we fix as CAD managers, something is always broken (or at least improved upon). If only we had unlimited time and resources. Then we could address every technology challenge facing our firms. Unfortunately, we do not live in that idyllic world.

The truth is that the design technology needs of your company will almost always exceed your bandwidth. That is par for the course, but it doesn’t mean you have to live in a constant state of feeling like you’re drowning.

Part of the art of CAD management is learning how to say no. And saying no is vital.

Especially when you have every intention to address a need, it’s easy to fall into a trap where you neither say yes nor no to a task—this nebulous state of indecision to be as much of a decision as a yes or no decision.

Such indecision is where CAD managers often encounter trouble implementing what they’ve created. Suddenly, you find yourself defending what you haven’t done versus promoting and advancing what you have done.

This is often avoidable.

The secret is to state clearly what you will and will not create upfront. Not only does this eliminate confusion, but it also gives you the entire duration of your project to address any objections. With objections overcome, you can focus on implementation versus defense.

Truth #2: Your Job Is to Get It Right, Not Be Right

CAD managers often earn their position by being the smartest CAD person in the room over many years. In my experience, this serves as a foundation of the imposter syndrome many CAD managers face—even if subconsciously. By earning our positions by being the smartest person in the room, we often impose a false standard upon ourselves to remain the smartest person in the room. If we fail at this, we’ll be found out as phony.

Although you have a greater technical competency than most, those competencies are not impenetrable. Others will always have gifts and talents that extend beyond your own. That’s okay and part of the emotional intelligence the most successful CAD managers learn to develop.

The role of a CAD manager isn’t about always being right; it’s about getting it right. Effective CAD managers need not be right about everything, but they should know where to go to get it right.

Achieving this might mean enlisting the help of someone else. That, too, is okay. Even if you don’t know the answer, knowing whom to consult for the correct solution can be even more valuable than knowing the answer.

Tools like LinkedIn and Twitter are as valuable to me as the resources I leverage to build my AutoCAD acumen. When I find myself stumped, often the answers are not found in conventional resources like books. So where do I go? I consult trusted advisors from the professional network I’ve spent years building.

Build your professional network if you want to build your value as a CAD manager.

Truth #3: No One Has a Monopoly on Good Ideas

Building upon the tenet of getting it right versus being right is the humility of recognizing that no one has a monopoly on great ideas. Not even you.

The best idea is rarely the product of any one person but rather the discernment of the whole. As a CAD manager with a diverse background of experiences, you have first-hand knowledge of the many ways something cannot work.

But have you tested and verified they wouldn’t work? How do you know they won’t work?

I believe there is just as much value in not knowing what won’t work as there is knowing. Every idea is possible when you don’t know what won’t work. That unbridled perspective is often every bit as valuable as any experience-laden perspective I can bring to a conversation.

In that way, instead of immediately dismissing an idea because it “cannot be done,” explore it instead. Be curious, not condescending, and ask follow-up questions about the ideas others share. Seek to understand their perspective. Understand the angle by which they are viewing the problem. Even if it’s true, their idea indeed cannot be done; their differing perspective is often all that’s needed to discover the best answer.

Truth #4: Every Decision You Make Will Be Imperfect

Effective CAD management is finding the intersection between people, processes, and technology. Each of those has 1,000 variables by itself. Put them together, and you have a practically endless number of combinations. There’s no way to know all those variables, much less directly manage them.

Perfection is the enemy of progress.

Even if you could manage every possible variable, doing so would likely require so much time as to impede progress endlessly. Although the little voice of imposter syndrome may say otherwise, imperfection is okay. I’d contend it’s even expected.

Don’t wait until you have the perfect project plan to get started. Remember, you’ll never finish what you don’t start. Instead of waiting until everything is perfect, publish and share your work a little before you’re ready and address any flaws that are found afterward.

Think about it. You don’t go from conceptual design to final design with one submittal. Instead, projects typically have many interim submittals for this very reason. Apply a similar discipline to your practice of CAD management.

Truth #5: Imperfect Doesn’t Mean It Can’t Be Better

I do not believe imperfection is a flaw. Instead, I see it as an opportunity to be better. Accepting the imperfections from Truth 4 doesn’t mean you have to do sloppy work. Instead, it’s just a recognition of the endless opportunity you have available to make things better.

A penny doubled is just $0.02 after two days. But by what about after thirty days‽ That penny compounds to become $5,368,709.12. Building a habit focused on making yesterday’s work better nets a similar return. Make small improvements over a series of days, and you too will soon be the beneficiary of compounding returns.

Beyond the opportunity of compounding returns, there’s the opportunity of compounding ideas. Despite my domain knowledge on topics like AutoCAD, I am constantly learning from those around me. Often a minor question from one of the teams I support inspires the most significant idea. The secret to benefiting from these perspectives is embracing imperfection and sharing early.

Truth #6: Transformational Change Doesn’t Come From Transactional Actions

As CAD managers, our training and experience in tools like AutoCAD is both an asset and a liability. I often quip that AutoCAD does precisely what we tell it. The results may be unexpected at times, but always measure what we told it. A better way to describe this behavior is to say AutoCAD is a transactional software tool.

An easy trap for CAD managers to fall into is approaching the other aspects of their jobs with a similarly transactional mindset. No matter how hard we try, establishing CAD standards is far from transactional. Instead, standards are a transformational affair.

Establishing and implementing something like CAD standards requires balancing people, processes, and technology. Finding this balance is anything but linear and transactional.

It’s messy.

The messiness includes a web of interrelated and often conflicting dependencies. Approaching such a complex web with a linear and transactional mindset practically guarantees that nothing will end up happening.

Truth #7: If You Want Something to Be Transformational, It Must Be Relational

So, if the non-technology aspects of our jobs shouldn’t be transactional, what should they be?

The simple answer to that question is that they should be relational, not transactional.

You can create the most outstanding solution for the most formidable AutoCAD challenge your firm faces. However, if you cannot inspire others to use it? It’s all for naught.

Your success as a CAD manager will ultimately be measured not by your creations but by your ability to inspire others to use those creations. The path to inspiring others isn’t about amassing authority over people but building genuine relationships.

If people choose not to use something you create, it’s not their fault. It’s yours. Accept that and aim to be better versus complaining about it.

What you need isn’t authority but instead, influence. Most importantly, influence is earned, not granted. You build influence by building relationships with the teams you support.

Being a CAD manager is as much about your technical acumen as your relational acumen. Show interest and curiosity in solving your teams’ problems, not just the issues you face.

In summary, you likely became a CAD manager because of your amplitude and ability to fix things. Although the ability to fix things is essential, technology knowledge alone will not make you an effective CAD manager. Achieving that requires building your emotional intelligence (EQ) to match your technical skills (IQ).

Although this may sound intimidating, bridging the gap isn’t as difficult as it might sound. Studies show that our IQ remains relatively constant throughout our lifetime. Conversely, we can build and improve EQ. In that way, while we may never become master leaders, we can always be better ones.

How are you being a better leader and, by extension, a better CAD manager? Share your strategies and experiences by connecting with us on Twitter @TheCADGeek and @AutoCAD.

Donnie Gladfelter

Donnie Gladfelter is a highly visible and respected thought leader in the CAD community. Named one of Autodesk's Top 35 Young Designers Under 35, he is well known for The CAD Geek Blog, six Autodesk Official Press books, and dozens of Autodesk University classes since 2007. An award-winning and top-rated speaker at Autodesk University and other industry events, Donnie has presented to audiences of 60,000+ people, and provided training to thousands on Autodesk design technology. As an Eagle Scout, he helps design teams be prepared for whatever their projects throw at them as the Design Technology Manager at Timmons Group (an ENR Top 500 Firm), and as an Autodesk Expert Elite Member.

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