2020 Hero: Interview with Samiha Shakil, Senior VDC Engineer, Skanska

Interview with Samiha Shakil Senior VDC Engineer Skanska

Getting an organization to adopt new apps and tools can be challenging, so it's vital to have people ready to champion technology within a company. In addition to encouraging others to try new solutions, tech champions also help users extract more value out of technology to do their jobs more effectively and see better results.

In this post, we’re putting the spotlight on someone who exemplifies all the qualities of a great tech champion. Samiha Shakil, Senior VDC Engineer, Skanska, entered the construction field just four years ago. Still, she quickly became one of the company's most trusted virtual design and construction experts. 

Samiha is an expert at model coordination and innovative problem solving, and she’s recognized as a thought leader among her colleagues. More importantly, she champions technology as a way to enhance collaboration and communication.

Samiha has worked on several notable and challenging projects, including BIM coordination at LaGuardia Airport, laser scanning on a large-scale hospital project, and 3D printing at the Boys and Girls Club.

Beyond being an engineer and an advocate for construction technology, Samiha has a big heart. And that's one of the reasons why she's a 2020 Hero in Autodesk's 40 Under 40: Champions of Construction 2020.

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Samiha used her 3D printing knowledge to help healthcare professionals and first responders. She and her husband 3D printed over 500 face guards and donated them to hospitals across New York City. They have also donated PPE to the New York City Fire Department emergency medical technicians. 

We caught up with Samiha and asked her to share her thoughts on everything from construction tech to being a force for good. Check out what she has to say below.  

Tell us a little bit about what Skanska specializes in and your role there.

Skanska is one of the leading construction- and development companies in the USA, specializing in building construction, civil infrastructure and developing commercial properties in select U.S. markets.

One of the reasons I was so excited to join Skanska USA Building is due to the firm's portfolio of large, meaningful, and impactful infrastructure projects — including transit hubs, stadiums, and airports— it's pretty impressive. 

I joined Skanska in 2017 as a level one VDC engineer, and prior to that, I had never been involved in BIM before. I worked for a small GC in Long Island City, and we had nothing close to it. 

Joining Skanska was a huge jump, and because I worked using old fashioned tools for the longest time, I was eager to try something more high-tech.

As a Senior VDC Engineer, I am responsible for traditional BIM activities like MEP Coordination. However, at Skanska I’m able to access and leverage other technologies like reality capture using 360-degree camera, laser scanning, model takeoffs, and various forms of data analysis from the model.

One of the things I love about my position is that I can work with any team on a project from the cost team or the field team, helping people re-imagine ways of working with their existing tools or learning new technology. 

That’s the role I like to be in: supporting people and managing technology. I want to be able to say, "Hey, you have this problem. This is how we can solve it.”

I also help with sharing knowledge and bringing the company to a certain level of tech literacy.

Why do you think you were nominated to be a 40 Under 40: Construction Champion of 2020?

Reflecting on it, I think a big part is due to my enthusiasm. I don't like the idea of isolating a VDC person into a corner-- we need to be integrated with the team and involved in the overall process.

I know that it’s a little daunting; I often hear from people saying they can’t do what I do. But I try to explain that they can definitely do it. I felt the same way when I started working with these new tools. It could be overwhelming but with some time, I got used to the tech and eventually the processes became intuitive. Take tools like 360-degree photos or reality capture. A 360-degree camera is such an easy tool, and the benefits of it are tenfold. 

There are just so many construction tech variations that someone can get involved in, and I love championing all of that. I'm very enthusiastic, and I want to   encourage everyone to also get involved.

Many people don't realize how much they are already involved with tech, and working together to create a smarter construction industry. So instead of being scared of it, embrace it. I love encouraging people to venture out, to see the tools they have and how they can use them more intelligently.

Tell us more about how you’ve responded to the challenges of COVID-19 and 2020.

It had a lot to do with how we were all collectively feeling. At the start of 2020, we watched the news, heard about this novel COVID-19, and it was scary. As the situation got worse, I think we all collectively went into anxiety and depression — and how could you not? 

Personally, I was supposed to get married in April and I knew I had to cancel or postpone it. I was a little down while making all the cancelation calls, but then my mom suggested we get married anyway and have the party when everything was "back to normal.” 

So, in true COVID-fashion, we ended up getting married over WebEx. My cousin is an Islamic priest in England, and the plan was for him to come over and perform the ceremony. Instead, he married us over WebEx. I had all my friends and my close family members sign on, and it was so surreal to sit on my couch and see everybody's faces.

I felt great, and felt like I needed to do something positive for others. I told my husband, Chris, that we had to figure out how to help someone in need. We had just experienced such  a big moment in our lives-- I wanted to continue spreading positivity! 

On Instagram I saw that at my university’s makerspace, where I used to work, was using 3D printers to develop PPE. I thought, “Hey, we have a 3D printer. Let's do this too." 

So, we did our research. We talked to our friends in the healthcare industry—really anyone who might have good advice—about appropriate PPE designs. We wanted to make sure that whatever we created would be useful and safe. We found great resources on the NIH 3D Print exchange portal, where we were able to download clinically approved face shield designs. Overnight we became a 3D printing factory. We were printing at almost all hours of the day, and trying to improve our production rate so we could get more face shields out of the door and into the hands of those who need it. We set up a whole assembly line in our apartment where would post-process, sterilize and pack the face shields for distribution. We joined some groups of makers and shared ideas and designs that worked, it was motivating to be a part of a community that was so passionate about technology and helping people.

It's worth noting that the maker community came alive during the pandemic. So many people got together to do something good for society. There's a group called New York Makes PPE, and the number of shields that were printed was incredible. I printed 500, which is a drop in the bucket of what was needed, but when hundreds  of people across the country got together, we could make a difference.

It gave me so much purpose in a time when it felt like everything was falling apart.

We just threw ourselves into it, and since I have many friends in the healthcare profession, was easy to find out who needed them. 

How do you continue to stay creative, dedicated, and empathetic at work?

First, it's tough not to be creative when you're working with these kinds of tools because there are so many different ways you can use them. There are also many variations of things that could go wrong or issues that could arise; no two projects are the same. While you take lessons learned from previous projects, you still have interpersonal challenges of problem solving with different teams, designs, and clients. There’s always a new collaborative workflow to adapt to and that keeps you on your toes. As we adapt to each of these scenarios, it’s important that we carry with us

In terms of being dedicated and empathetic, I'm a very goal-driven, purpose-driven person. If I'm given a task, I want to do the best I can do. 

I also feel proud of my team. I'm proud of the company and the projects we work on, and I’m proud to ensure we deliver these projects in the best way possible.

When you look back at 2020, are there any silver linings, lessons learned, or key takeaways?

The one thing that sticks out to me is that we all have the power to do something. It doesn't necessarily have to be a pandemic. The point is that if there’s a problem to solve, we all have something within us to contribute, to be creative, and help out.

For example, our senior leadership at Skanska held weekly virtual all-hands meetings when COVID first started impacting our projects and business. We heard from our colleagues across the country, many of which were experiencing COVID in different ways or earlier than other regions, on how they were keeping their jobsites safe, and morale up. Everyone was called to action. So many people rose to the occasion because as an essential business, we knew we had to keep our jobs going safely. 

In a difficult year, a silver lining for me is seeing people being tested, but ultimately finding out  what they're truly capable of.

Who have been your heroes this year? How have they made an impact on your life?

Healthcare professionals have been my heroes. 

Second to that would be the makers and the creative people I got to involve myself with when making the face shields. It was incredible and inspiring that someone had the idea of creating face shields with 3D printers to get them out to people much sooner. 

Looking ahead to 2021 (and beyond), what do you think construction professionals and firms need to do to stay resilient?

For firms, one thing they need to do is invest in the right technology. When you invest in the right tech, you’re also investing in the people you employ. 

I know a lot of companies get worried about the upfront cost of technology. Still, there are many people with tons of potential, and we need to make sure they’re equipped with tools that improve their work processes, help deliver quality projects and empower them to be better professionals all around.

A big part of that starts with getting feedback from those employees. The decision to invest in tech can be daunting, but if your company has consistent communication with their employees, understanding their feedback and what they need, you'll be able to help them with the right technology. 

You should also find out who the power users are in your company and create a network for them. Skanska’s done an excellent job creating an innovation network where we can talk about new tools we’re piloting, lessons learned and opportunities for training. We have a Microsoft Teams channel, and we constantly sharing best practices. My colleagues have been my greatest resource for figuring things out. 

For the individual, I’d say invest in yourself. If you're disgruntled or frustrated about a workflow, how can you make it better? A lot of what we've learned with COVID is that we've had to change the way we do things. It’s about branching out from what you normally do and trying to learn new skills. We’ll take these skills with us into our next chapter of life, and when the next challenge arises, we’ll all be able to better adapt.

Alyssa Jaber

As Manager of Customer Marketing at Autodesk, Alyssa Jaber has been partnering with Autodesk customers in the construction space for 5+ years to build their brands and powerfully tell their stories. Alyssa is a human-first leader who supports a team of talented individuals who always put the customer experience first.