Eric Whobrey, VP of Innovation at ARCO Construction, joins the Work Done Right podcast this week to discuss his interesting career path intro construction. In his role, Eric is responsible for solving some of ARCO’s biggest challenges by identifying and implementing creative, innovative solutions. Eric stresses the importance of optimizing processes by cutting out unnecessary steps, and more importantly, listening to understand the full context of a challenge before proposing a solution.
Stay tuned throughout the episode for Eric’s invaluable insights, including his human-centric philosophy towards change management and his vision for addressing data utilization and integration challenges within the construction industry. Discover how his experiences and perspectives offer a fresh and inspiring outlook on fostering innovation in an ever-evolving world of construction.
Our guest today is Eric Whobrey. Eric currently serves as the Vice President of Innovation at ARCO Construction, a Design-Build Construction business, and leads ARCO Ventures, an AEC focused venture capital investment fund. Throughout his career, he has managed web and data development teams, built his own tech, established an innovation strategy for a billion-dollar business, and actively invests in technology startups. Previously, he managed the Operational Effectiveness program at Basis Technologies (formerly Centro).
Top 3 Episode Takeaways
- Diverse Backgrounds Fuel Innovation: Eric Whobrey’s career trajectory, transitioning from PR and advertising to technology and innovation in the construction industry, highlights the importance of diverse backgrounds in fostering innovation. His experience demonstrates that innovation is not limited to a single industry or expertise but can be driven by individuals who bring fresh perspectives from different fields.
- Human-Centric Approach to Change: Eric emphasizes the significance of understanding and respecting the existing practices within an organization, especially when introducing new technologies or processes. He highlights the importance of building trust by taking the time to listen, learn, and collaborate with employees who have deep expertise in their roles. This human-centric approach to change management is essential for successful innovation adoption.
- Data Utilization and Integration Challenges: Eric identifies data analysis, business intelligence, and seamless integration of digital systems across the construction lifecycle as areas with significant opportunities for improvement in the construction industry. He emphasizes the need for better utilization of the vast amount of data collected and stresses the importance of integrating systems to eliminate redundant work and enhance efficiency.
Eric, welcome to the show.
Well, I’m happy to be doing this one live. You are our first live recording that we’ve ever done.
We’re doing that here at this at this Built Worlds conference. Thank you for being our guinea pig.
Yeah, of course. Happy to be here.
So, we’re just really meeting for the first time. Could you tell me and our audience a little bit about your background, some of the roles that you’ve held and kind of, are you going to the construction in the first place?
Yeah, I do not have a straight line of a career to the construction industry. So I actually started my career in PR and advertising. I was on the sales side for a large PR firm for a few years and gradually gravitated toward more technical roles throughout my career.
So by the end of my time outside of the construction industry, I was sitting in between our sales, marketing and technology teams and helping to manage that program that ensured we were selling the things we were building and building the things that our customers wanted sold to them.
So it was really kind of trying to fit all of those pieces together. And around the time that I was working on that at Centro, I met a gentleman named Joe Pomeranke and he is a partner at Arco Construction.
I had breakfast with him in April of 2018 and after that breakfast I called my wife and said, I think I should go work for a construction company, which is very confusing for her. Yeah, yeah, she said, what did you drink at breakfast more appropriately?
So that was April of 2018 and in August of 2018 I officially joined Arco and the job at that time was really to make innovation less scary, to create some operational effectiveness around the technology we use, the way we do things and I’ve seen that role evolve into what it is today, which is really looking strategically at how we innovate, not just when it comes to technology and software, but how we innovate as a business.
What profit centers can we pursue? What can we look at in the way we do things beyond just the buttons we click on applications, but really how we do the work? And finding ways to optimize and improve that, sometimes our greatest innovations are just cutting out a few steps of an existing process.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be buying a new widget or software application and further dividing people’s attention in all the different ways that we are having our attention divided. So that’s where we’ve kind of arrived.
My role now looks at the ARCO Enterprise and the mandate for the innovation team is really to find creative solutions to our biggest challenges. And that can be, as you’re saying, not just a software solution, but also just something so simple as, well, why do we do it this way?
So let’s try something new. Absolutely. And it’s an exercise and discipline not to just offer up software solutions, because a lot of times, I think what we’re trained to do in my experience, I have a technology background.
I’ve been building software my whole life. And so I, you know, everything, I’m a hammer and everything to me looks like a nail, right? If I see something, I say, well, just put in an application. Then we have the data, then we have all of these, you know, ancillary benefits to doing it in this way, but that’s not always the way that actually gets the work done in a better way.
Sometimes you have to stop and listen and really understand what’s happening and how it’s happening, because on the surface, you may hear of one problem, but underneath that surface level problem is probably, you know, 15 other things that are being done a specific way because it helps to get things done.
And sure, it may look inefficient, but when you get into it, you may understand more deeply why it is that way, and you can then get to a solution that helps more people, that is maybe more applicable to you, to more problems or is maybe just one person having a bad day that needs to be reminded of what they have available to them.
A big part of your role is getting people to adopt innovation, not just technologies, but how do you get them to do new things?
And I think that summarizes it really well. If you ever look into organizational change management theories, organizations don’t change, people change. And by changing the people and focusing on the people, then you can get the organization to change as a whole.
So how do you approach the situation, especially with construction professionals that have probably been doing this for 20, 30, 40 years, how do you target them and get them to either procedurally change something that they’ve been doing in a particular way or maybe by injecting a new technology into the system?
How do you do that? How do you approach the situation?
Yeah, I think I should preface all of this with… It doesn’t always work. So this is not a secret sauce that is like, oh, we figured it out. This is how you implement change at a construction company.
But we certainly have means and methods that we feel have a decent impact. So a lot of it is not sexy. It’s documentation and training and doing it in a way that’s consistent and repetitive and memorable.
So I think a lot of the work or a lot of what we learned early on when we were trying to get people to adopt change or adapt the way that they work, if you weren’t in the thick of it with them and really understanding the way they’re doing it now, then you’re asking for trouble.
So I think the starting point for us beyond the documentation and the training, all of those kind of ceremonies that come along with implementing change that is just table stakes. You just, you have to write stuff down and you have to have consistent processes in place that people can rely on for understanding a new change.
Beyond that, I think there is a step that can be missed that is understanding the original problem and understanding the original way of doing something and appreciating the ingenuity behind that way because a lot of what we experience in the field and with our project teams that are often dealing with really awful problems, their job is creative problem solving, right?
So they’re not necessarily doing things because they’re idiots or because they don’t know any other way. They usually have established a process or a system that gets their stuff done effectively and consistently and profitably.
So they have something to share there. And I think a lot of what we’ve done effectively is we’ll sit down and we’ll actually ask a lot of people of questions first. Even if we know this is what we’re here to do, we’re here to get you to use this thing, it’s a lot more effective if you take the time to listen and learn and then have a conversation that is much more collaborative and feels much more like you’ve got two people trying to come up with a solution as opposed to you have a tech person telling you how to do your job, which I think was early on for me that was a lot of the either the feedback I got or the implicit feedback I got when someone wouldn’t use a thing.
It was just you do not understand, therefore I don’t trust that your solution is better. And if you take the time to understand, then there’s a trust established there, there’s a relationship there that allows for a little more extension of I’ll try this thing because this person understands me and knows what’s happening here.
So you actually had some, we’ll say, a learning curve in this also. You didn’t come in to the organization with this, you know, this excellent idea from the get-go. You kind of came in and…
I came from the tech world where everyone was already drinking the Kool -Aid.
Our product was software and people interacting with us were interested in buying software. So it was kind of just built into the processes that we already had established and it was way easier to…
There’s a… The baseline education was high enough that there wasn’t a lot of extra work to get there to say, hey, we want to try this new thing. And our foundation is not software. Our foundation is building things.
So to arrive at that baseline education, there’s work to do. And that’s not a knock on people for being less informed about technology and software. It’s just a recognition that their expertise is elsewhere.
So in the same way that I don’t want them to expect me to lay brick or manage a concrete pour, I don’t want them to be expected to just understand how to use every software put in front of their face.
I think there should be a balance there. And you should do the work to arrive there with them, not just expect them to be there when you show up.
How long would you say it was during your onboarding process with ARCO or through your tenure with them before you realized, well, maybe like stomping in and kicking things over saying, this is where you’re doing things the wrong way.
Not characterizing you at any one. How long are you going to take you to gain some of this humility that you have and some of this awareness of where your competence is and understanding of where other people’s competence might be?
That’s an interesting question. I would like to say I arrived with the humility, but I think it probably took about nine months of me getting knocked off my perch before I started to realize there was, there was collaboration to be had.
And it’s not so simple. It’s not black and white of like, oh, I was an asshole. And then I realized I was being bad and then all of a sudden it was good. That nine months was me spending time on job sites.
It was me shadowing project coordinators and accountants and project managers and asking tons and tons of questions. Oftentimes with my preconceived notions of what I wanted to hear and that being corrected constantly.
So I think the, and what I’ve said to my team when I’ve brought people into ARCO, oftentimes they’re coming from a background that is not necessarily a clean straight line. So we have one person who was, um, Darshed on my team has a master’s in structural engineering and worked at an owner’s rep.
So he wasn’t necessarily in a construction company. We have another woman who was working in the insurance industry and another who was, has a master’s in architecture. So there’s, there’s a lot of diverse background and the feedback I’ve gotten in the initial, you know, six months is, I still don’t know what’s going on.
And I try to comfort them to say, just keep going because there’s, there’s a, there’s an education to be had that is not a simple, like read this manual and you’re going to understand everything. It’s really getting embedded with the business and talking to people and understanding how and why things happen that gets us in a position where we can actually start to affect change because the idea of innovation is not something that is a plug and play idea.
It’s something that takes an understanding of how your business operates, how you make money, what works really well for you, how you’re different from others and embracing that and trying to leverage that and, and doing it in a way that is oftentimes a little bit confusing and scary and, and out of, out of the ordinary, but is pushing you and your associates to, to be a little bit better each day.
Yeah. And then the thing that I like that you just kind of pointed out in all of that, that you, that you start with, with anybody who’s new to, to really your world now, right? This, this kind of bridge between innovation and, and you know, the implementation of construction is you’re starting them off with a pretty, a pretty serious education, right?
Because people are going to be coming in with their own biases, their own, their own preconceived notions like you were pointing out. Right. And the best way to get over any of those, any of those, uh, we’ll say, uh, really those biases or, or just kind of like that, that, oh, what’s the word I’m looking for?
It doesn’t matter. But just, just to kind of get over themselves, the best way to get over any of that is with education, right? I mean, you have to have a foundation. in education in order to implement any sort of a change.
So having them start off by bringing your team kind of up to speed about not just, hey, these are the areas where we have deficiencies, but here’s the reason as to why, right? Here’s the framework in which people are operating and currently that has led to the condition where they are doing things in this way.
That’s the only way that you can start to really identify proper solutions in my mind.
Yeah, and I think the threshold for acceptance is higher in our industry because it has to be. I remember watching a SpaceX rocket launch where the rocket took off, it dropped off a payload, it came back and it landed successfully and then it exploded into a fireball and it was lauded as a successful mission.
And we don’t have that luxury of something exploding into a fireball at the end. So there is a higher threshold of acceptance for a lot of change and a lot of difference in the work that we do. And I think there needs to be a respect and acceptance of that.
Oftentimes, we’re characterized as an industry that moves slower than any other industry in the world. I think that’s a little bit, it’s a little reductive in the reality of our world. It’s not to say we couldn’t do better because we absolutely could do better, but it’s a recognition that we do things in certain ways to keep things safe and of quality that will last for decades or centuries.
And that comes with a higher threshold of acceptance of risk and that’s okay. And I think that is, that understanding took time for me and it takes time for people who are brought into effect change to appreciate that.
That makes sense. You know, there’s the idea in the software development which is like move fast and break things which sounds great in software world. But whenever you’re talking about something that’s mission critical in some aspect, you don’t really have that luxury of being able to just break things and have things be okay.
Because we can have things end up in a ball of flames, but it’s not a success. But it’s an absolute reality to have that happen. So with all of that, so thank you for laying out your background and a little bit of how it is that you and your team, the mode that you all operate in.
I think, I’d like to look at some more of what it is that you do now and looking at the forward aspect of what you will be doing in the future. I think that with what you are positioned to do with both innovations and with ARCO ventures, to me it makes sense, right?
You both of those positions have to be, say, abreast of what it is that’s changing in the market and what opportunities are out there. Obviously, coming at it from different angles, but ultimately it’s with the idea of making ARCO money, right?
Making money, saving money, helping things to improve one way or the other. So how is it that whenever you are assessing any sort of technology or change that’s on the open market, how are you approaching that in the sense of looking at it at is this the right decision for ARCO and how do you honestly even just kind of stay up to date on what all technologies are coming out there because ever since especially since you know open AI release check, back in November like everything’s changing, the whole world’s a new place, all sorts of new technologies popping up left and right.
So how do you kind of stay on top of everything and what are you looking for?
Yeah, yeah, it’s really easy. You just Google what’s changing and that’s all. Yeah, there’s a nice synopsis. You can actually just ask chat GPT.
It will tell you because it’s the answer to everything. It’s a concerted effort to stay up to date. So attending things like BuiltWorlds, that we’re at now, attending conferences, staying in touch with peers in the industry and not just focusing on what we have in front of our face in our business, I think is really important.
And it’s something that our group has a mandate. to kind of stay, keep our heads up and keep our heads on a swivel so that we can have conversations with others that are doing things differently and understand how that compares to how we’re doing things.
I also think that there’s an advantage for us at ARCO because of the venture group we’ve established that we have a lot more inbound activity that comes to us that helps to inform us on what’s going on.
So I’ve met with a lot more groups that are trying to build a pre -construction solution than I did in the last, in the last year I’ve met with more of those than I did in the first four years. I think there are design solutions that are starting to mature in a way that’s really exciting.
There are sensor technologies on job sites that are starting to, you’re starting to see things consolidate a little and you’re starting to see point solutions kind of convert into dynamic solutions that can track multiple things and can fit into different dashboards and can do a lot more than just one given thing.
So we get a lot of inbound activity where those companies, those solutions are trying to get to us and we are there to listen. And we try to broadcast that, that we’re interested to learn and understand what they have to offer.
I think we also do a lot of work internally. We’ve done brainstorming sessions with cross -functional teams. So people in the field, people in the office, accountants, HR people, safety people, superintendents, whoever it may be, we get them all in a room and we conduct brainstorming sessions where the purpose is to think about how we can do things differently.
And the output of that session is not, let’s go do a bunch of things differently, but let’s take in what ideas were generated and let’s start to look at them. to prioritize those against the way we do things now.
And sometimes the ideas will not match up to something that we should do now. Sometimes it will manifest into something that’s adjacent to the idea that paired with other things we’re doing makes a lot more sense now because of the way that it was kind of discussed in that brainstorming session.
So there’s a lot there that is structured, unstructured time that we try to facilitate so that we get some of that information. And then there’s a lot that we learn from our own data, from our own activities.
The more that we put into the systems that we support, the more we start to understand and make, tie relations to the different activities across our business. So there’s a lot there that we can start to see bubble up and say, hey, now that we have so much data in the punch list tool, We can start to predict when our substantial completion date will be.
And if it’s on track, and if it isn’t, we can be proactive about messaging that. If we sign a commitment with the subcontractor, we can analyze every other commitment we’ve ever had with that subcontractor and any changes that occurred with that subcontractor.
We can feed that information to a project manager that’s about to sign that contract. So there’s a lot there that is informed by the data available to us that we didn’t necessarily know. This is the thing that we’re going to focus on.
But as we are paying attention and kind of monitoring systems and how our associates interact with them, those start to become clearer to us. I think the hardest thing for us is prioritization, because we have a laundry list of 50 things that people want and that we think are important.
But if you ask 50 people what the top priority is, you get 50 different priorities. So there’s a lot of work that we do on the prioritization, because we’re not short of ideas. So we have processes and ceremonies around objective prioritization, or as close to objective prioritization as we can get, that helps us to measure one thing against another and get us to, from a laundry list to a curated list, that we can then measure the degree of difficulty to implement something and start to get a lot smarter about, here is low hanging fruit, here is high difficulty but high impact, and put all of those things into categories where we can start to prioritize and really get to work.
Yeah, that makes sense. The question that was in my mind out of that is, what are the areas that you’re saying that either there’s nobody working in that space to advance this tag, or that you still see the most area of opportunity for improvement, right?
Is this in the safety space, in the financial space, which I think maybe finance would probably be a lot easier in order to implement like a hundred percent. software solution or are we talking, you know, just anything field level?
What are you saying that there’s still a lot of opportunity?
Yeah, I think the common refrain in our industry, or there’s an anecdote, or there’s there’s reporting out there about how much data we collect versus how much we use.
The amount we use is a small percentage of the amount that we collect and have available to us. I think there is a lot on the data analysis and business intelligence side that is available to us that we’re not capitalizing on.
And I come from a world of data. My career before ARCO was in managing data science teams and business intelligence teams on the technical side. So that is something that is kind of a glaring thing in this industry that I think you’re seeing companies try to get ahead of.
especially the companies with these massive datasets like Procore and Autodesk and others that have the tools that are producing the data and are starting to operationalize that. But I think the tools are still lacking.
This is kind of along the same lines. There’s a lack of ability to integrate from design to construction to hand off an operation. There’s a lack of integration of those systems. And I’ve seen some startups crop up that are focused on integrations.
But I think, frankly, that’s something that businesses are going to have to get a lot better at in our industry in order for it to really take off. And that is genuinely just taking a preliminary design that may be generated from something like a test fit or a high par where you just put a pin on a map and you start doing some parametric design.
Taking the output of that and transitioning it to a Revit model or transitioning it to the next step that doesn’t require a recreation of that data, which I see so often in our industry is a recreation of steps that have already been taken.
So I think there’s there’s a dearth of available solutions for that. And that is in in one hand, I think that’s because it’s a little bit of the the company’s responsibility to have that capability. But it’s also the fact that we’re still in probably early to middle innings of digitization of a lot of those things.
So we can’t necessarily standardize how that data transfers from one system to another if the digital part of that product is not yet standard. So there’s a lot happening there that I think is just a maturation of our products and systems and and even the activities that we conduct in order to do our work.
That is kind of making that difficult to implement. But I think with with things like chat GPT and AI becoming a much more prevalent part of our world, I think you’re gonna see an acceleration of those things that is gonna be pretty remarkable.
And so we’ll start to see those pop up a lot more in the next 12 to 18 months, I’d say. And somebody being, you know, has focused on not just technology, but also innovation, right? What can we do in order to improve the process, improve the steps, eliminate steps where they’re not needed?
I can definitely see, nope, just kind of that easy handover and the ability in order to seamlessly go from face to face to face to face and not redo all of that same work over and over again. Yeah, I think, yeah, you’ll definitely be happy about that whenever all that kind of comes fruition, right?
Rapid Fire Questions
Yeah, so Eric, we’re coming right up on time. I’m gonna ask a few little last minute rapid fire questions because no, Eric Hubery, the man, not just Eric Hubery, the professional. So what is your idea of a perfect vacation?
The idea of a perfect vacation. My honest answer is anywhere with my wife, which I know is a little bit corny, but it’s the truth. I think, you know, I enjoy a good round of golf and hiking and being outdoors.
So living in the city, I think the ideal vacation is somewhere outside that you can kind of reconnect with nature and walk and exercise and kind of just move freely. So that’s probably the ideal version.
Yeah, it is corny, but my answer would be the same. So I, yeah, absolutely. I can totally relate. So what’s your favorite book?
My favorite book. Okay, I thought about this because you gave me warning.
I think I have to say the Harry Potter books. I grew up with them and, you know, I have read them multiple times. I also, you know, if I’m thinking professionally, I have a different answer versus personally, but personally I enjoy a lot of sci -fi, fancy reading. So NK Jameson, Blake Crouch, Patrick Rothfuss, those are writers that I will read anything that they put out.
I enjoy reading a good autobiography or biography. So Richard Branson’s biography stands out to me, but there are, you know, there are a lot in that category that I really enjoy reading just to get kind of a peek into their lives and how they’ve gotten to where they are.
Yeah, no, I can definitely understand the whole Harry Potter thing. I as well grew up with Harry Potter, loved it. It was heartbroken at the end, whenever you know you have this turn of the character of Snape, and you’re like, I hated the guy for so long, but now I love him, right?
What’s your favorite podcast?
My favorite podcast is The Knowledge Project. It’s put on by Farnham Street, which is… This guy, I think his name is Shane Parrish, and it’s just interviews with interesting people.
It’s a lot around how to conduct business and productivity and things of that nature. He’s a great interviewer, and he gets to talk to the most interesting people.
I’ll have to look this up. I always love to do a podcast.
One piece of advice you can give anybody in their career?
Ask lots of questions always. I think I come from technical backgrounds, so a lot of times I’ll recommend learn Python or learn SQL or learn something that can help you to access and manipulate data in ways that gives you a lot of capability to understand data that’s put in front of you.
But I think the thing that has I have carried through my career and has helped me to transition between careers is just being curious and kind of constantly asking questions and having no fear or shame around having an answer and being really sincere about wanting to learn.
Yeah, love that and then if you could have dinner with anyone person living or dead, who would it be?
My wife excluded, right?
Yeah I think it’s probably If I can cheat and say I just want to sit with Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett and just like Watch them have a conversation and kind of interject where I can I think that would be pretty entertaining.