Our guest on Honest Conversations today is Danielle O’Connell, Director of Emerging Technology at Skanska. Danielle gained experience both as a project coordinator and project manager before moving to the exciting and innovative role she holds now. Join us as we dive into Danielle’s path through the construction industry, the challenges involved in adopting tech in construction, why emerging technologies are so important, and more!
Q: What do you think made you successful in the roles of project coordinator and project manager as you started your career in the construction industry?
Danielle: I was an architect by degree out of school, and I came to construction knowing that I loved the built environment, but I didn’t really know where I fit in. I had it in my head that I had to go back to school and get a civil engineering degree and then tackle a PE role or something. I was very eager to learn and I was lucky to be surrounded by great people that I could learn from.
The other thing I was able to do was get exposure to different departments within the organizations that I worked with. I got to dabble in pre-construction and look at master planning and work on our design-build projects. The list was endless. I was unafraid to ask questions and I was constantly making sure that I understood how the inner workings of all the several different departments I was touching worked together, and I think that really helped me achieve success in those roles.
Q: Did you always see a future for yourself in the construction industry or did your current situation arrive more organically?
Danielle: It was more organic. When I was finishing my degree in architecture I just loved buildings. I loved to draw and I thought that that was a good fit. I don’t know if I would have ever pictured myself here, especially in the role that I’m in now, because it didn’t really exist when I joined the industry.
At the start I was always trying to figure out and navigate where I fit in, because I felt like an odd duck. I know now that was silly because in construction you work with people with such wide varieties of different experiences, so you’re never truly an odd one out. I’m glad to be here but it definitely happened organically, just through my exposure to different things.
Q: When you made that transition from being in more of a project manager role into the technology space, was that something you were volunteered for or how did that transition happen?
Danielle: Through most of my early career I went back and forth from that project coordinator role to a more BIM and VDC focused role. There was demand for these roles coming from our clients asking for these softwares and so I volunteered as a coordinator. I think I was always drawn to technology. I always loved modeling, but I remember in college, we had a TA for our architecture studio who would teach us how to use Revit on the weekends, because we used a different program in class.
It was brand new at the time, and so on Saturdays, we would go to their architectural firm’s office and learn how to use it. That experience was so cool and accelerated my passion for technology. So when I moved into a PM role, I wanted to be a tech-enabled PM.
That was my request for my first company and they didn’t really know where that role fit within their organization. So when I later moved on to my traditional PM role, that was something that I focused on. I wanted to make sure that I could leverage models and still run coordination meetings, but also manage the contractor scope of work and understand the more traditional PM focus areas like the schedule and costs.
That led me into a role at Massport where I was the design-technology integration manager, and I was looking at a more full picture. I was getting involved during the design process, working with our design partners, with our consultants, with our engineers and trying to implement technology and BIM and VDC on our projects very early on. That role really opened my eyes to the full life cycle of tech in construction, which was something I was missing in just the construction side.
In that role I was also looking into technology standards and lean practices for BIM and VDC and that’s what exposed me to the group I’m with now at Skanska. At Massport we were bringing in consultants to do a lot of the work that I do today. We hired the Skanska team that I currently work for as one of our consultants, we connected, and it ultimately led to where I am now.
Q: You’re the director of emerging technology, so what is your main focus and what are the things that you’re doing day-to-day in that role?
Danielle: It’s a lot. Right now we’re looking at BIM and VDC across the organization. I think it’s been interesting because there’s data everywhere, and we’re trying to figure out with all the tools and technology we use, how does this all help us be more efficient and how do we save time and money on our projects? That’s always the end goal.
There are four directors on our emerging tech team and what we’re focused on is the structure around getting innovative ideas to come to fruition. How can we help when someone comes to us with a problem or a challenge? Do we have a tool in house or a process that we can use to fix it or do we have to look outside of the organization and outside of our existing toolkit to bring something else in to help us?
That’s the overarching goal. It’s finding out how we strategically enable and empower our project teams and either bring them more familiarity with the tools that they have or bring them a new tool that will help them be more efficient.
Q: How do you identify the best technology when there’s such a high volume of emerging tech right now?
Danielle: An important aspect is the communities of practice. There are certain people that are very passionate about certain technology, so how can we better leverage knowledge sharing? We’re working on building better structures for tech use and tech adoption, which started with our internal tech portal. That gives everybody an overview within our organization of what tools we’re using or have piloted, which allows our teams to have more awareness and better tracking for when they’re getting approached by a vendor.
I think it’s the knowledge sharing aspect that has certainly been the most important. Through COVID, Microsoft Teams has been essential to us because we’ve created channels for these communities of practice for a bunch of focus areas relating to technology. We have one that’s dedicated to drones and one to reality capture and one to Pro-core and the list goes on.
We have a VDC knowledge network too that goes beyond VDC. It has folks from operations and pre-construction, and we’re trying to just make sure that everyone is communicating and connected and sharing information, expertise, and helping each other find solutions for the right teams, which ultimately helps us find and source the best tech solutions.
For more information on emerging technologies and softwares in the construction industry, check out our blog here.
Q: When you’re thinking of innovation and trying to build that innovative culture within your team and within the other teams that you work with, how do you get other people interested in the work that you’re doing and get them to see the benefit?
Danielle: That’s always been a struggle for me my entire career. I remember walking around with an iPad early on and people were confused about what I was doing. To get to that point where others in your organization really get it and appreciate the benefits of new solutions you’ve presented is really rewarding.
Truly understanding what the problems are so that we can solve them is the approach that I like to take. It’s important to get on the same level as our project teams and our partners so we can truly understand their problems. Making sure that we’re highlighting those challenges and those solutions that we’ve come up with is also really important.
People may not always say they like recognition, but I think it’s important to recognize achievements. It doesn’t have to have a name associated with it, but even just to draw people’s attention and say look at this great thing we did and to celebrate those small victories I think is really important for getting even more buy-in.
We’ve created this network, which I’ll call our tech concierge network, of folks from across all different departments. It has IT, our project analytics team, our pre-construction team, and others. These are people that are really aware of all of the tools that we’re using across the organization and are in contact more often and directly with some of our other teams, such as the operations team. So we make sure that we’re well connected to that group, because we’re able to leverage that group to ensure other teams are truly seeing the benefit of all the solutions we implement.
I think we’re continuing to increase our connections to those other teams and our partners by putting ourselves onsite, understanding their challenges and then making sure that we’re helping them get to a solution in an efficient way.
Speaking to other teams in layman’s terms is always something I have to remind myself of. We use acronyms all the time and we talk about all these technology-related topics which not everyone has a strong grasp of. Some teams are focused solely on building a building, and I and I want to make sure that they understand what I’m talking about so that they buy into the solutions even further.
To learn more about effective communication and getting on the same page as your other team members, check out or blog here.
Q: Has the pandemic influenced how people are using technology within the industry or how people are relying on it?
Definitely. Over the course of the pandemic we’ve seen such an uptake in tools on the construction site. There were a lot of instances where we needed access to a project, but we may not have been able to get the whole project team there. Things like 360 cameras, virtual tours, and just even high-quality video meetings via zoom or WebEx have seen a high adoption rate and were never really prevalent in the industry.
We had an event in Boston this week and one of our PM’s said to me, ‘I never realized how beneficial all these tools were until I was stuck at home, trying to figure out what was happening on my job site!’ And I replied, ‘that’s awesome, that’s why we want you to use them!’ From there it’s been all about ‘how can we work together to do that more?’ So the pandemic has really opened up some of their minds too. They no longer feel that we’re just coming to job sites to try and sell them on something new. They’ve realized it really is to figure out how to improve the work that they’re doing.
Q: Is there anything that you would say to anyone young and innovative who’s thinking of a career in the construction industry?
Danielle: I would recommend looking for companies that have rotational programs. We have one where they can actually sit in each department and that involves accounting and pre-construction, and they get experience in the field. They’re on the project management team and then take part in the VDC rotation as well.
We’ve found that some really good and well-rounded talent comes out of those programs so I highly encourage anyone to seek those out. Figure out how you can get the most exposure possible to all the different departments and opportunities.
For other things, we have this project connect initiative, which is set up to create some transparency around each of the different roles. Folks can look and see ‘if I’m an accountant, but I decided I want to be a PE, what is that going to take?’ That’s really helpful and can be a huge benefit if you’re unsure exactly what path you want to take.
Also, don’t ever be afraid to get field experience, especially if you think you want to go into more of a technology role. Within the construction industry, they’re a little harder to find I think. They all have different titles, where you might see something about VDC that’s a combination of both models and new technology. But the field experience is so important and it brings just so much more credibility to those who are trying to get into technical roles.
Q: When you were early on in your career, were you ever intimidated that you didn’t have that field experience yet?
Danielle: Absolutely. It was so overwhelming. At the beginning I was sent out to do punch lists on a ton of our projects, to be a fresh set of eyes. They would send me the roll of drawings and I would go out and just do a really thorough punch list. This would make all of our subcontractors very angry because I was critiquing every outlet, every inch of their work, meanwhile they’re just trying to scramble and finish and get out of there.
I was taking pictures and I would create these very thorough list documents where I would scan in my drawings, my markups, and in Excel I would track everything and send it off to the team. But I always remember being intimidated. I took advantage of those other leaders that I was working for and tried to have them take me around on any walkthroughs and stuff like that.
I met some really great superintendents who taught me about means and methods and how things went together. I remember sitting at my desk and one superintendent would always show me how you would do certain things in the field.
I was actually building a logistics model for planning a project we were going after but I didn’t understand how it all went together. He taught me about up, down construction versus up, up construction, and explained all those things I was being exposed to, but I really didn’t know what they meant.
So yes, it was intimidating, but I tried to follow those who were very comfortable and learn from them to make it a little less intimidating.
For more insight into what Danielle would have faced in her day-to-day work, check out our blog detailing what it’s like as a project manager.
Q: Did you have any mentors early on in your career or now, or how do you continue to learn?
Danielle: I think mentors and even sponsors have been really important, but I would say that they’ve evolved throughout my career. I had one where I first started, who was an architect that came to the construction side and he taught me everything he knew. It was awesome. Then, later on at that same company, I had another mentor who got me my job at Massport.
I think mentorship is funny. We have all these formal mentorship programs, but I think it needs to come naturally. It needs to be someone that you feel comfortable with approaching and asking questions. I always tell mentees that you need to put in as much as you want to get out of it.
I learn a lot from the folks that I mentor, just through our conversations where I’m exposed to new ideas or perspectives. It works both ways, that relationship can be extremely valuable to the mentors just as much as the mentees, and that’s why I think continual mentorship is so important.
Q: Do you have any final thoughts for someone who maybe is in a project management or project coordinator role or some field-based role and looking to get more into the technology side of the business?
I think there’s a lot of secret innovators out there. Our industry is truly innovative, but a lot of people don’t know where to start and they don’t know who to talk to. So I would encourage them to find those people within their organizations who are VDC or rolling out technology already and connect with them and figure out how you can help.
We’re always looking for those champions that live in the field and are the boots on the ground and really the problem solvers day to day. I am really eager to connect with them at my company and I’m sure that there’s someone like me at their organization who is also looking to help.
I would love to have any PM who is tech savvy. Their experience is going to be invaluable. So just try to connect with those people or if it’s not your company, if you’re not seeing that happen, connect with folks in the industry through networking, because they exist. We exist. We’re looking for people who want to join the emerging tech side of things.