Our guest on Honest Conversations today is Armando Chocron, Project Manager at Accel Construction Management. Armando has a Masters in Engineering which he completed while starting his career in construction, and now has over 6 years experience in the industry. Join us as we dive into why Armando thinks a Masters can have so much value in construction, the struggles and best advice for transitioning between roles, the value of experience, and more!
Q: Can you discuss a little bit about what initially attracted you to the construction industry and how you first got involved in it.
Armando: I’m from Venezuela and most of my family are engineers, so that’s kind of where my interest started. I worked in a few construction sites back home and really liked it. At first I wasn’t sure what about construction I liked in particular, but I always thought it seemed like a really cool thing.
I went into school for engineering and I really loved it. It was more design related so I was questioning whether I wanted to go into the design side of things or the actual physical labour side because I always liked math and science, but there was something about construction that interested me. I had a really good project management professor in school that pushed me to go a little bit into project management and that’s how I started working in construction.
Q: Do you think that professor led you to pursue project management?
Armando: Yes, it was a project management course in my undergraduate and it was a little bit of a different course in the sense that the professor was not an academic but he was brought from the industry, so he was able to share a lot of industry experience and information. It was something that I hadn’t seen before, most professors just teach their own subjects and they’re not consultants or designers in particular, but his class got me interested in project management. I started working at a construction company after that and I just went from there.
Q: Can you run through what your time was like in the role of project coordinator and then provide some insight into what the transition was like to a project manager role?
Armando: When I was in third year I did a co-op, so I worked 16 months as a coordinator at Ellis-Don and I was working with very big projects at a big company. It was a good opportunity and I was able to learn how construction operates, how documents are filed. It was more of an administrative role though so when I finished that first year of working I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go back. I’m more of a technical person and I felt like I wasn’t doing exactly what I thought I was going to do when I went to engineering school.
Putting that aside I still decided to go to the construction side of things and started as a coordinator again but at a much smaller company where it really gave me the opportunity to learn the entire process. When you work for a bigger company, it’s a much slower process so when you start as a coordinator it’s probably going to take you a lot more time to become a project manager. However, you’re going to be working on bigger and more complicated projects, whereas if you work for a smaller contractor you learn things a lot quicker. You’re exposed to the whole process from start to close-out, but it’s not the same level of complexity and organization.
I started off as a coordinator in a smaller company so I could get that full sense of start to finish, bidding, tendering, how it all works. I did a little bit of estimating too and once I got that overall understanding of how things worked I felt that the smaller company wasn’t exactly for me. I wanted something more complicated building-related so I went to a company that does a lot of bigger projects and they gave me a really good opportunity. They mentored me and encouraged me to become a project manager, so it eased and accelerated my transition to the role.
For insight into other typical career paths for project engineers, check out our blog here.
Q: Because of your time at the smaller company getting a large amount of exposure, did you already feel prepared and ready to make that jump?
Armando: No, unfortunately the experience didn’t prepare me enough to be a project manager. I was definitely lost at the beginning and it was a far stretch for me to be a project manager on the first project I was working on. I had a lot of support, but you have to work really hard and you gotta put in those extra hours when you’re starting out.
Construction is ultimately an industry of experience. We don’t sell any products, we don’t manufacture anything. All you have to offer is what your experience is, so you need to do it once and once you do it hopefully you pay enough attention that you’ll catch most things and you’ll be pretty good for the next time.
Q: What were your biggest takeaways from those first three or six months as a project manager?
Armando: I would say the biggest takeaway was the importance of communication and information. Understanding who needs to be informed with what comes with experience and for anyone going through that transition, my comment would be you have to be very open to what people have to say. You have to seek out knowledge from other people. You won’t immediately know who needs to get what and what could go wrong.
You can’t imagine the chain of reactions that one issue can cause, such as if someone doesn’t get the necessary information for their role on time. Making all those connections to who needs what is a very difficult thing at the beginning when you don’t really even understand what’s happening. So, I would say take it slow and if you don’t want to take it slow and you want to take it fast then you really need the right support or else things can go very wrong.
Q: Did you have anyone there as a support figure, or a mentor perhaps, that you could really lean on for help?
Armando: Absolutely. Mark and Anthony, they’re the owners at Accel where I work right now and there’s no way I would have been able to be a project manager there without their support. They were constantly nudging me, did you look at this, did you look at that, did you check on the lead times for these items.
All those things, you would think they’re obvious but sometimes they’re not. You’d think appliances would be readily available but there’s a huge supply issue in the industry right now with appliances, and not everyone is aware of it. So for all those things, having support helps you look at the bigger picture and get you through a project for the first couple times.
Q: For those who are entering the industry or have been looking for a mentor and don’t currently have one, how do you recommend people go out and find someone who can help guide them?
Armando: I think it’s more related to the organization you work in. It starts with finding the right place where you feel comfortable and where you feel supported, because getting outside help is obviously very difficult unless you have a relative or someone readily available. But it definitely starts in the organization you work at and if you’re not getting that support you might want to reconsider your situation.
At the end of the day it’s your reputation at stake and if you don’t do well because you’re not in the right environment it’s not going to reflect well on you as a professional. It’s a big industry, but everyone knows each other as well so you don’t want to risk your reputation. You only get a chance once. People get busy and sometimes they don’t provide the right support not because they don’t want to but because everyone’s time is pretty stretched, so you gotta take everything you can get and exploit it as much as you can.
Q: Are you able to give some insight as to why you chose to pursue a masters in engineering and why you felt that that would be valuable or applicable to your current role and responsibilities?
Armando: When I finished my undergrad I was unsure if I wanted to go into design or construction, so I started evaluating all these options. I applied for a masters of engineering at UofT, just because I didn’t have a job at the time and I wanted to have something to fall back on. I got accepted into my masters and then I also got a job offer, but I didn’t want to lose either one so I ended up doing my masters on an extended full-time basis while working.
It was really great and it was worth it because I was able to learn about construction documents and concepts, for example construction law in one of my classes, and at the same time I was tendering the work and I could see all the clauses that I was learning in school. I could see them in the tender and I could understand them a lot better because I was working with them directly.
I would definitely encourage people to do a masters and I will say that you don’t want to do it right after school because you don’t really get as strong of an appreciation of things if you don’t work for a couple years. I know it’s hard to go back to school or even doing it part-time, but if you have the time it is the best way to do it because you can really connect the two experiences of working and education. The more you learn the more you can learn. You learn one thing and it enables you to learn from another thing and that’s when you connect the thoughts, it’s a pretty incredible thing.
Q: Do you see the same value in pursuing certifications, for example getting gold seal certified or different industry certifications to fill those education gaps?
Armando: I’ve completed my project management professional certification and it was definitely useful content to learn. I wouldn’t say it would be something I’d recommend over a masters though. I think a masters provides you with a lot more in-depth knowledge and overall is more valuable than a certification, but if you have the time and you’re interested in the topic I would definitely recommend pursuing it.
I find that, especially in a market that is very hot right now, you wanna pursue more specific expertise and want to obtain more work experience as opposed to a certificate because that’s gonna pay off a lot more in the workplace. But if you have the time, yes, definitely a certification would help.
Q: Where do you see the balance between seeking out more first-hand experience and getting more exposure to different aspects of the industry versus getting that formal education?
Armando: I think you absolutely need experience first. You don’t want to go into a master’s and then learn whatever the professor is telling you but not have your own perspective and opinions on things. You need, I would say, it depends on the masters you want to do, but at least 2-3 years of experience. I always see the masters as a way to pivot also. If you go 2-3 years into a field and you don’t necessarily like it but you get a lot of exposure to certain things that are related to another industry you want to go to, a master’s is a great opportunity to do that.
If you do your master’s up front and then later realize you don’t like that industry or topic, then you have a lot less options available. So it’s definitely good protracting that to later and finding out what you like in your career and then using your masters to either further advance your knowledge or use it to pivot.
Q: When you were a project coordinator, were there specific skills you focused on during your time to prepare yourself for the role of project manager?
Armando: I think as a coordinator, managing contracts was a really important thing that I focused on. I really tried to understand how the contracts, documents, and the tendering process all work. A lot of the project manager’s work is procurement, so understanding exactly how contracts are drafted and awarded, the implications of the order of documents, understanding the information that you have, those were all things I felt were important to focus on when I was a coordinator.
Nothing really prepares you for when you have to do it on your own but it really helped. For the administrative side of things too, it helps when you’re already doing it, you know what works, what doesn’t work, how to manage new drawings. You need to understand the volume of information and the manpower you need to handle it. It’s easy to move a lot of that responsibility onto someone else, but that’s not always an option so you need a strong understanding of it yourself.
Q: Do you find your job stressful?
Armando: Absolutely. Just the nature of the work is high stress because of timelines and it’s like a big monster that you can’t control, yet you have to somehow try to get into a rhythm that will take you to where you want to go. But it’s still just a rhythm, you can’t really control everything that’s happening. The magnitude of the amount of people involved and I think that lack of control is the stressful part.
You can’t see it all, you can’t review every drawing, every instruction. There’s hundreds of people working on site. You can’t check what everyone’s doing so there’s always that unknown, “what if this guy didn’t connect this pipe right and the building floods when we turn on the sprinklers?” It’s that unknown that I don’t think you can ever get rid of since it’s the nature of the business and all you can do is mitigate and assess the risk and try to control it as much as you can.
To read more about different approaches to dealing with stress in the construction industry, check out this blog post.
Q: As you’ve gone through your career, how have you handled the stress of your job?
Armando: On a personal level, I think exercising is a really good thing. I know with COVID it’s hard but it really helps you direct your energy somewhere else. Also, you have to have the right social support and hopefully you have the right environment at home because there’s nothing worse than dealing with stress at work and then dealing with stress at home, it just compounds. I think we can all handle so much stress and after we get above that threshold, you’re off the rails.
From a personal level you just try to keep it to within your threshold and if you can’t handle it you gotta step back a little bit. On a professional level, you have to be as organized as you can and you need to accept that you can’t control everything and that you can only put certain processes in place. If they don’t work out you adjust them but letting go of that control is probably the best way to manage the stress. You can’t blame yourself for everything that goes wrong because there will be things that go wrong, and sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it.
Q: Were there any pieces of advice someone gave you that really shaped or helped your journey through the construction industry?
Armando: I had a professor at UofT who was a chemical engineer but he was teaching a leadership course and he gave us this really good book called ‘the fifth discipline’. He explained all about it and told us that you have to look at things in terms of a system. Unfortunately, the systems that we work in are so complex that we don’t really understand the effects of our actions, the consequences of our actions, so he really taught me to look at things in systems.
Like, when there’s a sick person but you don’t know what it is that’s causing the illness. It might be something from his diet, it might be that he smokes, you don’t really know what is causing the problem because it’s so complex. The body is so complex, so you don’t really understand what’s happening. I think it’s stepping back and looking at things as a system and seeing what has more leverage, what is really causing this problem.
Sometimes the initial solution you came up with is only making the problem worse and the more you put pressure on it the worse it gets, so I would say step back, look at things as a system and try to understand the real cause of the problem. Don’t just blame the first thing that comes to mind because most of the time that is not the problem, especially with people.