by Tom Kaneshige

CIO Meets Mobile Challenges Head-on

Jul 07, 20148 mins
CareersCIOIT Strategy

Embracing the mobility that end-users demand sometimes means CIOs must cast aside best practices. The shift to smartphones and tablets means enterprises must change how they think about employees, competitors and risk. Here’s how the CIO at a large electrical contractor has met the challenge.

rost ipad primary
Credit: Thinkstock

In some ways, veteran CIO Sam Lamonica is an old dog learning new tricks.

sam lamonica

Rosendin Electric CIO Sam Lamonica.

As the top technology strategist at Rosendin Electric, an electrical contractor in Silicon Valley, Lamonica has had to reverse his views on everything from the iPad to rogue mobile apps. He’s had to place big bets on mobile device management (MDM) technology, quickly create a mobile environment for app development and support, and adopt emerging mobile platforms practically overnight.

“We’re starting to see convergence happening, and it’s hard to keep up,” Lamonica says.

Winning in the brave new world of mobility sometimes means casting aside tried-and-true best practices. Mobility has turned companies, markets and people on their heads. There are huge opportunities and equally daunting challenges that demand new ways of thinking about employees, competitors and risk.

It’s no wonder many companies’ mobile strategies and execution fall flat. Only about two out of five companies have made good progress in their mobility efforts, according to a recent Accenture survey of nearly 1,500 C-level executives. The majority of mobile strategies fall short of expectations, while some outright fail.

[Related: Why Mobile Strategies Are Stalling at Many Enterprises]

Lamonica, however, was able to avoid this fate — in part, by embracing change.

Developing iPad Apps Aren’t So Crazy After All

Only a few years ago, Lamonica told one of his C-level peers that he thought developing iPad apps in the construction business was crazy. A few months later, he was doing it.

In the last 12 months, Lamonica has overseen the creation of three iPad apps that not only make life easier for the foreman, superintendent and electrician, but also helped Rosendin Electric win new business, including some of the biggest construction contracts in the valley.

The first app, called the QR Code app, solved one of the construction industry’s longtime problems: getting the right equipment and supplies to the right job site.

[Slideshow:  10 BYOD Worker Types ]

In the past, equipment and supplies would arrive haphazardly to job sites, if at all. Now QR codes containing information such as when and where a piece of equipment is supposed to go are slapped on equipment and supplies.

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Tyler Rost, a superintendent at Rosendin Electric using iPad at Stanford Project last December.

When they arrive at a job site, the material handler scans the QR code using an iPad and learns that they go to, say, the third floor, east wing of the building under construction. There, the foreman scans the QR code using an iPad, which automatically tells the system that the supplies have arrived.

Another iPad app, called Material and Tool Management app, lets the foreman order equipment, supplies and tools on the spot while at the job site. Both QR Code app and Material and Tool Management app tie into construction management software BIM 360 Field from Autodesk.

Rosendin Electric employees were using these homegrown iPad apps for a few months when the company put in a bid to work on a high-profile construction project. The customer — a well-known tech company — required all contractors to use apps connecting to BIM 360 Field. Rosendin Electric was probably one of the few competing contractors that could claim such compliance.

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Rosendin Electric’s QR Code app lets workers track materials on their iPads.

“That was dumb luck,” Lamonica says. “If we didn’t have these apps, we would have had to hustle to develop them.”

The third iOS app is a customized version of AboutTime, which tracks hours and pay rates of hundreds of workers over multiple job sites. In the construction business, it’s a little more complicated than clocking in and out. A worker might be asked throughout the day to take on various tasks with different pay rates.

[Related: BYOD IT Skills in High Demand ]

The general foreman would typically spend a few hours over the weekend trying to remember who did what throughout the day, in order to record those hours on a time sheet. Now time and pay rate tracking happens instantaneously on the site over an iPad or iPhone.

The time-tracking app also has a neat side benefit: Rosendin Electric can dig into the data to find out how many man-hours it takes to complete a project or build a pre-fabricated piece of equipment.

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Rosendin Electric foremen can use a mobile app to track hours and pay rates of hundreds of workers.

There’s no question these apps have proven to be beneficial to the business, even firing up the IT team. Mobility is on the frontier of technology, and techies love to be working on the newest thing. Rosendin Electric’s IT workers take a more proactive approach to mobility problems and offer up mobile app development suggestions at a rate far beyond those concerning ERP, says Anand Tamboli, senior director of business applications at Rosendin Electric.

Mobile Apps Rear Their Rogue Head

Nevertheless, Lamonica has had his share of challenges adapting to a mobile world — namely, rogue apps.

Rosendin Electric’s foremen wanted an iPad app to mark up plans and drawings at a job site. For example, if a foreman saw that drywall wasn’t up yet, thus throwing the project behind schedule, he could call up the visual project plan via an app, draw a red circle around the area where the drywall should be, write “WTF?” and send it to the drywall team in 10 seconds.

Lamonica had a tool from Autodesk that would do the trick. There was just one problem: Some 200 Rosendin Electric workers were already using an off-the-shelf app from the App Store. Project layouts and updates were being stored and isolated in the rogue app’s cloud service. A CAD designer had to hand-paddle the data from the rogue app into the Autodesk system, in order to make sure everything was in sync.

In the old days, Lamonica would have shut the rogue app down right away.

“You can’t do that anymore,” Lamonica says. “We have other tools for free that are provided by Autodesk that basically does the same thing as [the rogue app], but because it hit the streets first and is covertly out there, now I can’t wrench it out of their hands.”

Instead, Lamonica sat down with the rogue app maker, negotiated an enterprise agreement and got it contained. Then he formed an operations technology team to act as the go-between for IT and employees to ward off future rogue apps. The team is charged with researching, assessing, recommending and piloting new apps, and has the power to negotiate enterprise agreements.

That’s not to say Rosendin Electric has gotten rid of rogue apps completely. Rosendin Electric often operates as a sub-contractor working under a general contractor. On one job, the general contract had 50 people using the rogue app, and so Rosendin Electric workers had to use it, too.

“Sometimes, the very technology we don’t want to use we’re forced to use,” Lamonica says. “The good news is that there aren’t a lot of construction apps out there.”

It’s all about getting ahead of mobility before it swamps you.

Buy Into MDM Before You Have Mobile Security Issues

A year ago, Lamonica needed to decide on an MDM security solution before security problems spiraled out of control. It’s a critical decision, because a CIO will have to rely heavily on a relatively new MDM vendor and its capability to navigate the changing mobile landscape. A slip-up in mobile security can be pretty grim for the CIO.

“The last thing I want is the CEO calling me and asking why his salary is on the Internet,” Lamonica says.

Lamonica decided to go with MobileIron, but the decision wasn’t an easy one. Sure, MobileIron had all the features and functions Lamonica wanted to help manage his company-owned fleet of iPads and iPhones — Rosendin Electric does not support BYOD — but MobileIron still hadn’t mastered an ease of deployment for the Android, Lamonica says.

For its part, MobileIron worked with Rosendin Electric on pilot projects to win its business. MobileIron also has made strides to support Android. Today, 70 percent of attendees at its recent user conference manage Android through MobileIron.

“Android is a more challenging operating system to secure for the enterprise than iOS because of its fragmentation,” says Ojas Rege, MobileIron’s vice president of strategy, adding, “Deploying Android successfully requires us to make as much of the complexity and variability as possible invisible to our customer. We do expect that Google’s increasing focus on enterprise Android combined with our engineering investments will continue to expand the business capabilities of Android and continue to make it easier to deploy.”

Better support for Android is coming at a good time for Lamonica. He’s seeing more Androids and Microsoft Windows Surface tablets making their way into the construction industry. In fact, Lamonica needed to add Surface tablets recently because certain testing apps only ran on Windows and, at one job site, it would have been politically awkward for Rosendin Electric workers to show up with iPads.

More Mobile Platforms, More Apps, More Challenges

So goes Lamonica’s biggest concern: a tablet market that’s becoming more diverse with more operating systems. It’s going to be an ever-increasing challenge supporting all of the platforms, he says, especially as the number of mobile apps continues to grow. Rosendin Electric already has a dozen bonafide mobile apps, including the QR Code app, Material and Tool Management app and the customized AboutTime app.

What happens if another new mobile — or perhaps wearables — platform takes off wreaking havoc in the enterprise?

“Hopefully, I’ll be retired by then,” Lamonica says with a grin.