I've written about many aspects and challenges of providing user support, but I've seldom (if ever) delved into the additional challenges of supporting the primary user applications — specialized software that's vital for the function of the business. In my case, those applications are Autodesk products, specifically, AutoCAD MEP and Revit.
I'm in the building design industry, and from what I've seen, many firms separate what I consider two distinctly different IT functions. One of my counterparts at a client's firm, for example, supports the computers and the network; the operating systems; servers and group policies; the printers, plotters and other peripherals; and so on, but he doesn't know the first thing about the design software that's vital to the mission of the firm. Yet another peer at a different firm, a person I've known for a dozen or more years, knows the design software inside and out; he's the lone support and training person for about fifty design professionals, but he knows very little, if anything, about the hardware they use. In my case, I support both functions.
I've often wondered how many of my TechRepublic peers are in a similar position of wearing two hats. I actually believe my dual role is helpful to each distinct function. One feeds off the other. One provides more insight into the other. One relies on the other. I recently wrote about building a 64-bit computer that scored a perfect 5.9 Vista performance rating, but the driving force behind it was my intimate knowledge of how much of a resource hog our applications really are. I needed that computing power, and I would be one of the people depending on it.
I've often said that IT — Information Technology — was not the end itself, but rather a means to an end. That may or may not be true for everyone, depending on how we each define the term — and how we apply it, I suppose. But my job isn't to build computers and networks, per se, nor is it to know the software inside and out — although in one respect, I might say it's both of those things. My job is to leverage IT and to use IT for the creation of a specific product — building construction documents. Our clients and contractors in the field could care less about our hardware and software challenges. They just want our product delivered accurately, on time, and on budget. I start with that end in mind, and I work backward to design and maintain an IT infrastructure that's necessary to make it happen; it's with that end in mind that dictates how I keep current with the features, functionality, and intricate details of the application software that we use; and it's with that end in mind that I decide how I train and support the users who make it all possible (one of whom is me).
We're currently entering an era of an emerging technology, one we call BIM — Building Information Modeling. With it, I'm thrust into a future with even more challenges and hurdles. These files reach tens of millions of megabytes in size, will challenge both our hardware and storage capacity, and will bring file coordination into a whole new dimension. It means not just learning another software, but requiring another way of thinking and a new way of designing — all the while maintaining, supporting, and expanding our computing capacity.
Currently, I'm finishing the installation of those 64-bit computers. Next on the agenda is to install and test the newest version of AutoCAD MEP (version 2009), so I can keep the users current on the newest features. After that, I'll be starting on a design manual for Revit, the newest BIM software that's hit our industry, using a couple of real projects as the basis. After that, who knows? Since software and hardware capabilities kind of leapfrog each other, both getting more powerful — based on and because of improvements in the other — it's almost a never-ending cycle.
I'm sure there are other TR peers out there who support both the IT functions (as we typically define them) and the production or creation of the firm's product — ones who might also see IT as a means to an end and who also have an intimate knowledge of both. If so, I'd love to hear from you. What are your biggest challenges? What kind of product do you both support and create — with the IT infrastructure you also support and create? (And how many Autodesk users or supporters are out there in the TR community?)