[This article was first published in our Synergy2015 conference magazine.]
NGS Consulting Structural Engineers is a small consulting firm with offices in Brisbane and the Gold Coast (and sometimes other places). Director Neil Stebbing is what’s known as an early adopter when it comes to technology. It may even be fair to say he’s a bit of a nerd. (At this point it’s important to add that ‘nerd’ is considered a considerable accolade at Total Synergy!)
Neil’s approach to running his engineering firm is to adopt technology that helps the business be more effective and efficient. He says using the right technology as a small business means he’s able to keep hardware costs to a minimum, scale up and down quickly, and work with various contractors, clients and industry partners collaboratively – all while maintaining control and security over data and documentation. This approach creates three key advantages: flexibility, scalability and mobility.
Cloud software plays a big role in how the business is managed and is a principal element in achieving flexibility, according to Neil.
“We’re fully cloud-based on all of our primary business software,” he says.
“We use Office 365 which allows us to work via browser, tablet or on desktop and we switched accounting software to Xero as soon as we were able [early 2013],” he says.
“Xero has allowed us to give access to our bookkeeper, accountant and financial planner without having to worry about time-consuming file transfers or meetings. I changed bookkeeper in order to work with someone on Xero as my previous one wasn’t willing to adapt and we didn’t want to be held back. I’ve only actually met our current bookkeeper once!”
Another key reason to pursue flexibility as a business objective is in the benefits offered to employees.
“Small businesses need to be able to offer flexibility to their people,” Neil says.
“People are often not able to fit with a traditional nine-to-five role. Flexibility is rewarding beyond remuneration and earns loyalty. It’s been proven that financial reward isn’t enough on its own for employees, or even the primary motivation in taking a job. You need to look at family and work-life-balance to earn loyalty and get people to stick around.”
NGS has installed Synergy in a Brisbane-based data centre on a Citrix server meaning they no longer have to rely on on-premises servers. All staff access a virtual Windows desktop via a web interface.
“The key benefit of working from a data centre is that it’s 100 per cent scalable,” Neil says.
“If we add a staff member for a project I can have them up and running that day with all the software they need. If the server is a bit slow we just call the IT manager at our data centre and he boosts our RAM and processor speed for only a small increase in the monthly fee.
“I’m also able to work from home on my iMac as I simply access my Windows desktop through the browser.
“When you couple that with Office 365 where we can switch on another user license through the online account and install the software straight away, it makes it easy to scale up an down as required.”
While this set up sounds pretty handy, it has had one drawback.
“The biggest issue with a virtual desktop and cloud-based software is you need a decent internet connection,” Neil says.
“Our Gold Coast office is on fibre, so it’s been fine. We’re not so lucky in the Brisbane office and had to push our ISP to get a good connection here, but now get 20mbps upload and download so it’s easier.”
An internet connection means most people can work almost anywhere given the right tools. With the opportunities for work being fairly spread out in Queensland, NGS needs to be able to create temporary offices closer to the jobs when necessary.
“We have some exciting projects coming up north of Brisbane,” Neil says.
“To get set up locally, we can simply rent an office or apartment, plug in an internet connection, set up some desks, plugin a VOIP phone and it would seem as if we’re in the same office within a matter of minutes.
“Add things like mobile timesheets through Synergy’s cloud app, Office 365, OneDrive or DropBox and it’s easy to get things on track.”
Hardware and security benefits
While a drive for the best technology in a small business can often be a personal preference of the principal or senior managers, there are several benefits beyond those above.
NGS has saved large sums in not having to upgrade hardware – it’s general office computers are going on five years old – including not having any servers for Exchange, Office and general software and file management. The machines used for Revit are up-to-date, though, and use a VPN connection to access the files online.
Neil is also sleeping easy knowing the company’s data is secure.
“Running multiple offices, and temporary offices, it’s critical that our data is kept in a secure environment,” he says.
“The data centre takes away the fear of losing data through an office burning down, theft, extreme conditions… it’s peace of mind to have it in a data centre with offsite back ups.
Neil Stebbing admits that being an early adopter comes with the risk of getting burnt – there have been times where he’s invested a bit of time and money into something only to realise it’s not going to work. A Betamax moment, perhaps?
“We haven’t made too many mistakes yet… mostly it’s been a very positive approach,” he says.
“As a company we were very early to adopt Revit and found a lot of new opportunities opening up to work with architects who were only too keen to collaborate with an engineering firm utilising Revit and its 3D capabilities.
“The process for clients to engage us following fee agreement has been simplified by creating online forms with Adobe FormsCentral. What’s been surprising is how many submissions and acceptances we get after hours when people are clearing their admin backlog and find it easy to complete an online form and hit the submit button instead of printing them off, scanning, emailing and filing.
We’re also looking at how we can better manage the process of quoting for jobs using another online product called Quoteroller,” he says.
“This will let us track what happens to a quote, showing us page views, how long the prospect spent looking at it, and so on. What we’re pushing for this year is for a proposal to be an experience for a client, not just a PDF or a typed email. We want it to be a link to our social media sites, testimonials, images, personality… Written proposals posted or faxed just seems so long ago.”
Simple and rewarding
Neil has always been fascinated with technology and pushing the envelope.
“I subscribe to technology blogs, newsletters, gadget news, Microsoft and Apple news,” he says.
“I’m always reading things and wondering how to implement it into what we do – how can I make the procedures better, easier, simpler, more cost effective?
“What we’re trying to achieve is to make the interaction between technology and data as simple as it can be, which then enables us to focus on engineering.
“Really that’s it, we just want more time for engineering and technology is the enabler.”