Cole Orndorff

CIO, Mortenson Construction
Cole Orndorff

Twin Cities Business: Tell us a little bit about how your IT functions are structured.
 
Cole Orndorff: I would say our IT structure is more of a traditional IT structure, so we’re very centralized. I have a couple of people that work remote, but that is more because they were team members before.
 
 
TCB: And how many offices does Mortenson have around the country?
 
CO: Well I would say approximately 120, because each job site we treat as an office. The main offices would be Seattle, Denver, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Phoenix. Those are the primary offices that we actually have a fairly large footprint in, and then we have a smaller footprint in Madison and Colorado Springs.
 
 
TCB: When you say you treat every job site as an office, what do you mean?
 
CO: I have a T1 going out to just about every job site. For example, we’re building the Twins stadium. I had about 40 people on line every day at the Twins stadium, so that’s one of our bigger challenges. I think it was last week we had 10 job sites coming up and 15 coming down, so we basically are turning a T1 on at a certain spot and we’re shutting a T1 off. And we typically will do T1s. If it’s a smaller job site, we might do DSL or something like that, if there’s just two or three people. But a typical job site, we’ll have at least ten people on line, and it’s actually more cost effective to do a T1 than it is to do a fractional T1.
 
 
TCB: What does that mean for you in terms of actually getting set up?
 
CO: We have a very good relationship with Sprint right now, so [it does] a lot of the legwork for us, but we have one person that coordinates all that. We’ve put a pretty rigorous process in place, and it’s really paid off for us.
 
For our renewable-energy jobs—when we’re building a wind farm—some of them are pretty remote, and so we [can connect to the Internet with] satellite systems. I think we can get up to about 15 to 20 folks on line with voice over IP phones on that satellite system.
TCB: So the scope of your job includes the telecom infrastructure for the company as well?
 
CO: Yes, it does. It’s a traditional network infrastructure for the major offices. And the other thing that we are starting to use is videoconferencing.
 
We’ve also hooked our phone system into the videoconferencing system, so if I have a superintendent at a job site, we can connect them through the network. We will also put a camera phone out there, so all I have to do is do a four-digit dial and I can face-to-face with the superintendent sitting out at the job site.
 
 
TCB: That must help deal with all the elements of a construction project.
 
CO: Yes and it helps us extend our reach to some extent. Right now, we’re building a hospital in Virginia that’s technically being run out of our Milwaukee office. So in order to cut down on the travel time, we put a $100 camera phone on the network out there. The director of operations for the Milwaukee office basically cut his travel in half because he can just do a four-digit dial, he sees the guys in the office or in the trailer, he has a regular status meeting with them. So some weeks he’s out there on site, and other weeks he’s just calling them and doing the discussions remotely.
 
 
TCB: So all of your job sites and offices are on the VOIP system; you’re all on a four-digit dial?
 
CO: Virtually all. As new job sites come on board, we use it where we can, where it makes sense. But all the offices are on it.
 
 
TCB: What would prevent you from using it on a job site?
 
CO: Typically, it’s the size of the job. If we’re going to be in there for a short duration and we’re only going to have three folks, we may just do a quick DSL connection. If we’re going to have 20 folks out there over a couple of years, then we’ll do a T1. If we have a T1 going out there through MPLS, then we will just put them on voice over IP, and have at least one camera phone, if it’s a remote site.
 
 
TCB: Does your job also include the company Web site?
 
CO: Well, the mortenson.com Web site is actually designed by the strategic marketing department, and hosted through Atomic Playpen. But we’re getting to the point where a lot of the job sites will have their own Web site. It’s not a public site, but it’s a way for us to share information with our subcontractors. It’s more of a collaboration site—a place for us to share files, share an electronic drawing, or things like that.
The IT department actually sets up the infrastructure for them. We worked with a core group of the operating project managers and came up with a template for how they need to set it up and where certain things should be. One of the more recent projects that we’ve won is the Union Depot renovation in downtown St. Paul. We set up the initial site and the person who’s in charge of the project actually set the content up.
 
 
TCB: What are the major types of systems you are working with?
 
CO: The major software on the back end we’re using is Oracle’s traditional ERP system, so that’s financials, payroll, accounts payable, that kind of stuff. We use some Microsoft Project, but for the most part, we use a product called Primavera P6, which allows you to plan multiple projects.
 
But we use more than 103 different applications for any aspect of the construction site, such as where do the pads need to go for the cranes. When you’re doing a wind farm, you have to have a geographic layout of the wind farm—where the turbine is going to go and where the turbine foundation is going to go. So we have a geospatial system for that. We have multiple modeling tools, so instead of looking at [paper] blueprints, somebody’s looking at a 3D model of the building. And certain customers require certain technologies. For example, anything that we do for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, they require a certain modeling tool to be used for that, because that model then turns into a deliverable that we turn over to them for the maintenance of the building [and the like].
 
My team services the different applications. Some of them are a little less maintenance than others. There are some hosted solutions that we use for putting bids together. We actually host our Oracle solutions through Oracle On Demand in Austin, Texas. We are just in the final stages of bringing up Salesforce.com for CRM, so that will go live here mid-February.
 
 
TCB: Tell me more about Primavera.
 
CO: We use Primavera P6 to manage the IT portfolio and the scheduling of the IT projects, and then we also use it for managing the schedule for our major construction projects. Primavera has a couple different product lines. The project planning software is called P6. They also have a product called Contract Management, which is how we would manage RFIs, the submittals, change requests, things like that. And we’re actually in the process of looking for a new system for that. We’re using an older version of Primavera’s product.
TCB: Many IT leaders have to serve as technology translators for the other executives. Do you play that role in your company?
 
CO: The executive team here is a very bright group of folks. Our CFO is absolutely phenomenal. Sandy Sponem used to be the controller at Piper Jaffray. She understands the value of electronic dashboards and things like that. The rest of the senior leadership team has grown up in the business, and they’re all engineers by trade, so the challenge isn’t articulating the value. I think the challenge is engineers like to touch and feel stuff, and so you have to show them something that’s kind of tangible, and once they see it and understand it, they’ll get right behind it. What we’ve tried to do is really develop prototypes and say “This is what it could look like if we build it,” so that they can give you feedback on it, rather than trying to sell something through some kind of white-paper format.
 
 
TCB: Can you give me an example?
 
CO: We just revamped how we do our construction Web sites. So instead of giving them a description in text, we will actually build a prototype and say, “This is what we’d like it to look like,” and then they’ll come in and say, “Okay, I like these aspects of it. Can we change this over here? Can we add these attributes to it?”
 
Just this last weekend, we went live on a new equipment management system to manage all of our assets, our capital assets that we use on job sites. [For that, I] was articulating how that could work with Oracle, showing them the value, showing them the reports that we could get out to the owners, and things like that. So if you can give them something tangible to touch and to feel, or at least to provide feedback on, then I’ve found that the senior leadership team is very supportive.
 
Even though these are, I think, fairly challenging times for a lot of companies, Mortenson is continuing to invest in the technologies that improve the experience of our end customers. [For example] construction uses a lot of paper—there’s a lot of sign-offs, a lot of documentation. What can we do to streamline that to make the process of building greener and easier for our end customers?
 
 
TCB: So what other projects are you working on?
 
CO: We want to improve our recruiting capabilities from a technology perspective, so we’re putting in Oracle’s iRecruitment product so potential employees can put their résumés out there. We have some of that already, but we want to improve the capabilities. And now is the time to get qualified resumes, because a lot of people are looking for work.
TCB: And what does the software do?
 
CO: It allows you to put certain skill sets in—you know, here’s the attributes I’m looking for. [And it will help] parse the résumés. It will also help us in our compliance with the government—here’s how many résumés we looked at, here’s how we selected the people that we did. There are goals tied to certain projects, particularly if there’s public funding involved, or EEO requirements for minorities that are working on the job, and things like that. We want to make sure that we are compliant to those goals. We are starting do more work in Canada, so we want to make sure we’re compliant there as well.
 
[We’re also focused on] removing paper from the job sites. I’d like to make it easier for our subcontractors, architects, and customers, so instead of having a bundle of papers going back and forth, we can store everything electronically. You can have one version of the truth out there. You can put workflow behind it to say, “Okay, this now has left the architect’s hands and it’s going to this subcontractor for their sign off. And we have verification that the subcontractor went in there, looked at the plans, and approved the plans.” So we can start documenting those trails. Instead of using paper trails, we’re using electronic trails.
 
 
TCB: Is there any other part of your job that we haven’t talked about?
 
CO: There’s a little bit of R&D. There are companies that are starting to develop some pretty interesting technologies to assist construction. One example is software that runs on tablet PCs or runs on some kind of handheld device.
 
So you’ve got an iPhone or you’ve got a BlackBerry or whatever, and the assumption for most software companies is that our end user is going to be able to connect to the Internet, and that is not necessarily true for our industry.
 
The extreme example is we built a wind farm in Montana that had a footprint of 125 square miles in the northwest part of the state. There was no Internet connection. Your cell phone is not going to work out there.
 
We have quality checklists [on mobile devices] that we’re testing [for inspections]. You can’t assume that that person who’s out there doing that inspection has a network connection, so [we are looking at] interesting synch technologies that are coming out.
We’re building the Wisconsin Institute of Discovery on the Madison campus, and we’re testing a technology over there. I did a ride-along with one of the quality engineers, and he was doing a roof inspection. He found something that he wanted the roofing subcontractor to fix. He was able to, with a tablet PC, bring up a blueprint of a roof. He circled where the defect was on that blueprint and attached that piece of the blueprint to his request to correct it. He took a picture of the defect and attached the picture as well.
 
The end goal would be to measure the effectiveness and quality of the subcontractor for either incentives on the job or using that subcontractor in the future. And to track how responsive the subcontractor is in getting those things fixed. So there’s a way to put some business metrics around our performance and the performance of the other constituents on the job to see how effectively we’re getting things done. You’re going back to what, years ago, we called a fat client.
 
 
TCB: Fat client?
 
CO: Yes, everything was sitting back on a server somewhere. All I needed to have on my tablet was a browser, and then I could use everything with the browser, which is considered a very thin footprint on the PC—so a thin client. You’re getting back to more of what you would consider a fat client, which is putting some of this stuff on the PC because I need to be remote. I just need to make sure that whatever I’ve updated on my PC gets synched back to the server.
 
One of the other things we use that’s fairly unique to some in the construction industry, but certainly to Mortenson, is Citrix. Citrix allows us to use dumb terminals. We do that for a couple reasons: One is they’re much more cost-effective to use—a terminal is about $500. Also, any team member can go to any terminal in the building and log on, and they basically have their virtual PC right there. That’s extremely beneficial at project sites, because we can have a number of terminals lined up, and somebody can log in and they have their virtual workspace right in front of them. The other benefit is if a trailer gets broken into, which does happen once in a while, and somebody steals that dumb terminal, I haven’t lost any intellectual property. The intellectual property is on a secure server sitting in our data center.
TCB: And I would imagine that terminals on job sites are in a rough environment.
 
CO: Yes, it’s a very dusty environment. We take printers to an extreme that I’ve never seen. We use a lot of multi function devices on job sites. Those have to be pretty bulletproof. We’re actually putting a couple different devices out at larger job sites because we want to make sure they’re not going to be down for any period of time.
 
What we try and do is, based on the requirements of the job, we say, “These are your two or three options.” We have a pretty good cookie cutter to say, “These are the devices you need out there, these are the terminals you need out there, this is how many PCs you need, this is how many printers you need, and this is the network connection you need.” So based on the profile of the job—not just how many team members we have but what are the attributes of the project— what is that team going to use? That will also change the network connection we have —it’s depending on the drawings and how much we’re going to be using certain types of technology that will impact the size of the network connection we have going. For certain types of jobs, we will actually put a server on the site and then back it up to here each night.
 
 
TCB: You’ve been with Mortenson for a couple years now.
 
CO: Yes.
 
 
TCB: What’s your background?
 
CO: I was at Lawson Software for 22 years. I started out as a payroll consultant right out of college and then worked my way up. The last two roles I held at Lawson were vice president of global support, and then I was vice president of IT. When they acquired Intentia International, I was the head IT person in charge of that integration, and then just decided that it was time to go find something else.