Small and Mighty
It may be a cliche in these lean times, but Jim Nonn, CIO for Egan Company, a construction services firm based in Brooklyn Park, is happy to talk about how he’s doing more with less. Companies similar in size to Egan might have more than 20 IT staffers, but Egan only has five. “I think it’s because of some innovative things we’ve done with technology,” he says. “If you compare us to [other construction companies], most of them are looking at 30 to 50 users per IT tech, and in our system we’re looking at 70 some.”
Nonn started with the company as a database administrator. When the IT director left a few months later, Nonn became the interim director, a role he was determined to keep. He was soon named CIO and eventually became part owner in the company.
Nonn says an old-school-style supervisor in a previous job at the local Department of Military Affairs helped prepare him for managing a staff. “I was fortunate to have a really good boss who was tough as nails,” Nonn says. “He’d be chewing on a stogie . . . he quit smoking, so he’s chewing on it. If you made a mistake and he was mad at you, he’d stand two inches from your face and tell you about it.”
Despite the boot-camp-style discussions, Nonn recalls how his boss imparted some valuable lessons on supervising people: “There was a guy who made a mistake on our systems, and I went over and I’m like, ‘That’s not how you do it. It’s like this. Do you got it?’ and I was sort of intimidating him, without meaning to.”
When the employee made another mistake, Nonn’s boss called him into his office and asked Nonn a question he knew he wouldn’t be able to answer. “He was like, ‘What do you mean you don’t know?’” Nonn says. “That’s [sort of] what I did with that guy.”
The lesson stuck, Nonn says: “As a manager you very quickly have to figure out differences in people so that you know how to motivate them and get the best out of them.”
Nonn made an impression in the Military Affairs job by solving some problems with the department’s accounting system early on. “[In my] second week, about midway through the week, I went to lunch, and I literally had an ‘aha’ moment—pieces of how this thing was all put together started to make sense to me. Unfortunately, I was daydreaming and ran a red light. It wasn’t a major deal. It was just a fender bender.”
He took some ribbing from his coworkers for that, but his moment of clarity led to his getting the ailing software and work stations up and running by the end of the week. He apologized to his boss for taking so long to work out the problems. His boss responded, “Well, I’ve got to figure out what to do with you, because I thought that was going to take a year.”
Egan Company is in acquisition mode, integrating three new companies into its operations in 2011 alone. In an interview with Twin Cities Business, Nonn talks about the ways his small department has been on the front lines of integrating these acquired entities.
Mary Connor: Tell me about what Egan Company does.
Jim Nonn: It was originally mechanical, and then electrical was added in. With acquisitions, we’ve increased our portfolio. We’ve got curtainwall, which is the glass on the high-rise buildings. So like the Best Buy building on 494, we did the glass there.
When they did the light rail underneath the airport and they’re drilling the big hole, we were involved with keeping that machine operating by providing electricity to it and all the other equipment as well.
And we do industrial controls, and we also do automation systems, fire safety and video.
MC: How many people work at Egan Company?
JN: We’ve got 700 people in the company. Not all those are systems users, because a lot of them are working out in the field.
MC: How are you serving your users in the field?
JN: One of the systems that we’re rolling out here soon is for a laptop-type device for our field guys so that they can enter their timesheets. I think we’re going to go with Chromebooks, actually, for the field guys, because it’s a little bit more of a hardened operating system. It’s like a laptop with a solid state drive that only can boot into a Web browser. That’s all it does.
It would allow them to get into our site to get safety information, to enter their timesheet, to see incentive-based programs that we have in place for them, and all the while if they take it home and they go to someplace that they shouldn’t, it’s not going to get malware on it.
MC: How do you handle in-office workstations?
JN: VMware [is a big timesaver for us]. If you have 300 workstations and you want to upgrade all of them to the latest version of Windows and Office, it’s going to take you like four hours per machine if you’re doing it manually. There’s other tools out there, but those tools, like SMS, you know, it’s not set it and forget it. With VMware, we roll you out and you’ve got the latest version of Windows and you’ve got the latest version of Office. You’re down for only five minutes instead of half a day, and when you log back in, you see pictures of your kids on the desktop, you’re in Explorer, your favorites are still there, all the icons are on your desktop, and you’ve got a new version of everything. So it’s really a pretty powerful tool as far as end user support.
You’ve also got to make sure the network connection is really good. We’ve taken a high reliability system, a T1 — and this is also a pretty innovative thing; we’ve got a white paper out there on this — which is low bandwidth, and we’ve combined it with a low reliability, high bandwidth cable modem, and we’ve multiplexed those things together using a bandwidth aggregator. The gist of it is you can unplug the T1 and the users don’t know it, even if they’re talking on the phone. You can unplug the cable modem quickly and plug it back in, and you don’t drop anybody there either.
The other thing is VMware View. It’s just a little application. You’d install it on your desktop, and if your desktop is super slow — like I’ve gone to my mother-in-law’s house and she’s got this old XP machine, it’s click and wait, click and wait. I install the View Client on there, boom, I pop up Windows 7, I’m working fast. Everything’s working great. I’ve had my mother-in-law walk by and go, ‘Oh, you’ve fixed our computer.’ Not really, because when I close that window, she’s back to her slow system.
So [employees] can install this at home. If you have computer and it’s all malwared up, I do not want to set you up with VPN, because you will give us those bugs.
And so that’s pretty powerful. It allows you to manage all these users remotely and fix problems very, very quickly. If you do happen to get an issue, we can refresh your system, which is a five minute process—it sets it back to the way it was, and you’re good to go. And installing updates is a piece of cake.
MC: How is your IT department organized?
JN: I’ve got one person who’s a programmer, one person who’s a data analyst, and a trainer and report writer. And then I’ve got two support people. The support people manage the back-end systems, and they manage the user requests, and that’s sort of unusual. A lot of companies our size and bigger, they’ve got a help desk, and the second you hire someone for the help desk, they’re there for day one and they’re already figuring, ‘How do I get out of the help desk?’ You know, ‘How do I move up in the organization?’
I think that users suffer a little bit, because the help that they’re receiving is from someone who doesn’t really want to do that job and also is the least experienced, so instead of having help desk people and then systems people, I’ve combined the roles. They know that the first thing they have to do is deal with the user requests. I find that works pretty well, and the users get their issues dealt with much, much faster by more experienced people that understand the back-end systems.
MC: How many locations do you serve?
JN: We’ve got this building, our headquarters. We’ve got the 169 building [in New Hope]. We have a Plymouth location, which is where our curtainwall business is. We have a location in Rochester, Minnesota, as well, and we’ve got more acquisitions on the way.
Usually, we have at least 15 or so permanent construction sites up and running—they’re going to run for a year or two. And then we have some smaller ones as well.
One thing that we’ve done [for project managers] is kind of innovative. I’ve created this box which essentially uses an aircard, and it also has a firewall, a wireless router, and network jacks.
You go down to your jobsite trailer and you hang it on the wall, and you plug it in. Once you’ve done that, you can get online with your laptop immediately. If you have a phone, you can plug the phone into one of the ports on it or hardwire a PC or use wireless. They [don’t] need us to go down there and hook it up, because all they have to do is know how to hang the thing on a wall and plug into an outlet. That’s it.
MC: What other technologies are you using on job sites?
JN: We have GPS on all of our outside equipment — actually half of it right now. Because of the acquisition of [New Hope–based Collins Electrical Systems], we have half to roll-out still. [GPS tracks] where the equipment is. We also use GPS for billing—we draw a geofence around [a job site] in a map, and if a piece of equipment goes inside of that geofence, they get charged daily rates for it. If it leaves that geofence, they stop getting charged for it.
MC: Tell me about Egan’s recent acquisitions. What’s required to integrate those companies?
JN: In the time I’ve been here, I’ve been a part of lots of different acquisitions and building moves. Each one is a little bit unique but also generally shares a lot of commonalities. [You have] to determine how much of their accounting information you want to move over. You’ve got to figure out how much data they actually have. There are some that have all their information on the server, and that’s easy. But a lot of them, they don’t really have an IT team. They’re keeping a lot of stuff on their local PCs and things like that. And when you’re investigating an acquisition, usually it’s a very hush hush deal, so it’s not like you can go around from desktop to desktop during the day and not raise suspicion. I have to do some sleuthing sometimes at night with the owner. You have to kind of figure a lot of things out on your own.
MC: How difficult is it to get the newly acquired company up to speed?
JN: One advantage with VMware is I’m able to get that installed on all their workstations so that when we sign with them, they can all log in the first day, and that’s pretty cool. You want to make the transition as smooth as possible. We prefer to at least initially use their same passwords so it’s easy for them to remember and know how to log in.
[But with VMware], they don’t have a server. They just have a network connection essentially back to our office. If they have VOIP and they have View, so as long as that network connection is up, they can do anything they need to do.
We get them set up on all of our accounting systems and all that. Then I have my guys come in— two systems people and my trainer—and we go around desktop to desktop and make sure that they’re set up. And then they receive days and days of training. There are a lot of tools that we have that they don’t, like our dashboard, for instance.
MC: Your dashboard?
JN: It’s a tool that we created for project managers to manage their jobs. Any job that has an issue, it puts it towards the top. If it’s got a receivables issue or if it’s underbilled or if the forecast needs adjusting. The dashboard is pulling from our accounting system and a few other systems, too. It pulls from our tool system so they can see what tools are out on their jobs. We’ve got this Job Create application where we collect other information about who the general contractor is, who the architect is. They can write a PO through that. They can do lots of things to manage their job. They can actually print out an invoice if the customer says they haven’t gotten it. They don’t have to talk to accounting.
MC: It sounds like you have the integration process pretty streamlined, after a number of acquisitions.
JN: Well, we have it streamlined, but it takes up a lot of time, and it’s stressful every time. As much work as we have to do to bring these people onboard, it is very important that we do it as professionally and smoothly as possible for them. Because if you work at one of these companies and you have been acquired, it’s really stressful. Your whole life feels like it’s up in the air. You don’t know what’s going to happen, what’s going on, and we only get one chance to make a good impression with these people and make it so that they realize that IT is on their side.
We find that we’re the first people that they talk to, for the most part. The business leaders come in, and they have a meeting, and they say, “Congratulations, you’re all welcome aboard.” But do they feel real comfortable asking them the questions like what’s it like working there? The answer is no.
But they’re working with us one on one. We answer a lot more questions that have nothing to do with IT, particularly in our training sessions. People are like, ‘Well, what’s it like at Egan? What are their benefits like?’ We try to point them in the right direction for some of those questions.
And it’s really important to me that we do that well. We want them to feel comfortable, not like they’ve been taken over by this big Goliath and they don’t mean anything anymore. We want them to feel like they’re just part of a bigger family.
MC: What kinds of projects are you going to be working on this year?
JN: The field time entry thing, you know, handing laptops out to all of our field superintendents is a really big project. We want to put more information in front of these guys on a daily basis. It’s one that we’ve got to make sure we do successfully. We are right in the early part of that. We’ve got the back-end applications pretty much all set. Right after the first of the year, we’ll have a meeting and discuss our plan for rolling it out [to] about 175 people in the field. It’s a pretty significant number of people that will be new users from an Egan perspective, and I don’t think we’ll really need to increase our support.
MC: You’ll maintain the same size IT staff?
JN: [Yes.] I don’t want to push my people so hard that we burn them out, but I don’t want to grow my group for no reason. I think a lot of times people . . . I don’t know that they even set out to be in kingdom building, but it’s real easy to go there. It’s real easy to say, ‘Well, we’re stressed and overworked. Let’s add a person,’ instead of saying, ‘We’re stressed and overworked. Are there ways we can do this better?’ And that’s the first question I always try to ask, and usually the answer is yes. I mean, if you’re really honest with yourself, there’s always some room for improvement.