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Engineering a Disruptive IT Mindset at CDM Smith

May 27, 2016


It’s difficult enough to connect thousands of office workers, even with leading-edge technologies; it’s quite another challenge, however, when workers may be on a construction site or at a utility plant on different continents. Dispersed, non-office work environments are typical for CDM Smith’s 5,200 engineering and construction employees and their partners. And it’s CIO David Neitz’ job to make sure digital technologies support these clients and create business value wherever they may be located.

In the past two years Neitz has introduced enhanced technologies and processes that distribute digital assets more efficiently to improve client interactions. New visualization and collaboration design capabilities, for instance, have resulted in time-savings for clients. And using cloud partnerships, CDM Smith sped up the modeling process twenty-fold, cutting modeling time from days to minutes while adding new intelligent-design capabilities for the business. The team then extended the modeling capability to include CDM Smith-proprietary analytics such as ground-water diffusion. Now, designers can now work alongside clients to consider different scenarios, rather than having each design cycle take days.

Neitz’s efforts earned him the MIT Sloan CIO Leadership Award at the annual CIO Symposium on May 18, recognizing the firm’s successful Business Technology practice, including a transformative Digital Capital strategy that focuses on innovation.


Adding Tools, Building Trust

Neitz said that the support of CDM Smith’s executives and their passion for technology have allowed him to use social media platforms like Yammer and to fast-track virtual design technologies for designers, construction professionals and field employees. “We had to create the physical environment for internal collaboration as well as tools that helped the value chain, from modeling to the construction process,” he said. “And we had to build trust with internal and external stakeholders.”

Moreover, in an industry running on thin margins, no new budget was allocated. Neitz had to find ways to turn the Digital Capital group into a strategic corporate asset while eliminating outdated projects or data centers that were not showing significant ROI. For instance, he moved applications to the cloud to deliver better customer solutions. He also relied heavily on his team– engaging Amy Corriveau, an associate and business architect, Doug Cushing, a VP of Digital Capital, Mike Woods, an associate in foundational technologies and Scott Aldridge, a manager of disruptive technologies within CDM Smith’s Business Technology group– to build client trust, and Maria Brown, a principal and sourcing specialist, to interface with strategic partners.

“It’s easy to think this was just a cloud effort, but it was much more,” said MIT CIO awards Co-Chair, George Westerman. “Speeding up the process greatly transformed the company’s customer experience. Now designers and clients can work together in real time to make important modeling decisions.”

“Large design/construction projects, with their complex tradeoffs and coordination challenges, are a rich environment for digital transformation,” Westerman said. “Dave and his team have done fascinating things with cloud, virtual reality, and analytic modeling to radically enhance the process. And they’ve set the stage for much more to come.”

One area Neitz wants to explore further is how to tap into CDM Smith’s smart cities projects –where municipalities develop more effective processes with limited resources—for community benefits. He also wants to more widely develop some of CDM Smith’s innovations, such as sensors, for clients.


Mixed-reality Modeling

Neitz describes the mixed-reality modeling that CDM Smith is using as an environment that combines real and digital world visualization to help designers. Based on Microsoft’s HoloLens, the technology improves infrastructure design, construction and operation “with enhanced precision, greater efficiency and improved collaboration.” It lets remote team members “experience the project immediately, without travel… improving decision-making and resolving questions faster by enabling everyone to experience “what-if” scenarios in the context of a physical environment,” according to CDM Smith.

During a panel discussion at the MIT CIO Symposium, Neitz said he’s fortunate on several fronts:  “My executive team gets the importance of IT, and the business is on board.” At the same time, “disruption is a different mindset; engineers have to understand that it’s safe to experiment and to fail in the virtual world. You have to engage stakeholders and encourage ideas to percolate on social media…even crazy ideas,” he said. Most of all, Neitz is learning to build trust and protect the professional reputation of his internal and external clients. That’s a huge challenge, and a huge win, for any CIO.