5 Questions for AGC-IT Forum’s Howie Piersma

It’s a big week for Pepper Construction. On Friday, the firm is lead sponsor for Chicago’s second-ever AEC Hackathon, which returns to BuiltWorlds Aug. 5-7.

But first, starting today, Pepper VP of Technology Howie Piersma takes the stage as host and event chair for the eighth annual Associated General Contractors of America’s IT (AGC-IT) Forum Conference, which draws hundreds of AGC members from chapters across the U.S., as well as industry technologists, vendors, consultants, researchers, and more. All are focused on learning and sharing the latest and greatest data available on technology use and best practices in construction.

With that in mind, we checked in with Piersma this week to get his thoughts on the eve of the big show.

Pepper VP Piersma.

BW: What are you most excited about for this year’s conference?

HP: I’m most excited about its interactive nature. We believe that when everyone participates, the audience and the speakers will walk away with unbiased, practical solutions that can be implemented immediately. We have two keynote speakers this year: Brent Darnell will open with “Building & Leading High Performance Teams”, and Mark Sawyer from Trimble will close with “Digital Technologies in Construction: Impacts and Trends.” The ConTechTrio will also host a Q&A session to interact with the conference team and an even broader audience through their live podcast.

BW: This year, AGC-IT is partnering with Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering? Does that signal greater next-gen outreach?

HP: We are really excited to have the partnership with Northwestern for the first time this year because it provides the opportunity for us to dive deeper into virtual and emerging tech. We realize that learning happens from every angle, so we expect that this will help to expand our audience, broaden our perspective, and bring even more talent to the conference.

“Tech has enabled teams to become much more aligned, earlier in the project, and that does create situations where stakeholders are collaborating at significantly higher levels”

— Howie Piersma, Pepper Construction

BW: Technology has forced so much collaboration and even transparency in a notoriously litigious industry. Has it helped to build trust? Are all parties actually getting along better today?

HP: Today’s market presents a broad spectrum of projects with varying degrees of collaboration between stakeholders.  There are still projects in which the stakeholders are adversarial parties, but the evolution of technology has made the litigation of projects much more black and white because there is a trail now for every single issue. On the other end of the spectrum, technology also has enabled project teams to become much more aligned, earlier in the project, and that does create situations where stakeholders are collaborating at significantly higher levels. 

BW: Of course, greater collaboration also means greater vulnerability. After all, Target’s infamous data breach was traced to an electrical sub. So, is AGC-IT emphasizing cybersecurity more now? 

HP: Yes. Last year, we ramped up our focus on cybersecurity, and it continues to gain emphasis. It’s such a broad, complex issue that it can be overwhelming. By sharing best practices, we can better understand where the bar is, and what we need to focus on implementing immediately. So, I am really looking forward to hearing expert Joe Olesak speak on “Cybersecurity – Securing Your Information Assets.”  


BW: What do you think is the most amazing new AEC tech that may soon become commonplace?

HP: I think that in the near future, Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and Drones will integrate to change the way buildings get constructed, including prefabrication. Their combined impact will be much greater than if they operate from within silos. At some point, I envision everyone on a jobsite using AR to see the building model in front of them, to scale, before they begin construction. I also envision a project manager or owner being able to log in to see whatever the superintendent is seeing, or to conduct building walk-throughs remotely. Raynald Morris will address this greater potential role at the conference during our TechTalk on “Drones Taking Flight”.

“the biggest shift I have seen is the introduction of new tech being driven from service departments now, rather than having it originate from within the IT group”

— Howie Piersma, Pepper Construction

BONUS: Remarkably, you have been at Pepper for 31 years. So you have seen enormous changes in technology. Can you speak to that? What is the change you find most surprising now?

The biggest change I see is the role IT now plays. When I started at Pepper in 1985, there were only two PCs. I was hired as a microcomputer programmer and my involvement grew to managing all aspects of technology, including tech support, LAN/WAN networking, data communications, telephony, systems integration and more. One of the reasons I stayed for three decades is because Pepper has always welcomed new tech and focused on deriving incremental value out of every advancement. Today, there are so many new technologies hitting the market — it’s an exciting time to be in construction. From my perspective, the biggest shift I have seen is the introduction of new technology being driven from service departments rather than having it originate from within the IT group. Today, teams from Virtual Construction, to High Performance, to Estimating, all may bring new technology to the table.

BW: Thank you for your time. We wish you a wonderful and informative conference.

HP: Thank you, too. Pepper certainly is looking forward to the AEC Hackathon, as well.

For more on the AGC-IT event, follow our coverage here, and on social media. For more details about this weekend’s AEC Hackathon, click here.