Pepper Construction Technology Leader on AEC Innovation Trends, Keys to Driving Adoption

June 24, 2019 | 6 minute read
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In this month's "Trailblazers" interview, we speak with Jennifer Suerth, vice president of technical services at Pepper Construction.

Suerth speaks about her career and how she's merging her design background with her role in virtual design and construction.

She also discusses Pepper's biggest innovation challenge to-date: embarking on a cultural shift and encouraging employees to embrace new technology. Suerth knows that employee buy-in is a key element to digital transformation success.

Dr. Burcin Kaplanoglu, executive director, innovation officer at Oracle Construction and Engineering, leads the conversation.

BK: What’s your current role and how has your career evolved since you started in the industry?

JS: I’m vice president of technical services at Pepper Construction. This encompasses mostly virtual design construction (VDC) and building information modeling (BIM), but I do have some of the engineering team underneath me – including MEP (Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing) and structural.  

While 85% of our work is related to technology, a smaller percentage is dedicated to advising on constructability, scoping trade partners, and providing target value design options.

I took a unique path to get here. I have a bachelor’s and master’s in architecture from the University of Illinois with an emphasis on structures.

Technology and innovation    

I worked at an architecture firm through college. When I finished grad school, I joined Arup as a structural engineer.

I envisioned myself becoming the next big famous female architect before I realized that I was more technical and should pursue the structural engineering world instead.
Leveraging technology to become a better engineer

At Arup, I was leveraging technology to become a better engineer. I wasn’t a typical structural engineer, given my architecture and engineering background. I was also helping with coordination before eventually managing the BIM team out of the Arup Chicago office.

I was part of the national committee that started the BIM standards at Arup. This committee really pushed innovation, including leveraging analysis models and working with our in-house developers to use Revit (BIM) before sending it to our contractors to review shop drawings – some of which were in 3D.

I was using whatever technology I could because it made my job better.

Closing the gap between design and construction

Mortenson Construction approached me after hearing about the things I was doing and asked, “Hey, do you want to join the construction world? We have this VDC role that we’d love for you to be part of.”
I said, “Well, I’ve never even heard of that.”

After speaking with Mortenson further, I realized that the VDC role was pretty much all the stuff I’d been doing on the design side. I already knew there was a huge gap between the design team and the construction world.

I knew this gap was a huge opportunity, but as a designer at the time, I didn’t realize this was something I could do.

After joining Mortenson, I coordinated and ran the largest jobs out of that office before I eventually led the entire Chicago team.  

Pepper Construction: Making waves on a company-wide level

Three years ago, Pepper said: “There’s an opportunity for you to come over here and make a difference at a company level - not just projects at the local office level.”

I joined Pepper and have been able to make a huge impact and help transition our company. We’re a lot different now than we were even a few years ago. It’s been amazing to be part of.

BK: What’s your view of the state of innovation in the industry generally?

JS: It’s finally starting to accelerate. As everybody knows, we were stagnant for a long time. Between 2009 to the mid-2018s, there were about 478 funded deals in the construction tech world.

At the same time, in the mid-2018s, there were 2,156 startups in that space that didn’t have funded deals, and 1,678 startups that were looking for funding.

Startups and an acceleration in innovation

The sheer number of startups reflects how we’re seeing an extreme acceleration in innovation over the past few years. It’s very exciting.  

But we need to start thinking about things a bit differently. There is a labor shortage in the industry. 

A lot of people in the construction world talk about it - and it’s just continuing to happen, especially after the economy plunged in 2008. At that point, some people didn’t rejoin the industry.

Clients are wanting jobs faster and cheaper. They obviously still want the same high quality, so we must work differently. If there are companies that aren’t investing in technology innovation, unfortunately, they’re going to start going out of business.

We’re facing a huge opportunity, and the tech world is recognizing that. We need to make sure that we’re doing things the right way as we’re pushing innovation.

BK: What are the biggest challenges to innovation that you’ve seen?

JS:  We’re looking to do a cultural shift – that’s our biggest challenge. The construction world is trying to make a change, but we’ve been doing things the same way for a long time. Something must change.

People’s mindsets are our biggest challenge. You can take the best technology in the world, but you can never take people completely out of the equation.

We need to recognize that and approach things differently. Without buy-in from the people using new technology, adoption will fail.

When I joined Pepper, there was great support at the top. We had good tools and an impressive team setup, but there was more implementation that we should’ve been doing on jobs.

Building relationships

I started focusing on the cultural aspects of what we do by building relationships and trust and getting to know people. Afterwards, I started introducing them to the tools that would help them.

There are thousands of new tech solutions, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. We need to really think about what the problem is we’re trying to solve before presenting those solutions to the team.

What's the problem we're trying to solve?

Some of the startups struggle with what problem they’re trying to solve. It’s easy to make software that pushes buttons more easily and faster. But do you really need to push that button to begin with?

We must constantly navigate what makes sense. We’re always partnering with different software companies and tech companies to help guide them. It’s a win-win for all of us.

The problems that Pepper is trying to solve are the same problems our competitors are also dealing with. If we all work together—and we’re all working with similar tech companies as well—we can make a difference.

Changing the cultural mindset by sharing ideas

That cultural mindset makes the difference in construction. People are used to their silos, competing against others, and not wanting to share ideas.  

I look to my counterparts as well as our competitors. We’re all sharing ideas, and we’re great friends. We talk about things because we’re trying to solve the same problems.

This mindset and cultural shift is probably the biggest challenge that’s happening right now.

Scale is huge. That’s part of why I came to Pepper: to do both small and big jobs. I truly believe it’s not just a big job that can benefit; you can do this at all levels if you scale appropriately. That’s another challenge that people struggle with.

BK: How can an organization foster a culture of innovation?

JS:  I made up a term called “the sandwich effect.” If you want to foster a culture of innovation while addressing these people challenges, you’ll need two things: Support at the top and implementers at the bottom.

Everyone in between will eventually fall into line. Obviously, implementers exist throughout an organization as well.

But, if you have that top-level support with people at the bottom helping push ideas, you’re going to start solving some of those problems and create real innovation.

More automated processes leads to more opportunities

The more we automate processes, the more we’ll gain opportunities. People get nervous that automating processes will take away jobs, but studies show that automation creates more jobs and increases productivity.

You can provide new services, have better quality of work, and so on.

So many opportunities have opened at Pepper thanks to their top-level support. That’s the reason I joined Pepper.

Creating new roles in innovation

Companies must realize that they should welcome innovation and recognize this is going to change their business and potentially create new roles.

I always tell my team, “Focus on what makes sense for the business. We’ll figure out titles later.” Now there are chief technology officer (CTO) and chief innovation (CI) positions that never existed before.  

If you have that support and vision at the top—as well as their trust, allowing you to drive innovation through the organization—you’re going to see a lot of magic start to happen. It’s going to make a big difference.

Read Part II of our interview , in which Suerth explores how Pepper is working to capitalize on the data opportunity.

Read our eBook: "Innovation in Construction, Perspectives from AEC Innovation Leaders"

Related posts:

Explore innovation in action at the Oracle Construction and Engineering Innovation Lab, a simulated worksite with integrated technologies, including Reconstruct.

Corie Cheeseman

Corie Cheeseman is a senior content marketing manager for Oracle Construction and Engineering.

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