Suffolk Data Leader on Digital Convergence in Construction

September 16, 2019 | 4 minute read
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In this month's Trailblazers interview, we speak with Executive Vice President and Chief Data Officer Jit Kee Chin of Suffolk Construction.

Chin shares her academic background from MIT, as well as her decade of consulting at McKinsey, before choosing to help Suffolk transform the construction industry by "building smart". Chin shares why this is such an exciting time to be working in E&C as well as the biggest hurdles the industry is facing.

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

BK: Tell us about your current role and how your career has evolved since you started in the industry.

JKC: My current role is the executive vice president and chief data officer for Suffolk. We’re a privately-owned, national building contractor ranked #23 on the ENR “Top 400 Contractors” list. We approach construction differently than most construction companies.


"Our vision is to transform the construction experience by building smart. We’re always seeking newer, more innovative ways to plan and build buildings and we’re committed to continuously improving our processes."

-Jit Kee Chin


When I accepted this role two years ago, my goal was to help the organization leverage the power of data and analytics to help us accomplish those objectives. To achieve that goal, I created and implemented a corporate data strategy in collaboration with the business.       

Digital convergence in construction

After joining the industry, I noticed the explosion of construction tech and how data, digital technology, and automation are so closely linked in this industry.

I decided to spend more time with our innovation and strategy team to fundamentally think through: “What does digital convergence look like for construction?” We also asked ourselves, “How do these different things play together to fundamentally reinvent the way we build in a digital age?”

BK: Where was the starting point of your career and how did you end up here?

JKC:  I’ve had an unusual career path. I earned my doctorate from MIT in experimental atomic physics. I’ve always been curious about how things work effectively and efficiently.

When I graduated, I joined McKinsey and switched careers to management consulting. I applied my curiosity to how businesses and large organizations work and was at McKinsey for approximately 10 years.

In the final phase of my career at McKinsey, I became interested in data transformations, leveraging both my technical and business backgrounds to help companies transform and drive large scale change. When an opportunity came to join Suffolk, I seized it.

BK: What's your view of state of innovation in the industry in general?  

JKC: This is a very exciting time for innovation in this industry.

We're seeing a strong increase in capital investments in innovation industry wide. Published statistics reflect the amount of venture capital moving into this space and capital mobility that have increased sharply over the past five years.

Introduction of new digital talent

I’m also seeing new kinds of digital and innovation talent. Historically, talent in this industry consisted primarily of construction and engineering professionals.

Some of these professionals, namely with backgrounds in AEC, were pushing the boundaries and thinking about developing a next generation of solutions by leveraging available technologies.

Now we’re seeing a different group of talent entering the construction workforce. They’re not construction professionals by training, but rather high-caliber tech talent. They may not know the construction industry as well, but they have experience building software solutions to scale at speed.

This group of new tech-savvy professionals are now partnering with the construction professionals to launch companies that may be able to scale faster, have more impact, and eventually transform the industry.


"The introduction of new talent, along with the strong increase in capital, means there's a lot of potential for innovation in the industry right now. It's an exciting time."

-Jit Kee Chin


BK: What are the biggest challenges to innovation?  

JKC: I can categorize the challenges into four areas:
1) Project-based businesses:
The first is structural. We are a project-based business, and project portfolios are unique, with each portfolio having different building characteristics, owners and sizes. So right off the bat there’s a lack of uniformity.

These project portfolios have relatively long lifecycles. Structurally, the project lifecycle doesn't line up with the pace of technology change. If a new solution becomes available on a project in the middle of its lifecycle, it's often difficult to implement that technology well.

Finally, the mindset in independent project management is very entrepreneurial. These large projects are often the size of small, geographically dispersed businesses.

This is great for innovation at a project level, but it makes it difficult to scale across a portfolio because project-based businesses have limited resources.

2) Labor shortage
Currently, there’s an industry-wide labor shortage. People don’t have the time to explore new technologies because capacity is stretched.

There’s also an older generation in the workplace with lower levels of digital and analytics literacy. The openness to innovation might be a bit lower when compared to other industries.

3) Financial resources
Construction is a fragmented industry with low margins and historically limited investment in research and development. It’s also a pragmatic industry.

When we speak about innovation, there’s inevitably a conversation about return on investment. And as we all know, measuring the return on investment is hard when it comes to innovation because innovating is typically a long-term play. These are the kinds of financial constraints industry professionals must consider.  

 4) Industry contract/incentive structure
It’s difficult to innovate within the contracting structure in construction because the benefits may accrue to others instead of the innovator.

While there is plenty of opportunity in the construction industry, some of these structural factors will require some outside-the-box solutions before the challenges can be overcome.

Stay tuned for Part II, in which Chin explores digital talent in construction along with which emerging technologies are impacting AEC.

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

Explore how you can deliver project success with Oracle Construction and Engineering.

Related "Trailblazers" posts:

Corie Cheeseman

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

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