“Focus on asking ‘why’ more often to get to the root cause of an issue or question.”
Leveraging data in construction is the future, but it’s equally important to know how to synthesize and analyze data for meaningful impact. The latter is a major focal point for Will Senner, Vice President of Preconstruction at Skanska USA. As a leader in innovation, he also appears on Autodesk’s 40 Under 40: Champions of Construction list for 2021.
We recently spoke with him as part of our Behind the Build series to discuss his work in the industry as well as the improvements he’s been working on with the company’s Skanska Metriks™ system, a proprietary data-driven benchmarking tool. Read more about his story below.
Tell me a little bit about Skanska and what you specialize in.
Skanska is one of the world’s largest construction and development companies, and I work for Skanska USA Building, our building construction unit in the United States. I am the Vice President of Preconstruction for our North Carolina/Virginia office and am also involved in the development and improvement of Skanska Metriks™, our company’s proprietary benchmarking tool as well as our broader data strategy. More about my role is available in my 40 Under 40 profile.
Walk us through your career and what led you to becoming VP of Preconstruction.
I’m what you could call a “lifer” at Skanska. I went to Duke for my undergraduate and graduate degrees. Skanska happens to have a long history of working with Duke, so when I was there as a student, I saw the work Skanska was doing on an engineering building on a daily basis and became familiar with the company as a result.
I started at Skanska in preconstruction, but I was able to transition to operations after around three years. After that, I spent eight years in operations where I really learned that side of the business from some great builders. That allowed me to then take that knowledge back to our project planning group.
For the last four years, I’ve been working in preconstruction again. It was a great opportunity from a timing standpoint – just as I returned to the group, the previous VP was retiring which allowed me to apply for that position – a role I’ve been in for the last four years.
What is your proudest accomplishment in your career at Skanska? Why?
It’s hard to point to one specific accomplishment that I’m most proud of because, in construction, it’s so easy to be proud of the physical buildings we create – I feel like picking one is like trying to choose a favorite child. But beyond the projects, I’m also incredibly proud of being able to work with the teams that I have been a part of over the years.
I’m proud of the work our team has done in data initiatives within the company, most significantly in the development of Skanska Metriks™.
Will Senner, VP of Preconstruction, Skanska USA
In particular, I’m proud of the work our team has done in data initiatives within the company, most significantly in the development of Skanska Metriks™, a very robust data driven benchmarking tool. That effort led to my involvement in some broader work with our business unit data strategy that will impact the way we leverage data across the company. But looking back on it, it’s been exciting to see how Skanska Metriks has improved the way we work in preconstruction and how we think about adding value for our clients and design partners.
In the past, if you needed information on a past project, you had to figure out who – potentially in an office on the other side of the country – might have access to the files or data you needed. Knowledge sharing was a major challenge. Now, anyone in our Project Planning Group can access this benchmarking tool and a wealth of data from hundreds of projects. That’s not to say that this tool replaces those human connections – that’s still critical – but it has really helped facilitate that collaboration. Democratization of this data has been huge already in unlocking the power of our collective experience and will be transformative to how we do our work in the next 5 to 15 years.
As construction evolves, how do you see the role of VP of Preconstruction changing?
So, let’s broaden that to preconstruction leaders in general. A lot of what we do is focusing on providing cost certainty to our clients, even during unprecedented and unpredictable times like we’re in right now when volatility and uncertainty seems to be the norm.
Under those circumstances, having good, timely data at your fingertips allows you to make informed decisions as things evolve, like developing strategies to manage material escalation and lead-time changes as we’ve had to deal with over the last 12 months.
“I’m a big believer that everyone really needs to become comfortable with analytical thinking and being able to use the data to inform and support their opinions.”
Will Senner, VP of Preconstruction, Skanska USA
That said, having data at your fingertips isn’t enough on its own. There are two other pieces that I think are also really key – analytical thinking and data literacy. I’m a big believer that everyone really needs to become comfortable with analytical thinking and being able to use the data to inform and support their opinions when it comes to what we do, whether that be developing estimates, offering value management suggestions, or anything else we’re doing.
Once you’ve got that, I think the last piece is being able to communicate and tell stories through data. Data can be so cold or impersonal sometimes, but being skilled in data storytelling can be key in creating trust with a client. Instead of telling the client, “I’ve been doing this for 30 years – trust me,” you actually have the data to back your position which allows you to earn and build that trust.
As Edwards Deming said, “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.”
What are the biggest challenges you face in your role? How does technology help you overcome those challenges?
As I mentioned, there is a big focus in the preconstruction space on providing clients with cost certainty and we want to find ways to deliver this certainty with higher levels of precision.
Being able to use Autodesk Assemble to gather data and extract insights at an early stage is a big opportunity for our team. Autodesk Assemble is our primary model based estimating takeoff platform in the office, and we use it heavily to reduce the amount of time we spend counting things in the estimating process. Assemble is also helpful in quickly aggregating and visualizing information from design models, again just helping us be more efficient and nimble in that workflow. This information, coupled with data from Skanska Metriks™ really allows us to have much better insights into levels of design development to understand potential scope gaps, particularly at early stages of projects. That’s a key piece of delivering cost certainty despite limited information.
Is there a reason you chose to partner with Autodesk for your projects?
Skanska is a major Autodesk customer and that relationship makes things so much easier for us. The ease of vertical integration of data across our technology stack is certainly very helpful and it’s also great to have the resources there for us if we have technical questions or want to discuss an opportunity for the future.
When you think about the future, what are your plans to advance innovation and productivity at Skanska?
What I am most excited about is the broader data program and thinking about how we can expand that through our business. We have the ability to leverage BIM360 and Assemble to pull in more model data to add another layer of richness to that larger data picture that we’re developing. Another key focus is in how we transform the company’s culture to further embrace data-driven insights and understand what to take away from those visualizations – growing that data literacy at all levels.
What advice would you give to the next generation of men and women entering and preparing for the future of the industry?
Outside of taking a course on data analytics and data science, my advice is to be inquisitive and to embrace the idea of intellectual curiosity.
Focus on asking “why” more often to get to the root cause of an issue or question. The reality is that in our business, things change every day. Take material pricing – I haven’t yet met someone who can memorize unit prices for everything and constantly keep that knowledge current. But if you have a good inquisitive mindset, you will be able to understand the underlying cost drivers which then allows you to be much more nimble and prepared in responding to the inevitable changes to come in the future. It also helps give you the foundation to support more thoughtful decision making for our clients throughout the preconstruction process as they navigate various design decisions.
I think that same intellectual curiosity is key to propelling our success throughout the business, whether it’s coming up with better design solutions or value management ideas during the preconstruction phase or improving how we deliver projects in the field.