How to Become the CAD “Go-To” Guy

December 30th, 2011

If you have ever been referred to as the CAD “go-to” guy (or gal) in your office, chances are that after helping someone  troubleshoot a nagging problem, the person has said to you, “Do you know EVERYTHING about AutoCAD?”  So, how do you answer “Yes” to that question without losing the respect of your fellow CAD users or coming off as a pompous fool?

The trick is to be truthful by saying something like, “I’ve been using CAD for a while, and I picked up some tricks here and there.”  But that still doesn’t really answer the question, does it?  Where exactly is “here and there?” 

Hopefully, this article will answer that by illuminating the best methods for learning your favourite CAD software so that you, or anyone, can become that go-to guy.
When I first sat down to write this article, I reflected back on the last 23 years and how I grew to become what people would consider an accomplished AutoCAD user.  Looking back, I determined there are three main ways someone can learn the ins and outs of AutoCAD: Interactive Learning, Demonstration Learning, and Self-help Learning.

Interactive Learning

When someone is learning AutoCAD for the first time, it is often in a classroom setting with a single teacher instructing a number of students.  This can be the most critical juncture for novice AutoCAD users because, as any seasoned user will tell you, it’s easy to pick up other people’s bad habits when learning from someone in an office environment.  Also, in the classroom setting, the student has the opportunity to get instant help from the instructor in case something goes wrong during a tutorial exercise. In the office, a co-worker may not be able to spare the time or have the required knowledge to help.

These days, many colleges and universities offer AutoCAD courses as part of their engineering, technical, or drafting curriculums.  Depending on the institution, there may be multiple levels of training or nothing more than an introductory course.  If you classify yourself as a “mature student” looking at a career change, you can get classroom training at most local community colleges that offer CAD courses with multiple training levels at a reasonable cost.  And, of course, let’s not forget you can get classroom training at any private “Authorized Training Center” (ATC).  All instructors at an ATC are certified by Autodesk to provide students with the best training possible.  Also, ATCs can offer standard or customized training, and can provide training in their own classroom setting or in-house at any company if accommodations allow.

Another great source for one-on-one training is picking the brain of the resident go-to guy. This person usually has the best reputation in the office and can be trusted not to steer a CAD user in the wrong direction.  Unlike a classroom instructor, the in-house go-to guy can provide help in a “real world” situation and is more familiar with the types of projects the company has.   The go-to guy is usually keen enough to develop in-house training sessions or be available for ad-hoc training.

Demonstration Learning

Once AutoCAD users have had sufficient one-on-one training and experience, they usually become comfortable enough to learn new software features and techniques through demonstrations and/or presentations.  There is still someone showing and explaining a particular topic, but the element (or luxury, if you will) of working along with the instructor has been removed.  A user at this stage of experience is knowledgeable enough to understand and retain what the instructor was demonstrating and retain it for later use.

There are a few environments where a user can experience learning through demonstrations. One of the best environments is joining a local user group where people meet with each other usually once a month. Typically, the more experienced users will demonstrate a particular feature or technique, custom routines, and/or a series of tips and tricks for the group.  The demonstration may be put on “live” with the use of a computer and digital projector, or it may be something more elaborate like a PowerPoint presentation or animation. Some demonstrators might even provide handouts and CAD files so members can practice it at a later time.

Another good environment for demonstration learning is at promotional events sponsored by Autodesk.   Typically, a team of representatives from Autodesk will go on tour to visit a number of cities and towns, working in conjunction with local resellers to put on a one- or two-day event.  These events usually promote upcoming or newly released versions of Autodesk software.  Not only will the team from Autodesk take the time to run through the new features of the software, but they will also put on full demonstrations of how these new tools work.

Self-help Learning

There comes a point when CAD users are capable of learning things on their own. They’ve become experienced enough so that it takes minimal effort on their part to learn something new, and they have become seasoned troubleshooters.  It is at this stage where others in the office will anoint this experienced user with the title of CAD go-to guy.

That said, the CAD go-to guy still needs to draw from something in order to increase and sustain his or her own knowledge. In this day and age, there is no shortage of information available.  The often unrealized beauty is that anyone can use this source of information regardless of experience level. 

Even though the first two types of CAD learning presented here had certain levels of “hand-holding,” the following methods are geared so that anyone can easily follow along.

One of the most obvious and common methods of “static” learning is using AutoCAD’s built-in Help menu.  In the early years, CAD users steered clear of the Help menu for a number of reasons, but it has since become a useful tool for learning CAD with detailed definitions, tutorials, videos, and exercises. 

Another great resource for learning the ins and outs of CAD is through “old-fashioned” books.  Even in this age of interactive digital media, hard copy books still remain a favourite method for learning CAD.  One type of book that is a personal favourite among the go-to guys is referred to as a “command reference.”  Command reference books have every AutoCAD command listed in alphabetical order explaining its intricacies, complete with tips and tricks and system variables.  The majority of questions a go-to guy gets from other users are those asking if a command exists to perform a particular function, so having easy access to a reference book comes in handy.  Magazines and newsletters are another good source of CAD education. Much like the seminar presentations, a magazine or newsletter article can focus on a particular task or technique complete with graphic examples, and they are great to have on hand for reference.

But, as previously mentioned, we are now in the digital age and there is no limit to where you can obtain good CAD-related information and tutorials.  There are countless blogs out there created by CAD users who love to share their knowledge and experience.  These bloggers will post articles in the form of an editorial or that one neat tutorial you’ve been seeking on the Internet.

The real trick is to sift through literally hundreds of blogs and websites to find the true gems. One way to find that “right” blog is to visit CAD-related message boards (another good source of online know-how) where the contributors will often have a signature with a link to their blog.  Speaking of message boards, these are another great source to both retrieve and submit information.  Typically, a message board is used to post a CAD problem in the hopes someone will have the knowledge to solve it.  The really good message boards are arranged so you can post and search for specific items either related to a particular version, function, or vertical application of CAD.

Another form of digital training is a combination of the Demonstration learning and Self-help learning in the form of instructional videos.  Companies that offer digital training usually make it available either on DVD or online and include interactive lessons.  This type of training is great way for students to learn CAD at the their own pace, and is applicable for beginners to advanced users.  Employers generally like this form of training because it allows their employees to stay in the office and lessons can be stopped and restarted in case the employee is urgently needed.

Conclusion

Your transformation to CAD go-to guy (or gal) can take years. The trick is to always be interested in the software you are using, and to be proactive when learning new ways to perform a certain CAD task.  In particular, always be on the lookout for things you never knew you needed.  When you discover those little gems, you will be amazed how they help put your CAD productivity over the top, whether they’re a lengthy tutorial, a trick associated with an established command, or even a unique system variable that is rarely known.  And if you discover a trick or tutorial that may not appear to apply to you or be useful, take note of it, because someday it will—I can guarantee that. 

Someday, perhaps soon, you will have an answer for someone, and it will be those times when you get to say, “I’ve been using CAD for a while, and I picked up some tricks here and there.”

Murray Clack is the CAD Systems Coordinator for CBCL Limited, a consulting engineering firm in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and has been using AutoCAD for 23 years. He has had articles published in various industry magazines and has  submitted tips and routines to CADalyst magazine’s “Hot Tip Harry.” Murray recently provided consultation to Autograph Technical Service for the metric version of their CadCARD Slide Chart product.

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