Training the Technical MEP User

I’ve had a pretty interesting career. I’m one of the lucky Autodesk users that has seen both sides of the fence, having worked over 26 years in both the architecture and engineering services industry, and in the Autodesk reseller channel. And I was also lucky enough to spend a few years as a training manager while I was in the channel, and serve on the Autodesk ATC advisory board, where I worked with other training managers to help develop the best methods for delivering Autodesk software training. There are a few things I’ve learned about training technical users that might interest you.

In the mid-80s the move to CAD was just getting started, with many design firms still entrenched in the draftsperson/designer mentality. Learning CAD also encompassed learning how to use the PC, so the curve was fairly steep. Business owners were already reeling over the cost of purchasing and implementing CAD systems (anyone remember the $5,000 286 computers?), and increasing the burden was the cost of training the draftsperson on how to use the software. Adding in Windows, 3D modeling software applications, then BIM…and the industry was progressing faster than anyone could imagine.

And therein lies the problem: how users were trained wasn’t keeping up with the technology. For years, the idea was to buy the CAD person a book and let ‘em learn on the job. But as the programs became more sophisticated and complicated, a book wouldn’t be enough. The engineering draftsperson had to evolve into the engineering designer – someone who was not necessarily carrying a four-year degree or a professional registration, but at least had a technical degree or more “field” experience than many of the higher paid professionals.

So here’s what I’ve learned. In my current position, I’m responsible for the implementation of BIM and 3D modeling applications, focusing on MEP and process engineering aspects of the firm. This entails quite a bit more than buying a book and reading it back to the users. You’ve got to have a plan, so here are some of my tips to help you train the new generation of technical users.

Set an outline for training. This encompasses the key elements of how, what, and when. The “how” is the expected delivery method of training you’ll use. The “what” is the goal of the training—what level of detail the users can be expected to produce once their training is complete. The “when” is the timeline, which is critical. Gaps between training and projects can have a major impact on a user’s ability to be successful.

1. Let’s talk about the “how” first. Some firms still think they can train one user and then have that user train everyone else. No offense, but with today’s technical user, that flow won’t work. And not everyone can be instructor: if the instructor doesn’t understand the design process, then the tools they’re training on may not be relevant to the task. One currently popular method of training delivery is to have the users watch training videos. Others bring in instructors to work with a team, but once the instructor leaves, the users are typically on their own. The reality of today’s user is that it takes a combination of all three, and then some. We currently start with group training, so that all users see the same approach and tools. This is followed by over-the-shoulder mentoring when the user is actively working on a project. The last piece we include is online, self-paced training, where specialists produce documents and videos about more complex and specific tasks.

One of the guys who taught me about training was Matt Murphy, a well-known author and instructor who I was lucky meet several years ago. In our training, Matt talked about the different levels of users and how they learned. He started with traditional, old-school users, who learned well from written, step-by-step guidelines. Matt also referred to baby boomers, like me, who relate through stories and “this is how I did it” training. And he led the discussion to the current Generation X and Y users, who were born with computers, phones, email, and more, and who adept well with shorter, focused sessions.

Matt’s point was that no one method worked for all users. Some users respond better to instructor-led training, while others do better with short, “point and shoot” directions. In your firm, you need to assess what you have, then tailor the training to your staff.

2.    Now for the “What” part, which is where most companies get into trouble. They don’t define the expectation and goals of the training, so they have no way to measure the results. When I was working on the ATC Advisory Board, my part was to help the group understand what elements of the software needed to be covered and in what context. It’s interesting that most users use only a fraction of a CAD package’s features. When “features and benefits” training is the method you’re using, then you’re not focusing on tools the user will actually be applying to the related design process. Since most people can only absorb so much information in a day (given all of the distractions of today’s society), using what we called “show up and throw up’ training doesn’t help.

The best method is to look at your design steps and tailor the training to focus on the tools you are definitely going to use. In our case, we weren’t expecting our users to start by knowing how everything in Revit MEP was supposed to work. We wanted to focus strictly on the modeling and construction document sets. Connecting HVAC elements to defined systems in our first projects wasn’t as critical as defining electrical circuits, so we didn’t require the HVAC system aspect on the first project. We did work to train users on how to define electrical systems as there would a higher gain on ROI by leveraging the panel schedules in the model, so we focused our efforts in training in those areas.

The following is an example of a spreadsheet that includes the outline of each area in which the user is expected to be proficient, which can tied to our learning management system. As users pass a proficiency section, they’re scored on it, and this record is part of their evaluation.

Note that in this section, the training tasks are associated with a daily design process, so that we can see their progress towards goals.

In each case, we set what the expectation was going to be for the user at the end of the project: were they able to accomplish the task and did it have a positive impact on the job? And you have to have the expectation of failure. Not everyone is going to be able to apply what they’ve been taught, so have a plan for continued training, mentoring, and support. We also developed technical user evaluations based on the project they were working on – not as much for deciding whether or not we’re going to retain a user, but to help them understand what’s expected of them and how to meet the goals of the training on future projects.

2. An area where companies typically fail is the “When” section. When I first started working in the reseller channel, we had a calendar on the web that published when all of our classes were, and we expected people just to sign up and take a class. Early on, we didn’t focus on what happened when the user walks out of the class. I hit 51 this year (and I rarely can remember where I just laid down my glasses). With most users, retention times are very short, especially when you’re talking about today’s more complex BIM applications. We’ve noticed drop-off rates starting as soon as the next day. When users wait two weeks or longer, we expect them to only have retained 50 percent or less of what they learned in an instructor-led class. Give it more time, and the rate drops even more dramatically.

We’re all creatures of habit—we get into tasks that we do often, and we work best when we repeat the same steps over and over again. It’s painful for most users (especially older ones like me who are more set in our ways) to move out of that comfort zone to learn something new. There’s also the “what if I fail” fear factor, the fear that I’ll be replaced by someone younger, better looking, and smarter, that keep users from taking the steps to train themselves.

Tailor your training schedules to work like this: start by delivering instructor-led training at the start of a job they’ll be working on, right at the early schematic design phase (or at whatever phase you’ll be deploying the software). Make sure the class includes specific references and examples for the project because training out of context is just as bad as training poorly timed.

Once the training is complete, schedule follow-up sessions to occur soon after the users start into the project. This is individual training, not group training. At this stage you’ll be able to see what the users were able to retain, and help them focus on the specific tools they’ll be using at that point in time. It’s also important that all follow-up training includes tasks on a project. Context is critical at this stage, as users are applying what they’ve learned. I also use this time to evaluate how I’ve done. Did I show them the task in the right way, did they comprehend my explanation, and are they able to complete the task if I use a different approach? If any segment of training is going to make or break a project, this is it.

Keep the mentoring going throughout the users’ first project. Most users take one to two projects to “know” the tools; once they get to three or more, they start to “own” the tool, which is where they can complete the task without thinking about it too much.

The old way of using the shotgun blast of training simply doesn’t work anymore. Training has been, and always will be, an ongoing process and expense. It’s cyclical, and evolves as your technical users evolve. It’s also important to understand that the technical users in today’s design firm aren’t going to just need software training—they will also need design training, so these items should occur hand-in-hand. Today’s BIM software demands it.

The only failures we see in design firms aren’t going to be with the users, but with the business leaders and owners as well. One of my former bosses at CADRE, Donnie Holmes, had a quote I always remembered: “It’s better to train a user and have them leave, than not train them and have them stay.” The only way to break out of your current workflow and methods, and become more efficient, is to invest in the technical users with a quality plan and make sure they are up to the task of carrying your design process into the next generation.

David Butts is a BIM Analyst for the MEP team at Gannett Fleming. David’s expertise is based on over 25 years of architectural and MEP engineering design and CAD management experience. He is an Autodesk Architectural Desktop Certified Expert, AutoCAD/Revit MEP Implementation Certified Expert and a Revit Architecture 2011 Certified Professional. David enjoys teaching at Autodesk University and blogging for The MEP CAD Engineer at

Appears in these Categories