Will Superusers Future-Proof the AEC Industry?

Design professionals who leverage tools and technology and, at the same time, have people skills, are essential to the future of the industry. They are Superusers, the protagonists of the latest book by Randy Deutsch.

Randy Deutsch is an architect, educator, workshop leader, writer, and international keynote speaker. I had a chance to interview him about his book, Superusers: Design Technology Specialists and the Future of Practice.

First, I was curious to know why he chose this topic for his fourth book. He explains: “Right now, it made a lot of sense to focus on the individual, not focus on collaboration and building teams, and really define what each individual team member should be.”

Who Are Superusers?

IT, technology, and tool specialists are typically experts in a relatively narrow field. Designers, especially architects, must have a wider perspective. Superusers are design technologists; liaisons between business needs and technology solutions. They demonstrate certain skillsets and mindsets.

Randy illustrates the nature of a Superuser’s skills with a T-shape that IDEO made famous. The vertical bar represents the depth of related skills and expertise in a single field. The horizontal bar visualizes the ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas and to apply knowledge other than one’s own. It also denotes human interaction.

Randy points out what makes Superusers different: “Unlike previous generations, they define everything they do in terms of delivering value. They are high performing and high functioning people who reframe any assignment that they’re given. If somebody says to them, you need to rationalize the building façade, or something along those lines, they’re going to reframe the assignment from a financial, performative, even liability-reducing standpoint, but at the same time —and that’s what sets them apart—they don’t treat design as a separate thing.”

Why Do We Need Them and How Do We Keep Them?

According to Randy, Superusers have identified that, in an environment of ever-shrinking fees, the only path to our salvation is through automation. He says that architects work in a profession that has its roots in an artistic tradition spanning hundreds of years. The tradition assumes that the act of “design” is irreducibly human, erroneously so, as Randy argues.

Some will see Superusers as a direct challenge to their livelihood. However, the industry needs their passion and capabilities if it wants to thrive in the digital future of AI, machine learning, automation, and robotics.

Superusers must not be non-billable tech people or internal consultants; they also need to work in projects. That way, they can educate and inspire others in their teams. Superusers can also be in managerial positions, and in that way influence the design and business.

Superusers are tempted to cross over to startups and tech companies; not solely for the money, but for the chance to work in an environment in which they are valued. Fun, which is another driver for Superusers­, can also play a part in the transition.

Some see crossing over as a natural evolutionary process. Nevertheless, Randy points out that if we can keep Superusers in our industry, they’ll help us transform much sooner.

“One requirement that they absolutely need is the freedom to make decisions: freedom to connect with others and to communicate with others. Not to follow very rigorous and strict approaches to things. That they can experiment, fail, fail fast, and continually improve,” Randy reminds us.

You can meet Superusers at AEC Hackathons, for example

The Ten C-Factors and Superpowers

For the book, Randy interviewed several individuals who can be labeled Superusers. He breaks down certain distinguishing features or attributes common to all Superusers. Interestingly, nine out of the ten so-called C-factors are “soft”:

  • Curiosity – Superusers are driven by curiosity, especially about the world outside technology.
  • Contextualizers – They look at the world beyond the imminent problem.
  • Connectors – They are energized, not drained, by being around people.
  • Communicators – They are able to get the word out to others.
  • Collaborators – They need to work in teams.
  • Capacitors – They have the capacity can take multiple assignments by working smart.
  • Continual improvers – They strive to improve what already exists.
  • Concentrators – They are able to focus.
  • Computational thinkers – They have a mindset that enables them to think computationally.
  • Coders – They are coders who program or script, or at least understand what coding entails.

What makes Superusers interesting for the firms who want to hire them for their teams are their special skills or “superpowers.” They cover problem-solving and communication skills, interpersonal and conversational skills, question-asking, thought leadership, and storytelling. They also include three intangibles: drive, the ability to prioritize, and the ability to think in 3D.

“I did not say this in the book, but just like learning coding, or learning a computational tool, similarly, all these soft skills, attitudes, and mindsets are things that we also can develop and learn,” Randy adds.

Are You a Superuser?

I told Randy that I identify as a Superuser and asked if he does, as well. He does not label himself as one, but says that he’s gifted at recognizing those attributes in others. For that reason, he helps recruit and connect Superusers with firms all over the world.

“I think that is incredibly important for our industry that we all aspire to become Superusers. So that way, together, we can raise each other up, we can help make our field more productive, and not just rely on the tech folks to do it,” Randy concludes.

You can learn more about Randy Deutsch and his latest book at randydeutsch.com.

Randy is a keynote speaker at WDBE 2019.

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