As NAHB continues to celebrate Professional Women in Building (PWB) Week, today we are focusing on the contributions on women in the field on building technology.
Tracy Young started out studying civil engineering in college at California State University in Sacramento, but realized she didn’t want to sit behind a desk all day crunching numbers. When she was introduced to construction management, she realized she could have a career in the field.
"That was a lot more attractive to me," she says. "I always wanted to be a builder. The best buildings have a way of moving and touching us. They are these inanimate objects that make us feel alive."
Today, Young is cofounder and chief executive officer of PlanGrid, the leader in construction productivity software. The idea for PlanGrid came from Young’s experience after college working as a construction project engineer on large commercial projects.
On jobsites, she struggled to carry rolls of heavy, unwieldy blueprints, but the physical awkwardness of working with blueprints in the field wasn’t the only challenge. On Young’s first project, she handled 2D MEP (mechanical, electrical, plumbing) coordination, working on a light table. It took months of taking notes and assigning conflicts between the systems to different people to work out.
By the time one set of conflicts was resolved, a whole different set would crop up — and all those changes needed to be communicated to everyone working in the field. Contractors frequently built from outdated drawings, which was costly and inefficient.
"We were doing so many things wrong, and it wasn’t because we were bad builders," Young said. "We were actually really good builders, but the technology didn’t exist to help us build better."
Young shared her frustration with a fellow Sacramento State construction management grad, Ryan Sutton-Gee, who had just gotten a fancy, new iPad.
That led to a lightbulb moment. What if all the blueprints and paper documents were online, where people could access them in the field on an iPad? Then everybody could look at the latest versions at the same time. Maybe they could take notes and measurements and pictures, and track issues and share them with everyone else working on the project.
Together, Young and Sutton-Gee started working on a blueprint app as a side project. They had the product knowledge, but not the software skills, so they recruited another college buddy, Antoine Hersen; Young’s then-boyfriend (and now husband), Ralph Gootee, who worked as a rendering engineer at Pixar Animations; and Kenny Stone, a high-frequency trading engineer.
They gave themselves 18 months to make something happen and threw everything they had at the project. Former classmates and colleagues in construction said they would love to use it, but in 2011, iPads were expensive and hard to come by. Desperate for users, the team made a tough decision to purchase 18 iPads to give to people to use on jobsites.
"To spend that much money at that time took everything we had, but we so fully believed it would change the industry," Young explained. "For the first time, you could take a fully powered computer to a jobsite."
With positive feedback on the app, but no extra cash, the team knew they needed to secure funding — and advice on starting a company — or the effort would go nowhere. They applied to Y Combinator, the startup incubator that has funded such companies as Airbnb, Dropbox, Weebly and Reddit. Being accepted into the program and the initial funding it provided changed their lives.
"I’m not sure if we’d be where we are today without that initial help," Young said.
Young said she sees PlanGrid as a disrupter for an industry in desperate need of innovation to address its productivity problem.
"If you look at sheer numbers, construction is one of last industries to increase labor productivity," she said. "That is insanity. It’s no more productive now than it was 60 years ago. There are a lot of problems for us to solve and they are very complex.
"I think our ability to solve this productivity problem is more dire than ever," she said. "Our population is growing and our infrastructure is faltering. If we don’t solve the productivity problem, it will directly impact us and future generations. We’re talking about livelihoods."
To make that happen, the construction industry needs to attract the best and the brightest, she said.
"The glaring issue is diversity," she said. "When we look at construction, it predominantly looks like certain people. If we believe intelligence and hard work go across gender, and construction only looks like certain people, we’re missing out on really smart people. Clearly, it’s a problem we need to solve. The start is talking about it."
This article originally appeared in a previous issue of
Building Women magazine.