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Dustin Burns: McCownGordon's Tech Guru with a Hammer


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Dustin Burns sums himself up neatly. “I guess I'm not the average nerd.” It’s a fact. McCownGordon Construction’s IT Director is not the guy in the crowd you would immediately pick out as the techie, alone in his corner tapping intensely away at his beloved computer. For one thing, Burns looks like he could bench press a fork lift. Secondly, his unguarded laugh bursts out in a way that suggests a gregarious, socially engaging guy who likes everyone he meets, and is very open about that. Perhaps most uniquely, Burns listens to the people in the hard hats. Carefully.

“I don't do technology for the sake of technology. I only do it where it makes sense. I'm always open to being shot down on that. Those guys out there in the field, they’re doing the work every day, and I really value their opinions on what they think of the things I put in place.”

For many years, Burns worked as a technology consultant to small businesses in the Kansas City, Missouri area. One of his clients in particular captured his attention. And likewise, Burns seemed to capture theirs. Today, McCownGordon has won the Kansas City Business Journal’s Best Places to Work for the past 12 years straight, has been recognized for its all-in philanthropic efforts in the region, and regularly takes Kansas City’s Top Contractor of the Year Award, offered by the American Subcontractor Association. Burns’ 11-year tenure with the rock-star firm pretty much parallels the company’s tech evolution.

Dustin Burns will be a featured speaker at Procore Technologies’ annual construction conference Groundbreak, in March 2017. The Jobsite sat down with Burns to get his take on tech, construction, and the ROI behind constant nagging desktop reboots. Among other things:

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JS: How did you and McCownGordon find each other?

DB: I was a consultant to SMBs with offices ranging from 5 to 25 employees. I was typically their sole IT resource and I ran all over Kansas City putting out fires all day long.

JS: That must’ve been some instructive time in the trenches.

DB: Yeah! When I came across McCownGordon they had about 15 employees. They were a pretty small company. The culture and the values and the people really drew me to it. When we got to the point where they continued to grow and I was spending eight hours a day here, they finally said, "Hey, why don't you just come join us full time?"

JS: You were always there anyway!

If you can open the Starbucks app and get a cup of coffee, you should be able to open an app and get an update on your $100 million building project!

DB: Right. So, I was the sole IT guy for McCownGordon up until we had about 100 employees. I did every aspect of IT up to that point. I did the purchasing, I built the infrastructure, I built the network servers. And then maintained all of it myself too. Fast forward to today and I'm the IT Director. I have a staff of four. We have close to 250 employees today and we’re doing great.

JS: Wow. When you got to that tipping point of 100 employees or so, before you were bringing on other staff and people you could delegate to a little bit, that must have been a little nutty for you, I would think.

DB: (laughs) Oh yeah, it was a hair-on-fire kind of thing, nonstop. It was balancing internal support and building the infrastructure, maintaining it. In that kind of role, you just find ways to automate the things that take a lot of time. I was pretty good at doing that, finding tools that could replace hours of work and stuff like that, so that I could be really effective.

JS: You figured out ways to make it all work.

DB: Yeah. Even today, we run a very lean IT department. I feel like IT within an organization should be pretty lean. I'm not a fan of staffing a bunch of programmers and creating applications and all that kind of stuff.

JS: Right.

DB: I think that goes directly to my choice of Procore as our solution, because we needed something mobile. We needed something revolutionary at the time. It was four or five years ago that we partnered with Procore, and at that time, nobody was doing mobile in construction. 

JS: So you were, in a sense, an early adopter of the idea of handing off a mobile device to the guys doing the actually hands-on work.

DB: Absolutely. It didn't make sense to me to use the tech just to augment a CEO in a meeting, to make it easier for them to check their email, etc. The funny thing is — I tell this story often - the way that I sold them on getting iPads at the jobsite was all about Windows reboot times.

JS: How so?

DB: Basically, I put an ROI calculation together. It’s like this: if there's a question proposed in the field, typically the superintendent writes it on a paper notepad. When he gets back to the trailer he fires up his laptop, logs in, and updates the project. Basically, the whole process was comparable to a reboot, in time spent. If you had to reboot your computer even once a day, I worked out a calculation that showed in hard numbers where this iPad mobility is going to pay for itself just in that time saved.

JS: Brilliant. So, you knew which little window of pitch opportunity to dive through there.

DB: Yeah. Well and that's the thing. In construction, it's always about cost. And the cost advantages of technology has always been so black and white.

JS: Right! You saw that cost concern and addressed it head-on.

DB: Yeah. IT was always looked at a tertiary part of the company, just under accounting and data entry. I've been pushing to change the view of that in the construction industry. In this area, not many people were doing it, and we kind of got out there on the forefront and said “this is how we're doing it”.

JS: You lead the charge.

DB: Heck, I was giving presentations about how we were using Procore four years ago, and it was completely foreign to people. You guys have done such a good job of basing your solution on what the end-user wants. Now we have our subcontractors in this area familiar with it. It’s great.

JS: In your experience, Dustin, just talking to colleagues in the construction community, is IT becoming more accepted as an essential tool to the folks in the boardroom?

DB: There's still ground to be covered, but you're starting to see that the smart organizations are starting to give IT a seat at the table. That's where it's been lacking. The common phrase was always, "Thanks for keeping us up and running." That speaks to the whole mindset of how business looked at IT even five years ago. There are still companies today that look at IT as a break-fix operation. IT is considered essential everywhere else. If you can open the Starbucks app and get a cup of coffee, you should be able to open an app and get an update on your $100 million building project!

JS: Exactly.

DB: And that's the other thing that some contractors don't think about: What does the mobility do for a client? Not only does it make McCownGordon more efficient internally, but now we can push the data to our client so they don't always have to request it.

JS: That’s it.

DB: Why should the owner have to call you and say, "Send me an update on my project with all the latest files that I have interest in." How about this service to your client? Tonight when you're at home sitting in your favorite chair with your iPad, you can get in there and find out everything you want to about your project. I think that's the big difference in this industry now.

JS: Do you consider yourself an IT guy in construction, or a construction guy with deep IT expertise?

DB: Well, I’ll just say I kind of like to defeat the stereotype of IT person. You know what I'm saying? I'm, obviously, somewhat introverted because it takes that to analyze technical problems. but in my spare time I work with my hands. I do construction on my homes. I do electrical, plumbing, framing, drywall, and fix my own vehicles. I'm a mechanic and a carpenter by nature and it just happens to port very well into technology.

JS: You can do it all.

DB: We're talking about roughneck construction jobs. When I can come on site and I can tell you that's EIFS covering on that wall and this is a CMU block over here, I know what I'm talking about on construction and on the jobsite, and I think that lends a different level of respect.

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