Four Contractors Customize Mobile Technology to Meet Their Unique Needs

With hundreds of apps available for Apple and Android devices that assist contractors with everything from bidding and estimating to project management and closeout, why would anyone develop an in-house app?

Several reasons drove four contractors to spend months developing company-specific apps, including a dislike of paperwork, a drive toward efficiency and a lack of off-the-shelf solutions that cater to construction operations.

Compelling Factors
In 2016, hth companies, a commercial and industrial contractor in Union, Mo., launched a training program that covered very specific skills. With 600 craft professionals in 13 states, the company needed an app to track workers’ training progression and warehouse the related information. 

“There was nothing off the shelf available, so we used a custom designer to build an app around our specific program. Management on both sides worked together,” says Mike Freese, president of hth companies.

Freese and hth’s director of operations and training, Eric McCleave, collaborated with trade-specific workers to implement the app. None of them had much IT expertise, but working alongside the outside consultant, hth was able to start testing the app after 12 months. It was fully functional in 18 months. 

Chris Allison, an estimator and project manager at Sentry Electric in Lincoln, Neb., recognized a disconnect between office and field staff when it came to paperwork and getting people checked into jobs. The repetitiveness and inefficiency of completing mounds of paperwork every day drove him to create an app using MIT App Inventor. 

“After seeing what was available, I knew I could create something better,” Allison says. He was right. Now field workers can complete forms, check inventory, check in or out of a jobsite, and go to a website portal for safety data sheets and other information. 

Corbins Electric, an electrical contractor working in Albuquerque, Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz., has developed more than 30 custom mobile apps to eliminate paperwork, speed up processes and increase communication. JD Martin, business solutions manager, took the lead and hired two interns from Arizona State University’s Computer Science program. He chose Catavolt App Builder to develop customized apps that allow employees to enter their weekly timesheets, file daily reports, enter change orders, request materials and tools, order rental equipment and more—essentially all the tasks that used to require hardcopy paper forms created in Microsoft Excel on laptops.  

The initiative was part of the firm’s move to rescale the business as it tripled in size from 200 employees to more than 700 in less than nine months. “That kind of growth would have been exponentially harder without the standardization and efficiency realized through the use of Catavolt applications,” Martin says. 

For Emil Saweros, who leads Ruppert Landscape’s software development team in Laytonsville, Md., the idea to develop an app began when a member of his department made a site visit with a front line field management team. “We noticed a need to have more interaction and communication with our customers and end users, with a goal of improving customer engagement, creating a direct communication channel, building brand recognition and ensuring good customer service,” he says.

The result was the Ruppert Mobile Application, which includes several features to improve communication with clients and employees. Starting with the single sign-on app, users can log in to all Ruppert software with one username and password on a secure network. They can send electronic property service reports to clients with details of the job, and identify potential problems, such as insect, plant disease or drainage issues. Employees also can select a project and get directions to the site from their current location. 

Lessons Learned

Whether developing an app internally, working with a consultant or purchasing an app builder, it isn’t all smooth sailing.

Sentry’s Allison considers himself “semi-tech savvy,” but he experimented with MIT App Inventor until he was able to create a basic app. While the result wasn’t something Sentry could use, he kept at it, and within three months he had a working prototype. After another three months of fine tuning and testing, he had an app that contained four of the company’s most used forms and an inventory database. 

Dan Spruill, Ruppert’s director of information technology, acknowledges that traditional barriers to creating applications are getting lower. 

“A person with some technology awareness can sign up for a relatively low-cost class and produce a working app within days,” he says. “The hard work is defining the scope and solution. Knowing the business, its processes and the touchpoints that need to be streamlined is half the battle. 

“We were able to develop just about everything in-house,” Spruill adds. “We made a significant investment in our IT department, which worked closely with the operations team to determine what features and functionality were the most useful. The IT department then converted those ideas to a design and application.”

Freese agrees: “Go into building an app with specific ideas of what you want. Be prepared to go through several iterations, and involve the people who will be using the app. If you’re using an app developer, keep them focused on the end result. Just like running a construction project, it’s all about project management.”

Upkeep and Maintenance
While most said upkeep was minimal, hth companies negotiated updates and maintenance with the outside app developer at the beginning of the project. 

Ruppert’s development team continuously adds features and functionality to the app largely based on feedback and suggestions from operations. “The mobile platform is no different from any other. The vendors push upgrades and you are forced to follow along if you want your app to continue to work,” Saweros says. 

Adds Allison: “The app is never done, so I continue to work on it, but the time commitment is minimal. It’s a Google app, so there are fixes and updates that need to be made.”

Challenges and Advice
Freese recommends having a good outline of what the app should do, along with tech-savvy people to test the app. “We didn’t take into account a few unknowns, such as whether the app needed to work on Android, iOS or both, as well well as whether the system should be available to the public or kept private.” 

Having a developer that was customer focused made a big difference. “We were fortunate to have one that listened to our needs and was very good at providing options on how to complete,” Freese says. 

Spruill faced several challenges. “The first was the gap in knowledge. Our IT team had no field experience, so we worked together to understand the operational process and issues that initiated the need for the app. 

“The second, and sometimes more challenging issue, was time. Operations is busy doing what we do as a company. We put our customers’ needs before our own, so internal projects often take a back seat to operational needs. Any product, whether new or in the process of upgrading, needs time from operations—time for testing and time to vet beta or current versions. Then there is the time needed to assimilate the product into the business process, with initial and follow-up trainings.”

Spruill’s advice to contractors that want to develop their own app is to take the leap, have a clear understanding of the project objectives, be committed, and devote the time and effort required. 

“Be smart about the time of year you begin the effort, be realistic in the expected outcome, and over-estimate the amount of time it will take to bring it to fruition, as it will always take more time than anticipated,” he says. “Your project plan will have scope creep, and as you go through the process, you will identify features and functionality that make sense once you have the platform. Collect the ideas and roll them into a planned second release. And lastly, do not undertake this for the sake of technology. A project like this must be aligned with operational needs and should have operational support from day one or it will fail.”

Allison contends that anyone can build an app, but it requires patience. “The smallest thing can change everything, but if you are methodical and pay attention to details, it can be done,” he says.

Was It Worth It?
So after a lot of blood, sweat and tears, as Freese puts it, would these companies do it again? 

“The app has exceeded expectations and it keeps getting better. The field guys are happy with it and use it, so this reinforces my efforts,” Allison says.

“Absolutely,” Saweros adds. “We have a great software development team and operational support. With those two in place, we have an excellent platform to grow and develop. Technology is constantly changing, and it is our mission to provide operations with the best toolset possible for them to excel at their jobs and provide top-notch customer service. 

“With each new application, we revisit the idea of whether we should buy something off the shelf or develop it ourselves. Ultimately, we feel we have some specific goals and ways of doing things, which generally points us toward creating our own or highly customizing an off-the-shelf package.”

Spruill agrees. “We have received a lot of positive feedback from both our internal and external customers. What we really enjoy, though, are constructive criticisms or suggestions for ways to improve the product. That helps drive a better product and generally makes it more useful and more successful.”

The success of the app hinges on the degree to which team members use it. “We built an admin view into the data metrics early on so we had visibility around who was using it and how it was being used overall,” Spruill says. “This tool has been used weekly by our leadership team—along with a mandate to use certain functionality—which has been integral to the project’s success.”

Freese is enthusiastic about the hth app, though he has no immediate plans to develop another one. “It’s definitely achievable, especially if you know specifically what you need, look at all the options, and have the skill sets and people who can put it out once the app is done.” 

For Corbins Electric, the use of Catavolt is a method for driving standardization because most of its business processes are driven through the applications. More than 100 project managers, superintendents, foremen, executives, and purchasing, warehouse, prefabrication and payroll staff use the app.

“It drives efficiency. Foremen and users liked it once they tried it. Management listened to their feedback and implemented their suggestions, so field personnel appreciated that they were the drivers of change,” Martin says. 

All in all—despite the learning curves and challenges—it’s hard to put a price on happier and more efficient field personnel. 

Marla McIntyre is a freelance editor for Construction Executive. For more information, email mcintyre@constructionexec.com.

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