A trip to California prompted Lam Tran, an architect, to move into data science.

Here Lam, who recently joined PCSG, chats about the allure of a career in data, his life-changing trip – and why construction needs to re-fresh its image.

Q: After graduating you worked as an architect but also a BIM Co-ordinator. How did the BIM role come about?

A: When I was student I taught myself Autodesk Revit. It became the ultimate BIM software for architects and construction engineers. By the time I graduated every architecture office in London was looking for people with Revit knowledge.

I could see the very central role that technology / BIM had in the design process and I decided to join the BIM department. It was a good decision as the role introduced me to the world of data.

Q: You saw, first-hand, at that stage, the benefits technology could bring to the design and construction process?

A: Yes, on my last architecture project, by successfully applying the right technology, we reduced the team resource from three and a half people down to two people and increased the profit margin from 19 per cent to 36 per cent. The two people were freed up to work on other projects.

Q: Seven years into your career as an architect you decided to switch to data science? Was this a lightbulb moment?

 A: It was a significant career shift. When I was working as a BIM coordinator, we had to produce data as a requirement but we never had to try to take insights from it. Then, in 2017, I had a trip to California to see some friends who work in technology. Everyone there at that time was talking about data, big data and the benefit of getting insights from data.

It is the 21st century oil and the application of it is limitless and sector-wide.

I could see that construction would have to wholeheartedly embrace this movement and I could not afford to know what it is and not to be a part of it.

Q: Your career switch saw you embark on an online course with MIT? Not quite the campus experience? 

A: Yes the MIT Data Science course that I am pursuing is an online course that is open to everyone. It is much more affordable than an on-campus course. But while it is accessible to get onto it is difficult to complete – covering probability, statistics and programming.

The online community of senior students and teachers are very helpful and I believe this form of education will help to produce more talent because you can be from any background and from anywhere in the world to benefit from it. You just need enough dedication. It is amazing how knowledge has become so accessible to everyone today via the internet.

Q: You juggled the course with your day job. Quite a challenge?

A: It was difficult to start with. I was working in my full time job as a BIM coordinator and using all of my free hours to watch the online lectures and complete course work. There were submissions every week. But the more I studied, the more I convinced I became that it was the right thing to do.

I have put a hold on it at present, while I settle into my new job here but I will come back to it after gaining some experience and applying what I have learnt in this new role. That is the great thing about online learning – you can balance the theory with your real life practice within your own schedule.

Q: Are we seeing a fundamental shift in what it means to work in construction? Goodbye hard hats and hello data specialists? Will there always be a need for a mix of the two?

A: There will be a need for both. Construction is a hard industry. There is a lot of risk, that requires constant human intervention. But data can help to reduce the amount of risk, or recognise a pattern of risk, or repetitive risk so that humans can focus their attention on what matters most.

A lot of problems that traditional construction professionals believe is part of their day-to-day work can be solved easily with data to predict event. This gives them more time and space to solve more relevant problems that data cannot solve.

Q: The construction / infrastructure sectors have been slow to make the  switch to digital.  Is that changing now?

A: The sector has taken time to adapt to change because it involves so many disciplines and they each have their own way of operating which is tailored to their own specific need. They rarely want to change or upgrade it.

Each discipline develops their own internal digital platform but the digital integration between different disciplines has always been a great challenge.

Increasingly, I’m seeing organisations in construction start to recognise the need for a common digital integration between disciplines – a good thing.

Q: Do you think graduates of MIT and similar will gravitate to construction – or will they always make a beeline for Google / Amazon? How can construction successfully woo them?

A: It would be hard for construction to compete with those tech giants to woo new graduates in terms of the learning experience.

However, construction can attract more people from tech through its contribution to improve the world and human life.

A lot of people who work for the tech giants ultimately leave to put their skills towards a more meaningful goal to help society – such as building smart farms that use less water and resources, smart houses and electric vehicles that use less energy to reduce the green-house effect or inventing devices to clean up oceans.

The right construction approach can address a lot of problems that we are facing in the world today – environmental issues, energy issues and affordable housing issues.

Q: So construction needs an image re-fresh?

A: It comes down to how construction wants to represent itself in the eyes of the new generation.

The old image of construction as a symbol of expansion, making big things that use crazy amount of resources and pollute the environment might not work well as well as the smart construction that uses less resource (through the use of data! 😊 )and makes the world a better place.

Q: Your ultimate goal?

A: My goal is to work toward becoming a data scientist so I can apply machine learning to solve complex and meaningful problems.

The world is paying a lot of attention to artificial intelligence and big data, and more young, enthusiastic start-ups are coming up with innovative solutions. I look forward to seeing better and easier to use technologies being developed at an affordable price in the future to assist us in our industry.

To learn more about how PCSG supports organisations and major projects to deliver, operate and optimise their built assets through the application of digital techniques and practices please contact olly.thomas@pcsg.co.uk.