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MIT CIO 2016 winner drives business value with HoloLens technology

David Neitz, CIO at CDM Smith Inc., an engineering and construction firm based in Boston, is of the belief that technology for technology's sake -- no matter how fun or interesting -- is "worthless" if it doesn't deliver business value. That doesn't mean he shies away from fun technology. The winner of the 2016 MIT Sloan CIO Leadership Award, Neitz is exploring how hologram technology can be applied on construction sites to help people -- CDM engineers, clients, construction site workers and business partners -- collaborate in real time, no matter where they happen to be. In an industry under pressure from commoditized services and razor-thin margins, Neitz said, "It's really important that you don't have to rely on the physical space that you're in, and constraints of people schedule. We want to remove that constraint."

Neitz met up with SearchCIO's senior news writer, Nicole Laskowski, at the recent MIT Sloan CIO Symposium. In this video, he talks about using advances in computing power to do optioneering -- the ability to engineer multiple design options in a short amount of time. He also describes the origins of the HoloLens technology project and explains why mixed reality will drive better business outcomes at CDM Smith.

This year's MIT Sloan CIO conference is called "Thriving in the digital economy." What is a key technology investment you've made that's enabled CDM Smith to thrive in the digital economy?

David Neitz: A key investment we've done is with [data center provider] Equinix as it relates to the network and the cloud environment, and also setting up the architecture that allows us to get as close to the edge to our clients, for enabling something called optioneering and simulation. This is something our industry has been striving to do for a while, but we really haven't had the processing and compute capacity to make that happen -- or the networks to make that occur. So, that's a key foundational, architectural choice we've made, and it's really helping us have the ability to do optioneering and simulation.

What is optioneering?

Neitz: Optioneering is an industry term. It is something that the industry [really wants] to strive for -- to have the ability to run through multiple iterations and models. But if it takes hours or days to run each iteration, you can't really run too many of them. But if you have cloud compute capacity that can help you accelerate that, it really can give you more capability to do multiple options.

Is it fair to say that your approach to IT is primarily focused on CDM Smith's customers?

Neitz : Well, for me, it's not about technology. Technology for technology sake is actually worthless. It's just interesting and somewhat exciting at times, but it really doesn't produce any business outcomes. And our job as CIOs is to create value and focus on business outcomes for our clients. And what excited me about moving from my previous company to CDM Smith was that the COO, the CEO, board of directors, all the presidents understood that we're really going to have to transform the way IT looks at things --that we're not looking at blinking lights and back office staring at our navel, understanding the traditional IT.

We need IT to help drive value and transform our industry, because we are under pressure with commoditization of what we do around engineering and razor-thin margins with construction. So, the only way to get out of that trap is that we actually come up with new, innovative designs for our clients. And we know that a key way to do that is through collaboration -- not only with our 5,200 employees we have, but to collaborate with joint ventures: Oddly enough, sometimes the joint venture is a competitor; other times, they're a partner.

We want to have everyone involved in that asset's creation, from the design, the construction and operating, all collaborating together, so that we get superior designs. And then, looking if there are ways to bring in other entities that could really mix it up and offer some new, innovative, creative ways of doing things. [That's] because we believe that innovation will be facilitated with superior collaboration. And that's a lot of what we've been doing.

That is the premise of our next-reality solution that we're using with Microsoft HoloLens, [which] is to have the ability to actually see the real world, and then superimpose the digital world together. A lot of what we do is not just greenfield construction; we have an existing asset and we're going to modify it. So, it's great to see that existing asset, and then superimpose at scale, the change that we're wanting to make and have everyone experience that together.

And if they can't be together physically, we have the ability to have them represented as avatars, and you get to customize your avatar, where you can say, 'This is the color of the avatar I want to be for the people that are not there with me in the same physical space.' And they get to customize their avatars, how they're going to be presented to you when they're not in the space with you. They can pick what hat they're wearing, if they're wearing a tie, a hard hat, a construction vest.

We got some feedback from Marianne MacDonald at our R&D [research and development] group, saying, 'You might want to add a few more accessories for the female avatar.' (Laughs) And we're working on that as well.

It's really important that you don't have to rely on the physical space that you're in, and constraints of people schedule. We want to remove that constraint. We want to have the ability to collaborate, regardless where you're at, and have the ability, have you represented through your avatar, see what you're seeing and have everyone collaborate to a superior solution.

Is the HoloLens technology an example of augmented reality?

Neitz : That is mixed reality. ... It's similar to augmented reality, but ... what's really important about it is that you see the real world and everything that's happening around it. And then, mixed reality gets added in context, at scale, tied to where it belongs in space. That's the key differentiator. So you're not just projecting something: It's actually tied to where it belongs in physical space.

How -- and when -- did the HoloLens technology project start?

Neitz: We were all over this. When we saw Microsoft at the Build Conference in ... I think it was 2015, they had the big session where they presented the HoloLens. We said, 'Wow, that's pretty compelling. What could we do with that?'

So we immediately set up a meeting with Microsoft and looked at what ... and went to their offices to experience it for ourselves and validate -- would it make sense for us? And, fortunately, we were able to find a startup company, Object Theory, that was formulated by a gentleman who used to work at Microsoft on the HoloLens project, and they're one of the groups that is actively working with Microsoft.

So, we saw their names come up in Fast Company, our R&D director, Marianne MacDonald, and I gave them a call, and Michael answered the phone and said, 'Well, we haven't really incorporated yet, but you will be our first customer.' And we really loved it -- entrepreneurial spirit of a startup company. They were very flexible as we evolved our vision as to where we're going to go with it. And we were a strict NDA with Microsoft. We couldn't tweet about it, we couldn't tell anyone about it until March of this year. And then, we ... when [Microsoft] Build Conference was announced, we were able to announce what we're doing. And then, we went to several conferences after that and had our clients experience it. And the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

Let us know what you think of the story; email Nicole Laskowski, senior news writer, or find her on Twitter @TT_Nicole.

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2016 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium: The digital CIO has arrived

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