Constructing a Web Foundation for Builders

SAN MATEO (05/01/2000) - Behind the hard hats, backhoes, and super cranes at any building site today is a network of software applications and hosted services for managing projects and procuring building materials and services.

Bidcom is a leading ASP (application service provider) with a suite of building project and real-estate modules.

InfoWorld Editor-at-Large Ephraim Schwartz talked with Larry Chen, Bidcom Inc.'s vice president and chief technology officer, about the changing role of a CTO in the building trade.

InfoWorld: How do you view your role as the CTO at Bidcom?

Chen: For me, the challenges are to pick the right technologies and make sure that we can build on top of a solid platform. This is a business-critical application -- it has to be available 24-by-7 -- but at the same time, we need to stay on the cutting edge of technology in order to leverage the new technologies. For example, we're looking at wireless technologies and other types of new applications.

InfoWorld: What are your three top responsibilities at Bidcom?

Chen: One is the technology and the platform that goes along with that. The second is driving standards, both internally and externally. And No. 3 is to be a technical liaison to our customers.

InfoWorld: Do you shrink-wrap your products, or do you offer your applications as an ASP?

Chen: We have an [ASP] business model.

InfoWorld: Do you have concerns about the issue of interoperability between different ASPs?

Chen: Yes, definitely. Interoperability and data exchange is a key for us.

Bidcom is heavily involved with, and is one of the driving forces behind, an industrial consortium called the Architectural Engineering and Construction [AEC] XML organization.

Take for example, our partnership with PurchasePro for the creation of an online buying exchange. There needs to be a data exchange between our application and the PurchasePro systems. And that's one level of integration, integrating with partners' products and services. The other level of integration is integrating with our users' internal systems.

Bidcom is also on the board of an organization called the IAI [or] International Alliance for Interoperability. That's another vertical organization focusing on interoperability.

InfoWorld: Do you think this level of interoperability has to go further and span across different vertical industries?

Chen: I think over time, yes, it will. But I feel that at this moment Bidcom needs to be more focused on the interoperability within the building industry.

InfoWorld: Where do the competitive pressures come from now, and how do you think those pressures will change over the next 12 months?

Chen: The building-construction industry in the past few years has really attracted a lot of interest in terms of e-commerce opportunity, so we're seeing more providers wanting to get into this space.

The key thing for us is being able to deliver products and services faster. As everyone knows, speed and time to market are critical these days. I think we've done a good job of making sure our technology and products are meeting that demand of time to market from our customers. Another key thing is that in order to be the leader in this industry, I think we also need to continue to innovate.

InfoWorld: Can you give me an example of how Bidcom is innovating?

Chen: We build business-process models across multiple organizations within the industry that comply with industry-standard reporting models. So we basically build business process/workflow models that are being done today on paper over the Internet. And [we] deliver that as a hosted service.

InfoWorld: Down the road, do you see the possibility of vertical exchanges offering products outside of their traditional space?

Chen: That's always a possibility. At the moment with PurchasePro we have what we call an e-marketplace. The way I look at it is a vertical exchange is more of a point solution that addresses probably one part of procurement activities.

InfoWorld: What are the biggest hurdles you face, both internally and externally, from a business and technology perspective?

Chen: Internally, on the technology side, it's kind of going back to picking the right technologies and the right platform. And sometimes if it's not totally clear as a CTO, you just have to kind of go with your gut feeling and make a bet.

But there are several things that we do. One is we make sure that the foundations that we build are very solid. The current product that we run is on top of the Oracle 8i database and the Oracle Internet platform, and we make sure that's very scalable.

And I can tell you one technology bet that we made awhile ago was on XML. At that time, it wasn't clear that XML was going to be the winning standard. It's still not too clear today, but most people believe that [XML will] be a common standard for data exchange.

But, we wanted to be able to separate the data from the presentation of the data, and we looked at the different standards ... out there [and] said, 'Let's just make a bet on XML.'

Sometimes you just have to take risks and go with some new technologies. You know, you always have a tendency, especially for technical people, to say, 'Hey, if I cannot find an off-the-shelf solution that does 100 percent what I need, I'll just build it on my own.'

InfoWorld: What about your external hurdles related to business and technology?

Chen: In the building industry, you have architects, you have large corporations with building projects, and you have many small subcontractors.

And a lot of them are using our system as their first exposure to the Internet.

So we need to make sure that our solution is very user-friendly and also works with the lower bandwidth. And also making sure that we focus on user education, helping them over the hurdle.

InfoWorld: You were talking about XML as a technology you bet on and you have been proven right. Are there any technologies you see that are hot this year?

Chen: Well, I think that this year, I would say wireless technology. I'm still in the process of doing [an] evaluation of the technology, but I think especially given the nature of the business in the building-construction industry, the wireless application is going to be key. People need to be able to access data, and [acting] on that data with a wireless device will be very attractive. At the construction site you can have executives [and] building owners who travel a lot, and they need to be able to get a high-level information summary of [their] project information.

Further out, where people are really focusing on the exchange itself, technologies that enable having a really fully integrated end-to-end supply-chain management will be critical.

Do you feel you get enough attention from the technology providers with whom you work?

Chen: I'm getting so many phone calls on a daily basis from different kinds of technology providers, so I think that that part works very well. I also look for publications for help in evaluating different products.

InfoWorld: How has the role of the CTO changed for you over the past year or so?

Chen: I spend quite a bit more time working with our customers than I did in the past.

Larry Chen, Bidcom

Age: 34

Title: Vice president and CTO

Biggest successes: Helping to found Bidcom and architecting its ASP system three years agoKey challenges: Staying on the cutting edge of technology and maintaining a mission critical system for the building and real-estate industriesPersonal note: Running Bidcom's IT infrastructure and having two children (a 3-year-old and a 6-month-old) makes it difficult for Chen to pursue any hobbies at this time.

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