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One of the things successful individuals and companies have in common is their ability to nail three key components: people, processes, and technology.
When these three things are aligned, teams can collaborate better, unlock efficiencies, and achieve stronger outcomes.
Aaron Thompson, President at Nox Innovations, is in a great position to speak about mastering people, processes, and tech. Beyond his experience running workflows on job sites and leading important projects, Aaron and his team have successfully cultivated talent at Nox through an education program that gives individuals the tech skills they need to thrive in their roles.
We recently had a conversation with Aaron to discuss his career path and all the great things he and his team are doing at Nox Innovations. As a Nox Group company, Nox Innovations is laying the foundation for the next generation of the construction industry.
Check out our discussion below.
Tell me a little bit about Nox Innovations and what you specialize in.
We’re an industrial construction solution provider for virtual design & construction and fabrication. What makes Nox Innovations different is that we’re not just modeling to meet a job requirement.
We are doing the modeling to a high level of detail. Everything we model gets fabricated in our shop here and sent to our sister companies around the country. We have around 100 full-time modelers in the department and 50 or so fabricators.
We didn’t really set off to be Nox Innovations; we set off to be good at what we were doing and provide a solution to the end users, which is the field. So, we focused on everything that we were doing. We got some in-house code developers that streamline the process. Everything we did came with a mindset of installation. How does it help the team in the field? How does it make things easier? I’d rather spend more time modeling if it equates to less time in the field where there are safety issues.
Then, out of that development, many companies started asking what we were doing because we were getting more and more successful with it. That developed into other businesses asking us to do work for others, and we broke out of that to create Nox Innovations.
The word “Nox” was actually created out of two words.
You see, we always talk about how we have to think outside the box and how we have to find a unique way to do things. The problem is we use the term “box” to describe a problem. It’s like, “Hey, we have a problem. Let’s find a unique way to solve it.”
Well, our goal here is to solve it before it becomes a box. And so the term “no box” became “Nox.”
Our goal is to solve those issues before they become problems.
Walk us through your career and what led you to becoming President at Nox Innovations.
I always tell people it’s 98% preparation and 2% luck. It’s about being in the right place at the right time. I started my career as a field electrician through the trades. I went up to a project manager role and always had a passion for the fabrication side of it. Prior to electrical, I did some mechanical work.
Then, when I came over to electrical, I thought it was pretty odd that we send out large vendors to bend pipes instead of doing that in a shop. I was vocal and had different ideas I would use on my projects.
One day, I got tapped on the shoulder. I was a senior project manager and was asked if I’d oversee two departments.
So, I got involved and threw myself 100% into the work. When we started, we probably had five or six modelers and two people in our fabrication shop to where we are today.
What is your proudest accomplishment in your career at Nox Innovations? Why?
My proudest accomplishment—and this is a team effort—is creating an educational program.
One thing we always hear is, “Where do you find a hundred modelers? They’re not out there.” And yes, they’re right. So we create them.
We find people with computer skills like gaming and interior design who are comfortable working long hours on a computer. We bring them in, and often, they never thought they would be in construction.
We have two full-time teachers who run a classroom and have built an entire curriculum that takes someone from entry-level—not even knowing what BIM is—and over the course of three months, they’re fully functioning with the technology.
Hundreds of people have come through our doors and have a career in this industry because of that education program.
I’m passionate about this and being able to provide an avenue that gives folks a career path. There are a lot of people on our team who are from all around the world. Some people came out of college and thought, “I’m never gonna be able to use my degree in programming.”
And they’ve now found this career through virtual construction that enables them to make a very good living for them and their families. And they’re able to provide all of that because of the learning opportunities that gave them the training and ability to get in there.
What are the biggest challenges you face in your role? How does technology help you overcome those challenges?
As for my role as President, I would say the biggest thing is predicting the next five to 10 years. What does that look like?
It’s two aspects. One is staying on top of where the industry is going and making sure we’re not stagnant. If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward. That’s the toughest thing in the technology world. If I look back five to 10 years to see how much advancement has happened, it’s pretty impressive.
We’re definitely seeing more technology being instituted in the construction industry. As an industry, we’re getting better at adopting a lot of technology, but one of our biggest challenges is we aren’t really good at creating it.
It’s also a challenge to weed through so many ideas and find things that will really change the industry.
Part of the reason we got in and created the software was because we couldn’t find it. We spent millions of dollars creating software that allowed us to take someone from entry level to proficient in three months to automate a lot of things, especially in the electrical world.
And the people are always tough, right? We need to ensure we have the right leadership to take this into the future.
Regarding how we’re using tech to solve these challenges, we are leveraging technology to create those modelers, create the training, and get things running much faster. Ultimately, we want to be a solution provider to our customers—not just modeling for them. We want to be a valuable asset. So, when looking at technology, we look at how it could be useful. How can we implement this there?
For me, it’s staying on the leading edge, not the bleeding edge of technology. Not be an R&D company, as it’s a lot of cost and effort for things that don’t work. But you’ve got to take the right risks at the right time to move things forward.
Are you using Autodesk Construction Cloud (ACC) on any unique or challenging projects? If so, what has been the impact?
We’re using the ACC suite on most of our projects. The impact for us is the collaboration between the field and the office.
Many people try to find someone who knows a trade and knows modeling. I always tell them that those are the unicorns. And they’re probably running a department somewhere. So you’ll have to break down the barrier—the wall between the field and the office. We’re using ACC heavily in that collaboration sign-off on all the processes.
Before, doing that would be a lot of paperwork and emails. So I’m glad we can make things a little bit more efficient.
What made you want to partner with Autodesk on your projects?
Autodesk, to me, is the industry leader. If you’re going to get into virtual construction, you’ll use Autodesk.
Not only that, but Autodesk is surrounded by other high-end companies and industrial companies that are like-minded. So, I partnered with Autodesk because I believe it’s the best product and wanted to connect with other people in the industry.
Nox Innovations isn’t going to change the industry by itself. Our model here is to boldly change the construction industry, and we’re not going to do that alone. That has to be an effort amongst a lot of folks. Autodesk has done well pulling those teams with Autodesk University (AU). I’ve made valuable connections over the years through your company events or through Autodesk reps.
As we started creating the software, Autodesk reps came here and asked us, “How did you do that? Show us what you created.” And so we would show them what it was. At one point, there was someone from Autodesk here once a week.
Then, all of a sudden, we were getting calls from electrical contractors around the country saying, “Hey, I was talking with Autodesk, and they mentioned you.”
So you’ve been instrumental in getting that word out there.
When you think about the future, what are your plans to advance innovation and productivity at Nox Innovations?
I’ve asked our team to take a strong initiative to understand and get involved with more collaborative groups. That way, we can ensure that we’re not just a user; we’re also helping provide a solution. I think you rely heavily upon a lot of us to understand what Autodesk gears need to be shifted to go the right direction and understand what’s happening in the industry. So we want to continue doing that.
There are teams that are looking one and two years ahead. I have teams looking down three and five years in the future. As for me, I look five to 10 years out to make sure that we are continually talking about what changes we’re seeing and understanding the environment in construction.
The way I built years ago in the field isn’t necessarily how schedules and things are being built today. There are new things that are coming out. So we need to make sure we have our finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the field, what the end user’s needs are, and how we can provide a solution to fix that.
What advice would you give to the next generation of men and women entering and preparing for the future of the industry?
If you want to grow and advance in this career path, know that it is a wide open space for individuals, especially in the virtual world. There isn’t a company that I’ve met who said, “I got all the talent I need in virtual construction.”
So it’s a huge opportunity for people. And career path-wise, a lot of advancement happens very fast for people taking initiative. That’s especially true with companies like ours, where there’s no one holding you back. There’s no “You’ve got to spend so many years at certain positions before we advance you.”
This is on your merit. If you’re prepared in year one, then you’re going to move up fast.
And for people wondering if construction is the right path, I think they would be shocked at the virtual world’s capabilities. Our modelers don’t have to go out to the field. They have opportunities to work from home. We have mothers and people who have family commitments. It’s really opened up.