[Interview] An exciting conversation with Marek Suchocki, leading the Digital Transition in the UK with faith, passion, experience and vision

On ABCD Blog this week, we have the pleasure to welcome an important active member and influencer of the BIM Community worldwide and at British level, as well as a dear Colleague, Mr Marek Suchocki. Marek is a famous engineer worldwide who has been deeply involved in the digital transformation since more than 30 years now. Let’s have a conversation with him to understand his journey and the importance of BIM in Infrastructure and building related initiatives.

Hi Marek, and welcome on ABCD Blog. It’s a pleasure and honor for us to have this conversation with you. Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?

Thank you Emmanuel, I am Marek Suchocki and work as a Senior Global Business Development Executive in Autodesk. I am based to the South-West of London in the UK and as a career have over 30 years’ experience in the construction industry and am active in promoting the adoption of digital solutions and standards within the sector.

What is your background and which studies did you make? Was Civil Engineering a passion for you?

I would consider myself a strong student at school, but one with no idea what I wanted to study at University. I considered polymer chemistry, hotel management (I like to travel), but most of all saw engineering as my best fit. I was convinced by a lecturer at Surrey University on a visit that Civil Engineering would be a career I could thrive in, so I took a gamble and elected to study this despite having little idea about what it involved! I have become a Chartered Engineer, Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers and Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineering Surveyors, so it has probably paid off.

At the time of your studies, were you already using digital approaches and were you passionate about it? Or were you the kind of young man playing with an Amstrad or an ATARI video game console?

Ha ha, I was certainly an early adopter of computers. My parents stretched their limited budget to buy me a Commodore 64 home computer for an early teenage birthday; I spent my evenings on this, of course playing games but also devouring computer magazines to learn how to program in Basic and even Machine Language. So when I went to University I was already familiar with the potential of computing and even purchased a 286 PC for my final year. I went on to spend the next 15 years building my own PCs, upgrading whenever I could afford and trying out lots of different software.

It was this appetite for the potential of digital that led me to change jobs early in my career moving from Contracting to a research role in 1994 at the University of Reading that after two years saw me be a founder member of a team called Advanced Construction Technology. We totally pushed the envelope on what you could do with digital construction – heavily focused on object orientation, visualization and virtual reality; some things we were able to demonstrate then are still not done regularly today including knowledge based engineering, neural network analysis and programmatic object development.

What about your professional experience before entering Autodesk? Have you been designing lots of projects?

I had around 20 years in industry before joining Autodesk. I spent an industrial year at University half at Bayer in Leverkusen Germany, which was my first experience of living abroad and then the other half working for British Waterways who were the public operator of canals across the country and a role that I really enjoyed. After graduation, my first two years were as a contractor working on road projects, a waste facility and an industrial car park refurbishment where I was the site agent. Despite being very successful as a young site engineer I always felt I had more to learn and hence took a research post at the University of Reading investigating team building in construction management projects, before moving two years later to the ACT role. I was then approached after two years at ACT to join a small Quantity Surveying company through a friend of a friend that was establishing a business in Poland. As I speak Polish but had never lived there I took the chance – it was a role that I initially enjoyed but that soured due to a company Director that saw me as a direct threat to him. So after half a year, I returned to the UK to take a position at Atkins, who had been a research partner of mine during my University research.

I spent 8 years in Atkins with a large part of my role being the Research and Innovation Manager leading a team called VR/ooms (Virtual Reality and Object Oriented Modelling Systems) that piloted new technologies (including software tools called Navisworks and Revit!), developed expertise in collaborative working, whole life costing and explored knowledge management in large organisations. I probably could have had my entire career at Atkins but took the opportunity to join another consulting business called Mouchel where I joined the IT Senior Leadership Team. This was a big step up as I was a direct report to the CIO who sat on the main board of this over 10,000 employees company, and saw me lead on business partnering, collaboration systems, corporate enterprise systems, IT upgrades for an SAP deployment, due diligence on acquisitions and vendor management of CAD suppliers.

What are your most exciting, amazing and positive souvenirs about your past experiences?

I am most proud that I never rested on my successes, but instead kept exploring options for different work experiences. This helped frame a preferred career path, but also allows me today to engage with customers as an equal – I have done many of their jobs so know what’s good and bad, providing empathy but also the ability to challenge. I am a firm believer that young people starting out on their careers should be prepared to change direction – the construction industry is so varied that it would be senseless to do the same job all your life!

How, when and why did you enter Autodesk? Was it a dream for you, or just an interesting opportunity?

As CAD vendor manager at Mouchel I had to work closely with suppliers such as ESRI, Bentley, Autodesk and its partner Cadline. With support from Cadline we conducted a study of over a 1000 internal Autodesk software users that revealed interesting patterns in use, limited training, and slow adoption of new tools such as BIM that got me interested in understanding the challenge from the software supplier side. It eventually led to being offered the role of the first Customer Success Manager (CSM) outside of the USA, which was a big risk as it was for the first European Enterprise Business Agreement (EBA), which was a new direct relationship model for Autodesk and was initially only for 3 years.

Which kind of roles did you hold at Autodesk? Were you realizing that you were participating to the transformation of the Infrastructure Industry and that something “BIG” was happening, led by Autodesk and you?

When I joined Autodesk, I and the new EMEA Named Account sales team must have done something right as a flood of EBAs followed requiring many more sales executives and CSMs to be hired! We really were learning by doing, understanding how to deliver services globally, through our partners and then through a new consulting service that started from just a small team of GIS specialists. After our CSM team had begun to grow, I took on the role of the first Technical Account Manager (TAM) outside of the US, which again has seen massive growth that has migrated to see creation of the role of Technical Solutions Executive today.

BTW, when did you first hear about BIM, especially for Infra?

The term BIM did not really exist until say 2005, up until then we were calling it object oriented modelling that was a component based approach to design mirroring the assets that would be constructed. From the outset, we saw the benefit of carrying information in the objects across the asset lifecycle and my first big Proof Of Concept was actually for highways where I led a research project called HAVR (Highways Agency Virtual Reality). So infrastructure was for me the first place that I tested what we call BIM today!

When did you start your role as Global Business Development and under which circumstances?

I mentioned earlier that I moved from being the first CSM to the first TAM in Europe. Due to a reorganization, my TAM role no longer reported into the Named Account Director, which had been important for me. However, very soon after, I was approached by the leaders of our Sales Development teams – one for buildings (AEC) the other for infrastructure (ENI). I would have gladly joined either team, but as a civil engineer I had to take the ENI (Engineering and Infrastructure) option. It didn’t actually matter as the two teams merged after a few years and I have been a very happy member throughout.

In 1 or 2 sentences, what is this group about?

That’s a challenge! Today we promote ourselves as helping fuel and scale growth for Autodesk, but this is simplistic and perhaps too tied to sales. The team is really a group of subject matter experts that amongst their skills have the ability to speak on behalf of Autodesk, engage with internal product or services teams, participate in industry committees and help customers win work. Often, we have been described as gap fillers who do the jobs others haven’t or can’t, which does mean that every day can be different – frequent travel seems to be a pre-requisite to service the changing demands.

What did it change in your life and how and why your past experiences really helped? Was it a natural and logical move? The dream you wanted to achieve since a while?

I think I stated earlier that change is something I have become accustomed to, even though it can be stressful when you have job stability, a family and home to think about. Doing the Business Development role is to some extent a perfect fit for me as it allows me to share my varied experiences in many ways and to various audiences. The lack of consistency is also something that I have grown to relish and I can quickly change hats to work with the ever changing requests and responsibilities that present themselves.

If you would have to summarize and explain what your role is all about in the AEC Industry, what would you say? We know it can be challenging sometimes for some people to understand…

I have found a way to provide experienced advice and guidance to customers and internal colleagues alike, whilst also continuing to learn and develop through my engagement in numerous industry committees and standards bodies. So I guess I am able to share what I have learnt whilst still learning and it is thanks to Autodesk having the Business Development team that I can do this – it is all too easy to become operational or single project focused, which can of course be enjoyable and provide strong career development, but it does run the risk of doing the same thing.

Would you say you’re an evangelist?

For certain but not someone who shouts too loud. I am quite reserved when it comes to social media or self promotion, as I don’t post too much because I always know there are other experts out there who might know better. However, I do enjoy the opportunity to present at customer meetings, industry events and to create articles with my marketing colleagues. Putting into words ideas and reflections is a positive way to ensure others hear a perspective that hopefully helps them make quicker or better decisions related to technology adoption.

Could you tell us about several big achievments that you’ve made through that role, and that you’re particularly proud about?

For a number of years, I have striven for closer relationships with open standards communities for Autodesk and also the civil engineering sector. Recently, as part of this, I became part of the buildingSMART International Infrastructure Room Steering Committee allowing me to support the development of new schema entities for civil infrastructure. I have used this to also influence the development of support for the new schemas in Autodesk’s products and I believe have enthusiastic engagement from product leads and other advocates in the company. This feels like a new paradigm for us, with Autodesk embracing rather than perhaps being suspicious of the importance of open formats.

I also campaigned heavily for enhanced support of BIM Standards, in particular ISO 19650 within Autodesk solutions. As a member of the British Standards technical committee that originated these standards, I saw significant value from their adoption and realized that it is vital for software to align to the requirements to make them easier for users to implement. Today, Autodesk has provided many workflow enhancements for ISO 19650 and continues to work with its customers to add further improvements.

What are also the challenges that you face on a daily basis?

The pace of change is a frustration. Seeing the same mistakes be repeated in our industry processes or technology use is very disappointing as it means that someone has paid too much for a service, work may be delayed or there will be dissatisfaction in the delivered solution. However, I appreciate that we are on a journey both within organizations and as an industry, so we have to respect that some will move slower than others – it is important though to not accept the status quo and instead campaign for better whenever possible.

You’re certainly one of our best experts and advocates on openBIM, IFC and interoperability topics. But why? Is it something you’re passionate about? How would you describe and explain these topics and why are they so important for your Industry?

The answer is related to the frustration I have with slow or absent change. I sometimes joke that I am inherently lazy and am always looking for an easier or better way to do something. The adoption of new technologies, reduction of interoperability challenges, and use of consistent standardized processes is essentially a way to make work easier and more consistent. The challenge is getting the change understood, tried out, enhanced and adopted as people are inherently resistant or suspicious of change or at least their perceived risk of change, somehow accepting that the sometimes dysfunctional way they might work today is more acceptable.

How do you interact with buildingSMART?

I am very active within buildingSMART. As a member of the Infrastructure Room Steering Committee, I participate in early morning calls every two weeks, I also am the Chair of their Project Steering Committee where we hold monthly meetings with stakeholders and finally I am part of the buildingSMART UK & Ireland Steering Committee leading on infrastructure where we again hold monthly calls. In addition to this, I am a regular attendee of summits, where I have presented on many occasions, get involved in webinars and along with other members of the UK & Ireland chapter helped produce a well-received IFC report that was published by AEC Magazine.

You’re also deeply involved with the most important British digital transformation related activities with key associations. Could you please tell us a bit more about it and explain why it’s so important?

In the UK, we were early adopters of new digital solutions for the AEC industry that included pioneering object modelling technologies that led to BIM. I was fortunate to be part of trials in my early career and have researched the benefits and challenges of implementation. When I was Research & Innovation Manager in Atkins, we participated in a number of collaborative research activities that included a programme called Avanti. Avanti tried the technologies but also collaborative working practices which led to BS1192:2007 the first code of practice for technology use that identified the benefit of a Common Data Environment (CDE) and was used to persuade investment in improved processes and BIM for the UK Government. The opportunity to reduce tax payer expenditure on public projects and operated assets is a goal I fully support, especially if it leverages the technologies and processes I see as progressive and even enjoyable.

Which most exciting projects have you been working on as a Global Business Development Executive?

This is difficult to narrow down as I have probably enjoyed being part of a team who have driven change internally and externally to Autodesk rather than individual projects. Certainly developing and releasing support for interoperability tools is a great team success as has been the awareness raising of BIM standards for improved collaboration.

You’re one of the most knowledgeable person on openBIM and standardization topics like openBIM, openCDEs, ISO19650. How do you manage to have so many skillsets and certifications?

Thank you for the kind words. I think part of this is being in the right place at the right time to engage on these topics, but also having a personal passion for good change and desire that things should be done right and not for just intellectual stimulation. So I have got involved with an intention to make scalable and sustainable improvements rather than unnecessary complexity or disruption that fails.

BTW, you’ve been rewarded several times by the AEC Industry, could you please tell us a few words about it?

I think rewarded is a bit strong, instead recognized by peers for my efforts. I am a triple Fellow of professional institutions comprising the Institution of Civil Engineers (FICE), Chartered Institution of Civile Engineers (FCInstCES) and the British Computer Society (FBCS) and also am a Chartered Engineer (CEng) and Chartered IT Professional (CITP). I am extremely proud of these honours because they required professional review processes and submission of evidence on my part. I also encourage all who work in any industry to seek recognition of their skills by appropriate professional or technical bodies – it is as valuable as academic success and in some cases the only way to develop your career.

As we all know, UK is definitely a key example in terms of digital transformation and the country has taken the right decisions to make this happen. In your opinion, why are you so good at that and what makes the difference with other countries? Does it have something to deal with the anglo-saxon mentality and culture?

I think the British approach is a good balance of entrepreneurial endeavor with balanced practical thinking. There is essentially a culture of wanting things to be better, but the respect for the past means changes have to be checked for suitability and adoptability. Sometimes, I think the UK suffers from proving something is a great improvement but then failing to implement the change due to reticence or simply considering the proof of a possible benefit is sufficient without a need to realise it!

I do believe that there is nothing unique about the UK, other than a cultural willingness to change and do better – I am sure all cultures and nations are capable of this, just sometimes they might not want to risk a change!

From what you can see at worldwide level, how would you evaluate the maturity level of most countries?

Presuming the question relates to digital maturity, I think we are seeing a continuous adoption of new processes and solutions across the globe. Early movers such as the UK are exploring further benefits and opportunities, whilst others might be on the first steps, what is clear is that change will be sustained as benefits are being evidenced. In some emerging countries such as Chile or Vietnam it has been particularly encouraging that they have embraced BIM as a paradigm shift rather than attempting some slow incremental improvement – I think this is how they can move quicker and also deliver encouragement to their young professionals and industry that this is a better and more enjoyable way to work.

Although UK is already quite advanced, which things are remaining in terms of digital transformation? We’ve seen for example the future projects of National Digital Twin as well as the project to also create a digital twin of the energy transportation and smart grid network in the UK?

The UK National Digital Twin is I believe driven by a goal to integrate data across industries and asset owners. We don’t know what the potential benefit of increased interoperable data might be or its impact on society, but there is a belief that the positives will far outweigh the negatives.

The Government is continuing to pressure its own departments and other public asset owners to move to digital asset data use. The Golden Thread required by the recent Building Safety Act, the Construction Playbook and the Information Management Mandate within the Infrastructure Projects Authority roadmap are all pushing for projects to start digital and stay digital into operation. This is a reflection of the success of the initial BIM programme and recognition that we must do better in the management and operation of built assets – you can only demonstrate an improvement eg related to sustainable goals if you measure, which has to rely on digital data storage.

How do you manage to always stay at the cutting edge of knowledge? Do you read a lot on a daily basis? What is your secret?

I have always tried to read as much as I can, whether it is industry magazines, journals, standards or technical websites. I am quite cautious in just believing what I read is correct, often fact checking or at least mentality checking it things make sense. It is however increasingly difficult to keep up as there are so many things to try and keep track of that are really just a symptom of the pace of technology change and huge availability of information.

What are your dreams or goals for the future?

I often say that I would like an epitaph that says I helped change the industry and this is a principle that I have stuck by. Perhaps now as I am in my fourth decade as a professional, I am leaning towards creating a legacy, which to me is passing on learning to others so that they can be similarly enthusiastic and take the baton of industry change forward after me.

Out of work, what are your personal passions and activities?

I have always been a fan of the outdoors so enjoy travel to new places, walking in the countryside, mountain biking, playing bad golf or simply visiting the coast. I also frequently take a camera with me on my travels, particularly when I visit a new country or city as photography has been a lifelong hobby of mine. From a young age, I have been a Polish Scout in the emigrant organization (ZHP PGK) and for more than 30 years, I have been an instructor helping run regional groups, being a camp leader and for over 12 years helping run camps for cubs and brownies each summer. I am also very proud that both my teenage daughters have been members of the Polish scouting organization from the age of 6 and have remained involved to the extent that my eldest daughter runs a girl scout group in Slough. At home, I do relax by cooking for the family and simply watching films or good TV comedies and dramas, reading my Kindle, sampling wine and I still enjoy playing computer games that started with that Commodore 64 my parents gave me as a teenager and helped frame my career ever since.

Well, Marek, again congratulations for your career and for all these achievments and thank you for your time. We wish you the best for the future, you’re a Reference and Example for the whole of us.

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