Bricks And Bytes Podcast

#018 – Harsh Badera- Transcript

Harsh Badera

On today’s podcast, we have Seattle-based Harsh Badara. Harsh began his journey with a Bachelor of Engineering and quickly realised that construction needs more technology and automation. His current role at Procore is Product Manager. In this episode, we dive deep into how lessons learned from the traditional construction world can be applied to automation and construction tech. We also discuss why people get confused with product management, provide interesting insight into the customer journey, and much more. 

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You are listening to Bricks and Bytes podcast, where we take you on a journey through technology and business. Alright, let’s get this episode started. So, Harsh, could you give us a little bit of a walkthrough of your journey from project management to product management at Procore? Yeah, for sure. 

Thanks for having me, first of all. I come from a very construction-focused background, like a typical construction background, and did all the project management stuff. I’d like to share a little story about how I landed where I am right now. Since my childhood, I used to visit job sites, as my uncle owned a construction business. I would go to the job sites with him, and I remember whenever we used to pass by any structure, he had this amazing sense of pride in his eyes. Back in the days, he built one of the tallest commercial complexes in my hometown. So, I always looked up to him and wanted to be like him one day. Subconsciously, I was always inclined towards the construction industry from my childhood. 

Fast forward, after high school, I pursued my bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. My degree provided a 360-degree overview of everything related to construction. I studied construction management, structural engineering, BIM, and all that kind of stuff. It was an overview of what happens in every phase of construction. Then, I actually started working in the industry. I worked for several years as a project manager on luxury high-rise buildings, a couple of commercial complex buildings, and even briefly touched on heavy civil engineering, which I was very curious about as well. 

While working all these years on job sites, I was very much hands-on, focused on execution and operations of the projects. I was constantly working on optimising processes, looking for ways to automate or reduce friction and optimise as much as I could. However, I felt that the value I was delivering was limited to only those projects and not on a wider scale. I am a very impact-driven person, so I knew I wanted to make a more significant impact that would improve the lives of everyone in construction, not just on the projects I was working on, but across the globe and on many projects. 

So, that’s when I decided to switch gears, look around for options, and pursue my master’s degree. My master’s degree was very much focused on the implementation of technology in the construction industry, such as AI and ML in the AEC industry. I gained a wide exposure to building technologies in the AEC industry. That was the starting point. I would say I deeply studied BIM and the product development process in the AEC industry. There are a lot of similarities compared to other industries, but at the same time, many differences that we need to dive deeper into. 

That’s when my journey began. After that, I joined Katerra on their mission to solve the problems of the construction industry, and that’s where my actual product management journey began. I worked as a product manager for Katerra, building a platform meant to remove inefficiencies in the construction industry, from design, manufacturing, supply chain, all the way to construction. Then, later last year, I joined Procore as a product manager, and now I am working as a product manager on document solutions to enable people to upload any kind of document on Procore and have a single viewing experience across the platform. 

Regarding my transition from project management to product management and my first job with Katerra, there were some challenges in making that switch. It was not that straightforward, but I believe it was a combination of both my experience and my master’s degree that helped me. Product management is a combination of design, engineering, and business knowledge. I had business knowledge and design experience, as I was already working closely with product managers, trying to help them from a customer point of view to build better products that serve the construction industry’s needs. I had some design knowledge around that, and I did various side projects with people online. That’s when I started learning more about app development and web development processes. In the meantime, I was working with different teams within Katerra, particularly the technology division. They really liked the fact that I brought deep knowledge about construction because finding a product manager is very easy, but finding someone from the construction industry who wants to do product management is very difficult. 

So, the unique combination of having both construction and product background provided a significant leverage at Procore, as very few people possess this combination. People usually come from either a construction background with no product experience, or a product background with no construction experience. This unique skill set has proven beneficial, making it easier to break into product management and leverage strong business knowledge in side projects. 

In transitioning from construction management to product management and scaling solutions, software and coding become crucial for making solutions available and frictionless to a larger audience. The speaker believes that technology can change any industry, and its importance in driving advancements is evident in various industries, such as manufacturing. Similarly, technology has the potential to improve productivity, efficiency, and safety in the construction sector. 

Companies are utilising AI and ML to reduce job site fatality rates, as construction is an industry prone to job hazards. Although the construction industry has existed since the dawn of human civilisation and can function without technology, it cannot scale or achieve the same level of efficiency without it. 

Regarding product management, it is essential to understand the customers’ problems, pain points, and processes in order to develop effective solutions. In the context of the construction industry, product management involves identifying and addressing the unique challenges faced by construction professionals. 

Product management is not primarily about finding solutions but rather delving into the reasons behind problems and understanding the customer’s journey. On the surface, a problem might seem straightforward, but once you investigate its root cause, it can be much more complex than initially imagined. Having deep empathy with the customer is crucial in differentiating great product managers from good ones. 

In the construction industry, everything revolves around people, so they must be at the centre of any product development. It’s essential to have great empathy with field users, understanding their working conditions and the challenges they face, such as rough weather and difficult environments. It is recommended that anyone developing a product in this space spend at least a week on a job site to better understand the day-to-day operations of field workers. This hands-on experience will give them a clearer sense of the problems users face and enable them to create more effective solutions. 

Another factor that differentiates the construction industry from others is the number of external influences at play. Unlike industries that operate in controlled environments, construction is subject to various external factors, which must be considered when developing new products. It’s essential to keep in mind the conditions in which the end users of your product work and the unique challenges they face within the industry. 

The future of construction technology seems to be more focused on a B2B2C (business to business to customer) model rather than a direct B2C (business to customer) model. This is primarily because most construction projects, such as building projects and highways, involve a general contractor (GC), a builder, or a construction arm of an owner working on the project. It is rare to find projects where a single customer is involved, especially when it comes to larger projects. 

In this B2B2C model, software serves the customer, which is the company, but the actual end-users are the workers, foremen, labourers, estimators, or pre-construction engineers who use the software daily. Due to the nature of the construction industry, a direct B2C approach is less likely to be the main focus. 

Considering the number of solutions available in the B2B market, there is a possibility of developing a single integrated source where all these solutions can be accessible to everyone. The rise of the platform era in construction technology, as discussed by McKinsey, indicates that investors are pouring significant funds into engineering and construction technology, which could lead to the development of more integrated platforms. 

One of the challenges in the construction industry is that there are many point solutions available, each addressing different problems at various stages of construction. For example, Join Dot Build offers pre-construction solutions, while Irwind provides AI and ML-based solutions to reduce safety hazards on job sites. These solutions are often fragmented in nature, leading to data leakage when tools from different phases don’t communicate effectively with one another. 

Currently, Procore has a marketplace that allows integration of various point solutions with its platform. However, there still seems to be a significant gap in the market for connecting these point solutions together more effectively. One startup, called Agave API, is working on a unified API for construction that aims to enable any two point solutions to communicate with each other, without the need to go through major players like Procore or Autodesk. Ideally, such a company would allow startup owners to have their tools talk to each other seamlessly, making it easier to manage construction projects and reduce data leakage. 

This will basically enable the flow of data between any two companies and they will not have to wait to be connected via third party. So definitely, I think like it’s just a tip of the iceberg, but as more and more, as we see more and more companies evolving in this space, we definitely need some kind of connecting mechanism. Absolutely. 

Okay, so maybe before we move to Procore, if you can just explain to us what creating a product means to you and is creating a product in construction different than in other industries? 

Creating a product is definitely all about identifying a problem that our customers have. It’s more about finding the root cause that leads to their pain point and having deep empathy with them and building the product that would make their lives easier. So, it is very much important to constantly get their feedback throughout the product lifecycle phase. Like as you are doing all the ideation, development, development, it’s really important to gather as much feedback as possible on a continuous basis from the customer. You need to fall in love with customers’ problems. 

So basically, like, you need to have a very deep empathy, like as a product manager, it’s not your job to, it’s basically your job to find the root cause of the problem and not just directly jump on to any kind of solution. Like we need to avoid any kind of local maxima in order to achieve the global. I think we had we had Eric on here in which we released his episode last week, and he was mentioning he had a very strong word. I can’t remember the word, but you almost have to be like fanatical, like almost not psycho, but something as strong as that about your customers’ problems to want to try and solve them. 

That makes also a very attractive proposition for venture capitalists and investors that are looking to buy a product. Like if you’re obsessive with that problem, then they’re like, okay, have some money, you can this? Is it like a harsh? You obviously when you were training, you had like in your mind a roadmap or something similar like a process that you followed like your product management process. 

Do you have you bought that into Procore? Do they have their own one? Is there any one you think is better than another or how does that work with you? 

The normal product development lifecycle in any kind of software industry is more or less the same. So, it starts with the ideation and research phase where you try to come up with a problem, you try to interact with the user, try to understand their problem and get to the root cause. Then the second phase comes to the design phase. So you understand all the pain points, you understand all the requirements from the users. Now you sit together with your design team, trying to brainstorm ideas, trying to come up with a solution, like not a solution but a rough outline of how that solution would look like. So trying to come up with some kind of wireframes, trying to come up with some kind of prototypes that could be easily demonstrated to the user to constantly get their feedback. So it starts with ideation and goes to design. 

And once the designs are finalised, like obviously it goes through a lot of iterations, but once those are finalised, the next phase of the product development is all about implementation. So that’s when actual coding begins, like you work very closely with the software engineers trying to break that big feature into small chunks, delivered in what we say sprint cycle. So each sprint is like off two weeks. Basically, we come up with the list of all the features that need to be built in that sprint and so on and so forth. 

So once that implementation phase begins, in the meantime, you actually start interacting with all the go-to-market teams and try to come up with a plan on how do you even want to launch this product? Like how do we want to position this product in the market? Like what type of customers are you targeting? What would be the pricing strategy, all that kind of stuff. 

And while this is going in parallel, and the development has been completed, you will start testing the features. Is it functioning as you intended it to be? Is it what customers would like? Is it like, if there’s any unusual behaviour, you need to try to fix that kind of behaviour. So it’s kind of like doing all the testing and deployment. And then finally, once everything is ready, along with your go-to-market team, you launch that product into the market and on a constant basis, get the feedback and iterate based on that feedback. 

And during the whole process, you have to do ruthless prioritisation throughout the journey, like you cannot build all 100 features all at once. You need to start building 10 features at once and constantly get feedback from the customers that, okay, what is the 11th most important feature and then come up with the next five features that would be most important to the users. So what do you think is the most difficult in this process? I would say prioritisation. Like everything seems to be very, very much important at first, but you really need to dig through the thing that is it like absolutely a deal breaker? Like if, if I don’t have this feature, is the customer not going to use the product? If the answer is yes, then that needs to be prioritised. But if you think that maybe this could be, this is really a great feature, but maybe like a customer will not use the product if we don’t have that feature. So that would be a good to have feature. Like what we say like must-have versus good to have features. 

Does someone have like a, do you have like someone, a key person that has a final say on what features are a priority or not? Cause I can imagine if you think of a feature, you become attached to that and your brain is like, this is the best idea ever. And then like one week later, someone’s like, we’re not building that feature. And you’re like, what, that’s like, you lose all your passion and excitement. Do you have someone that controls that process? Not. So it’s kind of like, as a product manager, we operate a little bit independently, but we definitely have a lot of stakeholders. So by stakeholders, if I give you an example within Procore, we have these people called strategic product consultants. And these are the people who come from the industry having 20, 25 years of experience in the industry. 

So these are our stakeholders. So we interact on a constant basis with those people and show them what we are thinking, involve them throughout the journey. And if there is a strong no or objection, then we need proper reasoning. Like why is it a no? Why can we not build it? Everything that has to be built out needs to go through mutual agreement between all the stakeholders and the product team. And more or less, many times we know exactly what we need to build, but at the same time, sometimes we try to be obsessed with the feature that we are building. And we just fall in love. And we cannot see a wider view of how that would impact other teams. So that’s when the rational thinking comes in. That’s when the stakeholders come into the picture and they help us out. 

Okay, guys, we mentioned Procore a few times. So maybe it’s a good time to tell us what Procore actually does and where it currently stands and where it is going. Procore is a leading construction management software provider in the industry. It has been around for more than 20 years and it touches almost every aspect of construction project life cycles. So it offers solutions from all the way from building, estimating, BIM for pre-construction, then project management tools like RFIs, observations, inspections, and all the way to financial management and labour management tools. So it’s basically an end-to-end user journey on any kind of construction project. That’s what Procore does. And it has been one of the leading companies in the USA, with plans to expand globally. 

What’s the future vision of it? Is there something that is going to change? Or is there any particular area that you guys are going into? Yeah, so I think Procore’s strength really lies in the data that the platform has collected over the last several years. And I believe now Procore is on a mission to be a data-first company. I believe there’s a huge potential to analyse this data and drive the product forward. 

It’s very much evident that the majority of the construction workforce is over 50 years old, and in the next few years, they are going to retire. So who is going to bridge that gap? The way I see it is that it’s going to be a combination of robots as well as human beings. Obviously, not every human being can be replaced. But the value that Procore brings to the table is that we can leverage the data that the platform has collected over the last several years and try to help the newer generation drive decisions based on the historical data that their managers or supervisors have taken. So I think there’s a tremendous amount of data opportunity, and Procore is setting its sights on that. Procore wants to be a data-first company. 

Secondly, Procore is a very strong believer in network effects. As a construction industry, we cannot just operate in one silo. We need to be sharing our processes with one another, not from a competitive standpoint, but just for the industry point of view, trying to grow as an industry together. So Procore has recently launched this thing called Procore Construction Network, which is kind of like Facebook for construction professionals. 

Is there anything Procore doesn’t do? I was very impressed. I was chatting recently during networking with someone from Procore. I think he’s responsible for the UK, and he mentioned that you guys have an app store kind of thing for Procore that connects all of the applications. Yeah, so that was very interesting, the direction things are going. 

Tell us a little bit more, Harsh, about the construction network; it sounds interesting. It’s kind of creating a Facebook-like place for construction people. So imagine a subcontractor, GC owners, representatives, material vendors, suppliers, everyone who is somehow associated with construction, everyone has been brought to that platform. And everyone has access to others’ information, obviously, based on what you share. Now I have a project worth 100 million in Seattle. 

Now I just want to find out who would be the right general contractor, and I don’t have any working relations with anyone else previously. So what I would do is like, I would just go on that construction network and I would have different kinds of filters, like someone who has worked on projects over 100 million, someone who has worked on similar kinds of projects that I am looking to build. So I can just filter out the general contractors in the area based on those attributes and factors. And I can basically directly send the bid invites to people directly from the Procore Construction Network. The downstream effect is the same thing; once a GC gets awarded the bid, they can find their subcontractors in the region based on similar attributes. So it’s kind of like starting all the way from the owner, to GC, to subcontractor, all the way to material vendors. 

But in the product or even the Procore world, is there any thought on gamification into any of these products to make people want to use them more and perhaps be rewarded for their input? Not that I know of. That could be one of the potential options in the BIM team, but I don’t know if there’s any. I’m not really sure. The reason there is none is that this is B2B most of the time because it wouldn’t go well if it was B2C without any gamification, as people want to be entertained when they use something. Right? Yep, 100%. You could make project management software fun. I would love that. I guess if someone has the idea, it could probably work quite well, but yeah, I get what you’re saying; it makes complete sense. Here, people are just using it because they have to, whereas in B2C, you need to incentivise people. 

On this platform that will search and filter contractors that you mentioned and gave an example so kindly, it works because there is a word of mouth, and people know other people who are able to deliver. 

That’s how it works. So I’m actually interested if this word of mouth and trust is going to be replaced because, on the platform, everyone can put anything they want, really. Yeah. And how this is verified. Maybe that’s where the blockchain is coming, so you can somehow verify on the immutable ledger that you did something or you didn’t. Yeah, for sure. Like, Procore definitely does the vetting. It has several steps of the screening process. Basically, via email, you need to be very authorised. You need to have a company domain in order to be on the platform. You need to register it with your mobile number. You need to have a couple of companies’ data. It’s basically like Procore does some kind of screening before even finalising or before even publishing that kind of person. It doesn’t matter if it is a subcontractor or a vendor. But to your point, it’s not definitely going to replace the word of mouth; that’s going to be there for a while. But it really becomes very handy for an owner to enter any new market where they don’t have any existing relations with the subcontractor or general contractors. Like if I’m in Seattle and if I have already built dozens of projects in this area, then definitely I have working relations with them. But if I just want to go to London and I want to start my whole construction journey in that area, I definitely don’t have any kind of working relations with anyone in that area. So that’s where I think the real value of PCN lies, which is Procore Construction Network. Yeah, makes sense. 

I’m really, really keen. You mentioned it earlier, the fact that you used to work for Katerra. And obviously, this is quite a popular subject in the construction tech world. And for people that don’t know, and based on the research I’ve done quickly before this podcast, Katerra is an offsite company founded by a former Tesla CEO. It secured around $1.6 billion of funding. At one point, it had seven and a half thousand employees. And they shut down, I don’t know, it was like three years after their initial funding round, which is just bonkers. And obviously, Harsh. 

Maybe you were one of those people that got laid off. What legacy and, like, did you learn anything from your time at Katerra and what kind of legacy did that leave in the industry? I would say Katerra was one kind of company where you can either love it or hate it, but you cannot ignore it. It had that kind of presence back in the time. It started in 2015 and wrapped up its operations in 2021. So that was around six to seven years of tenure. I believe one really great thing that Katerra did was it tried to push the industry forward in the direction of modular construction like modular housing. Before 2015, if you look around in the industry, hardly anyone was talking about modular construction or anything of that sort. So when Katerra actually started digging into that and started to explore that market, it pushed the entire construction industry to start looking into that space. So if you look, Katerra is bankrupt now and has shut down its operations. But if you look at the market right now, all the big companies like Mortenson, I’m just talking about the US market, so Mortenson, McCarthy or DPR, every big general contractor in the US has their own modular arm now. And that’s, I think, Katerra tried to accelerate that process. I would not say it’s just because of Katerra it would have happened sooner rather than later, but Katerra tried to accelerate that process, and it made people in the industry realise that that’s also a way the construction industry can work. Obviously, not modularising or not manufacturing everything, but there are some components that can be manufactured in the factory and be installed on the job site. And it saves a lot of time, cost, money, reduces safety hazards and a lot of things. So I think the legacy that Katerra left behind was pushing the industry in the direction which no one else was thinking of before Katerra. Yeah. And I’m sure it’s a valuable lesson for the industry and probably 5, 10, 15 years from now, they would. But probably it was too early, potentially. I don’t know. Yeah. I don’t know the right word, scapegoat, but they were kind of the first company to go big. And everyone else then saw that there is potential for a bit of change in the industry. And they were the catalysts for all of that change. Yeah. 

I think the reason why it did not succeed in the first place was the lack of execution. Like as you see it, the executive team, like it came from the manufacturing industry, from the tech industry, where all these industries operate in a very controlled environment. You can really control the productivity if you are building a car or any kind of that stuff. Like if you are building a car, no matter how many cars you’re building, like it could be 100,000 or 10,000, the process remains the same, and you are building exactly the same thing over and over. So you can basically automate and control that entire process. But in construction, no two construction projects are similar, even if they seem to be similar. The site conditions are different; projects are different. So it’s really difficult to automate the entire end-to-end process all at once. You need to take baby steps. Like, I say that it’s a marathon, not a sprint, right? It’s basically like you need to automate some part of the workflows, try to figure out how customers are reacting to it, and then try to automate another part of the workflow and so on and so forth. So it’s basically taking gradual steps in order to achieve that. And I believe that’s where Katerra actually lagged, basically in the execution phase. Planning was great. Like it was amazing. Everything in theory seemed to be really awesome, like, okay, we’re going to build modular housing, we’re going to eliminate waste, we’re going to eliminate the middleman, all that kind of stuff. Everything seemed to be really amazing on paper. But when it actually comes to execution, it really developed a process, like not a gradual one. Sure, sure. Cool. It sounds like a common theme, that theme actually comes up, and a lot of people say the same thing with construction. You have to go one, two, three, four, five. You can’t just go from one to ten. You have to really take those steps and, just like you said, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Cool. So should we, Martin, I know you love a few investor questions. So Harsh, if it’s something you want to share, please do. I just wanted to ask actually about this so you can explain the stealth startup, if I’m pronouncing it right. So a stealth startup is basically a startup that has been operating under the hood. 

Like it’s not basically they are not exposing any kind of information to any public out there because it’s still very much in the early phase and there is a high risk that anyone can copy their idea or share similar kind of things. So there are many companies, and in the software world, when a company starts and until it gets to a certain stage, they try to remain in stealth mode so that they don’t have to share a ton of information out there with anyone, like apart from their investors for sure. But yeah, like, I have been always very much passionate about startups, and for the past several years, I have been following some really amazing VCs and startup co-founders and trying to just observe their journey and learn from that. That has been something that has been very exciting to me, for sure. So recently, I started investing in one of the startups. It is a construction technology startup that is using robotics to solve construction problems. I cannot share too much detail there, but it’s basically a startup founded in India and trying to solve some really amazing problems around construction, layout, and flooring and all that kind of stuff. So, with the help of robotics. So I have invested some money for angel investors on the side. But yeah, like that’s my first investment journey. That’s my first investment in a startup, and I am very much looking forward. Yeah, we’re looking forward to Harsh, but there are VCs in the future. But there are adventures and something like that. I love that. So maybe if you can just conclude this subject, how is the economic climate in the US at this moment in terms of investment in startups in general, not only startups, if you can say anything about it. I think, like definitely, there’s a lot of turmoil going on in the market. And it’s not, I would say, as best a time as it was a couple of years ago, or even earlier this year, when startups were getting a lot of funding, a lot of traction, and they were getting valued at such high valuations that it did not even make sense at that point. What is happening right now is I believe still the legitimate startups are getting funding. The rate of funding has not reduced, but what has been affected by this market is basically the valuation at which these companies tried to raise the funds. Previously, it was inflated, and now it is trying to balance it out. So I would say still a lot of money is flowing in the startup world, but at the right valuation, not at the inflated valuation. It’s a good time to invest really if someone has one or two, as they call it. Yeah, more due diligence, more concentration. Yep, sounds like the current theme. Okay, Harsh. So maybe I’m gonna ask this question for a while. 

So very interesting to hear people’s responses on this. But if you had an unlimited budget to invest in any emerging business or technology or trend, well, apart from the one you have already invested in, what would you spend it on and why? That’s an amazing question. I think in construction, one of the biggest piece of construction is the workforce, like people are, I’m a strong believer of people, like everything revolves around people. So I believe like right now, we are very much short staffed like off skilled labourers, like construction is struggling to have skilled labour off like any kind. And I think like this problem is going to grow up eventually with time. And I think like there’s a strong need of something around getting more skilled labour, something around like how do we even solve that problem? I know coming out as a robotics platform and trying to offer a solution, which could help in some sense, but it’s really not a replaceable thing, right? Like you still need humans, you still need people to work on the job site. So it’s basically like, I would say I would work on something which is like trying to create a platform where I can bring in more people, more skilled people, skilled labour. And yeah, I think humans being humans and we always want to be more efficient. So robots will become, will be doing the most, more risky, more tiring, more difficult works, and humans will be pushed to make sure that everything is super efficient. Excellent. Okay, Hosh, we appreciate the conversation. Thank you very much. Thanks so much for tuning in to this episode of the Bricks and Bites podcast. If you are enjoying the show, please feel free to rate, subscribe, and leave a review wherever you listen to your podcasts. We really appreciate it, and we’ll catch you in the next episode. 

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