Meet The Disruptors: Justin Schwaiger Of Manufacton by ViZZ Technologies On The Five Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
“Do your best so doors will open.” They told me they didn’t know what those doors would be, but they were confident that the set of available opportunities would be more favorable if I tried my best.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Justin Schwaiger.
Justin Schwaiger, PE, LSSBB, is an accomplished, results-driven leader with expertise in business operations, SaaS, digital transformation, consulting engineering, and data science. He currently serves as the Director of Customer Success for ViZZ and Manufacton, DSi-Digital-owned AEC software providers. In this role, Justin leads customer success initiatives and continues the development of a scalable implementation program for customers.
Throughout his career, Justin has been a transformational leader in the broader real estate development industry. This includes his prior experience at Katerra, Thornton Tomasetti, and more. In addition, he currently serves as an Executive Leader of the Urban Land Institute Partnership Forum program that connects leaders in commercial real estate and technology through year-long programs built around common professional interests.
Justin holds a Master of Science in Structural Engineering from Stanford University and a Bachelor of Architectural Engineering from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. In addition, he holds a certificate in Commercial Real Estate Analysis and Investment from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a certificate in Data Science from Harvard University. He is also a licensed Professional Civil Engineer and has a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt from the International Association of Six Sigma Certification.
His expertise and leadership are recognized through his continued thought leadership efforts, including his position as an industry mentor for Stanford University’s graduate-level AEC Global Teamwork project-based learning course. In addition, he participates in frequent speaking opportunities at Urban Land Institute’s Construction Technology Seminar, the Structural Engineers Association and Stanford University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I got into the real estate industry because as a kid I experienced the Northridge earthquake in the LA area. Bridges and buildings collapsed, and I wanted to be a part of making the world a safer place, especially in earthquake-prone areas. I went to graduate school to develop the skillset to design and build high-rise towers in high-seismic areas. I then went on to design and build tall buildings all over the world as an engineering consultant.
But as someone motivated to produce efficient and optimized processes, I struggled with traditional real estate development projects since they remain one-off, boutique projects with new teams solving and resolving the same kinds of problems on each new project. So, I left consulting engineering to pursue construction technology and develop ways to build efficiently and with more economies of scale.
New technology and construction methods can generate a step change in the way we design and build.
In the construction technology space, I’ve worn many hats: technology user (as an engineer), business operations, sales operations, customer success, product strategy, strategic partnerships. Really, I’m all about doing whatever it takes to build a successful product and team and then the harness the energy and ambiguity of the startup environment to make real progress toward operational innovation and scalability.
I’ve lived the status quo in real estate development and construction and I’m dead set on changing it. We have a severe housing shortage, for example, and construction technology that allows for more efficient construction practices is a market-driven solution to the affordable housing problem we’re facing.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
I’m currently at a construction technology software company called Manufacton where we have developed a software platform that enables the “industrialization of construction”. This trend of taking construction work off of the jobsite and moving it into prefabrication factories is picking up steam and we are working with the innovators in that space to define the standard processes and platform by which the construction industry can innovate. The real goal here is to deliver higher-quality buildings faster through factory production.
For example, volumetric modular builders like Factory_OS, 3D printing companies like Mighty Buildings, and mass timber producers like Timberlab are using Manufacton to run their factories as they accelerate change in the construction industry. We’re building the software platform to allow them to do this work efficiently and to supply the data necessary for them to improve their processes to help usher in this new era for the construction industry.
My role is to drive new technologies into the industry and to understand where the next big opportunity is so we can build the right technology to continually innovate.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was a fresh graduate engineer, and my boss couldn’t attend a meeting we were supposed to attend together. There was a room full of real estate developers, architects, and builders who were meeting to determine which material the building that was starting to be planned should be made out of. I ended up taking the floor and describing all of the possible options in far too much detail. They really weren’t looking for an engineering lesson, they were looking for an answer. I had a whole room of blank faces staring back at me.
I learned that day that my job as a consultant is to know all sorts of stuff that never gets said; instead, a lot of thinking goes into what to say so the answer sounds simple to others who have different priorities… that’s why they hired me as a consultant.
So, reading the audience, understanding expectations, and delivering concise responses was the lesson learned that awkward day.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
There have been so many who have mentored me along the way. I make an effort to pursue relationships with a few mentors at each point in my career. These relationships tend to evolve over time. This includes:
- There were a couple of engineering “principals” (essentially, my bosses. Think partner at a law firm) who gave me the freedom to pursue new challenges and trusted my judgement, even as a young engineer. I spent hours in their offices working out problems that I didn’t know how to solve, and they would share their experience with me to help me solve them. This allowed me to grow in my skillset quickly and learn to think for myself and develop my own “engineering intuition” that I could leverage in the next meeting or on the next project.
- One particular mentor of mine took a huge chance on me as I was pivoting from a consulting engineering role to business operations at a construction tech company. He brought me on his team and then gave me freedom to grow/take as much responsibility that I wanted. He also challenged me. One time I was asked to speak on a panel about the work we were doing at the company; I deflected and asked him who at the company would be the best to do the panel. He said I should just do it, knowing that I needed to grow in confidence in this way even if I didn’t think I had enough expertise to do so. That speaking engagement (and the extensive preparation that was required) has given me the confidence to do the same many times since. This mentor believed in me, challenged me, and helped me to grow beyond my own expectations for myself.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has withstood the test of time? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is not so positive? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
No disruption isn’t always good. There are a couple angles to look at this:
- What’s best for people? Disrupting (historically typical) in-person human community/communication with digital platforms that separate people physically and emotionally are not positive disruption. Especially when these platforms are built to attract eyeballs through algorithms that foster outrage, oversupply information that aligns with someone’s already-held beliefs, and drive people into information silos. Sure, there’s money here, but disruption like this isn’t a good thing for people.
- Disruption is good especially when it’s necessary. For example, in the construction space, approximately 40% of the skilled workforce is expected to leave the construction industry by 2030. Simultaneously, we have a housing shortage of millions of units. So, the question is: without disruption to current operating models, who will build these buildings? Disruption in this case means finding novel solutions to problems in order to increase productivity. It’s the techno optimist view that technology combined with human ingenuity will provide solutions to unlock a better world. Even better when the solution can unlock value for investors.
- In the industrialized construction space that means technology-enabled process improvement (design, procurement, factory production, jobsite installation). It also means expanding the workforce: in a factory a worker doesn’t need to do nearly the amount of heavy lifting, safety training, or specialty skill certifications. So it can pull in a whole new workforce to help address the chronic labor shortage, provide job skills to new populations, and keep people safer. These are the kinds of positive disruption that I can get behind.
Can you share five of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey?
Parents: “do your best so doors will open.” They told me they didn’t know what those doors would be, but they were confident that the set of available opportunities would be more favorable if I tried my best.
Wife (while dating): Choose a harder college major! Saw potential in me and challenged me to explore a larger set of opportunities. I changed my major to engineering after this.
Older mentor advising me on how to complete a career pivot: Go get an MBA, write articles on topics you want to be perceived as an expert in, and leverage my network’s contacts to make new important connections. He offered to connect me with his best contacts as I was exploring a career pivot so I could explore more opportunities. I followed his advice! Conference presentations, articles, constant networking, and I just wrapped up an Executive MBA program. These have become foundational building blocks that I’m standing on now.
Engineering mentor: Communicate clearly. For engineering, this meant building up to a coherent argument to clearly articulate a simple message to describe something complex. To clearly describe facts. Similar to my earlier funny mistake, this mentor taught me to take all of the complexity out of my explanations and only articulate what was critical for an audience to know. They don’t need to know the details of how an earthquake will affect a 1,000 ft tall high-rise tower, they only need to know enough to effectively solve the problem at hand.
During a job interview for a Biz Ops role: Communicate clearly. But in business, and for problems with uncertain solutions, this means leading with a high-level hypothesis and then developing a fact base that will prove or disprove the hypothesis. It’s the top-down approach to uncertain problems as opposed to the bottom-up method of starting with first principles to build up to a proof that I’d learned as an engineer. This relates back to reading an audience and providing information in a way that’s useful to them.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
There’s so much to be done! Construction is a $10 trillion a year industry. Think about it, if we make a 1% improvement to that number it’s a $100 billion/year opportunity.
The world of industrialized construction and more broadly in construction technology is just starting to emerge. Today, I’m focused on driving construction work into factories. Next will be to drive the “productization” of construction components. Just like the automotive industry digitized and productized over the course of about 40 years, from hand-made, custom automobiles into mass-produced automotive products, construction is following that same path today. In the coming decade, we’ll see the emergence of standardized prefabricated and modular building components that can be easily ordered and easily installed on construction jobsites. The foundations for this revolution are being built now, but there is a lot more to come. I’ll be in the thick of it, driving things forward toward the goal of higher quality, efficiently produced buildings that can address both our current labor shortages as well as the high cost of housing.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
I love epic novels and historical accounts that look at many eras of history in one volume: anything by James Michener, Sarum by Edward Rutherford, the Old Testament in the Bible. My mind tends toward the present; these stories and accounts help draw me outside of the present and to see my place in the arc of history. To see myself as a part of a much larger narrative provides clarity for the present (who am I and where do I fit?) and purpose for the future (what am I here for?). For example, fostering positive traits in my three kids will have an exponentially increasing impact through time as they pass these traits on to future generations. I have to step out of my myopic, daily grind to see that kind of purpose.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Do your best so doors will open” has been my operating principle to-date and has helped me navigate life thus far. It may be reaching the end of its usefulness though. I’m doing lots of thinking at this point around what success means going forward.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Professionally, it’d be to leverage technology to build better buildings and to reduce the cost of housing.
For the world at large, it’d be to get people’s eyeballs off of screens and get together in shared community. Living in overly personalized digital bubbles isn’t good for people.
How can our readers follow you online?
LinkedIn mostly, for professional connections. I stopped using social media a long time ago. Or give me a call and we’ll get together in-person over a beer.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!