Usman Shuja of Bluebeam: How AI Is Disrupting Our Industry, and What We Can Do About It

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Cynthia Corsetti
Authority Magazine

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Have a purpose and strategy for using AI — the programs you develop must solve a particular pain point or create an opportunity that enables a competitive advantage.

Artificial Intelligence is no longer the future; it is the present. It’s reshaping landscapes, altering industries, and transforming the way we live and work. With its rapid advancement, AI is causing disruption — for better or worse — in every field imaginable. While it promises efficiency and growth, it also brings challenges and uncertainties that professionals and businesses must navigate. What can one do to pivot if AI is disrupting their industry? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Usman Shuja, CEO of Bluebeam.

Usman Shuja is the CEO of Bluebeam and the Chief Division Officer of the Construct and Build Division for the Nemetschek Group. In this dual role he is responsible for growth and innovation on a global scale with an emphasis on technology and sustainability. Shuja is driving AI-led innovation for the construction industry with his decade-long experience in innovation and commercialization of AI products for the physical world.

Previously, Shuja led Honeywell’s Connected Building, one of Honeywell’s largest software businesses and was a founding member of the AI unicorn, SparkCognition. He currently serves as an advisor to DARPA regarding the commercialization of advanced applications of AI and holds an MPA from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University where he focused on innovation policy and ethical application of AI. Shuja also holds an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and a BS in Computer Science from the University of Texas at Austin.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

As a child growing up, I was conditioned to believe that technology and sports were the only two ways to contribute to society. For the sports side of the equation, I represented the USA national cricket team for a decade, retiring as a record holder, and since then have looked at ways sports can advance societal goals.

I got plugged into technology, R&D and innovation quite early and had this fascination with how we can use science to advance society. A pivotal moment in my life was when I saw IBM Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in a game of chess — that was a moment I remember very vividly having an impact on me. Both the idea of an artificial intelligence program outperforming the best human expert and a software algorithm being able to make decisions about the physical world (chess board) captured my imagination.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I joined Bluebeam in September of 2023 and from the first time I stepped onto one of our customer sites, a hospital construction site across the street from our Pasadena office, I knew that Bluebeam was special.

I saw how Bluebeam very elegantly applies simplicity to complex problems for our users. During this meeting, one of the users raved about how the feature of ‘copying tables from Excel into PDF’ has saved him hundreds of minutes. This was just the first of many examples I continue to see daily of applying strong engineering to build features that appear easy and simple — and we use that same philosophy toward AI innovation.

People in the Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) industry are passionate about our product — we have more than 3 million users. The solution was designed with them and for them, so all the features they want and need when it comes to drawings, document management, design review, etc. are intuitive to those industry use cases and workflows.

I’ve also found that customers like to use the product for things outside of their official jobs as well. We did a “show us how you Bluebeam” promotion on LinkedIn recently and we received use cases from Dungeons and Dragons strategy all the way to designing and planning a backyard renovation.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Vision — I often see the potential of early, emerging technology and how it can be applied to real-world applications — not only for building a product, but how it will be commercialized and adopted to deliver financial and societal benefits. I saw the potential of AI ten years ago and took a bet on the technology in the cyber-physical space. I helped many Fortune500 executives see through the potential and challenges of applying AI to their solutions.

Influence — Convincing masses to change the way they operate and think can be an adaptive problem, especially if there are threatening technologies involved. Powerful technologies such as AI can appear threatening to many people who can resist the adoption, so leaders really need to understand, empathize and educate their teams on the hazards, challenges and opportunities that lie ahead to realize the potential of the technology and win the minds of their teams.

Adaptability — As with all new challenges, there is a need for flexibility and adjustment to changes along the way. New technologies, competitors and processes will continue to emerge, and I find that bouncing back from a misstep or miscalculation leads to even more growth and collaboration opportunities.

Let’s now move to the main point of our discussion about AI. Can you explain how AI is disrupting your industry? Is this disruption hurting or helping your bottom line?

It is too early to say whether it is disrupting yet, but it will definitely help the bottom lines of those in the AEC value chain.

The construction industry has undergone tremendous change in recent years. While the industry had been slowly adopting innovative digital solutions at a steady pace since the early 2000s, the COVID-19 pandemic, labor shortages, inflation and rising interest rates, among other industry trends, supercharged construction’s need for digital tools. AI will deliver new ways to accelerate project completion and reduce cost by improving productivity of the labor force and reducing waste and rework.

While the evolution of AI and other digital tools will undoubtedly bring their share of unwanted change and uncertainty, with ethical applications and collaborative government oversight, these tools and others to come will ultimately increase the bottom line and make life better and easier for those who build our world.

Which specific AI technology has had the most significant impact on your industry?

Generative AI (GenAI) has rapidly emerged to the forefront of our world. Ever since OpenAI released its ChatGPT tool in November 2022, billions of dollars have been poured into GenAI, creating a gold rush of hype and experimentation across industries. In 2024, more generative AI applications will emerge purpose-built for construction, especially in the design phase.

My concern is around the ethics and transparency of GenAI, but I’m also glad to see governments around the world taking steps to address it. As someone who has been deeply involved in developing innovative AI applications in more traditional tech-focused industries, I understand the significance in making sure that these tools are used cautiously and responsibly, and I believe 2024 will be a year of focusing on this effort.

Can you share a pivotal moment when you recognized the profound impact AI would have on your sector?

Far too many in our industry still rely on paper-based processes, leading to enhanced risk for errors, costly re-work and budget overruns. What’s more, I believe the continued digitization of the construction industry is paramount to one of our most pressing and existential challenges: making construction more environmentally sustainable.

Ditching paper for digital-based and AI-enabled workflows isn’t just a massive time saver and efficiency driver; it’s also critically sustainable. In addition to the simple fact that reduced paper use is clearly good for the environment, the efficiencies gained through digitization can lead to substantial reduction in materials waste on jobsites. Moreover, less re-work due to improved plan document legibility and clarity doesn’t just save money — it reduces a project’s overall carbon footprint.

In fact, we believe that if everyone in the construction industry fully adopted digital tools such as PDF collaboration, digital twins and BIMs, we could reduce the world’s overall carbon footprint by 1%.

How are you preparing your workforce for the integration of AI, and what skills do you believe will be most valuable in an AI-enhanced future?

I believe that humans will always find a way to elevate their work. AI brings the promise of automation and elimination of redundant work. AI enables humans to be more productive and engaged by allowing them to focus on solving higher order problems. This is like other waves of automation where some tasks were eliminated, and new ones were created, but overall, there were more jobs created and productivity increased. My prediction is that with AI, productivity gains could be exponential, and skills will need to evolve more dynamically. Specifically, employees should think through how they can measure performance and strategize proactively with a goal in mind versus focusing on reactive tasks that are more easily outsourced to AI.

What are the biggest challenges in upskilling your workforce for an AI-centric future?

Keeping an eye toward what’s next for technology and making sure we provide our employees with the opportunities to upskill and reskill. To do that, we as an organization and leadership need to understand our strategy for the future and clearly communicate that to employees. Then, between senior leadership and HR, create clear career pathing that maps toward that future — not just stick to the traditional roles we’ve always hired for.

What ethical considerations does AI introduce into your industry, and how are you tackling these concerns?

Making sure all AI tools are being formed using unbiased and balanced data will be of particular importance, in the construction industry and beyond. Consider facial recognition technology powered by generative AI. If an AI dataset is trained to favor a certain type of ethnicity, unfair biases and outcomes will almost certainly be baked into the tool. Working to create AI tools that avoid these types of dangerous and inequitable outcomes will be critical to the technology’s continued development.

Relatedly, I expect 2024 will be a year of enhanced regulation of AI. The technology comes with many questions around the data used to source and train its algorithm. Companies should be taking the lead in making sure that any AI products they develop are drawing from datasets that are fair and transparent. But it will ultimately fall to governments to set standards and laws around what those parameters will be.

What are your “Five Things You Need To Do, If AI Is Disrupting Your Industry”?

1 . Have a purpose and strategy for using AI — the programs you develop must solve a particular pain point or create an opportunity that enables a competitive advantage.

2 . Keep things simple and achievable — especially in the beginning. Having sizable goals is great but having a step-by-step roadmap to getting there is even more important.

3 . Make sure when you are outlining your strategy that you assemble a diverse team — people involved in creating the current product, those with machine learning expertise, those who understand the domain, and those who interact with your customers. You should also consider if it makes sense to directly involve your customers in your AI strategy. At Bluebeam, we’ve found that giving our customers and partners a seat at the table when we are innovating is one of the most powerful ways to create solutions that translate to their needs.

4 . Understand the data needed to enable the problem you’re looking to solve. Along with that comes data availability, privacy, compatibility and rights to use the data. It’s important to have a data strategy to ensure transparency and accountability. With more data generally available, it is important to respect the data, its source and the parameters in which it can be used ethically.

5 . AI is an adaptive challenge. Organizations must think through implementation and adoption, look into change management, train people to understand the new workflows and how their work would be changed, make sure employees have bought into the changes, etc. Most AI projects fail due to lack of buy-in from the organization and due to poor change management.

What are the most common misconceptions about AI within your industry, and how do you address them?

That AI will replace the human worker. AI can automate repetitive tasks, improve efficiency, and enhance safety, but human expertise is still crucial for complex decision-making, creativity and adaptability. Construction projects vary widely, and the expertise and institutional knowledge of actual experience are valuable for success. There is also the aspect of safety and risk management when it comes to construction projects that I believe will always require human oversight and intervention.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“It’s not how we fall. It’s how we get back up again.” — Patrick Ness.

As an athlete and an entrepreneur, I had to face many setbacks, but I found ways to get back up by learning and changing my approach. I have achieved most of my milestones on the second attempt — from being selected for the US national team, being recruited by Boston Consulting Group or admitted to Kellogg and Harvard — they were all on a second or third attempt.

Off-topic, but I’m curious. As someone steering the ship, what thoughts or concerns often keep you awake at night? How do those thoughts influence your daily decision-making process?

I am not someone who worries a lot and tend to sleep well ☺

I rely on data, multiple viewpoints, debate, acknowledging biases and intuition to make a few impactful decisions. If they turn out to be wrong, then so be it.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

This is off topic but, in my perspective, sports stand as an effective vehicle for driving economic development and fostering social well-being. I believe that access to sports constitutes a fundamental human right, akin to education and clean water, yet often goes overlooked or underutilized. I advocate that everyone should have equal opportunities to reap the benefits of its transformative impact and I pursue that through an advisory role with UNESCO Sports and my involvement with sports technology startups.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Follow me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/usmanshuja/ and through Bluebeam’s LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/company/bluebeam-software.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.

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