It's 6 pm as two estimators walk into a bar. They sit down, order a beer and start comparing takeoff techniques. The old estimator, who has been estimating more than 30 years, says, “I put all my counts on paper spreadsheets, then I enter them into the computer later. My way is best!” The young estimator, who has only been at it for 15 years, responds, “I enter all my counts directly into the computer, building my assemblies as I enter them. This saves me a whole bunch of time. My way is best!” Just then, their boss walks into the bar and asks, “Hey! Why aren’t you two at work? That job bids tomorrow!”

Paper spreadsheets vs. direct entry

The argument against the “old standard” paper counts spreadsheet is a tough one to win. For years, I’ve been convinced they are not the most efficient way to record counts, especially with the capabilities of today’s modern estimating software. Direct entry is absolutely, without a doubt, faster. Period. End of conversation, right? Sure, that is until the computer crashes and you lose your data. Remember to back up every three minutes, otherwise the file you have been working on for two weeks may become corrupt and not repairable. I can’t discuss this further due to the health issues it causes.

Direct entry is not just about speed. I believe in building your assemblies as you count the symbols. This is when you are the most familiar with what the symbol is, and you know the most about it. Entering the counts several hours or even days later allows your brain a chance to forget important details. You might find yourself needing to return to the symbols, spending more time reviewing them again, thus losing precious time.

But at the end of the day, I find there are just as many good reasons for using paper count sheets as there are using the direct entry method. At the very minimum, the paper count sheet is an accessible, easy-to-read document that cannot be corrupted. And when the computer isn’t on or doesn’t work, good old paper beats rock every time. Be careful, though, because paper can get lost, burned, stained or rolled up in a set of drawings never to be seen again. So make copies, and guard them with your life.

Show the computer who’s boss

Not too long ago, we entered an era in estimating from which we will never return—an era where machines began taking the place of our minds, controlling the way we think and how we look at, organize, and takeoff a project. Our entire way of estimating changed.

We began performing our takeoffs using “super-powerful” software, which, in the beginning, wasn’t so powerful. It had limitations, but then again, so did we. Then the machines got better, smarter and faster (and cheaper). The software grew more powerful, smart and fast (and more expensive). It gave us more capability to control (or lose control of) our estimates, allowing us to segregate our projects into as many different breakouts as our minds could imagine. We could literally confuse ourselves into submission and create a quagmire of extension labels only Stephen Hawking could figure out.

And so it began: the dumbing down of the modern estimator. Twenty years later, today’s younger estimators have, and rely heavily on, prebuilt databases that tell them how much things cost and how long they will take to install. The software organizes the data, performs the math and spits out beautiful spreadsheets with color-coded images and delicious-looking pie charts that dazzle us with their simplicity.

Computers and software will continue to get better and faster. But no matter how good it gets, true security and confidence can come only from a thoroughly performed estimate, reviewed by an intelligent, educated, freethinking human being. They still call this person the estimator, not the computer.

Now, some of the best computer users I know are old estimators. They are smart, experienced and know both the old and the new tricks. They also have vast knowledge on electrical construction and, specifically, estimating. We’ve already lost many of the true experts to retirement, and many more will soon follow. So, all you young estimators reading this, pay attention. If you see some old guy cranking out paper spreadsheets, don’t laugh. Sit down, watch and learn. Grab the knowledge while you can before they leave.

Meanwhile, back at the bar …

As the two estimators are leaving the bar, an estimator who has only been at it for five years walks in. The boss calls her over and offers to buy her a beer. The other two estimators sound off in protest, “Why does she get to stay while we have to go back and work?” The boss smiles and says, “Because she’s already done with her takeoff. She uses CAD.”

SHOOK is the president and chief estimator for his estimating company, TakeOff 16 Inc. He has worked in the electrical construction industry for more than 18 years. Reach him at 707.776.0800 or