Straightening the Learning Curve

With this last article on paperless estimating, I want to touch on a few of the greater benefits and potential issues you may face. I’m hoping some of you have already purchased and are now using “in-screen” takeoff (IST) software, after reading parts one and two of this series. I also hope you improved your monitor setup and are now sitting in front of dual 60-inch plasma screens, wearing sunglasses and getting a tan.

How pretty do you need to be?
One of the greatest features of IST software is the ability to create highly detailed, color-coded, dimensioned mark-ups without 50 different pens, highlighters, engineer scales and other drafting tools. You also don’t have to know how to use AutoCAD. But this feature comes with a price: time.

Creating pretty drawings involves more mouse clicks, adjustments and time. You select the count symbol, annotation or highlight function; choose the color; and click on the symbol, item or area you want to count or draw a border around. You can also measure a distance or even color over a line. By the time you finally click off the item and save your entry (whew!), you have more actions than you would have with a red pen on paper.

As you are no longer limited by how you design your mark-ups, you could find yourself getting extra creative, carefully and playfully, attempting to impress your boss, clients and yourself. So when it comes to cranking out estimates, you may need to keep your artistic ego (and creative time) in check.

Getting the counts into your database
The mark-up actions I describe above don’t necessarily include entering what you counted and marked up into your estimating database. You now need to take a couple more steps, using either the “direct entry” method or securing a link between your IST mark-up counts and your estimating software.

Most IST programs provide basic extension functionality and the ability to create spreadsheets of counts and length data based on your mark-ups. These spreadsheets can be exported to programs such as Excel or Lotus, or you can print them out (though that’s not paperless). With this reported data, you can enter your counts directly into your estimating database—an extra step that requires additional time, but it’s the same as transferring counts from a paper spreadsheet.

The better and more efficient method is linking your IST counts directly to your estimating database software. Many of the top estimating software companies have created “link/interface software,” which connects and integrates IST programs directly to their programs. So as you count, roll-off and design, you are entering them into your estimating database and your first software.

This integration technology is not difficult to learn. While it eliminates the time required to enter counts by hand, it requires a bit of time to set up. You must also maintain focus on how the two programs are connected and how your projects are organized. Always ensure you are on the right label set, and constantly confirm your entries are being made to the right locations in your database. You must also ensure your selected items and/or assemblies account for everything that you intended.

Another database to maintain
Many IST programs are actually complete estimating systems, meaning you could technically estimate and bid your jobs with just one program. However, I think you might find them lacking power in the areas of extension reports and bid summarization, features that many of the major estimating database programs excel at.

Just like your estimating database programs, you will need to create, build and maintain multiple databases and project templates. This, too, will require time and focus and a plan for how you want your database to function. However, after a few months of estimating projects and working on your database of symbols, you should have a very fast, fine-tuned estimating machine.

You also need Adobe Acrobat
Now, being 100 percent paperless may require having another program or two. Programs, such as Adobe Acrobat (not Reader), allow you to edit, mark-up, highlight and annotate .jpg, .tif, .pdf and other similar file formats. This is especially critical for reviewing specification documents, architectural reference drawings, details, feeder and fixture schedules—any drawings or documents you don’t load into your IST job file. Having this software allows you to open individual documents on your second monitor, and you don’t have to leave the drawing you are working on in your IST program.

Don’t be in such a hurry
The learning curve can be dangerous, so proceed with caution. Take it slow, and get used to the handling of your new ride. Until you become fully comfortable and confident working 100 percent in-screen and are cranking out paperless takeoffs, be careful with your time, and stay focused on your bid schedule.
Remember, estimating a bid efficiently, accurately and on time is more important than mastering paperless technology.

SHOOK has been estimating for more than 23 years. During the past 12 years, he operated a fully staffed estimating company, TakeOff 16 Inc. He is currently focusing on writing, teaching and speaking about electrical estimating. Read his blog at or contact him directly

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