The Power of Harnessing Data and AI in Facilities Management

Brian Gregory [00:00:01]:
Hi, everybody. This is your host, Brian for the Beyond Buildings podcast, where we meet with innovative and inspiring facilities leaders from across the country. In this episode, I chat with Julius Carter, who is the director of facilities at Issaquah School District. We cover the importance of utilizing data to drive decisions, and we also get into the murder and ice cream paradox. And if you don't know what that is, you're probably not alone, but please tune in to find out. Julius is an extremely smart, competent leader, and I promise you will gain a lot from hearing from him. You definitely don't want to miss it.

Brian Gregory [00:00:34]:
Let's dive in. Welcome, Julius. Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today. Just to kick things off, just give us a little bit of your background.

Julius Carter [00:00:42]:
Yeah, thanks for having me, Brian. Excited to be here. My background, I've been in operations and maintenance, really, my entire career. Started as an electrical engineer and got recruited by my operations manager when I worked at a coal fired power plant way back when, in 2002 to come join the operations team, and didn't look back to my engineering days after that. Just really liked working with the people, primarily being part of a team and getting to figure out problems on why things work and don't work and how to repair them the best we can. And so, yeah, I'd never looked back from there. So power generation and then fossil fuels and then renewable energy. So right before I started with the school district, I was working with wind turbines, utility grade wind turbines across the country.

Julius Carter [00:01:37]:
Spent a lot of time in Texas and Iowa and California, obviously, where a lot of them are, and got to travel, see the country, got tired of traveling and originally from the Pacific Northwest, so wanted to come back here and found my way just outside of Seattle here at the Issaquah School district, and had the opportunity to join the operations and maintenance team here as a director of facility services. We're really focused right now on improving our preventative maintenance, potentially our predictive maintenance, if I dare say that word, and really trying to use data to drive our decision-making process and figure out where we need to spend the money and where it's going to make the biggest impact based on the data that we're seeing.

Brian Gregory [00:02:28]:
Awesome. Well, thank you for that background, Julius. One question like to ask. Obviously, starting on the coal power plant side, commercial segment, very technical, and eventually making it into public education, were there any surprises or major adjustments you had to make to fit into the public education world after being in the commercial world?

Julius Carter [00:02:48]:
Yeah, I think the biggest adjustment, I would say the bureaucracy involved on the public side. One of the adjustments is learning how to adjust my communication style so that I can convince educators that their buildings are just as important to the students learning ability as the teaching styles that their teachers are using and how they interact with students. So that's been the biggest adjustment for me, is trying to figure out the best way to communicate with folks that really don't have a technical background and don't understand why HVAC systems or electrical systems or plumbing systems are important or impact students.

Brian Gregory [00:03:38]:
Yeah, I think it's so easy to take those things for granted, right? Like, if the environment is conducive to learning, nobody notices. If it isn't, they notice sometimes. And I think it's just easy to take that for granted. So that's interesting that that's one of the challenges that you're facing, because one of the things we've seen, too, is when it comes to funding decisions and things like that, obviously, the focus is on students, as it always should be. But sometimes the funding decisions go the way of curriculum and other things, when really it could be a bigger impact to throw that funding towards building improvements and better controls and that sort of thing. So it's really interesting. So you kind of touched on, you're an electrical engineer by education. You're also looking at data analysis for making decisions.

Brian Gregory [00:04:25]:
Maybe just speak a little bit about how do you utilize data to do your job in the school district?

Julius Carter [00:04:31]:
Yeah, on any given day right now, I'd say I have a lot of data streams coming into me to try to try to analyze where we need to prioritize our work and our direction, whether it's our work order management system, we're getting a lot of great data. Having just transitioned over to FMX and being able to drill down into individual schools and seeing where the majority of those work requests are coming from. So if we have a light, we may have a systemic lighting problem at one of our high schools. It's real easy to see that spring up in the data, because all of a sudden we're getting lots of, hey, my lights don't work. Hey, my lights don't work. Hey, my lights, I can't turn them on. Or there's something wrong with a ballast that allows us from a preventative and kind of predictive side to say, hey, maybe we need to spend a little more effort, whether it's engaging with a lighting control system expert or just looking at the control system in general, to see if there's something larger going on in the background that will prevent the number of lighting issues that the staff is dealing with in any given day. And in my role, I'm getting data from the maintenance department.

Julius Carter [00:05:55]:
It's probably the biggest piece. But also on the custodial side, we use data to kind of drive where help is needed to clean and disinfect areas. And that can be anything from a custodial inspection from one of our supervisors or lead custodians to. We've even started looking at absence reports of students to see if we can pick up on any trends and compare that to our custodial inspections, to see if it's impacting absence rates at all, and to see if we can correlate anything there. It's still a work in progress on that one. We haven't seen anything that's necessarily a big correlation, but it kind of helps us understand where we can send extra custodians if we need to take people away from their spots and move them to somewhere where we're going to see more value in any given day. It's also a new culture for the school district to try and make data driven decisions. I think a lot of people like to make decisions based on their gut instincts and how they're feeling on any given day.

Julius Carter [00:07:07]:
So trying to get away from that and make an objective call versus a subjective call is also interesting.

Brian Gregory [00:07:15]:
Yeah, that's huge, right? I mean, certainly as a leader, they trust their gut instinct from time to time. And it's not a bad thing to have a gut instinct, but often it can lead us astray. And I really like what you mentioned about using objective data versus subjective feelings in your gut. If you think about your career, whether it's at the school district or before that, can you think of a time where your gut told you one thing, but the data told you something else? Can you share an example of that?

Julius Carter [00:07:42]:
Yeah, I think a really good example is just with absence data in dealing in our current environment. I know it's been really hard to find workers in general, and then we also see a lot of workers being absent from work. For me, I really started noticing a trend when we were first getting into the COVID pandemic, and it really, instead of transitioning back to how it was before, the pandemic has really just stayed with us. Like, people don't come to work if they're sick. When I grew up, I was told to tough it out and get your butt to work.

Brian Gregory [00:08:26]:
Same here. Unless you're nearly on death's door. Right?

Julius Carter [00:08:30]:
But now we're really seeing if someone's not feeling quite right. Maybe has a minor cold or whatever, they will stay home. And that was really kind of, I hate to say it, beaten into them during the pandemic. It's like, don't come to work if you're sick. And we're seeing that. Stay with us now after the pandemic is over. So one of the pieces in the data was, I think as managers and supervisors, there is this unfortunate tendency to think the worst of what's actually going on. I won't lie, if someone calls out on a Friday or after a long holiday weekend, I'm like, what the heck, guys? Are you really sick? So that's one area where we've used the data just in looking at absence rates and why people are out to really help us understand if there is absence abuse or is it just people are staying home when they're sick and they have legitimate reasons to be away from work.

Julius Carter [00:09:35]:
And what we're finding is that there's always one or two folks that kind of like, hey, you're taking advantage of the system, but in large part, people are just staying home when they're sick. And there isn't this intent on the employees part to try and avoid work or just stay home for a long weekend. So that really kind of opened my eyes. I think it opened a lot of people's eyes, especially in HR. We have some folks that are like, oh, you need to make sure we're watching out for this. And they're like, oh, well, it's not as bad as we thought it was. So that was really interesting. We've also seen that happen, too, with customer complaints at the school.

Julius Carter [00:10:19]:
We get a lot of teachers that may be upset or frustrated with the way their rooms are getting cleaned and being able to show those teachers the data and show them the inspections and show them potentially the before and after pictures really helps change their minds about what the custodial staff is doing on a daily basis when they can't see them. I think that's one of the biggest pieces of frustrating feedback we get, is we never see your staff. And then I'm quick to tell them, well, I don't want you to see my staff. I just want you to be able to do your job and be comfortable doing it. We're just here in the background trying to make it as comfortable as possible for you. And by being able to show them that data and making those drawing those conclusions on how we arrived at a certain point has really helped change some opinions. Yeah.

Brian Gregory [00:11:15]:
And I think anytime I hear the word always or never or like, any of these absolutes, typically, not that to invalidate concerns, but typically, that's an emotional, driven response. And having data behind that really helps, because otherwise, nobody wants to be uncomfortable. Nobody wants the room to be dirty. But is it always uncomfortable? Is it always dirty? Did it happen, like, two times? And now it's always. So having that data absolutely makes sense.

Julius Carter [00:11:41]:

Brian Gregory [00:11:41]:
One of the things that we run into, even as a business, and I'm curious, if you ever run into this, there's correlation and there's causation. So if I dig way back to my college days, I remember this one example of the strong correlation between ice cream sales and murder. And those two things are very, very strongly correlated. But I think we all know, like, if we stop selling ice cream, murders are not going to go down. In fact, maybe they go up because people are more grumpy. It's really just obviously, the nice weather gets people out, and when people are out, murders can happen, too. Do you ever find that sort of dynamic when you're looking at data that you're dealing with, like, yes, these things are correlated. Is one causing the other?

Julius Carter [00:12:20]:
We don't run into it very often. I'm trying to think of any. If we have any recent examples of that. I've had examples of that happen my previous career working in renewable energy, where we'd start up a new piece of equipment, a wind turbine, and we'd be getting a ton of fault codes on a piece of equipment that would indicate a certain problem with the turbine not being able to generate power. And we'd also know that these happened in low wind conditions. And there was a correlation between, hey, there's no wind, but we're getting all these fault codes happen. What the heck does that mean? And I think a lot of people jump to the conclusions, oh, well, it's just low wind. The turbines not able to produce power in low wind, so the two must be correlated.

Julius Carter [00:13:15]:
And what it actually ended up being was there was trying to figure out the best way to say it, but in every set point, there's a deadband where you can have an alarm reset or wait to trigger. And what ended up happening was in these low wind conditions, they just didn't have the control set points fine tuned enough to prevent the alarms from happening at all. So there wasn't actually any problems, but it was the set points that were in the system just being caused by these low wind conditions. So once we were able to figure that out, it was a set point thing, and not like low wind is messing with the equipment per se. We made those changes and everything was hunky dory. We try to avoid that stuff. I think experience helps with that too, Brian. Like, just knowing now what actually causes know.

Julius Carter [00:14:14]:
Using your gut. Like, the ice cream and murder thing is an extreme example, but I think that helps, too. And that's something we have to look out for, too. I think we are seeing a lot of experienced folks retire, and we do have a lot of new blood coming into the workforce in general. So being able to talk about those false conclusions, I think helps quite a bit. Like, hey, maybe look at this other thing instead of focus on this.

Brian Gregory [00:14:50]:
That makes a ton of sense. Yeah, I had one example that's less crazy than the ice cream and murder one. But prior to FMX, I was kind of in the controls space as well, did a lot of energy projects and worked the control systems. And of course, the job that's the farthest away from your house is the one that always has the most problems. I think it's like Murphy's law. And there was one job we were working with where every day around 02:00, 01:00, something like that, half the building would go offline from a controller standpoint, and we were trying to figure out why it was correlated with the time of day. We were thinking, like, maybe there's a rush of communication packets during that day or that time or whatever. And so we kept digging into that, digging into it, thinking that that correlation was causal.

Brian Gregory [00:15:30]:
In reality, what it was is the communication loop. That's just this two wire twisted pair. There was one joint that wasn't secure enough, and so when the building heated up, it was just enough that that joint pulled apart and communication dropped. And then when it cooled back down, then it was fine. And talk about pulling your hair out, because you're looking at all these things, like, why is this going down? We checked every piece of software, every bit of code, and it was a simple hardware piece that we just missed. It's always fascinating to me to dive into those stories, and sometimes it could be really nuanced, but looking for correlation, you're doing that, right, because you want to make a decision, but then want to make sure that decision is based on reality, that it's actually going to fix the problem. Yeah, just jumping forward a little bit. I know prior to us getting started, one of the things we wanted to jump into also was, we're talking about data analytics.

Brian Gregory [00:16:20]:
I don't think we can have this conversation here in 2023 and not mention artificial intelligence. So what are your views on AI in general? Are you a fan? Are you concerned? Are you both? And then specifically, how do you think AI can be leveraged to enhance the impact that you're making for your district and the students?

Julius Carter [00:16:38]:
Yeah, I think it's an interesting topic. I see a lot of potential with artificial intelligence, but I also think it needs to be used in the right way where obviously you don't want to just jump in and say, hey, the robot told me to do this, so I did it even though I knew it was probably the wrong idea. But where I see it being a huge advantage right now is on the productivity side. And I think, especially at a school district, being able to use tools like Chat GPT, I probably use it on a daily basis just in my Excel spreadsheet analysis. If I don't know how to do something in Excel, or power bi for that matter, I've got this amazing tool now and I can literally just ask it a question as if I was speaking to someone else and it will reliably give me the right formula or the right code to put in the system. So it's like an on demand live chat resource to help me make my life easier and tell me how to automate those connections that I was having trouble making to make our lives easier in the office. It's not really at the point where we're using it to analyze systems or provide technical troubleshooting out in the field. I see it getting there, obviously, but I think that's a huge advantage right now.

Julius Carter [00:18:14]:
At the school district, I mentioned bureaucracy earlier. There's a lot of need for paperwork and filling out forms and doing a bunch of busy work that quite frankly, if we took the time to analyze it and evaluate the value of those processes, I think we would do it differently. And having a tool like chat GTP to push us in the right direction when we don't have the Excel guru sitting right across from us or whatever, I think is only going to help. And I think if people look at the tool in the right way and that it is a tool and not don't ask it how you should live your life or anything crazy like that, but use it as the tool it was intended for, I think we're going to find that it is really productive.

Brian Gregory [00:19:02]:
I'm curious too. I mean, just specifically being in the education sector, I think it's no surprise the Chat GPT is causing challenges on the education side of things with potential, like cheating or copying or whatever. Is there a negative stigma that's hard to overcome to use Chat GPT and other tools like that productively because obviously it's a challenge. On the one end. Does that cause barriers to use it because of that? Or maybe I'm just reaching.

Julius Carter [00:19:30]:
No, I think it does. My wife is a high school teacher, and she teaches business classes, so she's been trying to figure it out as well and how to appropriately use it in the student space. And the students are probably the biggest adopters of it. They've done everything from they're writing their resumes by using Chat GPT, they're doing cover letters, they're writing book reports with Chat GPT. So on one hand, I think it becomes like a societal question. On one hand, from a very business oriented perspective, I'll tell you, I would reward someone for taking the initiative. It used to take me an hour to do this report. Now it only takes me 3 seconds.

Julius Carter [00:20:24]:
We reward people for stuff like that in the business world, but do we want students to do that when they're still learning how to do things? I think it's a larger question that we could probably spend a lot of time on, but I think from a purely business standpoint, it makes a lot of sense. It's kind of like, oh, once you know the fundamentals, you don't need to show your work anymore. Just go straight for the calculator.

Brian Gregory [00:20:50]:
Yeah. How often do you do long division?

Julius Carter [00:20:52]:

Brian Gregory [00:20:53]:
I don't know that I could do it if I had to right now.

Julius Carter [00:20:55]:
When was the last time I actually used calculus or trigonometry? It's been a while, but, yeah. I think from a teaching perspective, there's a lot more difficult questions to answer. But if you just need to pump out some paperwork and learn how to automate a process, it's an amazing thing.

Brian Gregory [00:21:18]:
Yeah, I feel the same way. And there's a big challenge. I do think there's a foundational time right in kiddos development where it makes sense for them to do it themselves. But when we think about it, we're obviously on the commercial side as a business, and we're looking at ways to utilize AI everywhere. And obviously we don't want to lose that human touch. I think that's a fear that we have that's not unique to us. But I think there's a blend where the 24/7 access, something like that, is useful and you can still back it up by a team. It's just that you get more out of your team than you would otherwise.

Julius Carter [00:21:50]:

Brian Gregory [00:21:50]:
So, Julius, I know we're coming up a little bit closer on time here. I do want to kind of wrap up with a question to you. Basically, if you were coaching others that maybe have a similar background to what you had or not, what advice would you give to others looking to enter the facilities management field and specifically k twelve education facilities management?

Julius Carter [00:22:11]:
I always tend to have a pretty funny outlook on things, but I'll try to be as serious as possible here.

Brian Gregory [00:22:19]:
Don't do it is not good advice.

Julius Carter [00:22:20]:
Don't do it. You're crazy. Yeah. My advice would be, I don't know if this was on purpose or by complete accident in my own career, but I had the opportunity to work for a utility which relied on service providers and contractors and others to help them get their job done and provide power. I've also had the opportunity to work for a service provider in the reverse role. And I would say to anybody, having those two experiences and those two perspectives has really made me successful. If I can define my career successful, being able to look at it from two different perspectives, I think our worlds are very different with me being an asset owner and then working with a service provider like yourself. It's very different depending on which side of the fence you're on.

Julius Carter [00:23:20]:
And I always try to, when I can look at it from that other side and remember, oh yeah, this is probably what they're thinking. That's really helped me over my career, to be able to step back and try to see it from the other side of the fence. And sometimes you can't do that, and that's fine. But when you can and try to take in a more holistic picture, not just in facilities management life in general, I think you're going to have a much more positive outcome. That's the advice I would give anyone. And then in terms of, I guess more specifically, facilities management in my current position, I still love getting out in the field and learning new things. Don't get trapped in the office as hard as that to try to get out there. Don't be afraid to make mistakes, push some buttons, learn what things do.

Julius Carter [00:24:12]:
It really helps you make better decisions as a manager, director, supervisor.

Brian Gregory [00:24:18]:
That's huge. Yeah. Thank you sharing that, Julius, and thank you for your time today. I think the audience is going to love to hear this message and thank you for your time.

Creators and Guests

Brian Gregory
Brian Gregory
Brian is the founder and CEO of FMX, a leading provider of facilities and maintenance management software.
Julius Carter
Julius Carter
Julius is the Director of Facility Services at Issaquah School District where he leads a Facility Services team of 150 that provide custodial, maintenance, grounds, warehouse, and scheduling services for 30 facilities within a 110 square mile footprint.
The Power of Harnessing Data and AI in Facilities Management
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