A Career in Development: Switching From Software to Real Estate

12 July 2017     |     By
As told by PMGx Director of Experience, Brian Koles

Eighteen months ago, two Principals of PMG, my dear friends of 15+ years and now my bosses, approached me about ditching my tech startup career to lead a new division focused on creating fun places to live. They knew I couldn’t say “No” to hosting a perpetual party for a living. The bastards.

So I traded my stock options at a phenomenal company dedicated to inspiring software developers for a role at an inspired real estate developer dedicated to creating phenomenal company. (See what I did there) It’s been humbling, challenging, hectic, exhausting…honestly, everything I hoped for.

Here’s how working for an entrepreneurial real estate developer differs from working at a high growth tech startup:

The Opposite of “Move Fast and Break Things”

Facebook’s abandoned motto (and every tech accelerator’s default rally cry) doesn’t hold up when buildings need to…no break. Sure we want to push boundaries and experiment, but deploying a bug in real estate requires a heftier patch than keystrokes to rectify. At best, a few walls need to be moved. At worst, they crumble. Iterating aint easy.

The product launch cycle is also far lengthier. While software can go from idea to wireframe to viable product in a two-day hackathon, large-scale buildings take years to come to market. Building fast is not nearly as important as building carefully when lives are on the line.

Failure Not Celebrated

The “failed fast” badge of honor in the startup community is a scarlet letter in real estate development. VC’s view failure as valuable experience. Real estate investors aren’t as forgiving of bankruptcy. Fortunately PMG has a stellar track record over 25+ years.

It Takes a Village

Creating apartment communities entails a shockingly vast spectrum of stakeholders and moving parts. Each role is far more specialized than a front-end coder partnering with a back-end architect. Nobody is a ‘full stack’ anything. The array of subcontractors under a general contractor is staggering (e.g. shell, drywall, masonry, framework, electric, millwork, low voltage, plumbing) without even considering ‘soft’ specialists like architects, analysts, marketers, designers, IT pros, and project managers.

Instead of a small group leveraging turnkey (i.e. prefab) tools to tackle common needs, like APIs and open source repositories do for software, each task requires highly trained people to create custom solutions for unique situations.

Paper Is (Unfortunately) Necessary

The amount of paper that currently goes into creating a high rise is appalling. Construction is a notoriously slow-moving industry (largely due to being understandable risk-averse), and no big screen or tablet can replicate the tactile group energy of hunching over a plan with red pencils in hand, or marching through a construction site with drawings tucked under arm.

Then there’s the matter of scale. Typical screens running legacy architecture software won’t do for precisely placing details like conduits on anything over 2,000 sqft. 

[This is changing, however. RiverfrontX will be our first project done entirely in Revit, with all design consultants sharing BIM (Building Information Management) data in real time, making changes to the same file and coordinating drawing conflicts as the design progresses. This will lead to more efficiency, faster design timelines, and less mistakes during construction. Workers in the field will have tablets with drawings that update and alert them in real time. We’re pumped to be leading the charge on reducing, and eventually eliminating, all the paper. (More to come on this in another post)]

Actual In-Person Meetings (and impromptu phone calls)

Real estate is, to an inefficient fault, a relationship business. Everybody wants to shake hands over coffee or slap backs over cocktails. Golf outings are frequent too, thankfully. Actual face time is the true currency of deal making, separating ‘contacts’ from ‘friends who do business together’.

The granular, iterative, and tactile nature of negotiations would be exhausting in writing. Requirements change constantly with no room for error at delivery. Selecting materials requires seeing and touching them in person. Contract redlines get maddeningly convoluted after several rounds of back and forth. People in real estate actually get off email, Slack and texts to talk through problems.

Dollars on a Different Scale

It’s been a shock leaving a world where the Twitterverse explodes over VCs betting hundreds of thousands on a startup for a world where tens of millions change hands regularly without fanfare. There are no Seed, Angel and Series A funding rounds to get buildings off the ground. Shovels only hit the dirt when capital is in place to complete the job. An army of programmers could build the next AirBnB for a fraction of what we spend on concrete, glass and plumbing, but that’s what it takes to build homes people love.

Less Age-ism

Startups notoriously favor youthful optimism and energy, tending to view people over 40 as hampered by family time, outdated methods, and jaded weariness. Whereas in real estate development the skepticism of grizzled veterans is invaluable for preventing costly mistakes. There’s also far more mentorship, where fresh faced talent gratefully absorbs the eagerly shared wisdom of gray haired peers. Work feels a bit more like family with all age groups at the table.

I’m incredibly fortunate to have spent over a decade building tech startups before jumping into real estate development. Now if they’d just stop asking me to fix the damn printer…