Tracy Young brings the construction industry into the mobile era

Tracy Young ’08 (Construction Management) knew her industry had a paper problem.

It was 2010, four years into her construction engineering career, and she was growing frustrated with 3,000-page blueprints that would turn over multiple times during projects and often contained outdated information.

Luckily for her, 2010 also was the year Apple released the first iPad. Even better, her best friend from Sacramento State, Ryan Sutton-Gee, had stood in line to be among the first to get the new device, and she was meeting him for a drink later that night.

“He showed me his iPad, and I was telling him about this blueprint problem I was having and how it was impossible to get the latest changes, and he slammed the table — a little bit drunk — and said, ‘That’s ridiculous. It’s 2010. The cloud exists. All of this should be on this iPad,’” Young says. “And that was the start of PlanGrid.”

Tracy Young-graduation-edited
Tracy Young, right, with fellow Sacramento State alumnus and PlanGrid co-founder Ryan Sutton-Gee at their graduation in 2008.

PlanGrid is the company Young, Sutton-Gee, and several other partners founded in 2011 to bring the construction industry into the mobile device era. Young currently serves as its chief executive officer. The company’s software platform hosts digital blueprints that can be accessed on tablets or smartphones and are updated in real time so that construction companies and contractors have access to the latest versions, reducing both paper waste and errors.

“It was just so obvious that the iPad would be perfect for the construction industry,” Young says. “We were just lucky enough to be the first ones that wrote software for it.”

Autodesk, a Marin County-based company that makes software for the architecture, engineering, construction, manufacturing, media, and entertainment industries, purchased PlanGrid in November 2018 for $875 million.

The daughter of Vietnamese refugees, Young grew up in Milpitas, just north of San Jose. She had an interest in buildings and loved architecture, but knew her artistic skills were limited. She was, however, good at math and at solving problems, which led her to declare as a civil engineering major when she followed her older sister to Sacramento State in 2004. Once on campus, however, she discovered another potential career path: Sacramento State’s nationally renowned construction management program.

“I had to make a choice about whether I wanted to sit behind a desk and make the math work (on a project) or be part of the actual construction process and be on a job site, and I chose the latter,” she says.

The construction management cohort was small, allowing the group to become incredibly close-knit and lean on each other to make it through a difficult course of study. It’s an experience Young still draws on as a professional.

“What I learned most from my classmates was the power of working together,” she says. “We just so badly wanted all of us to get through the courses that we did things to help each other make it through.”

Young recalled spending hours in the teachers’ lounge, studying with her classmates, but her favorite courses were held outside, such as when they surveyed along the American River levee near the Guy West Bridge. She also interned with general engineering contractor Syblon Reid and worked as an assistant estimator for Turner Construction while a student, providing her with additional hands-on experience.

Following her graduation in 2008, she returned to the Bay Area and began working as a project engineer for Redwood City-based construction firm Rudolph and Sletten, a position she held until she left in 2011 to found PlanGrid.

Shifting from engineering to technology was a bit jarring – “I definitely miss the smell of drywall dust,” she says – but Young sees a lot of parallels between building a building and building a company.

“The medium is different,” she says. “Instead of wood and concrete and glass, there are people and there are departments. You’ve got designers and then you also have the builders, the hackers. There are quality-control problems, bugs you have to fix. Schedule is incredibly important.”

Since 2011, PlanGrid has grown from four co-founders to more than 330 employees today. The company has tens of thousands of customers in more than 72 countries, and has stored more than 50 million sheets for more than a half million projects worldwide.

With an innovative idea at its core and a large global footprint, it is only natural that Young will be speaking about PlanGrid at Sacramento State this week, along with her husband and fellow PlanGrid co-founder Ralph Gootee, as part of the campus’s second annual Global Entrepreneurship Week.

As CEO of PlanGrid, Young spends about a third of her time travelling and meeting with customers and her field teams, about a third of her time meeting with her executives who are running the day-to-day operations of the company, and the last third on high-priority projects. Becoming a manager, she says, has been challenging, but also offers her the opportunity to continue to grow professionally.

But the most enjoyable part of her job, she adds, is building relationships with colleagues and customers to make a project that is having a real impact on the ground.

“One of my favorite quotes is from a senior superintendent who had been working in the field for 30 years. Out of nowhere, he sent us a note that said, ‘I never graduated from high school. I worked through the trade as a carpenter to a superintendent today. I have to say, after 28-plus years, PlanGrid is the best tool that has ever been given to me,’” Young says. “Being able to influence and help someone who deserves great software is definitely rewarding.”

This story was updated in November 2018 to include information about Autodesk’s acquisition of PlanGrid.