Building Up Multifamily Operations: Lessons From an IT Specialist

Erica Sutera of Heatherwood Luxury Rentals on creating an IT department, cybersecurity and adapting to new conditions.

Erica Sutera, Director of Information Technology, Heatherwood Luxury Rentals. Image courtesy of Heatherwood Luxury Rentals

Erica Sutera, Director of Information Technology, Heatherwood Luxury Rentals. Image courtesy of Heatherwood Luxury Rentals

After two decades in the information technology industry, Erica Sutera has learned that flexibility is paramount to supporting any business. Leading the tech department of a real estate company during lockdowns or mobility restrictions is no easy feat. As director of information technology at Long Island-based Heatherwood Luxury Rentals, Sutera has to make sure all operations run smoothly while residents work from home and do almost everything online.

“Navigating technology is necessary to comply with recommendations to keep us safe and healthy during these trying times,” Sutera told Multi-Housing News. In the interview below, she talks about the experience she’s gained along the way and expands on how embracing technology can help through the new normal.

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You started your career in the pharmaceutical sector, then moved to law, and now you’re in real estate tech. How did you adapt to each industry? 

Sutera: Every company needs IT support in some way. For me, understanding each business in its entirety helps me understand how technology can best support it. Every industry presents an opportunity for growth and change, and, of course, technology is always changing. I welcome the learning and changing! One needs to be open and fluid to best support the business. I’ve moved with change and not against it.

Looking back, how would you describe your journey as an IT specialist?

Sutera: I was so lucky to work with and be mentored by amazing leaders. While working in information technology, I surrounded myself with many different and intelligent people. I was able to learn and apply all types of knowledge, whether technical, soft skills or team building. With each position, I gained knowledge and credibility to influence decisions that would further shape my career path. Looking back, my journey was filled with remarkable people and memorable experiences.

At Heatherwood, you built the entire IT department from the ground up. How difficult was that?

Sutera: From an IT perspective, Heatherwood was the land of opportunity. I immediately went into assessment mode with a boots-on-the-ground approach. Once I had compiled enough data and asked enough questions to get started, I began my efforts in gaining support. I needed support from senior management, a team for implementation, and support from all the employees that would in turn need support from this new IT department. The approach was slow and steady.

As I was weighed down by administrative tasks, I hired an admin. When we had upgrade projects, we needed to have another tech to help with builds and rollouts. When security became an issue, we hired a consultant to assist with security-related projects. I only filled in the holes when those holes obviously presented themselves. As we built the front-end support system, we also rebuilt the back-end infrastructure, factoring in significant room for growth.

It was work! A lot of work! I can’t say that it was extremely difficult because I enjoyed it. Fast forward some years later and here we are with a solid team. We are not done yet. We are still building this department and we will continue to build and change as new technologies develop.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Sutera: I interact with people that have all different levels of technical knowledge daily. Where my days used to be filled with checking backups, performing restores, reporting for help desk support and researching projects and new technology, they are now filled with meetings, budget analysis, developing associates and discussing overall process improvements and strategies for the company’s further growth.

What type of software do you use most frequently? 

Sutera: I use Microsoft Office 365 for collaboration, correspondence and document management, but Heatherwood’s daily operations could never run as smoothly as they do without Yardi. I cannot imagine managing properties without using property management software. Yardi has seriously cornered the market on all aspects of property management. 

I am in Yardi daily, whether to approve a payable, fix an issue, find new ways to help process our data or implement a new module. The users we support are in Yardi daily to effectively track revenue, track property-related expenses, collect rent, lease-up apartments, track maintenance issues, schedule maintenance repairs and handle correspondence, among many other things. We are now implementing Yardi’s Elevate product, Forecast IQ. This will give us the ability to accurately forecast our operating budgets with ease.

With many people switching to a work-from-home model since the onset of the pandemic, online interactions have skyrocketed. Were there any changes you made to support remote workers at Heatherwood?

Sutera: Fortunately, we built our infrastructure to support remote users prior to the pandemic, so connecting to our environment from outside was not an issue. We did, however, need to create quick reference guides to assist our associates in using that technology. These specific associates had never worked from home before.

Our phone queue system did not support off-campus calling so we needed to revisit our solution completely to retain communication with our residents. We are currently rolling out a cloud-based phone solution that will allow us the business continuity, as needed. We also increased the number of portable solutions to ensure a seamless transition between office and home use.

How can technology help us adapt to the new normal?

Sutera: The question really should be: “How can people adapt to the technology that can help them through the new normal?” Everyone should be able to utilize technology. My 90-year-old grandmother has an iPad that she uses to play word games and to FaceTime her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Technology can keep you connected. You can use it for necessity or convenience, or have a virtual doctor’s appointment or order food. Navigating technology is also necessary to comply with recommendations to keep us safe and healthy during these trying times. 

What do multifamily property managers and owners need to know about securing their residents’ personal information and protecting against network intrusions or cyberattacks?

Sutera: Multifamily property managers in any industry really need to be aware and focus on cyberattack prevention, cyber insurance and disaster recovery plans. These are all items that need to be discussed, planned properly and invested in.

Adding security layers to your environment is important. Perform penetration tests so you are aware of your weaknesses and can focus on those areas. Insurance is a necessity. You want to protect your company, your customers and all the data that comes with that. Cyber insurance covers you just in case the prevention measures fail, whether they were implemented by you or your vendors. Disasters can come in many different forms.

Up until most recently, few plans referenced “pandemic.” Now everyone has a pandemic plan based on live data. Your plan should include as many scenarios as you can think of and how you can be proactive in these scenarios. Each of these projects has high ticket prices and can be easily passed over, but, unfortunately, hindsight can be even more painful and costly.

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Can you imagine a world without technology?

Sutera: Frankly, no. That would be imagining a world without power. It has obviously been done before, but would we really want to? Imagine if every invention, every tool created that led to progression did not exist. Life would be harder to live. Think about your day, from the second it starts. What helps you get out of bed? How do you make your coffee? Is your shower hot? Every piece of human life has adopted some form of technology.

With that said, we need to be mindful of who and what is in control of this technology. Technology is moving so fast that we can’t keep up with it. If you ever saw “The Terminator” or “2001: A Space Odyssey,” you know exactly where I’m going with this.

How do you expect tech solutions for the multifamily industry to advance?

Sutera: There is so much room for new technology in the multifamily housing industry. This is a very exciting time for technology. Technology seems to be accelerated right now. Everyone needs self-service everything! Self-serve showings, parking and packages. We can implement touchless lease signings, entries and elevators. How can we reduce costs? Will renewable energy be the answer for property owners? Will self-diagnostics be our new proactive approach to preventative maintenance? We’ll see how things evolve.

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