Floodplain Analysis as Football

football field

I was watching the Super Bowl a couple weeks ago and was struck by how the referees spot the football after each play and how it’s really an approximation or “best guess” of where the football actually progressed to.  This approximation suddenly becomes an exact science when the chains are brought onto the field to measure weather a team moved the ball far enough to get the first down.  The approximation is now measured in mere inches, but the reality is that the placement of the football was probably plus or minus 6 inches to 1 foot depending on the referees view of the play; viewing angle, number of players in the way, and whether the referee saw when the players body made contact with the ground.

As I watched and thought about this, I realized the similarity to what we do in floodplain management.  The spotting of the football is very similar to hydrology.  Hydrology is not an exact science.  Rainfall and runoff response is a complex interaction between water, the ground, the topography of a drainage basin, and the infrastructure already constructed.  Not only that, the chances of nature actually replicating the design storm used to analyze peak stream flows is highly unlikely.  It doesn’t mean that the hydrologic analysis engineers perform isn’t a good starting point for evaluating floodplain boundaries or sizing infrastructure, but it remains an approximation.

The irony of all of this is how closely we evaluate hydraulics (the measuring chain) when the hydrology is really only an approximation.  When we evaluate floodplain hydraulics we often measure impacts not only to the tenth of a foot, but all the way down to one hundredth of a foot.  Although it’s never discussed, this measurement is absurd in light of the accuracy of the hydrologic analysis.  As engineers we often have this conversation with one another, but regulations remain that measure impacts to mere fractions of a foot.

While I don’t anticipate floodplain regulations changing in light of this truth, I think it at least reminds us as floodplain managers to have perspective on the analysis we’re reviewing, evaluating, or explaining to the public.  Our end goal is to protect the life and safety of the public.  Conservative hydrologic analysis is a tool we have in our toolkit to achieve this goal.  Tedious hydraulics that evaluate impacts to one hundredth of a foot is probably less of a tool in achieving that goal and really the result of how precise the modeling software we use measures the results of our hydraulic backwater analysis.  However, in the end both the hydrology (spotting of the football) and the hydraulics (the measuring chain) work together to preserve life and safety as well as the natural and beneficial functions of our stream.

Planning, Analysis, Design…Who Are You?

Engineering Skillset Circle Japanese Garden Color Scheme

A deeper look into the profession of stormwater and floodplain management engineering.

Who are you?

If someone asked you, “Who are you? Are you a planner, an analyst, or a designer?” what answer would you give? Do any one of those items describe who you fully are or are you really a combination of all three? As individuals we are highly complex beings. One of the more regularly used personality tests, the Meyers-Briggs, provides four different categories that combine to provide a loose definition of an individual’s personality. In that test there are four high level categories, one for attitude (introvert/extrovert), two for psychological function (intuitive/sensing and thinking/feelilng) and one for lifestyle (judging/perceiving). In all, there are up to 16 combinations/personality types. And although you can identify your personality type by taking the test, even then it only loosely defines who you are. There are so many everyday experiences and circumstances that define who we are as individuals. Our family, our environment, our education, our experiences, our likes and dislikes, and so many intangibles define who we are.

So back to the question at hand, who are you as an engineer? Can any one category define who you are? I think most of you reading this would say, “I’m not just one of those three things. My skill set and experience transcends categories.” But what are the skills necessary to plan, to analyze, or to design? How many of the skills overlap? And which skills make you a better planner, designer, or analyst?

A career as an engineer

One of my college professors always had us break down a concept with three definitions; theoretical, operational, and extensional. For example, in looking at open channel hydraulics and normal depth flow, the theoretical definition may be Manning’s equation itself. The operational definition would be using the equation to solve the problem. The extensional definition would be actually constructing the channel and producing the same physical result (something you can point at). Using this same idea in every day engineering we have our comprehensive knowledge from college which is really our theoretical knowledge. The operational knowledge comes from us using what we know on an almost daily basis to solve problems and calculate solutions. And finally, there are opportunities for some to move to the extensional, actually designing something and having it constructed and operational.

Simplifying it even further for this discussion, we as engineers tend to have our knowledge that we apply to problem solving and the actual practice of applying that knowledge, typically through things like computer models that simulate hydrology or hydraulics or design. The challenge in every day engineering is that there are new tools and modeling options becoming available all the time. So while there may be knowledge, the practice may not always be something that is routinely honed.

I’m a planner?

Of late, I’ve been told the perception of me by some of my peers is that I’m a planner. That perception made me take a step back and evaluate what that meant. My guess is that those individuals had not seen me do design so they felt that design was not a skill that I had developed over the years. The truth is, that yes, I have done a lot of planning work over the last few years. As consulting engineers we take the work we can win and the work given to us. However, to say I’m a planner totally disregards my many years of diverse experience.

Once upon a time I was just a designer…

The reality is, I spent much of the first 10 years (starting in 1994) of my career performing open channel design using CADD to develop construction plans and running HEC-2 (now HEC-RAS) at the time to verify my channel hydraulics or calculating normal depths or hydraulic jump locations. I had the opportunity to develop plan sets, specifications, and design reports and also was able to perform construction observation to see those projects constructed. Someone who knew me in those first 10 years would have said, “my perception of you is that you are a designer” and many of my peers did see me that way. And at that time, that would have been correct because I had never planned before. However, the work we’re doing today doesn’t always tell the story of who we are.

And then I really did learn how to plan

In 2003 I was handed my first planning job which required me to jump into hydrologic modeling, layout of comprehensive basin-wide stormwater infrastructure, my first use of GIS for both modeling and improvement layout, and cost estimating to assist in developing a capital improvement program. What I realized at that time was how beneficial all my years of engineering design were to this effort, i.e. my design experience made me a better planner. Why? Because all of my design experience provided me with a knowledge of how to analyze drainageways and their stability, how to evaluate storm drain systems, how to analyze and layout detention and water quality ponds. and how to interact with other improvement plans such as transportation, recreation, and the environment. Bottom line for me, I couldn’t imagine being a good planner without my design experience.

And all the while I learned how to analyze

And in the midst of both my design and my planning experience I learned how to analyze hydrology and hydraulics using computer simulations, how to use geographic information systems to develop input data and show results. Sometimes I found it beneficial to use more sophisticated tools as they became available such as 2-dimensional hydraulic modeling or most recently 2-dimensional rainfall and runoff. Our careers as engineers is a journey in non-stop learning.

An attempt at defining the differences

In conclusion, in thinking about this question of who we are, I developed the infographic (at the beginning of this blog) to quickly summarize how I see a career in the stormwater and floodplain management field. There will be plenty of missing parts and pieces in this graphic. For example, floodplain management is another category that could easily be added to the figure, but I think this gives the overall idea. From my experience, designers are experts at construction document development and hydraulics. Analysts are generally computer modeler’s who are experts in hydrology, hydraulics, and GIS. And finally planners, who must be able to synthesize all of the data should be experts at all of the categories; hydrology, hydraulics, GIS, and even design because a plan that can’t be implemented is no plan at all.

Have more thoughts? I’d love to hear what you have to say.

Check Yourself Before You Wreck…Others

Consulting is the business of finding balance. Somewhere in the insanity you must find the balance between taking care of the projects you have, managing your team, overseeing your business, and carefully keeping an eye open for the next opportunity and positioning yourself for the win. Since I’ve never been on the client side I don’t know exactly how consultants are viewed, but generally I get the sense that we may be one step above ambulance chasers. Unfortunately, our industry has not done much to improve this image. In fact, watching many of the large corporations and how they do business development I myself am sickened by the consulting world. Calling a client every week or every other week to see what opportunities are coming up and/or is there any new information on that project we discussed recently is not what I see as developing a trust relationship with the client.

My introverted nature creates an aversion to randomly calling clients to ask about work. I want my work to speak for itself. I want clients to choose me because they trust me with the work they need done. My dad is a carpenter. People called him because he had a reputation for being the best at what he did. He had a specific style and the clients for whom he worked appreciated what he provided. There is a part of me that longs for clients to choose to work with me because of what I provide. However, the reality is that I’m in an open and competitive marketplace. Consultants are constantly bombarding the people I want to work with delivering messages about how they “are the best modeling firm”, the “best design firm”, the “best firm for this or that job.” And me in my introverted space am reluctant to sell myself because it feels like self aggrandizing. That’s not who I am.

So if I could sit with my clients and tell them how I feel, what would I say? I started my own consulting firm because I believed that it ultimately would allow me to provide better service to my clients. Yes, it’s a for profit business, but I can tell you it’s a modest profit and I’m not in it for the money. I’m in it for the relationships. I’m in it to do something special. I’m in it because I know the things that we do are valuable to our local communities. From a personal perspective, I enjoy taking the time to produce work that is worthy of my clients’ praise. I truly appreciate a pat on the back now and then and a “job well done.” It’s rare that I hear that type of praise and to be honest, it’s those words that are worth more than gold to me.

Right now I’m in the midst of a potentially large opportunity coming our way. It’s an opportunity that the members of my firm and I have worked hard for. We’ve come to the brink of getting the job that gets us to that “critical mass” level as a consulting firm. Unfortunately, the reality of contracting and potentially the politics of the engineering community may result in this opportunity being directed to another consulting firm that has no history on the project and really no better chance of ultimate success. I’m torn between that self aggrandizing I was talking about earlier and just trusting in the universe, karma, or whatever it is that would deliver some positive mojo for us. It’s interesting being on this side, the “ambulance chaser” side. I know how every win or loss affects the lives of those who work for me, for those who are looking for a job and want to work for me, and on a personal level, my own self-esteem, my ability to provide for my family, and ultimately my desire to grow a company that is a positive force in the engineering consulting community.

In reflecting on the situation I realize how I need to always be thinking about my decisions and how they affect other people. Whether it’s what I say or do or a decision I make, these things have impacts on others and I should always be fully aware of what those impacts may be. As a business owner, I’m a leader who must look to take care of those who work for me as well as taking care of the clients who hire me to get work done. As a father, I’m a support and foundation for my children as they launch into the world to find their own happiness and purpose. As a husband I’m a lifelong friend, protector, lover, and cheerleader for my wife. And finally, as a consultant, I’m a public servant who always looks to the interests of the public first.

Who are you and how do your actions or decisions affect others?

The Way We Win Matters

I’ve talked to my team a lot over the last several years about the ups and downs of the business and in particular the competition we have with other companies.  It’s been an interesting dynamic to watch.  As our company became more and more competitive with the established consulting firms we began hearing feedback regarding what people were saying about us, especially to our clients.  Any sign of weakness and some of our competitors were there to remind our clients of how we were a “start-up”, that we were “unstable”, that we could fail at any time.  In fact I even heard it from individuals we interviewed to fill positions with our company.  To be honest, it caused a deep pain in my heart.  I have only ever wanted to create a company that takes care of our clients, challenges the industry to be better, and in the end helps to sharpen the entire community in which I work.

What I have realized in starting my own company is that I am part of a broad community.  If we’re ever going to get better and improve the quality of what we do we have to work together.  We need to push one another, challenge one another, and even help one another.  Yes, there are times when you have an advantage and you ride the wave of that advantage while you can realizing that everyone else will be catching the next wave right behind you.  In our business it doesn’t take long until someone else figures out what you’re doing and how to duplicate it.

However, at the end of the day, for me, competition comes down to respect.  Sure, I want to win every time I compete, but everyone I’m competing against are people worthy of my respect; they have feelings, they have families, they have purpose, and they have dreams just like I have.  So when I win, I want it to be in a way that treats others with respect.  In the end, the way we win matters.

The Engineering Business Cycle: Lessons Learned on How To Avoid Common Operations Mistakes

After 5 years in being in business now we’ve gone through the pain of trying to get work in the door, getting too much work in the door, not performing to the level at which we need to perform, not being able to win work, and then seeing work coming in with almost no effort at all. There are many other experiences we’ve had over the years, but last year (2012) was a very tough year in the “you reap what you sow” department. We spent a lot of time putting together proposals with the end result being very few selections. It was a lot of work for very little return and it required some digging down deep to keep pushing forward as well as thinking about all the valuable lessons to be learned. After going through it all and talking with clients, I thought about the engineering community and business experience as a cycle.

Engineering Cycle

  1. Become flavor of the month and everything you touch is gold, i.e. you win everything.
  2. You suddenly have a lot of work, but you fear hiring too many people so you hesitate and go with your existing team
  3. It takes a little time, but you realize you’re beyond your capacity, but it’s too late to hire and you miss a deadline or two and/or someone was not managed as well as they should have been and you have a problem project.
  4. Clients pick up on your “busy-ness” and suddenly everything you touch is rotten, i.e. you win nothing.
  5. Your backlog starts winding down and you start to panic going after everything in sight, but you weren’t out marketing like you should have been developing relationships rather than chasing RFP’s.
  6. The next flavor of the month becomes overwhelmed and the memory of your “busy-ness” is forgotten by the clients and your available again so you start winning work.

Clearly this is not something that happens to everyone (some of you out there navigated your way around the pitfalls), but I’d love to hear from you if you have experienced it.  Going through the cycle at least once, you can see the clear steps to avoiding many of the pitfalls:

  1. When you have the backlog, hire the talent you need and have less fear.
  2. When everyone is working hard, don’t stop meeting with clients (don’t get too busy).  Build relationships and take advantage of the fact that you don’t need to win work today.  In other words, you can be less desperate and more focused on hearing the client’s challenges and needs, especially their long term needs.  This also will allow you to present possible solutions without worrying if it becomes a job.  That last part will help you become a trusted adviser for your client.
  3. Good project management and operations management are the key to successful delivery of projects.  In the end, the rewards of doing it right (future work) far outweigh any short-term benefits (trying to ignore the worry of winning future work to keep staff busy).

Just one of the many lessons learned while being a business owner.  Many more to come I’m sure.

Repeat Performance

In the summer, my wife and I enjoy the occasional escape to Vail for the weekend.  We enjoy the beauty of the Vail Valley and walking along the bike path that follows Gore Creek, walking through Vail Village and Lionshead, having a beer or a snack on an outdoor patio, and we especially enjoy a nice dinner or two.  Vail has some incredible restaurants with very talented chefs.  Over the years we have had some phenomenal dining experiences and, of course, we’ve had some disappointments as well.  Recently, I was sharing one of our experiences regarding our first and second visits to one of the restaurants in Vail.  One of my favorite shows to watch, and really the only one I make a habit of watching, is Top Chef.  As luck would have it, one of the finalists in the 2011 season owns a restaurant in Vail.  The restaurant is named Kelly Liken, which is the chef’s name.  We saw an advertisement in the local Vail paper for a five course tasting menu.  I knew the dinner would be expensive, but I jumped at the chance to dine at the restaurant of one of the chef’s we had watched on TV.  It was a magnificent meal.  We showed up a little early for our reservation at 9pm (we had a late dinner reservation because demand was so high) and enjoyed a cocktail at the bar while we waited to be seated.  My description of the restaurant would be an upscale bistro/wine bar atmosphere that is calming and relaxing.  The service at the bar and by the wait staff that night was impeccable.  Once we were seated, we enjoyed some wine until our first course was served.  I cannot remember specifically what we had that night, but my wife and I both had different selections with each course so we got to try one another’s meal.  Basically we got to try ten separate plates in one sitting.  The portions were small, but just right for tasting and savoring without filling up.  We had a 3 hour meal and by the end we weren’t stuffed, like we are when typically go out, but we were perfectly full and satisfied.  Honestly, to date I believe that was the best dining experience I have ever had.

A year later, my wife and I were again in Vail and decided we wanted to go back to Kelly Liken since our first experience was so wonderful.  The second night, while still enjoyable and relaxing, couldn’t hold a candle to our first time experience.  The service the second time was less attentive and the food was nowhere near as inspired as the first visit.  It was a disappointment to be sure.  It left us wondering if something had changed.  Was the owner less present or less involved of late?  Was it just a bad evening for everyone?  Was there a weak link in the chain?  Maybe the manager had changed and things weren’t as tight as they used to be?  Whatever the case, it was definitely not the same experience.

So with those two memories, I share frequently with my friends about how incredible our first time at Kelly Liken was, but also how we were somewhat disappointed the second time.  It made me think, “would these friends try the restaurant based on my feedback?”  My guess is that there is a good chance they would not.  In the short conversation of me sharing my experience, I have a feeling that at the end of it what they heard was “expensive” and “bad experience”, even though I open with “that was one of the best, if not the best, dining experiences of my life.”  It’s amazing how the negative outdoes the positive.  And, of course, this got me to thinking about my own company and our performance on projects.  Even one project that produces the best report, engineering design, or new process can be completely overshadowed by one poor performance on another project.  In fact, even the great performance on a project could be damaged by one part of the project going wrong, i.e. missed schedule, budget overrun, etc.  We are judged harshly by our clients and it’s the poor experiences that they often remember.

Does that mean we can’t restore our reputation following a slip in performance?  Certainly not.  I plan on returning to Kelly Liken again when we visit Vail in the future.  However, I will likely be more observant and yes, judgmental, on this third visit. While I will not be expecting the blow my socks off experience that we had the first time, I will be expecting good, friendly service, and excellent food.  For the price, why would I expect less?  But I’m happy to pay for something that gives me a consistently good experience.  And I believe that is the same thing our clients would say.  If we have a slip on a project, it doesn’t mean we’re out, it just means next time we have to be extra careful to pay attention to the details and get it right, elevating the customer experience back to a level that they are expecting.

What are your experiences with repeat performances or slips in performance?  Do you find grace with your clients or judgment?  If you were the customer, how would you treat your service provider?  Would you give them a second chance, realizing they are human too?  We all can use grace and I for one am happy to extend it to others.  Second chances are valuable when given, so make the most of them.

Providing Value vs. Selling

As challenging as it may seem, I am realizing how important it is that I provide value to the people I am meeting with for Business Development. Not just, “how can I get work from you,” or “what do I need to do to win the next project,” but “is there something new I can bring to you to improve your knowledge or help you achieve your goals?” Bottom line, what do I really know about my clients and the people I work with? On top of that, am I providing value in the community for which people may seek me out as an expert? These are critical questions and likely not very many people want to be honest in answering them.

You need to frequently ask yourself the basic questions of work and life:

  • What ultimate goals am I pursuing?
  • What is really motivating me?
  • How am I viewing my relationship with others?
  • As trite as it may sound, we most often get off-track because we lose sight of what is really most important.

Are you asking yourself these questions?  Do you put yourself in the shoes of your client and contemplate how they see you?  What other questions do you ask yourself before you meet with a potential prospect?

Being the Underdog and Other Martyr Related Musings

I posted this on my personal blog MyThreeSheep, but think it has a lot of relevance in the consulting world, especially for those of us who have our own business or dream of starting one so I decided to post something more personal today.

Hey, that sounds like my luck
I get the short end of it
Oh I love to be
I love to be the underdog

-Imagine Dragons

I spend significant time thinking about why things don’t always go the way I would like them to. In particular, I look at my career and the passion I have and wonder, “why won’t more people hire me?” I get frustrated competing against bigger companies or against competitors with a longer track history, i.e. they’ve been in business longer than I have been. Some of them just have better personal relationships with clients than I have; maybe they worked at the same company at one time or they share personal non-work time together. Whatever the case, it’s frustrating to so desperately want people to recognize you and what you provide, but they don’t seem to see you as a viable competitor or at least as having what it takes to place number one on a project selection. There have been a lot of second places in the past year or so and, as they say, there’s often no reward for second place because second place just isn’t good enough. This is not a lesson we seem to be teaching our children in our current society. It’s a harsh reality. But there is so much to be learned about ourselves when we don’t finish first. It is when we strive and try and fall just short of our goals that we really have to dig deep. It’s also a moment we can reflect and realize our successes and be proud of how close we’ve come. Not winning doesn’t mean we’ve failed. Failure comes when we give up and stop trying to improve ourselves. We must realize who we have become in the journey. It refines us, it shapes us, it improves us. If you really look at it through the lens of hope you can embrace the struggle.

“The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.” -C.S. Lewis from the movie Shadowlands

I love a good story. My favorites are the ones where everything has gone wrong for someone and everyone has turned their back on the protagonist. It’s that martyr moment when everyone turns away that we really find out what we are made of. How often do we have those moments when we want to crawl into our hole and hide from the rest of the world or we just want to drop our desires and passions because we feel like we’ll never have the things we hope for? We should all be grateful for the gift of hope, that small seed inside of us that never dies no matter what we are facing. The quote I shared is one that has stuck with me since I first heard it watching the movie Shadowlands, the story of the life of C.S. Lewis. It specifically is talking about loving and losing someone, but it is so much more profound than that. It explains every part of the human experience. Why do I keep striving in the face of rejection? Why do I keep suffering, keep hoping, keep going? Because not only is the quote something that is past tense, i.e. it’s better to have love and lost than never to have loved at all, but it’s also future tense; the joy and happiness we feel when things are right, when we win, when life is all we had hoped for, is made better by the experience of the pain we’ve gone through in getting to that point. If you are simply given everything you want, how will you ever appreciate it?

As I sit here today watching the snow fall outside my home office window, listening to some music on iTunes, I’m reminded of something about myself that keeps me going every day. I like being the underdog. I like to be underestimated. In some ways I like to be taken for granted. I like having the opportunity to show everyone what I’m made of. Overcoming obstacles and challenges makes for such a better story than, “I started a company and, from day one, I was successful. Everyone loved me, wanted to work with me, and I made lots of money.” Honestly, I have a hard time believing that story even exists and if it does, would that be something any of us would find compelling? Nobody makes movies called “Successful From Day One.” Whether we’re kids or adults we like stories like A Series of Unfortunate Events, or Star Wars or Harry Potter. We want to see the main character prevail, but what makes it compelling is the struggle. And so I say I enjoy my role as the underdog. It challenges me to be better, to “train” harder, to try to out think my competition. Maybe I’ll win and maybe I won’t. But when I do, there is great satisfaction in having overcome the odds. Wouldn’t you rather have a life that, if written in words, would be an interesting read? So would I.

The Myth of the Multi- Tasking Engineer Part III: Clear Job Role Definition

My wife, who is in the professional recruiting and staffing business and is a successful sales account manager, laughed at me when I described for her my different jobs as a group manager in an engineering corporation. “That’s four different jobs,” she laughed, “no wonder you’re burnt out.” I had to admit, I didn’t disagree with her. How could you be a jack of all trades and be the a top performer at any one of those roles? Project management alone is a full-time career. Being an expert, i.e. project engineer or practicing technical professional and staying on top of the latest technology, innovation, regulations, and methodologies is a full-time career. Operations management, if done correctly, is a full-time career. And, of course, sales and account management, if you’re really going to stay out in front of your peers, is a full-time career. Is being mediocre at any of these roles an acceptable outcome since everyone else in the industry is doing it the same way? The answer is a definitive no. To be successful and to create corporate cultures that are among the top performing in the engineering industry, engineering corporations must be willing to clearly identify roles in the company and break out of the rut of thinking in terms of chargeability for every position as the defining measure for success. One thing that has remained consistent in the industry is when it comes to annual reviews, chargeability is always on the list of goals. However, I have seen chargeability noted as less than 5 or 10 percent of an individuals goals and yet, when it comes down to it, chargeability is constantly the mantra and is typically one of the primary reasons people are let go at organizations, i.e. you are costing the company money and we must increase profitability via high chargeability across the organization. I don’t disagree that chargeability amongst engineering professionals in an engineering corporation must remain high or the entire business model fails. However, it’s in how roles within the company are defined and in aligning the company and individuals within an organization that allows them to be successful. In other words, creating clearly defined roles, some of which are purely overhead, may improve engineering chargeability and profitability while at the same time reducing burn-out and frustration levels for professional engineers. For this model I see four distinct roles which must be defined within the industry as follows:

  • Project Engineering leading to Practicing Technical Professionals (PTP)
  • Project Engineering leading to Project Management Professionals
  • Business Development, Sales, and Account Management
  • Engineer Led or Business Management Led Operations Management

Project Engineering and Project Management

The first two roles follow the traditional paths provided in engineering, however, what often fails to be seen is that not all technical professionals want to be or have the skills to be project managers. In the IT business for example, project management is actually a lesser compensated role than is actual programming and software development. In other words, technical competence is at the top of the food chain rather than management. Should this not be the case in engineering? Are we truly turning out professionals that are at the top of their game, who know the industry, regulations, and theory inside and out so that they can provide innovative solutions to their clients or are we creating a watered down group of project managers who have some level of technical expertise, but never truly have the time to invest in being the absolute best at what they do? I feel, quite confidently, that several large engineering firms are now embracing this idea and are creating PTP type positions. The follow-on challenge is, are clients willing to pay for that type of technical expertise? I believe the answer is yes, if it is messaged correctly and we do a better job of selling our profession. That’s an entire topic in itself. For now, it is clear to me that we as an industry must provide these two career paths to professionals so as not to encourage individuals to run to project management because they perceive that’s where the money is. In fact, perhaps we reconsider the idea that project managers should make more money than PTP types. How do we do that? By creating clear roles for business development and operations management and letting project managers be project managers. In other words, let both of these roles by highly chargeable by reducing their responsibilities to sell and manage operations.

Business Development and Sales

Sales is a very poorly understood career path in the engineering industry. It is often perceived as a secondary job assignment to project engineering, project management, or operations management. But if you look at other industries, sales is typically an entire group or division unto itself. And I’m not talking about proposal writing and preparation. Let’s be clear, that is a support function in an organization that supports the sales team, it’s not the sales team itself. Engineering is a challenging industry in that sales professionals must come from within. We must understand our clients’ needs and have enough technical background to establish trust and rapport with the client. Typically the professionals identified as “sales professionals” in engineering organizations are project managers who have significant relationships with large clients such as the Corps of Engineers and their value is in knowing who to talk to at those organizations to obtain work, whether it be sole source or via the solicitation process. These professionals are highly compensated, commanding six figure salaries that put them in the top 10% or higher within an engineering organization. Some of clear sales goals and some seem to just have client management roles. In my experience, very rarely have these individuals brought me work or opportunities at the group level and that is a significant problem. I was not consulted, nobody knew the unique skill-set of my group, and these managers had no idea what type of work my team was interested in pursuing. How can this be? How can it be successful? And not only that, if the organization is going to be successful, shouldn’t there be some succession planning and relationship development so when these individuals either leave the organization the relationship with the client goes on? The bottom line is there is no perfect or right way to manage the sales side of an engineering corporation, but one thing is clear, being a sales professional is complete job in itself.

Developing client relationships, identifying opportunities, linking up talent in the organization to clients, setting up meetings with company talent and decision makers, developing winning proposal strategies, organizing teaming agreements, preparing winning proposals, and following up on current performance and debriefing on project performance is a full-time job. And finally, sales are measured with metrics. It’s uncomfortable, but to measure a sales persons success there must be clear measurable metrics in place so that they know what their focus should be on a daily basis as well as what their sales goals are. Everyone will be happier when those metrics are in place. This eliminates the ambiguity that sometimes exists for sales professionals in engineering. There also seems to be a fear of creating positions with lower base salaries with sales goals and significant reward via commission. The excuse tends to be, “that proposal was worked on by everyone, so how can one person get the commission on the sale?” I believe that is an uncomfortable question because the sales professional is not taking the lead from start to finish on a sale. If you, as a sales professional have the relationship with the client, identify the opportunity, set up the meetings necessary to pre-wire the job, lead the proposal development, and lead the team through the job interview then you have successfully led the sale. If you have a relationship with a client, identify the job lead, drop the lead on a project managers lap and walk away, you have not successfully led the sale. I think the latter is the reality in today’s marketplace.

Cearly identifying the client service manager (CSM) is a critical component of the process. At what level does this occur some would ask because clients can have multiple needs, i.e. transportation design, transportation planning, traffic engineering, stormwater planning and design, structural design, environmental planning and permitting, and the list goes on. How can one person handle all of that successfully? Don’t we need multiple CSM’s? Not necessarily, but I think looking at CSM’s that serve the different business lines within the company is a worthwhile endeavor to ensure that those business lines are getting the most bang for their buck with each potential client. If the CSM is a multi-faceted individual who knows and sells the complete talent within the company and has goals to do so then one CSM might work, however a CSM for multi-disciplined clients should not reside within one business line or you’re likely to only achieve sales for that one business line.

Defining these sales positions will not necessarily eliminate the need for project managers to assist in sales. Project managers and engineers will be required to attend client meetings, participate in strategy development, and also write technical approaches for proposals. However, they will not be fully responsible for managing clients from the sales side, identifying all opportunities, and being the proposal managers on every effort. The idea is to relieve the managers and engineers of their day-to-day sales roles in order to keep them focused on the business of engineering; delivering projects to their clients that meet quality, budget, and schedule. The question of how many dollars of revenue will generate the need for a CSM is a good starting point. Clearly sales managers will have multiple clients they service in most cases, but sometimes one client may be a full-time job. For example, a state transportation agency would likely be a full-time job or possibly two full-time jobs. Local municipalities may warrant one CSM for multiple clients. Another potential is to have CSM’s that serve different business lines. Each company must decide which strategy meets their organizational needs. However, the bottom line is, project engineers and managers must feel that the CSM is directly providing them value based on hard metrics, otherwise there will be resentment and “class envy” within the organization. A sales position should not be perceived as a place to coast when one is burned out on project engineering and management. Instead, it must be perceived as a challenging position that is sought out by those who feel they have the skills and desire to do the job. Don’t want to do sales? Then don’t seek out this position. Love developing relationships, fitting skills to needs, winning work, and having the confidence to meet sales goals; then this position may be for you.

Operations Management

I was a participant in a leadership program at one of the large engineering firms I was working for at the time. Each year, the leadership program participants, in addition to the main goal of learning about acquisition and mergers and corporate strategy and growth, were assigned a project. Our particular project was to evaluate the potential for a Business Manager position that would support the group and divisional management positions. It was up to us to determine what the duties of the role would be and where in the company these individuals would sit, i.e. in what location on the organizational chart. Like many positions that are needed at large companies this one would be a purely overhead role. Out the window with profitability unless creating this position would somehow allow engineers to be more billable. At the time I felt like we created an overhead type administrative position that would sit under the CFO and would essentially help group and division managers with operations. However, it’s hard to train someone at the administrative level everything they need to be looking for within the operational numbers and how they can help with management. Where this position was implemented it felt more like an accounting type position that would show up to try to ask the project manager why more revenue wasn’t being earned. Not a real team building or support like position. But out of this brainstorming and position development and in talking with people of other industries I got to thinking. What if you created operational positions that weren’t necessarily engineering led and also weren’t necessarily the high paying unit director positions we were used to seeing? Why create a division manager position and take good project managers away from their clients and away from what they do best and which makes money; project management and technical work?

Teams need to be managed. Of that there is no doubt. However, personnel management for professional development, peer review, and technical performance are separate issues than managing chargeability, budgeting, capital costs, invoicing and budget management and/or profitability. Creating positions that slightly increase responsibility, say for an engineer to be a technical group manager who oversees professional development would not take away as much time from performing billable engineering work. On the other side, business professionals that have business training, i.e. MBA’s, might improve performance of operational units, reduce costs of management, and result in increased chargeability. Clearly having an MBA in an operations role, the goal would not be chargeability. This allows the professional to truly focus on operations, assisting a technical group manager or project managers to understand project performance, staff utilization, revenue projects, and the like without having to stop the business of engineering to learn business. Typically division manager or operations manager positions are filled by promoted project managers or group managers. These individuals are highly compensated and can become high overhead cost to an organization. To offset this, organizations create chargeability goals for these individuals of 40 to 50 percent. This keeps them from being totally and completely focused on the business operation and also forces them to find ways to be a value on engineering projects without becoming a bottle-neck in project delivery. It’s a significant challenge. At best, the manager has large jobs for which they can charge management time and keep up their chargeability. At worst, these hours get billed and clients wonder why someone who is an operations manager is charging to their project. It’s typically a lose-lose situation. If you are trying to build a culture of trust with your client, having principal level or division manager types bill to your project is not the way, unless that client specifically wants that person on the project.

In Summary

Much more can be said about clarifying roles at corporate engineering firms, but the point of this discussion is to rethink the multi-tasking role of the engineer and to try to create an environment that promotes chargeability while taking away non-chargeable responsibilities. Keep project engineers, technical professionals, and project managers as billable and as focused on project work and clients as possible. Define clear sales roles and management roles that have low chargeability, but define those positions in ways that rethink the pay rate, i.e. don’t pay for a senior project manager to be a part-time sales guy or a part time operations manager. Instead, create sales (client service manager) positions that potentially have a lower base pay with motivation for performance via commission and create operations manager positions using business professionals who have no chargeable goals. Again, the goal is higher chargeability for engineering professionals across the board and more focus on engineering work without all the distraction of sales and operations.

The Myth of the Multi- Tasking Engineer Part II: My Personal Experience as the Multi-Tasker

My career path is almost identical to many of the the engineers I know. Upon graduating from engineering school I had little idea what I really wanted to do. What I did know was I needed a job and everyone was demanding I have experience to hire me, but how do you get experience when you don’t have a job? I was fortunate enough to not only find a job, via a form letter sent via snail mail, but to land a job I had interest in. My interest has always been in water resources, specifically rivers and streams and stormwater. When I was in college my thought was, “I enjoy being outdoors and rivers and streams almost always are one of the most beautiful places to be when outside so I should focus on that.” I know, what a breakthrough conclusion. But it was practical and real. In other words, I landed a job I was interested in. That first job was at a small engineering firm where I worked quite often 10 to 12 hours a day, often on menial tasks. I was simply a project engineer. When I switched jobs I continued in that project engineer role until eventually easing into some project management, typically managing as a deputy project manager. I wasn’t necessarily trained for project management as much as I eased into it and learned what was important based on what the company told me was important, i.e. staying under budget and keeping the client happy. Eventually, I began managing projects which meant that I was now responsible for communication with the client, managing a team of experts, ensuring that schedule and budget were adhered to, and also performing technical work. I now had what could have been two full-time jobs; project management and project engineer.

My story, like that of many others continues down a familiar path. As a project manager you are not simply handed projects, but you are expected to develop relationships with potential clients, find out what their future needs will be, pre-market upcoming projects, and finally write proposals and prepare for selection interviews to bring work into the company you work for all so you can have billable work to do, keeping you and your team busy and chargeable, i.e profitable. Training for this new endeavor was never seriously provided to me, nor were there really any tried and true business practices at the company I worked for that I could implement. I was on my own. Business development isn’t even a course engineers are required to take at engineering school. Honestly, I think business development could be something that could easily consume up to two semesters of coursework in an extended engineering program.

Regardless of my lack of training, I was successful at winning projects. What I learned, and what many of us in the engineering profession know, is that performance and delivery on existing projects is the best bang for your buck when it comes to business development. Perform, deliver, and on occasion wow your clients and more than likely they’ll keep hiring you. However, stumble once, on one project, and your competitor is right there waiting in the wings to get the next opportunity and you’re back in the pack of potential suitors. It’s a brutal business, but it’s the reality of the industry.

If you are lucky enough to have navigated project engineering and project management, with a secondary career in business development, you often are moved up the food chain to the group manager position. I made my move into that world after 10-years in the business. I felt I was ready to move up the food-chain and I was incredibly excited to be able to lead a group of engineers, set the tone for my part of the company, and build a team that was second-to-none. What one learns when they get into this role is that their other jobs are not removed from their job description. In other words I now had the additional responsibility of operations management, budgeting, strategy, personnel management, coordination with other business units, and overarching responsibility for success of the group, i.e. successful projects, profitability, and winning enough work to keep my team busy and also for growth. However, project engineering and project management did not drop off my list of responsibilities. In fact, my chargeable goal was still at 60%. Honestly, that was considered an extremely reasonable goal within the organization, but what I realized was if I was going to be successful, perform 24 hours of billable work in a week, meet clients, manage operations, prepare proposals, etc. I was going to have a week that looked more like 50 hours as a baseline minimum. I was up for the challenge and I was excited about my new opportunity. I figured this was one more step in my career to get to the next level.

What I didn’t realize, and what many learn, is that there isn’t really a lot of opportunity to step-up from the group manager role. And even when there are opportunities to move up in the organization you are moving up into a roll with just slightly lower chargeable goals, e.g. 40 percent, and that your position is first on the chopping block when an organization is looking at cutting costs and increasing profitability. Overhead time (non-billable time) costs money and is not often perceived as valuable. So I found myself in the position of working 50 hours a week and still being responsible for what could essentially be four full-time roles; technical work, project management, business development, and operations management. Of course my pay was higher and to that end I was content. I felt like I was well rewarded for my work. However, what I experienced was that I was not being successful in any of the roles I was required to fill. I couldn’t focus long enough on technical work to be efficient. My project management efforts seemed to be focused on monthly invoicing and spreadsheet updates. My business development was inconsistent and I wasn’t really developing or implementing a long term strategy and I felt I was still playing catch-up when request for proposals were released by clients. And finally, my operations management seemed like a balancing act between keeping my employees happy and towing the corporate line; those two objectives rarely line up with one another.

After four years in the position I was burned out and exhausted. In talking with many of my peers this is a common experience within the industry. Many step down from the group management role and return to project management to reduce their responsibilities and find project management can be nearly as financially rewarding and brings many less uncomfortable encounters with corporate management. At the time I felt like I was failing my clients, the most critical and important part of my business. I had a project that was long overdue and significantly over budget. Again, a corporate conflict of interest. Meet the expectations of the client and don’t lose money for the corporation. How do you achieve that? Have any of you gotten the line, “you’re smart people, you’ll figure it out,”? Do you know what that means? “Work on it in on your own time.” If it’s not already, that should be something covered in a Dilbert cartoon strip.

I quit my position as a group manager and stayed on part-time with the company to finish that problem project and hopefully salvage my reputation and to rebuild my relationships with my clients via having my own engineering company. The project was successfully completed and I learned another valuable lesson; getting the job done and staying committed, no matter what the pain you feel, will pay off in the long run. In other words, don’t cut and run when it comes to taking care of your client. I have never left a job hanging, even when switching companies. It’s something I am proud of and I hope to be able to say that I have never walked away from a project or a client until the day I retire.

I started Enginuity in 2008 with high energy and vision that the company would change the industry. A lofty ideal to be sure. The reality is that I have actually managed to add to the list of jobs I currently hold. I’m now project engineer, project manager, business development, group manager, and also chief operations officer and chief financial officer. And yes, burn-out is still a problem. If you’ve read this far you’re probably hoping I can finally provide the answer to the burn-out problem. While I do feel like I have the answer, I’m not sure there are many corporations who have the vision, the resources, or the patience to make the conversion. In fact, I’m not sure the industry itself is ready for the change. So what would I do if I had my own company (which I do), but also had the vision (which I do), and the resources (which I do not) to make it happen? The answer is twofold; clear job role definition and thorough training via succession planning and corporate training programs. Parts three and four of this blog will cover these items.