Geo Week News

February 11, 2020

Efficient does not equal simple

So, it’s been a while since my last post. I’ve been busy, but for some reason the work at hand didn’t seem like the kind of thing I should write about. At some point I quit thinking about possible post topics and started thinking about why I seemed to have lost my voice. Finally, (as in yesterday) I had an epiphany! This past week that has me rethinking a lot of my business and professional assumptions. But these recent realizations came from working a problem that I’ve been trying to write about for the past year. So, let’s start there.

Simply put, I have been on a quest for efficiency for most of my professional life. I was so good at it that I could work myself out of a job and in fact, took that as a badge of merit. It is why I was so attracted to consulting in the first place. You came in with a fresh set of eyes, cross-disciplinary experience, and none of the preconceived notions that may be plaguing your client’s staff. It was a great challenge. Living this lifestyle allowed me to walk in to 95% of my contracts with experience on more reality capture hardware and software platforms than anyone else in the room. I was one of the few people I knew that had hands on experience in everything from Heritage to Petrochemical to BIM every single year. It made me extremely confident and extremely distressed about the fact that many of the companies I serviced seemed to retain a small percentage of what we tried to implement as the most efficient means available. I took my current position out of a desire to see my ideas fully implemented at an engineering and surveying firm with the confidence that doing so would prove successful (and profitable) for everyone involved.

Three years later I can say that my ideas have proved effective (and profitable), but implementation has occurred at a much slower pace than I ever imagined. The ideas I speak of are nothing revolutionary to most of you. I’m just using georeferenced sensors to digitize reality in the most efficient ways possible. We’re combining static scanners, mobile LiDAR, photogrammetry, traditional survey, etc., so that we are always using the best tool to capture each asset on each job. These are the same concepts we’ve all been preaching through SPAR for more than a decade now. But here’s the rub; efficient does not equal simple.

From the point of view of a survey manager, I am asking every one of my field crews to not only be able to run a total station and all of the field coding that goes along with that but a laser scanner, a GNSS receiver (with all the various styles like Static, RTK, PPK, etc.) and to know when and how each should be applied on a given site. Tie that in with UAV support, map reading, field survey methodologies, not getting killed in traffic, etc., and you realize I’m asking an awful lot from people that are hired, trained, and compensated as tradespeople. And it doesn’t end there. Once the data is in the building I’m asking just as much from my CADD staff. I’m expecting them to be able to run Civil 3D (along with quite a few plug-ins), Microstation, TopoDOT, ReCap, Cyclone, Trimble Business Center, Revit, Navisworks, and more. Granted only one or two of us are proficient in all of those, but we’re all expected to know when each should be used so that we’re using the most efficient processing workflow possible. Once again, most of the CADD staff also falls under the trade skills system as opposed to being college graduates. To be clear, I am not making the distinction between trade school and college as a derogatory mark against either group. I simply mean that if someone hands me something and says, “Figure it out” I think I should be able to do so. That’s what I’m paid to do. That is not what we pay tradespeople to do and many times their compensation reflect that. Operating as efficiently as possible is a complex undertaking from the project manager on down.

So, what does this mean for my company? It means I have to do a lot of training. Given the update cycles of each and every piece of hardware and software I’ve mentioned here, it means that I am training constantly. This is, of course, an instance where my consulting background has me perfectly suited for the needs of my job. However, I’m not a consultant paid as a line item for “Continuing Education” on an end of year statement. This is unbillable time that is filling up my timesheet. So, what does that make me? Middle management.

As a guy that entered the business world in the 1990’s it struck me as a dirty word. Middle managers were the bloated bureaucracy that sucked away profit without generating any billable hours that actually produced deliverables. They were the first heads on the chopping block anytime I came in as a consultant! As I sit here three years into the position, I feel incredibly conflicted. I’m having to redefine everything. It finally hit me that this was my problem writing Confessions of a Hired Gun. My day to day experiences no longer fit the narrative the way I originally defined it.

Without the newness of contracted problem solving or the constant testing of new tech I didn’t know where to take this column. But I think I’ve found my footing again. The focus needs to be less on the Hired Gun and more on the Confessions. I still intend to highlight new tech and provide some of the deeper dives into hardware and software that I’ve enjoyed (and that have been well received) over the years. However, I think I’m going to focus more on larger picture business issues than I have in the past.

The reality is that the past 40-50 years have seen companies hollow out their mid-level employees, part-time and 1099 their lowest level workers, and isolate control into the hands of fewer top executives – many of which have little to no experience actually doing the work their companies supposedly exist to perform. While we’re getting more efficient, we’re asking a lot more out of our front-line workers than we used to in the surveying and engineering fields. In mid-century America, those employees would have moved up and trained the next group of employees to enter the workforce in the how to do the job they knew so well. It seems that we’ve cut that path off so that there are very few ways to move up the ladder and as a result very few qualified trainers in-house at a given firm. We seemed to have handed the training off to consultants and vendors.

Having once been one of these folks, I can tell you that we may know the hardware & software very well, but we don’t know jack about your company, it’s culture or how things actually work for your front-line employees. Honestly, do you think your hardware or software vendor ever does your job? I got my first job selling scanners because of my field experience. Then I spent the next few years scanning board rooms instead of getting more field experience! I could get a newb up and running, but I had so few opportunities to actually learn something by performing a job all of the way through that I felt as though the longer I did the job the less qualified I became! In fact, I’d argue that I’m much more qualified now that I’ve been in a firm for a few years implementing projects on a daily basis.

In summation, we need in-house managers with experience in actually doing the work to help maintain the skill set of our employees. I’m not against consulting. There are times and applications for which it is the best solution; but it can’t solve every problem. And finding the solutions to those problems consulting is ill suited to address is what interests me most at the moment.

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