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The last work week of the year is traditionally given over to strategic thinking. Essentially the workplace version of New Year’s Resolutions, it seems unavoidable that we spend this last week of the year contemplating our choices and planning improvements. Atlas Geotechnical is strongly committed to strategic thinking. Fully acknowledging that this is the most meta of all possible topics, here is our strategy for developing our 2019 strategy.

Three coincidental events prompted this thinking: reflecting on 2018 goals, a collaborator’s success, and feedback from a new friend.

  1.  Reflecting on 2018 Goals: One of our promising young engineers had a fantastic year of professional and personal growth. She performed new tasks that many engineers finish their careers without ever experiencing. She learned new tools. She’s a better writer. 2018 was undeniably a good year. Yet she did not accomplish even one of the “goals and objectives” that she and I together set at this time last year. The fault, if any is due, goes to me; I did not create opportunities for achievement. These goals checked all the SMART boxes, they were good goals. But they were necessarily established before the year had shown us what better experiences were to be had. We were right to take the better opportunities, but goals abandoned are not goals at all. For 2019, Atlas needs to articulate an over-arching framework that guides both goal-setting and goal-revision. We need a system for the adaptiveness that we improvised in 2018.

(I don’t want to bash traditional SMART goals.  They deserve a place in your planning.  Read more here: https://fitsmallbusiness.com/smart-goals-examples/)

  • A Collaborator’s Success: A longtime friend and co-worker shared positive feelings arising from demonstrating great decisiveness in making an important change. Normally contemplative and cautious, he made a good decision quickly and then kept believing in it. Decisiveness like that can’t exist without optimism, the idea that committing to a path will work out well (or can be made to work out well enough, if necessary).  Decisiveness, optimism, and confidence aren’t goals. They’re behaviors that sure do help achieve goals once you set them. I believe that cultivating decisiveness and optimism couldn’t be a precursor step that could unify our 2019 Strategic Plan.
  • Expert Insight:  A new friend described my writing here as “vigorous.”  He earns his living in academia. He’s a professional thinker, a person who illuminates ideas that remain obscure under less-acute inspection.  Vigorous. What an excellent, concise adjective. His comment resonates especially because he is unfamiliar with the details of our work here at Atlas, so he is describing the image that we project rather than the outcome of our work.  It so neatly encapsulates my love for our industry and the importance of our work. All engineers should all strive to be vigorous in our work. My practice, and Atlas more generally, will succeed in 2019 when I expand on an attribute that I already have and approach all our work with even greater vigor.

Eric Resseler, founder of Cosmic and the teamleader who created this website, helped me focus these three experiences into (to me) new line of thinking. The guiding framework for adaptive goal setting is a “theme.” Though not specifically intended for business strategy, consider reading this year-old backgrounder about Themes:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/wander-woman/201701/set-your-theme-the-year-you-set-your-goals

Eric has a fresh approach to strategic marketing that I find useful.  Read here: https://designbycosmic.com/insights

Before setting 2019 goals, consider your strategic theme. A young engineer might focus on collecting divers new skills and experiences. My collaborator felt buoyed up by his decisiveness, and more like that might make for greater progress over the course of the year. For me, I want to focus on restoring true vigor to my practice after a couple of wearying years.

Atlas Geotechnical’s 2019 strategic theme is readiness.  This year our goals will focus on honing the knowledge, systems, and resources needed to effectively serve our clients and their projects. 

  1. Atlas will emphasize staff development in all of its forms and will take advantage of opportunities as they arise.
  2. I am optimistic that by September we will have re-established our capacity to support any project anywhere in the world. Confidence in our financial resources facilitates decisiveness in accepting new projects.
  3. Our maturing safety program will assure that we can show up ready-to-work at any site in the world. Investing in safety training during slack times allows focus on logistics and analyses at project kickoff.
  4. Personally, I’ll improve my effectiveness at work by finally taking on restorative breaks.  The first half of 2019 is my time the sharpen my tools, whether in the pool, in the ocean, or in the mountains. Time with family and friends is a part of cultivating greater vigor back at my desk.

I hope that sharing our approach offers something useful as you contemplate your own 2019 goals.  Consider the triumphs and disappointments of 2018, choose a theme to guide you in 2019, and commit to your theme before setting your new goals.

Happy new year. It’s going to be a great one for all of us.

This morning I learned something very interesting about the NCEES Council Record program. Many of you carry a Council Record for rapidly securing a PE registration when your practice takes you to a new state. A few of you, I’m sure, have had the unpleasant surprise of learning that NCEES invalidated our 20+ year old records lat year when they upgraded to a new digital system (which is a delight to use, by the way).

This morning, as I worked my way through the process of refreshing my Texas PE, I saw that my work experience was incomplete after October 2016, which was coincidentally (?) the time that I finally finished restoring my record into the new system. Neither my employment nor the nature of my practice have changed in the past 10 months, so it was another unpleasant surprise that my record could not be transmitted to Texas.

I learned from the very responsive staff at NCEES that the new system requires work experience updates every 6 months. So after I described all the interesting stuff we did in the past 11 months, I set a reminder to re-submit in February and August every year for the remainder for my career. And now that you guys know too, I suggest you do so as well.

I’m a huge proponent of the NCEES program, and want very much to take full advantage of the service they provide. It occurs to me, though, that I will now be hitting you all up for experience confirmations twice as often, which gives us all a chance to keep in touch. I’m hopeful that the review process can be completed quickly and I can get my Texas PE reinstated before the floodwaters start to recede and it’s time to go to work repairing the damage.

The past 6 months at Atlas Geotechnical brought huge changes, both internal and external, to our practice.  Not on purpose, we seem to have executed our “rapid growth” strategy like a classic Vaudeville quick-change act, ducking behind a curtain briefly and popping back out looking very different.  (And yes, I used an America’s Got Talent gif instead of a sepia-toned, jumpy Vaudeville clip, but you get the idea )

America'S Got Talent GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

There are 10 of us now, up from 3 about a year ago. We took photos for the Crew page this past week, which we will post up shortly. All of our financial services providers, particularly Terra Insurance and Santa Cruz County Bank, have been very supportive in covering a tripling of our business volume. It is literally impossible to overstate the importance of personal relationships with your collaborators.

Our client base is larger but essentially unchanged in its balanced composition: Heavy infrastructure contractors, specialty foundation and ground improvement contractors, petroleum operators, and the occasional architect or civil engineering firm who are tackling a particularly unusual problem. Our quality control expertise has grown over the past few months, a companion service to the field engineering that has always been our hallmark at Atlas Geotechnical.

Geographically, on the last weekend of May 2017, we have staff on projects in Pearl Harbor and Hilo Harbor, around the Bay Area, up through Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver BC, and out to upstate New York. Projects in the upper Midwest and Alberta are winding down, but there seems to be future opportunities there as well. There’s also talk of projects in San Diego and Santa Barbara, which would require us to continue our run of rapid growth.

Big projects that we expect to start this summer include liquefaction mitigation design for a near-record length pipeline crossing, designing safe access for landslide repair crews in coastal California, and a seemingly endless stream of shoring designs in Seattle and Portland. We had an opportunity to support Caltrans at the Mud Creek slide on the Monterey Coast but were called off because the landslide accelerated (during dry weather, go figure) and there was really no possibility of restoring access until it reverts to a quasi-stable state. We are hopeful that this opportunity will come our way again later this summer.

Not every step in the rapid growth has been smooth and well considered. The crew has stepped up their efforts where necessary, and our clients have worked with us to sort out schedule adjustments where we found ourselves overcommitted. We expect to clear our office-work backlog by the end of June and be ready to kick off at least one of those larger new projects by mid-July.

It’s been an exciting time here at Atlas Geotechnical, and we’re very optimistic about the next months and years. Our particular brand of practical, muddy boots engineering is resonating with clients who tackle and overcome very difficult infrastructure challenges. The next few months, hopefully, will be a bit calmer, but by, no means will it be uninteresting.

Wes and I are in upstate New York kicking off foundation drilling for the new valve chamber at Gilboa Dam.  The temperature was 14 F and falling when we walked out of the terminal at Albany International, and the light snow that we drove through is apparently just the prelude to a  10″ snowfall forecast for this Tuesday. We were hoping to move the big drill rig down the steep access ramp to the chamber floor on Tuesday, so we spent some time this afternoon making a different plan.

I learn new things every time I travel, and this trip is filled with opportunities to expand my view of the world. For instance, I learned that engineers who mainly work in the tropics can bring all of their warmest clothes and still be woefully unprepared for foundation construction in really cold weather.  I also learned that there’s a Walmart just about everywhere, and they have the stuff you need so that you can show up ready-to-work on Monday morning. I also learned how terrible is the iPhone camera at photographing the moon. The photo above is a poor representation of the gorgeous full moon reflecting off of the snowy field behind our house. It’s really quite stunning, and also small crystals of snow are falling frozen from a clear sky when you gaze up at the moon. The rural part of upstate New York is quite beautiful, and is populated with friendly and engaging people.

Speaking of friendly and engaging people, the best lesson of the day was how to thaw a frozen water pump in record cold temperatures. At right is a photo of Jimmy and his helper (or possibly Jimmy was the helper, it wasn’t at all clear) running a 50,000 BTU salamander heater into the CMU pump vault outside our kitchen.  They assembled a short section of 8″ chimney flue pipe on each end of a 90 degree elbow to direct the blast of hot air downward into the vault.  It took more than an hour to drive up to Cobleskill and back for the ducting, but then only about 10 minutes to melt the ice that was blocking the supply pipe. It was like a beach bonfire standing there. The minor inconvenience of losing plumbing for a half-day was negligible compared to the delight of chatting with Jimmy about the odd cold-weather problems that he had already repaired that day.

Tomorrow we meet with Southland/Renta, the general contractor, and the Owner’s team of engineers and inspectors.  We hope to be installing our test caisson on Thursday morning, even allowing for a little snow delay, and will go into production work soon after.

 

Sunset over Majuro lagoon

I’ve had a very productive week here on Majuro, the principal island in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Our longtime collaborator Lyon Associates invited us to join their team for a Sea Grant project focused on developing a suite of  best practices for shoreline protection around the Marshalls, where land uses range from dense urban in downtown Uliga to rural in Laura, at the other end of the long island.

Really, this is a capacity building exercise focused on increasing efficiency and reliability of small-scale projects implemented by homeowners, who are getting specialty advice from contractors and regulators about appropriate and affordable shoreline protection.  There are a lot of stakeholders with different interests and a huge range of site and wave loading conditions, the perfect conditions for high-quality consulting. It’s gratifying to be working on such an important project.

I’ve been struck by how much of urban Majuro is already protected by well-built shoreline protection. Keeping tide and waves out of dwellings and off of city streets is plainly an important priority that lays claim to a significant fraction of limited local resources.  And while many lots have stabilized shoreline, some have not yet been addressed.  From infill seawalls (below) to increased setbacks and soft beach-sand berms, we’re hopeful that we can develop a useful set of best practices that facilitate safe and comfortable life on this low-lying atoll.

Urban shoreline retreat

A brief post this afternoon because it’s been a long day at Hilo Harbor. One of the most common questions people ask me about wharf construction is “how do you get the piles in the correct locations? It’s a good question, because you can’t really use a tape measure from shore, and the surveyor would have to wear water wings to mark the spot. The solution is a lot more work, but is the only way to accurately place the wharf piles in the correct spot: We build a falsework structure and place a template on it. And by measuring really carefully to be sure that the template is in place, we know that every pile that we drive through the template will be in the correct location too.

img_1187This photo has a pretty busy background, which is an unavoidable part of taking action shots of really big equipment in a crowded busy port, but if you look carefully you can see the 999 lowering a 40-ft long template that has positions for driving 20 wharf piles. The surveyor (in a red shirt under his PFD) is walking back to his equipment, which is set up over a very carefully marked spot on the template.  If that spot is in the correct location, then the template is correct. And if the template is correct, then we’re ready to drive piles with confidence. All of the rough-looking steel beans and pipe piles are temporary, and are only there to support the all-important template.

So, tomorrow, if all goes well, we start production piledriving that will continue for the next 6 months

 

You never know what’s about to happen when you answer a call from one of your best clients at 4:45 on a Friday afternoon. Some consultants (some of you who read these musings) avoid those calls on the statistically valid basis that nothing good will come of it, and whatever it is should be pushed off until Monday. Here at Atlas, though, we have a very different perspective. Our clients are capable, thoughtful, effective engineers and contractors. If one of them is calling on a Friday afternoon, they’re bound to have a pretty interesting problem. I answer those calls because I can’t stand the suspense of not knowing about interesting problems that need to be solved quickly.

Working through an 8-day shoring design in downtown Seattle reminded me how rapidly Atlas has grown because we embrace unexpected opportunities. We’re a strategic firm, but we use unconventional strategies that differentiate our practice from mainstream consultancies. Preparing to respond quickly to unexpected assignments is a strategic activity that facilitates opportunism, which we’ve shorthanded to Strategic Opportunism. The basic idea is that Atlas is always prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that our good clients bring.  We always say yes, and we can always make good on these commitments. A great deal of planning and preparation goes into making us so capable on short notice.

The Boy Scouts are another organization that values preparedness as a component of having great adventures. The quote below, from the founder of Scouting, applies equally to all aspects of everyone’s lives, not just High Sierra backpacking trips. If you want to succeed under unique circumstances, you need to go into those adventures prepared.

Be Prepared

  • Taking a cue from the “10 essentials” that the Scouts use as their totem for preparedness, it seems that there might be a list of attributes or resources that indicate preparedness for engineering adventures.  Here is my list of 5 essential things to cultivate or acquire in moments of calm so that you have the wherewithal to seize strategic opportunities when they arise.Financial Resources: It takes money to mobilize staff, acquire equipment, carry payroll costs, and generally produce solutions. Even our best clients take 15 days to pay our bills, and for some projects we can be $30,000 into a project in those first 2 weeks. Cash in the bank, headspace on the line of credit, and a personal relationship with a (local) banker make it possible for Atlas to start huge efforts right away.
  • Open-ended Contracts: Contract negotiation distracts from working the project. We establish fair terms and conditions during calm periods so that we aren’t distracted by administrative functions when more interesting project work demands our attention.
  • Collaborators Network: Most interesting assignments are multidisciplinary, and forming teams takes time. More importantly, established and durable relationships facilitate better designs and a tighter delivery schedule.  Atlas has on-call contracts with an extensive network of collaborators having all manner of expertise.  From map-makers to structural engineers, hardhat divers to corrosion specialists, We can form a team in an afternoon and all be at work the next morning.
  • The Right Tools:  Software is cheap these days compared to the cost of delay. So is sampling equipment. Invest in the tools that you need before you need them, and invest in training staff so they have the skill to execute their work when they’re most needed.
  • Broad Industry Knowledge: This one is the most difficult. You need to understand your client’s priorities and concerns so that you can develop and implement their best solution in one go-round. Strategic opportunities are always unique; if they were mundane they wouldn’t be strategic, and some big A/E would be slowly grinding out whatever conventional design was required. Consistent interest in your clients businesses, collecting the knowledge that you need and becoming a valued team member, is time consuming and also the most valuable of these 5 essentials.

 

The Scout’s 10 essentials can be purchased in an afternoon, faster if there’s a Long’s Drugs next door to your nearest REI. And once they’re in your backpack you have them forever. The 5 essentials to being prepared for interesting engineering projects are not as simple, unfortunately, and require consistent investment. Making that investment has proven very valuable to Atlas, and I encourage everyone to adopt whatever aspects of this might best benefit your individual practices.

 

Dinkey Creek BridgeIt’s not often that anyone sees the best geotechnical designs.  Dams, maybe, but even with those the classics are all concrete arches. I guess none of us here at Atlas, or any or our geotechnical brethren, chose this career path for the glory.  Those people were all drawn to architecture. Except for a select few who found bridge engineering. That’s one engineering discipline where function and aesthetics blend seamlessly, and where an excellent design is obvious to all onlookers and not just the engineers among us.

And while Portland has recently finished a marvelous cable-stayed crossing of the Willamette (http://trimet.org/tilikum/), I reserve my greatest appreciation for projects that were built without access to the unlimited might of modern construction equipment. A timber bridge built by sincere but untrained CCC crews is somehow in a different category for me, and generates a special kind of appreciation.

Doug Export - 20We came across this classic beauty several years ago while bouldering as a family through Dinkey Creek.  The simplicity of the design was striking, and we paused for an impromptu discussion of load paths, Newton’s second law about actions and reactions, and how to use the method of sections for analyzing trusses.

The budding young scientist in orange standing beside me (and asking insightful questions) started college this past week.  His intrinsic appreciation of beauty in the functional world draws him to studying physics, a significant step up from his dad’s mundane plodding in the mud.  He has a burning interest in answering the most fundamental questions, not simple ones like “how can we cross this creek using hand tools and the forest around us.” I hope that he, and all of us, can find elegant, enduring solutions to the important questions that we consider.

Magnitude 5.8 Earthquake 3 September 2016A lot of you have heard me hold forth about how unpredictable events wield disproportionate influence over our lives, especially our careers. The circumstances that led to Atlas Geotechnical’s founding are a classic example of working really hard to be in the right place at the right time for an unpredictable opportunity.

We experienced another unlikely coincidence this past weekend with the occurrence of a M5.8 earthquake northeast of Oklahoma City.  This is another incident thought to be caused by injecting produced water into deep formations, changing the state of stress and causing the earth’s crust to make slight adjustments, shifts that we experience as earthquakes.

The coincidence is that for the past month Atlas has been working (through our good friends at PEMY Consulting) on installing an accelerograph at a petroleum facility 50 km south of the epicenter. The accelerograph was just ordered last week, so we didn’t get any data from the event, but even without measurements the earthquake assured our client that their monitoring and preparedness  efforts are valuable. It’s gratifying to be helping a client address a risk that actually occurs in the course of the project, especially when there’s no actual damage.

The project also includes developing a procedure for responding to earthquakes systemwide, including performing inspections to assure that (typically older) equipment was not displaced by the shaking.  The earthquake probably caused peak ground accelerations of 6% to 8% of gravity at our accelerograph site, not enough to cause any real risk of damage but certainly enough for the control room staff to feel the shaking and to understand the need for a prompt visual inspection.

It seems that earthquake risk management is becoming more important in areas that were not previously known for seismicity. And through a combination of good luck and engineering enthusiasm, Atlas is again ideally positioned to help our good customers address this new (to them) operational risk.

The Porter Hotel, Portland, OregonIt’s an exciting time here at Atlas Geotechnical world headquarters. Our decade-long commitment to extraordinary customer service earned us a number of new assignments , seemingly all-of-a-sudden.  We’re leveraging these projects into very rapid growth that requires fundamental changes to our operating systems.  The obvious signs of change: new equipment, robust collaboration technologies, geographic expansion, are all being undertaken in support of preserving, even improving, our earned reputation for responsiveness, innovation, and technical excellence.

You’ll notice over on the Crew page that we have two new Team Atlas members:

  • Jonathan Nasr is completing his Master’s degree in geotechnical engineering at Portland State while working days on geotechnical design and construction monitoring assignments. His initial assignments mainly consisted of developing site characterization models and designing shoring. Presently he’s testing tiebacks at The Porter Hotel project in downtown Portland. While we’re very glad that he’s having the experience of digging a big hole in the middle of the city, we’re sorely missing his office contribution.
  • Wes Miller will join us in mid-March after relocating from the Bay Area to Bend.  Wes has a background in water resources and municipal infrastructure, adding much-needed diversity to our longstanding crew of gearhead geotechs.  Wes is an avid outdoorsman and adventurer, and you can expect to see him on some of the remote projects that are stacking up in our backlog.

There are other changes to the Atlas website, including a number of project descriptions that are long overdue for publication.  The next batch of projects, the ones that we are working on right now, will be even more interesting.

As I write this we have active projects in Guam, Hawaii, California, Oregon, Vancouver BC, northern Alberta, and Michigan. We are solving really challenging problems in nearshore marine construction, ground improvement, storage tanks, impact barriers, and deep excavations. The projects are varied and interesting, our clients are always a delight, and our expanded team is already working seamlessly. In the 12-year history of the company we’ve never had so much new and interesting work. This upcoming 12 months is going to be very exciting indeed.