Category Archives: Strategy

Engineering Project Manager – GeoStructures and Ground Improvement

Salary Range $85,000 – $110,00/year

Looking for a different approach to geotechnical engineering?  Maybe a smaller company, owned and managed by engineers, whose projects have adequate budget for rigorous analyses and old-school collaboration?  We have a unique position available managing our extremely capable team and amplifying our success.

Atlas Geotechnical solves complex foundation and excavation problems on high value infrastructure projects in North American and out through the western Pacific. Current engagements include ground improvement behind a wharf at Naval Base Guam, tank foundation design near Fullerton TX, temporary cut walls for widening I-405 near Seattle, and shoring for 7 excavations at a WWTP expansion near St. Louis. This September we start work expanding the Tinian airfield. More about us here:  https://atlasgeotechnical.com

Our best customers are heavy civil and marine contractors with strong in-house technical capabilities. We do about 90% repeat business; we’ve not had to write a competitive proposal in years. We build relationships and achieve success by delivering very high quality advanced engineering designs on time and within budget.

How Atlas is different:

  • We are a boutique consultancy with an obvious commitment to developing each team member’s professional skills. You’ll pack tools into your toolbox faster than you ever thought possible.
  • Atlas designs solutions for construction problems. All of our projects get built.
  • We perform old school “muddy boots” engineering. We go to our project sites, witness the challenges firsthand, and brainstorm with our customers. There are opportunities to travel to exotic job sites for focused efforts.
  • Atlas’s entire workforce is geographically dispersed. Our employees choose where they want to live and work. Right now we’re working from Santa Cruz, Portland, Denver, and St. Louis.
  • We buy the tools that engineers need to be successful. New computers and advanced software are tools that we use to succeed, not a budget problem.

How the Engineering Project Manager job works:

  • You will be involved in projects from the incoming work request through the final invoice. 
  • You have direct access to the Chief Engineer. He and his team succeed when you have the support and resources that you need to provide effective management. We’re a close-knit team who work together to solve sticky problems.
  • Workflow management is the principal focus. You’ll develop project schedules, assign and oversee analyses, assemble deliverables, and ensure that we meet our customer’s needs.
  • Contract management is another important area of responsibility. Correct invoices delivered promptly are the backbone of Atlas’s strong financial performance. We’ll rely on you to oversee invoicing and manage interactions with our customer’s accounts payable departments.
  • We have decades-long relationships with our clients. Many of them are our good friends. The engineering project manager is a high-visibility role and will work to strengthen and further develop these relationships.

You:

  • Understand engineering principles: the way that engineers use mathematics to predict stability and deformation in the built environment.
  • Are able to break down complex engineering projects into actionable, trackable elements each defined by a scope, a schedule, and a budget.
  • Know how infrastructure projects are designed, contracted, and built so that our customer’s requests make sense and fit into context.
  • Relish finding solutions, equipment, and materials for unusual field engineering situations.
  • Feel comfortable working in a distributed team with people in multiple time zones.
  • Have a clear, clean communication style that helps keep everyone included in the process and moves projects forward.
  • Live and work in the United States.

The day-to-day responsibilities include:

  • Assess incoming work requests and work with the Atlas team to generate statements of work, timelines, and budgets.
  • Be the point of contact so that there is a consistent orchestration of the project from start to finish.
    • Participate in the scoping and estimating process that secures the work.
    • Establish clear expectations around timelines and ability to deliver high-quality designs.
    • Prioritize tasks with an eye to the difference between active construction projects and jobs that have less schedule risk.
    • Continue to set and amend expectations with the client and project partners as the team responds to real world elements of our projects.
  • Assign work to the engineers according to their availability and ensure that they have the information, tools, and time needed to complete their assignments.
  • Work with the Atlas team to evolve and improve our workflow processes.
    • Assess the resources needed to complete each assignment on time and within budget.
    • Work with the assigned project engineer to break each project into discrete tasks with timelines that allow for good work, quality assurance, and timely completion.
    • Reallocate resources and manage client expectations as high-priority requests arrive to compete with existing commitments.
    • Maintain awareness of our backlog and commitments and communicate that to the Atlas team and to our customers.
  • Oversee Atlas’s internal quality program
    • Schedule and track internal computations checks and reviews
    • Coordinate our responses to comments generated by our customers and review agencies.
    • Identify areas that could be improved and assess the resources needed to make those improvements
  • Oversee profitability:
    • Participate in the scoping and estimating process
    • Track progress and request budget changes where appropriate.
    • Analyze profitability by client and by project type to inform future cost estimating
    • Track payment status and resolve problems that are causing delays.

Perks and Benefits

  • Geographic flexibility. Work from home or from an Atlas-paid coworking space
  • Competitive wages
  • Quarterly bonuses based on company performance
  • 12 annual paid holidays. (We close the shop for the last week of the year.)
  • Two weeks paid vacation
  • 401k program with significant annual profit sharing contribution
  • Medical insurance 50% company paid

To Apply

Atlas Geotechnical is a small (6-person) tight-knit group managed by the company founder. Our interview and hiring process is informal but also somewhat rigorous. Start by emailing a cover letter and your resume to jobs@atlasgeotechnical.com. We reply to every application that includes a tailored cover letter. If your background and interests seem like a good fit, we’ll arrange one or more video interviews. A 40-hour (paid) work sample is usually the last step in our hiring process.

Infrastructure stimulus projects will almost certainly be part of our economic recovery.  Continuing our conversation about Pandemic Strategy, this article focuses on the likely stimulus rollout schedule and, during the interlude, what strategic actions we should take to prepare.

Success happens so often to whomever is standing in the right place at the right time. Opportunity knocks and the lucky engineer, who’s just working away on regular projects, opens the door. Strategy, then, is when we make an effort to position ourselves behind the correct door in time for Opportunity to knock.

Sure, it takes work to decide the right place to stand and to know what staff, skills, relationships, and equipment you should have ready. It can be just as difficult to decide when, specifically, you’ll be expected to answer Opportunity’s knock. It’s important that you arrive neither so too early nor too late, to make the most of your preparatory interval, and to be fully committed to execution once it’s go-time.

While many of us complain about how large bureaucracies eschew innovation, predictability works to our favor when trying to predict the Federal responses to our developing economic challenges. They’ve got a playbook and for the most part they stick to it.  We can predict the 2020 Pandemic stimulus response, more or less, by how they responded to past recessions.

Great Depression of 1929-1933

The Great Depression started with a stock market collapse in October 1929, and the economy didn’t stop contracting until March 1933. Key to the turnaround was a change from Herbert Hoover’s unsuccessful belt-tightening response to FDR’s energetic stimulus-based recovery. The incoming administration negotiated for wide-ranging reforms and stimulus spending over the first 100 days following inauguration, from January through March 1933. The New Deal, which included banking and securities regulations, a minimum wage, and a 40-hour work week, also included a $6 billion infrastructure investment. Valued as $120 billion in $2020, the New Deal public works projects finally put America’s withering construction industry back to work.

Notable New Deal projects include NYC’s Lincoln Tunnel, the Overseas Highway out to Key West, and the Hoover and Grand Coulee Dams. Companies that emerged from these contracts include Bechtel Corporation, Morrison-Knudsen (before a disastrous string of acquisitions), and Henry J. Kaiser before he got into shipbuilding and health insurance. The New Deal’s positive legacy begs the question: what if we had not squandered 4 years on austerity measures before pivoting to deficit-spending stimulus?

Great Recession of 2007-2009

The Great Recession of 2007 began in December when a subprime mortgage meltdown precipitated bank failures. The Bush administration took some time for Hoover-esque dithering in the run-up to the 2008 election, until in February 2009 the Obama administration (notably without Republican support) authorized stimulus spending through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The ARRA included $165 billion of infrastructure spending, about a third larger than 1933’s program, but it rolled projects out much slower than had been hoped. Although generally regarded as a qualified success, the ARRA was simultaneously too large to attract Conservative support and too small to force a strong recovery. By 2013, four years into the spending, American economic recovery was best described as “slow and grudging.” Stimulus spending on infrastructure projects contributed to the recovery, but some economists suggest that a larger, and more rapidly-deployed, stimulus might have yielded better return on investment.

Pandemic Recession of 2020-2021(?)

The current recession is being managed more pro-actively than the 1929 or 2007 economic contractions. Still, though, it seems pertinent that both prior stimulus efforts were enacted shortly after a presidential election allowed the new Executive to claim a political mandate. In mid-June 2020, 4 months into the declared recession, our leadership is indulging their inner Herbert Hoover, dithering away their remaining time admiring the S&P 500 and hyping short-term retail sales improvement.  They will not act before the November 2020 election.

The economy is unavoidably the key issue in November’s election, and whichever party is able to describe the best recovery plan will likely carry the House and the Executive. History suggests that they will claim their mandate within moments of the 20 January 2021 inauguration ceremony. By the following week, if history is any guide, the Congress should open debate on a tax-cut-plus-stimulus package. Despite everyone knowing that stimulus spending is the obvious response, the funds will not be authorized until mid-February 2021 and we’re not likely to be bidding infrastructure projects before next March.

Preparatory Activities

So what can we do over the intervening 9 months so that we position ourselves in the right place at the right time?  For Atlas Geotechnical, the “right place” is the bid-preparation War Rooms of our strongest infrastructure clients. The right time is March and April 2021. We have 9 months to accumulate the financial resources to carry us through a period of intense bidding, plan our activities, adjust our staffing levels, and secure invitations to the winning teams. The right place and right time for your practice is surely different, but there’s no doubt that you should be planning your strategy so that you’re standing behind the right door when Opportunity knocks.

Start Recruiting: To the extent that you can, donate to, support, and visit the academic programs that train up your best new hires. Support your local gunfighters. You’re going to need new employees from the cohort that graduates in May 2021. You need to meet the young professionals who decide to wait out the lull by earning a Master’s degree. They’re going to be assembled and ready to meet prospective when they arrive on campus in 3 months. Make a plan to meet them, encourage them, financially support them, and then hire the best of them.

Refine Your Systems: Limber up and run some drills to prove that you’re ready to work. To design and build like you want, you should identifiy the current rough spots in your practice and polish them out.  Frequent readers will recognize this as yet another recitation of “never waste a lull,” but that’s because it’s important and bears repeating. Never waste a lull. Get your financial systems in order, build up your warchest to the extent that you can – or line up some credit – update your safety manual, refine your report templates. Prepare yourself and your team so that when it’s time to do real work your underlying systems are ready to support you.

Exude Confidence: Know that the stimulus is coming. Be confident in yourself and make sure your crew sees you projecting that confidence like a Boss. You had a workable business plan before the pandemic tanked your backlog; your fundamentals are strong. Believe in yourself and your crew, and share how much you’re looking forward to working through the recovery with them. And for mercy’s sake hang on tightly to your key employees.

Rest:  This recovery is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. We’re planning that it’ll take 3 years to spend our part of the upcoming stimulus.  I’m preparing to work long weeks from Summer 2021 through the end of 2024. My son will be in graduate school. Your children will be older; your spouse may have retired. While we wait for the intense effort to start, we all should try to get some memories into the bank. Once we can travel safely, commit to that trip with your family. Take photos and set up a slideshow screensaver that buoys you up on future snowy airport layovers.

History is a great teacher, but you’ve got to go to class. All of the news that I’m reading suggests that the economy will contract over the next year, and all signs indicate that infrastructure stimulus spending will be part of the economic recovery by this time next year. By making most of the 9 months that our leadership requires to authorize this spending we all can be better prepared for success when Opportunity, predictably, knocks on our doors.

Everyone’s strategic plan is blown right now. Each of us is hurriedly scribbling up own version of a 2020 Pandemic Strategic Plan. Despite Atlas’ long-term commitment to strategy, we struggled making an abrupt pivot toward recession-proofing.

Success arrived (finally) after we stopped cataloging our Subject Matter Expertise and Operational Strengths and made a concentrated effort to examine our bedrock-level brand characteristics. Our new Plan came together when we tailored it to the core skills that differentiate Atlas from other firms. These are our meta-skills; the skills that give rise to our more conventional marketing strengths.

My best posts here in the Geomechanical Musing blog are the quirky ones, especially the ones that include a tropical construction-site photo. This is not one of those posts. This one is a reminder to myself about discipline and serious management: Atlas succeeds when our strategic priorities leverage our meta-skills. Especially in lean times we succeed when our projects align with our underlying nature. I’m hopeful that sharing our experience might provoke some conversations with friends about how we all can support each other as we weather the upcoming recession.

What are Meta-Skills?

Each of us are subject matter experts. Some of us are great numerical modelers, some navigate the permitting process better than anyone, and still others know exactly what it should cost to refurbish a Navy wharf. None of these are meta-skills; they are the skills that you’ve developed by virtue of your underlying technical interests and business enthusiasms. These hard-to-identify underlying attributes are your organization’s meta-skills, and understanding them gives you a marketing advantage that increases efficiency and improves happiness.

Meta-skills are independent of the economy; you’re good at the things that you’re good at regardless of how many high-rise condos are planned. They are the strengths upon which you can pivot your business during tumultuous times. The way that you taught yourself how much it costs to shore a deep excavation is evidence of estimating and workflow planning skills that apply equally to all projects. That you prefer shoring projects to straightforward curb-and-gutter construction indicates another meta-skill. These foundational meta-skills are a great place to start planning your 2020 Pandemic strategy.

Identifying Your Organization’s Meta-Skills

Our initial “strengths” roster was superficial at best. It ended up being nothing but a list of perceived Subject Matter Expertise and Management Quirkiness, things that are the product of our underlying abilities, not our abilities themselves.  Apparently, honest self-reflection is not one of our meta-skills.

We found, eventually, after much trial and error, that an elimination process worked best. We started with that superficial inventory of our strengths and subject matter expertise. We added positive feedback from longtime customers and the results of a recent client survey. We grouped them, we looked for common causes, and we cut. And we cut. And still we cut. Eventually, we arrived at three.

Atlas Geotechnical’s Meta-Skills

These are the three core characteristics that our 2020 Pandemic Strategic Plan will leverage. I’m not convinced that we’re done refining, but perceptive readers will notice that our meta-skills indicate that we’re pretty comfortable with constant change, so I guess we should’t be surprised when our plan includes an intent to keep modifying the plan.  Your meta-skills are different, but for the sake of conversation here are Atlas’ top three: 

We’re Enthusiastic

We really like our work. We sink our teeth into our client’s problems and we don’t let go until it’s solved. Sure, we get fatigued by endless Agency review comments just like everyone, which is why we avoid projects that tax our enthusiasm.

We’re executing our strategic plan when we focus on projects that benefit from enthusiasm. Tight deadlines, complicated analyses that require us to locate Journal articles, these are the types of projects where our enthusiasm meta-skill gives Atlas an insurmountable advantage.

We’re Perspicacious

Understanding a problem has always been the first step to solving it, and Atlas is uncommonly good at understanding difficult geotechnical problems. Empathy for our client’s problems is how we identify which limiting assumption to push back against, or which construction process we can re-sequence, or whatever else we do to re-frame and then solve your really unusual problem.

Our 2020 Pandemic Strategy focuses on maintaining communications with our long-standing customers, listening for problems that afflict their work, and stepping in when we can bring solutions that put their projects back on track.

We’re Polymathic

We’re intrinsically motivated to learn new things. And knowing more and more things sets us up for an easier time learning the next thing. The ability to learn new skills is, in my view, the ultimate meta-skill.  It’s like using your first of three wishes to ask the Genie for an infinite number of wishes.

Here at Atlas we seem never to run out of new things that we could learn.  Working on a design that solves a unique problem feels to us like swimming downstream. It keeps us enthusiastic, and makes it fun to put in the extra effort hitting that tough deadline. A love of diverse learning is the meta-skill that ties Atlas Geotechnical’s practice together. Clients that encounter unique problems are our best opportunity during the upcoming lean year, and Atlas’ strategic plan invests in relationships with those clients.

Leveraging Your Own Meta-Skills

Your organization’s meta-skills are totally different from ours. This is as it should be. Large organizations probably have too many meta-skills to form a coherent plan and should plan in sub-groups. How meta would it be for an organization to claim the meta-skill of comfortably managing wide-ranging meta-skills from its different business units. A meta-meta-skill.

The point, though, is to improve your strategic efficiency and focus you on your core competencies. This is going to be a whopper of a recession, and some of our firms may not weather the lean times. Executing a tight strategy improves your changes of emerging strong on the other side. Each of our plans are better when we focus on our fundamental organizational strengths.

This is a message of optimism and hope, of an opportunity long awaited that is finally set to arrive. But you need to read to the end to get to the positive, encouraging part. The next two paragraphs are not comforting at all. If you are already feeling redlined trying to chart a course for your practice and the staff who look to you for leadership, skip a bit, brother, and pick up when I get to the exciting part about Adam Smith and 18th Century economic theory. 

The Bad News

In a few short weeks the coronavirus pandemic has overwhelmed our healthcare system and crippled our economy. We lack test data, making predictions imprecise, but infections are likely to peak in mid-May. Last Sunday, 8 weeks before mid-May, the Fed flattened interest rates to zero. The stock market in two weeks has effectively given back three years of impressive gains. Nobody is going to start new projects during such uncertain times, regardless of available cheap funding.

There are 8 more weeks, about, until we see evidence that economic activity is getting back to normal. Tax revenue will fall in a way that makes airport expansion projects and new container wharves at the Port of Honolulu unaffordable. I’m not an expert, but I suspect it’ll be August before goods and services are changing hands in a way that allows long-term investment decisions, the types of decisions that put engineers and contractors back to work. Our engineering industry is going to have a lull. Whatever shall we do?

The General Solution

I have a suggestion, but you’ll have to bear with me while I delve briefly into 18th-century economics.  Specifically, groundbreaking thinking in Adam Smith’s classic “The Wealth of Nations.” This is a thick book, a veritable tome. It comes bound in 3 volumes. I’m sure the binding cracks softly when opened to exude a lovely old-book smell. But some of the ideas in it are just as fresh now as they were at the beginning of England’s Industrial Revolution. These ideas are the key to our success as we enter this long-awaited lull. In March 1776, Adam Smith published the general solution to a problem that we all are just about to experience. The details, like every good professor, he left to the reader. But he certainly told us what we need to know in order to do well on the upcoming test.

The key premise is that wealth is created by reinvesting accumulated capital. This applies to your company and to your individual practice just like it does to your nation. As a man of his Industrial Revolution times, Smith focused on reinvestments in labor-saving equipment. He offered as a practical example a hypothetical pin-manufacturing enterprise. By investing some of your pin-selling profits in a better pin-sharpening machine (or whatever, I know nothing about sewing notions), you would be better-faster-cheaper in all of your future pin-making. Thus, your invested capital yields greater wealth. The wealth of nations grows by reinvesting their accumulated capital in ways that achieve greater efficiency.

The pivot from manufacturing to services requires a little discussion:  Knowledge-based companies increase their wealth when they reinvest surplus capital in greater knowledge and efficient service delivery processes. Simply hiring more people grows your top line, sure, and some of that revenue usually flows through wages and benefits to land on your bottom line. Often you can do this through buying a rival firm. The efficiency benefits in these investments are vanishingly small. Some engineering practices, particularly the very large AE’s, then prioritize distributing the slightly expanded profits to shareholders. They do not invest accumulated capital to improve their enterprise. They do not build wealth in the way that Mr. Smith recommends.

The Opportunity

Here’s where this arriving lull transforms from an economic hardship into a rare business opportunity:  Because knowledge and efficiency investments require the knowledge worker’s time, such investments are only economical during a lull. Sure, during fat times we specialist consultants buy new trucks and maybe one of those neet-o robotic total stations, but really, wealth grows when we invest in our staff. We have an opportunity to do that this summer. We can use the slack time during this lull to build shiny new pin-sharpening machines, or whatever. The question that we face, now or in May, once we get our long-awaited slack time, is how best to reinvest so that we increase our wealth? What efficiency improvement should we acquire through judicious application of our time? What pin-sharpening machine (or whatever) will help us deliver services in 2021 better-faster-cheaper than we did through mid-March 2020?

The Commitment

Me? I finally will learn to draw. I’ve been left behind as CAD morphed from a documentation requirement  into a communication and collaboration space. I’m like that old executive we all make fun of, the guy who has his secretary print out his emails and dictates his responses. I’ve been aware of this for several years, but lacked bandwidth to act. I owe Keith MacKenzie at Weeks Marine a debt of gratitude for demonstrating the power of communicating with sketches, and also for treating me kindly when we both realized just how far behind I had lagged. The whole crew at VAK Construction Engineering sets the standard in this kind of collaboration.

By the end of the year I’ll be able to sketch-and-share a pile test setup, a trestle concept, or a dewatering array with clients who are already working with information-dense, collaborative 3d drawings. I will have reinvested some of Atlas’ retained capital in an efficiency improvement that grows our wealth, an investment that I can only afford to make during a lull. A lull is a precious opportunity to finally fulfil Adam Smith’s promise of prosperity through reinvestment. So that begs the question: how will you invest your lull?

The Shared Experiences

You’re going to have slack time; the rest of the year will not resemble the beginning. Just because you lose buyers for your labor does not diminish that labor’s value. Put it to work for yourself and your crew. You will be working for the next few months at growing your future practice. About 25% to 35% of your week will be in service to your future prosperity. Do not waste this lull.I would love to hear back from everyone what investments we make. Better cost tracking that tightens your estimating system? Finally, tearing down and rebuilding that venerable Delmag D30-32 hammer so that it’s more reliable when it goes back to work? Maybe just take a bit of a breather and come back feeling refreshed? The possibilities are endless. The coming lull is real. So is the opportunity to invest in our practices. Do not waste this lull.

This book will change the way you think.

I have recommended this book to many of you. It was pivotal for my career and yet is specifically not a self-help book. It is filled with facts and observations, but has no advice or recommendations. It sets up the problem; the solution is left to the reader.

The title is just a colorful reference to a Random Walk, a mathematical term for a path comprised of successive random steps. Each next step begins at your current position, but you don’t know which direction you’ll move. There’s no way at all to know where you’ll end up.

The basic premise of the book, at least the way I read it, is that our career paths (and our lives) are strongly influenced by unexpected events, that our paths are far less under our control, than any of us want to admit. I started my career intending to follow my grandfather’s advice: “Plan your work. Work your plan.” It was calming to think that I controlled my destiny. That the actions I took, the decisions I made, controlled where I would end up in my career. What I learned, though, was that the important steps were always the ones that I could never have anticipated. Dr. Mlodinow’s well-selected examples, plus a little math, illustrate how naive I was in my initial plan.

Luck, it turns out, has far more influence than careful planning. I might even postulate that luck is more important than late nights at the office, but that’s a topic for a different essay.

My career path has been nothing if not a random walk filled with lucky happenstance. The 2002 move from Portland to Honolulu was a single step that only happened because my office was across the hall from Sean Ragain’s. All that I learned on the Midway project, the really interesting people I met and the projects we worked together, were steps that could only have happened from the “Midway” place along my walk.

Farther back in 1988, when I left Berkeley for San Diego to see about a girl, there’s no possibility I could have predicted I would be running a construction-focused geostructures shop from Santa Cruz 30 years later. And the 5-year stop on Maui? Really? Who could have planned that? Yet I walked my path, made my decisions, took my opportunities, and ended up right here. While I have some ideas about what happens next, intentions and preferences, my path so far has taught me that I can’t control the next step, nor should I want to. My best priority is to maximize exposure to good fortune for myself and the people I care about.

You all should read the book, think your own thoughts, and see how they pertain to your experience. If you agree with my assessment that increased exposure to good luck can be as important as technical competence or diligence, then making efforts to increase your exposure to good luck is a legitimate career development strategy. Here are my thoughts, refined over about a decade of thinking:

  • Have Good Friends: Embrace relationships with peers and collaborators. Good luck doesn’t happen just to you, it happens to your friends as well. More friends, more good luck. And when it does, they need reliable team members (often right away) to help them maximize their opportunity. We’re working on an important project in Pennsylvania right now because of a friendship I’ve enjoyed since 1997.
  • Just Say Yes: I borrowed this from my son’s Improvisational Comedy work, but it’s good advice for any venue. On 2 April 2002 Sean Ragain leaned out his office door across the hall and asked “Hey Doug, can we run Midway?” Yes, I replied. Just yes.
  • Be Prepared: It worked for Baden Powell, it’ll work for you. Do what you can to prepare for an extraordinary opportunity. Maybe keep a little money in a “war chest” account. Keep your field kit all in one place so it’s ready to go. Have a Council Record so you can get registered in the new state before your report needs stamping. (More here.)
  • Demonstrate Sincere Interest: You can’t be enthusiastic about work you don’t like. Your interest doesn’t need to be about the work itself. Some of my best friends are sincerely committed to time off with family. They’re great at jobs that accommodate more time off. Those jobs have advantages and disadvantages. They’re great at their jobs and achieve their overall goals.
  • Persevere:If you believe that you’re working a fantastic opportunity, rearrange your finances and priorities to make the most of it. Be visible in drumming up support. Speak at conferences. Let people know that you’re got something different to offer.
  • Fail Faster: This is the opposite of perseverance. (There’s no single right way to walk your path, remember?) If you’ve truly given it your best shot, and it’s just not working out like you had hoped, embrace the failure and move on. Put your extra effort into the next great opportunity. But be sure to maintain the relationships that you cultivated.
  • Work in Small Groups: The Law of Large Numbers states that the average value in any data subset tends toward the overall true average as the sample size increases. Engineering ability has an average just like coin tosses. Atlas Geotechnical, with a sample size of 6, has no below-average engineers. We’ve tossed 6 “heads” in a row (well we tossed a “tails” once but quickly corrected.) A company with 5,000 engineers, unavoidably, has about 2,500 below-average engineers.
  • Meet your Commitments: Schedule and quality are the most common commitments, but possibly more important are nuanced commitments that make you unique to your particular client base. Here at Atlas we’re committed to constructability. It’s worked out pretty well for us so far.

The crew at Atlas are working through a strategic exercise with our good friends at Cosmic. They prompt critical thinking, challenge preconceived notions, and bring out the best in businesses. They document the results websites and logos, but the hard work happens at a much deeper level. Organizing my thoughts here is one way I prepare to get the most out of our project. I’m hopeful there might be something equally helpful for some of you.

We’ve got a particularly interesting problem on our desks here at Atlas Geotechnical. There’s a lot at risk, various stakeholders are frustrated with and suspicious of each other, and there’s not enough time. While working this problem through to a pretty tidy conclusion this afternoon, it occurred to me to share the process that we use to achieve a safe, efficient design.

It goes without saying that rigorous project framing is critical to any problem. Define the boundary limits and success factors. Write, refine, and document the basis of design. There’s no point in working really hard late into the night when you haven’t defined the problem you’re trying to solve.

Even when the project is framed and bounded correctly, the juiciest problems always offer sticking points; places where the natural tension between resources, budget, and performance simply don’t allow a path forward. When I get stuck at one of those obstacles, these are the techniques (in order) that I use to crack it:

  • Collect More Data: Usually when moving quickly through a conceptual design you adopt conservative and simplifying assumptions about important parameters. The best way to solve a problem is to collect real data and refine the assumed parameters. This is the most self-contained and linear problem solving technique.
  • Challenge Your Assumptions: Sometimes you’re limiting yourself. A classic is that soils are normally consolidated, when really there’s a desiccated crust and settlement will be less. The always-dependable Mohr-Coulomb constitutive model is another bountiful source of limiting assumptions embedded in our most useful analytical tools. Engineers in my office call this “doing it the hard way” but if it solves the problem, and nothing else would, how hard was it, really?
  • Push Back on External Constraints: This one is particularly effective here at Atlas, but you need to understand the discipline that you’re challenging along with the hopes and dreams (and fears) of the team member who imposed the limit. Someone tells you that you can’t drill through a pilecap? Can’t tolerate more than an inch of differential settlement? Can’t pump more than 150 gpm? Discover the simplifying assumptions embedded in that limit; perform Steps 1 and 2 on someone else’s work, and find a way to preserve project performance without complying with a simplistic limit.
  • Call a Friend: I can’t tell you the number of times that this one has saved my bacon. If I weren’t so proud it would be higher on my list. Clever engineers have been solving problems for millennia; one of my friends has, almost certainly, previously solved the problem that has puzzled me for an afternoon. This one can be humbling; try to be gracious. The corollary to this technique is “try to have clever friends.” I’m good friends with several old guys who’ve been everywhere, done everything, and shoots do they ever help me crack troublesome problems
  • Hold a Meeting: Just kidding. Meetings never solve problems.
  • Get Away from the Problem: Irv Olsen used to go see a movie; one of my best friends, an astonishingly effective engineer, hikes like a maniac; I thought up this post while swimming laps. You serve your clients best when you’re thinking creatively and clearly. Don’t stay at your desk putting on a show of hard work when really you should stretch your legs, clear your mind, and actually perform engineering. Sure, you’ll need to start again with Step 1 once you’ve blown the cobwebs out, but you already got down to this last step once without solving the problem, so what other choice do you have?

I’m considering distributing laminated cards to the younger engineers here at Atlas outlining these four steps. That or hardhat stickers.

While not a panacea, I’ve found that there are very few intractable problems when clever engineers, given a clear mandate through good project framing, apply themselves vigorously and enthusiastically.

Classic art for a classic management problem

2019 started strongly here at Atlas Geotechnical, but almost immediately we found ourselves overwhelmed re-working problems that we thought we had solved. And that re-work distracted us from other commitments, to the point where we nearly landed on one of our project’s critical paths. And of course when we’re working faster than we should small details don’t get checked, like the PE expiration date on a permit drawing, causing more re-work. As soon as we frantically cut off one head, another grows in its place and the project continues to disrupt our workflow. Rinse and repeat. The past 4 weeks have been tough.

It’s increasingly obvious that the problem is not a phase. We’ll never just “get through this;” our workflow is not going to smooth itself out. Something that we are doing, or not doing, in how we approach these fast-paced, complicated problems is preventing solved issues from staying solved. We need to conduct ourselves differently if we want to achieve better outcomes.

Atlas takes on complicated projects. It’s unavoidable that we start our work while data are being collected, and sometimes it’s unavoidable that our partially-complete engineering needs to be set aside in favor of new strategies. Sometimes. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, not always. I’ve noticed that almost all of our frustrating projects never had a credible plan to begin with. We’re re-designing because the initial concept was not fully planned out. “Ready, fire, aim” is not the way to solve complicated problems.

Better, more thorough up-front planning is how we’re going to improve subsequent engineering so that solved issues stay solved, so that the cut-off heads stop growing back and fighting us while we’re trying to do other work.

The oil-and-gas industry, who build some of the most complicated infrastructure in the world, uses an explicit engineering process called Front End Engineering Design (FEED). We’ve participated in a few FEED studies and have seen how investing in up-front planning yields overall cost and schedule savings. Researchers at Delft Technical University wrote up a really excellent overview:

https://repository.tudelft.nl/islandora/object/uuid%3A020b04bf-5ddf-44b7-acf7-2141be505afa

So, we’re going to make an effort to adapt FEED practices to our more interesting projects.

  • We’ll assign ourselves more responsibility in the up-front work.
  • We’re going to exert more leadership over conceptual designs and means-and-methods choices.
  • We’ll host charettes, brainstorming sessions that include the full spectrum of stakeholders and subject matter experts.
  • We’re going to identify the likely problems before our customers order materials and mobilize equipment.

And if we’re successful, our first-try engineering solutions are going to stick and our fallback positions are going to deploy smoothly. We’re going to make a proper plan for killing the hydra all at once so we can stop frantically hacking at solutions during construction.

Look for an update in July for how things are turning out.

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.

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.

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.