November 26, 2019

IE10: Transportation Projects and People

Mike Adams

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On this episode of Inside Engineering, we talk with Mike Adams, a Director in our Florida Transportation Group, about managing projects and personnel, what he wishes he'd known earlier in his career, and lessons learned throughout it.

Inside Engineering, untold stories
and fascinating people from the world of civil engineering. This is Episode 10, recorded in September 2019: Transportation projects and people with Mike Adams. Inside Engineering is brought to you by RK&K. Learn more at rkk.com. Welcome back to another episode of Inside Engineering. Thanks for joining us this week. We're really happy this week to have all the way from Florida with us in the studio is one of our directors, Mike Adams.

Mike, thanks for joining us today.
Thank you for having me. Sure. So your title is Director comma Transportation. Can you tell us what that means? 'Cause it's a pretty general title. Yes, sure. It's not about getting you back and forth at the airport. That's for sure. What I do in Florida is attempt to expand our planning design functions within the company, working primarily for the DOT down there, Florida Department of Transportation. We do a lot of other municipalities. But right now, we're a very small group and we're looking to grow and expand our expertise and influence within the state of Florida.

What kind of work do you get to do?
Mostly roadway design elements of it. A lot of what we have right now is more planning aspects. So NEPA studies, looking for roadway planning aspects of that. We do have some continuing services contracts which we put staff in-house into the DOTs, so we're a valued member of the overall team for Florida Department of Transportation, especially in central Florida, which is where we're focusing our growth initially. You mentioned NEPA studies. For anyone who might not know, can you walk us through what a NEPA study is? Sorry about that.

That's OK. It's hugely important now.
There's a lot of NEPA work going on all over. What is it? Yeah, NEPA stands for National Environmental Policy Act. It was institute in the '70s related to requirements associated with planning projects and anything that's federally funded. So those studies are to make sure we're not impacting the environment negatively or mitigating for those negative impacts. So that's a lot of what we do within the state of Florida. And those those studies... I mean, how long does a study typically take? Well, when you get these major new roadway facilities that can take upwards of, they say, four years, but they've gone on as long as 10.

I think now as we're seeing a
change in the direction of how we do business, they're trying to accelerate those processes. And streamlining, I guess, is a better way. We're not looking to avoid any of the evaluations we're doing, but looking to streamline the process and cut it back to significantly less time. A small widening project might take, you know, two years. A larger project might take three. A major new investment study type projects where you're doing new alignment might take 5 to 10. And is that streamlining that's happening, is that just the result of lessons learned from previous ones? Is there regulation involved? It's regulations, mostly Federal Highway Administration. They fund the majority of most of these studies or have a piece of that funding.

The state of Florida has been very independent on
moving forward with a lot of projects without state — without federal funding, excuse me — and they proceed on the state process, but it does mimic the same federal process of NEPA. So yeah, they just seen that there's a better way to do it. Yes,. And then sort of made that the more standard You know, there's process. an awful lot to the oversight from a lot of different jurisdictions. So that is why the timeline is where it is. The streamlining is more about creating relationships and understanding that that we're all in this together. We're looking to combine funding sources, improvements beyond just maybe a roadway and trail, more healthy communities type work, the law.

Yeah, we're doing a lot of work with kind of the
Healthy Communities. We actually have a Healthy Communities Group here, which you work with a lot. We're gonna have them on the podcast soon. Oh, good. And so you mentioned relationships and with the clients. How big a part of what you do involves relationships with clients? Personally, probably 95 percent of what I do is relationships with clients and with our staff as well. RK&K does pride itself on its people. So a lot of my job is making sure that I'm providing what is necessary for our staff to be successful. That does translate to clients as well.

Right now we're trying to establish relationships at every level, so our
entry level engineers are working with entry levels of our client. We're trying to get them to meetings. Those relationships that are built now they're gonna be using for the next 15, 20 years because this business is very tight. So a lot of... We're interviewing people now that have had relationships for last 15 years, just from one seminar, one meeting. And they've continued those relationships. Some of my client consultants, some of them are peer to peer, but all of them are beneficial and doing our work. A big part of what you do is, is sort of professional development or development of staff, and you mentioned pairing newer team members with the newer team members from the client. How do you measure the success of your teams when you have a wide range of experiences you know that you're overseeing and different levels of expertise and different focuses — how do you how do you measure the success of all that? It's not as much quantitative as qualitative.

From internally you want to come to work every
day. You want to feel challenged and you recognize when you're seeing some staff numbers that might not feel that way. So you're looking for new challenges with them. Some of them, like the marketing aspect, prefer to work with a client. Some of them like the technical aspect prefer to kind of be, you know, with a peer technically and figuring out this great engineering challenge and really don't want to have to do that business development or the political aspects of what we do from a consulting standpoint. So it's just kind of feeling and understanding how everybody's interacting and working together.

The other side for the client is client
interviews, you know, meeting with them on a regular basis, just assessing how your staff is doing with them, because they're usually more than happy to tell you if you ask the question, but they're not going to come to you and say, 'Hey, I've felt disappointed in some delivery aspect of what you guys have been doing.' It's usually just a miscommunication or a misunderstanding that's easily correctable. That feedback is really important. I've always found that seeking out feedback — you may not always get it right passively. Sometimes you have to read between the lines, but usually they'll give you everything you need to make sure that you can get a project back on track. Maybe a staff member that's just being misunderstood back to as a positive member of of their team.

And that's really we're looking to always to add
value to that to our clients. And it doesn't neccessarily have to be the biggest project to add value. A lot of times it's just the smallest projects where you can add the most value to their day. You're obviously further along in your career now. Is that your polite way of saying I've got a lot gray hair? That is not what I meant at all. But, you know, you do a lot of big picture stuff now. Along the way to getting where to where you are now. What are some of the things that as an engineer you really enjoy doing? You know, I liked seeing the product complete.

I started from more of a planning aspect where we
did studies and we didn't do construction. So we never saw something go in the ground you know, a year after I finished it. So it was more than deliverable. Seeing the clients happy gets them to the next phase is a lot of what I did. Once I was more involved in some of the design aspects, you know, seeing a project built is is awesome. I'm not a structural engineer, but I'm sure those guys love the fact when they get a big signature bridge put up, it's, you know, something they can point to and it's a source of pride for everybody. So I think one of the areas I've always excelled was more on the personality standpoint, is kind of working with clients, having a sense for just being able to read body language, to understand whether or not they're happy with us, not happy with us. And I think that's why I'm more in the management track than the technical track. Sure.

Well, what's something you wish you had known
earlier on in your career? You know, I was more of a techno geek initially. I was always about the project. I wish, you know, one things they didn't teach in college back in the day was about the marketing aspect and the importance of the relationship and maintaining that as much as the technical expertise, because there were definitely times early in my career where I knew I did a better technical product, but we weren't necessarily selected for a job because we didn't have the same relationships or the same approach. So I wish I'd understood and been exposed a little bit more to the client aspect of our business.

Sure. You mentioned marketing a couple
of times. And you know, in the civil engineering world, marketing is a little bit different. We use that word a little bit differently than we might add other places. It's not necessarily advertising, social media. It's actually proposals and winning work and those relationships. Can you talk about the — you just mentioned some of the importance — but can you talk about the importance of marketing at a civil engineering firm? Yeah. One of the things that don't get enough credit is, is the staff that we employ in our marketing groups in terms of preparing proposals and understanding how to package our technical expertise such that a client can easily understand it and recognize the value that it adds. So when I first started in Florida, we were very small, didn't have a local marketing manager.

It was very difficult and tedious to try to
show them how strongly worked technically. Once we got a marketing manager down there, things changed drastically. We were able to put together a much better proposal. Somebody looking, you know, engineers can't typically write. I mean, you engineers, it's Inside Engineering. We all have to admit it. We didn't grow up to be a writer. We grew up to crank numbers and design and build things and find solutions. So they do bring that next step to the client. And quite frankly, our clients are less technical now and they were 10 and 15 years ago. So you're having to balance that technical information with more lay terms, more layman's understanding of how we do our business. And if you're able to do that, you're going to be successful in the business development and the quote unquote, marketing aspect of winning a project.

Sure. And, you know, I think that's
more reason than ever why our clients do rely on us to to be technical experts. But to keep it like you said, you can't just be totally technical in how you're selling that work to them and how you are going to accomplish it. There's an there's an art to it. There's a lot of creativity involved. There is. There is. And, you know, a lot of times us engineers aren't creative or creative solutions, hard numbers, straight lines. But we don't think creativity in art work or, you know, being able to understand how we can impress our strengths and skills on somebody other than just look how great I designed this bridge or how great a design this road or this drainage facility or wherever we might be working with. So, you know, that aspect sometimes is under looked in our business about how we bring that creativity back in and have the fact that we have a a strong marketing department at RK&K, a strong graphics department at RK&K really helps us to be able to sell our technical capabilities.

Absolutely.
What's a let's talk about a project or two for a minute. Can you think of a project that you are working on now or have worked on recently that you're — I know you're proud of all of them — but one that sort of you really connected with in terms of, you know, who you are and the work that you do? Yeah, I'm a little bit more unique with some of the Directors. You know, they they typically had a lot of projects coming in. I was hired in to really grow a group. So there hasn't been a lot of strong project related ties that I've had. But I did have a similar contract where I worked previously. We also have which is a continuing services contract where we provide staff.

And as these... as our clients have
become less and less technical, they rely on us more. So it's always been very proud that the work that our our staff does on these types of projects that I get a phone call or when I do run into a client, they're like, 'Hey, I really appreciate the work, this person or that person has been doing.' So that has been very rewarding to me. These days as a Director, I find myself working more with staff than projects, and that for me is the most satisfying is working with a client that recognizes that our staff is working hard. And quite frankly, they do.

They get calls at all times a day at night.
They work weekends when they have to in that type of contract because they're under deadlines that the client is looking for and we're there to help them on these fire drills. And so the dedication we have, the staff that does that type of work is something we're very proud of. Can you talk about what it's like to be one of those staff members that's working with a client and sort of what that entails from kind of beginning to end? Yeah. This is in particularly this this contract we have is with the Florida Department of Transportation in Central Florida in District 1.

They are there one to two days a
week typically, but working back in the office on those other days. So they're working as supplemental staff. So a project will come up. It'll have an issue, a problem, something that was unanticipated. They'll go to our staff, ask for some technical expertise. But the truth is, if until we get those answers, those questions answered, they're not going to be able continue to move for the project. So a lot of times we're spending a significant amount time developing the process, like to fit this within the process of the Federal Highway Administration or the state process, this is what we need to do, we need to kind of wrap this up.

And a lot of it is packaging.
The staff that we have there are very good writers, very good technical writers. So they're taking information from some projects that may be technically based and fitting it into the process in explaining to the review agencies that this is why we have to do this, this meets your criteria. So it's a difficult job because you have a different standard set. If you have your own project, you win a job and you've have a very set schedule. You can understand and you can control that schedule, these types of contracts, the client is in great need that at usually at an instant get calls at 4:30 on a Thursday and say, 'Hey, can you have this to me at eight o'clock on Friday morning?' Our staff is dedicated enough to work that Thursday night or over that weekend, if it's Friday to Monday, which has happened a lot.

Especially as Florida is growing, they have a big
work program. So we do support some of their upcoming projects. So they're saying, 'Hey, we're gonna put this out to advertise advertising. I need some information about this,' and scope something for you. So that's where we hope. It really is like, what does the client need? Whatever they need, we're gonna find a way to solve it. We've brought in expertise from other areas of RK&K. Traffic is one that comes to mind from outside the state of Florida to help solve some initial issues with them. And it's been working very well. Nice. Mike, what is something that you are curious about right now? Either professionally or personally? What's what's something you're you're interested in? Curious about professionally? I can say that that as I look to hire more talent within the state of Florida is, where all this is coming from. I'm very interested to see how these schools are beginning to ramp up for the type of work that we have. We're involved in a lot of recruiting fairs, but really the more the baseline is now, what are they teaching these kids and can they come out a little bit more prepared? I know we've had several discussions about different generations, my generation versus the newer generations coming in. So it's really how do we make that fit? How do we leverage the experience that the gray hair, as you didn't call me, but my gray hair versus somebody's enthusiasm coming into this market, coming into this area to be a great engineer? That's what interests me, is how we can continue to foster the mentorship of those two.

And really, we're
working at two different types of people. So how do we make sure that those personalities gel to to bring the best opportunities for everybody? Ah indeed. I mean, that's a big part of you know, I think the entire every company kind of faces that challenge. You know, today we're ready. We're really proud of our culture here at RK&K. We definitely are. And, you know, we have a culture group that that's trying to make sure that as we grow, that we're not going to lose the tangibles that make us who we are. And really, that's part of the reason that I'm here, is understanding that it's an employee focus. And you don't have to jump through a lot of hoops if you can find a solution.

The company is more happy to
bring that to fruition for you within the within the process of RK&K. You know you've got lots of experience handling that those kinds of things. And experience comes from lessons learned. What's a lesson that you've learned from something that you have failed at? Well, it was previously, but I think a lot of times we fear that our clients are won't be empathetic to our plight.

We all make mistakes. We're human. We catch it in
our processes. But sometimes things still slip through. And that's what happened to me, probably about my sixth or seventh year in. A project that we had to go to a public hearing that wasn't properly advertised. It wasn't anything the fault that a company I was with, but it never gotten in the paper the proper way. So I immediately hit it head on, went to our clients and said, 'Mea culpa. Hey, this didn't get done. If we go to this public hearing, it's not going to meet our public requirements.' I was worried that all of a sudden I was gonna be fired. I was gonna be a pariah. They were never gonna let me in the district again.

And what happened was almost 180 degrees.
They recognized that nobody's perfect. They said, 'Thank you for coming to me as quickly as you could.' We minimized the damage We came back and without any additional cost to the client, was able to come back and do a great public hearing form at the time. So I think the lesson learned there was: don't assume that perfection is what our clients are looking for. Assume that the relationship and the understanding and the adaptability don't come with just problems, come with solutions. And that served me very well since then. That's good. I mean, along with being honest, you know, it would be easy to sort of cast the blame elsewhere or not own up to anything.

As a Project Manager or as a Director it
is my responsibility. Even if it's not my fault, it's my responsibility to accept responsibility where it is and very few clients hold that against you. That goes along with one of our our previous picks of the week from Tom Earp. He picked a book called Extreme Ownership. OK. Talked about owning up to everything that happens on your team, even if you weren't the one that did it. So that that fits him well,. I'll have to put that on the list. It's good. It's written by a former Navy SEAL. OK.

I forget his name right now, but yeah, Extreme
Ownership is the name of that book. So. So speaking of picks of the week, Mike, it's time for yours. Mike's gonna give us a recommendation for something. I don't know what it is. So I'm looking forward to it. Well, it's interesting because, you know, I spent an awful lot of time in a vehicle so I can get some books on tape. But, you know, I have a tendency to kind of just decompress during that time. So really, I've been binge watching different things that people have recommended. And Amazon Prime has something I think it's called The Boys, which is about superheroes.

Yes.
Supposed to start their next season coming up. So I binge watched that over last weekend. And if you like something that's a little creepy, a little weird in not your typical superhero stuff. That's definitely for you. I enjoyed it, but I also enjoy a lot of bad B movies. So know take that with a grain of salt. And, you know, I think anything that brings a little bit of humor to our lives day to day is something that's that's that's enjoyable. I'm big sports fan. But, you know, at the end of the day, if I can make fun of myself to others and we can enjoy it, having a laugh over if something happens day to day, that's that's part of the camaraderie that I like at RK&K.

Indeed. Indeed. Well, Mike, is there anything we
haven't talked about that you would like to to discuss for a minute or two? We've got it. We've got a little bit time left now. I would say that. All those prospective RK&K employees: don't pigeonhole yourself, you know, be open to a lot of change and a lot of opportunity. I myself and as an aerospace engineer, graduate from the University of Maryland, never really practiced aerospace engineering but it did teach me a lot of things that I'm applying now. Problem solving. Overall management.

But don't limit yourself, you know, experience a
lot of things. Don't be afraid of change. Don't be afraid to, you know, maybe extend yourself beyond your comfort zone because you'll find that you're capable of doing more than you originally thought and you're gonna bring a lot of value to to whoever you're working with, your family, your company, your best friend. Just just reach out a little farther than you're comfortable with and and you'll find your capable more things than you imagined. That brings me back to my pick of the week when the things that that definite of benefit is the TED talks. I'm sure I don't if anybody else has brought that up before. But, you know, that's an opportunity to see a wide variety of business and personal and professional growth applications.

Every story isn't germane, but
when you do find one that applies to you, it's can be the 'Aha' moment that, I was at that point in my life and this person was successful. Okay. Now I can be successful. So you know, and there are not overly technical. There are more about life lessons. So that's that's a very, very good way to kind of get a better sense of everything going on in life and the world around you. Indeed. And since you mentioned TED talks, I'm going to take another pick here,. Two in one. Two in one. Well, I just I saw one the other day.

That was. It wasn't a talk.
It was a musical talk. The guy just played. He played a song. That's it. But he played Bohemian Rhapsody on a ukulele. Okay. And I only saw it because we recently bought our middle daughter — she just turned four — we bought her a ukulele for her birthday. Okay. Better a drum set. Much better than a drum set. So I was looking for, you know, videos on, you know, that she could watch for how to play. And I came across this guy playing Bohemian Rhapsody on a ukulele. And I was like, 'this is not this can't be possible.'.

And you recognize that definitely was Bohemian
Rhapsody. Was it ever. It was Bohemian Rhapsody to the T. Like he just nailed it. Well, I'll put the link to it in the show notes. Awesome. Um, but I think it's things like that where you'll think about something that you never thought was possible. And then you see it or you hear it and you go, man, if that's possible, you know, this maybe this other thing over here that that I've been struggling with is is also possible. It's nice to have the unexpected come out in the things that you do. So that's another good example when you don't expect it. It's the twist at the end of the drama.

You know, it's it's the it's the pitch at the end
of the comedy. So it's it's all it's all enjoyable when it turns on your ear a little bit. Indeed. Indeed. Well, Mike, thanks for stopping by. Thank you. I'm glad you had time to come up here, although I know you didn't come up here all the way from Florida just for us. Now, just for this. But I managed to work everything else. And so we're good. We appreciate it. Well, Inside Engineering comes out every Tuesday. You can listen or watch on your favorite podcasting platform. We're trying to be in as many places as possible. And don't forget to rate and review the show; it helps us to show up in more places. And also take a second on our website at rkk.com/podcast.

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feedback. We want to make this this show as relevant and as useful as possible. So thanks again for joining us. And we'll see you next week on another episode of Inside Engineering.

Show Notes

Measuring Success

Mike explains how there’s a lot to measure. “… you’re looking for new challenges with [employees[. Some of them like the marketing aspect, prefer to work with a client. Some of them like the technical aspect prefer to be with a peer technically and figuring out this great engineering challenge and really don’t want to have to do that business development or the political aspects of what we do from a consulting standpoint. So it’s just kind of feeling and understanding how everybody’s interacting and working together.”

Career Advice

Mike says, “Don’t assume that perfection is what our clients are looking for.” He says own up to mistakes and focus on building relationships — they are the key to success in this industry.

Pick of the Week

Mike’s pick is TED talks. Find one’s that relevant to you and your life and take them in.

Tim’s pick is a TED talk in which Jake Shimabukuro plays the Queen classic ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, on a ukelele. If you ever thought something wasn’t possible, watch this, then think again.

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