Solo Notes: No Cutting Corners for Good Surveyors
Growing up, Lynn Kovach, PLS, had never heard of surveying. She wanted to be a teacher like her mother and grandmother. Math always came easy, but no one ever pointed her toward science or engineering. In college, the classes she took toward her degree bored her, so she ended up dropping out several times. “Once I was introduced to surveying, I went back to school and quickly graduated. The surveying curriculum was the course I had been searching for,” she says.
After graduating with a degree in surveying from California State University, Fresno, Kovach worked for a firm in northern California, just as total stations were being introduced to the profession. Then she moved to central California and worked for two different firms in Salinas. She served as the survey manager at one, in charge of three union survey crews. At the other, she served agricultural clients. The varied experiences gave her the confidence and motivation to go out on her own, something she’d dreamt of as early on as college.
“Making such a big change to my life was scary, but my family and friends have always supported and encouraged me. I had cultivated enough contacts in the community and worked hard to make new ones to keep myself busy for the first few years,” she says.
Now, 42 years after joining the surveying profession, Kovach owns and operates Polaris Consulting, a surveying firm in Carmel Valley, Calif. Services offered include boundary surveys, topographic surveys, subdivision maps, deed research and mapping, control surveys, and geographic information system (GIS) mapping and analysis.
She says she started surveying long enough ago that it was very unusual to see women surveyors at first. With time, she says those who were initially caught off guard by her status as a woman surveyor have learned to respect her skills. “Interestingly, there are some women clients that really like the idea of a woman surveyor that they can relate to. Other women don’t seem to like the idea. So, it doesn’t really help one way or the other in that regard.”
All in all, she says she loves what she does, but being a business owner is not without its challenges.
“You have a certain flexibility when you work for yourself. You can set your own hours and choose your projects. However, now instead of one boss, you have many. Each project and each client have certain demands. There is a responsibility to each client and their project to meet their expectations.”
POB: What aspect of the business do you enjoy most and why?
KOVACH: Of all the projects we do, I enjoy boundary surveying the most. There is both the historical aspect and then there is solving the puzzle. I like going out in the field to gather the relevant information, visiting different places, talking to the long-term residents about the property history and who built that fence, etc. There is a certain thrill in finding an old monument that no one has seen for 50 years or more. The more you do this work, the more intuitive you become about where the monuments will be found. Once you bring it back into the office to determine the boundary, it is like solving a puzzle. Trying to decide how the pieces fit together and which are more important can be a challenge. Plus, there is the historical aspect: reading the old deeds and becoming familiar with the history of your area. I enjoy researching the genealogy of the land itself.
POB: Do you have any memorable stories from field work and/or a favorite project you worked on?
KOVACH: Because I started small, I bought a robotic instrument, but the gun liked to chase cars; it would turn to a headlight or shiny metal. So, I took my oldest son out in the field to help me several times. I set him up at the gun and had him point it back at me when it lost me. He soon got bored; he was only 13 or 14. So I taught him to enter the point codes. As my son, Ryder, got older, he and his younger brother, Forest, both would go out in the field to assist me. Now, the oldest is about to sit for his land surveyor’s test and the younger is about to sit for his PE. Ryder still works with me and has turned into an excellent surveyor.
POB: What has been your biggest challenge so far?
KOVACH: There have been many challenges along the way. When I was taking my first surveying class at Michigan State in the 1970s, I was the only woman in the engineering department. Suffice it to say that I was not well received by my male counterparts or even the professor. Once I moved to California, the environment had started to change. There was more acceptance of women in different fields.
There were challenges in being a working mother. I had to learn to balance the differing demands of childcare and the survey workloads. When the children were small, I tried to take only part-time jobs. But each part-time position quickly grew into a full-time one. This was one of the reasons that I eventually wanted to go into business for myself.
But the biggest challenges were always centered on the work itself. The physical challenges were carrying heavy equipment up the mountain when we could only drive to within two miles of the jobsite, and cutting brush for miles when running section lines. Eventually, the projects that I was involved with grew in complexity that challenged me to expand my knowledge to be able to do each project well.
Now my biggest challenges are my biggest rewards also. Last year, we completed a boundary survey of a township that had not been resurveyed since the original GLO surveyors were out there in the 1880s. We found several original monuments, but most of the township had been cattle ranches. The terrain was extremely rocky, high desert. The original monuments had been scribed rocks. We spent quite a bit of time searching for rocks amid thousands of rocks. Further research indicated that portions of the township had been surveyed by individuals who had a history of fraudulent practices or employing questionable methods in their other GLO surveys. It was a fascinating project and very satisfying to finally record the survey map.
POB: How do you stay on top of the latest trends and technologies?
KOVACH: I keep learning. I go to seminars and conventions. I insist that all of my employees do the same. I am active in our land surveying society at both the local and the state level. I talk to other surveyors, in person and online in the forums. I read magazines and books a lot. I believe in lifelong learning and continuing education.
I also make sure that we have field and office equipment that is current with the latest technology. I think it is important that we use the best tools we can for the job at hand. It is also important that all employees are trained to use the equipment wisely. Choosing the correct tool for the job at hand requires critical thinking skills. Sometimes you just need a hammer.
POB: Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into the surveying business today?
KOVACH: Go to college to get a degree, preferably in surveying. But it could be any of a number of geospatial fields. My alma mater is California State University, Fresno. They have a great surveying and geomatics degree program. To really find out about the profession, go find a surveyor who will talk to you. Ask questions about what is important to them about surveying. Become an intern and pay attention. Once you get some experience, you will find that it is a field that has many opportunities for bright men and women.
POB: How has the surveying profession changed since you started and where do you see it heading in the future?
KOVACH: Our machines and our field personnel can obtain so much more data in a day than ever before. That trend will only continue. We need to be perceptive enough to sort that data to find the important elements and recognize the outliers. A college degree can certainly assist a person to use their critical thinking skills. We must recognize that we are the only ones that have the skills to be experts in application of geospatial data to solve boundary, control and even construction problems.
Our measuring tools have certainly evolved and made certain parts of our job much easier. That has driven certain attitude changes, which are not all good. The ease of use of the technology has enabled the button-pusher mentality. Surveying is not just a math problem to be solved. Not every answer spit out by the computer or the GPS is a good answer. The challenge is in finding a correct solution to the problem at hand without cutting corners. So many do not understand the extent of the problem, or do not get enough evidence or data to solve the problem.
I once had another surveyor ask me why I looked for certain monuments along the boundary of a project we were both working on, since they had never been shown on a map. He had never tried to look for them and his boundary solution was wrong since the found monuments did not agree with the record location by a considerable amount. The extrinsic evidence must be considered, even in construction staking. Spatial analysis and critical thinking in the field and in the office must go together to solve the problem.
With today’s equipment, we are better and faster measurers, but not necessarily better surveyors. It doesn’t matter how well you measure, if you measure to the wrong point. The professional land surveyor needs to be a part of the project in the field and in the office to be sure that all of the evidence that is pertinent to the project is gathered.
Solo Notes is a regular feature in POB magazine and highlights the experiences and strategies of solo surveyors and small business owners. To share your story in a future issue, please email Managing Editor Valerie King at firstname.lastname@example.org.