Point of Beginning

Buried Treasure

December 1, 2010
Jeremy Taylor, party chief, and Zach Martin, instrument technician, prepare for the day's work.


One afternoon in early 2010, Joey Stanger, president of Stanger Surveying Tyler LLC, took a call. On the line was the pipeline manager for an existing client, a local oil and gas company. “I have a problem,” the pipeline manager said, “and I’m wondering if you can help.”

He went on to explain how the complexities of his job had increased. Tight schedules for workflow and drilling had become even tighter. He didn’t have time to pull up individual plats and study them, but he needed easy access to the data so that he could make informed decisions and share accurate details with the field crews. “I want to know where things are on the ground so that when I’m talking to someone in the field, I can explain to them with a high degree of certainty what they’re going to find and how things are going to go,” he said. “I want all the information to be in front of me at the same time.”

Five years ago, such a call might have sparked panic in the mid-sized surveying firm. But in 2010, Joey Stanger didn’t miss a beat. “Sure, we can help with that,” he said. Stanger’s vision and his firm’s investment in GIS had prepared him for this moment.

Joey Stanger, the firm's founder and president.

A Technology Focus

Stanger has seen a lot of changes in the surveying profession during his 37-year career. “When I started out in the surveying business working for a civil engineering and surveying firm in 1973, we were using the same transit and steel tape that surveyors had used for the past 50 to 60 years,” he says. “We had calculators that were somewhat programmable but had limited data storage--that was about the extent of our computer technology.”

The first seven years of Stanger’s career were unremarkable as far as technology was concerned. But then, in the early ‘80s, the firm he worked for acquired a couple of electronic distance measuring devices (EDMs), and shortly thereafter, it purchased a 50-inch by 70-inch plotter. By the mid-’80s, Stanger was developing line drawings on an early mainframe computer. “The company tried to stay on the leading edge of technology, and it was an approach I really appreciated,” Stanger says. “That mindset has stayed with me throughout my professional career.”

When Stanger decided to go out on his own in April 1987 with just one employee, he was determined to make technology a priority. “As a start-up company, we had limited resources,” he says. “But I kept my eye on the trends to see what technologies were coming along, and we invested in the ones we could afford.”

To Stanger, GIS was an interesting concept. Shortly after launching what was then Stanger Surveying Co., he took a course in GIS at Tyler Junior College, his alma mater. There, he began to understand the capabilities of GIS and how it could be used to manage projects and improve deliverables. “We had already begun serving some oil and gas companies, and we saw that they were using GIS to manage their oil and gas holdings, as well as their workflows and drilling schedules,” Stanger explains. “We knew early on that we wanted to be able to someday provide these types of services to our clients.”

Still, the time wasn’t quite right for a big GIS investment. Instead, the company focused on strengthening its core practice and broadening its scope from an early focus on real estate to encompass a variety of commercial work. As its client base in the oil and gas business grew, the firm increasingly looked for new ways to service those clients.

In 2007, the company reorganized and changed its name to Stanger Surveying Tyler. It was then that Stanger, along with Shane Neally, partner and vice president of administration, and Preston Maxfield, partner and director of operations, decided to take the next step and add a GIS specialist to their staff. “We wanted to harness GIS not just to service our clients, but also to manage our own data,” Stanger says. “We knew we would have to invest some time in training and marketing and that it might be awhile before the investment would pay off. But we believed we had the resources to make that commitment.”

Laura Crook, advanced technologies director, demonstrates the capabilities of an iPad app for Preston Maxfield, partner and director of operations.

Mapping New Solutions

Finding the right GIS specialist at first proved challenging. The firm interviewed several different individuals, but none seemed like the right fit. Stanger, who had served on the advisory board at Tyler Junior College for more than two decades after graduating from the college in 1974, began asking around there. It wasn’t long before someone recommended Laura Crook, an outgoing staff member who was teaching GIS courses at the college. “Laura was both highly knowledgeable and enthusiastic; she brought a lot of ideas to the table,” Stanger says. “We were confident that she would be an asset to the team.”

In April 2008, Crook joined Stanger Surveying Tyler part time as GIS manager. It was a welcome opportunity, and she expected to blaze new trails in GIS development work. Instead, she hit a brick wall. “Our clients had their own GIS departments, and many of them had already begun implementing strategies I had identified as possible service areas for Stanger Surveying Tyler, so it was frustrating at first,” she says. “I had to change direction and stop focusing solely on GIS and learn how surveyors work, what products they give to the client, and how I might be able to complement the work the surveyors do for our company.”

In stepping back, Crook gained a broader perspective of how the surveying angle could add a substantial amount of value to GIS deliverables. “We are a visual society, and it’s easier to understand a concept by looking at a picture than by reading a report,” she explains. “The GIS department at an oil and gas company absorbs new data, manages the data and creates business reports in a map format to show what the company is doing, what areas they’re working in, how much production they have, what their overhead looks like, and other details. As a surveying firm, we provide location-specific data, which is just a piece of that information. But by having GIS capabilities inside our firm, we can do the file conversions in-house and provide our clients with another deliverable that they can import into their database to include the survey information in a visual format. This saves them time, which is always a benefit.”

With the path to success becoming increasingly clear, Crook forged ahead, asking questions, challenging conventional practices and researching new technologies to help Stanger meet the needs of its existing clients and identify new opportunities. “I was sure that Shane, Joey, Preston and several of the other project managers in the company were going to start hiding from me due to the fact that I was constantly asking questions,” she laughs. “I had been so involved in the GIS world that I quickly realized I had to learn the different terms and the process. I get the terms wrong most of the time, but the group that I work for handles my ignorance with grace and patience.” 

Although integrating surveying with GIS is not always easy, the team’s efforts have paid off. Using Esri ArcMap and ArcGIS, the company has built a comprehensive geodatabase that contains all of the firm’s survey control points along with other geospatial and non-spatial data. “We have been able to rely on our in-house GIS expertise and software to provide a higher level of service, and our clients recognize that,” Stanger says. “We also now have a good system for managing our data internally, which makes our field crews more productive.”

The new capabilities have driven Stanger Surveying to start exploring mobile applications. Field crews increasingly carry smartphones with map applications such as Google Earth that can access these data remotely for an accurate location on previously surveyed data or control. Having detailed information readily available at their fingertips decreases the amount of time surveyors need to spend in the field and ultimately increases safety--a crucial benefit for any firm working in the heavily regulated oil and gas industry.

On the client side, Stanger has been able to provide enhanced deliverables, which range from interactive map DVDs, mapbooks and map overlays to sophisticated data modeling and impact projections over time. Earlier this year, the company added a laser scanner--a Leica ScanStation C-10--to its repertoire of surveying equipment, which has further improved its mapping and modeling capabilities. “When there’s a technology that can benefit the company and the land surveying profession, and we realize it’s only a matter of time before somebody in our market provides those services, our mindset is that we want to be the first to bring it on board,” Stanger says.

The firm has also begun using the iPad in conjunction with Google Earth and other apps to show clients how much information is readily available at their fingertips. It’s a simple but impressive way to get someone’s attention. “Everyone I’ve met with has been really impressed with what we’re doing on the iPad,” says Crook, who is now the firm’s full-time advanced technologies director. “It’s another demonstration of our leading-edge capabilities.”

Brad Kinnett, party chief, and Jamie Berry, rodman, discuss project requirements.

Geospatial Connections

Technology gives the firm an advantage in gaining new business, but Stanger ultimately believes that the company’s employees and its broader network of associates and connections are what drive Stanger Surveying Tyler forward. “Joey, Shane and Preston have a very nontraditional management approach,” Crook says. “Having worked in multiple companies, it was very different for me to step into a situation where I was given some breathing room to develop new workflows, incentives to provide the best product and service possible, and the assurance that when times get tough, they will do whatever it takes to make sure that the employees are taken care of.” She adds, “The success Stanger Surveying has is not a product of one person’s ideas but of the collective group and the faith that the partners have in their employees’ capabilities.”

Finding good employees has always been relatively easy for the firm, largely because of Joey Stanger’s strong belief in the value of education and his avid support of the local universities and students. The company hires four or five students each year, many of whom are involved in the surveying program at Tyler Junior College. “By making that commitment, we have new people coming up through our company all the time,” explains Maxfield, who adroitly manages all 30 crews and the student employees and trains them how to be respectful, disciplined and safe. “We’re not able to keep all of the new hires, but our goal is to help each person become a better surveyor and a better employee for their next opportunity. Some might see this approach as training their future competition, but we view it as developing a network.”

This network has led to new business opportunities for the firm on more than one occasion as former employees have recommended Stanger Surveying Tyler for projects requiring a specific expertise. The company also gains new connections by staying actively involved with local associations. Neally, for example, has been instrumental in networking through his continued involvement in the local and state professional surveying organizations. (He recently received the Texas Society of Professional Surveyors Young Surveyor of the Year award for his accomplishments.) For her part, Crook participates in the GIS committee for the Texas Society of Professional Surveyors and attends conferences whenever possible, both to learn and share her own knowledge. “Information is readily accessible to everyone on the Internet, so why not talk about what you’ve learned and how you’re doing things? If you help someone else out, you never know how that’s going to be returned in the future,” she says.

It’s an admirable attitude--and one that reflects Stanger’s overall philosophy. Hire the right people, treat them well, give them the tools and training they need to do their work, nurture positive relationships, and success will follow. “In the last 15 years, the changes in technology for surveying have just been phenomenal,” Stanger says. “It’s going to be very interesting to see what’s going to happen in the next five to 15 years. One thing is for sure: We want to be at the very front of it.” 

For more information about Stanger Surveying Tyler, visit www.stangercorp.com.