The son of a logger, John McGee, PLS, PE, CWRE, found himself unable to work in the woods for a living after local logging businesses closed down in the mid '70s. He joined the U.S. Army as an airborne infantryman and spent three years jumping out of planes and shooting mortars in the 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C. Realizing that he didn’t want to make a lifelong career out of paratrooping, McGee became a geotechnical engineering technician. He was assigned to the same units as construction surveyors and sometimes went out with crews as a chainman. Over time, he was promoted to a role overseeing survey crews. “After a while, my bosses started to think I knew what I was doing and they invited me to participate in projects located all over the world.,” McGee says. “I learned a great deal about construction projects and project layout in a variety of situations.”
The 17 years he spent working in Army construction units taught him a lot about planning ahead. Afterall, in remote areas where he only had what he brought with him, going back to the office to pick up a forgotten plumb bob or calculator batteries was not an option. He says those situations really made certain professionals stand out, and through that experience he was inspired to become a licensed professional. So, after retiring from the Army in 1994, McGee studied civil engineering and land surveying at Oregon State University. Following graduation, he became a licensed professional land surveyor, engineer and a certified water right examiner.
In 2006, McGee started JD McGee Inc. in Philomath, Ore. Initially, he planned to work as a one-man show from an extra room in his house. A few years later, when work became tougher to keep up with, he hired an assistant. “Subsequently, we purchased an office building and hired more people. Now, we have six employees and have acquired engineering licenses in Oregon, California, Washington, Arizona and South Carolina,” he says.
McGee is still solo to an extent, in that he is the only licensed professional surveyor within his firm. However, Shane Ottosen, Jr., a licensed civil engineer, is working toward licensure. Most of the firm’s projects come from commercial clients, with residential surveying coming in second. Surveying services offered include boundary surveys, land use planning assistance, ALTA surveys, predesign surveys, construction staking and elevation certificates. McGee says surveying and civil engineering are the perfect professional combination, with projects often requiring expertise in both subjects.
“We bring significant value to our clients’ projects because we take the project from concept to construction. Being a small firm, it is very likely that the person who did the initial topographic survey will be the same person making critical decisions, answering contractor questions, staking and inspecting. I cannot think of a better way to preserve continuity within a project than to have the surveyor also be the engineer. Of course, as a matter of company policy, we have internal checks to catch the blunders that a single individual could make,” McGee says.
POB: What aspect of the business do you enjoy most and why?
MCGEE: I really like solving complex problems for clients. In fact, our company slogan is “Solving Problems for You.” It is fun to use the knowledge we have gained through education and experience to help someone attain a goal that they could not have attained themselves. Our clients’ sincere appreciation when a concept — maybe even a dream — comes to fruition is icing on the cake. It is good to know in your soul that you have done a good job, but it is also nice when we receive a thank you note or an appreciative email.
POB: Do you have any memorable stories from field work and/or a favorite project you worked on?
MCGEE: I have a number of stories that are memorable; stories about supervising five survey crews concurrently staking different sub-projects on a $26 million armored vehicle gunnery range in Germany; stories about being the lead surveyor charged with ensuring that a 300-foot-long, pre-fabricated truss (Bailey) bridge hit the inaccessible far shore abutment while being pushed by a D-8 Caterpillar dozer. But the most memorable and rewarding stories are as simple as finding an ancient stone monument.
Shane and I went out to perform a simple boundary location survey in preparation for timber harvesting. Office survey research suggested that monuments were located at both ends of the line. Additionally, I was very familiar with the area, having lived in the house on the property as a youth. I was confident that this would be a walk in the park. We arrived on site in the early afternoon with the expectation that this would not take long when we discovered a telephone pedestal where the corner monument should have been. The same surveyor who had set the now obliterated rod, tied a 5-inch-by-5-inch stone with an “X” carved in the top, which marked the quarter section between sections 5 and 6. The stone was the key to being able to lay out the line. The only problem was we were short on time and the stone was 615 feet in the wrong direction, across a stream.
While Shane began setting control points and traversing from the single line monument we had located, I hiked out in search of the stone, using my pocket compass and a low-end, recreational quality handheld GPS receiver with some approximate coordinates of the monuments we planned to find. There was no easy way, in the field, to enter coordinates for the stone. My solution to the problem was to stand at the obliterated point and set a go-to point for the other end of the line. I held that bearing, plus 180 degrees, and started walking, watching as the distance increased. When the distance increased by 615 feet, I figured I was in about the right area.
The good news: there was the remnant of an old road and a rickety fence, which closely fit what the other surveyor had recorded on his map 32 years before. The bad news: the area was brushy with quite a depth of fallen leaves covering the forest floor. I knew that the odds of finding a stone were not good. So I did what any good surveyor would do; I prayed. I said, “God, if we are going to find this thing, it’s going to have to be you.” I retrieved my measuring tape from my vest pocket, hung the end on the raggedy woven wire fence and pulled 13 feet — from the surveyor’s map notes. Thankfully, the other surveyor also set a witness rod next to the stone. When I switched on the Schonstedt pin finder and scanned the ground at the 13-foot distance, it lit up like crazy. The photo [Figure 1] is proof that we found the stone. The X clearly marks the spot. And I give God the credit.
I have heard at least one other surveyor make a claim of divine intervention. Frankly, I didn’t really believe him at the time. Now I do. In fact, I even have a theory that God may be a surveyor. Check out Deuteronomy 27: 17, which says, “Cursed is anyone who moves their neighbor’s boundary stone. Then all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’”
POB: What has been your biggest challenge so far?
MCGEE: Certainly, the economic downturn was a challenge. But, I would have to say that my personal challenge is not to expect employees to know all of the things I know. I constantly have to remind myself that new folks need training.
POB: How do you stay on top of the latest trends and technologies?
MCGEE: One of the best ways to stay on top of trends and technologies is to send employees to training seminars and professional conferences. Fortunately, our professional staff is eager to learn, so within the past six months each of them have attended training either at Oregon State University (OSU) or the Professional Land Surveyors of Oregon conference. My next training seminar, “Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems in Surveying, Mapping and Engineering Applications workshop,” is on June 29 at OSU.
Reading magazine articles on everything from survey business practices to boundary law cases has been invaluable to me. In my opinion, there is really no better way, on a small firm budget, to stay up with current information. Younger folks in my firm read articles online.
POB: Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into the surveying business today?
MCGEE: Go for it. Land surveying will serve as a rewarding long-term career. There are staggering statistics available that point out how old most of us licensed surveyors are. Someone will have to fill our shoes. We won’t last forever.
POB: How has the surveying profession changed since you started and where do you see it heading in the future?
MCGEE: There have been some huge improvements in equipment since my first staking experience; we used a Wild T16 — one-minute theodolite — and a steel tape. In those days, a crew consisted of at least three members. Our office now fields one-person crews with robotic total stations capable of collecting more data in a half day than we used to collect in a week. It is very important to note that even with all of this wonderful technology it’s too easy to just trust the output. A good surveyor should always check his/her work.
I suspect that the future trend will involve faster and newer equipment that will collect huge volumes of data. More data will require faster computers and expanded capacity software. We are interested in project applications using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to collect data. But the exciting thing is, new technology, whatever form it takes, will make us better service providers for our clients.
John McGee, PLS, PE, CWR, is president of JD McGee Inc., a surveying and engineering firm located in Philomath, Ore. Services offered include boundary surveys, ALTA surveys, construction staking and elevation certificates. McGee can be reached at JohnMcGee@JDMcGee.com.
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.