Career Notes: A Blend of Technology and History
There’s a quote by Marcus Garvey, Jamaican-born political leader and journalist, which says, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
In a sense, surveying is history; at least, it has a hand in it. It’s been a valued profession since the beginning of recorded history, and not only does the entirety of construction require it, but it’s also necessary in mapping, defining legal boundaries, property laws, etc.
Michael A. Clifford, PLS, co-founder and principal of DGT Associates in Boston, can appreciate the historic background of surveying. Operating in the Boston area, one of the oldest cities in the United States, DGT Associates has been in business for 21 years. And with 35 years of experience in the surveying profession, Clifford has seen how things evolved over time.
“I fully believe that the integration of cutting-edge technologies with the traditions of the past [will] carry surveying and engineering through the 21st century,” he says.
DGT specializes in primarily handling construction support surveys (building control and layout), ALTA surveys, 3D laser scanning for BIM, and Chapter 91 Historic Shoreline Mapping.
With the implementation of new technologies and the forward progression of the surveying profession, it’s important to remember the past – and find our roots.
Q. What path did you take to end up where you are today?
A. I’ve been fortunate to learn from the best in an old city with rich history – Boston. My career goals growing up in Boston developed from an early interest and family history in building construction. This interest led me to the civil engineering program at Northeastern University, situated on top of Boston’s land-filled Back Bay Fens. My experience there included two co-op work assignments with a surveyor, a Northeastern alum, who specialized in building surveying.
Post-graduation, my decision was to continue in surveying, and I found myself under the guidance of a prominent downtown Boston firm, Gunther Engineering – now a DGT legacy firm. Its founder, Gunther Greulich, PE, PLS, was a strong advocate for the industry’s modernization, which, to him, went hand-in-hand with promoting the surveyor’s image as a professional consultant.
Q. What did you want to accomplish when you were first getting started?
A. If I had a vision for DGT, it was that the generational shifts in my local profession in the 1990s were creating an opening for a new city-based land surveying firm to take on urban projects. And it didn’t hurt that eastern Massachusetts’ economy was in full swing and the construction of our “Big Dig” — the I-90/I-93 tunnel project — was going into full construction, while the private sector was making a rebound. With this context and landscape, the plan was to grow a new firm that wasn’t afraid to jump into the big projects, hire the best talent available, and give them opportunities to grow in the profession, develop relations with and try to create a sustainable business.
Q. Which of those accomplishments have you achieved at this point?
A. I think it’s fair to say that all of them have been achieved. There have certainly been ups and downs, but after a couple of recessions, including the “great” one, we have proven our staying power.
Q. What have you done that wasn’t on that list or may be a bit unexpected given where you thought you would go?
A. Without a doubt, the fact that DGT is now also a civil engineering consultant has been a twist to our story that I’m proud of. In early days, we were totally focused on growing a “pure survey” firm that could grab enough market share to go beyond a two-person operation. Then about three years ago, we were approached about acquiring a civil/survey firm with a long history in the metro area, west of Boston proper. This has been a success in terms of growing our survey workload and also in introducing our engineering division to our former survey-only clients.
Q. What has been your most significant career lesson?
A. I would have to say it is in my attitude in managing human resources – AKA people. I have dropped my 1950s attitude that everyone comes to work and leaves at the same time and, while here, disconnects from the outside world of family and other relations. People expect a certain amount of flexibility and appreciate when it is extended. So, my new mantra is, “As long as the job gets done and the clients are happy.”
Q. What advice would you offer someone who is still at the early stages of their career in surveying?
A. For those new to the field, it’s important to get exposure to a wide variety of project types. That includes industry and services performed. Volunteer to work on new projects!
Additionally, I’m a strong advocate for the industry’s modernization and would advise new surveyors to embrace new technologies and methodologies in the field. But, I’d also add that it’s important to study principles of olden times. Surveyors that can blend both cutting-edge technologies with the traditions of the past will stand out as our industry continues to move into the 21st century.
Michael A. Clifford, PLS, is the co-founder and principal of DGT Associates in Boston. He has a bachelors of science degree in civil engineering from Northeastern University, and has been in the surveying profession for 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 Alexis Brumm at email@example.com.