When I started working with Al, a professional party chief, he did not like me at all. He had been working at the firm for nearly 35 years and was known to be grumpy, ornery, and a time-waster. But, most importantly to me, he was a great storyteller.
My first day surveying for this company, I was tasked with using an alidade and plane table to topo 20 acres. My completing that task in one day was rubbed in Al’s nose along with the other older party chiefs. It would be 8 years before I learned this and how the other party chiefs had anger before meeting me. They were old-school surveyors and grew up in the profession receiving low wages, which probably did not inspire hard work and production. Feeling they had to compete with a 26-year-old, energetic young party chief was not acceptable at all.
By my eighth year working there, I had obtained my license and moved into the office and became Al’s boss. As far as field personnel, I managed three crews. It concerned me that he might have trouble taking orders from me, but I did not have a problem with Al at all. In fact, it was the opposite.
When I took over the branch survey department, I assessed each party chief’s strengths, and Al’s was property surveys. He had worked the area and outlived his contemporaries, so he had the oldest working knowledge of the area. I was surprised at how well we got along and I really had no run-ins with Al and found him very helpful to me. On all but two projects, Al made money for the firm, and they were problem jobs, which had nothing to do with him. In earlier days, Al angrily said, “I’ll be here long after you’re gone!” and he was correct.
Among the many stories that WW2 vet told me was of the ability of American troops to adapt to situations during the war. His assertion was that our army was made of a diverse group of men coming from such varied backgrounds that when faced with a problem, some of the group would have an idea how to solve the problem. I’ve heard that called “Yankee ingenuity” and it must occur in most other countries. One man was the son of a foundry worker, a farmer, a mechanic, a mason, a carpenter. These life experiences of the group added up to success for the whole.
This particular story came to mind when I received a distressed phone call from an apprentice. She had previously had a problem with her tribrach thumb screw which came apart. When she told me of the issue, I had her give me her instrument base and I just pulled one off an old instrument and showed her the flip switch to take it off and on. She said she recalled how it worked and took the old tribrach off and handed it over for repair and snapped on the temporary replacement.
Once in the field, she tried to set up the instrument and the laser plummet did not work. As she investigated the problem, it was obvious there was no hole for the laser to project through the base I had given her and thus the phone call. I realized right away what the problem was and fished out another more appropriate tribrach from another old robot.
When I arrived at the job site, I showed her the optical plummet on the side of the base and instructed her how she needed to look through it and set up the instrument. I said it was probably the last time I would ever teach a person how to use an optical plummet and that when they first came out they were fantastic. It was an opportunity to broaden her experience. She easily set up the instrument using the old technology. Then I handed her the replacement. I also explained the ‘feel’ of when one comes to the end of travel of a thumbscrew and not to exert any more pressure. Young people today don’t grow up so much with the physical experience of the tinker, tailor, or soldier.
As years pass, field personnel gain such a wide range of experience, that if they stay in the field as party chiefs, they will acquire a vast wealth of knowledge about so many aspects of land development, building, plumbing, electrical, carpentry, concrete work, client interaction, crisis management to name a few. That takes time. I recall a day when my crew was hired to perform stakeout work on a union job. The project manager wanted our crew there every day even if there was little for us to do. During down time, I watched the concrete men pouring walls and asked if I could help. Later, I assisted them in the pours of the basement flooring. We all end up watching various forms being set up by construction experts and remember them for later use.
At 16, my son once told me “Dad, it seems like no matter what happens you know exactly what to do.”
Looking back at him with suspicious eyes I asked “Are you making fun of me? Because if you are, that’s ok.”
He responded, “No, really, if something goes wrong, you always seem to know how to handle it.”
That’s high praise from a teenager, but I wanted him to understand. So I said, “Well if it seems that way, it’s only because I’ve done it the wrong way before and am not repeating that. If what I try does not work, I don’t blow a trumpet about my mistakes and just move on to another approach. You don’t notice the transition.”
As employers or managers, we want our workers to develop educated confidence and accept that sometimes things go wrong and we need to learn ways to correct the problem.
There have been times when clients and other professionals are at a loss of what to do and ask land surveyors for advice. My office manager, more than a few times, has had professionals from other disciplines ask his help rather than their co-workers because they don’t want people to know their lack of knowledge on a subject. I told him that it’s worth it for me to pay him to help them out since it engenders goodwill that lasts a lifetime. They will remember his help and return the favor by helping cover up his errors should he ever make errors. My Missouri boss told me that any man who says he does not make mistakes is a liar or does not work.
As surveyors performing field stakeout work, it may not be our job to check the design work of others, but it’s in our best interests to do so with quick mental checks. Again, if we call a designer and tell them there are design flaws before things are constructed, we save everyone a lot of angst. It’s good to remember that today, without working experience that comes with carpentry, sanitary pipe installation, etc., architects and engineers may not understand why their design could not work in the first place.
Here is a good example of a question I asked of the design architect of a large retirement home. The site owner wanted to keep the old mansion as the office area and build wings on either side. I was to match the existing building. Do I match the façade or the foundation? The plans did not seem clear and when I brought this to the attention of the site superintendent the phone calls started and the designer, who probably never built a building, had to think about it for a day. The architect then asked me to locate the roof overhang he had to match. It would make a few inches’ difference and I had no idea what ramifications it would have, such as doors lining up on the interior. The building’s there today so it worked out even if the carpenter’s expertise and judgement was the solution.
I suggest to my employees that when they are working and see other professions in the building trades, they take a few minutes to watch what they are doing. If they are noticed, they should declare they have no idea what the other person is doing and just want to learn a little. I wish that over time I could have taken one week a year and worked for free in other professions just to know more of what they do and how they do it.
Al was right, he was there long after I was gone. His next supervisors went back to pushing Al into other types of survey work and fighting with him. They missed making the most of a very talented party chief. I’ve tried to put people to work doing what suits them better, but then “some men (and women) you just can’t reach” and we must be kind and let them go. I am thankful for the many professionals who helped me along the way and hope to continue to share what I’ve learned with younger surveyors. Four-year college degrees have become a necessity for obtaining a license, but they need to be paired with field experience.