Solo Notes: Importance of Theory and Practice for Surveyors
Back in 1978, when Deward Bowles, RPLS, got his start in the surveying profession as a chainman, he says he was honestly just doing it for money and didn’t think much about it. Then, in the early ’80s, his chief of parties suggested he start going to college and taking surveying courses. “He said that I could write my own ticket in this profession. I didn’t really believe him because I asked him how much he was making and it wasn’t very much,” Bowles says. He did end up attending college years later.
He was inspired to seriously consider post-secondary education when he was analyzing something as senior survey technician at a large survey firm and, one day, another technician approached him and said what he was doing was wrong. “I didn’t understand what he was talking about. I was just doing it the way I had been taught,” Bowles says. So he ended up moving on to a less stressful job at a smaller firm to give himself more time to study the profession. That’s when he went back to school and, after “sitting in a law library for a couple of years,” says he figured out what he was supposed to be doing. “So that’s when I really started getting interested in it and thought maybe I should be a professional land surveyor.”
Today he runs B&B Surveying Company, based in Houston. The business was started in 1992. He conducts title surveys, ALTA surveys, standard land surveys, topographic surveys, evaluation certificates affidavits of merit and expert witness testimony. Aside from expert witness testimony, the bulk of his projects are taken on within bordering counties. He says that while going it alone increases product control and quality, it limits the number and scale of projects he can take on due to limited manpower. He says he is optimistic about the future of the surveying profession, but that to ensure a healthy path forward, those who call themselves professional land surveyors should be careful to practice according to local law and in the traditions of how land surveying has been done in their area of work in the past.
POB: What aspects of the business do you enjoy most and why?
Bowles: I don’t consider the practice of professional land surveying as a business, but I have owned and operated my own land surveying business since ’92. It’s been a humbling experience and I suppose I have enjoyed the lessons I’ve learned along the way being in business the most. That has kept me interested in doing it despite all of the ups and downs and ins and outs of operating a small business. I think the greatest reward of operating the business has been to be able to employ people and give them a decent paying job.
POB: Do you have any memorable stories from field work and/or a favorite project you worked on?
Bowles: I’ve written extensively about my experiences and observations as a land surveyor and many of those have been published by the local Texas Society of Professional Surveyors newsletter and online at LandSurveyorsUnited.com. The most memorable experience I ever had as a land surveyor was finding a stone with an X cut on it, called for in the middle of a road intersection from a deed dating to 1805. The asphalt road that was there at the time made a bend around the side of the hill. It seemed impossible that such a monument mentioned would have survived. But after thinking about it and looking down the side of the hill from the roadway, I realized that the tangent intersection of the old road lay in the valley below the hill. Each time the road had been built to accommodate faster and faster vehicles over the years, they had moved the road further and further up the side of the hill and they drove a spoil from each successive new roadway on the old road beds below. After removing several tons of rock, we found a square stone lid embedded in the intersection of an old road base at the bottom of that hill. When we lifted the stone lid, it revealed a stone vault with a stone inside of it and on that stone was an X cut. These kinds of experiences make you realize that properly practicing land surveying endows certain immortality.
POB: What has been your biggest challenge so far?
Bowles: The most difficult challenge I have faced is the erosion, as I see it, of the profession of land surveying. Often I have clients contact me who have been victims of unscrupulous people who claim to be practicing land surveying. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t see land surveys generated by peers that don’t comply with minimum standards for land surveys prepared in the state I’m practicing. In the past, the public perceived land surveyors as having dignity and integrity. But those days are long gone now. When you’re following codified law, regulating land surveyors, which are competitors or not, it makes it very difficult to survive. It becomes very difficult in this type of environment to convince a potential client that you actually have some professional opinion to offer when your competitors are wandering off to a plat and finding any piece of random metal buried in the ground and claiming, with no further search of the evidence, that this is how real property boundaries are properly located by professional land surveyors.
POB: How do you stay on top of the latest trends and technologies?
Bowles: The technology has changed, but I don’t think it’s changed in the sense that it’s changed what land surveyors do. It’s simply a different tool, so I stay up with it when I have to; equipment fails or runs out, expires, breaks, we get new stuff. But each one of these tools has their place. Here in Houston, for example, GPS is almost useless in most places because of the multipath and constellation issues.
POB: Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into the surveying business today?
Bowles: I’d say find a surveyor who has a great reputation and learn from him. You must posess critical thinking skills and a dynamic imagination. It takes years to develop these skills and they don’t come naturally to most people; at least they didn’t come naturally to me. Claims of the impending demise of this profession are ludicrous and made only by those who are not engaged in the actual practice of land surveying in my opinion. Stick with codified law enforced in the area you are practicing and follow the colloquial traditions of land surveying as it has been practiced in the past at those locations. That’s the kind of land surveying theory that will sustain this profession and ensure many years of professional practice for those seeking to join this grand profession.
POB: How has the surveying profession changed since you started and where do you see it heading in the future?
Bowles: Land surveying theory has not really changed in my opinion, since I started as a chainman back in ’78. The tools certainly have changed and some believe this has changed how land surveying is practiced. I could not disagree more. I believe the future of land surveying is bright, contrary to what you might have heard from so-called industry experts. We do need to do a better job of getting young people involved in land surveying because this profession does continue to age. However, people who say that GIS or GPS will somehow replace land surveyors only reminds me that there are people out there who know nothing about the theory or practice of land surveying, even though they call themselves professional land surveyors. … It’s never going to replace the professional land surveyor, and there have been some prominent land surveyors who have made these kinds of statements. I don’t know what they’re thinking because, in my opinion, GIS or GPS is not what surveying is about. If it was, I’d be an engineer.
Deward Bowles, RPLS, runs B&B Surveying Company, based in Houston. He has been involved with land surveying since 1978 and became owner of B&B in 1992. Bowles can be reached at email@example.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.