Posts Tagged ‘planning’

As in many other technical disciplines, it’s a frequent career path for engineers — almost required — to move from on from pure technical work (design, analysis, number-crunching, etc.) onto project management.

A long time ago as an undergrad in civil engineering, my course concentration was in construction project management.  I learned the crunchy part, the technical part of the work: cost estimates, budgets, schedules, systems analysis, the critical path method, all that good stuff.  But it turns out I didn’t learn, at the time, elements that in modern practice are considered part of a project manager’s job.

It’s hardly surprising; to this day, a majority of technical professionals learn project management on the job, through trial and error — lots of costly errors.  There are a lot of human, non-technical skills and tasks involved, the so-called soft skills: leadership, people management, client contact, networking, proposal preparation, finding new projects, keeping clients happy.

In truth, many of us take years to even start realizing that some of these are indeed part of project management!  For example, we keep hoping for the day the marketing personnel will learn to prepare proposals entirely without our help, without stealing our valuable technical time.

Consultants, you see, live and die by their “billable” (or “chargeable”) time: how many hours in a day do we spend working on something that advances a specific project and therefore can be charged to that client’s account?  How many hours in a day do we manage to get our salary covered by project work rather than to overhead?  Every employee in a consulting firm is acutely conscious of that percentage and every hour she has to spend on finding new work — networking, looking for leads, writing proposals, etc. — is an hour not spent on a chargeable project.

But it turns out it IS part of project management, as is keeping the client happy and informed, nursing bruised egos on a team, riding herd on sub-consultants, or negotiating with other project managers for common resources.  Yet most of us have to learn these skills by observation or by self-directed learning.

I spent 21 years out of school before finding a company where everyone, without exception, is sent for formal training before being given projects to manage. Even though by now I had done a lot of the self-teaching, I still learned valuable information on not only setting up a project right to minimize the risk of problems, but also — something usually neglected — on getting the project out of trouble when things go awry.

In addition, this company uses a coaching system in which every project has an assistant project manager to help with management tasks, ensure redundancy in case the PM is unavailable, and provide mentorship in learning the ropes. We have tools, we have support, we have a safety net.

The wonder, really, is that I spent so long and worked at so many companies without receiving the training or support.  In these places, you got technical training fairly easily, but you only received PM training as (a) a sort of accolade or pat on the back if you were doing well, or (b) a corrective measure if you were doing poorly but they still needed to keep you in the position.

Imagine that!  These companies all chose to let their professionals learn by making mistakes on their clients’ projects rather than get them trained, because of the training costs or because they were too busy putting out fires rather than planning ahead.  What a waste.


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As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts this week, I’ve been reflecting on career matters, including what I’ve changed in the last year and a half.

First, I read up on job search and career management, and the difference between the two (this is the theme of the week). I thought a lot about what I was looking for, and I formulated to myself what kind of job I wanted: “To find a job where I can continue to not only make an adequate wage for my efforts and qualifications, but also feel proud of and challenged by my work, and team up with a group of people I can respect.”

I greatly improved my resume’s style. I brushed up my skills and understanding of interviewing, networking (a word I dislike), career planning, project management, etc. I tried to make my online presence more coherent and to adopt an organized approach to contact management. I learned to wring more out of Google Calendar, Gmail, Outlook, Jibber Jobber, Box.net, and other tools that help me keep track of “people” information.

I got involved in local professional associations and I try to stay abreast of events in my community, my profession, and the world. I draw connections and I look for opportunities. Most of all, I’m very conscious of how I address people, what kind of impression I leave, and how I listen to them (that’s not new, just more conscious).

My new employer also provided training. The company uses a project management system base on the PSMJ training, and sends all new project managers to take the PSMJ A/E/C Bootcamp (that’s architects/engineers/contractors for non-jargon speakers.) There I learned a lot of interesting things which I plan to discuss tomorrow.

The change that is most embarrassing to confess: I improved my dress code at work. It’s so stupid to say, but I had reached the point when I was not even trying. Part of the reason was that it didn’t seem to make any difference in my work. A larger part was my bus commute in rainy Seattle and the long walk up along steep, windy hills to the bus stop. It seems that no matter how much I tried, I always reached the office wrinkled, rumpled, and my hair in disarray, so why bother?

Nowadays I’ve expanded my wardrobe a little bit and use accessories more. It takes actually surprisingly little to dress well (leaving aside the problem of long bus commutes for now). I have a few jackets and slacks in solid, “safe” colours (blue, ivory, black, gray, green, camel, brown) that I can mix and match, a few shirts and sweaters in solid colours that can be coordinated with these combinations, a few pairs of “good” jeans, and a few nice white shirts (alas, I hate ironing.) I vary the combinations and add yet more variety by matching with scarves and jewelry. It’s silly, but dressing up seems to improve how people see you at work.

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I’m not one of those people that life doesn’t throw anything at you which you can’t handle, or that everything happens for a reason. I think that’s the kind of thing we say to other people to make them and ourselves feel better, but in reality things just happen without predetermination. History unfolds as we make it, minute by minute and decision by decision. Sometimes people are handed more hardship than they can handle at that point, and they need help. And sometimes they don’t get this help, and they sink.

We can recover from failure. It’s not fun, and we are probably changed forever, but it doesn’t mean we can’t have another start. We take detours, we stumble, we double back, we fall and get up. If we have vision, luck, or help, and preferably all three, we can have another go and create something that is of lasting value to ourselves.

I also believe that we tend to overlook opportunities around us. One thing I’m very good at, for whatever mysterious reason, is looking at a situation and thinking: What are the opportunities here? How can we turn this problem into a solution? Is this a constraint or a resource? I’ve trained myself to think this way, and it’s tremendously useful. Not every problem can be turned around with this sort of aikido, but many become much more manageable.

Moreover, that approach fosters a mental attitude of receptivity, of looking for gems in the dirt. The dirt is still there, but unless you’re looking for them you will rarely just stumble upon the gems. I freely admit that I’m a very lucky person by any standard; but I believe my greatest luck is having the capacity to look for and notice this good fortune when it is nearby.

This is not some sort of “you make your own luck”, “The Secret” kind of positive thinking clap-trap that provides a pat on the back to the fortunate and a boot to the head to those down on their luck. I’m just suggesting that all else being equal, we have every advantage in looking for the hidden opportunities rather than waiting for Lady Luck.

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Yesterday I mentioned that I have noticed a cycle in my career consisting of periods of intense, feverish learning and growth alternating with slower, less focused periods. I also mentioned that my latest period of rapid growth started with my layoff in May 2008. Corollary: that must mean I was in a slow-down period when I was laid off, and that is likely part of the reason I was indeed selected for layoff.

It’s true! I was at my previous job for nine years, and they were good ones; but for the last few years my growth had slowed down and projects had become less interesting. There all sorts of reasons for this, and maybe I’ll discuss them in detail in a future post. The key point I’m getting to, though, is that I knew this but I kept hoping things would change on their own: a new exciting project would come along, the economy would pick up (little did I know!), some change would happen in the company that would mean a new opening for me, etc.

I was not planning for my career, I was hoping my job would improve. I had had good years at that company, I was comfortable, I liked my co-workers and my clients, I didn’ want to leave. For reasons I’ll discuss another day, I didn’t really feel I could develop much more, but I didn’t wish to look elsewhere. I’m sure that the “what have you done for me lately” factor played a major role when the company had to lay off senior personnel to hire cheaper, just-graduated professionals. I was still their most versatile employee and I had met all my annual goals, including ones that were imposed, but I hadn’t done anything new.

When I was laid off, I immediately started absorbing information to optimize my job search; I’ve published some highlights of that information before. But as I have said elsewhere, I wanted to get more out of the effort than just a new desk from which to work. I had never before reflected on the difference between job search and career management.

When I found myself hitting a plateau, professionally, I should have started looking for the next challenge. In previous cycles, I floundered around until I found another job, I went back to school to do a master’s degree, etc. But this last time, I was too comfortable; I ended up diverting my energies to non-profit organizations, hobbies, etc. Don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot there which I have since applied in my career; but it was haphazard, unplanned, and it could have resulted in a stalled career.

There’s nothing wrong with getting growth in personal pursuits rather than in a day job. For example, I learned interpersonal, leadership, organizational, and even sales skills in these side pursuits. But I’m coming to realize that it still makes sense to look at the big picture and ask myself how it all fits together. Because sooner or later, the next dip in my job productivity and interest will arrive, and I can either have a plan ready to fill this new gap or I can drift along, waiting for opportunity to happen all by itself. Which one seems more efficient?

As I was mentioning yesterday, if my current upsurge in learning and growth follows previous patterns, I will find myself slowing down around mid-2011. That means that around that time, I will have mastered the skills necessary to do my current job, I will be getting quite comfortable, and I won’t feel as challenged. It will likely be a quite enjoyable position to be in, but one which offers the temptation of complacency.

So I’m trying to plan for the next challenge after that. Since the company I now work for is considerably larger and more clearly structured than my previous one, there are several different possible paths so I can reasonably hope to grow with the company (and I do!). However, if for some reason this doesn’t work out, I will already be tackling the next set of competences I need in order to keep my mind and my heart engaged.

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Having received my first annual review at this company in early September, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my career trajectory. Looking back over the last 22 years since I graduated, I am beginning to see a pattern: periods of intense, roiling, boiling learning where I soak up information like a sponge and experience rapid professional growth, alternating with periods of calm, slower learning that produce little visible growth but prepare for the next explosion.

The intense growth periods seem to last about three years, and the slower periods vary between two and five years. As I mentioned this weekend on Bob Sutton’s Work Matters blog, the slow-down period generally correlated with poor management and poor fit; however, that’s hardly the only factor I noticed.

It seems my period of great productiveness and growth happen when I’m tossed into — or I jump into — a new environment with new responsibilities and a good personality fit, but also where I have support in reaching for new goals. The slow-downs happened either when I was in the wrong place with the wrong people, or when I finished learning the bulk of what I needed to do the job and didn’t find a way towards new goals.

I’m currently experiencing a period of intense learning and development. It began right when I was laid off in May 2008 and had to look for new work. I immediately started absorbing the information I needed to find a good job and keep it. In the process, I read a lot about career management, project management, transferrable skills, and so forth. Then once I accepted an offer and started a new job, I had plenty of new things to learn in order to make my niche here.

I have been very fortunate in finding a place where employeees are encouraged to grow and support is available. I find it extremely rewarding; there is a system established to foster employee development and to produce reliable quality in our work. Coaching and mentoring, formal and informal training, tools and procedures are in place to help people develop their potential. It’s been very easy to “give it my best shot” and I feel appreciated.

Based on past performance, my current period of growth could be expected to last through mid-2011. What happens after that? Ah-ha! I’ve got a plan, but that topic will wait until tomorrow. But I’ll give you a hint: it’s about career management vs. job search.

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This month’s job openings at SHN Consulting Engineers & Geologists, Inc.:

Coos Bay office:

  • Design Drafter/Civil Engineer Technician

Eureka office:

  • CEQA/NEPA Project Manager
  • Surveyor, L.S.I.T. or Surveyor, P.L.S. (California)

Willits office:

  • Materials Testing Laboratory Manager
  • Mid-Level Civil Engineer, P.E. (California) (new)

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Received from the Humboldt County Planning Division yesterday; if you’re interested in commenting, note the date of the public hearing, which is tonight in Eureka.

This is a revised version from the draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that was prepared in February and circulated in April.

According to its introduction, the Supplemental EIR was needed in order to make additions and changes in order to “comply with new State laws, such as the requirement to evaluate the project’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and to respond to new information such as the Humboldt County Health Assessment, prepared in 2007. There are also new policies in the Project (2009 Housing Element update), such as recommendations to implement Housing Opportunity Zones“.

It’s being recirculated to respond to comments received on the previous version, so the main new material should be found in Chapter 6 which presents the list of comments and commenters, and the responses to these comments.




SCH #2009022077

The County of Humboldt is in the process of updating the Humboldt County Housing Element, a required Element of the General Plan. The update is necessary to comply with State Law regarding Housing Elements, and to adopt local policy options to meet the documented housing needs. The project requires consideration and certification of a Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR). The County prepared a DEIR for the 2003 Housing Element and proposes to supplement the findings in this document with a Supplemental DEIR. An initial draft of the Supplemental DEIR was circulated in April, 2009; a revised draft of the Supplemental DEIR is now available for public review.

Project Description: The Housing Element describes housing needs of residents of all income levels, and includes discussion of housing needs of specific groups as well, such as seniors, owner-builders, disabled persons and the homeless. The findings that emerge from analyzing the housing information direct policies and programs which are a commitment to implement new measures to meet the County’s housing needs as well as to maintain the most effective on-going programs. The Housing Element contains policies that affect the kinds, locations and intensities of land uses and new development within the unincorporated areas of Humboldt County.

Identified Impacts: Policies and programs in the Element as well as other existing requirements administered by public agencies are sufficient to reduce potential impacts to a level of insignificance for hazards and hazardous materials, land use and planning, noise, recreation, and utilities and service systems. Implementation of the Element is expected to cause significant and unavoidable impacts to aesthetics, agriculture resources, air quality, biological resources, cultural resources, geology/soils, hydrology/ water quality, public services, transportation/traffic. The project will also likely result in significant unavoidable cumulative impacts. These impacts are similar those evaluated under the 2003 Element.

Project Location: This project will apply to all unincorporated areas of the County.

Review Period: Public comment will be accepted until August 2, 2009

Lead Agency: Humboldt County Department of Community Development Services

Direct Comments To:

Michael Richardson, Senior Planner
County of Humboldt
Department of Community Development Services, Planning Division
3015 H Street, Eureka, CA 95501
EMAIL: mrichardson@co.humboldt.ca.us

Public Hearing: On the Draft Housing Element by the Humboldt County Planning Commission, June 18th @ 6:00pm, Humboldt County Courthouse

Copies of the Supplemental DEIR are available on the internet at www.planupdate.org. Copies are also available for review at the main branch of the County library at 1313 3rd Street Eureka, California ( (707) 445-7284), and at Humboldt County Community Development Services, 3015 H Street, Eureka, CA 95501. Information or copies can be obtained by contacting Michael Richardson at (707) 268-3723 or email at mrichardson@co.humboldt.ca.us.

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