National Driller recently attended the Geoprofessional Business Association’s 2015 spring conference in Miami, where Kord Wissmann, president of North Carolina-based Geopier Foundation Company, gave a lecture titled “The Dark Side of Innovation.” A geotechnical engineer of almost 30 years, Wissmann launched his career as a consultant and eventually switched to contracting, which he wittily calls “the dark side.” Based on his experiences in both environments, Wissmann talked to National Driller about key similarities, differences and what to consider before making the transition he made.
Q. Your talk was titled “The Dark Side of Innovation.” Could you elaborate on what that means and why industry people call it that?
A. This was a corollary talk actually. I gave a talk similar to this last year at our spring conference that was held in Hawaii, and that was called “Differentiation from the Dark Side.” It was all about how to differentiate and how contractors differentiate and how consultants might use that. So this was a corollary from that. The consulting industry knows that contractors are sort of on the dark side and probably paint us contractors as being not as even-handed and more self-interested, I think is probably the basis for the term. It’s a term that we embrace. It’s not a big deal and, of course, you can make fun of it.
Q. You actually made the move to the “dark side” yourself, from geotechnical consulting to contracting. How long had you been consulting at that point and what made you choose to make the switch?
A. I think I had about seven or eight years of consulting experience. After I graduated in ’98 I worked for two different consultants in California. I did a Ph.D. after that, went back into consulting for about four more years and I was located in St. Louis. My wife was a molecular biologist and we were trying to find a location that would suit both of our careers and wanted to move closer to our family along the East Coast, particularly in the Southeast. So the move to the dark side was almost an accident. I had a job offer from somebody who had a startup company, Geopier Foundation Company. He just had this new idea of how to build things and needed a chief engineer. He recruited me to be his chief engineer and so I was still sort of doing a lot of engineering but working for a dark side kind of entity. It was a startup, so it was very entrepreneurial at the time and I pretty much fell into it. I had no idea if I would like it or not and I took the job because it gave me opportunity to live anywhere I wanted to in the country. He said, “You can take the job with you,” and that was attractive. So I kind of fell into it like I think most of us do in our careers.
Q. How smooth of a transition was it?
A. For me, that particular situation was really easy. It was easy because I discovered that I loved it right away. What I loved about it was the entrepreneurial part of working for a contractor — at least some contractors, not all contractors. Like I discussed in the talk today, some contractors can be quite innovative and there’s a freedom to innovate. The reason there’s a freedom to innovate is because the business model rewards you for your innovation. It takes effort, it takes risk and to understand the risk when you innovate. But if you can make a profit margin to offset that effort and that risk, that works out well for you and it works out well for everybody because you’re providing something that’s better for the site than they had before. Everybody benefits, but the business model has to be there for you to reap that benefit. It’s not there, in general, in consulting engineering, but it is there in contracting.
Q. Speaking of differences, could you expand on the key differences between geotechnical consulting and contracting based on your experience?
A. There are a lot of similarities first of all. We’re all in geotechnical kinds of work, we’re all working with the ground whether you’re a consultant or not, if you’re an engineer on the dark side or the bright side. You’re still running engineering calculations and doing those kinds of things. So the technical basis of the work that you’re doing really isn’t that much different from one side to the other. What is different is the way the work gets done, the environment where the work gets done. Some of the differences there are on the dark side contracting: It’s a tougher environment. You have to be low in your bid and you can’t differentiate in anything other than being low in your bid. You have to be accepted, but you have to be low in your bid. On the bright side of consulting you don’t have to always be low. You can differentiate based on the value that you can sell to your customer as a better engineer. So toughness of the business is different and the competition is different. The toughness of the competition is meaner in contracting than it is in consulting. That just stems from the wave of who’s attracted to these various types of entities. All of that being said, I’m not saying the dark side is mean. I’m just saying it’s meaner. The advantages then are that it’s innovative. You can express yourself in various ways, but you have to live with the consequences of what you choose. So if you engineer something different and it works, you get the rewards for that. If it doesn’t work, you get to pay and that paying can be painful.
Q. What should geotechnical experts consider when thinking about making the transition you did?
A. I think there are a lot of great ways to make a living in our wonderful profession. Consulting is great and you can work for a variety of types of consulting firms — a boutique consultant, a regional consultant. You can be an AE consultant, at a big large international firm, each with its advantages and disadvantages. You can work for the government or you can work for contractors. They all have their own advantages and disadvantages, and they’re all good. They’re all wonderful actually. That being said, I think that if you’re a person that embraces new things, if you’re an early adopter, then sometimes there can be more opportunities for you in contracting than there are in engineering, surprisingly so. You’d think that contractors do what engineers say, but in certain parts of contracting you don’t necessarily have to. So I think you have to be that kind of person. If you’re a person that’s risk adverse as most engineers are, if you’re a person that’s conflict adverse, which most engineers are, then geotechnical consulting is a safer environment for you and a very rewarding one as well.
Q. That said, does it take a different kind of a person to be a contractor than it does to be a consultant?
A. Yes and no. I think anybody can do it if they choose. Plenty of non-typical contractors are contractors and I think your technical basics can be applied both ways. But, I think it does take a different person to thrive. So the person has to be able to deal with conflict on a regular basis. That person has to be able to deal with risk in a more direct way. Consultants talk about risk, but that risk is typically allocated to a third party if they can help it. Contractors embrace risk every day. As soon as they step foot on site and they start moving the earth and drilling a hole, there’s so much risk involved right there. So it takes a certain amount of fortitude to embrace that risk.
Q. Is there anything you know now that you wish you were aware of when you first started your geotechnical career?
A. It depends on how you view life. If you view life as a journey, which I do, then I’d say the answer is absolutely not because you have to make the stops along the journey to have those experiences. Having a life that’s full of a lot of wonderful experiences is a great thing. That being said, I think that most engineers that graduate college don’t have a good idea of the options that are available to them and what it means in terms of the day-to-day work environment. Most college graduates go to consulting right away. Consulting can take many forms, as I mentioned, and those different forms have different cultures inherent in the form of the business and, like I said, there are strengths and weaknesses and pluses and minuses. In specialty consulting, geotechnical consulting for example and environmental consulting, the business model of consulting — trading dollars for hours, writing recommendation reports, but not really producing plans and specifications — is not something that when I was a young engineer I understood well. I wasn’t prepared for that in terms of how that would be and affect me as an engineer. So I felt a little bit un-empowered as a consultant when I was young. That’s why I went over to an AE company at one point in my career and became a designer and didn’t just provide recommendations but actually implemented the recommendations into a design.
Q. Your talk also focused a lot on innovation. How important is innovation to you and in what areas of geotechnics would you like to see it applied most?
A. I think innovation’s important to us all, because I think without innovation you get stagnation and with stagnation you get lots of people who can do the same thing. That leads directly to commoditization. So whether you’re a contractor or you’re a consulting engineer, none of us want to be working in a field that’s treated as a commodity because it sort of robs us of what we do so well in life. I think it’s important for all of us. For me personally, innovation is the best part of my job. I have 14 U.S. patents to my name, so I have lots of ways in which we’ve advanced the technical parts, tools and approaches doing ground improvement in our profession. So I live for that. If I didn’t have that part of my job I wouldn’t still be in my job. I don’t live for making money; I live for inventing new things.
I would say that, further, the ability for a consulting engineer to provide a technical innovation is quite limited. It’s limited because the business model doesn’t support it and it’s limited because technical innovations, breakthroughs and things require decades of experience to essentially prove out, so they’re inherently riskier. So the business model doesn’t reward the risk that’s taken. Technical innovation is not something that’s accessible to consultants, but is accessible to contractors. Business model innovations, changing the way we bring our products to the market, that’s addressable to everybody and that’s an important part of our innovation spectrum. Lastly, the innovation of understanding, as said in the talk, that which is known and easily replicated versus that which is not so well known and not easily replicated is important because if you’re a person that could shine a spotlight on that which is unknown or readily unknown to your customers, then you can bring that innovation to them. You’re a conduit, you’re a bridge to that innovation and that is an important part of innovation for all of us.
Valerie King is associate editor of National Driller.