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UESI Member in Focus: John Campbell

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

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John Patrick Campbell, P.E., M.ASCE, is a long-term ASCE and UESI volunteer and a member of the UESI Board of Governors. He is a member of the committee updating the Standard Guideline for the Collection and Depiction of Existing Subsurface Utility Data and the committee developing the Standard for Recording and Exchanging Utility Infrastructure Data. In addition, he was Chair of UESI's Utility Risk Management Division. 

John is a registered Professional Engineer in Texas with experience in heavy and utility construction, municipal utility design, transportation project development and delivery, right of way acquisition and mapping, asset management and public contract procurement, management and administration. John has extensive experience and expertise in utility construction, design, mapping and contract management of utility construction, coordination and utility investigation services.

Where were you born and where was most of your upbringing?

I was born in Bryan TX, the third of my parents five children and oldest of three boys.  My father, like his father before him, served and retired from a military career in the US Army, Corp of Engineers. My upbringing was therefore long on number of places and short on time in any one of them.  Upon their return from Germany, the Army ordered my father to Texas A&M University to earn a Master of Civil Engineering degree.  That is when I first set foot on earth and began a long series of family road trips always ending up at a new place to live.  By the time I returned to Texas for good, my family had moved 11 times, lived in 10 different states and along all three US coasts including the Atlantic in Wilmington, NC, the Pacific while stationed at Ft. Ord, CA and the Gulf coast upon my Lonestar return to Brownsville, TX.

Despite my nomadic start, I had an experience of prolonged residential stability that was unique for an Army family and it came at the most fortunate timing for me.  My father was stationed at the Pentagon in Washington, DC the year that I began middle school.  He accepted a series of three successive assignments resulting in 6 years living in the same house in the DC suburb of Falls Church, VA.  The significance of such a relatively lengthy stay was that they were also very influential years in my origin story as a lifelong Washington Redskins fan.

What were some of the motivating factors for you to go into civil engineering and who were some influential people in your career path?

I am a third generation civil engineer following both my father and my grandfather into the profession, so there was probably a certain genetic predisposition.  My grandfather was an ASCE member from the 1940's thru the 1960's and having influenced both my father and me, was certainly the most influential person in identifying engineering as a career path. However, I resisted family tradition, choosing to study Mechanical Engineering while attending the US Air Force Academy.  Ultimately, I regained my senses and returned to Texas where I acknowledged my destiny and changed to Civil Engineering.  The benefit of a lengthy exposure to engineering education as an ME major, was that it gave me more realistic expectations of engineering in actual practice.  My vision of working in heavy construction motivated the change to Civil Engineering. I prefer the mega rather than micro application of engineering principles in practice. I enjoy the scope and scale of CE projects and the complexity of the construction process.  I appreciate the social contract that Civil Engineers enter with the public, and I am proud to be part of a profession that attempts to thoughtfully consider, eagerly learn and constantly aspire to the highest standards as stewards in responsible charge of man's interaction with the planet.

What are some important lessons you learned in your career path that you abide by still today?

Respect for Experience - I was lucky to learn the value of experience from my first job in heavy and utility construction, when I had none of my own.  I also learned that construction experience is prerequisite to responsible, informed infrastructure design. So much of the project environment is excluded from the perspective of an otherwise "innocent" designer accustomed to working in only three-dimensional product delivery space.  The added dimensions of time and schedule are essential to effective project delivery and the applicable experience is gained on the job. My early success in construction operations was due to the recognition that I was both the most educated and least knowledgeable person on the job.  I paid close attention to the most experienced, I learned to listen and respect the experience that they shared. I learned how to listen with purpose and how to recognize mistakes before I repeated them. On the jobsite, the most lasting lessons learned are usually painful ones. The consequences of your actions are both serious and immediate. When things go wrong, they go memorably wrong and you become deeply motivated to avoid making the same mistakes again. Working in the dynamic environment of a construction job, you make judgement calls every day. With the proper respect for experience, you accumulate the wisdom of professional judgement at an accelerated pace.

Collaboration with Partners - Throughout my career I have witnessed the lessons of engaging an effective team first hand. Effective teams are developed through collaboration with peers, partners and competitors in practice. The most efficient solutions to unanticipated problems during project delivery result from a reliable team being assembled, prepared and engaged at the right time. In retrospect, I do not recall many unilateral solutions to the unanticipated issues encountered during project development and delivery.  The most efficient path to the best practice solution results from strong partnerships in open collaboration among everyone with a stake in a successful outcome.

Accountability as a Performance Factor - The metrics of measuring performance are specific to the task being performed.  What does it look like when a thing is done right, what features are described? If those are the characteristics of good performance, then those are the things that matter enough to measure. Having worked initially in the private sector before retiring from a career in public service, I came to recognize the fundamental difference between private and public practice is the measure of performance of the "bottom line".  To conduct and sustain a successful private business, revenues must exceed operating costs and profitability is the acknowledged "bottom line" measure of performance.  In the public sector however, the ability to answer for your actions at the end of the day and produce the documentary proof of responsible stewardship of public funds, is the "bottom line" measure of successful performance. Accountability is transparent when it is done properly, and the documentary proof is available and accessible in real time without exclusion or unfair additional cost to the public that requests it.  Accountability is a performance measure that encourages focus on timely response in open and transparent deliberation to provide real-time solutions in a cost-effective manner.

What do you enjoy most about civil engineering?

I enjoy the excitement that accompanies the application of emerging technology and innovation in the practice.  I am particularly interested in the evolution of "Utility Engineering" as a branch of civil Engineering that focuses on utility systems integration with other civil and utility infrastructure in project development and delivery. I enjoy the opportunity to revisit where it all began for me, coordinating the new installation and accommodation of utilities on major infrastructure projects. I enjoy the challenge of advancing the practice and preparing the next generation to develop even better practices. I enjoy the satisfaction of making the contribution of my experience to the body of utility engineering knowledge.

What are some of the biggest challenges that you see on the horizon in civil engineering and globally?

Globally, I see climate change and the resulting challenges to the resilience of the civil works projects developed to sustain a growing world population.

I also see sustaining and growing the practice of civil engineering as a major challenge.  The time and effort that must be invested in practice to identify, recruit, educate and train the next generation is critical. Professional responsibility in engineering practice originates in the responsibility for public safety. Engineering practice provides opportunities for public service that may be attractive to the next generation of engineers, but only if public service is part of the engineer's identity. Civil engineering practice must seek to establish its identity in the minds of young future engineers.

The biggest challenge to the field of utility engineering is in accumulating the experience in practice to define the essential elements of engineering judgment in utility engineering practice. The kind of judgment that must be employed to adequately manage the fundamental risk of utility location uncertainty in the effort to identify, locate, designate and prevent damage to utility infrastructure.

What was your engineering education like?

I had an atypical engineering education that began as an aspiring mechanical engineer at the US Air Force Academy.  I completed three and a half years at the academy before changing my major and returning to Texas to earn my Civil Engineering degree with concentration in construction management from Texas A&M University.  I earned an MBA with specialized focus in Finance from the University of Texas at Dallas.  My early experience as a graduate civil engineer was on the jobsite in utility construction followed by two years in municipal utility project design and delivery.  I recognized quickly that I was ill equipped to manage the bidding, contracting and administration of the project delivery and too inexperienced to provide professional oversight of the work.  I decided to pursue an MBA program that was developed specifically for Engineers instead of a graduate degree in an engineering specialty.  When I got the job of Right of Way Director it was on the strength of my business education and management experience.

What was your utility engineering experience like?

I was fortunate during my public service to represent TXDOT as a member and leader with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).  I served for 6 years as the Chairman of the AASHTO Subcommittee on Right of Way and Utilities and during that time was appointed Chairman of a joint AASHTO and FHWA International scanning tour to Australia and Canada to Study best practices in R/W management and utility project delivery.  The scanning tour was very successful with the team of 14 members selected from state DOT's, federal highways and the private sector.  We completed four stops in Australia and two in Canada over the course of two weeks.  The results of the interviews conducted over the course of the tour were published in a guidance document with over 26 identified best practices recommended for implementation. That experience and the partnerships that resulted from it, have continued to pay unexpected rewards throughout my professional practice.

Can you tell us about your current work and projects?

I am semi-retired after 27 years with the Texas Department of Transportation where I served for 22 of those as the statewide Utility Engineer and Right of Way Director.  Semi-retired means that I continue to actively engage in the right of way profession and transportation infrastructure development and project delivery.

I am an active member of the Austin chapter of the International Right of Way Association (IRWA) and currently serve as the chapter Professional Development chairman. I am a Certified Instructor with the IRWA and teach the Engineering Series curriculum on Property Descriptions and Right of Way Mapping.

I provide expert witness and consulting services for eminent domain, utility accommodation and infrastructure project impacts on private property rights.

I am an active member of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) Utilities Committee (AFB70) and past committee Research Coordinator and Secretary. In March of 2017 my association with TRB and experience with transportation research resulted in an invitation by the Government of Dubai and the Dubai Government Excellence Program (DGEP) to participate on a team of International Assessors to evaluate government service agencies in competition for the annual government excellence awards.  I spent 2 weeks in Dubai with a 5-member team of assessors evaluating the Dubai Road and Transport Authority.

And your personal goals and plans for the next year?

Continue to serve on the UESI BOG as representative from the URM division to help develop the practice and contribute my experience. Specifically continue efforts to engage the public sector through municipal outreach.

Continue to instruct IRWA courses and develop curriculum for "Utility Engineering" practice.

Over the course of the next three years I will participate on a Texas Transportation Institute team developing course curriculum for the National Highway Institute to implement the "Utility Bundle" from the products developed by the FHWA SHRP2, Strategic Highway Research Program.