Learn More about Mike Spack – University of Minnesota Interview
Staff from the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering interviewed me a couple of months ago for an alumni profile piece. It was a little strange talking about myself, but Sally and Merry are great at their jobs and made it fun. Plus I’m honored that they think what we’ve accomplished is interesting enough for a profile piece.
Read the full article below or view it in the UofM CEGE magazine.
Going out on my own was terrifying at the time, but I approached each step as a calculated risk. I didn’t take any wild flyers! For the first 9-10 years it was just me, a sole practice. My entrepreneurial instincts were honed at UMN in the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. I’d thought of owning my own company and took action when I noticed an opportunity for traffic counting.
A few years ago, the city of Minneapolis was updating the timing for all their traffic signals. Our biggest project until that time had been counting 45 intersections for the University Avenue light rail line. All of a sudden we were doing 250 intersection projects. That was my impetus for adding more staff.
At the time, I was mentoring a Capstone group at UMN. That group was so amazing, so enthusiastic! I don’t know if working together brought out the best in them or how that worked, but I ended up hiring three of the four. Two came on as interns, and I hired Max Moreland (CivE 2010) outright. He is still with me.
Adding full-time staff was a hard transition; I had to get comfortable delegating. Max now handles TrafficData, Inc., start to finish. Another UMN alumnus came to work for us last fall, Bryant Ficek (CivE 1998, PE, PTOE, Vice-President of Spack Consulting). He has taken over the lead engineering role for me. We now have five full-time staff members, and my role is managing and marketing our four businesses.
I made a decision that I didn’t want to be jumping into the ring where 20 companies all go after the same engineering work. I’m a good enough engineer to compete, but I do not have the marketing machine behind me. So, we are taking a different approach, and it has opened up the world for us!
Marketing is so different now with the power of the Internet. We don’t chase jobs; we try to put out useful things that other engineers can use, and orders come in. We have more than 1500 customers in 43 countries, all 50 states, and eight Canadian provinces. We do more traffic counting revenue than we did five years ago, and our engineering consulting is up quite a bit, but the online store is where our growth is.
My 9-year-old dreams of taking over the family business. I don’t know what it will be then. Thirty years from now, our business will look—well, not the way it does now! I don’t know if traffic engineers will exist in 30 years. People will still design roads and still have signs, but changes are already happening. Certainly within 15 years most cars will be driving themselves, and that could happen as soon as five years from now. Once self-driving cars are ubiquitous, everything changes. The car becomes a pod to get me from point A to point B; it drops me off at a restaurant and parks itself, and I call it up when I’m done. The whole landscape will look different. So we are always trying to think, what is the next revolution?
Spack Consulting makes and sells proprietary traffic counting equipment that we sell in our online store, CountingCars.com. One of the products we sell is a new process for doing traffic counts. The old fashioned way of counting cars is that a person sits on a corner and has a clicker board with a button for the rights, the throughs, the lefts.
Coming out of my experience at Image Sensing Systems, I’d always thought we should be coming up with some kind of camera-based method to do the counting, but the technology wasn’t there. We ended up building our own cobbled-together, do-it-yourself system. Very coincidentally, a programmer tangential to the industry called me. He had a keyboard thing that would allow us to watch video and do the counts from our office. We partnered with him and ended up buying him out.
We’ve developed this system that makes it cost effective to record 48 hours or 5 days’ worth of video and count for 13 hours or 24 hours or 48 hours. Instead of two-hour counts trying to capture “the” rush hour, most everyone in Minnesota is now counting from 6 A.M. to 7 P.M., which gives traffic engineers more data to look at. We are nudging the industry toward longer data counts so we can start averaging between the days and looking at different snapshots. We think better decisions will be made. We have lowered the pricing of traffic counting by about 75%. These are all great enhancements from sitting out on the corner, and it is cost effective. It is catching on around the world.
We are upping the game on all our products. We are redesigning our boxes on lithium ion batteries so they will be smaller and cheaper. We are working with a designer to develop 3D printed parts. Alibaba. com, the big Chinese IPO of the last year, allows us to connect with factories to get parts. Another website, mfg.com, allows us to put a bid out there—“We need one hundred metal widgets”—and get quotes from around the world. Sometimes companies in China win a bid, but we have an order right now that is being processed by a metal shop in Rochester, Minnesota. I didn’t know of them, but they were the low bidder and they are local — small-world!
We have launched a new service called CountCloud, where customers send us video and we conduct counts. We bring our quality control process, our vetting, and all of that. We partner with people in India and Ireland to do that.
We recently launched SpackAcademy.com to offer books and training materials for transportation professionals. All profits from SpackAcademy are donated to charities, like Engineers Without Borders. All of this is possible within the last five years!
Haven for Millennials
Our office is a haven for millennials. We have no set office hours, we wear jeans, we have a beer fridge, and all that. We get a lot done and none of us works 50 hours a week. The shift to that work style was organic. Most of our employees are in their 20s. They are on their phones and available all the time. The young guys are great at working until 7 P.M., taking a tech support call at 9 P.M. on a Friday, and staying in touch via email. It can frustrate the younger guys because I have broken myself of the habit of continually watching email. They are working all the time, but may not be in the office more than 35 hours a week.
A Pedestrian’s View
I walk ¾ of a mile to work every day. I do a lot of thinking while I’m walking, really good thinking. And it has made me a better traffic engineer. I’m not just a car-focused engineer. I see traffic from the vantage point of a pedestrian or sometimes a bike rider.
For example, St. Louis Park is probably in the top 5-10% of cities in Minnesota about plowing streets and clearing sidewalks. Yet I often walk to work on an ice rink. I am an able bodied person, and I slip on the ice probably every other day. I look out at the bonedry street that the city does such a good job plowing, but a person in a wheelchair could not navigate through St. Louis Park in the winter. That perspective bothers me.
I also walk over a smaller interchange. People are so focused on driving that they just don’t see pedestrians. The roadways were designed from a car-centric perspective. The sight lines could be improved to be safer for pedestrians. It is not difficult, but designers have to think from a slightly different angle. We can improve the experience for pedestrians and bikers.
Advice for Students
My advice for students is two-pronged. Of course they need to work hard and become a good, competent engineer. They are getting a great foundation in CEGE, and they will learn to apply those foundational skills on the job.
Along with that foundation, they need to build a network to move up in their career. As we progress as engineers, we end up writing and speaking and going to meetings. Engineers hit a career ceiling if they cannot be social. The Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) has been an important aspect of my career. I have a lot of good friends in the organization. We like each other, which is great, but also I can pick up the phone and say, “what would you do in this situation?” That was super helpful for me as a sole practitioner for so many years, when I didn’t have anyone else in the office. Membership and participation really open up opportunities.