Q&A with Michael Sanderson, ITE President

By Mike Spack, PE, PTOE

Michael Sanderson, PE, PTOE is the President/CEO of the award-winning Montana headquartered Sanderson Stewart consulting firm.  He is also the 2018 President of the Institute of Transportation Engineers.  He was the driving force behind the wildly successful LeadershipITE program and has served ITE throughout his 22 year career.  I’ve known Michael for several years now and am impressed by his vision and energy.  I hope you enjoy this informative interview with Michael.

Mike Spack: Congratulations on your ITE Presidency! I’ve heard from past presidents that the term flies by.  Since time is so limited, what’s the single biggest thing you hope to accomplish as International President of ITE?

Michael Sanderson: Thanks, Mike. You are right that a one-year term as president is a very short time to accomplish big things. Most of the important stuff definitely takes more than one year to get done. That’s why it’s so important in a volunteer run organization like ITE for the elected leadership to work together and pull in the same direction. We have a very cohesive leadership team right now, and I’ve been fortunate to work closely with our CEO Jeff Paniati and with my two predecessors, Shawn Leight and Paula Flores, to support the initiatives that they kicked off during their terms. I’m only half joking then when I say, the biggest thing I could accomplish as ITE president this year would be to not screw up the positive momentum that we’ve already built over the last couple of years. That said, I just kicked off two new initiatives, an initiative called “One ITE” and an initiative on Diversity and Inclusion. While the new initiatives over the last couple of years have been focused on technical areas (Vision Zero, updating Trip Generation, Connected and Autonomous Vehicles, Smart Communities, and Transportation and Health), these new initiatives are focused on organizational improvements to create a sustainable ITE for the future. These are really big initiatives that will definitely live beyond my tenure as President, so I’m already working with my successors, Bruce Belmore and now Randy McCourt, to make sure we can accomplish our long-term goals.

Mike Spack: If we could dial back the clock, what advice would you give your 29-year-old self?

Michael Sanderson: Invest a lot more money in Apple, Amazon and Google.

Mike Spack: What is the worst advice you see or hear being dispensed in our industry?

Michael Sanderson: I don’t think it’s advice so much as conventional wisdom, but collectively as an industry we continue to live by a model that values members of our profession as brains-by-the-hour. Which is to say that we are only as valuable as the amount of time we spend on a problem, and not the value of the solutions we come up with. The chargeable hour, as a concept, significantly devalues the creative problem-solving that we do, and we are our own worst enemies. On the public sector side, most public agencies, and DOTs in particular, require some form of cost-plus-fixed-fee contracts, which lock us into a by-the-hour model. And on the private sector side, we not only continue to agree to these contracts, but we are all too quick to cut our hours and/or our fees to win work. Altogether, it’s a downward spiral that is proven out by the data – as an industry, we are working more and more with lower and lower profit margins. Other industries and professions don’t do this. If we want to attract the best and brightest into our profession and have a sustainable workforce for the future, we need to break the mold, start paying people for the value of their ideas and their positive impact on quality of life in our communities, and pay transportation engineers and planners what really smart people in other professions make. If we don’t, we may find that the brightest up-and-coming talent will start seeking careers elsewhere.

Mike Spack: As I understand it, ITE was founded by traffic engineers to address a technological change that the founders felt ASCE wasn’t adequately addressing. We are in the midst of another transportation transformation with autonomous vehicles, mobility as a service, shared vehicle schemes, and electric vehicles. What strategies is ITE deploying to stay relevant?

Michael Sanderson: This phenomenon, where innovators spin off and disrupt the incumbents, is very common in businesses and organizations of all types, and ITE is certainly not immune. We’ve already seen it a few times in our history.  As you say, ITE was a result of some specialists looking for an organization that better fit their unique needs, which ASCE at the time didn’t fulfill. More recently, I think it’s safe to say that ITS America, similarly, spun out of ITE because ITE didn’t specifically address their more specialized needs. This happens in business and industry all the time – the innovator becomes the incumbent and then itself becomes a target for the next wave of disruption. Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School wrote a book about it called The Innovator’s Dilemma. So, the first challenge is to recognize opportunities for innovation. This is not easy, but the far harder part is then to create a culture in a successful incumbent organization that embraces change to the extent that it is willing to disrupt its status quo to follow an innovative new path. Few companies can do it – all I have to say is Kodak and Blockbuster and you understand what I mean.

What does all this mean for ITE then? Innovation is occurring all around us and at an incredible pace. As you mention, much of it is driven by technology with things like autonomous and connected vehicles and electrification. But, at the same time, there are groups pushing for a new paradigm that would plan for less car-centric cities and systems that prioritize active transportation modes. At ITE right now we are doing a couple of things to make sure we are keeping up and staying relevant to all these developments. First, we have refocused our technical councils to always have one eye specifically focused on identifying and reporting on emerging trends – what are the cutting-edge things going on in the world of transportation? Second, when we identify something new, we evaluate it and answer some key questions: Is it a topic on which ITE should take the lead? If it is, then we assign it to a Council or Task Force and get to work. Or, is it something that another organization is better suited to lead and ITE can seek to partner with and support that organization. This is an approach that ITE hasn’t embraced as much in the past, but we are now actively working with many organizations including NACTO, ITS America, FHWA, several technology companies and numerous others. And finally, to do these many diverse things, which go far beyond traditional traffic engineering, we will need a diverse group of people in ITE with diverse knowledge and skills. Through our recent constitutional changes, we are creating a place where a true “Community of Transportation Professionals” can come together and collaborate.

Mike Spack: In addition to serving ITE as its president, your day job is the president and CEO of a successful regional consulting firm. What strategies are you deploying at your firm to stay relevant, and even thrive, in the changing transportation landscape?

Michael Sanderson: Sanderson Stewart is not strictly a transportation firm. We are more broadly involved in community planning and design, and of course transportation is a big and integral piece of the puzzle. But, I’m not sure any of that matters. Whether a transportation engineering firm or a high-tech company in Silicon Valley, like ITE, we are trying to stay on top of a constantly changing landscape of innovation and a volatile marketplace, and to do that you need to have people that embrace uncertainty and change, and have an entrepreneurial culture in our organization that encourages innovation and risk taking.  In my day job as CEO then, I spend very little time thinking about the details of engineering, and spend almost all of my time thinking about creating an organizational culture that will attract and retain the right type of people.

Mike Spack: Spack Consulting employs three PEs and three EITs. We have a profit sharing plan, which makes us all think like owners.  We see the value in all of us being members of our local section for the interaction with our local community. We also see the value in retaining one international membership to get the ITE Journal and access to the ITE Community.  Why should we pay $210/member ($1,050/year for us) for all of us to be members of International ITE?

Michael Sanderson: I will answer this question two ways. First, this question gets to the heart of the new One ITE initiative. One ITE is all about creating a strong and consistent ITE experience for all our members across the whole Institute. Right now, I acknowledge that there is often a disconnect between members at the local level and the greater organization. The goal of One ITE is to identify and correct those disconnects and inconsistencies so that people feel connected and understand that the real value of ITE is in the technical knowledge being created nationally by ITE and by ITE members, and subsequently in the information and idea exchange that allows that information to flow across the entire network of Districts, Sections, and Chapters. If everyone took the approach that they would only participate locally, then ultimately the national organization would cease to exist, and we would only exist in small local silos. I hope you can see how insular and ultimately detrimental to our profession that would be.

The second way I will answer this question is this: At Sanderson Stewart, everyone in our organization that participates in ITE, or any professional organization for that matter, is fully supported to pay all their member dues, at the local and national level. Why? Because that’s what I believe it means to be a fully participating member of a profession and call oneself a “professional.” We each earn our livelihood by leveraging the collective knowledge of all the professionals that came before us. None of us started from scratch. We have volumes of standards and recommended practices, design guides, data sets and case studies. Our firms earn thousands if not millions of dollars leveraging this collective wisdom. Where did it all come from? It came from those before us that contributed their knowledge and paid their dues. They did their part, now it’s our turn to pay it forward.

Mike Spack: What have you changed your mind about in the last few years?

Michael Sanderson: I think the biggest thing that I now believe, which I didn’t until recently, is that the Chicago Cubs can indeed win a World Series. Now we’ll have to see about my Seattle Mariners.

Mike Spack: Finally, do you have any ask or request for my audience?  Last parting words?

Michael Sanderson: Thanks for the opportunity to answer some questions and have a “conversation” with your audience. I’m excited about the direction that ITE is going. Our membership is growing, and the vibe around ITE is one of excitement for the future. It really is the most exciting time to be in the transportation profession. So my ask of your audience is this: if you haven’t participated in ITE for a while, give it another try. But, old member or new, there are a lot of new things going on and countless ways to get involved. Call me and I’ll get you connected.

Mike Spack Bio

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3 thoughts on “Q&A with Michael Sanderson, ITE President

  1. I have the same feeling about Civil / Transportation Engineers tendency to take losses to get work and am in the public sector which was identified as part of the problem. But without “collusion,” how will this change?
    I do utilize RFP/ RFQ procurement techniques but still end up paying for engineering services by the hour with an upset limit. Is there a model in use by other public agencies that will work to enable the “best and the brightest” to enter or stay in our industry?

  2. Bob – my experience is that the hours on a project always magically come in very near the not to exceed amount. It’s amazing us consultants are so good at estimating our hours! Not really. The incentive is for staff to work slowly when they have hours available and be more diligent when the hours are running out. My strong preference is to work on a lump sum basis. You’re not buying me and my EIT’s hours. What you are buying is a completed project that meets your needs. When I was the city traffic engineer in Maple Grove, I didn’t care if one consultant took 118 hours to deliver the signal design project at $110/hour and another one took 137 hours at $105/hour. It was my job to pick the consultant that would deliver the project I wanted at the price I wanted (typically the lowest price in the pool of qualified consultants). I don’t quite understand how collusion is more apparent in an hourly not to exceed contract vs. a not to exceed contract. Lastly, if I can deliver you a great project for a lump sum of $4,000 (that may only take me 8 hours because of my experience) is that really worse for you than an EIT delivering a comparable project that took them 50 hours x $100/hour? Mike

  3. It’s certainly true that “there are groups pushing for a new paradigm that would plan for less car-centric cities and systems that prioritize active transportation modes.” This may be both the greatest crisis and the greatest opportunity facing the profession right now. The transportation corridors we build are a reflection of the communities and elected officials that we serve (and whose laws we must follow), but decades of doing so has given us the reputation, in the minds of many, as proponents of motor vehicles at the expense of other modes. While people and groups holding this stereotype may naturally wish to sideline the engineers in pursuit of projects that are less car-centric, the engineering profession still has much to offer to such projects to ensure that the various modes can co-exist well in the corridor, even when motor vehicles are not one of the modes.
    The “T” in ITE means “Transportation” in order to be more inclusive of these modes, but even the word “Transportation” unfortunately still strongly implies long-range trips typically made by motor vehicles (including trains, ships, and aircraft) rather than medium and short-range movement on nonmotorized modes (including bicycles, wheelchairs, skates, feet, and more), which many (including myself) don’t often think of as “transportation” even though it technically is. As long as we are perceived as favoring long-range “transportation” over short or medium range modes, we’ll have an uphill climb in the court of public opinion.
    Unfortunately I’m at a loss for coming up with a better word to incorporate short trips. But I do believe we have much to offer in ensuring that the modes in a corridor can work well together, whether that be a highway crossing a rail track, a sidewalk crossing a bikeway, a road crossing a rapid transit line, or any other combination with or without motorized modes. All involve human factors and kinematics and all have both good solutions and bad solutions available. We are the ones that can help to clarify the right choice. Hopefully we can help make the importance of that role clear to our stakeholders.