July 10


What’s the Critical Path?

By Mike Spack

July 10, 2014

I politely turn down several headhunters a month.  Lately, they’re contacting me via LinkedIn.  Apparently there are a lot of traffic engineering jobs in the Middle East.

I got my second job through a headhunter.  It didn’t turn out very well.

I started my career at a good sized municipal engineering firm.  My boss Shelly (Sheldon) was a true mentor.  We’re still friends today and we grab lunch every couple of months.  Even though I was happy working for Shelly, the headhunter got through to me and pitched a small four person, boutique traffic engineering firm.  I’d have the opportunity to buy into the firm within a year.  What an opportunity, as an Engineer-In-Training no less!

Jim, the owner, was the stereotypical engineer.  He had real problems making eye contact when he spoke with people. (The old joke – how do you tell an introverted engineer from an extroverted engineer – the extrovert stares at your shoes while talking to you instead of his…)

Shelly gave me a hug when I told him I was quitting and going to work for Jim.  Then he kicked me in the rear end and called me a few names.

Shelly was protective and collaborative.  He gave me a lot of different traffic engineering projects to work on – transportation plans, impact studies, parking lot designs, road designs, traffic control plans, etc.  Shelly was especially good at following-up and helping make sure I was on the correct path so I never missed a deadline.

When I went to go work for Jim he gave me a couple of projects to work on.  There was a signal design that was waiting for me and it had a pretty tight deadline.  He also gave me a couple of traffic impact studies to do.

It was clear the signal project was in crisis mode and I dove into it working ten hour days.  A couple of weeks later, I had the whole thing done.  It was time to move on to the traffic study that was now due in two weeks.  I asked Jim if the traffic counts were done and he got very upset.  Hadn’t I coordinated the field guys to get the turning movement counts done already?  He assumed I had.  I assumed he had.

Didn’t I know that it could take a couple of weeks to get that coordinated and needed to happen right away?   Well, no.  Shelly would work through tasks with me when the time was right.  Often, he already had the traffic counts or he’d work out when I should do the counts.

This was a painful lesson.  Jim and Shelly had very different styles.  Jim hired me to do projects start to finish and didn’t expect to have to check in with me until he was ready to read the draft study.  He did change his process and over the next few months we worked out a process for me checking in with him on the critical steps in each project.

I worked hard to get those traffic counts done and worked some long evenings and a weekend to meet the deadline on the traffic study.  Of course I could have completely avoided working a weekend if I would have lined up the traffic counts on day one.

This is a lesson I learned the hard way.  I am crystal clear with all of my folks that we gather traffic counts, city transportation plans and development information as fast as possible.  That’s the critical path stuff on our traffic studies.  We can let that info sit for weeks in our files if we’re working on other studies, but when it’s time for us to start on the study we know we have everything we need to be productive right away.

Thinking through your critical path may take a few precious moments away from working on the crisis project you’re currently thrown into, but it is time well invested to make sure the next project isn’t a crisis too.

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Mike Spack

My mission is to help traffic engineers, transportation planners, and other transportation professionals improve our world.

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