The big news here last week was that Portland Trailblazer Damian Lillard might be changing shoes next season, with the branding decision going to the company most willing to spend. Lillard had a very good rookie season last year – making the NBA All-Star team and being voted Rookie of the Year – and this gives him the opportunity to opt out of or at least renegotiate his endorsement deal with Adidas. You could guess that a lot of money is hanging in the balance.
Lillard has been an outstanding professional basketball player for a little more than one year. Before that, he had three and a half great seasons as a college player. He has done all of this while playing in arenas supported by municipal power, water and sewer utilities. Each night, fans arrive at these arenas on regional streets, highways and public transportation networks. From home, more fans watch Lillard through our country’s far reaching fiber optic and satellite services. Systems pile on top of systems to build a whirring machine of public infrastructure, all of it designed and built by architects, engineers and contractors with decades of success, hard work and experience. It is this machine that makes Lillard’s fame even possible, yet the people who conceived of it and gave it life are forgotten in history – if they were ever known.
In his 2013 autobiography Achieving Zero, David Evans – founder of the multidisciplinary civil engineering firm David Evans and Associates – argues that this has missed the point. Consulting engineers do not aspire to be exalted for their work, but instead set out to deliver to the client all that was originally offered.
“The consulting engineer virtually promises to make the required miracles happen, to meet and exceed all expectations, and to do so on time and on budget. Upon doing so, no significant recognition of this success is expected from the client. You have only accomplished what you proposed. You have achieved a Zero. Doing less than you have proposed, well, you go down from there.” – David Evans, Achieving Zero
Famous civil engineers seem to fall into one of two categories – those with dams named after them and those with companies named after them. Much has been made of the personal history and philosophies of the first group, while those of the second have gone relatively undocumented, leaving them with only their professional success and personal satisfaction. Which is plenty! That isn’t my point. My point is that not every engineer retires having founded their own successful, stable, long standing firm – in fact very few do – and it is to the detriment of the profession that we do not seek to better understand the principles and practices that set apart the most successful among us. Politicians and musicians are expected to understand these things for their fields. Why shouldn’t the same be true for engineers? Every successful engineering project starts with an understanding of the work that came before it. Why shouldn’t the same be true for every successful engineering career?
Achieving Zero is a short, enjoyable read. Dropping the specification heavy language we engineers so love, Evans writes in an approachable, conversational style. You can imagine him sitting in front of you telling his story just as easily as you can picture him sitting down to grind out a personal memoir. This is not to say that the book lacks content. In fact, content is mostly all that is left, with every passage boiled down to what the author really wants the reader to take away from his book.
Almost everything I know about David Evans I learned in this book. Still, I feel like this gives a good depiction of who Evans is and the qualities that made him a successful engineer, business man, citizen and leader. It would appear that Evans’ career was equal parts ability and ambition, hard work and risk taking. Evans clearly must be an exceptional engineer – this after all is what keeps the clients coming back. Still, there are many points in his firm’s story where you could imagine the thing fading away and where Evans recognized that a big risk was needed. These risks paid off with amazing frequency, which always seems like a good indication that someone is being humble and really has expertise beyond what has been admitted. It is one thing to be lucky, quite another to be lucky all the time.
The more experience I gain in my career, the more I realize how easy it is to under value it. Like a tree, a career starts with the knowledge that is in the seed and grows over a long time. Through the seasons, there are always chances to be cut short or give in to the elements. Those that make it to maturity have weathered these challenges and more, and bear visible scars from the experience. The true beauty of old growth is not its perfection, but its lack thereof – the blown out top, the fire scarring, the trunk that has bent and twisted over a lifetime of reaching for the light. These are signs of the tree’s many triumphs and it rightly wears them proudly.
David Evans is the giant fir tree that people hike miles into the forest to see – the one in the picture with you and your friends trying wrap your arms around its trunk. Now nearing the end of his career, with Achieving Zero, Evans has provided the profession with the nurse wood that is often missing in our profession. In a culture that is prone to labeling a quick, alder-like rise to the top as triumph, David Evans is an example of true professional success and deserves to be respected as such.
I highly recommend Achieving Zero to anyone who is interested in the consulting business or the engineering profession in general and give it a perfect Zero.