Category Archives: Work

Learning to Sell

I spent yesterday manipulating an overly aggressive chainsaw against a sisyphean task. Doing this left me with a lot of spare mental capacity. Thoughts drifted from the jobsite to Alaska, my damaged left foot, the woman I’m crazy about, and finally to engineering sales. Yes, engineering sales.

I’ve always poo pooed sales, particularly engineering sales- but it’s fast becoming what I am most excited to do. My boss agrees with me that this is what we need most at work, and is probably the fastest way to shift my employment away from operating agro chainsaws.

If we vote with our dollar, sales is how you campaign. After 9/11, the nation looked to the White House for leadership and George W. Bush could have said anything. In a gross statement of American consumerism- he told us to go to the mall and shop. “Bolster the economy.” The socio-economic/political consequences aside, the moment highlighted the point that one of the most consequential actions we take is how we spend our money. If I really want to change the world, I’m not going to do it by inventing some new design- I’m going to do it by educating people about the value of design and technology available to us right now.

Sustainble building design is interesting- I really believe that “the trick” to sustainable buildings is to find satisfaction and elegance in practical, elegant, designs that maximize use of basic materials and simple technology. Part of the challenge is that these most important elements aren’t particularly new and it’s hard to evoke intense emotion . The things we need most already exist.

If I learn the design of something, I can only effect that thing. If I learn to sell- I can affect everything I touch, and I can change the way people act on their beliefs. Sometimes “the goal is to keep the goal the goal”*- and sometimes the goal is to figure out what the real goal is. I don’t know if this is the birth of my career as a salesman, or maybe just a new awareness in my business interactions, but moving forward the topic of sales is going to be big on the horizon.

 

*quote by Dan John.

Speak Out

Someone told me today that they wanted to get better at public speaking and asked for my advice.  I thought what I had to say was worth sharing here:

“Connect with your passion in whatever you are talking about. Bring whatever you have to say back to your passion- if its invasive species, or vegan gourmet, or energy efficiency, connect to that. If you are talking about something really esoteric or far from your passions, find a way to joke about it, or something about it that you genuinely want to learn more about.  If you find yourself in the unfortunate place of talking about something you really don’t know anything about, own that too- get vulnerable and admit your ignorance, there are few better ways to make friends.

People connect via authenticity, vulnerability, and humor- if you can use one of these, you win. Also, practice. It sucks and it’s hard, but speaking is really one of those things that only happens when you put yourself on the spot and do it. Take every chance you can get to speak in front of people (it’s scary), and make a deal with yourself that you won’t back down from an opportunity.  It gets worse, then better, and then- it gets fun.”

Next Friday I’m looking forward to giving a presentation about my professional work to a group of architects in Helena.  I am a little nervous about it.  The vulnerability tactic is definitely my plan, but I also respect what I have to say, so I hope I can speak authentically.  I mildly expect my audience to eat me alive (architects and contractors in the construction industry tend to be at odds with one another).  I can’t hide the fact that I’ve only been at this contracting gig for a year (holy crap, it’s been a year)- so I intend to own it, and while usually presenters are on the spot to teach something, I’m thankful that I tend to walk away having learned something.

Boulder, Colorado

My mind is not on getting this posted tonight, but more on that towards the bottom.  Participating in the PassiveHouse conference last week left no time for writing.  My trip was sponsored by the fine folks at Zola European Windows, and I had a very good time both at the conference (in downtown Denver), and romping around more colorful places, like Boulder.

Zola- the only folks I know that can make a R-10, triple pane, 19′ wide sliding glass door (thanks to my boss for modeling).

Surprisingly, I’ve never spent much time there, but Boulder is kinda hilarious.  The outskirts feel more like most little western mountain towns- copious outdoor recreation, lots of very fit people and fancy bicycles, and a Walmart here and there.   But downtown is more unique- trust fund hippies play guitar next to the Gucci storefront, and the smell of gourmet, organic, fresh ground coffee is overwhelming.  There is public bike sharing, and an amazing vintage theater.  Half of me wants to move there, and the rest of me knows to stay away- but probably just because I wouldn’t feel unique anymore.

Classic (damn street lamp ruins my photo).

The theater architecture was nice, but the line-up was unbelievable…

There is something about being in an unfamiliar place that allows me to step away from myself.  My view of things around me becomes more detached, and more objective- my normal introspective investments drop away in pursuit of new-ness.  Seeing new people in new places, reminds me that we are just people- doing whatever it is that we do.  Our individual heartbreak or triumph becomes far less important in a crowd of strangers.  Part of this blog is about the search for the most authentic version of ourselves, and when no one around you knows (or particularly cares) who you are- its fun to take the opportunity to be exactly who you want.

In between professional responsibilities, I enjoyed a session with some like minded outdoor folk at the Alpine Training Center, and caught dinner with my friend Jen, who drove all the way from Greeley just to make it happen.

Home away from home.

The conference was certainly valuable- lots of practice talking about what I do, seeing some really cool projects (the Marshall project), learning new stuff, and making new connections.  It was also hilarious to realize my own cousin was also presenting- we had a very good time catching up on the past 5 or 6 years since I’ve seen him, and I really appreciated his presentation on the Thousand Homes Challenge.  It always takes a while to see what shakes out of these sort of things, but the vibes were good, and some of the interactions were… unique.

5 people debating the merits of a window detail. Only at a PassiveHouse conference.

Stand and deliver. My cousin gets it done.

By Sunday afternoon I had as much PassiveHouse as I could actively take-on and was grateful to meet a good friend and former co-worker from Portland for dinner and a local jazz jam.  It’s been a while since I put my name on a list and sat in on bebop tunes, but it’s amazing how the changes still come back.

The previous commentary about feeling detached is at odds with my mood tonight.  I went to invite some friends together for this weekend on facebook, only to notice that one of them seemed to evaporate.  Just like anything else, the social utility is just as good at taking people apart as putting them back together.  With all the traveling and dedication to task at hand, it’s pretty obvious I’ve got a fair amount of work to do at home as well.

Travel

(the next few posts are going to be a bit out of order, wrote this on the plane and wanted to get it posted)

The flight from Salt Lake to Denver was full of a high school girls soccer team from Australia.  They had been traveling for 27 hours, and Denver was their final destination.  Listening to their accents I started to think about all of the planes I’ve been on since I quit my job in Portland.  I’m traveling for work this week, but my work at Energetechs has never had the same rote tedium that working at Glumac did.  I still feel like I’m on the journey.  I remember sitting on the plane on Monday morning, November 15, 2010 on my way to the GreenBuild conference to represent Glumac.  That was when I decided to quit the job and see what else the world had to offer- it’s fun to think that the journey that has been my life since then has pretty much been perfect, with just enough low points to make it real.

En route, via SLC.

I’m in Denver to give a presentation to the Passive House Institute US National Conference.  I’m a little scared that being the nerdiest construction company in Montana isn’t quite enough to hang with the other folks here, but we’ll give it our best.  We’ve got an authentic story to tell, and I think we tell it well- the success is going to lie in owning that.

It is said that the world is like a book, and that those who don’t travel only read one page.  I’ll be here until Monday and expect to work my tail off, learning, networking, training, and growing- and I’m really looking forward to it.  I’m curious to see what coming back to Missoula feels like, particularly in comparison to returning there after Yosemite a few weeks ago.  Stay tuned.

Descriptions of Myself

10:30am July 26, 2012. Candid, while blowing cellulose insulation.

I’ve noticed lately when I introduce myself, I rarely offer a simple description- it usually goes something like this.

“I’m a mechanical engineer doing project management for residential and small commercial projects interested in energy efficiency and sustainability.”

Tonight, the fatigue from 4 overtime days strips away any confusion.  I look at myself in the mirror and humbly accept what I am doing with my time:

“I am a contractor.

We do heating, cooling, and insulation.”

A short exchange at a social event this evening reminds me: I should offer new acquaintances the opportunity to get to know me better on the merit of their own questions and interest rather than imposing my descriptions on them.  For those who seek depth, they won’t come up shallow.  For those that don’t, I won’t be distracted.

The results of my direct efforts for one day. What did you actually *do* today?

Questions

A few weeks ago, I had been talking to my mom about writing- she had two pieces of advice:

Good writers are people who notice, and who write to learn more.

I’ve been turning her words over for a while now, and thinking about how I learn.  How I progress, how I change myself, and how I let others change me.  It’s about the questions- the ones others ask of me, and of themselves (which generally beg, are you asking yourself that question?).

Once upon a time I was passed over for a leadership position for a group I was in.  I wasn’t bitter, I respected both of the two leaders that were selected, and we went on to work well together.  I did solicit the feedback as to why I wasn’t selected– “they others, they asked the right questions when we were evaluating them.”  I accepted that, and understood it in that situation.  The example has always stood out to me- take the time to ask the questions, and think about whether they are the right ones.  I’ve got big questions at work, at home, and outside– are they the right ones?

Most of the time I feel like I don’t notice, and don’t ask the right questions, and I don’t believe that just continuing to ask is any assurance you’ll ask all the right ones.  How do you make sure you ask the right questions?  (post answers to comments if you like)

Just before I left Portland, an acquaintance offered me 5 keys for success in life. Maybe the right questions point here?

Thermodynamics

I got a letter yesterday, and while the content was important, I noticed something different about the envelope:

Freedom, forever? I am very afraid not.

It was the way the American flag and the words below it were crossed out.  We in America (‘merica!) seem to care so much about our freedom, but what “freedom” is really about is energy- the energy to put food on our tables, to stay warm, and also to have fun.  In essence- the energy to live.  Yet, when people talk about freedom in America, they rarely talk about energy, and when I think about our energy situation, it makes me think freedom is surely on the way out.

Some people who even like to talk about things like “sustainability” generally don’t get the picture about how much energy matters.  “Sustainability” is all the rage in the building design community, it’s even (slowly) taking hold here in western Montana- but it tends to result in wheatgrass fiber wall paneling and bamboo floors rather than energy conservation.

Sustainability is not about your wall finish, riding your bike to work, or your office-wide recycling program.  A fair look in the mirror: sustainability is also not about my patagonia clothesmy used Jetta TDI, or the fact that I don’t have kids to provide for.  Sustainability is about thermodynamics, plain and simple.  Thermo-what?  Thermodynamics- the science of energy.  It’s an abstraction, it can seem hard to understand, and it is such an essential part of our everyday life.  These things are all great, and in some small ways, parts of the solution- but really its going to take a lot more.

Buildings are an amazing opportunity- everyone uses them, they all have utility bills, and almost all of them could benefit from design and/or retrofit work that would make a significant difference in energy consumption.  If your utility bill isn’t zero (seriously!), then it needs work.  Am I an elitist?  Does it matter?  It doesn’t matter if we have 40 years of oil and coal left or 400 years.   We aren’t living right and each of us needs to play a part of changing that.  What do you want to know about energy?  How can we make energy consumption more visible?  What does a real plan for “freedom” look like?  I look forward to your thoughts in the comments.

“Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or a politician.” (Miklos S Dora, paraphrasing Kenneth Boulding)

Hard Knocks

I answered a call from the office this morning in the cold, damp crawlspace that I’ve spent most of this week in.  My colleague asked how it was going- I replied, “if you had told me how much stuff I would screw up on this job before I started, I wouldn’t have believed you.”  I realized over lunch- I must be attending the school of hard knocks.

If it looks like a maze...

When you are 6’1″ tall and working long days installing ductwork in a 4′ tall, 4,000 s.f. crawlspace, knocking your head into a floor joist every once in a while is to be expected.  Along the way, this project also managed to knock out my design skills, planning ability, and a good portion of my self-esteem.

My position is as a project manager, responsible for everything that it takes to make a job happen (including making a profit!).  In this case (and with a lot of help!), I met the client, wrote the proposal, designed the system, ordered the material, scheduled the job, and installed the system (with the install team).  The process is far more integrated than most other firms, but we believe that leads to higher quality, better performance, and greater profit.  I’m new to the job, and new to contracting, and none of the above really has all that much to do with my past experience, which involved managing very different types of engineering projects.

22" diameter ductwork is all custom. Don't forget anything, because it's 55 miles back to Missoula.

We aren’t quite done yet, but we are almost all the way there.  Fair being fair, I made no truly major, work stopping mistakes, but every day there have been significant errors that have come to light- some piece of gear I didn’t order, some task I didn’t follow through on. When you are actually trying to build a functional system, every error is glaring.  Day 1, we ran into all sorts of issues- shipping delays, forgotten plans, miscommunicated orders.  On my first day of my first big job, I figured I could shrug it off and keep going.  Day 2, missing fittings and layout changes, ok nothing fatal, but that’s low style Skander…  Day 3, order of operation, co-ordination failure, error tracking nightmares.  The mistakes kept coming, almost to the point of humor and pretty much my worst nightmare from a project management standpoint.  Suffice to say, it has been a valuable education in hard knocks.

For everything though that went wrong, none of it seemed to impact the amount of satisfaction I got out of getting to install something that I designed.  It reminds me of one of my favorite NY Times pieces.  I have an incredibly forgiving and good natured boss working with me (but letting me take responsibility for the mistakes) and helping look in the mirror at my work.  We joked about the fact that I have a degree in science from an expensive private university, and yet the real bread and butter of business and design still involves getting down in an unfinished crawlspace and knocking your head around.  It’s been a hard week so far, but also supremely satisfying.  I’m taking tomorrow off, but back again on Friday to wrap things up, stay tuned.

Humbled, with checklist in hand.

“The real work of planet-saving will be small, humble, and humbling, and (insofar as it involves love), pleasing and rewarding. Its jobs will be too many to count, too many to report, too many to be publicly noticed or rewarded, too small to make anyone rich or famous.” (Wendell Berry)

Do the humble work.

Untitled 1

I spent 13 hours today getting crushed at work.  It was day 1 on-site for the biggest job I’ve managed yet, and I got thoroughly humbled.  There is an accountability piece of contracting work that is undeniably brutal- either you planned for the job correctly or you didn’t, and when you try to install it, it becomes suddenly obvious if you made the grade or not.  It was humbling and demoralizing, and a very important experience in my development as a professional.  It was also a solid lesson in learning to let go of my ego and screw things up.  Not often do I fail to exceed expectations, but this was one of those days, and it was hard for me.  From the beginning of this blog, the point has been to “let the baggage go”- and learning to let go of my failures (once I’ve learned from them) is part of the deal.

Despite a long day onsite and long commute, I headed back into the office tonight to wrap up ever more loose ends.  It was raining when I walked home, just in time for me to hop on my bike and make it to the grocery store.  I was still in my long underwear and didn’t notice the cold liquid running down my legs as I rode.

I was tired.  I didn’t make the grade at work.  I didn’t get to workout today, didn’t take care of some personal chores, and didn’t really get any personal time.  But as I rode home in the rain, somehow things seemed alright.  Maybe that means I’ve already let go of the weight of the day, and in that there is success.

ps. the title of the post is a fantastic Sigur Ros song and fitting for the topic.  Enjoy the link.

Portland #4: In Limbo

The most recent adventures have pulled more on my heartstrings than my hamstrings.  About a month ago my boss invited me to join him for the PassiveHouse Northwest conference being held in Portland.  Aside from the topic matter (that has become increasingly more important to me of late), I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to see friends and spend some time in the previous home city.  About a week ago, I realized that making the trip was also likely to involve some challenging emotions.  We’ll stick to the facts first.

PassivHaus is an aggressive German standard for designing and constructing buildings with ultra low energy use and ultra high air quality and comfort.  In the design community it has a reputation for attracting some of the most zealous and nerdy folks that the architecture and engineering community can offer.  I prefer to think that the standard simply represents the next logical step in how buildings really must be designed and built. In general, folks at the conference were well behaved, very amiable, and geeked out really hard (star of the show was the guy who built a PassivHaus in Fairbanks, Alaska).

Yes, yes, this is a bunch of people standing around gawking at a window mockup-- only at a PassivHaus conference.

Close up of what all the fuss is about. Really high performance windows from Germany.

A mildly color adjusted image of a double stud wall with no thermal bridging. Nerdy as charged.

Building materials test chamber- for wind driven rain up to 200mph...

In between conference duties, I squeezed in time with old friends, and wandered in old familiar places.  I stared down some heavy emotions about careers, opportunities, friends, love, and the direction I’d like my life to take.

I miss Portland.  I miss the deep and high quality friendships that I have there.  The high salary gave me ample freedom of choice, and the city itself met much of my criteria for where I want to be.  I found two musical partners there that continue to write and perform music that I love, and loved to be a part of.  I honed my skills there in a career that is important and meaningful, and yet somehow in my gut, my life isn’t there.

I love Montana, and have ever since my first trip as a kid.  The access to the outdoors is phenomenal.  I’ve found meaningful work to get back on my feet, and live a simpler life that is more locally oriented.   In many ways, life here is better balanced, and I’m looking forward to many awesome, local adventures.  I feel honored to work with the people that I do, and am excited to be developing new skills an knowledge in the building design field I’ve done well with in the past.

I’ve found a little more peace since returning to Missoula, but my heart was in limbo for most of last week.  No doubt, I’m sticking to my commitment to Montana, but it was an interesting trip to Portland.  Below is a small bit of wisdom I picked up on the way:

John Ruskin was a wise man.

“Any pain associated with leaving something behind is usually a good sign that it was worth what you paid for it in the first place.” (George Veech)