For information on my creative writing go to www.RARWRITER.com
advantage I have had as a technical writer has been the opportunity to work on
project teams. Beyond serving in marketing capacities and proposing work for
others, I have been part of the product delivery process, actually interacting
with clients to meet their needs and fulfill contract requirements.
I love this type of work because it is objective in nature, therefore a break
from the subjective realm that is a part of the natural environment of any writer.
Sometimes it is nice just to have a straight out target.
I love this type of work because it is objective in nature, therefore a break from the subjective realm that is a part of the natural environment of any writer. Sometimes it is nice just to have a straight out target.
IN WITH THE OLD BULLS
In 2003, I was sent by Bechtel to Seattle to help pull together the contract documents for the new Seattle Monorail project. This project was expected to modernize and extend the existing monorail system that was built for the 1962 World's Fair. The expanded system was planned to finger out to 19 stations throughout the downtown portion of the city and function as a north-south commuter operation connecting the Ballard section to West Seattle, or the Space Needle to the sports facility where the Seahawks and Mariners play.
Bechtel had joint ventured with Jacobs Engineering and teamed with a passel of local Seattle firms to scope, cost, and perform a work breakdown structure for the project, then to manage the initial design and planning stages. Seattle voters had approved and just begun to pay a motor vehicle tax, which with fairs were going to pay the costs of the system, projected to be $1.7 billion, but actual project funding was minimal.
I arrived for work on a Monday morning and was told my first product delivery was scheduled for Thursday -- a preliminary work plan. The Seattle Monorail Authority (SMA) would eventually provide us with office space where they are located in the Securities Building on Third Street, but when I got there I was shunted into the basement where I and about 20 Bechtel/Jacobs engineers were set up to work at long tables with temporary computer hookups. They were, for the most part, a dog-faced crew of old field engineers, about as excited to be there as any Monday morning workforce, maybe less.
The Bechtel Program Manager was Linda Miller, who had been a principal project leader in the development of The Chunnel transit system connecting France and Great Britain. She is an athletic and attractive but tough-as-nails blonde, a former Army paratrooper. (Her resume used to state that she made a living jumping out of "perfectly good planes.") She held a project kickoff meeting with us, there in the basement, asking each person "Who the hell are you and what the hell are you doing here?" Ms. Miller is not a wasteful manager and she was making the point that we had all better have a task, get it done, and get off the payroll.
It was during the kickoff meeting that I realized that I was the only documentation person in the room. When Linda introduced me as the person who would be pulling all of their inputs together to develop the work plan and project management plan the bulls were quick to comment. "Good luck," one of them side, to some laughs. "What did you do wrong to get this job?" asked another. "It'll be like herding cats."
Working upstairs, developing the master plan for delivery of the first set of products, was Dr. Sayed Sultan, a guy I had seen around the Bechtel offices in San Francisco but had never known. Using an outline he had developed for the first documents due, I quickly pulled together a first draft and sent it to him electronically. He soon showed up in the basement with Gordon Anderson, another Bechtel project leader, who introduced Sayad to me.
Sayad was obviously not there to make nice. He was agitated. "All of this that you sent to me is awful!" he said to me. "This is not what I have outlined. We don't have time to go around on this, it has to be fixed!"
The old bulls sat watching for my reaction in what was, to say the least, an awkward situation. I asked Sayad to take a moment and go through his outline with me, which he was almost too exercised to handle, but he sat with me. Very quickly it became clear to me that I had misunderstood his outline. It had been organized in an Excel spreadsheet in a manner different from anything I had ever experienced. As he talked me through it, it suddenly became to clear to me. I very quickly issued a revised draft and suddenly Sayad and I were a team.
There were a couple learnings there. First, I had to open my thinking to other ways of organizing ideas, which meant focused listening and a bit of projection. Bright people often expect others will "get" what is being communicated, or do what's necessary to arm themselves with whatever background information is required. I was going to have to be on my toes.
The second learning was that staying cool under tough circumstances is a good way to win friends. The bulls were comfortable with me after that. In fact, they were solicitous.
Even with those problems solved, we were still headed into choppy waters. It quickly became apparent to the Bechtel/Jacobs team that it was going to be impossible to build the monorail for the approved budget of $1.7 billion, much of which was to be generated by the operation of the monorail itself. (For the record, this self-financing feat has never been accomplished by any public transit system anywhere in the world.)
The question became, how do you create a work plan for a system that cannot possibly be built with the allocated funding? Sayad and his team went into a mad scramble to achieve the greatest possible efficiencies for those parts of the system for which they were responsible.
As the guy through whom all of this information was funneled, I began to see disconnects developing, i.e., sections of the plan that weren't speaking to other sections, and in some cases planning engineers who weren't speaking to each other! No pun intended, but it appeared that we were headed for a train wreck.
It was apparent to me that to meet our obligations to the SMA we needed to have concrete answers, or at least responses, to a big list of issues. I developed a 100-point checklist of things we had to address in our contract documents, and Sayad went to work reviewing the information being developed by his engineers and making it fit within that detailed documentation plan.
The result was outstanding. It took some 18-hour days, but we delivered our documents on schedule and received a complimentary legal review from the SMA and the high counsel of the Bechtel/Jacobs joint venture. The Seattle Monorail project has recently gone on the rocks and may now not happen at all, for all the reasons surfaced by the Bechtel/Jacobs team, but as a team we fought through challenges, worked effectively together, and accomplished what we were sent to Seattle to do. In the course of it all, I made some great working partners in Dr. Sayad Sultan, Gordon Anderson, Linda Miller and the rest, and I will always be appreciative of the opportunity they gave me to function in an important way on this project.
2003-2004, I worked with Caltrans Senior Environmental Planner Howell Chan on
the Final EIR/EIS for the Interstate-880/State Road 92 (I-880/SR 92) interchange
project. Almost ten years in development by the time I came on board, the
project is designed to replace the existing, four-quadrant, cloverleaf
interchange in Hayward. The existing configuration is unable to efficiently
handle traffic volumes on these two freeways, which are among the most heavily
congested in the San Francisco Bay Area. Weaving and merging conflicts on SR 92
between the loop connectors and on the collector distributor segments of I-880
cause queues and exacerbate congestion, causing delays and resulting in
public meetings and engineering analysis Caltrans had identified 23 alternatives
for handling the traffic situation, including 14 build alternatives involving
four basic interchange designs and their variations. By the time of the final
EIR/EIS they had narrowed the alternatives to three build alternatives and one
no-build. Caltrans identified Alternative H as their preferred alternative.
Alternative H reconstructs two loop connectors -- SR 92 eastbound to I-880
northbound and SR 92 westbound to I-880 southbound -- into direct flyover
connectors. It adds a second lane to the I-880 southbound to SR 92 westbound
diagonal connector. The interchange is surrounded by residential property, so
the alternative constructs sound and retaining walls. Auxiliary lanes are
provided on I-880 between SR 92 and the Tennyson Road Interchange and then again
between the Winton Avenue Interchange and the I-880/SR 92 interchanges. It
reconstructs the Cheney-Eldridge Pedestrian Overcrossing, provides CHP
enforcement areas and ramp metering equipment on the direct flyover connectors,
and improves the intersections of Jackson and Santa Clara Streets and the
Hesperian Boulevard/SR 92 on- and off-ramps.
the EIR/EIS coming to its climax at a time when Caltrans was woefully
understaffed, I was sent from Bechtel to help project leader Howell Chan to
handle the final hurdles. In two volumes, including a 600-plus page technical
volume and a separate volume of comments, the project was large and ungainly. It
had yet to pass final review with the Federal Highway Administration, and it
needed to undergo all of the final processes of preparing a document for
first task was to read through the existing document -- existing
because some information was still to be collected from technical contributors,
particularly sound tests associated with sound wall alternatives -- and my first
task was to do a technical edit. I noted problem sentences, typos and
misspellings, inconsistencies in format, miscalculations, weak transitions, and
document holes. I worked with Caltrans Project Manager Mark Zabaneh to urge
those whose contributions were still outstanding to give priority to the project.
I also worked directly with stakeholders, particularly in the Hayward planning
department, to gather other information required to complete the writing for the
was not doing a complete job of spell checking the document, which caused
consternation for a time. Portions of the text had been tagged to be excluded,
so you would get thumbs up from the software about the time you ran across a
misspelled word. Bechtel Senior Environmental Scientist Dave Watkins, who was a
principal author of the EIR/EIS, eventually diagnosed the glitch and we resolved
went through the book tagging each section of text and each heading so that the
document could be properly automated in terms of table of contents (TOC), list
generation and reference links. I find this crucial on a document of this size
because it allows you to use the automated functions of MS-Word to test if the
book is “working.” Having it properly indexed and linked was desirable,
because while print copies would be distributed, most readers would see read the
document on the Caltrans website. There were technical issues to manage.
huge task was digitizing Caltrans’ drawings for the project. The work had gone
on for almost a full decade and in that time technology had passed Caltrans by a
bit. Some of the software that had been used to produce the original files was
no longer in use or available, and many of the designers had moved on. In some
cases, all we had were remnant drawings. I worked with Bechtel’s graphics
personnel to scan and clean up detailed, and in some cases large format,
drawings so they could be placed on line with the rest of the book.
there was a big formatting issue regarding tables, which were used extensively
in the document. They had been developed without consistency, so I reformatted
every one of them and created style sheets for the captions and footnotes,
organizing the information for easy reader access.
Finally, I broke the document into sections, created a home page for the
project with links to separate chapters, and worked through the Caltrans
District 4 web master to post the document on line.
Finally, I broke the document into sections, created a home page for the project with links to separate chapters, and worked through the Caltrans District 4 web master to post the document on line.
the end the project was reviewed by all appropriate elected officials, including
Senators Boxer and Feinstein, and received the approval of the Federal Highway
Administration. The Final EIR/EIS is still available on the Caltrans District 4
website. My hat is off to Howell Chan, a tremendously calm and capable project leader, who did a
sensational job of seeing this long development through from beginning to
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