Using both sides of his brain, and with empathy, can-do man is engineering a great career in Seattle.
By Richard Massey
“Nothing keeps the phone ringing like a ‘can-do’ mentality,” Parker Wittman says. “Now, this isn’t an invitation to overcommit or overpromise. Instead, it’s a reminder that we’re in business to solve problems – and it often takes an optimistic mindset to unlock a certain level of creative problem solving. Clients stick with the best problem solvers. In my experience, the best problem solvers always operate with the gentle hum of ‘can-do’ playing behind them.”
A CONVERSATION WITH PARKER WITTMAN.
The Zweig Letter: You have a dual degree from Indiana University, one in physics and one in communications and culture. That’s not a combination you see every day. Tell us how your academic background has shaped your career.
Parker Wittman: It’s hard to overstate how grateful I am to my indecisive undergraduate self. As a technical consultant and business leader, my days are filled with chances to put my academic background to use: whether it’s designing data systems and models to describe the physical world or thinking critically about how to convey an idea to a wide audience. But it wasn’t all part of some master plan. I was just fulfilling the pangs of my ambition and interest before I knew what to do with that ambition and interest.
In fact, you could argue that what I did was accidentally cobble together a degree in data science (certainly before it was a field that I knew about!): computational science, data, modeling, statistics, and systems meets design, presentation, and comprehension.
And so, this headscratcher of a double major turned into something perfect for me and perfect for an eventual career as a scientist and consultant – two parts of a whole. Right brain/left brain. Science and people. Data and design. Modeling and explaining. It’s a combination that has predicted my career as much as shaped it. When solving business or people problems, I like to bring a sort of systems-based thinking to bear. When building technical solutions for my clients, I bring a people-centric approach to my problem-solving. This combination has been foundational to the whole of my career.
TZL: In your time at Aspect, you have become a firm owner. You joined the firm as GIS and data management specialist, but you have also added director of marketing to your list of duties. On top of all that, you are also the co-founder of Rooftop Brewing Company. You have an entrepreneurial spirit. Where does that come from and how have you nurtured that spirit over the years?
PW: Frankly, it comes from the same place that led me to my academic background – diverse interests colliding with a “hand raiser” mentality.
It’s that idea of making things – of creation – that is really at the heart of it. I suppose it’s the same thing that motivates engineers and artists alike: to have a thing not exist and then to make it exist, there is hardly any satisfaction like it. Whether it’s a map or a brewery or a piece of software, it’s taking all the pieces of what I know and sculpting them into things that make me proud. Isn’t that what is at the core of an “entrepreneurial spirit?”
On that “hand raiser” mentality – a willingness to take on challenges, to step to the front of the line and fix something, is so important. In fact, it’s advice I often give to junior professionals – step up and fix things and/or make new things and don’t always wait until someone asks! Good things happen to those who make.
TZL: You have obviously found career-growth opportunities within Aspect. How much of this is due to company culture, and how much is due to your own talents and ambitions?
PW: I’d like to think I bring some talent and ambition to the table, but there wouldn’t have been much to do with that if Aspect hadn’t had the culture that it does.
I’m lucky to have built a career at a firm that rewards and encourages individual ambition and creativity. It’s been to my benefit (and I hope my colleagues’ and clients’ as well!) that I’ve been given the space to build and create and learn. Our firm nurtures a restless culture of continuous improvement that has allowed me to step up into bigger and bigger challenges.
Like so many others, perhaps I suffer from a sort of “imposter syndrome” at times. Even though I’ve worked in “the industry” for 15 years, I still feel like an AEC outsider. I’m not an engineer, geologist, architect, or construction PM. Of course, this “otherness” can pose challenges. But I’d like to think it’s an outsider’s perspective that’s helped me chart a course as a firm leader. I don’t take much for granted and I’m always skeptical of the status quo. I’m grateful to work for a firm that values and acts on unconventional, strategic thinking – even if it isn’t what inertia or industry norms would dictate.
TZL: As a younger data scientist with a solid tech base, is it common for older colleagues and consultants to come to you for advice on software and systems? If so, how do you communicate with them?
PW: Ha! I’d be lying if I didn’t say: “Yes. All the time.” Such is the era we live in, right?
The shortest version of describing my communication tactic is “empathetic listening.” I don’t really approach answering questions about software with my colleagues any differently than I do with my clients: understand the problem and the human motivations BEFORE you start talking about databases, buttons, and algorithms. “What are you afraid of or stuck on?” is a great way to initiate such conversations. Empathy is key. I often talk about “communicating from the overlap” – which is about meeting people where they are and explaining things using shared language. This sort of thing comes naturally to educators. Technology professionals, on the other hand, would do well to explain more and tell less. That is, we as a group can unfortunately veer into building or foisting solutions in search of problems, rather than the other way around. I try very hard to avoid the “solution first” mentality.
So, I try to be patient and creative and I really try to be pragmatic. Those three things together have served me well.
TZL: You are involved in a long-term project doing stormwater network modeling at the Port of Seattle. This is a marque project that has been ongoing almost as long as you have been at Aspect. What are the lessons learned in terms of scheduling, working with stakeholders, figuring out regulatory compliance, etc.?
PW: There is so much to be learned from a project that spans such a long arc of time, of course. Calling it a “project” almost doesn’t do it justice – it’s really an “engagement,” an era of support. In many ways, it’s been the formative client engagement for me. Chiefly, it’s shown me the power and value in really understanding the nuanced complexities and pulse of a dynamic and mammoth agency – it is one of the busiest seaports and airports in the country – and using that understanding to inform solutions.
My involvement with the “project” began at a time when the Port was just getting its head around mapping stormwater infrastructure in accordance with its Phase 1 Municipal Stormwater Permit. The good news was/is that the Port had the vision to go well beyond the baseline mapping requirements of its permit, taking a forward-looking approach to data collection and management. At the same time, we helped them advance a software and data management approach that emphasized operational simplicity, business/people needs, and data visibility. We made a point to partner closely with the Port’s internal IT/GIS group, prioritizing their needs and preferences, too. This enabled us to get things up and running much faster than if we’d have taken a more complex or siloed approach. These early victories and partnerships have paved the way for the development of the full-blown stormwater utility asset management system it is today.
TZL: Your work in the Methow River Basin is fascinating. The systems you set up will be of use to a lot of people in the future. What motivates you when you undertake a project that will have a broad community impact?
PW: I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling lucky to work in a field that offers as many opportunities to make broad community impacts. This GIS and database project helps community members and planners forecast water use to make watershed and development decisions. In terms of motivations, I suppose it’s the same sort of thing that drives civil engineers – building things that last. Realistically, of course, data and software systems aren’t built for the same time-arcs as, say, levees and, frankly, the stakes are often lower. But I favor thinking about systems in terms of “sustainability.” Not “sustainability” in the ecological sense – but in the operations and maintenance-sense. How will something stay alive? How long will it be valuable? It’s essential to build solutions for the humans that use them, and so I’m constantly thinking about “who?” as much as “what?”
In the case of the Methow Basin, that meant building a system that emphasized repeatability and analytical transparency. The goal of the system – influencing informed planning, development, and conservation in the basin – is motivating on its own. Of course, it helps that being a part of the team at Aspect means that I’m working alongside incredible subject matter experts in everything from water rights to stormwater engineering. I am motivated by our teams’ tight interconnectedness, which allows for that “big picture” thinking I care about so much.
TZL: As the AEC industry continues to deal with the labor shortage and the talent crunch, what do firm leaders need to do to keep their best talent while also attracting new hires?
PW: Professional growth opportunity is, I think, at the very top of the list. A great recruiting and retention program is built on giving staff a clear view of their (and the firm’s) pathway to success. It means investing heavily in professional development. It means providing growth opportunity at every possible turn. It means providing multiple pathways or models of successful career arcs, and not slipping into a one-size-fits all mentality. Great professional services firms should be like mini universities – focused on building and graduating future firm leaders, year after year. Of course, those who are part of such a culture will want to stay. Outside of compensation, most professionals that change firms do so for a sense of increased opportunity. Retention requires having visible and tangible opportunity aplenty.
And, of course, the marketplace sees this too! A culture and track record of individual success (and a visible cadre of great mentors/leaders) is a potent draw to recruits and a key part of making strategic hires.
TZL: As a 30-something data scientist, what employee/owner benefits do you value most?
PW: Speaking personally, I really value a strong incentive compensation program that rewards individual contributions – that entrepreneurial spirit we talked about earlier. If you have the energy and ambition, it’s good to know that you stand to get out of an enterprise what you manage to put in. Ownership opportunity is a big part of this, too. It is engaging and motivating to have a long-term stake in a profitable, growing business.
That said, as a parent with two young boys, ages one and four, I should also say that flexibility and work/life-balance are critical. As much as I want to chase the opportunity that I described in the first part of this answer, none of it would be possible without genuine support for leading a balanced, rounded life. Whether through flexible scheduling, telecommuting, or parental leave – these benefits and cultural touchstones are essential to “growing up” in a firm and staying for the long-term.
TZL: In your various roles within Aspect, you come into contact with colleagues up and down the org chart. What’s the key to effective internal communication?
PW: At the risk of sounding like a broken record: empathy. In a fast-paced environment, it can be challenging to take the time and energy required to stop and really consider what those around you need, want, know, don’t know, are motivated by, worried about, or quietly stuck on. I believe that effective communication is built on empathy. It sounds easy but in practice, not enough of the world communicates empathetically.
Also: skip the email. Either walk down the hall or video chat with your colleagues. Face-to-face communication matters.
TZL: For scientists, engineers, and consultants that are new to the field, what’s the biggest thing they need to know when it comes to working with clients?
PW: Nothing keeps the phone ringing like a “can-do” mentality. Now, this isn’t an invitation to overcommit or overpromise. Instead, it’s a reminder that we’re in business to solve problems – and it often takes an optimistic mindset to unlock a certain level of creative problem solving. Clients stick with the best problem solvers. In my experience, the best problem solvers always operate with the gentle hum of “can-do” playing behind them.
It’s also worth reminding folks who are new to the field that internal “customers” (PMs and project teams) count as “clients” too.