What does Russia’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 have to do with the advancement of the geoprofession? Coincidentally, it has quite a lot to do with it, at least in Florida. In a roundabout way it made Jim Jammal a Geoprofessional. He has devoted his 50-year professional career to the practice of geotechnical engineering, and we are much the better for it, thank you.
More on Sputnik later. Let me introduce you to Jim first. Jim Jammal got his start when Dr. M. E. Ardaman hired an unlikely candidate into his young practice in 1961. Ten years later Jim led the practice of Ardaman and Associates after the untimely death of Dr. Ardaman. Later he formed Jammal and Associates, then served as managing principal for PSI after their acquisition of his firm in 1989, and now he nears the completion of a rewarding career spanning over half of a century serving as Principal Engineer and Geotechnical Services Director for Nodarse & Associates, an established Geoprofessional firm with offices throughout Florida. Jim has long been a recognized expert in shallow and deep foundations, ground improvement, sinkholes and ground subsidence, and forensic studies of foundation and pavement failures.
Nordarse & Associates recently merged with Terracon Consultants. As the Geotechnical Service Line Director for Terracon, I recently had the privilege of getting to know Jim as we met to discuss the best way to incorporate the vast experience and knowledge that he brings to Terracon.
This meeting reminded me just how valuable it is for younger Geoprofessionals to listen to our legacy. We can’t just passively wait to learn the wisdom that they convey. We should take an active role in maximizing our exposure to that wisdom; using every means possible to create a comfort zone to allow the wisdom to flow. After all, any mentor/protégé relationship is a give and take effort on both sides. If fact, you will notice that as you read about Jim’s career.
Unfortunately we all can’t have the good fortune of meeting Jim. So, I took it upon myself to “interview” him in an effort to expose the wisdom from some of his vast experience to the entire geoprofession. Here is what Jim had to share with us.
How did you get into this profession?
Jim came to the United States in 1956 to study aeronautical engineering. But Russia’s launch of Sputnik changed Jim’s plans. It became clear to him that no opportunities were to be expected in America in this field of choice, so he chose a different path, and he graduated from the University of Florida with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering in 1961. Immediately upon graduation he joined Ardaman and Associates and began an extremely valuable internship under the tutelage of Dr. M.E. Ardaman.
Jim recalled that, in his job interview with Dr. Ardaman, he questioned the applicability of his mechanical engineering degree in this emerging field of geotechnical engineering. Dr. Ardaman responded that so much of the theory of heat transfer and fluid mechanics taught to mechanical engineers applied to soil mechanics, and he felt that this preparation could serve Jim well. As to Jim’s concern about the myriad of other theory in the field of geotechnical mechanics, Dr. Ardaman said, “I will teach you, but you need to learn, and you must make the effort.” That set Jim off on an intern journey perhaps as rigorous as any; working as a craftsman for the master.
So Jim set about the task of learning from this mentor with passion. He would learn as much as possible on each subject that came up. So much so that he prepared himself to be able to answer Dr. Ardaman’s questions with the degree of thoroughness as if it were his dissertation. Soon Dr. Ardaman saw that he had the perfect protégé, and this instilled in him the desire to teach this young man all that he could.
What is your most significant contribution to the geoprofession?
Jim learned from Dr. Ardaman how to be a thorough and effective mentor. He has taught many other geotechnical engineers how to practice in this field. He believes that this teaching, or mentoring effort created a very positive energy for the geoprofession, particularly throughout Central Florida. The fruits of this mentoring are obvious to Jim on repeated occasions as he comes into contact with former employees. So Jim’s passion for professionalism in our practice and for understanding the theory of the work has served to elevate the practice throughout Florida and into the Southeast United States.
Just one thing. Jim wished that he could have taken the time to receive more formal education, perhaps a gaining PhD in geotechnical engineering. The rigorous professional pursuit of the subject combined with significant graduate-level coursework in Geotechnical Engineering served him well, but the restricted academic preparation (B.S. Mechanical Engineering) may have restricted his progress.
Jim mitigated his inability to achieve the formal education by hiring many good PhDs in the profession, and through the strength of collaboration and by simply being a good listener Jim felt that he had actually achieved the education that he needed to succeed. Jim mused, “It’s amazing what we can learn from each other”.
What improvements have you seen in our profession?
Jim fielded that question by reminding me that when he started in 1961 there was no such thing as a geotechnical profession. The profession, as its own unique identity, was not that visible. It started to become a defined profession in the early part of the 60’s as it evolved from a start as a testing lab. At that time the architect usually told the geotechnical engineer what to do, with the collaboration of the structural engineer.
Jim shared a story from his early years of a structural engineer who called him on the telephone, angry about Jim’s decision to recommend specific foundation designs, based upon the geotechnical investigation. The structural engineer reprimanded him for doing that, making it clear that the job of making those decisions was relegated to the structural engineer, not the geotechnical engineer. After being verbally abused by the structural engineer, Jim had had enough. He told the engineer to “throw the report into the garbage can”, and then he advised this brash professional how to treat people with common respect. Then, fast-forward to 16 years later. As a mature and well-respected geotechnical consultant, Jim was retained to review the geotechnical investigation and the deep foundation design for eight new 10-story structures for new housing in Dubai. Jim suggested that the need for deep foundations be reconsidered, challenging the conventional thinking, and saving the client millions. But the structural engineer had to be consulted to agree. Who was the structural engineer? The same man that had told Jim, 16 years ago, to not give recommendations. So in 1977, both Jim and the structural engineer went to Dubai and oversaw the shallow foundation construction.
You see, Jim was inspired by Dr. Ardaman, and he felt the need to carry the torch handed to him. Now in Florida, geotechnical engineers have gone on to have strong influence, in the professional arena and beyond.
What is key to the sustenance of our profession?
Jim suggests that the key is value, not just quality. It is not the size of the report, or the amount of data collected. It is the value of the service for the owner. If you provide value, the price that you charge is not the most important thing. Today, in the economy that we must endure, price has become the number one factor.
He noted that we tend to look at the client as the “bad guy”. We should look at ourselves and ask “what have you done lately?” We should respond, show care, concern, and innovate when we can. We will then be remembered. The clients will say that they will do business with us tomorrow. That way we can cultivate clients who listen.
Jim has observed that in any profession you have the three “I”s
- Innovators, those who create value and who search to find better answers,
- Imitators, those who do a good job of copying the innovators, and then you have
- Idiots, those who take you down the drain. You have to push up to counteract the idiots.
What do you see as the future of the Geoprofession?
Our profession has done a tremendous job of evolving in its 50-year history. Our future is not dim, it is bright. But we must think big, and contribute to the success in our lifetime.
Every time we push up, something happens to push us down. We were on an upward trend, but the imitators are slowly disappearing and the idiots are increasing. A good thing about the economic downturn is the fact that growth has been reduced from its prevalence as the number one goal. Jim loves the fact that Terracon can influence the practice on a national basis, and we are taking the track of emphasizing the technical skills in order to enhance the practice. We blend the business and technical emphases very well. This represents a huge step in the right direction.
Jim wondered with me what would it take to develop a trend that would continue upward in spite of surprises that hit our profession. Because surprises are more negative than positive they tend to drive management to put limitations on the freedom of our practice and our thinking. That is because most of the thinking is on the negative side, forcing us to evolve to more restrictive policies and procedures. That could be why people think of our work as a commodity work.
What advice do you have for the young, aspiring engineer?
- Find 3 or 4 individuals to mentor you.
- Maintain an active participation in the professional societies that can advance your career.
- Learn to be an effective public speaker.
- Learn to write well.
- Develop skills in business development.
- Find your specialty and become great at it.
Jim emphasized the need to learn to speak in public. In order to overcome his timidity he enrolled in Toastmasters. He joked that he learned how to “speak and shake” at the same time. “All of us must become a comfortable public speaker”, Jim advised.
He also feels that writing is a weakness of the Geoprofessional. We must write to convey our work. But we write well by copying others work. But that doesn’t create capability. Every Geoprofessional intern should be required to write his or her own letters and reports, and not just copy what has been done before them. They should gain their own experience.
Advice for emerging leaders?
More of the same, but an even greater emphasis on public speaking and business development. Learn how to get along with people.
The balance between leading in the profession and giving family what they need is delicate. A stable home, a homemaker who takes the responsibility of the family, frees you to do the other things of your profession. If you don’t have a stable home it will be tough to be a leader. Pay attention to what is happening in your home just as much as you do your work.
How has the explosion of technology impacted you?
Jim grew up with a slide rule. He was not cultured in the use of a computer. As a result he has limitations with respect to technology. (His secretary emailed me his final comments). But he had sage wisdom to share about this. Technology is moving so much faster than the market needs. We need to learn what the market needs and develop that. If there is more than what the market needs, as a professional we are responsible to match the needs of the market with the value that technology brings.
Our skill is experience combined with science. We can’t have one without the other.
Additional food for thought (from a 50-year experienced geoprofessional)?
- Whatever you do, try to do it well, with passion and care.
- Always ask yourself if you could have done it better.
- Make sure that you offer value.
- Always have lots of fun.
- Whatever you do today, do it better tomorrow. This is especially true for those who copy. There is nothing wrong with copying the hard work, but then you have the responsibility to improve on it.
- If you don’t love what you do, try hard to fall in love with it. If you can’t, go find something else to do.
Jim Jammal is indeed a great engineer and a fine man. I wish you could visit with him. We knew that Sputnik started the Space Race and is the catalyst behind America putting a man on the moon by the end of the ‘60s. What we didn’t know is the benefit that this little satellite had for our profession here on earth (literally!). Jim Jammal became a geotechnical engineer, and our profession owes Russia a debt of gratitude.