We here at YPT National are excited to bring our loyal readers the first in a series of interviews with transportation executives. These consummate experts have served our community as mentors to countless young professionals in transportation, before there even was a YPT. The first interview in our series is with Catherine Kibble, Design Consultant Services Section Chief, of the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT).
Catherine started her career at the IDOT in 1983 as a co-op student and after graduation in 1986 returned to District One full time. Upon completion of the District’s initial training program she was assigned to the Bureau of Construction. In 1993 she transferred out of the Bureau of Construction as a Resident Engineer, to become an In-House Project Manager in the Bureau of Programming. She was promoted in 2000 to the Expressway Unit Engineer in the Bureau of Design, Consultant Services Section where her primary assignment was the Project Manager for the Kingery Expressway Reconstruction Project. She was named District and Statewide Engineer of the Year in 2004, before being promoted to her current role.
AP: Thanks so much for doing this Catherine. I know you’re extremely busy. How did you first get interested in transportation?
CK: My first year at Marquette University I was accepted into engineering, but was undeclared in major. My father was a mechanical engineer, which is why I was interested initially. I had an excellent advisor who gave me loads of books and explained the different engineering fields and what each was about. I quickly pared down the choices to mechanical and civil. I was very enamored of being able to point to a bridge and saying “I did that.” The things that electrical and biotech engineers do are too small, and even with mechanical you ultimately become a component of something else entirely. Civil was easy to explain and transportation was part of a massive system that served everyone daily. I always leaned towards transportation because of its reach.
AP: That sounds familiar. I was also drawn to how tangible civil engineering was. It was important to be able to touch, feel, and confirm what I saw. Once you got into civil engineering and transportation, wow did you get your first job?
CK: I was a co-op. It wasn’t a choice. My father said “you will co-op”. I didn’t know what that meant until I did it. Marquette’s co-op program, similar to others, allows you to work for an employer for six months while receiving academic credits and a competitive salary. Co-op is typically performed the second semester of your junior year or either semester of your senior year. The benefits are huge. Some folks elect out of co-ops so they can graduate sooner. In 1986 it was a difficult job market but those with co-op experience fared better because we had real world experience and interviewed well. I worked for IDOT as a co-op and ended up coming back to work for them when I graduated.
AP: What single project or task would you consider the most significant accomplishment in your career so far?
CK: I was selected to be the project manager when we reconstructed the Kingery Expressway. I moved from planning to programming to design, was given a promotion, and brought in to specifically work on that project. It was a wonderful experience. We had 4 different consultants that were doing the engineering design work for a $460 million construction project. It took about 4 years to construct. It ended up being an awesome project to work on and the one I regularly go back to for lessons learned before starting new projects.
AP: Why do you think it worked so well?
CK: We had a great team, and a good approach towards the project. We had the 4 consultants doing design work, and one was chosen as the project management consultant. On a day-to-day basis I was working with the PM firm on most things. We sat down at the beginning and created a comprehensive project plan that we largely stuck with. We determined how we were going to handle work, e.g. questions form the designers, questions from contractors, etc. We created a project website, which in 2001 was a big deal, that tracked everything of note. I asked my boss at the time, who had worked on the earlier Stevenson Expressway reconstruction project, how did we do that without computers? People used PC’s to do calculations but there was still no email at that time. He boasted that he was the “Fax King”. He would get a question from one firm and wanted to make sure everyone had the same answer. Now I could do that by posting the answer to the website, but back in the day he would have to fax each consultant and confirm that they all got the same direction. We did joke about how more questions were asked when we used the website versus the time of faxing, probably because people figured things out on their own, but our website approach worked really well, resulting in consistent design work. Contractors saw consistent sets of plans with the same pay items, benchmarks, datums, etc. We met monthly for almost the entire time until the final contracts were let. When I run into all those people now, we actually miss those monthly meetings, believe it or not. We genuinely missed each other when the program was over. With the exception of the people that work in your own office you don’t get to make the same kinds of connections like that. I ran into someone from the program the other day and we joked how we needed to have a lunch reunion just to catch up. That was really cool, that was the neatest thing about that project. Working collaboratively, it really did go smooth. I don’t know if that kind of experience could be had again since I haven’t worked on a big program like that since. Working here at IDOT, it’s nice to work with people that you get along with. In my section everyone has his or her own unique personalities, but we all get along really well. Those reciprocal relationships make your job fun. That’s what made the Kingery project so great, there really wasn’t a single jerk in the group, everyone was professional and genuine.
AP: There’s a book “The No Asshole Rule” by Prof. Bob Sutton that talks about how it’s better to work with people who are considerate even if they’re not as capable. Assholes can be toxic and demoralizing. No matter how “great” their superstar talent, they’ll eventually poison even the most successful cultures and alienate everyone.
CK: That’s for sure. It isn’t always just about your IQ.
AP: You’ve been at IDOT almost 30 years. We have a lot of YPT folks who work for agencies. What advice do you have for surviving politics?
CK: One of the nice things about IDOT is although there are very political elements to what we do (e.g. how jobs are funded, which jobs are prioritized) the engineering work is not affected. IDOT’s culture is one of a professional approach. New state administrations don’t result in a complete turnover of staff. Politicization of project funding and prioritization happen no matter where you go. The funding source can and will drive the politics of projects. County and municipal politics can get more charged, but it’s important to know what you do and why you’re doing it. That way you can effectively navigate most political issues. For example, a local business owner may oppose a barrier median running down the middle of his block. We have FHWA studies that show barrier medians are good for business, because it improves traffic flow and increases safety. Being able to persuade the public with solid evidence, knowing what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, you can overcome any initial public opposition.
AP: What has proven most difficult about management? Is it communication, people, perhaps managing expectations? Is it just all the different personalities, what is it about managing projects and staff that’s proven most difficult?
CK: The fluctuation of available staff has been most difficult. Our biggest challenge (in Illinois) right now is that our pension system is grossly underfunded so fewer people are working at the state. As people have left we haven’t backfilled, so how do you get your same workload done and continue to deliver the program? How do you complete the work with the staff you have? We’ve had to hire consultants to backfill the staff in the short term until we can get to a point where we can hire permanent staff again. Managing a short-handed staff and continuing to deliver the state program is probably the hardest thing.
Also, like most people, I don’t necessarily like to give public presentations, despite the nickname “Chatty Cathy”. It’s much harder to talk in front of people who are not enamored with what IDOT is doing. That’s where doing your homework, knowing what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, can help to answer the public’s questions truthfully. When we were working on the Kingery Reconstruction Project, we were debating the merits of noise walls. The municipality had a choice on implementation and wanted input from their residents, with IDOT staff on hand to answer questions. The public opinion was mixed for and against. These were lengthy public sessions, but we took the time to stay and answer all of the public’s questions. The public was very appreciative of our time and thoroughness. It’s not easy to do but it’s rewarding when the public thanks you for your efforts.
AP: What keeps you up at night?
CK: At different stages of my career I worried about different things. The times I couldn’t sleep at night were when I was in transition at a new position. In construction I worried about things that were way beyond my control. For example temporary traffic control kept me up, worried that someone would have an accident and get hurt. When I first started my current assignment, I was worried if everything would get done. Then I eventually realized if I was out sick or away, work would just have to get done without me. As long as people come in and do the best job they can, everything will work out because new and different transportation demands will be there tomorrow. It’s more important to prioritize and get the most important things done than it is to try and get everything done because there will always be something.
AP: Thanks again for your time Catherine, this has been great. As part of this mentor series, can we post a picture of your workspace?
CK: Of course, thank you for the opportunity.