A Blockbuster YPT Mentor Interview! – Randy Iwasaki, Executive Director of the CCTA, Talks To YPT about Star Trek, Goats, and Innovation

RendellThis week we have the distinct pleasure of bringing our loyal YPT readers a conversation with Randell “Randy” Iwasaki, the Executive Director of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA). Iwasaki was appointed by the CCTA Board on April 16, 2010. CCTA administers a one-half percent sales tax program. The 1988 “Measure C” program consists of $1.1 billion in projects and programs; the 2004 “Measure J” program totals $2 billion and will run from 2009 through 2034. Prior to his appointment as Executive Director, Iwasaki was appointed by Governor Schwarzenegger in August 2009 as Director of the California Department of Transportation. He was in charge of the operation of the California state transportation system, including more than 50,000 lane miles of state highway, intercity passenger rail, state support for local mass transportation systems, 12,400 bridges and more than 250 general aviation airports. He oversaw an annual budget of almost $14 billion and a staff of more than 22,000 maintenance, planning, right of way, environmental, administrative, and engineering personnel. A licensed civil engineer, Iwasaki had been with Caltrans for more than 26 years serving in a number of high profile engineering and management positions. From November 2004 to August 2009, Iwasaki was appointed as the Department’s Chief Deputy Director. Iwasaki also serves on a number of national transportation panels. The panels include chairing the Technology Coordinating Committee Chair for the renewal portion of the Strategic Highway Research Program and AASHTO’s Special Committee on Transportation Security and Emergency Management. He is the past Chairman of ITS America. In 2009, he was named to Government Technology’s list of 25 “Doers, Dreamers and Drivers,” and in 2008 was the recipient of the Thomas H. McDonald Memorial Award, which is considered the highest award presented by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials for “rendering continuous outstanding service over an extended period of time or have made some exceptional contribution to the art and science of highway engineering.”

Arthur Pazdan: What project or task has been your most significant accomplishment so far?

Randy Iwasaki: It’s not finished yet, but in 2001, I was sent to Caltrans District 4 (SF Bay Area).  I was asked to get the Bay Bridge under construction.  So I landed here in the Bay Area on September 1, 2001, and by January 22nd, 2002, we broke ground.  The Bay Bridge is a $6.4 billion global iconic structure, that is an epic transformation of the bridge’s east span into a one of a kind self-anchored suspension span (SAS).  That’s one of the highlights of my career.

AP: With that project, were there any challenges that you specifically had to overcome?  I mean, a lot of people know the history of the project and its challenges so far, but what issues really challenged you personally?  Was there something that required you to really roll up your sleeves or challenged you in a way you hadn’t been before?

RI: Let me tell you a story about the Bay Bridge and a sticky situation that we had.  Yerba Buena Island is the western terminus of the new structure.  Oakland is the eastern terminus, about 2.6 miles away.  On Yerba Buena Island, the first western bent (W2), which is on land, that entire slope of the island was covered with poison oak.  You have T1, the tower foundation, then W2 that is the first tower away from T1 on land, and then E2 is the first tower to the east, a pier that’s all in water.  Yerba Buena Island is covered in poison oak.  The surveyors need to take an elevation shot for the W2 pile cap foundation.  They don’t want to go down there because of the poison oak.  I was the District Director at the time.  I called my survey chief, Bob Macpherson, “OK Bob, get the surveyors out there to shoot the pile cap foundation.”  Bob says “We’re going to file a labor grievance because there’s too much poison oak.”  I was surprised, “What happened to the old days that the surveyors told me about when they had machetes?  You were tough as nails and cut lines through poison oak the size of redwood trees to clear I-5.”  Bob said yes that was all true then, but was adamant about the grievance now.

Captain Kirk is a benevolent leader.  He would always ask his teammates for advice, “Hey what’s our options?” One episode that I remember very well is one where Kirk, Scotty, and Spock are stranded on an asteroid, blown off course, and the Starship Enterprise is pinging them trying to find them.  On the Enterprise they can’t find Kirk and crew because they’re not looking in the right area.  Kirk asks Scotty when they land on the asteroid “What are my options for getting off this rock?” Scotty says “Captain we have two options.  The first is to stay on this asteroid and die of thirst and starvation.  The second option is we have enough fuel to maintain orbit for 24 minutes until we die by fire, burning up when we crash land upon re-entry.”  Kirk won’t accept any of it and demands a third option.  Scotty goes back to the drawing board and comes back, “Well you know Captain, we may only have enough fuel to maintain orbit for 24 minutes, but we can get to orbit elevation quickly, start jettisoning fuel, cause a large flare, and create a commotion large enough to grab the Enterprise’s attention.”  Kirk goes with the third option and the crew was saved.

So after talking to Bob from the Surveying Department, I call the Maintenance Department.  Jim was in charge of all Toll Bridge Maintenance.  I tell Jim to save the day and cut a line so the surveyors can take pile cap elevations on W2.  Jim says OK, heads out to Yerba Buena and comes back to me the following day.  Jim says “Boss, we’re going to file a grievance.”  I ask why.  He says “There’s too much poison oak.”  I tell them they’ve never failed me before and give him the same Star Trek story about a third option I just told you.  He comes back a week later and he says “Boss, send in the surveyors!”  I ask how they did it.  Jim says “Our discussion about the third option?  In the back of my mind I remembered a guy who came to me a while ago and said he had the ultimate grubbing machine to clear fields.  If I ever needed it he said to let him know.  You came to me asking for a third option?  Well you gave me an opportunity to try it out.”  So it turns out the ultimate grubbing machine is … goats.  They put this humongous fence around the survey area, and the goats chewed everything up over the entire side of W2.  The best part is the goats don’t pull the plant out, they just nibble it off.  So you don’t have any erosion problems because the roots are all still there.  Jim showed me pictures of these fat and happy goats sitting in their horse trailer after they cleared the hillside.

So I think this underscores how when you insist on alternatives and give people the option to think, they will come up with some pretty darn good ideas.

AP: That’s a fantastic story.  That’s one of the best stories I’ve heard.

RI: If you ask Jim today he’ll tell you the same story.  He’s very proud of that achievement.  In fact he got an industry innovator award for that goat approach.

AP: A lot of the YPT members are in public agencies.  You were appointed several times by the Governor for different positions.  What did you do to get in a position of visibility and how did you maintain a good rapport so that you were continually promoted?

RI: One of the main reasons I became Caltrans Director, was because of a man named James W. Van Loben Sels.  He was Caltrans Director for 8 years under Governor Pete Wilson.  I was a young engineer at the time.  People will say that if you want to move up in public service, work hard.  But I think it’s more than that.  It’s networking, it’s luck, it’s insight.  There are 22,000 employees in Caltrans.  What differentiates you from anybody else?  A lot of it has to do with luck because you’re one engineer among 10,000 engineers at Caltrans.  I was given opportunities by great mentors who put me in front of James Van Loben Sels.  I didn’t necessarily get the best jobs, but when the Director asked you to do something you did it.  I didn’t want to go to District 4 for four months (which turned into 2 years).  Your superiors might notice you if you’re lucky, but it takes networking and it takes mentoring to get ahead.  In those early days I’d go into my supervisor’s office and ask why I got a certain job.  “First and foremost I trust you, but second it’ll be good for your career.”  You really won’t know if it’s good for your career until much later.  Then you look back and you realize those mentors did have a huge impact on your career.  I had a number of mentors who put me in positions that I really didn’t want to do.  I was promoted to District 9 Director in Bishop, which is a very long way from Sacramento.  The parting advice I received, “If you want to come back to Sacramento, do a good job.  If you don’t, do a good job anyway so we can keep you in Bishop.”  What incentives are in your job that your boss can invoke a positive reaction to?  I knew that I could always come back to Sacramento as long as I did a good job.  I always tried to do more than a good job by focusing on innovation.  There is an award on the wall from Asphalt Contractor magazine.  We rebuilt 10 miles of damaged highway in 180 days back in 1997 to better than it was before it was damaged.  Let me reiterate, in 180 days, we rebuilt 10 miles, moved millions of yards of material.  We also took rock slope protection down to the river from a rocky cliff.  We worked a deal with the Forest Service.  Those kinds of projects in the District would normally take a couple of years.  I said “We need to do this in 180 days or less.”  The reason is the Feds pay 100% of the costs of any disaster relief project done in 180 days or less.  After 180 days the State pays 11.5% and the Fed pays 88.5%.  So the State of California got a badly damaged highway built good as new that was paid 100% courtesy of the federal government.

AP: You mentioned all these different mentors that you had.  What was the single best piece of advice any of them gave you?

RI: One night I brought this big report into my supervisor’s office.  I was very proud of it as I did the work myself.  He was the Deputy Director of Caltrans, I was the program manager in charge of Maintenance.  I threw this report down onto his desk and he said, “Who did this?” I very proudly said, “ I did.”  He looked at me and said “Could you please shut the door?” so I shut the door.  He looked at me and said, “I don’t pay you to write reports.  I pay you to think.”  “Pardon me?” I said.  He replied, “We can easily get caught up in the day to day activities.  Now you had 27 people who could have written this report for you, but you took your time, your effort to do that report.  What I really pay you to do is think about the future.  What I want you to do is to take 5 to 10 minutes a day and just think about what would be an ideal future for Maintenance, for the transportation system in California, and for the transportation system in Contra Costa.”  As I sit here today, I manage by four key principles: 1) improve customer service, 2) improve partnerships, 3) improve efficiency, but most importantly, 4) innovate. That’s your business, Art, to innovate right?  How do you make things better if you’re not thinking ahead?  It’s real important.  Before that moment in my supervisor’s office I didn’t think a lot about the future, but instead about doing my day to day job really well.  My mentor told me to think and innovate.  In order to innovate somebody has to be thinking about the future.  That is a quality that is not engrained in us at a young age.  We’re told to work hard.  We’re not told to think about the future.  Here at CCTA my employees know that I will back them up so long as they make decisions by our 4 managing principles.  If it doesn’t accomplish each of those 4 things, then you have to ask yourself, why are we doing it?  At least stop and say “this decision will make us less efficient, but it will really improve partnerships.”  This forces our managers here to think about that.  The other day we had an issue with a claim.  The staff member who’s in charge of claims, says “I would normally approve this, but I don’t think I have the authority.”  He escalated the issue up the chain of command.  I said “You’re spot on.  Improve customer service and resolve this issue in a positive way, then you’ve got a customer for life.”  People remember that.  If you do right by someone else, they will remember that a long time.  If you treat them poorly, they never forget, then they will tell 4 friends who each never forget.

AP: You’ve successfully navigated so many different roles and opportunities.  For this current role was there any new skill that you had to learn or that you had to work on that maybe you didn’t have to before?

RI: Well, now I’m in local government.  Before at the state government level it was just a little bit different.  In Caltrans I had one or two bosses that had to do with the Governor’s Office or the State Assembly.  Here at CCTA part of the job is dealing head-on with local politics.  You have to become a little more politically savvy.  The skill set that I think I didn’t use to have that I’ve really had to pay attention to is the local politics of the situation.  Why does somebody vote no?  Why doesn’t somebody like something?  You listen to people and try to use that information for the future so that when you have a similar situation you know you’re going to make a phone call before this goes to the board or becomes public information.  OK, who do I need to call to get support to put this item through the process or who do I need to call with bad news?  Bad news to you is not bad news to me necessarily.  That’s a skill set that I did not have.  We at Caltrans had to deal with some local politics, but when I was at Caltrans we just had the state highways and interstates, but the majority of infrastructure in a community is their own, off the state system and fully in the locals control.

Here at CCTA I deal with 19 cities each of whom have elected city councils as well as the county who has an elected board of county supervisors.  So I really try to pay attention and learn the local politics.  The demographics in Contra Costa County may be shifting, but there is still no highway that is Republican or Democrat.  Yet in order to build projects or maintain infrastructure sometimes politics enters into it.  So I’ve really had to pay attention to local government.  There’s really no place to read about or learn about local politics, so you have to listen to people and ask the right questions.

AP: Was there ever anything that you wanted to do besides transportation?  Do you ever look back on your career and wish you tried something else instead?  How have you been able to always maintain an interest in your career?

RI: I really love what I do.  If you look at my career, I may have worked at Caltrans for 27 years but never really had the same job for more than 4 or 5 years, but always in transportation.  I was in Hydraulics, in Construction, I was a Resident Engineer, in Surveying, I went back to Design, then went into Headquarters so I saw corporate versus local (districts).  While Districts are charged with administering policy, in Headquarters you write transportation policy.  I spent half my time in Headquarters and the other half in different Districts.  I was in 4 different districts total, so I got a great view of transportation across the state. When I was first going to college my uncle was a civil engineering professor at Colorado State.  He showed me wind tunnels for erosion, he was in hydraulics.  He did the analysis for backfilling Candlestick Park.  So as a young kid I was like “Wow you get to do that!”  He had a mockup of the Colorado River and studied the effects of erosion and the river itself on the environment.  When people used to ask me what civil engineers do, I told them “They get to mess around with rivers and fill in Candlestick Park.”  It wasn’t about highways.  In 1982 I couldn’t get a job because the economy was so bad.  Caltrans was the first company to offer me a job and I accepted it.  Part of the reason I stayed so long I thought, “Wow these guys gave me an opportunity and they train you.”  They put me in a rotation and invested in me.  I had deep gratitude for what the Department did for me.  So back in high school I got accepted to both Cal Poly and Fresno State.  I told my mom I wanted to be a business major because I always thought I’d make a better business man.  My mom said if I wanted to be a business major I would have to go to Fresno State.  I really wanted to go to Cal Poly so I became a civil engineer.  My uncle, the civil engineering professor, is the older brother so he’s always been like a father figure to the whole family.  After about a year of me working at Caltrans, we’re floating in my parent’s backyard swimming pool, my uncle says, “Randy you’re going to go through the rotation program at Caltrans.  It’s world renown.  You’re going to get your PE license then you’re going to get a real job with a consultant.”  So 20 some years later I’m appointed as the Director by the Governor, my uncle tells me “Aren’t you glad you listened to me and stayed at Caltrans?” (he had obviously forgotten).  You look back at somebody’s career and people have effects both positive and negative, but he was happy to take credit for me staying at Caltrans when he told me a long time ago to leave.

AP: One last question, what would you say is the biggest risk you had to take in your career so far?

RI: Yogi Berra said, “When you come to a fork in the road … take it!”  In my case I’ve made decisions that turned out well and some decisions that I really thought would mean I would get fired.  Nothing goes right every time.  In the 1990’s, I was the head of all Maintenance for Caltrans.  We were trying to develop a new budget process, so I thought we should find out from our customers how we’re doing.  We had this new thing called a website, and I proposed we put on the website “How are we doing?”  This is before the days of transparency in government.  “Oh no Randy, that’s a really bad idea,” I was told.  We’re sitting there, probably 10 office chiefs sitting around the table and I’m the program manager, I wanted to know what they thought.  Eight of them said it was a great idea, but two thought it was a terrible idea and really let me know it.  “You’re going to get the public to drive your budget?”  “What do we do here, we provide a service to the public.  If they can tolerate more trash on the road, we’ll pick it up less often, save money, and do more of what the customers think is necessary.  But we don’t know what they want.  We don’t know what their expectations are.  Graffiti?  We spend millions taking down graffiti but do they care?  Potholes, do people care about potholes?  After about two months of the survey on the website, both of the naysayers came in and told me they were getting great feedback from the public.  Now people say they’re actually doing it, but over 15 years ago no public agency was putting themselves out there like that “oh man a public agency exposed to the public, we’re going to get killed!”  There is still a line item in the Caltrans budget for customer needs.

AP: Randy, this has been just an absolute pleasure.  Thanks again for your time and attention. 

RI: No, thank you, Art.


1 Comment

  1. Wow! Fantastic interview. What a great person this Randy is! This guy is most definitely the Captain Kirk of the transportation industry. It gives goosebumps reading about the simplicity and humility of this great leader, let alone his captivating humor. Innovation, politics, leadership, futuristic thinking, cooperative problem solving – gee whiz, if this man went into business degree – and politics – he probably would have been our President by now!

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