What drew you to transportation?
What drew me to transportation was that it was an engineering field that would enable me to be creative and use my problem solving skills to help improve the quality of life of people.
What has been your biggest challenge over the last 20 years?
Quite honestly, it has been keeping up with technology. When I retired from the public sector four years ago and became a sole practitioner, I had to learn about new technology on my own. I no longer had an IT person down the hall who could help me. This is one area where I believe that Younger Professionals can definitely help more senior professionals through a comprehensive mentoring program.
What project or task has been your most significant accomplishment so far?
I have been lucky to have been in positions where I have been able to implement innovative approaches to traffic engineering, pedestrian and bicycle facilities. I was a young professional at a time when any new approach was first labeled as a potential liability. I believed that we needed to try something new and then determine whether or not it works. As a result, many of those “experiments” are now common practice.
Having said that, I believe that my most significant accomplishment so far has been the mentoring of professionals, starting from the time that they were students and throughout their professional careers. I take pride in the fact that many have become senior managers in both the private and public sectors. They have shared with me that my contributions have made them better professionals and that being a better professional has made their career advancements possible.
What skills have you had to learn along the way to remain relevant and/or to improve your effectiveness as a leader?
The one skill that I learned very early in my career was how to listen. As technical professionals, we are all too often guilty of trying to solve the problem before we fully understand what the real issue is. It is important to acknowledge that an individual’s concern is legitimate, even though there may be a better solution to their problem than the solution that they are suggesting.
Another skill is the knowledge that success in an organization or in dealing with the public is based upon relationships. You need to develop relationships. Finding common interests is one way of achieving this. The stronger the relationship, the greater trust your clients will have in you. For example, I have known a particular vendor for over 30 years. He learned early on that I have a parrot. Every time he sees me, he asks about my parrot. That breaks the ice and starts our conversation on a personal level. Eventually we get to why he is there, which is to sell me a product. Am I more receptive to his sales pitch? Of course I am. It’s human nature.
Did you have any mentors along the way? How did they inspire you?
Yes, I had several mentors who played significant roles in my professional career. My transportation engineering department head at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, encouraged me to be a co-founder of the ITE Student Chapter and be active in ITE. He also encouraged me to be active in campus politics. I became active in the Student Senate and in my senior year, I was the vice-president of the student body.
A Director of Public Works for the City of Santa Monica took a risk and hired me as the City Traffic Engineer when I was 25 years old. He showed me that you couldn’t say that something couldn’t be done. If you did, he would go out of his way to prove you wrong. What it taught me was that if I didn’t agree with his approach, I needed to provide alternative approaches to achieve the desired result. Ninety-nine percent of the time he would agree to the alternate approach.
A City Manager for the City of Belmont, CA, hired me as a Director of Public Works even though I had little or no experience with the traditional public works areas of streets, sewers, and storm drains. He needed somebody with transportation engineering experience and believed it was easier to teach somebody traditional public works than it would be to teach somebody transportation engineering. He was correct.
Is there one piece of advice you’ve been given that you would like to pass on?
You can learn something from anybody. You need to keep an open mind and listen to all perspectives. In fact, I know that I can learn a lot from our younger professionals, especially in the areas of social media and effective means of communicating with younger professionals.
Was there ever anything that you wanted to do besides transportation? Do you ever look back on your career and wish you had tried something else instead?
I always had the perspective that I could apply the problem solving skills that I learned in engineering school to any discipline that I wanted. I personally found transportation engineering the most person-oriented of the engineering fields and it required effective communication skills to be successful. The desire to help people improve their quality of life through transportation really is rewarding. I know that I have contributed to making several cities where I have worked a better and safer place to live. I have never looked back on my career and wished that I had tried something else.
What is the biggest risk you’ve had to take in your career so far?
I really can’t say that either of my two examples were risks. However, they were definitely challenging.
The first was becoming a City Traffic Engineer for the City of Santa Monica at the age of 25. What helped me was showing a willingness to work with people to solve their problems. It also gave me the forum to try new approaches in traffic engineering to see if they would work, rather than discounting them as being a potential liability. I was doing “road diets” in the early 1980s. We just called it good traffic engineering in those days. We were one of the first cities to implement traffic calming on residential, collector, and arterial streets and to use speed humps. We implemented a citywide bicycle master plan and pedestrian enhancements to improve safety many years before other cities even began discussing such improvements.
The second was hiring individuals who did not have the experience that others may have had. I selected them because I saw that they had a tremendous amount of potential and had excellent communication skills. For example, I hired a woman who was my Senior Civil Engineer over her supervisor to be the City Engineer. Some would have called it a risk. However, I recognized that her skill set was what was needed for the position and knew that she would get the experience in the position. She did not let me down and today she is a public works director for another city.
What do you see as the most pressing issue facing transportation in the next five years?
I believe the most pressing issue is having enough transportation professionals to deal with our ever more complex world. It is going to be a challenging task to get technology and our profession to fit hand in glove.
If you are elected ITE’s next International VP, what will you do to support young professionals in the transportation world?
I will continue to support LeadershipITE and ensure that there is a pipeline of outstanding individuals to help lead ITE into the future, as well as supporting our profession as a whole.
I will propose adding a transportation engineering or planning professional from either the Young Members Committee or LeadershipITE to the International Board of Direction. I would implement this position as an ex-offico position until such time that we could make the position permanent through an amendment to the ITE constitution.
I want to create a mentoring program for our members, at all levels of their career, to assist them to grow professionally and personally. We can all learn from each other, whether it is the latest technology or how to grow professionally within an organization or sharing lifelong professional experiences. I would want to emphasize the transitional period from university to entry-level professionals, because that is where we lose so many ITE members. And as I stated above, more senior professionals can learn new skills from younger members, especially if it is dealing with technology.
I support the programs that are being implemented to make it more affordable to attend the annual international meeting. I would like for the ITE Districts to embrace the same concept. Some Districts have scholarships for their young professionals to attend their District meetings. I would like to see this expanded for young professionals to attend the Annual ITE Meeting.
For more information about Ray Davis, visit http://www.ite.org/ray4ite/