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News & Press: MSS News

Spotlight: James Shaw

Wednesday, February 13, 2019   (1 Comments)
Posted by: Khea Adams
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       When did you start surveying and why?

My path to this career was indirect. For reasons unknown, even to me, when asked in eighth grade what I wanted to pursue as a career, I replied, “I like maps.” This response landed me with an application and acceptance into the drafting program at Eastern Vocational Technical High School in Baltimore.


Upon graduation I accepted a job as a civil engineering drafter at Hicks Engineering Company, Inc. in Towson. I found the drafting dull and was seriously considering quitting to pursue going to college to study to be an English teacher.


This being 1988, computers were still a rare thing and the surveying department at Hicks had just received the first computer in the company. Ed Deiaco-Lohr was chief of surveys. I watched with interest as Ed and his team unpacked the computer and looked at it with some confusion. I had learned to program at the age of 10 on a Texas Instruments TI99/4 and was hacking with an Atari 1200XL by the age of 13 - setting up a PC was no problem. Ed then asked me if I could install software. Sure. I set about to installing Plus Three Software’s COGO/A+ (the precursor to their future TerraModel CAD software). I guess Ed was impressed, because in short order I was asked if I wanted to join surveys. I made the department switch, having little clue as to what I had just signed up for. It just seemed more interesting than drafting telephone conduits.


Thirty years on, I know I made the right choice. These seemingly small decisions have led me to a fruitful career and the opportunity to meet some of the finest people I know.

       Describe one of your best experiences while surveying?

It is very hard to pick a best experience while surveying. I’m thankful for many great experiences. As the adage goes, choose a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life. Instead of picking a particular experience, I think it is more genuine to say that there are more than a few individuals I have loved working alongside – be that on the job or with MSS. After all, all business is about relationships.

       Describe one of your worst experiences while surveying?

Looking back, many of the bad experiences were also good experiences: slogging through a waist deep mud flow to stakeout footers for high-tension monopoles after a rapid melt following a snowstorm; trying to do old-school RTK GPS work, covering radios that couldn’t get wet with sandwich bags and rubber bands, in the middle of a monsoon in New Jersey; going 105 feet deep inside a coffer dam under Lake Conowingo. There is always something to learn or something to feel accomplished for completing, even if it is rough in the midst of the challenge.


A few of them though, were just plain bad experiences: having guns drawn on me on four separate occasions (okay, one of those ended in homemade lemonade); having an instrument blown over by a Chinook helicopter; almost stepping in front of a tractor trailer in a brief second of distraction.


The standout bad experience was my first day in the field with a regular crew. I had already done numerous outings with the chief of surveys or other office staff, but this was my first time out with regular field personnel. Some details have been left out to not incriminate those involved.


I was assigned to fill-out a four-man crew to do a survey on a military base. We were only minutes out of the company parking lot and driving in heavy rush hour traffic when all three of my truck mates, including the party chief who was driving, pulled out joints and started smoking marijuana. To keep this in context, we were still in the grips of Nancy Reagan’s war on drugs. I had never smoked before and was certainly not starting today. All I could imagine was being pulled over by the police and being arrested with the rest of the crew. The fact that we were also on our way to a military checkpoint added to my worries.


Miraculously, we made it to the base and through the military inspection. We were escorted by two MPs (military police) wielding M16s to our job site for the day. This site was inside the fence that is inside the fence, if you know what I mean. A few hours into the work the party chief called me over to the instrument. He handed me the field book and told me that he wanted me to pretend to take shots while he and the other crew members went to get high again behind a copse of trees. I was incredulous. Trying to not look nervous, but keeping an eye the nearby MPs, I asked how I was supposed to do that – hoping the question would bring back some reasoning. Exasperated the chief said, “Point the scope there,” gesturing to the trees, “play with the focus, yell ‘good’ every minute or so, and write anything you feel like right here,” offering me a blank page near the back of the field book. Great! Now I was going to be arrested by the U.S. Army. Relief filled me when it was finally time to break for lunch. Maybe I would make it through this day.

We went to a pizza shop in a local strip mall not far from the base. As we approached the door to the shop the instrument man pulled a lid off a trash can just outside the shop and started rummaging. Looking to the party chief for answers, I asked, “what is he doing?” Overhearing me, the instrument man proceeded to lecture me regarding the wastefulness of most people and about how much good food was needlessly thrown away. At this he started finishing off an already half-eaten slice of pizza he had found. Now I was starting to lose my appetite. Uncertain if this was just a performance for the “greenie” (me) I was assured that this was a regular occurrence.


To my surprise, when lunch was over it was announced that we were heading to the house of a relative of the party chief. Considering the difficulty getting access onto the base, I should have known better. Getting fired for only working a half-day was now heaped on my growing pile of worries.


The relative had an above-ground pool. As my three coworkers all started to strip, I considered all the bad choices they had already made this day. I used my inability to swim as the excuse to return to the truck. After a little heckling they left me alone. By now, you can probably guess that the return trip to the office was yet another smoke-filled adventure.


Personally knowing people that were seriously injured on the job, I can say with confidence that I am extremely grateful that this inconsequential day still counts as my worst.



       What type of surveying makes up most of your work?

Over a decade ago I made the step into the world of 3D laser scanning. While I still do a reasonable amount of traditional surveying, much of my time and energy is now spent pursuing reality capture projects. Reality capture is the blending of remote sensing technologies (laser scanning, UAS-based photogrammetry, terrestrial photogrammetry) and geodetic positioning to produce survey-accurate photorealistic models and reality meshes for use in engineering and geospatial applications.


       Who are some of the surveyors that influenced your knowledge in the profession (in school or on the job)? What was special about what you learned from them?

Ed Deiaco-Lohr introduced me to the profession. He gave me the freedom to grow, exposing me to the many aspects of surveying. Ed also took me, as a young office technician, to the Baltimore Chapter MSS meetings. This allowed me to see the variety of directions this profession could take a licensed surveyor. It was from these early days that I could clearly see myself eventually getting licensed.


Walter Noyes and I have worked together at three companies. While working with Walt I reached the goal I had started with Ed and became a licensed professional land surveyor. Walt encouraged me to apply technological solutions to traditional problems while still honoring traditional sensibilities.   Walt was instrumental in acquiring a 3D laser scanner back in 2007. With this new tool I realized my entire career was starting on a new path. Walt also encouraged me to take on leadership roles within the MSS. Being a Past-President and still active board member, I guess you could say I took that encouragement seriously.


Pat Simon made me rethink my approach to boundary surveying. Pat also introduced me to geocaching.


Many years later, Mike Boyce would challenge me on a subdivision survey and make me rethink my boundary surveying approach all over again. My “Prudent Surveyor” seminar is a direct result of my interactions with Mike.


Alan Dragoo, Bill Henning, and Dave Doyle all provided me with an invaluable geodetic foundation. Land surveying was no longer just where, but where on Earth - and the right way to find that solution.


Keith Bailey helped me transition from a private development surveyor to a public/municipal surveyor. This shift greatly increased my business acumen and expanded my geographic range.


Tim Quinn has been very influential to me. Tim has a knack for seeing the pragmatic and strategic value of just about any issue. To this day he amazes me with his ability to get to the heart of many matters.


Bill Orsinger influenced me by giving me the opportunity to enter the world of mobile LiDAR. Providing mobile LiDAR services expanded my regional influence and allowed me to better understand business all along the East Coast. My view expanded from regional to national.


One of the things I am honored and privileged to say is, not only are these people mentors, but I can count many of them as trusted, personal friends.


This list would not be complete without someone I have never met and who is not a surveyor. Seth Godin is an author, entrepreneur, and a marketer. His writings, particularly Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, have had a profound impact on my professional career. For anyone that has ever attended one of my seminars, many of my ideas and successes have come from Godin’s influence. He still actively writes, blogs, and podcasts and all of this still actively influences me to be a better me.


If you did not make the list, just know that everyone I meet influences me in some way. We are all connected. You are all deeply appreciated.

   What advice would you give to new surveyors?

My universal advice to all young people is to adopt an attitude of lifelong learning. Do not be afraid to question. Question others. Question the status quo. Above all else, question yourself ceaselessly. Strive to be a little better every day. Those daily incremental improvements will be major improvements over the years.


My advice, specific to new surveyors, is to understand that the profession of land surveying entails a very large scope of specialties. Explore every aspect. It is perfectly alright to love some areas of practice and to dislike others. Embrace the ones you love and pursue those. Every employer and every client are desperately seeking passionate people to work on their projects. Follow your passions.


       When you are not surveying, what do you like to do?

I'm involved with surveying and geospatial in so many ways, it is like one of my hobbies. Sometimes it feels like I have time for little else, but I manage.


First and foremost, I spend quality time with my wife, Carla. She is my best friend. She inspires me to be better. She encourages my creativity. I tell people our goal is to be homeless - not in a bad way - but in the sense that we wish to travel ceaselessly and explore the world. For now, we explore our local world as much as we can when not working or spending time with family.


Speaking of family, both of my parents are still alive and well. My daughter is engaged and recently had a daughter of her own. I have three step-daughters from a previous marriage. I also have three step-sons, a grandson, and two granddaughters from my current marriage. My oldest step-son is now on the path to becoming a surveyor. Supporting the family and sharing in their joys is important.


I do aspire to be an author. I have already had the honor of writing numerous articles for xyHt Magazine, which I intend to continue. I also write my own blog to keep my writing skills in practice. My ultimate goal is to be published in the fictional fantasy and science fiction genre. I have around 20 plot ideas compiled for future novels and I am actively working on my first novel, an epic fantasy set in the British Isles during the time of Roman occupation.


Having once been a competitive gamer I still dabble in gaming. Fortnite has been my current obsession. No, it’s not just for kids. It’s rare, but I have met quite a few Fortnite players older than myself.


During my commutes I either listen to music (I love music), a vast array of podcasts (typically with topics on science, technology, or reasoning), or audiobooks. Unfortunately, I am so busy I rarely have time to sit and actually turn some pages.


With the little time left, I pursue Irish music and festivals, Jeep culture, geocaching, hiking, and genealogy. I have over 7,000 people in my family tree and recently discovered and verified that William the Conqueror is my 28th great-grandfather.


     How has surveying changed you?

Surveying has given me a rewarding life in so many ways. I have made lasting friendships with some great people. I have been able to explore places few people have ever seen. I get to play with some amazing toys and still call it work.  I have been humbly recognized by my peers. I've been on the radio, on YouTube, and I've been published in magazines. I have represented surveying, speaking in the halls of governance. Most importantly, I've taken care of my family with 30 years of continuous employment while knowing that my contributions make a difference. I will never be able to fully give back to the surveying profession all the profession has given to me.



William E. Henning III says...
Posted Monday, February 25, 2019
I believe that James is the most un-nerdiest nerd I have ever known. It has been a real pleasure working with him and to call him a friend. I think that one can discuss just about anything with him and come away with valuable insights. We can certainly see how he has given back to our profession and followed his own advice to stay current with the trends and technology that affect us. Live long and prosper James! Your friend, Bill Henning

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