Coronavirus—Present and Future: Interview with Garry Horvitz

Garry Horvitz

Garry Horvitz, before social distancing was necessary.

We interviewed Garry Horvitz, Vice President and geotechnical engineer at Hart Crowser for his perspective on how the engineering world has changed since the coronavirus arrived and what the future holds. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

The Coronavirus is Hastening a Continuing Trend

I’ve noticed over time that, from an engineering getting-work-done perspective, there has been less and less need for interaction. Less need for proximity. We had developed a habit of video conferencing even before this. The tools have become that good—we can not only see each other, but we can share information virtually: project plans, drawings, white board information. We’d been using tools like Skype, Teams, Zoom, and WebEx to save the time and cost of travel and parking. We already know we can be effective without physically congregating. This is not game-changing in that respect. Things had already been evolving.

The Downside to Meeting Virtually

The downside to this trend is that we need human interaction. Even this conversation with you would be much more comfortable if we could have done it in person. I don’t like working from home—I enjoy social interaction—walking around the office to talk with others. Remote work gives me a little PTSD from when I was convalescing for four weeks after I broke my knee.
As far as marketing and business development, it’s always been “Don’t send an email if you can pick up the phone, and don’t pick up the phone if you can meet in person.” I have also said that there are times when I make up an excuse to meet with a client in person. The more senses you have working when you’re meeting with someone, the easier it is to build and maintain a relationship. But we’ll get back to that. Engineers tend to be introverts, and there will be those who will shy away from making that personal contact when they have the alternative to do that.

The Upside to Meeting Virtually

Personally, I’m happy I can visit with Lynn-dee who is in the other room working. I also like the 20-second commute although I miss stopping at the latte stand on the way in.

What is Essential Work?

People are pushing the definition of essential work to keep the economy going. There’s a natural tendency to call something essential when it’s not. They want to keep people working but it’s overplayed. On the other hand, you can’t just turn everything off just to avoid risk. There needs to be a balance. You can’t decide never to cross a street to avoid being hit by a bus. You have to balance risk and reward.

The Importance of Patience

One thing we can do for each other is to have patience. Don’t expect things to happen as quickly as you’d like. Everybody is exasperated and frightened. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. We’re sailing in uncharted waters on both a business and personal level. Deadlines may need to be extended, although not from a lack of efficiency—because we had already been working virtually. We’re fortunate in the architect/engineering industry that we can do that for design.

Our Real Enemy

When you think of the number of people in this world and how they are all affected by the coronavirus, you see that the threat of pandemic far exceeds external political influences and the threat of war. We seem to like to hate other people but our most important enemy is microscopic. A virus has no soul so you can’t hate it. Our government should have acted on this months ago. We were completely unprepared. That will change. And it ought to change. (“I’m Garry and I approved this message.”)

What Does the Future Hold?

I never thought it would get to this point. Even so, I’m not seeing a lot of architect/engineer firms going out of business (yet). Back in the 2008 recession it was different; the writing was on the wall. Development dropped off a cliff. Hart Crowser’s client base was diverse, which helped us to weather that. Now money will likely be put into infrastructure packages of one sort or another and that will keep us going. I don’t see a huge downturn, but ask me again in two months.


What is Your Marketing Staff Saying behind Your Back?


You’ve just managed to land your firm a spot on a proposal team for a great project. The technical proposal manager from Company X tells you to send them some resumes and project descriptions. You rush back to your firm and inform your marketing staff.

Suddenly, your marketing staff is talking behind your back.

That is, if they’re smart. They’re calling the other firm’s marketing staff to ask, “What do you really want?” Because it’s almost never what the project manager from Company X asked you to provide.

The marketing staff members communicate about how many resumes and projects to prepare. They also communicate about other materials, length, formats, and win themes. That way your firm isn’t doing the work twice, and you give Company X materials they can actually use—that will help them win!

Next time, be sure to ask the technical proposal manager for the contact information of the marketing staff member who will be handling the proposal. Let your marketing staff talk behind your back.

Devastating Presentations

Businessman Writing on Whiteboard

In theatrical improvisation training, there is a truly devastating exercise involving audience attention. You stand on the stage. The other improvisation students are standing in front of you. The teacher instructs you to tell a story, and tells the other students to sit down the moment they have lost interest. They must be brutally honest, without sparing your feelings. Once everybody sits, you have to stop telling the story. The goal is to see how long you can keep your audience standing.

Going through this exercise makes you realize what a dull person you can be. You are astonished at how soon people sit down, often within seconds, regardless of how much they like you as a person or admire your skills. Even the most brilliant performers struggle with this exercise. The audience is looking for reasons to not be interested, and they easily find those reasons.

Keeping audience attention can be just as difficult during a business presentation, where time is money, and people want to know how you’re going to solve their problems, or at least entertain them enough to make that rubber chicken luncheon worthwhile. Sure, the audience won’t sit down (they’re already sitting), but the odds are they won’t remember most of what you’ve said.

Applied to a business presentation or interview, the improv exercise would happen something like this:

You say, “Hello, my name is X.” Several people sit.

“I’m going to talk about the X project.” A third of the audience sits.

“This was a really exciting project.” Everybody except one person sits.

“After that, I’m going to discuss the X project.” The last person sits. You’re done. You’ve failed miserably. Your presentation was devastating every imaginable way.

The next time you’re preparing a presentation, keep this exercise in mind. How will you grab attention from the very start of your presentation, so that nobody is tempted to “sit down?”

Check out this post from Fast Company that might be of some help.

Predicting the Future

Emerging Trends

To guide your company’s direction, it’s helpful to gain insight on what those in the development community believe the future holds. You could ask them directly for their thoughts and predictions. Or you could read the Urban Land Institute’s Emerging Trends in Real Estate® 2013. In this report, the ULI has compiled and interpreted the information from 900 personal interviews and surveys with influential real estate leaders, somehow making sense out of a mountain of opinions and educated guesses.

We were particularly interested in how the publication rates future development potential in the Seattle and Portland areas. We learned that Seattle is rated sixth out of fifty-one United State locations in investment, eighth in development, and seventh in homebuilding. It is “one of the best markets for younger adults” due to tech businesses. (The recently completed Colman Tower in downtown Seattle seems to support this point of view, as its residential units are focused on younger adults.) Interest in office and industrial space is also relatively strong. Portland, Oregon is rated seventeen out of fifty-one locations in investment, twenty in development, and twenty-third in homebuilding. Its economy “displays stability but few signs of quick improvement.”

As a firm that also provides services nationwide and around the world, we were also interested in information in other areas. In addition to the United States, the ULI evaluated Canada, Latin America, Brazil, Mexico, and other countries. More Information.