International project management with Dave George, Architecture and Engineering Program Management Expert
What are some of the challenges you encounter when designing overseas projects?
A major challenge on the design side is making sure that your design approach is context-appropriate. It’s critical that you incorporate the host nation’s requirements and that your designs are constructible in that country. We wouldn’t design something for Saudi Arabia or Iraq the same way we would design something in the States. The team has to adapt to and understand the region, the materials they use, and local construction techniques. Just because it might be the best solution on paper, does not mean it’s the best solution in that location. I think this is one of the key reasons we’ve been successful overseas, because we keep an open mind and listen to the end users input on how they do things.
The other major challenge is addressing local permitting requirements. For our DoD projects OCONUS, we almost always work with a local partner who has working knowledge of the host nation’s requirements. You can create the best designs and tailor them to local conditions, but if they get hung up in the approvals process or you haven’t allowed enough time for reviewers, you will have schedule delays. Tetra Tech has offices all around the world, and this allows us to either tap into our local team members for this knowledge or find a qualified local partner who understands the approval process requirements. They know the drill and might even have former host nation government staff on their team, who not only understand the approval requirements but can talk to end users during the charrette or site visit to better understand or translate these requirements.
On large programs for your DoD clients, how do you achieve success?
Our clients are extremely busy and have very tight timelines to meet, so our approach is to be proactive. We try to think about the project from our customer’s point of view and help them to drive the entire team forward. A lot of it comes down to helping the team make decisions. We try to break things down to make it easier to make choices. For instance, to help with potential schedule impacts, we might say: If you don’t do this then the project is going to slide six months; but if you do this, we will stay on track. We just put it out there, we help them make decisions, and we move on.
What challenges do you face when staffing an international project?
I’ve never had a situation come up where I couldn’t find someone within Tetra Tech to go where I need them to go or to find a subject matter expert when I needed one. However, if the client is better served by an outside specialist, we will bring one on. For instance, for our international military airfield projects, we use a specialty firm that is a true subject matter expert on all aspects of airfield fueling operations with strong experience on DoD programs.
Another challenge is the logistics of getting a team of 12 people overseas for the site assessments and charrettes. Even though you get a contract and the trip is supposed to be a month away, by the time you get an award, the trip could be only a week or days away. To keep the schedule, you’re trying to coordinate a whole team of people to go overseas within days of notice to proceed for a week or two. Our staff has to remain flexible with their time, which requires close coordination so they can hand off responsibilities to hop on a plane at a moment’s notice. Tetra Tech is lucky to have a team that is willing to go anywhere, anytime that our clients need us.
What are three key factors to successfully delivering A-E services in remote and austere locations abroad?
Experience, experience, and experience. You have to think carefully about who you send in-country. That’s why we have people like Brian Thorne, a retired Major from the Army National Guard. When we received an assignment to conduct a bed down survey at an Air Base in Iraq, he was able to apply his experience from his service as an Operations Officer to immediately secure the necessary base access approvals and travel visas and arrange all logistics needed to safely mobilize the team to the site in less than two weeks. He also brought a reliable, in-country partner to the team who had a retired Iraqi Air Force officer on staff, augmenting our team’s credibility while on base and building trust with the end user.
For complex projects with multiple sites or phases, we recommend sending someone from each of the key disciplines to fully understand requirements and be sure our customer’s team can establish a working relationship with our design team. This is really useful later on when detailed discussions and decisions are needed at the discipline level. It’s critical to have a good working relationship with everyone—civil-to-civil, electrical-to-electrical. The face-to-face allows you to understand where the other person is coming from, and that relationship is critical to keep the project moving forward.
We also mobilize subject matter experts who can apply their world class knowledge to the local site. For instance, on a recent naval project, we brought a former U.S. Navy Operations specialist who helped identify dredging requirements for new ships being purchased. Our specialist knew right away that he could improve the current conceptual layout for the project, and he worked in close collaboration with the customer and presented three new layouts that significantly improved their operation capabilities.
We aim to be a true partner with our customers and look out for them and their best interests.