Interview by Ken Hunt

Dr. John Douglas Hunt is a professor of Civil Engineering and the president of the consulting firm Hunt Analytics (HAI). The firm uses 3D computer modelling to predict how traffic moves through urban areas, in order to provide more accurate growth projections to urban planners.

The interview raised several questions, such as: what are the benefits and drawbacks of the move toward a ‘virtual’ office space? How is software being used to facilitate these virtual spaces, and how is this use of software transforming the physical space in which it takes place? How does the location of a space affect its selection and use, in terms of potential benefits or impediments to knowledge production happening in said space? How are ‘camps’ formed between various specializations (such as engineers, IT professionals, and municipal employees), and how do these camps characterize and ‘test’ one another when they interact?

Describe the space in which you work.

  • I work on the 7th floor of an office tower, a rented space of about 1700 square feet. The space is cordoned off into one big office that I use, as the president, and three smaller offices: one each used by the two other principles of the firm, the third shared by two of the senior specialists. There is also a windowless office that a third specialist uses, and a meeting room and an open area that handles six people in cubicles.
  • In terms of the spaces we use, we also do a lot of GotoMeeting stuff with clients (The Atlanta Metropolitan Commission, Los Angeles Metropolitan Commission, Sacramento, Oregon, California, Brisben AUS, China, Alberta, Edmonton, etc.). We do a lot of meetings where we do not hold a video conference; but rather we jointly look at somebody’s computer. The work being looked at is either going on somewhere else, or we’re doing it and others are observing us.
  • We can have meetings and discussions around the computer…it’s at the point now where we have different people go to their computers in the office instead of having three people crowd around one computer. This is more comfortable and facilitates better typing and working. We’ve recognized this, so we have put in large TVs as computer monitors in five of the offices. Anyone can get to, and project form, these screens, making us more efficient as a group. A lot of our work is done that way. We use 64-inch 1080p Samsung TVs, on wall-mounted arms, so that they can be positioned.
  • We have high speed internet to facilitate this. We also do large simulation runs of economies (spacially), so we need a lot of brute-force computing power.
  • We haven’t met as much with our Clients from China via the internet…their ability to interact with us over the internet is somewhat constrained, due to the way China’s internet is organized. I have to travel more to China.

What are the practices that happen in your workspace, and what does a typical day look like?

  • We use what is called the ‘Agile Approach’ (AA), a method of project management where we have what are called ‘scrums’ with the teams of people we are working with. These scrums are meant to be 15 minutes long. That’s how we work on each project, which is why we need to have frequent meetings with different clients.
  • We don’t meet in scrums every day, which is what you are supposed to do; we have them once a week. We talk about what is impeding people from meeting their objectives, how can we re-specify goals or reorganize things to keep things moving.
  • We always have a full, running version of the models we develop, and we iteratively improve it. We don’t follow a cascading process (doing everything once perfectly, in theory, and then assemble it all in theory), because this never works in practice. The models we make are too complicated. Writing the specs would be more work than preparing the models themselves. Our iterative approach has grown out of software and video game development: they make a version that works, and then refine it. We’re doing the same thing, but with statistical data and economic/transportation models.

What kind of knowledge is created in your workspace? What is it that you produce?

  • Our job involves a lot of knowledge transfer. We make it a priority to help our clients to come to a point where they are able to build the models at their own agencies, so they own those models. This allows us to access a lot more ‘horsepower’, without having to act as employees of other agencies. We end up guiding more than doing.
  • Eventually we want to get to the point where our clients don’t need us anymore, since they have trained people who can maintain their respective models. This has essentially happened in San Diego and, to a lesser extent, Oregon. We’re building these models…I develop the theory and equations, and over the 25 years I’ve been teaching at the university, I’ve been pulling out the best students, and I now have about ten of them working with me.
  • This is cutting edge stuff we’re doing…we have clients around the world. Our limitation is our capacity, rather than clients’ demand, since our work is so specialized.

What is the material form of the knowledge you produce?

  • The models we make are programs, computer code. Versions are developed in Calgary and mirrored in clients’ offices. Version control is a huge challenge. The setup of the Java .exes, etc. and a fair amount of time (more than I want) is spent figuring out why the model no longer runs on clients’ computers. Either they have a new version our guys have developed, and our guys haven’t properly reconfigured everything on our end, or the client has messed up something. Often they’re working in larger institutions, where the IT control (set up to handle 80-90% of the computer related work) wants to have a basic machine set up that they can periodically reset…but specialized stuff like Java code creates problems. Furthermore, at the City of Calgary, they aren’t allowed to write .exes for security reasons…
  • IT is out of control, in my opinion. We go through a typical cycle with the clients: You want a model built, but we need to be able to have our computers communicate. The first ‘test’ is we ask: can you do GoToMeeting? Sometimes they can’t even do that. Somewhere along the process, inevitably, we hit an ‘IT Rule’. I’ve had the same meeting so many times; I could tell you exactly what they say.
  • They bring in an IT specialist who says: “we can have our system set up to do whatever you want, don’t worry”. We respond with: “That’s fine, but if it doesn’t work by a certain time, you’ll let us have those computers off the network”. Then they usually respond with: “Okay, but if that happens, you have to be responsible for the machines on our end that are off the network”. We’re okay with that.
  • Things are done on a network: they’ll download something to every computer or restart every computer at once…runs of our computer models can take weeks to complete…if they shut down every computer on their network every second Thursday, then the run has to be restarted…a lot of time is lost. Versions of this have happened upwards of 20 times.
  • IT then assumes the computers our clients have left outside their networks (at our request, so our model can run) are virus-ridden, and don’t want anything to do with them…
  • The IT people often act patronizing to begin with. I have to be careful, and get my guys to be careful not to be smart-alacky to them…you can tell somebody something and they won’t believe you…but you don’t want an “I told you so” moment. We don’t want to be problematic.
  • IT does not facilitate any sort of creation in the work that we do. They are an impediment that we have to get around.

Would it be different if you had a different workspace? What if you had more, or less? Are there problems with the amount of space you have?

  • We work so much in virtual space that any standard office configuration would work.
  • We have located downtown because a lot of the employees like the accessibility of downtown to eating opportunities and the train. Several of them live within walking distance. That’s the location of the office rather than the office itself.
  • I would have like the location to be closer to the university, but I lost that opportunity. Sometimes, even if you are the president, you have to do things to keep the workers happy. You can’t have it all your own way or you’ll be the only worker.
  • We need people rather than space. If we get more people, we get more space. We would move to a larger space if we needed it. We didn’t get the space and then design our company around it.
  • A new Telus building is being constructed near our building, adjacent to ours. This building project is causing structural disturbances to our building. A plus-15 walkway has been closed because it has separated from the building by about 1/3 of a foot. Soil displacement around our building’s foundation has occurred due to digging to depths well below the foundation of the building on the Telus site next to us. If our building has to be closed, there would be a ‘shock’ for us.
  • When the flood occurred, our building was closed for a couple of weeks. For the first few days, everybody kind of took time off. Clients started complaining; our excuse wasn’t acceptable anymore and we organized people at their homes with their laptops. But, it pointed out to us that we’re now accustomed to having a space that we go to. There’s a lot of things built around it in a sense. It would be a conscious effort to move
  • We have moved before. There is a loss of about two weeks of productivity that we lose over the month around the move…we are all probably about 50% distracted.
  • I like to think we’re not a normal firm.
  • While we are separate from our clients, we have ‘nodes’ (some of us in Atlanta, etc.). What we haven’t done is what Parsons-Brinkerhoff have done, where they send individuals to different places…something is lost when the team is this far apart. I think it’s inefficient. I think there is value in fact-to-face contact. People are too easily distracted by other things. There’s a bit of discipline with nodes, when there are other people in the room. I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where we can all be in different places and meet virtually.