Tales from the PM Trails - A window to surprise from Andrea Spencer

Tales of the Trails - Edited Interview

Interviewer: Jennifer Diamond

Interview with: Andrea (Van Horn) Spencer

Date of interview: 09-24-20

Watch on Youtube here: https://youtu.be/9Bt9SUmILtg

Jennifer: What we're looking at today is to chat about PM stories, and share ideas of cool stories so that people can recognize project management in the wild. And also give people a chance to tell their project management stories, so that we can all get better at spotting things that happen when we land on the ground. So, thank you for being here today to do this!

This is an important thing for us to be able to do, so I am grateful for you to share a project management story of your own that kind of gives us a Secret Sauce and an insight to a different kind of environment not everyone is in. Do you want to introduce yourself, and give us the background of this project story so we can get into our heads?

Andrea: No problem! My name is Andrea Spencer, and I work in commercial construction. I'm a project manager for glass and glazing. So usually the last man in on the construction sites.

Jennifer: Windows

Andrea: Yeah exactly, windows. So, the project that I’m going to talk about today is a downtown Seattle project. It [is] the interior work for one of the new Amazon buildings. They took over one of the buildings downtown Seattle and we did a bunch of interior work for them. There was a lot going on with that and it was a really cool project, so I thought that would be a great one to talk about.

Jennifer: Definitely, definitely! It's great also to be able to drive down through downtown Seattle, and go “Is it that one? Is it that one?”. It definitely makes it real when it’s a neighborhood project too, and for a city like Seattle, we still feel like neighborhoods and downtown’s no different.

So awesome! How did you get into this space in a nutshell? How did you end up being a project manager on this cool part of a construction project for Amazon taking over Seattle? How did that happen?

Andrea: Yeah, as anybody knows, Amazon is really really big here in Seattle; they have a lot of projects going on. I'm not exactly sure how we originally started working with them; the company I worked for did all of their interior work and things like that. It's really quite a privilege because they have a lot of cool stuff and they always have the greatest and best of designs and the newest things that you're like, “I didn’t even know you could do that!” So yeah, getting in with them was such a plus; and it was really really fun working with them on this project.

Jennifer: So what got you into that spot with the company you were with? What was your journey to get to be the PM on that effort?

Andrea: My background was a drafter; I started with AutoCAD knowledge. So, my first job out of college was drafting - and that was only because I knew AutoCAD. I didn't know anything about glass or glazing, or windows, or anything, so there was a lot of on-the-job training. But I worked my way up to a Project Engineer and was basically a Project Manager’s Assistant and followed her around for a couple years, and then finally [within] the last five years, I took on a Project Manager role. So I've been doing this for a few years - I've been in the construction industry forever, but just been a PM for the last five years.

Jennifer: So with that in mind when we're talking about this project, give us the stage of when you got into this project. How did you assess what needed to be done, and bring your company's toolkit of how to do this, to this project? What was it about this intersection?

Andrea: Yeah, so this project, it was a renovation so we had to go in and there was some demo work that had to be done; and this is kind of how we got into a little bit of a situation with the project - we found out during demo (nobody knew) that the concrete floors, that they just wanted to leave bare, were asbestos because the building was sooo old.

Jennifer: Oh no.

Andrea: Yeah, so anybody that’s in construction is going, “Oh, that's expensive!” [laughs]

Jennifer: Yeah! Asbestos encapsulation, yeah that’s not a joke!

Andrea: Yeah, so nobody knew about it.

Jennifer: Unidentified RISKS! [laughs]

Andrea: So… work had to stop. [laughs] So we had to work around that. And there was a lot of bringing in people, and a lot of evaluating, and a lot of quotes being sent out, and problem solving. And Amazon at the time was working on other floors, so we couldn't disrupt them either. It was an ordeal; it was quite an event.

Jennifer: I mean, asbestos. I mean that's almost a given for consideration for some types of remodeling. It's a good thing you guys found it. When in the process was it found?

Andrea: It was found at the beginning - thank goodness. Nobody did a lot of drilling, and we didn't disrupt the floors or anything like that. I think it was a chip in the floor, or something that somebody was evaluating, and then just happened to be like, “Oh, we should check it, you know because this is an older building that Seattle has”. And it could have been really bad, but we were all really fortunate that it was caught early and that we were able to bring on the right people to get it resolved.

Jennifer: So in a nutshell, when we go through the whole conversation about the project, what do you think are the key takeaways for someone going “Hmm”. What about that project do you think they should take away?

Andrea: So with all that - keep in mind, anything, especially in the construction industry, anything can happen, especially renovating older buildings. You never know what you're going to find there. Whether it's some cool flooring underneath or like different brickwork that you're like, “I didn’t even know this building was brick!”, [laughs] concrete floors. I mean, there's sooo much that can happen. So, you’ve got to be really flexible; you’ve got to be versatile. And be able to pivot on a dime and be like, “Okay, we're going this direction now because it's cost-effective or its safety reason or hazard” or whatever the situation is. [laughs]

Jennifer: [laughs] Wow! That's that “wow” and “aha” moment we're going for, right? So when you're on this project and it sounds like what you're saying is that, the big “aha” moment is, really having those experts nearby to be able to mitigate. Is that what you would think? Or is that our big light bulb?

Andrea: Absolutely. And with my company and myself, I had to go back to my suppliers and be like “We can't do a lot of drilling into this concrete floor because they already had to come in and seal everything and make it all protective.” So we’re like “We can’t... any automatic floor operators or floor closers that they want for their conference rooms, we can't be drilling into the concrete floors because it's dangerous.”

So there were a lot of us, that had a lot of meetings and we finally found this one product. It was a hydraulic patch fitting for a door that just automatically closed itself and it didn't require hardly any attachments. We found it and we were like, “How in the world?” [laughs] Everybody had forgotten about that product, but it was really beneficial and it was awesome that everybody could come together and got it taken care of. It was quite the “aha” moment. [laughs]

Jennifer: It reminds me, we have had a PDMA conference fairly recently, and in one of the conversations about creativity, was that the height of creativity is closest to the problem. And here you are saying well, “We need to install doors and we can't drill into a floor.” There's your problem statement - let's get creative! And you know technology and innovation can bridge that gap. So it's really cool.

From a Table Stakes perspective, what do you think, in this kind of environment - here we are talking about construction, remodeling legacy buildings in a city that was built for the Gold Rush. The most modern of innovative environments, that's construction these days. So what do you think the Table Stakes skill set a PM in your space needs to have?

Andrea: I think...and this doesn't particularly apply to the position that I was just referring to, but I think it's important for PM's to have good Time Management. I think that has to be key for everything because scope creep is real and if you're not managing your time, and people are just piling things on, your schedule can get away from you so quickly. Especially when you're on a big deadline because people need to be moving into an office building, or you know, there's people who are working during certain hours so you need to get something done. You have to be careful of your time; I think that's really important.

Jennifer: Going to the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got the table stakes, what's that Secret Sauce that you have seen The Best PM's in your space use that you're like, “Wow! Yeah, that's mine - I’m going to go for that!” What’s that secret thing that makes it all happen?

Andrea: [laughs] So, I think...and I’ve seen… And you’re right, I’ve seen this and I’ve just been like, “Wow, they’re my hero!”

In construction, we can have some heated conversations and it’s easy to be like, “I sent you this Change Order, where is it?”, “Why are you sending me this?”, “Why isn’t this part of this?” so conversations can get heated. Everybody is trying to be in the same small area, and you’ve got to get everything done, and Glaziers are always the last one in. And the time frame never changes - they never push back the schedule, so no matter how far they are when they get to us they are like, “Here you go! This is what you get!”

Jennifer: 3 hour window - make it work!

Andrea: Yeah. So the Special Sauce that I’ve seen is, other PMs, and Foreman, and everybody on the jobsite not meeting anger with anger. If somebody comes at you angry, you can’t take it personally; it’s just they’re angry with the situation. You can’t meet anger with anger because it doesn’t resolve anything. So just keeping a level head, understand what the problem is, try to resolve it, try to just… I don’t know… Breathe, I guess. [laughs] I’ve seen it go both ways. I’ve seen anger being met with anger and it just goes out of control, then I’ve seen someone keep a level head and it’s like “Wow!” It’s just...crazy. It’s just crazy, it’s crazy! It’s just like everything just levels back out and everything is pure harmony again. We’re all friends. [laughs]

Jennifer: Wow, that is tough, and you’ve seen that. Grrr, hard hat moments, right? Kinda taking that to its conclusion here, what are your words of wisdom for people who are thinking about getting into your space and in general want to follow in your footsteps in Construction Project Management amongst these different kinds of trades with that design and innovation eye. What would you suggest to people coming up behind you?

Andrea: One of the things that a lot of people get in trouble with is they...whether it’s a client or an architect or somebody say, “We have this really cool design and we want you to do it.” A lot of younger people in the industry will kinda over-promise and be like, “Yeah, we can do that! We can do that in this timeframe, everything sounds good, we’ll give you exactly what you want!” And so, my recommendation is to be careful over-promising because if you come in and under-deliver, it’s a really big disappointment to a lot of people; rather than taking a step back, evaluating the situation, and giving them a realistic expectation of what you can do.

Jennifer: I think that’s true for every industry!

Andrea: [laughs] Yeah, I’m sure that applies to a lot of industries.

Jennifer: We really appreciate that. So, thank you for taking this time. I think that’s a great nugget for people to go, “hmm… what happens there?” and wow, if you think of windows in an Amazon building, you think of asbestos.

Andrea: [laughs] No problem - any time!

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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