In the environmental industry, the pressure to be “billable” is a large roadblock for technology adoption

Let me tell you a story that goes back to late 1993, which seems like an eternity ago, yet at the same time feels.just.like.yesterday.

In late 1993, my 2-yr old environmental consulting firm startup—Terraine —had about 5 employees at the time, including me. I had just moved to Charlotte and opened up our first branch office, mainly because my wife at the time hated Knoxville TN and decided to get a job in Charlotte. So it was either move or find a new wife. I decided to move.

During those first few months in Charlotte, things were pretty slow. I had a small office in my little apartment in Pineville NC, and finding new work was challenging, mostly because I’m not exactly an outgoing guy. So during some free time (which I had a lot of), I decided to learn a relatively new database system that ran on a Mac called 4th Dimension, also known as 4D. Yea, you heard that right…on a Mac. In 1993. I was a Mac guy back when guys were ridiculed for using Macintosh computers. Hard to believe now, but it’s true. Everyone back then was a PC guy, and only fucking idiots used Macs back then. Or so they said.

I learned 4D and used it to build useful shit

So back to my story. Learning 4D was painful at first, but eventually I got over the hump, the lightbulb went off, and bam! All of a sudden I was pretty damn good at building relational database applications using 4D. Anyone who has ever learned a new development language can relate about the lightbulb going off after struggling for what seems like forever.

So then I started building things to automate some internal pain-in-the-ass tasks, starting with monitoring well construction diagrams and boring logs. I hated making those damn diagrams and logs. Back then we used to use a general purpose graphics package called Canvas to do those. Canvas is something similar to Illustrator. Normally it would take about 15-20 minutes to finish a well diagram, and up to maybe 30-40 minutes to complete a boring log. If your site had a bunch of wells, it could take up nearly the entire day to draw all of those figures up. Like I said, these things were a pain in the fucking ass to complete.

So in 4D I created some database tables and fields, loaded a graphics image of the well construction diagram as a form background, sprinkled database fields all over the form, and wrote some code to draw certain graphic elements programmatically on the page, based on depths of lithologic layers within the borehole. It took me maybe two weeks to create this stuff, and I was so excited to show my new invention to Paul and Eric (the other Terraine owners) that I drove 4 hours from Charlotte to Knoxville to show them this new cool thing that would make our tiny little firm more efficient! With this new tool, we could complete a well construction diagram in maybe 2 minutes, and a boring log in about 5 minutes. For me, this efficiency gain was enormously exciting.

The useful shit mentioned above was thought of by management as a hindrance to billable hours

The reaction I got from both of them was not what I thought I would get. Paul said:

“Now Jim, you do know that we make money by billing hours to create reports, right? If we have a tool that cuts down on those hours, then we make less money.”

Eric agreed with Paul.

“Holy shit! What the fuck just happened?” (that’s what I told myself on the inside)

And that right there is one of the big issues with technology adoption in the mainstream environmental industry:

There is a lot of pressure placed on employees to stay billable and maintain a high utilization rate

Management sets the targets for different categories of employees, and looks at those utilization reports like hawks. The employees that aren’t meeting their targets get called in to see the boss and explain themselves. Employees don’t like to get called in to see the boss. So they make sure they are as billable as possible.

It’s this pressure that forces a company’s workers to ignore technology that can make their work more efficient and less tedious. Because tedious means more billable hours billed to the client. Makes sense, right?

So, back to my story. Let’s flash forward to today—November 2015—when there is a ton of smartphone and computer technology available to automate this tedious stuff. I mean, even my 9 year old boy is pretty good with Minecraft and a bunch of other software games and tools. Surely everyone that has to create these forms is using an automated database application to draw their well construction diagrams and boring logs, right?

Nope. Only the large firms that run complex enterprise software like EQuIS and LogPlot are doing that. Most everyone else is still using the same tools they did back in the 90’s, with one exception: Acrobat.

Wow. What progress! Amazing!

Not really.

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