To Bob Gilbert, engineering's goal is to solve problems, but they are not just mathematical problems.
For 10 years, Gilbert served as location manager at the Jefferson City office of Topeka, Kansas-based engineering firm Bartlett & West. Late last year, Gilbert was promoted to Bartlett & West's chief operations officer. He also serves as delivery leader for the company's transportation, structures, mechanical, electrical, plumbing and civil engineering teams.
A Cedar Hill native, Gilbert moved to Jefferson City in 2006 to be closer to his wife's family. Throughout his decade here, Gilbert's company has worked on numerous projects in the region.
Engineering may seem like it's based on math, but Gilbert said the job hinges on forming close relationships with people who pay for projects.
As he settles into his new role, Gilbert said he loves Jefferson City and thinks site surveying and engineering will evolve with new technologies.
Answers below were edited for length and clarity.
Name: Bob Gilbert
Organization: Bartlett & West
Title: Chief operations officer
Hometown: Cedar Hill
Last book I read: "The Oz Principle"
Favorite movie: "Star Wars," the original trilogy
If I wasn't doing this, I'd be: "I'd probably be building things — landscaping, home renovations and the like."
Q. How would you describe your job?
A. "In these roles, I help lead the company's delivery teams which are all the people who do the surveying, engineering and design work on projects around our company. As COO, I'd describe that job as one that helps others in the company achieve our overall business goals and perform at our best financially, which happens through a variety of ways — better project management, improving processes or personal performance, and monitoring client feedback."
Q. What was the career path that brought you to this position?
A. "I started out as a civil engineer, designing roads and bridges, stormwater systems and other civil infrastructure. After coming to Bartlett & West in 2007, I had the benefit of also doing more drinking water and wastewater system design and project management, which really helped me get a very diverse background in our business and the industry. It helped me to build many relationships in the region and the industry, which have been an important and meaningful part of my career."
Q. Who who was your biggest influence?
A. "There are so many who have invested in me. I've soaked up everything I can from all of the leaders around me, and it's one of the reasons I try to give all that I can to others because I know how much I have learned from people who gave their time and talents so I could grow.
"If I had to pick one person, I would say my dad. He worked hard, was frugal in his spending of his hard-earned money, but was generous to those around him."
Q. What's the biggest professional achievement you've realized?
A. "As an engineer, my mind often goes to the projects that we design and how they impact our communities. When they are completed, there is a huge sense of pride in the accomplishment knowing that you are a part of leading a community to a better tomorrow.
"If I have to look back on the biggest achievement of my career, it has to be the team of people that I have helped to build at our company. When I look around me and see their growth and everyday achievements, I know that every ounce of development and time I have spent with them is worthwhile — now we can achieve so much more and make a bigger difference in our community."
Q. What's the most common mistake people make when entering your profession?
A. "Thinking that it is too hard to enter this profession or that it is all technical and focused on math. Of course, there are elements of the job that are math- and science-focused, but at the end of the day it's really about people.
"We solve problems as engineers, but usually the problems we solve are for and about people — whether it is to move them from point A to B safely, deliver them clean drinking water, or build the buildings they work in, we are always interacting with people."
Q. What's the biggest lesson you have learned?
A. "People don't care what you know until they know that you care."
Q. What's the biggest challenge facing you in the next year?
A. "Because we are a company with 17 offices in 10 states, we always have dynamics in our markets to address — some are hot while others are not. So my biggest challenge this year will be adapting the business and our resources to be able to address our clients' needs and projects with our current teams and talents. And it seems we are always hiring for some positions, so I'll be working to build our team!"
Q. Why did you decide to locate in Jefferson City?
A. "Family. My wife is a Jefferson City native. After spending about 10 years in the Kansas City area and after starting our family there, we wanted to be closer to her family and mine near St. Louis. So we started looking in late 2006. I'm so glad we moved. I love it here."
Q. What can Jefferson City do to improve itself?
A. "Overall, we need to celebrate what we have more. Our community is a fantastic place to live, tremendously low cost of living, easy access and no traffic, centrally located, beautiful places to visit and experience. Everything you need and still a small-town feel.
"That is so attractive to outsiders like I used to be. However, those who have been in our community tend to downplay those assets. We should celebrate them more."
Q. Where do you see your profession in five years?
A. "I think our profession is still going to be going strong — our infrastructure is in a constant state of deterioration and rebuilding. However, there are technological advances on the horizon that will change how we do business.
"We invested several years ago in LIDAR scanning — that stands for light detection and ranging. It's a way for us to survey the world around us much faster and safer than conventional survey methods, but requires a new level of technology specialist to process the data we use."
Q. What are the best and worst parts of your job?
A. "Best: projects that are innovative and make a difference for a community.
"Worst: I've been in some pretty ugly places — imagine what a 100-year-old sewer manhole looks and smells like. But somebody's got to do it."
Q. What is something about yourself that nobody knows?
A. "Many may not realize that my first experiences with Jefferson City were as a high-schooler coming for state track and cross country meets. I was enamored with the Missouri State Capitol and the grandeur of the community as a student. We also stopped for Central Dairy and stayed at Capitol Plaza Hotel, which was a huge treat for a small-town kid like me."
Q. What is the most challenging project you've worked on in the region?
A. "I'd probably have to say the Lafayette Interchange improvements. The challenge was the schedule with which it was completed. We worked on the interceptor sewers for the City of Jefferson, which had to be done first so that the interchange and bridge construction could proceed on time.
"Then we were hired by the Missouri Department of Transportation to design the five new bridges that were constructed with the project. We also helped with the design of the aesthetic enhancements and lighting on the bridges and walls, which I think add a lot to that part of our community."
Q. What keeps you motivated?
A. "Serving the people around me. When I know they need me, it drives me to work hard to serve them."