ProFile: Sam Diaz – Chief Surveyor of Bechtel Corporation

A 1.351Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

One of eight brothers and sisters, 54-year-old Sam Diaz grew accustomed to changing locations and making cross-country moves early in life. Today, having changed world time-zones as easily as some people change radio stations, we are pleased to have this veteran surveyor and world traveler share his life story with our readers. His enthusiasm is contagious! For those willing to think, work, and, you could say dance, outside the box, there’s a world of opportunity out there. We’ll get back to the dance part later.

Sam was born in Puerto Rico and came to the U.S. when he was six years old. His family lived first in New York City, then moved upstate to Rochester. At age 16, they packed up and moved across the country to San Diego, California. Sam attended high school there, and later signed up for two three-year hitches in the U.S. Army. During this time he first became acquainted with surveying as an 82 Charlie artillery surveyor. Like many others in our profession who were "hooked" by a particular experience that tugged us toward our future careers, it was while doing triangulation for gun battery training near Yakima, Washington, that Sam recalls looking down on the Columbia River and deciding that he wanted to make a career out of surveying. Therefore, while still in Washington and stationed at Fort Lewis, he began attending community colleges, and taking every surveying course available. He also moonlighted on the weekends, doing topos and lot surveys in the Seattle area. In 1979, he returned to San Diego and began what would become a long and rewarding career in private sector surveying.

Sam began working for a large engineering firm and entered the Joint Apprenticeship program. Created as a partnership between developers/builders and the local union (IUOE – Local 12) to provide a steady supply of trained surveyors, the program provided topnotch schooling in the evenings and on Saturdays. Still hungry for knowledge, Sam took all the available classes and gained his surveyor certification.

Pay scales for inside work versus outside work were wildly different­the unionized field workers were paid much better than the non-union office workers. As work loads shifted Sam spent time doing both. He recalls doing COGO calcs with a Wang computer, and drafting grading and improvement plans with ink on Mylar.

By the mid-1980s, Sam had gained ample survey experience in both field and office. He began a five-year stint working for Doug Melchior in Carlsbad, California. Melchior was willing to pay scale for both inside and outside work. Stressing "service," Melchior mentored Sam from start to finish on projects for municipalities, small contractors, and boundary surveying, helping to fine-tune all aspects of a job, including scheduling, supervising and meetings with clients. In 1990 he obtained his California license.

In 1991, Sam moved north to work in San Luis Obispo where he spent a year doing CAD and field work. From there he moved to Porterville and spent the next three years working for a 30-year-old architectural, engineering and surveying firm that wanted to implement the use of CAD. Although Sam’s experience had been mainly with DCA and AutoCAD, it was here that he was introduced to Terramodel, which he still uses today.

But that’s not all this multi-talented surveyor was up to in Porterville! In the course of several long visits I had with Sam while writing this article, he shared a fascinating detail that may be little known to many of his friends. Aside from work, and drawing on his Puerto Rican heritage, Sam loves to channel his energy into his long-time hobby as a salsa DJ. While in Porterville he volunteered as a Latin music expert and had his own radio show on Radio Bilingüe (on Spanish Public Radio). The show was heard throughout the U.S. and in parts of Canada and Puerto Rico. Sam didn’t offer to show us any dance moves, but for those of you who may run into him in the near future, you might have to load your i-Pod with a few good salsa tunes, just in case.

In 1996, Sam returned to San Diego and took a job in high-rise construction. Unfortunately the economy took a downturn and he was laid off. About that time a friend of his, Walt Cudmore, who had been working in Indonesia came home for Christmas and convinced Sam to apply for overseas work. And so in early 1997, Sam added an overseas career to his list of experience. He took a job in Indonesia, where he supervised 18 local surveyors on a billion dollar heavy industrial copper mine expansion. It just so happened that one of the contractors on the job was Bechtel Corporation (Bechtel), which provided Sam’s first experience working with a Bechtel team as a supervisor.

In late 1997 another overseas opportunity arose when Bechtel offered Sam a job in Chile. This time it was as the lead surveyor for infrastructure construction at another copper mine mega-project. It was on this job that he was exposed to a different style of construction management. Where other companies hired surveyors directly, Bechtel managed the sub-contractors under what is known as EPCM: Engineering Procurement Construction Management. This project involved infrastructure construction all the way from the mine to the sea, including mass grading, dams, tunnels, roads, conveyors, slurry pipelines and construction of the seaport.

From Chile it was on to the Andes Mountains of Peru. This was another mine mega-project, working at elevation 4,300 meters (14,000+ feet). The project was similar to the previous project­involving infrastructure construction from the mines to the sea­but larger. Sam recalls seeing a lot of Geodimeters working as they set mountaintop control.

At the completion of the mine job, Sam returned to the U.S. where he accepted a position at a nuclear waste treatment plant in Washington state. This is when Sam began to distill everything he had learned over the years. He started bringing in surveyors from all over the world, and developed not only a Dream Team survey cadre, but also survey procedures that would eventually catapult him within the Bechtel organization. The team started experimenting, evaluating and creating new work processes as it looked at GPS, robotics, digital levels, scanners and laser trackers, and Terramodel. Some of the work included accuracies to five thousandths of an inch.

Sam is proud of the fact that they introduced the digital data work process, whereby the design data was retrieved directly from the 3D model and verified in Terramodel, then transferred to the total stations. This improves quality by eliminating thousands of opportunities to manually enter data incorrectly.

Sam also began hiring junior surveyors to mentor under senior surveyors. As he says, "These super-surveyors helped mold future surveyors." Many of the surveyors who started at the nuclear waste treatment plant in Washington are now on the second and third project for Bechtel, most of which are multi-year projects. "The junior surveyors became senior surveyors and are now mentoring the new generation of junior surveyors. Our greatest asset is our personnel and I feel that we have the best survey team in the world!"

Over the years, Sam has been tasked with more than one "fix this" project. After Washington, he moved on to a giant LNG project in Trinidad, where the subcontractors’ survey practices needed to be reviewed. According to Sam, "It’s all about line and grade." There are many complex scenarios associated with building mega-projects, but survey challenges can always be reduced to the level of line and grade. If you build the c
onstruction items in the correct position and at the correct elevation (within the project’s horizontal and vertical tolerances), all of the pieces will fit together. "As they say, it’s not a mistake until the concrete hardens. Up until that point, it can be corrected." One of his first tasks was to institute the same procedures his team developed in Washington.

Next he became Bechtel’s Chief Surveyor and moved to Bechtel’s international construction office in Frederick, Maryland. Sam is grateful for the fact that his predecessor had created standardization so Bechtel surveyors could move from project to project. In the years when Bechtel sub-contracted out much of its work, less control meant that quality was sometimes a problem. To remedy this, the company decided to self-perform the surveying tasks and focus on key issues: safety, technology, and job security. The decisions have had many positive ripple effects. With the issue of safety being paramount–that is, if something is not safe, it simply is not done–Sam said, "Zero accidents is our unwavering goal–people’s lives depend on it." Bechtel’s surveyors like working for a company that cares about their well-being. This, along with the implementation of the latest technology has made recruitment much easier, and the number of Bechtel surveyors has grown dramatically. Because the team has grown, Bechtel has an in-house network of survey expertise loaded with `worldclass’ survey experts. When someone has a problem, there are others who can help. Most Bechtel surveyors join the team for the long haul, feeling that this will be the last entry on their resume.

Nearly 2,400 people work in the Frederick offices. To add to his predecessors accomplishments, Sam has continued to add new technology and new work processes thereby improving quality. Once a project has been awarded, part of the planning includes developing a survey plan. Out of that plan, the project is staffed and a lead surveyor is chosen. Sam works closely with the projects to assist with staffing, training and other needs. By following these procedures, the chances for error are nearly eliminated. Because these procedures were created collectively by the senior Bechtel surveyors, buy-in is significant. Sam says, "We wrote it, and we own it, so we implement it."

Today, Sam’s A-Team consists of nearly 60 senior surveyors globally. The B-Team has more than 200 members. Including the joint venture partners’ surveyors, there are hundreds more following these procedures. In contrast to subcontract surveyors, where turnover is high (thereby requiring continual retraining), turnover amongst the Bechtel surveyors is low.

Bechtel, a 42,500-employee, 110-yearold company, has been #1 on the ENR Top 400 U.S. Contractors for the past ten years. Four generations of Bechtels have led the family-owned company from its early days as a railroad-grading company in the Oklahoma Territory to its world-wide reputation in the construction industry. Tellingly, the fact that Bechtel has the family name on the company has been a source a pride, unlike many nameless acronym corporations. The company feels that by bringing surveying in-house, it can control its destiny better. It’s all about quality. Or, as Sam says, "Good surveying equals good quality."

Sam doesn’t call himself a construction surveyor, but rather an industrial surveyor focusing on heavy construction. During the last 42 months Sam’s duties have taken him to Iceland, Norway, Romania, England, UAE, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Guinea, Angola, Canada, Panama, Suriname, Chile, Puerto Rico and at least a dozen states. As Sam notes, "One thing is certain, surveyors are the same all over the world. We are a unique bunch!"

One of our American Surveyor writers, surveyor Joe Betit, was recently hired by Sam to head up a metrorail expansion project in Virginia. Their paths had originally crossed back in the 1990s when Joe was State President of California Land Surveyors Association and Sam was president of the San Joaquin Valley Chapter.

Sam is very proud to be leading the Bechtel survey efforts, and considers himself lucky. He has always tried to be active in state survey organizations, helping where he can. He is currently a member of the ASTM E-57 Committee that is developing standards for the 3D imaging industry. He would like to encourage state survey associations to actively support the E-57 Committee and also the CyArk organization ( that scans archaeological heritage sites. Not only does he believe it is a good service for humanity, but it is good for our industry’s image as well.

Sam actively lends his professional experience to education by way of getting involved locally. He recently began teaching a construction survey course at the community college here in Frederick. Based on the many project and lead surveyors he has met throughout his travels, Sam says that this group needs to be talking to each other. In his words, "Chief surveyors need to communicate with each other and pass along their knowledge to the next generation of junior surveyors."

It has been an honor to sit across the table with Sam Diaz in this issue of The American Surveyor and let him tell his story. We hope it will inspire other business owners, teachers and mentors to share their time, talents and wisdom with those who are coming up through the ranks. Stir up some enthusiasm for the profession! And while you’re at it, pass the salsa.

Marc Cheves is Editor of the magazine.

A 1.351Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE