Vantage Point: The Devil’s in the (Professional) Details

Not long after earning my first surveying license, one of the other party chiefs in the company we both worked for felt inspired to pursue his own. He mailed off a request to the State Board for an application (back before it could be downloaded from the Internet, which didn’t exist yet) and received the usual forms for references and documentation of experience, along with a double-sided page with the text of regulations relating to definition of surveying practice, proper use of seals, and whatever other few basic topics could fit on that single sheet.

He brought this sheet to work to ask me which of the regulations he needed to know for the exam, and looked aghast when I said, “All of them.” It was enough to squelch his interest in professional stature. But the worst part of that exchange for me was his failure to recognize how legal knowledge infuses surveying, whether relating to creating and enforcing contracts or securing permission to enter active rail corridors or providing proper setbacks between septic systems and property lines. The significance of any details beyond field work escaped him.

A few decades later I discovered first-hand the difference between good technicians and real professionals in the medical field. The impact from being side swiped in my car threw my left hand into the window ledge, and while the rest of me was all right (aside from being shaken up), that wrist hurt intensely. The X-ray right afterwards showed nothing, so I was sent home with instructions to treat it like a sprain. But it continued to worsen over weeks, and a follow up X-ray showed a break in the scaphoid at an angle that had apparently looked like a shadow in the first set of images. I was referred to “the best hand surgeon in this medical system.” Several years after my experience, he became world famous for a successful double hand transplant for a little boy, so he definitely was proficient with a scalpel.

But my experience was far from wonderful. After waiting more than two hours for every appointment, he never answered a direct question from me, instead lecturing to his entourage of up to eight white lab coated residents and treating me like a broken bone that peripherally had a person attached to it. After the surgery I was still in pain, but a different kind, like something was stabbing me in the back of my wrist. After being ignored during appointments over many weeks, I grudgingly allowed my husband, who runs the MD-PhD program in the same medical system, to come with me, at his insistence.

After the surgeon’s initial huffiness of anyone accompanying me into the exam room, but then recognizing an equal, my questions were still ignored but Skip’s were answered. An immediate fluoroscopic scan showed that the screw in my wrist was too long (a fairly typical situation for women as all such hardware is designed for men, who tend to be larger), so it was poking through the bone into the nerves beyond. Another surgery finally removed the offending screw since the bone had stabilized. Usually I hate those follow-up “How are we doing?” surveys, but I relished the opportunity to roast this surgeon (if the Devil is in the details, he was halfway to Hades): “Decent technician, terrible physician, needs to learn courtesy and the details of people skills in everything from not overscheduling appointments to answering questions.”

It’s often details that make one person stand out above others in the same profession. One of the people I hold in highest regard always put himself down for not having an advanced education in surveying, but his deep-dive approach to record and field research and his attentiveness to what it was that a client really needed as opposed to what that client thought was needed made him a role model. He asked a lot of questions, and in the process educated clients about their own projects as well as about what surveying is and what information it can provide. (Every day was “Surveyor’s Day”, not just during “Surveyor’s Week”.)

I learned a lot from him, but maybe not about setting fees; as a minister’s son, he felt he should charge what he believed a client could afford rather than what a project actually cost to complete, which caused some financial disarray. But he never cut corners and he never asked for “extras” once a price was given and the contract was signed. Every survey was a full-service undertaking, no matter if the client was big or small, a one-timer or a regular. Maybe being a minister’s son meant he knew the Devil would win if he did anything less than tend to all the details of being as professional as possible.

About the Author

Wendy Lathrop, PS, CFM

Wendy Lathrop is licensed as a Professional Land Surveyor in NJ, PA, DE, and MD, and has been involved since 1974 in surveying projects ranging from construction to boundary to environmental land use disputes. She is a Professional Planner in NJ, and a Certified Floodplain Manager through ASFPM.