The top of my list: John Nowak

  John Nowak

Editor's Note: This month's Member Profile features John Nowak, P.E., Assistant Public Works Director, City of Sheridan, Wyoming; Rocky Mountain Chapter President; and observer, Engineers Joint Contract Documents Committee.

How did you get involved in public works? Well, my story is a little different than most. When I graduated from college, the job market was kind of depressed, and all my employment efforts had only resulted in a large batch of rejection letters. There weren't many job opportunities available when I graduated.

My father knew and had a lot of respect for a former City of Sheridan public official. He set up a mock interview with this person to allow me to practice my interviewing skills and get some pointers to help me become employed in my chosen profession. Evidently, he was impressed with me and knew of a potential job opportunity with the City of Billings [Montana]. He knew an individual in Billings and encouraged me to contact him and fill out an application. I was hired as a seasonal employee for the City of Billings, and then about five months later a permanent position opened up and I was hired as a full-time engineer. I've been in public works ever since.

Education: I received a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from the University of Wyoming in Laramie. I had actually started out as a mining engineering major, but the program was cut after three years and I switched to civil engineering as a result. I had a different background than a lot of civil engineers at the time. When I sent out a r‚sum‚, most employers would look at my qualifications and automatically think I was either a structural engineer or geotechnical engineer. At that point in time the building industry in particular was pretty depressed and it was difficult to find a job, even though I kept trying to say, "Well, I can do so much more than just that. I've got a pretty well-rounded background and education." Looking at the courses that I took and some of the things that I was involved with at college, I had a slant more towards structures and geotechnical work.

Favorite Book: I really don't have one specific book that I would say is my absolute favorite. I do a lot of reading. I read for enjoyment as well as for personal enrichment. Some of the authors that I've been reading lately more for enjoyment are Tom Clancy, John Sandford, Richard Patterson, J.K. Rowling, and John Grisham, some of the more popular authors of the time. My mom was an English major so while growing up I was also exposed to a lot of the classics—Dickens, Poe, Shakespeare, Twain, those types of things—and I still enjoy some of them.

One book that I still turn to from time to time is a book that I actually received when I was in high school and involved with 4-H, William Danforth's I Dare You! I was the recipient of an "I Dare You" award through the 4-H program, and one of the things I received through that was his book. It's an interesting read.

Hobbies/Interests: Well, I've got a lot of interests and hobbies. One thing I really like to do is outdoor activities. I like to hunt, fish, camp and hike, although I haven't gotten to do those things as much as I'd like to in the last few years. I'm also interested in cars. I do a lot of my own mechanical and body work on cars and I'm a real big Corvette fanatic. I'm very active in one of our area Corvette clubs and have gone to quite a few shows. Through that I really got turned on to a sport called Autocrossing—I just love that.

What is that? Basically, you find a big open area of asphalt or concrete and set it up like a mini road race course with cones, and then you drive around the course and it's timed. Depending upon what kind of car you're driving and what modifications you have, you're put into a particular class. So you're competing against other cars in your class for slowest elapsed time through the course. It's a lot of fun.

Getting back to my Corvette enthusiasm, my wife, Donna, would probably swear that it's beyond an enthusiast or addict—she doesn't know what it is. But we've sure enjoyed our Corvette. We've had the opportunity to drive around the country and participate in different shows, and we've met an awful lot of interesting people that way too. It's been a lot of fun as well. We—well, Donna would say it is just me—also serve as moderators on a Corvette-themed website,

Along with putting up with my Corvette "addiction," Donna has been a real strong supporter of my professional career as well, and I would be remiss not to mention that. She's put up with the late-night meetings, the public meetings, the council meetings, and even phone calls at all hours. From time to time, there have been occasions when residents couldn't wait until eight o'clock in the morning to give me a call, so they've looked up my home phone number and called me at home. She's dealt with all that in stride, and just let me do what I needed to succeed in my career.

Role Model: One of the people that had a big influence on my life was my father. He was a math teacher at the high school here in Sheridan, as well as a city councilman for a number of years for the City of Sheridan. A lot of people respected my father. He accomplished a lot of things and was a well-known, well-respected person in the community. Much of my work ethic and everything that I have today I owe to him, in particular from watching how he was able to accomplish things.

In my professional career I've also had a unique opportunity to work with some really top-notch people that I've learned from over the years. Some in particular that I was able to work with early on in my career were former APWA President Ken Haag [1995-96], and another one of our members that was featured in the magazine, Kurt Corey [August 2004 issue], just to name a couple. And through my involvement with APWA I've met a lot of interesting people. Another couple of individuals that have had an impact on my involvement with APWA in general have been former APWA Presidents Richard Ridings [2001-02] and Bob Albee [1997-98]. These are all people that I would consider to be role models. It seems like the more involved I get in things, there are more people that I can learn from.

Career Accomplishments: Well, that's also kind of a tough one. I could spend weeks talking about some of the projects I was able to get accomplished. Before I came to work for the City of Sheridan I had worked for the City of Billings for an extended period of time. I'm very proud of accomplishing some very difficult public improvement projects in Billings by working with property owners and neighborhood groups. It's tough to describe it, but I've always felt that any time I could get an improvement project done, it means that I made a positive impact on the community. That's how I've always viewed it. So I consider every single project that I've ever completed over the course of my career as a very important accomplishment, and something that has added value to the community. I think I've grown over the years and become a more effective public employee just from my experience and working with different things and dealing with different challenges. I am looking forward to completing more projects for the City of Sheridan.

Of course, one accomplishment that's key to almost any engineer, particularly right after they get started, is getting the professional engineering license. That's always a nice feeling when you're finally done taking tests for good, so to speak.

Tell us more about the City of Sheridan's Public Works Department: Our Public Works Department in Sheridan basically oversees thirteen different operations. Public Works oversees landfill operations, waste collection, recycling, water treatment, wastewater treatment, water distribution, system repair, and the GIS Division, which maintains all of our various data layers, verifies data descriptions for class, and generates various maps for both internal use and for members of the public if needed.

But Sheridan is a little bit different than some other municipalities that I've been exposed to, because Public Works also oversees the parks, the municipal cemetery, vehicle and equipment shop, and the municipal golf course. We have a total of about 85 full-time employees in the Public Works Department. We maintain 115 miles of streets, 156 acres of parks, and just over 80 acres in the cemetery. We have 100 miles of sanitary sewer infrastructure and about 121 miles of water lines that don't include our transmission mains and what we call our SAWS system, which is an acronym for Sheridan Area Water Service. Our Solid Waste Division collects and disposes more than 14,000 tons of waste, handles over 56,000 tons of waste at the landfill, and recycles about 10,800 tons of metals, tires, compost materials, cardboard, office pack, newspaper, and aluminum cans. The landfill operation also recycles used oil.

Sheridan is unique in regards to municipal water which is actually provided to areas outside the city limits through the SAWS Board of Directors. The Board is comprised of equal representation from the City of Sheridan and Sheridan County. We provide water predominantly west and south of the corporate limits of the City of Sheridan. And we provide water service to these outlying areas through the SAWS system. The County retains ownership of the transmission systems, the City operates all the treatment facilities, and we jointly work as areas develop outside the city limits to ensure we have capacity. We also through the SAWS system provide water to another small community, Big Horn, which is about 10 miles to the south of us. Our two water treatment plants treat about 1.5 billion gallons of potable water and our wastewater treatment plant treats about 1.1 billion gallons of wastewater per year.

What does the Engineers Joint Contract Documents Committee do, and what are your responsibilities as an observer? APWA provides three observers to the Engineers Joint Contract Documents Committee, and the lead observer right now is Larry Morris [Director of Public Works, City of Aiken, South Carolina, and 2004 Top Ten recipient]. The other observer is Steve Harrison [Senior Construction Inspector] of Plano, Texas. All the observers participate on the committee. The committee generates standard contract documents that can be used by virtually anyone across the country and even overseas. Some of the documents are already in use by APWA's membership whether they realize it or not. Some of the standard construction contract document language that many municipalities use comes from one of the EJCC documents, which covers the general conditions of the construction contract and outlines the relationships between the owner, the engineer and the contractor. And there's a whole other series of documents that relate to the arrangement between the owner and engineer, the engineer and its subconsultants, the engineer and architect, the owner and architect—a whole variety of topics. There's also a whole series on design-build as well as environmental remediation.

A large number of interested parties participate on the committee, in order to get a diverse background, come up with documents that represent what's going on in the industry today, and make a balanced document. In other words, to not have a document that favors one party almost exclusively and doesn't provide a whole lot of support or guidance to another party. There has been significant progress made in the contract documents as a whole. The newer documents are much more even-handed than some of the previous versions.

So what I and the other observers are doing is representing the public owners segment of the industry and expressing our concerns. As observers we really do not have voting rights on the committee, but the committee has welcomed us as well as other observers from other organizations with open arms, and has listened to our input and taken our comments seriously. So basically, by my involvement with the committee, as well as the other two observers, APWA has in effect had a say in the language in those documents. It's one of the reasons why the documents as a whole have become a little bit more balanced. Not only are APWA's and the public owners' interests represented, but the interests of private consulting engineers, private owners, insurance industry people, bond people, and contractors are represented as well. It's a pretty diverse group that gets together and has a formal meeting three times a year, and at the meeting they are reviewing, updating or creating new contract documents and getting them approved and published.

You've been a Mentor in APWA's Emerging Public Works Leaders program at the past couple of Congresses. What has that experience been like for you? It's been an interesting and rewarding experience. In all honesty, the way I got involved with APWA is that when I was hired by the City of Billings they told me that one of the things I got as a City employee was membership in two professional organizations. One of them was APWA and the other would be one of my choosing. But I really didn't know a whole lot about APWA at the time.

Then one day the Public Works Director, who happened to be Ken Haag, stuck his head in my office and said, "What are you doing on these dates in October?" I told him just working, that I didn't really have anything planned. And he said, "Well, you're going to come with me to an APWA fall conference in Post Falls, Idaho." So I went with Ken, and he exposed me to the organization, introduced me to people, and showed me what the organization was all about. Ken even took me golfing with him on that trip. Afterward, Ken did take great delight in telling everyone that what I did on the golf course could not be considered golf; it more closely resembled a pinball game. From there I guess you could say the rest is history and it's still being written.

That conference in Post Falls introduced me to what I believe is the best professional organization I've ever been involved with. I learned so much and met so many different people at the conference. And the Emerging Leaders program is, in my mind, very similar to what Ken Haag did for me, which is to take someone fairly new to the organization, who hasn't gone to a Congress before, and show them the ropes and open that door for them. I think about how much I enjoyed the organization once I was first exposed to it, when someone took a little time to show me the ropes and then turn me loose, so to speak, and let me thrive within the organization. And I get a certain amount of satisfaction out of being able to offer that to someone else—it's very rewarding. I hope it's been rewarding to the folks that I've mentored under the program as well. I hope I've opened the door for them a little bit and gotten them enthused about the organization and what it has to offer.

Why do you like being a member of APWA? The educational resources and the networking opportunities are unparalleled. I've been involved with a number of different professional organizations, both in college and during my professional career. The bottom line: APWA is at the top of my list.

When I was younger I was a member of 4-H, and the 4-H experience was very similar to APWA. It had a lot of people that would help you, answer questions, and look at improving how you did things. Plus, you had fun in the process. I remember years where I wondered how I was ever going to survive, with all the work I had to put in and do. But much of what makes me who I am I owe to 4-H, and much of what I've become in my professional career I owe to APWA.

Where else can you go online to an infoNOW Community, ask a question, and get forty sincere responses to your question in a matter of hours? I don't think there is another professional organization where the members have been more willing to help each other out than APWA. When I go to an APWA function, Congress in particular, I have always found that you can meet and strike up a friendship with anyone—all you have to do is walk up and introduce yourself and start talking. And that includes the national president, staff and other officers. The officers and everyone are always extremely accessible. In other professional organizations, someone coming from a smaller chapter or a smaller community like myself might have a difficult time even getting close to a national president or an officer just to say hello, much less develop a friendship.

I can't say enough about APWA. You have so much opportunity within the organization as a member, but you have to take advantage of it. I have found, much like with my 4-H experience, that the more effort you put forth into the organization, utilizing what's available within the organization, the more you will get out of it.

I truly believe that anyone can achieve almost anything within the organization if they put their mind to it. Here I was, just a young, green engineer when Ken Haag took me to one fall conference. And about ten years later, I'm president of the chapter, serving on a national committee for national APWA. I don't know where my career is going to ultimately lead, but it's proof that anything can happen within the organization if one takes advantage of it.