Compelled to give back: John Ostrowski

Editor's Note: This issue's Member Profile features John Ostrowski, Management Consultant, JOMC, Vancouver, Washington; instructor of APWA's Public Works Administrator Training Course; member of APWA's Public Works Institute Task Force; evaluator in APWA's Accreditation program; member of APWA's Leadership and Management Committee; and former Top Ten recipient (1998).

  John Ostrowski

Tell us about your background: After graduating from college I went to work in Washington State for what was then called the Highway Department and is now the Department of Transportation. I was a Highway Engineer and spent five years working in the Seattle area on Interstate 90 and some other freeway projects there.

Actually, I got into engineering because a high school teacher told me I was good in math and should go into engineering. So I thought, okay, I respected the guy, and so I went off that way. And I didn't know a darn thing about what an engineer does, let alone what a public works director does. I didn't even know what a public works director was until I left the Highway Department and went to work for a city.

So I just kind of got into engineering. And it's one of those funny things where I never really had a clear statement of what I wanted to do in life. But one day, about eight or so years before I retired, I was sitting in my office and sort of reflecting on my life. As I was doing that I remembered that in college I had this vision of what kind of a job I wanted to have, and now I was actually doing it. I didn't know it at the time, but it was this vague notion of what I wanted to be in life that was kind of hanging out there. And unbeknownst to me I was following it.

After the Highway Department, I went to work for the City of Olympia and was the Assistant City Engineer. I left Olympia in 1978 and went to work for Clark County, Washington. I was with the Highway Department for five years, Olympia for five, and I thought I was on this career plan of five years on every job. But I left Clark County early, after three years, to become the Public Works Director for the City of Vancouver, Washington. By this time I had figured out what a public works director was.

I was Public Works Director for seventeen years, and then retired in 1998. As I was leaving they put me in charge of the regional bus system here, C-TRAN. I ran it as Interim Executive Director for six months as I was going out the door. That was the best job I ever had because I could walk away from it at any time, and everybody knew that I could walk away from it at any time. It was like the notion that you should always approach a job as if you don't really need the job. Well, I didn't really need that job. And when it really is that way you start realizing that...well, I won't say you can be more honest, but you can be more truthful. Anyway, it was a cool job, and it happened just as I retired. Since I've retired I've been doing some writing, teaching and consulting, and I try to do that about half time. The other time I have for my hobbies.

Education: I received a Bachelor of Civil Engineering from Marquette University in 1968. Most bachelor degrees are "Bachelor of Science" in something. I've never known why, but Marquette has always called it a "Bachelor of Civil Engineering"—they've got no "Science" in it. I don't know if they didn't trust that we learned any science (laughs) or if it's just a quirk there, but I've always thought that was odd. Just about everybody else has a BSCE and mine is a BCE. It's trivia, but there you go.

Other than that, when you're trained by Jesuits it either makes you a true believer or a skeptic. I guess I ended up being a skeptic.

Favorite Book: It's hard to just pick one. One of my favorites is The Spirit of Leadership by Father Robert Spitzer because he inadvertently explains why a career in public service can be so rewarding. Another is Up the Organization by Robert Townsend because when I reread this forty-year-old book ten years ago I discovered that many things I thought were my ideas were actually in this book that made such an impression on me. I have almost everything that Mortimer Adler and Eric Hoffer wrote, but How to Speak, How to Listen by Adler and The True Believer by Hoffer have had a big impact on me. Another book that had a big impact on me was Design with Nature by Ian McHarg.

I could go on if I wanted to go into autobiographies like Yeager because he strikes me as the consummate professional. I'm not a big fan of fiction. When I got out of engineering school, I decided I'd start educating myself and so I started reading. I've been kind of a nut about it ever since.

Hobbies/Interests: Reading, weightlifting and bike riding.

How long have you been weightlifting? Since I was a teenager. But it's just recreational weightlifting. They say you're as young as you feel. Well, I realize that the other side of that is when you're fifty years old and you think you're eighteen, you're gonna hurt yourself. I kept pulling muscles and straining things, so I've gotten down to a more reasonable program now. I don't hurt myself as much anymore.

Role Model: I've been influenced by many people in my career. I've worked for two Top Ten leaders and have worked with many more. I've been lucky to have hung out with some of the best people in the business and learned something from all of them. Many of them have been leaders in APWA.

Career Accomplishments: I've gotten a lot of satisfaction out of the things we were able to accomplish in the places I've worked because we had a positive approach to everything we did and earned the respect of elected officials and citizens. We won awards for projects we did, such as the Marine Park Natural Resource Area which combined a wastewater treatment plant and a public educational facility in a single site. But I think that maintaining a positive confirming culture allowed us to quietly keep things well-maintained and build what we needed to build on time.

Tell us more about JOMC: JOMC is just me, John Ostrowski Management Consultant. My business approach is to take what I've learned over the years and share it with my clients to help them solve problems. For a fee, of course. I've done performance audits, annexation feasibility studies and even a parking plan. Mostly I work alone out of my home, although I have partnered with other firms several times over the last six years. As I mentioned, I try to only work about half time and I've managed to do that.

I joke with friends that JOMC is a scam—it may look like it's a corporation, but it's just me. A lot of times if someone's starting a company he might call it his name "and Associates"—meaning if he finds somebody to help out on a project then they will. But in my case there are no associates, just a bunch of initials. But I like the look of it. Actually, it turns out that if you do a Google search of "JOMC" you'll find a lot of JOMC stuff about other companies.

How did you get involved in APWA's Public Works Administrator Training Course? An engineer in Washington State named Wes Hill [Development Engineer/Manager of Development Services with the Lakehaven Utility District] came up to me at one of our conferences in 1999 and said, "You guys ought to put together a class on how to be a public works director." This was shortly after I retired so my usual excuse that I didn't have the time wouldn't work. I put together a curriculum and talked to Jack Pittis [retired Director of Public Works, City of Port Angeles, WA; current APWA Board member] and Pete Butkus [Assistant City Manager, City of Sammamish, WA] about it and they agreed to help teach. Our chapter president at the time, Dick Andrews [Construction Services Manager, Perteet Engineering, Inc., Everett, WA], gave me the necessary push and support to go through with it. I had also talked to Jeanne Nyquist [Maintenance Bureau Director, City of Portland, OR] about the idea for this class and she said that they were thinking of doing the same sort of thing, so why reinvent the wheel? We've been doing the class in Washington and Oregon since 2000. In Oregon it's called Public Works Leadership, but it's basically the same class that I do with different instructors.

We're going through something of an evolution with the course. I was on the Public Works Institute Task Force recently, and the Board of Directors approved our report. So we're possibly going through a next generation of this class and might be turning it into an Institute. We're looking at both Oregon and Washington getting together and creating a Northwest Public Works Institute. We're really just in the early stages, but we've had some pretty positive discussions. It will be next year before we have any news about that.

One of the things that is a common theme in my writing and also in the class I teach, is that I have this concern that there are a lot of people in the profession that have had many years of experience and have something to pass on to the next generation, and I'd like to try to find a way to get that knowledge to that next generation. I can do that personally, but I think there are more people that should be doing that. It's kind of like telling people what worked, but you should also tell them the dumb mistakes that you made so that at least they don't make those dumb mistakes. They might make their own dumb mistakes (laughs), but hopefully won't make the ones you already made.

So in the class what I've tried to do is get other people like myself who have been around for awhile and had actually gotten out alive, and tried to pass what we've learned on to people who are just starting out. Not all of the people who take the class are just starting out, but it's really geared for people who are the future leaders of public works. So we're trying to pass that knowledge along. It's kind of could call it a subplot of my career or whatever, but after I retired it was something I decided I wanted to be part of. So here I am.

You've contributed articles for the APWA Reporter and write your own column ("Ostrowski's Outlook") for the Washington State Chapter's newsletter. Also, this year you published the book Everything You Need to Know to Be a Public Works Director. What motivated you to write that book? Before I retired I gave a lot of thought to what I wanted to do in what turned out to be semi-retirement. I found that I wanted to write, teach and consult in that order. I've actually done all of that, but in the reverse order. I started writing three books and finally came to the conclusion that I wasn't finishing them because they were too long and my target audience needed something shorter. I also wanted something that people who took my course could take away with them. The book is also short because droning on about it doesn't make much of an impression. I wanted to do something that hit the key points and was somewhat enjoyable to read.

One of the things I tell people in class is that we're going to tell you everything you need to know because it's all we knew, and we survived and even prospered knowing what we know, and so here it is. There's obviously more to it. So basically I lied in the title—okay, it's not "everything you need to know"—but it's close enough. If you're satisfied with ninety percent, that seems to be about right.

Why do you like being a member of APWA? Almost everything I know about public works I learned from my thirty-plus years in APWA. My first real experience with APWA was in 1974 when I attended our state conference with my boss, Al Kimbel, who is now retired but was the City Engineer in Olympia at that time. He got the James Robertson Award for service to the chapter at that meeting and I thought that was so cool because Al didn't get the praise he deserved on the job, and here was an organization that recognized what he contributed. I knew then that this was an organization that I wanted to be part of. Incidentally, Al was one of those bosses I mentioned earlier who got the Top Ten award. The other was Jerry Fay [National Program Director for Public Works, HDR Engineering, Inc., Phoenix, AZ; APWA National President, 1999-2000]. Like I said, I've been lucky to work with some of the best and APWA is where I found them.

It's been a real rewarding experience for me all the years that I've been a member of APWA. Half of the half-time that I've spent working this year I've been working on APWA activities, and that's unusual because it hasn't been that high in my previous years. I've done a number of accreditation site visits this year, and other activities like the Institute Task Force. But of the work I've done half of it has been APWA stuff this year. And that's fine. I haven't ever done anything in APWA that I didn't enjoy. It's just a huge value that I've gotten out of APWA. Because I've learned so much from APWA, I feel compelled to give back.

And if I've been anything of a success, I owe much of it to APWA. The fact that the organization is there was always a touchstone for me, that people were there where I could get information. Every job that I've gotten since Olympia has been through people I've known in APWA, so that I wouldn't even have known the jobs were available if I hadn't had my contacts in APWA. It's just fantastic networking. I tend to get a little gushy about it, so I guess I'd better stop here.