Brian Joseph has been working in facilities on campus since graduating from the Architecture program. He’s now the manager of the L&S Facilities office, and manages small-scale construction projects all over campus. We spoke at his office in the basement workshop in Koshland Hall.
You started out working as a tradesperson, and over the years wound up taking on more and more management responsibility. How did you get to where you are?
I think it was kind of the right place, right time. I brought some skills to a trades position that a lot of tradespeople don’t have. I graduated from Berkeley in architecture, so I brought that background and was able to leverage that.
I manage the trade staff, and the facilities management staff, and the advice I give them, career-wise, is to find a void and fill it. There are voids all over campus, and that’s a way to advance your career.
What was your first job on campus?
I started out as a building maintenance worker out of college, then I became a carpenter, than a lead carpenter, then a superintendent, then a senior superintendent, then the director over at L&S Facilities.
Let’s talk a little bit about that last transition. Your facilities office is one of the few units that’s doing work across all of L&S. How did that get started?
It was a unit that was created out of nothing; there was no facilities office in L&S, even though most colleges have something like that. Facilities in L&S were very ad-hoc, kind of grew organically, and the dean wanted to create an L&S-level office.
Do the job you want to do, and eventually someone will recognize you for it.
You talked about being in the right place at the right time.
When I first was hired, MCB had a lot of building activity, the VLSB renovation, construction of Koshland Hall. There was a lot of opportunity there to do work. So another piece of advice I give is, do the job you want to do, and eventually someone will recognize you for it. Even as a lead carpenter I started designing labs, which isn’t really carpenter work, so eventually I became the superintendent, kind of a lab planner. In order just to keep my job interesting and to keep our tradespeople busy, we would do work for other departments. We did a lot of work for Physics; I don’t think MCB even knew how much work we were doing outside the department. They didn’t really mind, as long as the recharge was working out and we got their jobs done, and in the end it was to their advantage, because we could have a larger crew and take on bigger jobs in MCB when they came up.
Then when it came time to create an L&S Facilities office, with all the work we’d done with MCB, Physics, and Capital Projects, it just made sense for me to be the one to run it.
You’d gotten a reputation for getting stuff done.
That’s definitely part of it. We formed this little niche; we were very friendly with lots of people over at Capital Projects, and they just weren’t set up to do these small-scale projects. Their way of doing it, which was to take a planning process for large projects and scale it down, wasn’t efficient. We do it more like a scaled-up small project, which works better up to a couple hundred thousand dollars. We also have a great staff that was able to knock out projects.
In terms of hiring staff, how did you learn how to do that?
It can be a crap-shoot, and it’s really just a gut feel. You have to have a good fit with the person, the organization’s culture is the most important thing. One bad apple can drag down the whole group, so if you make a hiring mistake, you have to address it quickly.
So what do you look for when doing a hire?
I look for how to round out a team. We’ve been hiring younger lately, people with less experience, because we have a lot of really experienced people, and it helps to have a mix. If everyone’s senior and they all think they know how to do it, there can be more griping. A group of seniors which a group of junior guys who are being brought up makes for a better dynamic.
Attitude is more important than skill. You can’t teach someone to be honest and hard-working.
Is it different thinking about what you want in a carpenter, vs. someone who’s more of a project manager?
The skills required are different, of course, so the things I’m gut checking for will be different. But it’s still all about getting someone with good attitude. You can teach almost anything else, so attitude is more important than skill. You can’t teach someone to be honest and hard-working.
Carpentry has a long history of apprenticeship; how does that play out here at Berkeley?
Unfortunately it doesn’t. Berkeley does not have an apprentice program; we’ve tried to do it, but it’s not gotten through the labor agreements. All my carpenters are paid the same rate, so the new guy comes in, and he makes as much as the guy who’s been here 26 years. The new guy is kind of apprenticing up, he gets all the crappy work, but the job’s really the same. That is kind of a weird dynamic, but it makes supervising easier; I don’t set wages, so no one can come to me and ask for a raise.
Is it different managing the tradespeople vs. the facilities managers?
I don’t think I deal with them all that differently. Most people think that the staff are working for you, but you’re really working for your staff. You go to these management meetings and they say, “Make sure your staff has the tools they need to get their job done.” For carpenters that’s very literal: they need the tools, they need the materials on time, they need clear direction. So it’s the same thing with the facilities managers; make sure that their workflow makes sense, that they have all the tools and support they need.
You also do a lot of work with external vendors. How do you decide what you’ll do locally vs. contracting out?
Generally it’s pretty clear-cut; we mostly have carpenters and plumbers, and we pretty much do that work in-house. We work a lot with subcontractors for flooring, HVAC, painting. electricity, those kinds of things. Some of them are practically UC employees; they’re here every day working on projects all over campus.
What are some of the success factors for those contractor relationships?
We need someone who gives us a fair price, who’s really customer service focused. They have to be consistent in their pricing; we know they need to make a profit, but the pricing has to be predictable. And they have to be able to turn things around quickly; we’re too busy to make phone call after phone call trying to track them down. Certain vendors consistently rise to the occasion.
There’s a new faculty member who’s doing research on echo-location in bats, so we’re building a light-proof bat cave in the basement of Li Ka Shing. That’s a fun project, that’s what keeps it interesting. Something new always comes up.
How many projects do you have going at any one time?
Really a lot. I just did a list for the spring, it’s 40 or 50 projects. It’s a little scary. Some of them are small projects, a couple of walls in an office, but others are big and complicated. There’s a new faculty member who’s doing research on echo-location in bats, so we’re building a light-proof bat cave in the basement of Li Ka Shing. That’s a fun project, that’s what keeps it interesting. Something new always comes up.
Your group works on a time and materials basis; what happens when you open up a wall and find out a job is going to be more complicated than you expected?
We have a job like that right now in the Music department’s practice rooms. They wanted to combine two rooms, and we went out there and opened up the wall, and it turned out there were actually four walls in between the two rooms, and two ceilings. They must have tried to install sound dampening at some point in the past. So we stopped work, went to the manager and told him we couldn’t do it for the price we’d quoted. If he said the department couldn’t afford the higher cost, we would have patched it up, walked away, probably eaten the cost. But it turned out they were able to pay for it.
We get a lot of positive feedback about our work. When we’re done, there’s something tangible, and people are usually really grateful.
One of the perks of working at the L&S level must be the diversity of the departments and people you’re dealing with.
I especially like working with faculty. In general they have interesting projects and are good to work for.
Some people get freaked out about working with faculty. What works about that for you?
I find out what they do, and help them translate that into what they need physically in their work environment. I find that dialog rewarding. In the sciences they’re all kind of tinkerers anyway, so they get excited about building a lab. That’s one of the benefits about our job, we get a lot of positive feedback about our work. When we’re done, there’s something tangible, and people are usually really grateful.
If I were someone in the trades who was interested in doing more, moving to the management level, what kind of advice would you give about that?
A lot of it is about how you present yourself. You have a lot of opportunities to make contacts through your work, so be friendly and customer-focused. Build your reputation that way. You probably want to develop some computer office skills, like Excel and Word. I feel like we’ve gotten a lot of business based on the fact that I can use drafting software, which isn’t that hard; I use a very basic drafting program on its most basic level, but the fact that I can draw things to scale brings something that a lot of project managers don’t have. If you can draft, or have done Excel, FileMaker, you have another skill that people will be interested in. When an opportunity comes along, you have to have the tools to do the job.
Finding mentors is another important thing. I’ve had great mentors, mostly tradespeople. There’s a formal program (BSA Mentorship), but my mentor relationships have been mostly informal, growing from working relationships I already had. The important thing is to make that connection with someone who can help guide you.