By Gavin Schrock, PLS
This article is based on an interview with the talented and dedicated team who have grown a popular forum into an international online community—an invaluable amenity for the surveying profession.
Visiting the SurveyorConnect online forum has the feel of a friend’s front porch, a place to have thoughtful conversations: open, casual, welcoming, but also informative, educational, supportive, inspiring, and, most important of all, there is strong a sense of community. Welcome to Wendell and Angel Harness’s digital front porch.
This dedicated couple, with help from their business partner Dave Souza, hosts the board where the surveying profession, both domestic and international, get together. In only a few short years, their forum has grown from, as Wendell explains, “doing a favor for a handful of online friends” into the world’s most popular surveying forum, now with as many as 36,000 unique visitors per month.
Birth of a Forum
In 1991, long before most folks had even dial-up internet, Angel was running and moderating a popular online bulletin board service (BBS). She also arranged events and get-togethers for her BBS community. Online is how she met Wendell, who coincidentally was helping people set up BBSs.
Wendell said, “We left southern California in 1993, with our two-week old baby, for a surveying job in Oregon. That didn’t work out, but soon I found a great job with a small company in Roseburg; that was some of the best surveying experience I ever had.”
But, that job was with a small-town firm, as he noted, and the pair moved around Oregon, including a stint with the Bonneville Power Administration. Eventually the family settled in Salem, Oregon, where I had the honor of meeting them recently at a hidden gem they discovered, the best Korean restaurant in Salem (and IMHO the best one this side of Incheon).
Wendell and Angel are interesting folks, with diverse interests and a passion for this online community they have fostered. I also got to meet Dave Souza, who met Wendell during a business transaction. Dave has a background in telecommunications, manufacturing software sales, business consulting and marketing, and his skills in web technologies complete the team. There is a certain synergy among them, and it is no surprise that something profound like SurveyorConnect would arise from this partnership.
It was June 2010, noted Angel, when “things were really tough. We were struggling in the surveying [market] like a lot of folks.” At the same time, “we had some online friends in surveying, a group five or six of them in particular, who were looking for something different [in an online forum], and they asked me if I could set up a new forum.”
The work involved was pretty straightforward. They had the skills and experience, and Angel enjoyed moderating BBSs, so the site was launched officially on July 1, 2010.
Title, Style, Categories
“We wanted a name that surveyors would like,” said Angel. “BeerLeg was the original name.” Dave added, “But there were people signing up that said their IT or HR department would reject the site because it had ‘beer’ in the name, and we had to consider that there might be advertisers someday that might want a [more professional] name.” Wendell said the solution “was to have the name ‘SurveyorConnect’ that Dave came up with and ‘BeerLeg’ both associated with the website, so if people enter either website address they go to the same forum.”
The timeline flow of posts and clean, simple style are by design; the team did not want to go with too-complex navigation features and over-stylized look—those were some of the reasons why folks asked them to create SurveyorConnect in the first place.
“There are a lot of categories,” says Wendell. “It would be hard to narrow them down any more because people have asked for them, and if it were narrower, then some categories would get overloaded with [unrelated] posts.” The point is a bit moot, as each user can filter which categories they see.
Wendell said they’d also like to see more activity in the other categories: “There is a lot of information that [participants] could share.” And they don’t believe this would diminish the surveying categories. All forum participants can customize what categories they see, and many folks view it as a bonus that there are more in-depth categories such as CAD, GNSS, and GIS.
Moderating such an active forum can be a rewarding but also a demanding and frustrating undertaking. “I tried so hard to keep P&R [politics and religion category],” says Wendell. “I had hoped so much that people could be more civil, and hanging on stressed [us] out a lot. When we finally pulled the plug, the participation actually went up dramatically. We could see it in the graphs.” Sure, there are some professional disagreements in the forum, but the team has seen a rise in self-moderation, peers keeping each other in line.
“Soon after we started, and without us asking, people started sending donations,” said Angel. She then told about the morning that Wendell told her, “You won’t believe this, but people have donated over $2,000!” Angel adds, “I was almost in tears.” People were so happy that we had done this for them that they thought they ought to thank us.”
Indeed, the site is self-supporting. While not affiliated with any large, outside company or group, they earn modest income from non-intrusive advertising and an occasional subtle fund drive, and they offer website and digital-business services from their company, Harness Technology (what a cool name).
“We send a personal thank-you to every contributor, sometimes 300 at a time,” said Angel. It is this personal touch, I believe, along with the respectful moderation, that has driven the meteoric success of SurveyorConnect.
Angel also loves to run contests such as pools for big sporting events (note that Angel is a die-hard Cardinals fan, so be careful to respect the Cards). “There is international participation. If someone wins, they get the same prize package as someone [in the U.S.].” These “care packages” from Angel to winners and contributors are legendary; many surveyors proudly tout their mugs and t-shirts.
The online community now includes participants from about 40 countries. Some surveying conferences have been the venue for informal get togethers of forum participants. Meet-ups between two or more folks from the BeerLeg community have been nicknamed Beerleggers and have sometimes included visits by overseas participants.
The Trio’s Future
Wendell is also an artist, and his surveying-themed yourotherleftcomic.com is quite popular. While a lot of the team’s work now involves the forum and digital business (they have helped many surveying firms set up websites and networking), surveying is still the heart and soul. “I am a surveyor,” says Wendell with pride. “And no matter what I do, what kind of work I do, for the rest of my life I am a surveyor.”
What future would they like to see for the forum? “Definitely more international,” said Angel. Dave added, “We need to reach out to young folks, reach them where they ‘live.’ We are not mobile friendly yet; we’ll work on that.” All noted that they’re motivated to reach young folks because they represent the future of the profession.
Angel mentioned surveying society meetings they have attended and spoken at: “We’d like to attend more and meet more of our [participants]”. I think this team would be great presenters at conferences, as surveying community leaders and to educate on digital business.
When I mentioned the new direction for PSM (see this month’s editorial), they were very enthusiastic; there are many parallels in what they would like to see for the forum and the profession. It is likely you’ll see columns on digital-business from this team in the new publication.
The value of SurveyorConnect comes from the simple principle that professionals can share, support, and help each other. The team all mentioned that another benefit of this online community, along the line of succession planning for the profession, should be mentoring: passing the torch, but with respect and dedication. That may be the legacy of this invaluable forum: continuing to elevate, grow, update, inform, and help develop a future for this diverse and honorable profession.