From the Construction Site to the Classroom: #meetrhumbix interview with Forest Peterson

Posted by Guy Skillett on 2/15/16 10:05 AM
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Our #meetrhumbix series continues this week with Forest Peterson, whose lengthy background in construction gives him incredible perspective on the worker experience.

A 2003 “selfie” of Forest on the 1–80 project near the California/Nevada state line.

What is your role with Rhumbix?
I’m our labor representative, so my role is to understand the perspective of Unions as it relates to our product. Our long-term goal for Rhumbix is to be a platform that benefits everyone from the worker, to the office, to the Unions, so I do a lot of listening. I’ve had many interviews and conversations with Bay Area Union reps, and my own background is as a construction worker so I try to understand where they’re coming from.

What are some of your big takeaways from those conversations?
Everyone I have spoken to wants our solution to succeed, so it’s really about understanding everyone’s concerns and figuring out how to incorporate that into our product plan.

Tell me more about your background in construction.
I started as a laborer at 18-years old. At that point, my entire goal in life was to snowboard as much as possible. I was working a job I found listed in the newspaper for a roofing company, and that’s where I got started.

I spent five years working non-union in construction. I did everything from roofing to setting tile. Then I joined the Laborers Union and worked for another five years as a concrete laborer on highways. I’m still a member of Laborers Local 185.

What led you to go back to school?
It’s interesting. There was — what I consider today — a pivotal moment years before I finally made the decision to go to school.

I was working a long running job that was really poorly managed; it was one of the worst jobs I worked during my career. One day over lunch the other workers started joking with me saying I was going to be the boss. We laughed about it, but then one of the workers, Charlie, an older laborer who had been working construction for more than 30 years got really serious. He told me I was going to go to school and he said, “Remember what it’s like right now, and do something for this.”

A few years later, I decided it was time for something new and remembered Charlie’s words. I started taking classes at the local community college during the winter, and then transferred to Chico State to finish my undergrad. When I left construction to go to graduate school, I had moved away from the field work and was in a support role as a project engineer on major infrastructure projects like bridges, dams, and canals.

And now you’re working on your PhD at Stanford?
Yep. That’s a pretty wild story, too. I had been attending an economics graduate program at University of Nevada Reno (UNR) while I was a project engineer on a large rail project. Then one night while playing poker, one of the other engineers starts talking about a construction program at Stanford and how our vice president told him he should go. My friend blew it off, but I wanted to find out more. I went to the project office to use the Internet and looked up Stanford thinking to myself, “what are the odds they really have a construction program?” Sure enough, they did. I sent off an email that night.

By some measure of luck, the person to whom my email was routed was a guy who had also been a laborer, like me. We hit it off and he encouraged me to continue with my education and apply to Stanford when I was ready.

I sent an application and continued with my economics work at UNR and a few months later I got accepted at Stanford for their masters program in Construction Engineering and Management. Then, while completing my masters, I got really interested in the research they were doing.

As a project engineer, I always had ideas for how to integrate processes, but could never do anything with them. When I got to Stanford, I realized other people thought the way I did and were working on the same problem. It was really validating, so I stuck around, and now I’m working on my PhD in Sustainable Design and Construction.

What changes do you hope to see on construction sites through Rhumbix?
You know, I think the thing that excites me the most is our long-term product goals related to health and safety. Having worked on construction sites, I know how dangerous they can be and I see the potential of technology to really change things.

Take jackhammers for instance. There is a very simple calculation for how long you can operate a jackhammer safely without subjecting yourself to potential injury. Well, I have nerve damage to this day from vastly exceeding those limitations. Our earliest prototype used an accelerometer to sense worker movements, which could have prevented me from exceeding those limitations.

The potential of working on a product that could keep other workers from harm is what excites me the most about what we’re working on.

Interested in working with a guy like Forest? Rhumbix is hiring. Check out a list of open positions here.

Topics: #meetrhumbix, Construction Technology, Craft Workers

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