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The Human Element of Technology

Jeff SmtihJeff Smith (‘94) is regional business manager for Trimble in the Southeastern United States. His division within Trimble focuses upon all things related to water, wastewater, and storm water. In addition to Geospatial technologies, they develop “Smart Water” products for the booming “Smart City” initiatives that are sweeping the country. For example, they build products that can turn a standard fire hydrant into an intelligent device that not only provides water to the fire department, but can also sense how healthy the water network is at any moment in time. If it senses there is a problem with the water network, such as low water pressure, high water pressure, or a leak, it will send emails and text messages to the right people for troubleshooting and display the problem on a map. If you were able to take a shower this morning, it is very likely there was a Trimble Water product behind the scenes that helped to make that possible.

According to Smith, there is a tremendous demand in his industry for individuals who understand geography and geospatial technologies. Geographers play a key role in all cities and water companies throughout in the United States because their skills impact so many different departments. The geographer brings a human element to all of the technology that a city or water company and present solutions to problems in very human and non-technical manner.

“I had tons of great learning experiences while studying geography at the UT that have carried over to my professional career,” Smith says. “The most relevant experience that I’m thankful for was a day when Dr. John Rehder took our Aerial Photo and Remote Sensing class outside to demonstrate new technology to us; something called a Trimble Global Positioning System (GPS). This was long before iPhones and Google Maps with the blue dot on the map that so many of us can’t live without. The GPS provided a latitude and longitude by simply pressing a button, which seemed too good to be true.”

Soon after graduation, Smith began working for an engineering firm in Nashville that specialized in aerial photography, remote sensing, photogrammetry, and engineering services for utility companies in Tennessee. He was tasked with the not so glamorous job of driving a truck around with hundreds of gallons of paint and a paintbrush. His job was to paint gigantic arrows on the street that pointed to a fire hydrant. The arrows had to be huge, so they could be seen on aerial photographs taken from 20,000 feet. Photogrammetrists would see the arrows and plot points on the map of the fire hydrants locations.

“Each day I would think, ‘How can I get myself out of this job of painting arrows at fire hydrants? How could I paint the arrows faster?’” Smith says. “During a Tennessee football game, walking towards Gate 21, I passed by the spot behind Alumni Memorial where Dr. Rehder demonstrated the Trimble GPS. That’s when it came to me. I could paint these arrows a lot quicker by not painting them at all. I could use a Trimble GPS!”

Smith will still drive to each fire hydrant, but instead of spending 30 minutes painting an arrow and praying no one runs over him, he will click a button on the GPS. Productivity went from painting 15 arrows a day to more than 200. The rest was history.

“I quickly went from being a geographer with a paint brush to leading a department of 50+ geographers making detailed maps of water, wastewater, electric, and gas companies throughout the United States,” Smith says. “It all comes back to that day with Dr. Rehder when he took the time to show us some new technology. Little did I know that day would lead to a 20-year career with Trimble.”