Mr. Kenneth Wright, P.E., D.WRE, Dist.M.ASCE is Founder and Chairman of Wright Water Engineers (WWE) in Denver, Colorado, where he currently serves as Chief Financial Officer and the Chief Engineer (1961 to present) in WWE's general practice of engineering. Mr. Wright is a professional engineer with specialized knowledge in agricultural and irrigation engineering, hydrology, water rights, water supply, groundwater studies, monitoring and wells, flood control and drainage, water rights appraisals, dams, pollution management, and permitting. Mr. Wright is President and Board member of the Wright Paleohydrological Institute since founding the Institute in 1998 and is the Director of the Machu Picchu Hydrological Survey and the Mesa Verde Paleohydrological Survey.
Mr. Wright is a member and past chairman of the Colorado State Board of Registration for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors (1975 to 1984). He served as Hearing Officer for professional practices complaints and is a past member of the National Council of Engineering Examiners. Ken is a registered Professional Engineer in 15 states and his company had received both the Colorado and National Ethics in Business awards.
Besides being a Diplomate, Water Resources Engineer, Ken has been the recipient of many notable honors and awards—among some of these recognitions are: Distinguished Member of American Society of Civil Engineers, Colorado Foundation for Water Education's President's Award, the U.S. Society for Irrigation and Drainage Professionals' Service to the Profession Award, three Honorary Professorships and an Honorary Doctorate from various Peruvian Universities and the Order of Merit decoration for Distinguished Service to the Republic of Peru. In 2011, Ken and his wife Ruth, were awarded a joint honorary Doctor of Science degree from the University of Wisconsin. The two each received the Explorers Club's Lowell Thomas Award in 2011, as well.
Mr. Wright earned a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering and Bachelor of Business Administration from the University of Wisconsin, Madison (UW-M) and later earned his Master of Science in Civil Engineering from UW-M.
Ken is a founding Diplomate of AAWRE and in this interview, he shares his thoughts with AAWRE on his career, his love of civil engineering, his interest in Peru, and his advice for engineers and leaders of tomorrow.
Most enjoyable subject: During the last two decades, my most enjoyable endeavor has been connecting standard civil engineering practice and principles to the field research of water use and water handling by ancient peoples.
Most enjoyable project or research I worked on: With fifty years of inspiring projects to think about and choosing only one, I would have to say my research at Machu Picchu in Peru has been tops because it led me to delve into the everyday lives of the pre-historic Inca civil engineers and to know how they handled design challenges big and small on a daily basis. They left lots of evidence in the form of earth and stone shaping for modern engineers to study. On some days in the field, I felt as if I was standing in the sandals of an ancient Inca engineer, trying to build a ceremonial fountain or build a retaining wall that would stand up to the elements.
My source of inspiration: During one's life, the sources of inspiration are many. For me, I would have to name my wife Ruth, Professor Lenz of UW-M, D. Earl Jones of the Federal Housing Administration, Geographer Dr. Gilbert White of the Universities of Chicago and Colorado, archaeologists John Rowe of the University of California Berkeley and Dr. Alfredo Valencia Zegarra of Peru, and the indigenous Indians of Mesa Verde and the Peruvian high Andes. Also, I cannot overlook my current thirty-year-long business partner Jonathan Jones, who taught me how to share credit and think positively, even when project crises were enveloping us.
Something I always wanted: Better understanding and relationships between all kinds of people and cultures.
My Favorite place(s) anywhere: I have too many favorites. Nevertheless, I can name a few, such as Boulder, Colorado; Madison, Wisconsin; Mesa Verde, the Cusco, Peru Province; and Saudi Arabia.
Where were you born and can you share with us where most of your childhood was spent? And what was your upbringing like?
KW: I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and grew up on the south side near Billy Mitchell Airport in an English family that had immigrated from Great Yarmouth in the 1920s. It was in Milwaukee that I met Ruth Sponner of an Austrian family that also immigrated to the USA in the 1920s. I benefited from the mix of the European cultures.
We know that you attended the University of Wisconsin for your formal education- receiving your BSCE and Bachelor of Business Administration and later your Masters in Civil Engineering. How early on did you know that you wanted to study civil engineering? What were the key factors and/or who were your main influences for you to go into civil engineering?
KW: It wasn't until my junior year at Bay View High School that I chose civil engineering as a course of study. The choice was made after I went to a branch library and looked up the definition of civil engineer after my father made the suggestion; his supervisor at the time was a civil engineer from New England.
How did you enjoy attending the University of Wisconsin at Madison and being a longtime Badger?
KW: Attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison and being a Badger opened my eyes to the wide world via interaction with students from all walks of life and teachers who represented all types of viewpoints, ranging from how to approach problem solving to the importance of fairness and public service. I enjoyed UW-M and was proud to be a student there.
UW-M provided immeasurable life changing opportunities and I found the University to be extraordinarily generous in making it possible for me to join the rowing crew for which I rowed for an entire year. I organized and led the annual Hoofer ski trip to Wausau, Wisconsin, served as chairman of the week-long campus Winter Carnival, and was later befriended by the civil engineering department chairman Professor James Woodburn. UW-M also provided my wife Ruth the chance to take her first year of law school, where she became an editor of the Law Review after her first semester. We enjoyed UW-M; it was a grand time for us marked by hard work and lots of new friends.
We are still both devoted backers of this outstanding public university that offered us so much and which provides so much to thousands of young people each year.
We know that you began your professional career as a Hydraulic Engineer for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, 1957-1958, where you received the Secretary of Interior Gold Medal for Valor for action on the Rio Grande in New Mexico. How did you enjoy your experience in working for the Reclamation and what was the experience like for you in receiving the Secretary of Interior Gold Medal for Valor?
KW: The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, like the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was a learning institution for me; they were overly generous with opportunities for me as a junior engineer. I was proud to be an employee at the U.S. Government and the agency that built things like Hoover Dam and irrigation canals to serve thirsty lands. They took on intellectual research that was shared freely with foreign countries.
On one field trip to the Rio Grande, the boat of our crew of hydrologists suddenly capsized in a fast flowing bypass channel near Elephant Butte Reservoir. Somehow, without forethought and after swimming to the safety of the shoreline, I plunged back into the flow with my boots on to rescue a senior U.S. Geological Survey engineer (Frank Ames), who was calling for help as he was swiftly carried downstream. Fortunately, the two of us were able to make our way to safety. Later, the Denver USBR office awarded me $500 which I used to purchase a new drafting table. Later in the year, I was called to the Interior office building in Washington, D.C. to receive the Gold Medal Valor Award from the Secretary of Interior, complete with a military band and fine speeches. I took my mother because Ruth was tied up with our two new babies.
Prior to working at the Reclamation, you also worked for the Arabian American Oil Company, 1951-1955, as a construction engineer in Saudi Arabia on housing, utilities, oil pipeline under Persian Gulf to Bahrien Island and Trans-Arabian Pipeline cathodic protection. What was that experience like and how did you enjoy living in Saudi Arabia as a young man being just out of college?
KW: A stay-over in Paris, a month at the Sidon, Lebanon Arabic Language School and four and a half years inside Arabia with the Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO) was a terrific adventure for a new UW-Madison graduate. Here, too, ARAMCO was generous with opportunities, especially for me as a construction engineer assigned with a balloon tired pickup truck for travel over the sand dunes. I enjoyed work with the Bedouin people who had a strong ethic and were members of the strict Wahahby sect of Islam. ARAMCO overlooked my shortcomings, allowed me keep a sailboat on the Persian Gulf waters and assigned me to many fascinating projects. One project, Cathodic protection of the Iran-Arabian pipeline, led to my doing a feature article in the May 1957 issue of Civil Engineering that Ruth helped me write. Saudi Arabia taught me the importance of water resources management because of the arid climate.
What were some important life lessons you learned during that time that you still draw from today?
KW: Important lessons from Saudi Arabia, besides learning the importance of water, were an understanding of the richness of Islam, how people of different cultures can favorably interact and the need to be understanding and forgiving. In Saudi Arabia, I also learned how to be a husband. After three years there, I married Ruth in Salzburg, Austria, and we were able to start our lives together along the shore of the Persian Gulf.
After being with the Reclamation for few years, you began your private consulting career as Partner of Wheeler and Wright, 1959-1961. What were the main influencing factors in your decision to begin your own consulting firm and how difficult was the process for you and your partners to get started?
KW: Starting a new consulting engineering firm in 1961 was both easy and difficult. It was easy because of the things I learned at UW-M, the USBR and from Pete Wheeler who taught me the intricacies of the Colorado water rights engineering. The factors that influenced me to start Wright Water Engineers were a desire to take on new challenges, opportunities that existed on the United States for entrepreneurs and a nudge from wife Ruth. Yet, it was also challenging to start a new business. It was necessary to bring a positive attitude and to be able to rely on my Saudi Arabian savings for a while.
What is your advice to professional engineers out there that are interested in starting their own engineering consulting firms? What are some of the Do's and Don'ts that they should know in order for their companies to succeed?
KW: In starting a new engineering practice, all I can say is "just do it." You need to have goals and objectives, you need to be true to your principles and be willing to sacrifice while being fair and even handed and living by the "Golden Rule." The UW-M school of business taught me accounting and business ethics along with the economic rule that more needs to flow in the front door than out the back door.
You are one of the founding AAWRE Diplomates. Personally for you, what value do you see in the D.WRE certification and why should other professional engineers pursue the D.WRE?
KW: D.WRE certification is a badge of honor that provides the opportunity for one to readily interface with successful and generous professional colleagues and to learn from them. What I have noticed is that my fellow D.WREs are water resources professionals who are helpful, thoughtful and willing to share. They are from all types of positions with one thing in common—they have an interest in furthering knowledge for public good.
What type of services or initiatives would you like to see AAWRE pursue and provide for the Diplomates?
KW: Other types of initiatives for AAWRE to pursue, in my opinion, are few because it is already providing more than one would expect. To name one, however, might be to provide additional emphasis on engineering ethics because of its potential to help make difficult professional choices easier and to assist all in maintaining the joy of practicing water resources engineering without running into trouble.
How do you feel about the state of Civil Engineering and the profession as it is today?
KW: The state of civil engineering and the profession today is better than ever thanks to young and talented engineers who have been imbued with a desire to excel. This, in part, is due to terrifically talented and dedicated university professors such as Jeffrey Russell at UW-M and Keith Molenar at CU and Richard Miksad at UVA, to name three out of thousands.
What do you personally feel are the biggest challenges that are on the horizon for the profession?
KW: The biggest challenges on the horizon tend to be for civil engineers to maintain integrity, to fully connect with the outside intellectual world via colleagues and members of other disciplines and cultures and to think in terms of serving the public with well thought-out and planned public works.
What is your personal pitch to students and kids for them to get interested to pursue a career in Civil Engineering?
KW: For students trying to decide on a career, and especially those students with an interest in the environment, I suggest going into civil engineering; the profession that most influences how we treat our land, water, air and the environment.
We know that both you and your wife Ruth have a deep interest and passion for regions in Peru, such as Machu Picchu, Tipon, and Moray since many years ago, as your yearly Machu Picchu calendar is published annually and recently, your book on ancient engineering in Moray was published by ASCE. How did you first discover this part of the world and what was it/is it about these places that you admire so much?
KW: I was long interested in water use and handling by ancient people because when Ruth returned from a Peru archaeological trip in 1974 she described Machu Picchu to me and asked the simple question of "how did they get water up to this mountainous site?" I replied, "I'll find out!" It took twenty years to get a government permit even though I had a good recommendation from Tim Wirth a U.S. Senator. Things got nowhere until Senator Wirth was appointed as Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs. The rest then fell into place. What I admire most about the Inca sites is the wealth of evidence that tells us of ancient day-to-day activities of the Inca civil engineers. They planned and built for permanence and in an environmentally sustainable manner without a written language, without the wheel and without iron or steel. Somehow they built thousands of communities and temples up and down the Andes during a span of about 100 years.
For more information on Kenneth Wright's Inca Engineering books:
Machu Picchu - A Civil Engineering Marvel
Tipon: Water Engineering Masterpiece of the Inca Empire
Moray - Inca Engineering Mystery
Inca Engineering - Three Book Set
Several years ago, you spoke at George Washington University in Washington, DC, and during the Q&A session after your presentation, I had the great opportunity to ask you: "In looking back over your brilliant career, is there a particular project or work that you are particularly proud of or stand out to you?" And you stated: "I am proud of each and every one of my projects- the entire body of work that I have been part of, I am happy with." Would you share with us about some of the more memorable moments that truly stand out for you in your career?
KW: Memorable moments from the beginning of my career are being registered as a student at the UW-M campus, being asked to serve as state president of the venerable Colorado Mountain Club, stepping off the airplane in Saudi Arabia for my first job and having a few words to say at the 158th Spring Commencement of the UW-M in 2011 when Ruth and I received a joint honorary Doctor of Science degree.
From lessons you have personally learned during your life and career, what are some life lessons you give to younger engineers?
KW: Lessons to convey to younger engineers are too many to list, however, let me pick out three. Archaeologists have taught me to focus, exercise discipline and document what you find. This applies to engineering, as well. I would also add that it is important to follow the evidence and avoid speculation. Sometimes I advise our people that if there is no evidence, it didn't happen. That is a good rule to follow in expert testimony.
You have been an active member in various professional societies and organizations through committee work and board level participation. How busy do your roles keep you these days and how important do you think it is for professional engineers to get actively involved and participate in professional societies and organizations?
KW: Professional societies and organizations are the life blood of our engineering profession. They provide the opportunity to learn, to help others, to publish and to grow professionally even after a long career. We would not have a common thread in the engineering profession without professional societies. They are important.
Can you share with us your personal philosophy on how service builds character and leadership?
KW: My philosophy on service is that performing an act that benefits others brings great personal satisfaction and builds confidence. In other words, service leads to leadership.
What is your personal philosophy or vision on leadership and for being successful?
KW: Simply stated, it is following the "Golden Rule".
What are some of your other personal hobbies and interests? And perhaps something that many people may not know about you?
KW: Personally, I do a lot of running for mental peace and physical reasons. In 2010 and 2011, I participated in the National Cross Country Championships in Oregon and California and came away with four medals for my age group. Prior to being immersed in civil engineering paleohydrologic research, I thrived on lots of SCUBA diving and underwater photography, skiing as a National Ski Patrolman, mountain climbing in Colorado, Mexico and Europe and serving as a city councilman for the City of Boulder.
What are some of your personal goals and plans for the next year?
KW: For 2012, my goals and plans represent a lot of optimism. Ruth and I want to resolve some outstanding questions on the water supply sources for the Inca archaeological site of Ollantaytambo in Peru, we want to study the water supply for another Mesa Verde-area Anasazi site and, personally, I want to contribute to the engineering operations of WWE with my partners and staff members. No matter how long I have been practicing, I can always strive to become a better engineer and better serve the public.