Staff Spotlight: Matt Yates

Posted on January 5, 2017
Archive : January 2017
Category : Staff Spotlight

What is your role within Geotechnics?

Principal Engineer at the Exeter office.

And how long have you been working for us?

16 years - I started in Exeter in 2000. It’s a long time but looking back, it’s flown by!

What were you doing before you joined us?

I worked for another geotechnical firm for around two years and, before that, a small GI company in Gloucestershire working as a lab technician. That was pretty much straight after graduating from university.

"Getting wet, muddy, hot, cold… Going out in all weathers and having that experience under your belt is invaluable"

What did you study at university?

I did a degree - Geology major with Maths minor. It wasn’t a university actually! It was Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education, which is now the University of Gloucestershire. So I like to say I went to university, but I didn’t!

So what are your main responsibilities at Geotechnics?

It has evolved over time, but my role now is primarily tendering. When I’m not tendering, I’m project managing and co-ordinating engineers; making sure that they are kept busy each day; allocating engineers to various projects and going through what’s required on site for each project.

And you have got a responsibility in helping Anne Simpson, Exeter’s Regional Manager, to manage the office too…

Yes, I think we work hand in hand on that side of things. I do a bit of office management – being a small office, most of us have a hand in a lot of the projects that take place. Everyone has a role in managing their own projects and time.

So what drew you to Geotechnics originally?

While I was at my last firm, my wife and I decided to move to the south west. We were having kids and we were outgrowing our house. We couldn’t afford anything bigger in Cheltenham, so we decided one evening that we were going to move to the south west, closer to our families.

I handed in my notice and I then started looking to see what companies were down here. If I hadn’t handed in my notice first, we would have probably chickened out and stayed put! I’d never heard of Geotechnics, but a friend who worked at Babtie suggested them. So I contacted Anne, and I think I went for an interview down here with her first, and then an interview at our head office in Coventry.

How do you think Geotechnics has changed over the last sixteen years?

We’ve changed for the better. We’ve never been behind on putting Health and Safety matters at the top of our priority. However over the years we’ve been at the forefront of it, promoting safe working conditions and environments.

We’ve grown over the years too. I’m not sure how big we were when I started, but there were just the three offices then. The Exeter office has grown too. I think there were four or five staff when I joined, and now we’re up to 10. Not a huge growth but it reflects a steady increase in workload in an area of the country that has a fair amount of competition. The size of the projects we can manage out of the Exeter office has increased dramatically. This is a reflection of the increase in engineers we have, and also an indication of how we are perceived in the ground investigation market. We’re known for being able to run the larger projects well, as well as being able to deal with difficult sites which need careful consideration and particular rig types or methods to achieve results.

What would you say a typical day in the Exeter office is like for you?

It starts with coffee! I spend quite a while going through emails first. I deal with those, and if we have any project enquiries I get those turned into estimates. I try and focus on getting estimates done or underway first thing in the day, as I like to turn those around quickly. When I’ve done that, I tend to look at any reporting or log checking, so I can get those done before the end of the day.

What do you find most challenging in your role?

The biggest challenge is managing the role of both estimating and project managing at the same time. For estimating, particularly for large projects, you really have to get your head into focus and concentrate. And you do that knowing full well you’ve also got to book plant for another job, brief an engineer for a job that’s starting the next day, etc… Trying to weigh the two sides up is the hardest thing.

What advice would you give to somebody looking to get into the industry?

Expect to work up from the bottom, and don’t expect to become an expert quickly. It’s different for everybody (maybe I’m slower than most!), but to get good fieldwork experience to properly assess soils and rocks takes a lot of time. I believe it takes a good few years of solid site work: getting wet, muddy, hot, cold… Going out in all weathers and having that experience under your belt is invaluable.

After 3-5 years you’re in a very good place to interpret what you’re finding for the purposes of reports. You can’t rush the process of gaining experience in the field - it takes time. Without having that fieldwork experience behind you, when you’re more office-based and organising projects or tendering you have less of an appreciation for what is achievable each day from whatever technique is being used on site. Having site work under your belt is very, very important and returning to site work throughout your career is useful to keep abreast of how changes in legislation can lead to different workloads on site.  

Which projects and sites have you enjoyed working on the most?

I like the jobs where we’re putting in instrumentation that’s a bit different from normal. Inclinometers, especially if we’ve got automated inclinometers, vibrating wire piezometers and so on…

Working around Exeter is a pleasure. No matter how difficult the ground might be, you’ve still got a nice backdrop of countryside a lot of the time. Mostly we’re drilling in slates. But even in slate it’s very mineralised. We just had some core yesterday with big lumps of pyrite intrusions in it. As a geologist, it’s nice looking at that all the time. And anywhere near Dartmoor or Bodmin we’re on granite. And further down in Cornwall you have a lot of very hard rock geology: basalts and serpentine.

I’ve always enjoyed the fieldwork but I recognise my role is now more office based. I like tendering. I did Maths with my degree and I’ve always liked working with numbers. I like collating all the costs, putting them together and then working out the best way to price a job.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I play squash - I try to do that as much as I can. I enjoy surfing too, but I very rarely do that now. I’ve also got four kids, so they take up a lot of time! Poppy’s 16, and she’s just started college. So I drive her around to ballet, and she sings in a choir most evenings. Joel’s 15, so I take him around to air cadets and band practices. And then I have twin girls who are 13, and they do ballet and so on…Never ending taxi service and empty wallet!

What is a fact most people wouldn’t know about you?

I like my whisky. At least once a year I go up to the Hebrides to surf and imbibe a variety of whiskies. I’ve been going there for the last eight or nine years. It’s one of the best places anyone could visit. But please don’t all rush there – I like to have the beaches to myself!

Matt Yates is the Principal Engineer at our Exeter office. Contact the team to find out more about our ground investigation work in South West England.