Tom Walski - How did I get here?

“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” – John Lennon


Jesse Dringoli did a great job explaining how he got into his job.


I decided I would try to do the same. The problem is that I’m a lot older than Jesse and so this blog is going to be long. You’ve been warned.


Why am I qualified to write this blog? I figured that you learn a lot by making mistakes and I’ve probably made more than most people in our industry. I guess that qualifies me to write a blog.


So, how did I get here?


I was always pretty good at math so I became a math major at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. But along the way I became very interested in the environment. I had grown up in a poor coal mining town in the mountains of Pennsylvania. It was pretty much an environmental disaster. We had raw sewage running in the gutters along the road which ran into the creek which ran into the river, our drinking water came to us directly from the reservoir in the mountains with no treatment, there were strip mining pits around our town which were used as open dumps and don’t get me started on air quality. I wanted to do something about these problems and considered going to graduate school in environmental engineering.


Problem was that I was about to be drafted to go to Vietnam (and probably be killed), so why worry about graduate school. However, I flunked my draft physical because of my bad heart (mitral valve prolapse) and graduate school became an option.


Because I didn’t have an engineering undergraduate degree, most schools wouldn’t consider me unless I started as an undergrad. Vanderbilt Univ. was willing to let me into grad school and I jumped at the chance. They felt my math and physics background was good enough (I got 99 percentile on my math GRE test.) The only undergraduate course I had to take was a self-paced Fluid Mechanics class and I completed it faster than any student ever did. I loved that stuff. Gradually I caught up with the other students and finished up my course work quickly.


After grad school, I got a job as a research civil engineer for the Army, Corps of Engineers, at their main research lab, the Waterways Experiment Station in Vicksburg, Miss. I finished my dissertation there, “Viscosity Stratified Flow to a Line Sink” (think dredged material flowing over weirs). I got a great deal of experience working on a wide range of projects from a water distribution master plan for the island of Guam, to a pipe break analysis study for New York City, to preparing guidance on designing out-houses at Corps recreation areas. I developed a system for coming up with good cost estimates for project at the planning level with limited information, developed the first multi-objective water distribution system optimization program (WADSIO) and worked on the Washington, DC water system. I became a wizard at FORTRAN programming (which nowadays is like speaking fluent Latin). While with the Corps, I wrote my first book, “Analysis of Water Distribution Systems.”


I was contacted by the City of Austin, Tex. about working for their water and sewer utility. I turned them down but taught a workshop there. They kept pursuing me and I finally accepted a position there as the senior engineer working on their modeling in the planning group. It was a nice experience working on the owner’s side of things and it gave me a great perspective on how design decisions are really made. Eventually, my boss moved over to the operations side and took me with her as manager of water distribution operations--more valuable experience.


One day, I saw an ad for the executive director of the regional sewer authority back home. (Yes, they no longer discharged raw sewage into the river but they still had problems.) Surprisingly, they hired me and, at a pretty early age, I became the executive director of a sewer system serving about 200,000 people. We took one of the worst operations in the state and were winning awards in a couple of years. But the job wasn’t just technical. (I didn’t get to do much hydraulic modeling in that job.) Instead, I had to deal with regulators, neighbors, the union, the media and, worst of all, politicians. As I was approaching a nervous breakdown, I realize I wasn’t cut out for this kind of work. I wanted to get back into the technical side of engineering and operations. But I also liked teaching.


Fortunately, Wilkes University was looking for someone to start up their environmental engineering program and that suited me fine. With limited resources, we built a fine program with a strong practical bent that received ABET accreditation and it still going strong. I really enjoyed working with the students and I still serve as an advisor on senior projects. Along the way, I was approached by Haestad Methods to develop training material and teach workshops for them. So, whenever Wilkes was on vacation, I was on the road teaching about water distribution modeling. I got to see the insides of a lot of airplanes (and they all look pretty much the same) and I met a lot of great people.


At this time, American Water had just bought the regional water supply system where I lived and was looking for an engineering manager for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton system (serving about a half million people) and an assortment of smaller systems around eastern Pennsylvania. I took the job and we did a lot of great projects. It was nice to apply hydraulic models from the user’s side in additional teaching about them.


Over the years, John Haestad (i.e. Haestad Methods) would call me an offer me a job and I would turn him down. Finally, one year he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse and I became Vice President of Engineering for Haestad Methods (a company that did no engineering). With my background, I think I brought a lot to the software development team as well as continuing to work on training, and research.


After a few years, Bentley Systems bought Haestad Methods and I ended up as a product manager on the hydrology and hydraulics team. I work with a great group of people and have been blessed to have excellent supervisors like Bob Mankowski and Gregg Herrin who keep me going in the right direction but don’t micro-manage me. What do I do anyway? Well, when I worked for the Corps of Engineers, the final line on every job description said “Performs other duties as assigned”. That pretty much sums up what I do at Bentley. When something needs to get done, I try to do it.


Along the way I’ve been involved with a bunch of professional committees and publications through AWWA, ASCE and WEF. You’ll find my name in a lot of manuals of practice and similar publications. I served as editor of the Journal of Environmental Engineers and have been associate editor for the Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management for some time now. Among my bigger professional thrills were being the breakfast keynote speaker at the Water Distribution System Analysis symposium in 2013 and being named as one of the 50 “Movers and Shakers in the Water Industry” over the last 50 years by Water and Wastes magazine. I was the outstanding engineer for the Lehigh Valley Section ASCE, received the Julian Hinds Award, which is the top award for ASCE Planning and Management, and was the overall champion in the water trivia contest at the 2021 AWWA Annual Conference.


I’ve come a long way from a skinny, funny-looking kid  to become a skinny, funny-looking old man. I hope, that through Bentley, I can keep on helping people for a long time to come.


Here’s what I do in what little spare time I have and what I looked like when I got my Ph.D. .