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All’s Quiet

My words like silent raindrops fell, echoing in the wells of silence.—Paul Simon

One of the unsung perks of a vibrant economy lies in the happy sound that it generates. You know—the hum and whirr of the traffic in the streets, the various ringtones of cellphones, the screech and chirp from chop saws and screw guns emanating from the towering projects you pass. You can almost hear people crying out through the din: “We are busy, and we are happy about it.” It’s a joyful noise, no question about it. The offices of construction estimators and project managers are no exception. I know of a commercial drywall firm that has a large brass bell in the lobby for ringing out each latest job procurement—each win. That’s a sound of continued prosperity, and every peal signals a free happy hour on the boss to boot.


I know I sometimes complain about the fever pitch nature of estimating. You know what I mean—the way the GCs crank out bid invitations that hold us to ridiculously unreasonable time constraints and addenda that add hours of work but never seem to extend the bid date. But in my heart, I revel in the commotion. And during the pre-bid period, there seems to be no shortage of chatter from our GC counterparts either. We field daily phone calls from them, double-checking that we have all the latest info, and chatting us up like we’re their dearest pals. The frenzy of pulling a substantial estimate together under deadline accumulates, all building to that apex of energy, excitement and noise when, come bid day, we commit the product of all our effort to those hungry number-gobblers on the other end of the ether with a single mouse-click. And then—nothing!


Oh, I don’t mean a simple no-response sort of nothing. I mean a sucking black-hole kind of anti-matter accompanied by a sudden, vacuous silence. I doubt I’m alone in this. We all know the feeling of unrequited expectation when we submit our best work, our estimating gems, to the cold and callous marketplace and are met with no response at all. Our first reaction can be rather cavalier. Surely the various GCs were dazzled by our superior grasp of the scope issues presented and our clever ways of dealing with the ambiguities that were posed.


But by the next day, doubt sets in, and we begin to run any number of fantastically fatal scenarios through our brain. Is this dreaded silence a kind of stifled laughter at some outrageous oversight? Perhaps our counterparts on the GC side are whispering about how best to exploit our monstrous mistake. We try to call our most friendly GC to allay our fears, but of course he’s not in yet. How foolish. In a panic, we almost displayed an unfounded lack of confidence in our bid. We leave an innocuous voicemail message and take up the next bid challenge.


But then, after several days of no returned phone calls or emails, a creeping anxiety once again begins to scribble messages of doubt onto the back pages of our minds. We wake up in the middle of the night recalling some assumption that we made on a vague but critical detail that we should have researched better. If we have the means, we get out of bed and access our work from home to dismiss our qualms. If not, we take a Benadryl, or lie awake until morning. Either way, we find that our more recent misgivings are more a consequence of our waning familiarity with the details than any substantive shortcoming or oversight.


A week goes by—sometimes a month. Just when your knowledge of the particulars on this job has ebbed to its lowest, the silence is suddenly broken by a phone call from your friendly GC who is apparent low bidder. He wants to de-scope your bid. Not tomorrow in a meeting, right now on the phone. You drop what you’re doing, open the files, and do your best to answer his rather mystifying questions. He is naturally unresponsive to your inquiries as to your comparative position. Can you assume you are low? Who are your competitors? You follow up with some requested callback items, then the silence resumes.


Was this an honest attempt to get an “apples-to-apples” comparison with other bids, or something less straightforward? A week of silence ensues. More speculation. More wondering.


Another call comes after another several days of silence. They are awarding you the job.


“Of course you are,” you reply in your best tone of false bravado. “What took you so long to figure that out?”


Somewhere, there is a bell ringing. It’s a noisy thing, but it tolls for thee.

Vince Bailey is an estimator/project manager working in the Phoenix area.

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