Donald Knapik

VP/ Founding Member at DO iT, LLC
Paoli, PA
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Donald's career stories

How did you pick your career? Did you know all along?

While I did not really know what I wanted to do, I think deep down I thought a career in something "transportation" would be good direction to go. I got into railroading by accident. I had been working in a research laboratory for United Aircraft and had left that position for another in the Aviation Sector. As the new job was not starting immediately, I saw an opportunity to work for the railroad “temporarily”. The position paid well, was close to my home and it was in transportation which was my interest. I knew nothing about the industry and forty years later, I’ve been fortunate to have worked at most positions in the industry. Over these many years, I have had the pleasure of moving millions of people, influencing an industry and learning to lead. This experience has been and is socially relevant, environmentally sound and a truly worthwhile cause. This experience is also something that money could not buy; Opportunities for education at some of the finest schools and with some of the industry’s best people, bench marking many other industries, travel here and abroad and most importantly, the opportunity to move within the organization were among the benefits. I can truthfully say that “I got to do this, I never (well almost never) said or felt “I had to do this”.

What is the biggest challenge you had to overcome to get to where you are now professionally? How did you overcome it?

For many years, I felt that by lack of an advanced degree had held me back. I was not from an affluent family, and while my family encouraged me to go to college, when the time came there was little money to pay for it, my grades were not sufficient to get scholarship help and I really had no defined area of interest except "broadly" something in transportation. It did make things more challenging, more stressful as I felt that I could not afford to make mistakes and early in my career, practical experience was not valued as much as a degree. This is NOT to say that a college degree is not an important asset. Statistics show that College graduates earn significantly more than High School graduates, but the greatest value of college (to me) is the way it helps you fully develop how YOU solve problems in an environment that is forgiving and to obtain knowledge in specific areas one need for functional skill in their career or future promotion. Industry may not always be a forgiving environment and in the end you will have to work harder to get ahead without a degree than with one. My post (high school) education runs from Holyoke Community College to Harvard Business School and some of the best schools on the east coast including Penn State, George Washington University and Yale. I would take courses that were directly related to the work I was doing, or for work that I was planning to do. For me it was a sound strategy, but I never graduated with a degree. In my life, I have learned more from talented individuals, work and life experience than anyone could have possibly taught me at “school”. It is possible for a person who is entering an industry earlier than their college student peers, to have an advantage over their peers, especially when those peers are pursuing a four year degree that does not necessarily relate specifically to your industry. By starting four years ahead, you have a potential advantage of over 8000 hours of experience in your chosen field, years of experience within the industry and in the company you are working for; and an opportunity to showcase your commitment, prowess and willingness to learn that may put you ahead of others. In a company that is interested in making money, if you’re in the above category, you may also be eligible for educational assistance from your company, mentor-ship by someone of stature and experience within the company. Promotions may actually be easier if one is not only experienced in the functional and business acumen of the company, but is also pursuing an education concurrently. which is what I was doing. I once worked for an engineering company when I was a few years out of high school. I had some electronics experience as I had been an amateur radio operator, had done field and research work in another company (although in aviation) and had a good idea of how the company worked as I had talked to several people who had worked there prior to applying for the position. I knew from my research that they needed people who had a basic practical knowledge of all things electrical and that most of the senior people there had worked through the ranks to get ahead. This was my kind of place! One of their primary products was a line of variable voltage power supplies. My first task in the interview was to design a basic power supply: Nothing fancy, just the basics. I could use any reference material at hand and I managed to make quick work of the task…..something that several of my well educated peers struggled with. I then was taken to “the lab” and was told to build something close to what I had designed with materials that were on hand, which I did…..I had to demonstrate it and then write the instructions for its use. No one else got through the whole interview and I got the position the same day. I would later be responsible for review of all shop drawings from the design department, testing of new designs, field installation and troubleshooting, writing lab manuals and instructions and concurrently got to work with the purchasing department when they got behind, the business folks when inventory time came around. I got to do most of these things by saying “yes I can”. Over the several years I stayed with that company, I learned every aspect of the business from the purchase of raw materials to installing and demonstrating their products. I would also note that my first year of college was paid for by them and as the school I went to used the equipment we manufactured, I had quite a leg up on the other students. While a four year degree will help get you to the interview and in some companies, may give you a better shot at a position, once the actual work starts, all bets are off. Companies pay for and notice who is performing, adding value and going beyond to learn and improve. These are the people who don’t get laid off, get placed with top performers and get groomed for future promotion. I would later use the same methodology in the transportation industry where I started on the bottom and worked through many departments and skill areas, got further in my education and ended up responsible for a large segment of rail operations spread over seven states and, a 3500 person workforce; I still don’t have that four year degree…although I have attended many colleges and Universities…..just know that you will work a lot harder.

What is the most useful piece of career advice you got as a student, and who gave it to you?

If anyone does it….So can you! My Mother gave me that piece of advise which I didn't particularly appreciate at the time. As far as I could see she accomplished pretty much anything she set out to do. She was a very smart person and stuck to whatever she started. I was a poor student, had an undiagnosed learning disability, and I would graduate from high school as a “c” student. I attended a semester of community college after high school but had no real drive until after I was married (at seventeen), had our first child (at eighteen) and all in all: I worked in many jobs before I "found" my calling so to speak. When I started on the railroad I worked as an assistant conductor (they called us "brakemen" back then). The lowest thing in the transportation “food chain” and while I made it to Vice President, lead the team that brought the first high speed rail operation to north America, managed one of the most expensive transportation projects ever done in the United States, Ran the fourth Largest Commuter Agency in the country, opened railroad, closed railroad, implemented new technology and sat in every chair in the operations hierarchy I always believe that if Someone else could do it so could I. At various career points I was responsible for the entire northeastern passenger service, support or mechanical operations in United States and in parts of Canada. Whether you think you can or you can't, you're right....I thought I could and I did. I think most people can too! After I retired from the railroad, I started my own company....DO it, llc...The name says it all!

When did you get your first Big Break? How did you get it? How did it go?

I was a mid level transportation manager for Amtrak in Philadelphia PA. It was during a very difficult period and everyone was working lots of hours and there seemed no end to the problems we were encountering when the company had decided to open a passenger rail service between Philadelphia and Atlantic City, NJ. I was at a staff meeting and our superintendent was telling us about the project. Most of my peers just looked at each other....they saw it as more work coming their way. When my boss unexpectedly asked if anyone was ready to take on this project, I found myself standing alone in the middle of the group saying,"I will take it on" and shortly thereafter I became the project leader. Because it was new railroad, all departments were working together in a project setting to deliver the line on a very tight schedule, with a constrained budget and with very high expectation for quality of performance and service. It was a chance to practice all the skills I had learned and input them on a very different organizational model. When the line opened, it was on budget and on time. We gradually attained very high marks in overall customer service, equipment reliability and on time performance. It was a team effort and departmental lines had been organizationally blurred to a point where they became insignificant functionally. My experience during this project broadened my experience and set the stage for my next promotion which occurred three years later. The organizational model which we developed would later be used as a prototype for formation of Product lines on the Northeast Corridor between Washington DC and Boston,MA.

What is the one piece of career advice you wish someone gave you when you were younger?

Someone needed to explain that a job was more than just doing some tasks...So you want to work at my company. That’s great because I need people who are going to help us design, build and sell my products and services. I offer money, benefits, and opportunities for advancement, education and security too. So what are you offering me in exchange for these things? Now some people are, in reality, offering to simply trade their time for money…they may, “need a job”, “want to work” or “need the money” and from my perspective…..I may need to hire some of these people to get the product or service out the door. ……But the people I really want (and need) are different…let me tell you who they are: The people I really want are those who are passionate about their work and are going to be the future of my company. They have done their homework and know what we do, how we do it and where we’re going. They want to be involved in moving the company forward and create the innovations and efficiencies that will increase our profitability, market share, and lower our costs. They are the people who consistently perform, help others and want to learn about everything that makes this company work. They know that every position in this company is important to make it run smoothly and efficiently – from the people who sweep the floors to create at safe environment to keep our injury rate (and insurance costs) low, to the people who design the high quality, reliable products we manufacture and sell. They know it’s a team sport and everyone has to play to make it function. They value and respect each of us who plays a part. Not all companies share these attributes and it really does make a difference if you are not, cannot or are unwilling to fit into the work environment where you are seeking employment. So do your research. You’ll be glad you did. When I first entered the job market, I didn't understand the whole business thing - I think I would have done better faster if I had known all this!

When you were a student, did you do anything outside of school to build skills or get knowledge that has helped your career?

I was interested in electronics; so it studied and passed a test as an amateur radio operator, This required a broad knowledge of electricity, communications and regulations. I think I was around 13 when I got my license. I was interested in flying and worked at an airport washing private planes, cleaning and helping mechanics in exchange for flying lessons. I had a glider pilots license when I was 14. At the airport I met people who ran the air force training center and was able to get simulator time and got to meet numerous pilots who were happy to share their knowledge. I got to work with my father who repaired equipment for bakeries and restaurants. I learned a lot about mechanical systems, controls and having already had some experience with electricity, I was able to help in a meaningful way. I had a paper route, that is, I delivered papers to 50-60 homes every day for several years. This helped develop a healthy "work ethic". You had to go out every day, very early and if you missed somebody, you had to answer for it. I also learned that making money on your own was very satisfying. I always had an after school job....everything from flipping burgers to working in a print shop. I got to learn a lot about how a business operates.....these jobs did not always help my grades, but did give me lots of varied experiences.

Did anyone ever oppose your career plans when you were young or push you in a direction you did not want to go?

My Father wanted me to be an "engineer". I didn't do well in math which made going in this direction very difficult and frustrating. Further, in high school, I had no real understanding of what an engineer did. My father had many interesting jobs over his lifetime and I think he always admired the engineers he worked for. This may have contributed to his encouraging me to go in that direction. Over the years, I have taken many "engineering courses" but never really considered taking engineering up as a profession.

What is it like when your job gets tough?

In the transportation industry, when things go wrong, there are usually significant effects. Results of accidents are very serious, even for minor incidents. Things have to get resolved quickly, there is pressure from all directions (media, regulators, customers, state and local governments), there is always difficulties recovering from a disruption, planning and executing a normalization plan, and dealing with regulatory, legal and community issues subsequent to recovery. Depending on the severity, these events can take from a few hours to months and I can recall one that took years before all was said and done. If you're in charge, it is not easy!

How did you start building your network?

I started my "network" with people I knew, had similar interests and whom I trusted. In each job, trade association, hobby or social setting I would be listening to people, and began associating myself with the ones' who held similar values and experiences. I would try to help anyone who asked, listened when people needed to talk, and gradually and incrementally, a "network" started to form. I believe a real network is so much more than having lots of followers, electronic friends or groups.

In layperson terms, what do you actually do at work?

Regardless of what position I held, I was always working with people, tracking what was going on in my work area ( by walking around, examining statistics, meetings and communicating via all means), looking for things that could be done better, formulating plans for projects, events, and operations. Training and mentoring people...insuring that things that I was responsible for were accomplished and the goals of the department and company were being met in a safe and efficient manner.

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