Siggi Finnsson came the United States from his native Iceland over 30 years ago to earn an engineering graduate degree. He did that and so much more. And along the way, he has helped to lift horizontal directional drilling (HDD) into the construction industry’s lexicon, as well as catapult the technology, in most cases, as the preferred method of construction.
Over the course of the last 25 years, Siggi has tirelessly trained and educated the HDD community. Whether on the road for Digital Control Inc. (DCI) or presenting at NASTT or HDD Academy educational sessions, Siggi’s goal is to make HDD contractors better at what they do.
He has also played a key role in helping to bring DCI’s locating systems to market with his input and carrying the voices of the contractors in the field back to the engineers’ proverbial drawing table.
For all of these contributions, as well as many more, Siggi Finnsson is the 2020 Trenchless Technology Person of the Year.
“I’m thankful to my peers in the industry and especially those at DCI,” Siggi says. “Thankful for my wife, Lisa, and the fact that she has allowed me to do the traveling and all of the work I needed to do. I’ve had a great relationship with a lot of my competitors and we have been able in different ways to join forces for the betterment of the [HDD] industry. I have also been fortunate to enjoy a close relationship with a wide range of people in the industry, including university professors and members of our industry publications.”
Over the years, Siggi has been a mainstay at various trade show technical sessions, offering objective and non-sales pitch presentations. He can also be found just sharing his vast knowledge of the industry that he has accumulated since 1995. Part of the knowledge and wisdom was shared in the first ever HDD Good Practices Guidelines in 2001; he and other industry experts came together to produce an HDD guidelines book that has since been updated four times since its first release. He’s worked with DCA, NASTT, PCCA and AEM.
Siggi has experienced the highs and lows of the HDD market over the course of his career and has had a front-row seat to the innumerable innovations it has seen. He looks forward to many more and he knows there is much more to come.
Engineering is in Siggi’s DNA. His father Finnur Jónsson was a lifelong engineer, a profession that afforded him the opportunity to take the family beyond the borders of Iceland; the family lived in Denmark for five years while his father went to graduate school and then in Switzerland for a time for his job. Siggi studied at the University of Iceland and came to the United States in 1986 to further his education in graduate school. He landed at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle, Washington, to study industrial engineering.
“At that time, the University of Iceland did not offer graduate degrees so most of us went overseas somewhere to get a graduate degree,” Siggi says. “The plan was to stay in the United States [after graduating] for a few years, get some experience and then go back to Iceland. That was what my father advised.”
That was the plan. Plans change.
While at graduate school, Siggi met his future wife, Lisa. “We met while I was in school and she was looking at UW for a graduate program. She had just come up from California for a few days when we met. I decided to stay.”
In the days before surfing the Internet or LinkedIn for job opportunities, Siggi secured his first job the old-fashioned way: Lisa saw an ad in the newspaper. The Robbins Co. was looking to fill a spot in its engineering department. “Lisa actually went to the Robbins Co. under the pretense of writing a paper about manufacturing firms in Kent, Washington,” he remembers. “She got a ton of information at the front desk for me about the company and I studied up on that, not knowing anything about TBMs. I must have impressed someone because Robbins ended up hiring me.”
He started at Robbins in 1989 as a project coordinator and later moved to an applications engineering position and finally into marketing. Robbins was his first introduction into underground construction and tunneling. He found the industry extremely fascinating and later, unbeknownst to Siggi, introduced him to the world of trenchless technology — a term he had never heard of until 1995.
While at Robbins, he and another engineer started working independently to take on the challenge of whether they could get the company involved in microtunneling — considered an up-and-coming technology at the time. The pair started building cutters and wound up working with a small Seattle microtunneling contractor. Siggi worked closely with a recently hired young engineer, Kim Staheli, who would later have her own trenchless firm and serve as NASTT chair. Small world, right?
Siggi attended his first NASTT No-Dig Show in 1995 in Toronto, which he thought would be a great place to network with more microtunneling contractors. By chance, Siggi ran into a former Robbins colleague, Craig Caswell, who was there with his boss, DCI’s John Mercer. “I really didn’t know anybody [at the show,] so I spent a good deal of time with Craig at their booth,” Siggi says. “Over the next few days, I realized that there was this thing called trenchless technology [and HDD] that I had no insight about. It was quite fascinating.”
A few months later, Siggi was an employee at DCI, hired by Mercer and Peter Hambling. At the time, DCI was relatively small, with only a handful of employees. DCI was building its brand of locating systems for the burgeoning HDD market in North America but had set its sights beyond those borders. With Siggi’s fluency in multiple languages, he spent his early years with DCI overseeing the European market efforts, introducing the DigiTrak system.
“At the time, DCI really didn’t have any presence over in Europe and it was a fairly decent market,” Siggi says. “After working for DCI about six months I spent next year or so doing ‘missionary’ work in Europe and I actually lived in Holland, on and off, for about a year. I spent a lot of time traveling, introducing the DigiTrak that everyone had heard of but no had ever seen.”
He began his DCI career in customer service (i.e. working with customers in the field) and over time has worn many hats, as most do who work in a smaller company. With his engineering background he became the liaison between the customers and the engineering department, funneling issues on improvements back to engineering from the field.
“Since I spoke engineering, I translated a market need into more engineering language so we could do something about it,” Siggi says.
Today, most of his work involves software, including data logging and mobile apps. “Software is fascinating. It’s everywhere,” he says. “What intrigues me about software is the ability to move so quickly. The pace of change is significantly greater vs. hardware but at the same time, the requirements to keep up and updating are much greater. When you write a piece of software, you are never done. There is always something else.”
How Far the Market Has Come
When Siggi entered the trenchless and HDD market in 1995, he didn’t realize just how new this technology was and how few people had ever heard of it. Siggi’s word to describe the technology back then: Basic.
“When I joined DCI, I had no idea what state of infancy the market was in,” he explains. “It wasn’t until I was there for a time and started looking back that I realized this [technology] is fairly basic. Compared to TBMs, which were sophisticated pieces of machinery, the drill rigs were very bare boned, may be not Model T basic but not much beyond that. There were a fair number of contractors getting into [HDD] because this was at the start of the fiber boom, which would ultimately crash in the early 2000s. When I joined DCI, the market was on a significant uptick.”
To illustrate how fast the HDD market was taking off, Siggi notes the incredible speed at which DCI was developing and putting to market its locating systems. In 1995, DCI was using the Mark II locating system. “Between 1995 and 2000, we released three different locating systems, which is unusually fast,” he says. “That speaks to the pace and the fact that so much was going on and all being driven by the long-haul fiber work that was going on.”
On the locating side of things there have been tremendous advances in his tenure. “As the underground space has increasingly gotten more crowded, the requirements for accuracy and ability to deal with interference have increased dramatically. Documentation of what takes place during the installation is increasingly being required. I feel we here at DCI have been leading that charge”
Beyond locating technology, the HDD industry as a whole exploded with new innovations and advancements. As one example, drill rigs are faster, quieter and more powerful. “Overall sophistication has increased significantly,” Siggi notes. “The requirements for performance on machines are increasingly becoming greater, more powerful in a smaller footprint.”
And the best change of all is the general acceptance of the technology by owners, engineers and municipalities; no longer are we out there trying to sell them on the HDD method, Siggi says. “In many cases, [HDD is] the preferred one. As an industry we don’t have to ‘sell ourselves’ as much as we used to,” he says.
Beyond the trenchless universe, Siggi enjoys traveling with his family and is an avid reader of history (particularly World War II). But his non-trenchless interests mainly surround his family. He and Lisa have been married for 31 years and have three children: Karl, 27, Emma, 24, and Tómas, 21.
A lifelong soccer — or fútbol as he prefers to call it — enthusiast and one-time competitive player — he played competitively most of his life, including the University of Washington club team (as a defender) — he has placed traveling to England to watch Liverpool play in its home stadium at the top of his bucket list. How much of a soccer enthusiast is he? Siggi says he can explain the offside rule in soccer in great detail and one of the quotes he shares comes from a famed Liverpool Soccer coach.
“He said, ‘Some people think [soccer] is a matter of life and death.’ I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that,’” Siggi says.
Joking aside, Siggi notes that the lessons he learned while playing soccer have carried over to his professional life, especially the importance of team work and communication. “The idea of a team and what it takes to make a team has always been part of who I am,” he says. “Anything you do in any endeavor where you work with people is a team sport. You have to make sure that you communicate effectively, make sure that you are able to listen and able to involve other people on the team.”
The HDD market has come a long way since Siggi joined DCI and he has witnessed its cyclical nature, as well as the tremendous strides in technology and acceptance. “[In the early days,] when we would mention the term trenchless technology, there was just a lot of blank stares from people. It was very, very new,” Siggi shares. “There was lots activity and it was a burgeoning market but most people had no idea what this was. There was significant work that had to be done, not just by me but the whole industry, to introduce and educate people about what trenchless technology was.”
Fast forward to 2020. He is humbled and proud that he has contributed to those strides and continues to do so. “The reason that I have been in HDD for so long is that I work for a company that has been instrumental to HDD and what keeps me driven and intrigued to a large extent is the environment that I work in here. I don’t think that it’s too far-fetched to say that most — and some people may disagree — of the innovations in locating have come out of this company. I have been fortunate to work with some true pioneers in the industry, first and foremost John Mercer.
“The ability to make an impact … I’ve been fortunate enough to have been involved with pretty much all the locating system designs here,” he says. “Seeing stuff that you have worked on and, in some cases, very directly, being used every day and successfully to help the infrastructure in this country and the rest of the world is very rewarding.”