Automation Industry Career Tip: Appearance Matters

The following tip is from the ISA book by Greg McMillan and Hunter Vegas titled 101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career, inspired by the ISA Mentor Program. This is Tip #30.

101 Tips for a Successful Automation CareerI was working on a large project early in my career and due to a last-minute design change, I had to quickly fabricate a panel with a dozen three-way valves to allow Operations to manually control some equipment. I threw together a design and the contractor did a good job of procuring the panel and installing the valves. I then had a dozen labels made, indicating the operations of each valve, and gave them to a technician to install on the panel. Later, my boss passed by and commented on what an awful job I had done on the panel. I was flabbergasted and immediately went to the panel to see what was up. The labels looked like they had been put on by a four year old. Not a single label was parallel or centered or leveled. I ripped them all off, ordered a new set, and put them on myself. I learned a valuable lesson about the importance of a first impression and have never let anyone put labels on my panels since.

Concept: From the clothes you wear, to the labels on a panel, to the layout and fonts on a graphic, to the look of your signature – appearance matters, and the first impression you make will likely stick for a long time.

Details: This is a simple concept with a lot of applications, so it is easier to just list a few:

• When someone meets a person for the first time, they immediately make several snap judgments about that person that will remain in their subconscious for a long time. Was the person dressed neatly? Did he or she look them in the eye and have a firm handshake? Did the person talk clearly and with confidence, or did they mutter? If a person fails to make a good first impression, that person may spend weeks, months, or a lifetime trying to recover.

• When a client looks at the outside of a control panel, he can usually only see a couple of buttons, maybe a couple of lights and labels. If those labels are crooked or poorly made or the buttons are not aligned, the client will immediately judge the whole panel to be poorly designed or constructed even if the inside is an electrical work of art and functions flawlessly.

• When an operator is first introduced to a new control system, they will probably judge it within the first two or three minutes. If the graphics look clean and the buttons they push work as expected, that operator will consider it a “good” system. If the items are poorly aligned on the screen or the colors are wrong or the buttons fail to function or throw up an error, the operator will think the system “sucks.”

• Never, EVER send a new graphic to a client until it has been thoroughly reviewed and tested. If possible, be present when he first sees it so that you can show him how things work and ease his mind.

• Despite a project’s eventual performance, it is often judged by how cleanly it starts up. Good project management will eliminate most bugs before start-up. Be sure that you have resources to quickly correct any problem before it spoils the reputation of you and your project.

• It seems silly, but people will even judge other people based on their signature alone. John Hancock had a point when he signed the Declaration of Independence. How many people can remember even one other signature on that document? A large, bold lettered signature exudes confidence. A small, diminutive signature suggests the opposite. Practice your signature until it looks impressive. Always fill the space provided, and even go outside the lines. Although it seems like an absurd thing, it really does make a difference.

Watch-Outs: At the beginning of a job a client will often pressure the integration team for some early graphics for review. The liaison engineer will often promise that only he will look at it. Do not transmit ANYTHING to the client until it has been thoroughly tested and it works as it should. This early work will often get shown to a couple of operators. If the work is not correct, it will make a bad first impression that will be difficult to overcome.

Exceptions: If the client is new and a set of graphical templates has not been established yet, send several different generic graphics with different template options on them that work in full simulation. However, place these templates on blank screens with no other vessels or reactors. Functionally everything will work, but because these graphics do not resemble anything in their process, the operators will not associate them with the final product.

Insight: Many a young person has gone to an interview wearing ragged clothes, uncut hair, and an attitude of “If they judge me by my outside appearance, then I don’t want to work for them.” As an interesting aside, very few (if any) get hired.

Rule of Thumb: There is a tremendous amount of wisdom in the expression, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Make the effort to make sure that the first impression at an interview, or of a system review, or of a control panel is the absolute best it can be.

Hunter Vegas

About the author
Hunter Vegas, P.E., holds a B.S.E.E. degree from Tulane University and an M.B.A. from Wake Forest University. His job titles have included instrument engineer, production engineer, instrumentation group leader, principal automation engineer, and unit production manager. In 2001, he joined Avid Solutions, Inc., as an engineering manager and lead project engineer, where he works today. Vegas has executed nearly 2,000 instrumentation and control projects over his career, with budgets ranging from a few thousand to millions of dollars. He is proficient in field instrumentation sizing and selection, safety interlock design, electrical design, advanced control strategy, and numerous control system hardware and software platforms.
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  • Troy Riddle

    This article is awesome! I hate to say it, but I am a victim of such stereotyping discrimination first impressions like this myself. I ride a vintage Harley Davidson, and have been on and building/repairing these beautiful machines ever since I was given my first Harley Davidson at the age of 7. It was a 50cc Harley Davidson Shortster trail motorcycle. So the first impression is usually ” Rebel, social trash, law breaker, ext.” But take a minute to see it from where I stand, ” American Made,” not to mention the extreme amount of care I put into them and the specialized knowledge that it takes to keep one of these vintage historical icons traveling down the roads and highways safely and efficiently. This is just one small foundation of fact supporting this article, so I say hats off to the author and ask for more wisdom that he has to offer.

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