Automation Industry Career Tip: Make Yourself More Marketable

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 #58.

101 Tips for a Successful Automation CareerI have heard engineers say that they can’t go to a technical conference or take a course, or can’t do some extracurricular work, without even having asked their manager. Even stranger is when these people go into their manager’s office and say what amounts to “I know the company doesn’t want to pay for me to do this” or “Doing this will interfere with me getting my work done.” If this describes you, your manager may think you do not really want to go, and just want an official reason for not doing something beyond your normal work requirements. The manager may genuinely not understand what you would get from an investment in your development. You need to explain the value to the company and reassure your manager that this activity won’t impact your work commitments.

You need to find out your strengths which often coincide with your interests. Early in my career, the company did testing of aptitude and interests that was designed to help management understand where I should go within the company. My test results said I should be a scientist or a postal worker. I can see the science part but I wasn’t sure about the postal part. I did collect stamps as a youngster but was never much into repetitious work, and am so mild mannered that going postal is unlikely.

The test said the last thing I should be is a manager. This test result was confirmed about five years into my career when I became the group leader of four very unusual engineers during the construction, commissioning, and startup of a huge plant in Texas. One was an experienced but eccentric Irish fellow. He accomplished more than anyone but did not impress anyone with his people skills. When he threatened to walk off the job, I went over to his apartment to talk him out of quitting and found absolutely nothing more than a phone. No bed, no table, and no chairs. The other three guys were fresh out of school with no plant experience. One was a hippie doing his own thing. The second was a Dutch guy who asked why he had to do anything I said, even the most trivial stuff. The third was a guy who wanted to be anywhere but there. I got through it all but decided I was not meant to be a manager. The test got three out of four right: I should be a scientist.

Fortunately, the company had a Fellow program, which meant that you did not have to go the management route to achieve higher grade levels and higher pay. I retired as a Senior Fellow, the same grade level as a director. Theoretically, a Distinguished Fellow could be at the same grade as a company president. Some companies have a technologist program analogous to a Fellow program. The technical and management routes are completely different. I think the technical route is more under your control and is surprisingly less stressful.

The clincher was when around 1990 our CEO said, in effect, “The company has no obligation to you and you need to be marketable just like this company’s products.” Some were shocked and dismayed. I felt enlightened. I appreciated knowing what was to come in terms of corporate culture.

Concept: Find out what you want to do in your career and take advantage of any training courses, conferences, resources, and tools that will increase your knowledge and allow you to distinguish yourself.

Details: Get last year’s presentations and papers from conferences pertinent to your career and select the conferences you want to go to. For example, User Group conferences are great for getting in-depth information on the more effective use of the products from a supplier. The Automation Week conference is vendor neutral and has both technical and executive topics. The American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) conferences are intensive in process knowledge, and their relevance is excellent. If you have a degree in Chemical Engineering, you could build more process knowledge into your control systems. AIChE speakers such as Cecil Smith and Bill Luyben are exceptional in showing how to take advantage of process knowledge. Learn all of the tips in this book, especially the ones most relevant to personal development in your areas of aptitude and interest. Invest time in learning to use new tools such as asset management systems, instrument maintenance systems, model predictive control, tuners, and virtual plants.

Watch-outs: The Automatic Control Conference (ACC) is principally a forum for professors and their graduate students to present research. Unfortunately, university research and process industry practices appear to be from different universes, and, based on a read of the Proceedings, participation by industry technologists is declining. The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineering (IEEE) conferences are almost as academic and don’t reflect much of an understanding of process dynamics, instrumentation, and process disturbances in industry. These conferences have academics talking to academics.

Exceptions: Don’t expect to be able to go to more than one conference or training course a year. Expensive unproven software can be your undoing. Expert system software was largely a costly, dismal failure. The methodology was ad hoc and the interrelationships difficult to decipher. Expert system specialists were largely spinning their wheels and have little marketability today. Realize software is a tool and not an engineer. Recognize that to get the most out of tools requires analysis of what the tool is doing. Data analytics (multivariate statistical process control) may have an advantage over neural networks by offering an understanding of the relationship between inputs and outputs by principle components and contribution plots as noted in the 2010 February-March Control Talk column series “Drowning in Data, Starving for Information.”

Insight: Making yourself marketable takes initiative, but it is beneficial to you and the company.

Rule of Thumb: Go to a technical conference or training course each year, and invest time in other ways that are in line with your aptitudes, interests, and goals. Enhance your marketability through increased knowledge and professional recognition.

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