Industrial Career Advice: Always Ask “Why?” and Never Stop Learning

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 #1.

101 Tips for a Successful Automation CareerWe thought this tip was the perfect place to start a book like this. If we had to choose one trait above all others that places an engineer on the path to success, it would be a constant quest for knowledge. We have each spent our lifetimes in pursuit of this goal and as our careers slowly fade toward retirement, we decided to pass some of our hard-fought lessons on to the next generation. Hopefully, the next group of engineers will have the wisdom to learn the easy way rather than blundering their way up the learning curve as we have!

We are an interesting pair. While Greg has a lot of plant experience, he tends to concentrate more on process and dynamic principles and technology. Hunter, too, has spent a great deal of time in plants but has been doing project execution and management his entire career. Our life experiences are very different, yet complementary, and somewhere along the way we decided we should write a book together. This is Greg’s umpteenth book – and Hunter’s first, and as you can see our writing styles are quite different. The first half of the book is written by Hunter and the second half by Greg. Hunter’s tips tend to be shorter and a little lighter technically. Greg’s tips tend to be more involved but provide some fantastic information. Between the two of us, we hope you will learn a great deal of our hard won knowledge by the end of these pages. All we ask in return is that you take the time to share your knowledge with the NEXT generation behind you.

And without further ado let us begin…

Concept: Knowledge is power and you should never stop learning. Seek to know and understand everything. The most valuable automation professionals know hundreds of processes, are well versed in electrical, mechanical, and chemical engineering, and have a breadth of knowledge in multiple industries. If an engineer is not learning something new every day, he or she is falling behind.

Details: This general concept will apply throughout this book. Whenever an engineer is faced with a new process or industry, they should become a sponge. Listen and listen some more and stop listening only to ask more questions. Always ask “why”…even if you are embarrassed and think everyone else in the room understands but you. (Most of the people in the room probably do not understand either!) Constantly read technical publications, attend ISA conferences and other training seminars, and listen to your colleagues.

Watch-Outs: Evaluate your source of knowledge carefully. A person who truly understands a subject will not mind explaining the topic in a different way until you understand it. A person who is pretending to know will tend to be dismissive and get angry. Also beware of technical articles that have a sales and/or marketing spin to them (see Tip #2).

Exceptions: None.

Insight: Some of the most useful information comes from the operations personnel who work in the plant every day. They may not fully understand the technical details of their process, but their wealth of knowledge of the day-to-day issues and dynamics of the plant can be invaluable to you. Building a strong relationship with the operators should be a top priority. If you watch their backs, they will watch yours.

Rule of Thumb: The more knowledge an industrial engineer masters, the more valuable he or she becomes. Seek to know everything and never stop. Even the most knowledgeable engineer in a particular field continues to study and learn.

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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