Why Automation Professionals Should Write and Present Technical Papers

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 #60.

101 Tips for a Successful Automation CareerIn Monsanto Engineering Technology (ET), where I spent most of my career, I had the privilege of working with the world’s best in modeling and control. The ET director, the late Dr. Jim Fair (Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas) encouraged us to document our research and development and to advance the technology of our profession by publishing the results. I didn’t realize at the time how unusual this was, in that many engineers today are not encouraged or supported by their company to do this or are restricted because of concerns about the proprietary, legal, and public relations aspects of publication. Since writing is not a normal part of the job for engineers, the task can be formidable.

For me, the toughest part is getting started. Once I get past the first page, I get into a flow. I find an incredible release in expressing myself and being myself. Writing also gives me a sense of closure, allowing me to move on to new areas and opening up new perspectives.

I start with a table of contents with major subject headings. While a more detailed outline is probably a good idea for most people, too much detail up front suppresses creativity for me. I like the feeling of being free to let the flow take me where it needs to go. I find ideas evolve synergistically. Writing is an adventure for me with unexpected paths, sites, and discoveries. This book started with a title and 2-3 sentences of key points for each tip. We had a definite format in mind but no outline. I started each tip with a freewheeling introduction.

When I sat down to write each tip, I often did not know what I was going to say. It wouldn’t work for everyone, but all of my publications have been written listening to classic rock with headphones. The music seems to inspire creativity by exercising the side of the brain that’s opposite to analysis and logic. I find random play more stimulating, although most of my columns for a period of five years were written listening to Concrete Blonde. In the early years, I had to wait until I got into a feeling of the ideas flowing naturally. Now I use music as the inspiration from the start.

I write so ideas are not lost. I realized in the ET environment that a lesson learned is a lesson to be shared. To me, it is crime to see the knowledge that is being lost each day as the most experienced die or retire, never having gotten the opportunity to pass on knowledge gained the hard way. The automation profession is a school of hard knocks. During my college years, the lone course or two on control in Chemical, Electrical, and Mechanical engineering was steeped in math that 99% of automation engineers would never use on the job. We learn the most from making mistakes (ideally caught by mentors before the plant suffers). The sad fact is that without a source of knowledge, the same mistakes are made again and again, and nearly every new engineer goes through this rite of passage. My motto to this day is “Learn and Share.”

In terms of career growth, what you publish serves to show what you have accomplished. This evidence was critical to my advancement to the Fellow level, my induction into the Process Automation Hall of Fame, and my attainment of the ISA Life Achievement Award. On any scale, your publications are the public record of your achievements. This record improves the marketability of your skills, which is increasingly important as companies change in profitability and direction: my original employer (3rd largest chemical company in the USA in the 1970s) became a life sciences company and ultimately a seed company.

Concept: Most of the knowledge required for successful automation applications in the process industry is undocumented. The implementers and maintainers of control systems are the best source of this knowledge, but they often don’t perceive the benefit of publishing it as much as a supplier does in promoting a product. Publication of field experience promotes the growth of the individual and the profession. Share the recognition (Tip #57), be proactive in seeking approval of publications and presentations (Tip #58), and document the benefits (Tip #59).

Details: Try explaining what you know to a friend. Then write what you just said. Your friend can help. You might even make the friend a coauthor. You can try recording your conversations if this does not cramp your style. Break up the paragraphs and sentences (short is better). I prefer to present the concept and then the particulars. Most important, get started and don’t over-think the process. Don’t worry about the grammatical details at first. Writing is not an exact process like engineering. Just express your thoughts. Engineers tend to be overly concerned with exactly how to say something, resulting in a brain freeze when they are trying to write. You will learn from the edits by the copyeditor how to improve your writing. With practice comes skill. Remember, an idea imperfectly written is vastly better than an idea never written. For more on this, see my May 28, 2009 modeling and control blog “What Have I Learned – Writing.”

Watch-outs: Avoid the first person (“I”) except in prefaces and introductions. Avoid the use of “this is” and “it is” because readers may not be sure of what “this” or “it” is. Be careful to prevent the disclosure of proprietary information. Omit specific chemical compound names and operating conditions. Block out scale ranges of trend charts. When you present your paper, the worst thing you can do is to read from the paper. Slides should have brief bullet points, not paragraphs. Slides often don’t have enough graphics. The only slides without a figure or trend chart should be introductory, procedure, overview, or summary slides. Even clip art is better than no art. A picture is worth a thousand words and is the key to keeping people from nodding off.

Insight: As an engineer, your publications are as important for the recognition of your expertise as the publications of a supplier are for the recognition of a product’s capability, and your publications have an even greater potential to advance the automation profession.

Rule of Thumb: Write and present papers at symposia and conferences using a supplier as needed to help you write the paper.

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