Why You Should Scrutinize Technical Articles for Bias

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 #2.

Of all of the engineering fields, I have to think that our field of automation has one of the fastest rates of change. Every day new processes, new technologies, new instruments, and new control techniques invade the market, and an automation engineer must constantly strive to stay abreast of the latest offerings or face becoming obsolete. To stay Technical writing Disciplines Conceptcurrent, I find myself constantly reading technical articles so I can quickly evaluate the benefits and weaknesses of the latest entries and determine whether they might be useful to my company or my clients. Of course the sales and marketing departments of the various vendors know this, and they spend a lot of effort publishing articles to “help” engineers select their product over their competitor’s.

Concept: Staying technically current in the field of automation is a never-ending task. Attending ISA meetings and conferences, vendor expos, and industry group conventions is a start, but your best solution is maintaining a steady diet of articles to keep abreast of the latest trends and technology. While many articles provide excellent information on a wide variety of topics, many others are written with a particular product bias or marketing angle. The author’s description, position, or byline will often alert you as to which type of article you are reading.

101 Tips for a Successful Automation CareerDetails: Sales and marketing departments often employ people whose sole purpose is to write articles that appear technical but are in fact specifically written to entice engineers to specify or purchase their products. Before you read any article, skip ahead to the author information at the end and determine who wrote the piece. Please note that this tip is NOT a global slight against technical articles written by vendor personnel. Many vendors employ the top experts in a particular field to design and develop their products. These people often write informative and unbiased technical publications that are invaluable sources of information. However, knowing the background of the author before reading a piece can help you be on the lookout for misleading statements or positions that seem to favor one product or technology to the exclusion of others.

Watch-Outs: Be particularly wary of technical publications/magazines that are sponsored by a single vendor. These publications rarely allow any disparaging comments about their product and will rarely mention a competing technology except to explain how their product is vastly superior. While these publications can be a good source of information about a single system, they tend to limit their focus to the company’s product line and ignore all others.

Insight: Look for job titles such as “Sales Director,” “Marketing Manager,” “Product Development Manager,” or the “President” or “Vice President” of a particular vendor. Such titles are a strong clue that the true purpose of the article might be more sales related than technical.

Rule of Thumb: Just because an article is written by the sales/marketing department does not mean it should automatically be ignored. However, if the piece IS written by the sales/marketing department, be on the lookout for a biased view of the product. Does the article mention a particular brand or technology exclusively? Does it offer pros and cons of the subject, or does it only mention advantages and benefits and never mention any negative aspects. These questions can help an engineer quickly determine if the article in question was sponsored by the marketing department.

Hunter VegasAbout 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.

 

Why You Should Establish a High Level of Trust with Your Automation Co-Workers

Why You Should Establish a High Level of Trust with Your Automation Co-Workers

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 #4.

I have managed hundreds of projects and engineers over my career, and one of the most important concepts I stress to my team is to tell me the complete truth − NOT what I want to hear. If a project is running behind schedule, I need to know NOW so I can adjust and possibly recover. If I am told that everything is fine and on schedule throughout a project, only to find problems at the end, then I have no option but to fail.honesty per cent meter

However, this concept goes far beyond project status reports. For example, overstating experience and skill sets on resumes may be common practice, but as a person who routinely reads resumes and interviews engineering candidates, I can unequivocally say that the quickest way to lose an interview opportunity is to overstate or lie on your resume. If I cannot trust you to truthfully fill out a resume, how can I possibly trust you to design control systems with people’s lives at stake? Obviously, listing your work experience is important, but do not take credit for things you did not do and do not claim experience or knowledge you do not have.

If I had to pick one aspect of my personality that has helped advance my career, it would be my reputation as a “straight shooter.” If you ask me a question, I am going to answer it to the best of my ability, and if I do not know the answer, I will say so. Telling the truth breeds trust, and it is that trusting relationship with coworkers and clients that has served me well throughout my career.

Concept: This concept is straightforward. Do not lie, and do not tell people “what they want to hear” just to avoid conflict. People generally give a new acquaintance or business colleague the benefit of the doubt when they first meet them and assume they are a truthful person. However, once the first lie or half-truth is told, everything you say may be called into question. A reputation as a liar can stick with you for a lifetime.

101 Tips for a Successful Automation CareerDetails: Work very hard to establish a high level of trust with your co-workers or clients. Do not commit to goals you cannot achieve, but always deliver what you promise. If the project is not on track, tell your co-workers or client (immediately) and seek advice on the best way to resolve it. Your word should be your bond. If you know the answer, provide it. If you do not know the answer, then saying “I don’t know, but I will find out” is perfectly acceptable.

Watch-Outs: New graduates and inexperienced engineers tend to “pad” their resumes, hoping to get their foot in the door. The fact is that NO new graduate has much worthwhile experience, so the hiring firm has pretty low expectations in that respect. If a candidate declares himself an expert at programming because he wrote a handful of code or claims extensive experience when he has none, not only will he not get hired, he probably will not even get a shot at the first interview.

One prospective candidate submitted a resume via email to my company. One of the hiring managers happened to open the document up with “Track Changes” enabled, which highlighted all of the recent edits to the resume. Apparently the candidate had a degree in “chemical engineering,” but decided to change it to “electrical engineering” since he assumed my company was more interested in that major. Ironically, we hire engineers with either of those degrees, but needless to say we did NOT hire him!

Exceptions: None.

Rule of Thumb: Tell the truth − always. A reputation as a liar can stick with you for a lifetime.

Hunter VegasAbout 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.

The Balance Between Risk Avoidance and Need for Change in Process Automation

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 #6.

I am a risk-averse engineer. My clients do NOT like surprises, and they pay me a decent salary to make sure that their automation projects go in as painlessly as possible. Therefore, I do not apply new technologies unless I know they work and I am content to let others debug the latest software revision before I upgrade to it. Despite all that, I absolutely HATE the expression “….but we have always done it that way.” I have no problem with “We do it that way because we tried x and y happened” or “We considered that technology but chose this other method because…”, but when a company just refuses to try a technology because it is Decision Choose Change or Same Old Street“different” it drives me crazy.

Concept: Sticking with tried and true techniques that work and are risk-free certainly makes sense. Living on the “bleeding edge” of technology is painful. However, that is no excuse for failing to investigate and try new things.

Details: Automation professionals are trained to avoid risk. That is a good thing because trialing untested pieces of equipment or applying novel methods of safety shutdown when designing a control system can have severe consequences if things go awry. However, that is NOT a reason to avoid making any changes at all. Obviously, the best solution is somewhere in the middle.

Some engineers take great delight in getting the latest version of software or specifying the latest technology product. However, companies often release software versions after minimal testing and rely on their customers to “beta test” their product for them. Rather than debugging code for these firms, the wisest course of action is to lag behind by a software revision or at least wait for Revision X.1 to be released, which fixes the bulk of the bugs from Revision X.0. Similarly, it can be best to delay hopping on the “technology du jour” bandwagon, because despite what the marketing circulars say, all technologies have pros and cons, and no one product or technology is the panacea for every woe.

However, decision-makers at some plants refuse to change ANYTHING because “It has always been done that way, and that is the way we do it.” This ostrich mentality hamstrings a plant’s future growth and profitability. Keeping abreast of new products and technologies as they are offered and taking advantage of them when it makes sense keeps a plant competitive. Look for opportunities to try new equipment or software on noncritical systems, where the financial and operational risks are low. Occasionally vendors will allow you to try a particular instrument for free and only pay for it if it works in that application.

When making a change is appropriate, make sure that you build a compelling argument for the change, listing the risks and benefits. Nearly all change is going to cause some short-term discomfort. People need to understand the long-term benefits so they will stop fighting the change and will work toward a better future.

101 Tips for a Successful Automation CareerWatch-Outs: If a plant offers resistance to a new idea, do NOT immediately assume they are just afraid of change. Investigate what has been tried before, and find out exactly why it went wrong. The “old timers” can be an invaluable source of information. There may be some aspect of the process that will not allow the proposed technology to work, and a conversation with the right people could help you avoid an embarrassing failure.

Do not assume that everyone who went before you were idiots. Some might well have been, but dismissing all of the work that has been accomplished previously means recreating everything from scratch. That will invariably require a lot of time and money and will probably force you to re-learn the hard lessons already learned by your predecessors.

Insight: One way to avoid problems when considering making changes is to develop a network of automation engineers in a couple of plants, or ideally across a couple of industries. (ISA or other technical societies can be an excellent means of doing that.) When considering a new technology, ask around and find out how others have fared.

Rule of Thumb: Do not be scared to try new equipment or software but be wise in deciding when and where to try it. Realize that the first version of nearly every software product will be rife with bugs and problems. If possible, wait for the next revision release. Similarly, “Serial #1” hardware or equipment that has just been undergone an extreme re-design will likely have some flaws that will take a generation or two to rectify.

 

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.

Never Underestimate the Power of Politics and Emotion in an Industrial Automation Career

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 #8.

The power of politics and of human emotion can be mind-boggling and utterly baffling to engineers who are taught throughout their lives to apply sound logical principles and facts to decision-making. I cannot begin to count the number of times when I have found myself desperately trying to apply logic to a situation where absolutely none could be applied. You cannot change the fact that politics and emotion are often intimately involved in a situation, but you can recognize that they exist and act accordingly.your or my way

Concept: For better or worse, engineers tend to be less emotionally driven than most. Therefore, they can get confused and blind-sided when people make a snap judgment based on feelings or when people choose a course of action dictated by some hidden political agenda rather than one based on the sound, logical principles that have been delivered for review. This can be most baffling to members of our profession.

Details: The fact is people often make their decisions based on emotion or politics, and the political or emotional angle often outweighs the logical argument. Unfortunately, most engineers do NOT think this way, and tend to assume others evaluate problems and information the same way that they do.

However, all is not lost if you recognize and accept this fact and adapt accordingly. If emotion and politics are afoot, then learn the rules and play the game! This is NOT an invitation to wade into corporate politics—life is too short—but this is a suggestion to study and understand the role of emotion and politics in decision-making so that their effects no longer appear as a surprise. Learn to separate the logical/technical aspect of problems from the political/emotional aspect so your effort is not wasted using the wrong skill set to resolve an issue. As ironic as it might sound, once the emotional or political angles of an issue are known, logic can be applied to resolve it. You need only apply a different set of rules. For instance if the decision becomes an emotional one, frame the arguments to cater to that mindset. If politics are driving a decision, seek to understand the source of those politics and act to convince the true power brokers/decision makers of your position.

101 Tips for a Successful Automation CareerThe effects of politics or emotion often get much worse when there is an audience. People will defend a poor position to the death before they will retreat in front of their peers. Sometimes it is better to talk through disagreements one-on-one after the meeting and out of sight of others. Better yet, try not to let the situation develop to that point.

Watch-Outs: Despite the fact that most engineers consider themselves to be extremely logical, they can be emotional themselves. If you find yourself banging heads with a manager or co-worker, consider standing back and examining the situation as a disinterested third party (or discussing it with a disinterested third party). It may be that YOUR emotions are clouding the issue.

Exceptions: On rare occasions, people will ignore all of the politics and emotions swirling around an issue and will make a sound, logical decision. Oh how I wish this was the rule rather than the exception!

Insight: As an aside, you can eliminate a lot of conflict in your lifetime by simply avoiding discussing topics which are certain to create conflict in the first place. Many topics (religion, political candidates, favorite sports teams, etc.) can be very polarizing and are almost certain to cause problems. If both parties agree, there is really not much to discuss. If the parties disagree, then in all likelihood neither can say anything that will sway the other’s position. Why fight the battle?

Rule of Thumb: Always be aware of the emotional and political angles of an issue. If either is present, then recognize that the rules have changed and adapt accordingly. Never try to apply logic where it does not belong.

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.

Automation Industry Career Tip: Admit Your Errors

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 #5.

101 Tips for a Successful Automation CareerThis tip is really an extension of the previous “Never Lie” tip. Every engineer in the history of the world has made mistakes. In fact, the best engineers are the ones who have made LOTS of mistakes—and learned from them. As mentioned previously, pain is instructive, and a painful mistake is a wonderful way to ensure that you will not make the same mistake again. However, if you never admit it happened, not only will you fail to learn, but others will not learn either.

Concept: Every engineer screws up. It is not a question of if, but when it will happen. Do not make a bad situation worse by failing to admit it.

Details: If you screw up, admit it early and publicly. Your co-workers or clients will think much better of you for admitting your fault rather than choosing to blame others or making excuses. Unfortunately, some individuals in engineering are too proud to admit their errors, and so they play the “blame game.” Someone else is always responsible, or they make excuses to explain why the problem “really wasn’t their fault.” When a person acts this way, their colleagues catch on quickly and may either refuse to work with them or set them up to fail in a public way. Either way, the final result is always dramatically worse than if they had just admitted the mistake right up front.

Just as important as admitting your mistake is learning from it. Take time to understand what went wrong and make changes to ensure that it will never happen again. Better yet, go one step further and tell others about your mistake so they can avoid it themselves.

Watch-Outs: Be wary of co-workers and bosses who try to blame YOU for their mistakes. You will learn to spot them quickly. In such a situation, protect yourself with e-mails and paper trails.

Exceptions: As odd as it may seem, you can be TOO quick to admit a mistake. In the heat of a start-up (for example), a client can jump to conclusions and decide something is “wrong” when it really is correct. When a problem comes up, before you acknowledge that you made a mistake, take a moment to investigate it and determine whether there really is a problem. Then, if you have made an error, admit it and move on.

Insight: You will be amazed how a quick admission of error can defuse a potentially bad scene. When a client or co-worker discovers a problem, it may be tempting to deny or minimize the problem or push it off on someone else. However, the best response is to immediately acknowledge the problem, admit the mistake, and start working toward a solution. Even if the problem is NOT your fault, avoid the witch hunt and seek to resolve the problem first. Once the crisis is over, you can determine what went wrong, and everyone involved can learn from the error.

Rule of Thumb: When (not if) you screw up, admit it and move on. Admit your mistake and set about correcting it. You never actually fail until you give up.

 

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.

If You Have to Tell Everyone How Smart You Are, You Probably Aren’t

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 #7.

101 Tips for a Successful Automation CareerI have met many people who were infinitely smarter than I, and their intelligence was obvious to me within a few sentences of conversation. Conversely, I have met other people who were quick to inform me of their supposedly advanced intellect, and in most cases they were not very bright at all. If you have to tell people how smart you are, then you probably aren’t; and if you ARE smart, everyone will know it regardless of what you say. Do not get hung up on showy displays of college degrees, awards, etc. because they may not be a good indication of a person’s ability. I know a great many people who never received a degree of any kind, yet they are some of the most knowledgeable and respected engineers in the field. Similarly, I know too many people who have advanced college degrees and have awards and recognition plaques all over their office walls, yet they are incapable of doing the simplest engineering designs. Like most people, I have tremendous respect for a person who is obviously brilliant yet downplays it.

Concept: If a person is extremely intelligent, it will be obvious to everyone after a casual conversation. However, the people who brag about their own intelligence are rarely as smart as they want you to think they are. The most talented and brilliant people will often say the least and listen the most.

Details: We have all encountered the type of person who feels obligated to display every award or plaque they ever owned, highlight their superior intelligence at every opportunity, and talk down to “the little man” whom they consider to be beneath them. Ironically, people like that are often not very gifted at all, but carry on the show to make themselves look that way. Do not ever allow yourself to be counted in that number.

On the other hand, it is quite impressive to meet individuals who do not have anything on their wall, constantly downplay themselves and their accomplishments, and yet are true geniuses. These people ask for others’ opinions and seek help from everybody, never put down others who are less educated or less knowledgeable, and are generally well liked and respected by all. Within moments of meeting and talking to a person like that, you know that he or she IS a genius, and yet they will never make mention of it. That is the person you want to emulate.

Never, EVER look down on a person because they lack the education or position that you have achieved. From the CEO to the lowest level employee, everyone knows something that you do not and they can often be valuable sources of information and new ideas. Treat them with respect, as you would want to be treated, and you will be amazed what they can teach you.

Watch-Outs: Such things as diplomas on the wall, awards prominently displayed on the shelves, early and frequent mentions of advanced degrees, insistence of being referred to as “Doctor.” Such a person is hard to miss. Do not be one of them.

Exceptions: Occasionally you will encounter a person who acts like a “know-it-all” and actually is a know-it-all. These people are fairly rare, but they do exist. They typically have strong, aggressive personalities and are smart enough to adapt their personality style to the situation. Dealing with such a person can be trying at times, but at least they have intelligence to back their bravado and their knowledge can be extremely helpful when you are faced with a technical dilemma.

Insight: Even though many technicians and operators may lack higher education, they are usually extremely knowledgeable of the plant and its operation. Their knowledge of the process and its hidden interactions and problems as well as the effort it takes to keep the plant running is invaluable to an engineer. Foster a strong relationship with them and listen when they offer information. They can be an excellent audience for evaluating new automation ideas and will often tell you what problems or pitfalls you might encounter. What is more, once they realize that they are being heard, they will provide new ideas and suggestions that might never have occurred to you. Cultivate those relationships, and you will reap rewards throughout your career.

Rule of Thumb: The smartest person in the room rarely has to prove it − everyone knows who he or she is. Learn to be that person.

 

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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