Continuous Improvement in an Automation Career Requires Continuous Solicitation of Feedback

Continuous Improvement in an Automation Career Requires Continuous Solicitation of Feedback

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 #50.

And so we have finally reached our last tip. Trust me when I say that this has NOT been an easy task. Distilling a career of engineering experience into one- or two-page tips is tough!

For the last tip, we chose this subject because we believe an individual should never stop learning and improving … and you cannot improve unless you know what you are doing wrong. The value of following this tip may seem obvious, especially to a young engineer, but it is not so for an older, more experienced professional. As engineers rise up the technical ladder and gain more prestige, asking for feedback often becomes increasingly difficult. Ego and pride get in the way and it becomes difficult to admit fault or error. As soon as that mindset creeps in, further improvement becomes impossible and decline is inevitable. The fact is that nobody is perfect and regardless of how high in his or her career an engineer might be, constant adjustments are necessary.

Two industrial engineers

Concept: After wiring a panel that you designed or working with a graphic that you created, ask for feedback from the technicians or operators. At the end of a large job, pull the team together and review the project to see what went well and what did not. Always seek to improve everything you do.

Details: Any day that passes without learning something is a wasted day. Continuous growth and improvement should be your goal regardless of your level of experience. The only way to accomplish that is to ask for feedback.

Expand beyond the usual list of client feedback forms or follow-up phone calls that most companies employ. What did the operators like/dislike about the system? Has Maintenance had any problems with a piece of equipment since it was installed? Do the technicians have any suggestions for improving a panel design to make it easier to fabricate or troubleshoot? Does the electrical contractor have any ideas for improving the design/installation documentation for the next project? All of these people can provide valuable ideas for improvement and you are probably the first person to actually ask their opinion. Ask the question, and then LISTEN to what they have to say.

industrial automation, careers, process automation, process industries, manufacturing, instrumentation, process control, control engineering, manufacturing automation

Watch-Outs: Do not get defensive. Most people feel the need to immediately defend their work against criticism. No matter how well founded the criticism, resist this urge. If the criticism seems unwarranted, it is acceptable to ask further questions to determine exactly why the person feels as they do, but it is not acceptable to deny or disparage that person’s point of view. Getting defensive will ensure that you will never receive any feedback from that person again.

Exceptions: If you are a leader, asking your direct reports for feedback can be problematic. They are understandably motivated to say only positive things for fear (however unfounded) that any negative comments could be held against them. It may be possible to establish a strong relationship with a senior team member and let him or her solicit general feedback from the team without specifically attributing a comment to a particular member. Sometimes other senior managers or project leaders can gather feedback from the team through other venues (such as performance reviews, etc.) or during casual conversation.

Insight: Possibly the most illuminating feedback will come from close friends or colleagues. These people, above all others, are in a position to straighten you out when you need it. When this happens fight back the defensive response, listen to what they have to say, and take it to heart.

Rule of Thumb: Continuous improvement requires the continuous solicitation of feedback. Once that feedback is received, ACCEPT it and act on it.

Hunter VegasAbout the Author
Hunter Vegas, P.E., holds a B.S.E.E. degree from Tulane University and an MBA 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.

High Pay Is Not Reason Enough to Stay in a Bad Industrial Automation Job

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 #49.

This tip is really an extension of Tip #47 and 48, and it discusses what can happen when those two tips are not followed.

I have had a number of bosses during my career. Most were superb, providing professional and technical guidance andAngry boss support when I needed it and giving me the reins and responsibility when they thought I was ready. However, two of those bosses were truly awful.

In both cases they became my boss through company personnel moves over which I had no control. Both individuals were manipulative and technically inept, but incapable of being wrong even though they were often wrong on a daily basis. In each case I stayed in the job about a year, thinking that I should give the situation and the boss at least twelve months before I considered any moves. Unfortunately, after a year each boss had proven to be even worse than I had anticipated and I left those companies, never to return.

Back in Tip #33, I mentioned that high pay is not reason enough to stay in a bad job. Well, nothing can make you dislike a job more quickly than working for a boss you despise.

Concept: When interviewing for a position, interview your perspective boss as hard as he (or she) is interviewing you. The pay may be great and the position fantastic, but a bad boss can negate all of that.

101 Tips for a Successful Automation CareerDetails: As should be clear by now, the boss sets the tone for the whole team dynamic. His level of effort, his desire to train and develop his direct reports, and his management style will in large part determine the working atmosphere along with the ultimate success of the team. Great co-workers are important and wonderful to have, but the boss’s personality will more likely determine whether you actually like your job.

Because the boss’s management style is so critical, it is imperative that you vet him/her thoroughly before accepting a job. Go out to lunch with the boss and other team members and see how they interact. Invite the boss to dinner with his/her spouse and watch how they treat their spouse and the wait staff. Is the team comfortable with the boss and does the conversation flow easily, or are they quiet? Does the boss mistreat his/her spouse or talk down to the restaurant staff? Is the boss decisive? Can he/she admit fault? Ask team members if there are any individuals who left the group. Is so, track them down and find out why they left. Take the time and make the effort to find out all you can about the boss because your level of job satisfaction will in no small measure be determined by this one person.

Watch-Outs: If you are touring the plant or office and the boss lies to other workers or team members, talks down to his direct reports or treats lower level company staff with disdain, moving on to other possibilities is probably the best course of action. The boss may be brilliantly successful and knowledgeable but working for a tyrant can be unbearable.

Exceptions: Some companies transfer “Hi-Po”s (High Potential Management Employees) from job to job every 12 months. If you get one assigned to your group and they are awful, it may just be easier to bite your tongue and wait them out.

Insight: A good boss can even make staying in a bad job worthwhile. The company may be struggling or the corporate politics ugly, but a good boss will somehow find a way to keep the team together and shield them from the fray. However if things get too bad, a good boss is one who encourages his direct reports to develop and grow their careers, even if that means leaving the group or the company.

Rule of Thumb: A bad boss should be a deal breaker of any job consideration. Interview the boss thoroughly and carefully before you accept any job.

 

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 References Are Just the First Step in an Industrial Employee or Control Systems Evaluation

Why References Are Just the First Step in an Industrial Employee or Control Systems Evaluation

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 #37.

Over the course of my career, I have never been given a reference that provided anything but glowing reports and testimonials. Perhaps your experience will be different than mine, but the odds are slim. In every case each reference I contacted gushed ad infinitum about how wonderful the candidate was or how positively flawless the new product was, etc. From this you might conclude that it is a waste of time to even bother to contact the references, but this would be a bad assumption. Four candidates competing for one position.The real reason to contact the references is not to hear the glowing reports that you are bound to get – it is to get the names of the second tier of people who CAN give you an unbiased view of the person/product you are investigating.

Concept: Nobody (not interview candidates nor control system or equipment vendors) will offer a bad reference. (Of course if they DID offer a bad reference, that would make the selection process much easier!) However, you can use that contact to get names and leads on other people who might provide a more accurate assessment.

Details: References that are provided as part of any evaluation process are practically worthless. No interview candidate and/or company would be so foolish as to provide references who will mention anything but complimentary details. However, that list can provide a path to a more complete evaluation with a bit of investigative work. If you are checking an interview candidate’s references, ask for the names of co-workers, bosses, or other individuals who might have directed the employee or worked with them. If possible, contact these individuals and see what information they have to offer (or what other people they know). Keep in mind that most people will speak more openly in a face to face conversation than over the phone. They will also tell a lot more to an acquaintance than to someone they do not know. Take advantage of this and try to meet people face to face or ask around and find if “someone knows someone” who can access these people.

Evaluating a company or a product is easier. If you are evaluating a product (such as a control system), ask for a list of recently installed systems. If you are evaluating a company (such as an engineering firm or a system integrator) ask for a list of recent clients. In either case, use the initial list of contacts to work deeper into the organization and access a larger group who might not have been primed by the sales person. The initial contact will often be a manager or other high level administrator who is far removed from the day to day issues and is not aware of any problems. Even worse, the initial contact may have been responsible for selecting the company and/or product and is loath to admit any problems that might reflect poorly on their career. However, if you can get past that initial contact and get the names and contact information of other engineers, supervisors, and operators, you m101 Tips for a Successful Automation Careeray find a host of individuals who know a great deal and are more likely to share the pros and cons of the company or product being considered.

Watch-Outs: The human resources department is probably the LEAST suitable source for information about an interview candidate. When a human resources person identifies themselves on a phone call, the person on the other end usually clams up and will volunteer very little. Similarly, if a human resources person is asked about a particular candidate, they can offer very limited data or they risk making themselves the target of a lawsuit. Networking contacts (outside of human resources) will yield much more information.

Exceptions: An interview candidate is often currently working for a company and does not want that company to know they are job hunting. In this case it may not be possible to contact references at that company, much less get past them to dig deeper. One option is to ask for references and vet the employee’s work at a previous company (assuming they worked at another company before the one where they are employed today). Another option is to ask the candidate for the name of a trusted co-worker who might shed some light on the candidate’s qualifications without compromising the secret. Either way, the available information will be somewhat limited.

Insight: When you are evaluating a control system it is always best to go on site if at all possible. If the tour has been arranged by the vendor, they will likely try to limit contact to a few carefully chosen people. Ask for a control room tour and during this time have the evaluating team “fan out” to talk to technicians, operators, supervisors, etc. Ask them about the system and about any individuals who might know more about the system “behind the scenes.” These casual conversations and contacts with other people will provide the evaluation team a better picture of the strengths and weaknesses of the system in question.

Rule of Thumb: Never be satisfied with the reference provided. Treat it as a first step toward engaging a wider group of people who can actually provide a more realistic picture of the person/product/company being evaluated.

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.

How to Build Communications Skills as an Engineer

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 #40.

Consider the stereotype of the engineer. He (or she) is shy, socially inept, and rarely the life of the party. Understanding Fourier transforms and partial differential equations is no problem but standing in front of an audience and giving a presentation is a nearly insurmountable challenge. If he does give a talk he tends to mumble and look away from the audience when he speaks, puts WAY too much information in small type on his PowerPoint slides, and tends to read the slides to the audience as he drones on.making a speech

…sound a bit too familiar? –

Unfortunately, that description is close to the truth for many engineers, and often a more technically qualified engineer has been passed over for a promotion by a candidate with less experience and knowledge but with better communication and presentation skills.

As a high school student I realized I was headed down this road. My math scores were excellent but my English/verbal scores were at best mediocre. I was struggling in a writing class where the instructor held me to a much higher standard because he KNEW I was capable of it – but I was not delivering. I finally decided it was time to address the problem, knowing it would only worsen with time. I sought help with writing and joined the speech and debate team, where I signed up for extemporaneous speaking. (You pick a topic out of a jar then have 15 or 20 minutes to prepare and deliver a five minute speech.) It forced me to organize my ideas and think quickly on my feet – useful skills, to be sure.

Later in life I took courses on media presentation as part of my Hazmat team training as well as a few sales presentation classes. Such training has been invaluable to me over the years.

Concept: A knowledgeable engineer is worth a great deal to a company. However, a knowledgeable engineer who can write and present is worth much, much more!

101 Tips for a Successful Automation CareerDetails: The average engineering-bound high school student has a profoundly skewed math/verbal aptitude ratio. Math and science classes are no problem but most engineering-bound students struggle in English and communication. Unfortunately, this inability to communicate will hamstring them throughout their career. People will steal their ideas because they cannot sell them to upper management. Many will lose promotions to less technically qualified applicants because the other candidates speak and “show” well. Opportunities for exposure to upper management will be lost because they look so uncomfortable in presentations. However, a highly qualified engineer who can also write and present is a rare thing indeed. The combination of strong technical talent and excellent communication skills is extremely valuable in most organizations.

If you are still in school, do not shy away from writing and speaking courses – TAKE THEM. If you are already in the work force, take a few writing and presentation courses and sign up to give a technical presentation at your local technical society meeting or national conference. Seek opportunities to write or present on the job.

If you are scheduled to present, take the time to practice and more important, record your practice talk on video. It may be painful at first to watch yourself speaking but you cannot fix a problem until you experience it first-hand.

Watch-Outs: Engineers often assume that their audience has the same level of technical knowledge as they do and is as excited about the subject as they are. However, both assumptions are usually false. Some, or perhaps many, in the audience do not know all of the technical background and will get lost quickly. Combine that with a poorly presented or dull topic and the snoring can be intense. Take the time to quickly explain the technical background concepts well enough to ensure that everyone is on the same level, then proceed with the new information. Most importantly, make the slides INTERESTING!

Do not use dull PowerPoint slides with tiny fonts, no graphics, and line after line of bulleted items. Instead, use interesting pictures, simple phrases, and large, easy-to-read fonts to excite the audience and entice them to listen to you.

Exceptions: If you already have your own TV or radio talk show, then you are probably exempt from having to pursue this tip further.

Insight: When you are giving a technical presentation, it may be worth taking the time to create two versions of the slides. Make up a set showing all of the technical points and details and provide that version to the audience as a handout, then create a second set that has the major talking points but is much more visually appealing, with fewer words and lots of pictures and/or graphics. The audience will appreciate and enjoy the presentation (which will be refreshingly different than MOST of the presentations they have seen) and they will have the technical handout for reference and notes.

Rule of Thumb: Many engineers are not naturally adept at writing and/or presentations, and they pay a price for that failing throughout their career. Like anything else worth doing, good writing and presentation skills take training and practice but the effort WILL be rewarded.

 

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.

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