System Integrators Wear Many Hats

It has been said (mostly by engineers) that not everyone is cut out for an engineering profession. Not surprisingly, many automation system integrators would add that not all engineers are cut out to be system integrators. What may come as a surprise is the diversity of skills that an automation engineer must develop to succeed in the integration business.


It has been said (mostly by engineers) that not everyone is cut out for an engineering profession. Not surprisingly, many automation system integrators would add that not all engineers are cut out to be system integrators. What may come as a surprise is the diversity of skills that an automation engineer must develop to succeed in the integration business.

An informal survey of the integrators listed in this edition of the Automation Integrator Guide reveals that the best engineers in the business possess a wide variety of technical and non-technical skills. All respondents agreed that a solid engineering background is an obvious requirement.

Engineering manager, Brad Whitsitt describes the ideal engineer at Cornerstone Controls (Indianapolis, Ind.): "We want to see a four-year degree, and we are primarily looking for the ability to solve problems. If we can get it, we always want experience with the technologies that we use, such as DCS and PLC platforms. We would prefer to find an engineer who takes a complete view of a control system and embraces instruments all the way through operators."

Technical skills

In addition to technical competency with the products that go into an integrated automation solution, system integrators must know something about what they are automating. Process expertise and knowledge of industry plus the latest technology and applications know-how are key to an integrator's success, according to Mark Pinkus, general manager of the electrical and automation department at Quad Automation (Toronto, Ontario, Canada).

Amy Galarowicz, an applications engineer at Clarotech LLC (East Hanover, N.J.), notes that she and her colleagues are successful because of their "sharp technical skills that are ever honed and improved. We have to walk into varied situations, know enough to inspire confidence and lay out a rough direction on the first or second sales call, but then be able to fine tune and really figure out details as we dive in deeper."

However, as Mr. Whitsitt points out, "just programming at a desk is not enough these days." In fact, technical skills were not generally considered by the survey's respondents as the most important requirement for a good system integrator. Ms. Galarowicz claims that distinction goes to project management skills.

"It is rare indeed that customers we deal with have the luxury of time, the background, and wherewithal to truly keep a project on track, and be that leading, driving force to get things done. Whether clients realize it or not, we are 99% of the time responsible for managing details, large and small, and ensuring that things go down on schedule to keep forward progress. Simply having a consistent project methodology puts us far ahead of what most customers practice," she says.

Project management

Rob Lowe, president of Loman Controls (Lititz, Pa.) adds, "For projects to be performed successfully, an integrator must have a written and enforced procedure for project management. All project managers and technical staff members must be trained to use it, and then use it." In other words, "a good integrator must have the ability to take a sketchy, conceptual design through to successful completion," says Doug Brassard, marketing manager for Edwards & Kelcey Technology (Leesburg, Va.).

Mr. Lowe also notes that writing and presentation skills are an integral part of effective project management. "An integrator's staff must be able to write functional specifications that the customer can understand, review, and approve. Without this initial step, a lot of discontent will take place at the conclusion of the project."

Cornerstone Controls' Mr. Whitsitt elaborates further on the "soft skills" that a good system integrator must possess. In addition to "verbal, written, presentation, and general communication" skills, the ideal integrator must demonstrate or be adept at negotiating, leadership, initiative, insight, commitment, discipline, ability to remain calm, and lack of fear about new technology or new situations, willing to deal with ambiguity. Whew!

Flexibility and the ability to adapt to change are also high on the list of attributes valued by Dave Musil, a project systems engineer at International Submarine Engineering (ISE, Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, Canada). On the other hand, a system integrator must realize that not every automation system needs to be created from scratch. "You have to realize that you can borrow from other applications or technologies. You shouldn't reinvent the wheel when you don't have to."

People skills

Mr. Musil also observes that a good integrator must be able to establish a close working relationship with the customer. Clarotech's Ms. Galarowicz agrees wholeheartedly. "Being able to read people and dance accordingly is useful. It helps us to be able to recognize different team members' strengths, weaknesses, and phobias (our own as well as the customers) and to work around them to maximum benefit of the project."

Understanding the client's needs is a top priority for the integrators at Quad Automation, according to Mr. Pinkus. As Ms. Galarowicz puts it, a good system integrator has to "be able to listen and keep asking questions." Better still, she would like to be able to "read the customer's mind, but not assume too much either. We must listen astutely to really understand what customers want. Then we have to articulate it for them clearly enough that we not only manage expectations, but also deliver on time while managing scope creep."

Business skills

The project planning and scope management skills that Ms. Galarowicz describes also fall under the heading of "business savvy."

Edwards & Kelcey's Mr. Brassard says a good system integrator must develop business skills including, the ability to estimate and negotiate effectively. ISE's Mr. Musil adds that good system integrators must be "realistic with project goals" and must deliver what they've promised "on time and on budget." That includes providing continuous support to keep the client's automation system running long after installation is complete, says Mr. Pinkus.

That brings up the character issue. In addition to making good on their promises and continuing to stand by their work, Mr. Musil believes that system integrators must be honest and fair with their clients. Mr. Pinkus puts a commitment to deliver what was promised high on his list of integrator attributes, as well.

Leadership is also important. Both Ms. Galarowicz and Mr. Brassard note that leading a project to a successful conclusion requires more than technical, business, and people skills. Character counts.

So where can an automation user find such highly skilled, trustworthy, and dependable integrators? Use this guide to see!

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