IT-Savvy Engineers Retool Careers

As the Chinese say: may you live in interesting times, says Don Clark. No Zen sage, Clark is currently director for industry marketing for Invensys Process Systems, but he started out 30 years ago as a control engineer for 3M Company. In the passage of time, however, he has garnered experience and wisdom sufficient to substantiate his claim that, for engineers, these are indeed interesting times.

By Frank O. Smith, Contributing Editor November 1, 2006
Resources for retooling your career

As the Chinese say: may you live in interesting times, says Don Clark. No Zen sage, Clark is currently director for industry marketing for Invensys Process Systems, but he started out 30 years ago as a control engineer for 3M Company. In the passage of time, however, he has garnered experience and wisdom sufficient to substantiate his claim that, for engineers, these are indeed interesting times.

Few would argue that the traditional world of the control engineer has been immune from undergoing significant changes. This is no surprise given that the business of manufacturing has endured upheavals in recent years, nothing short of seismic in magnitude, with the increasing pressure to compete globally and the application of information technology to solve old problems and forge new processes.

So do these interesting times present a danger or an opportunity? The people who have undergone their career alterations say it depends largely on how you look at it, coupled with a willingness to move beyond your comfort zone. Control Engineering talked to engineers who have made the move into information technology (IT) and other business careers. They say it pays—literally as well as figuratively—to look upon these interesting times as an opportunity.

Less specialization

“We’re right on the cusp,” Clark says. “In the past, the technology was incapable of providing a united, comprehensive view of processes on the plant floor and of business. It was too big a challenge in terms of computing horsepower and technology. You had to specialize and have specialized computers to focus on process control or business information. Today the power of commercial technology makes it possible to lay out a comprehensive information portfolio that enables interoperability. We’re on the cusp,” he says, “of leaving the world of specialization behind.”

There are reasons to look upon this as an unprecedented opportunity rather than a peril. “It means being able to work on higher profile projects. There’s greater visibility, greater respect, and with that, more money,” says Joe Jablonski, president of Acumence, a supplier of manufacturing intelligence solutions.

Jablonski started his career in engineering but became more involved with integration projects and eventually switched career tracks completely. As a young control engineer, the rare opportunity to interact with upper management was “when you screw up,” he says. “For a control engineer who wants greater mobility for career advancement and recognition, it’s a good move to get more involved with IT.”

Process control definitely still remains a specific domain defined by unique requirements. But it is how those requirements are being addressed and, additionally—the business requirements added on top of them—that is clearly on the cusp of change. It’s causing the gap between automation and IT to shrink, bringing those in both fields into closer proximity and engagement.

“IT and control engineering are moving much closer together in terms of technology and the way that applications interact and are structured,” says Marc Leroux, ABB marketing manager for collaborative manufacturing. “Distinctions between the two are becoming blurred in many companies.”

It is not an easy transition. “Control engineers have tended to think of the IT department as the people who keep them from doing things,” says Dennis Brandl, president of BR&L Consulting and Control Engineering columnist. “They’re the keepers of the corporate standards, but most standards aren’t written for real-time automation and control on the floor—and there’s the rub.”

For many control engineers, it’s an irritating rub at that. “People in the plant don’t want somebody from corporate IT coming out and looking at what they’re doing,” says Tom Vukovich, director of enterprise technology, Wisconsin Public Service, a power utility. “They don’t know the equipment and they don’t know what it does.” By most reckonings, that’s where the rub gets most fractious. But it is also an opening for great opportunity.

Leverage what you know

The value of what control engineers know has grown exponentially as the importance of operational efficiencies and performance has become strategically critical to competitiveness and profitability. To leverage that knowledge, however, it is critical to put it in the proper context.

“Automation engineers need to learn how to think—and talk—like a businessman,” Clark says. He recalls that when he was first starting as a control engineer, he was “oblivious to the business drivers of the plant.”

Most engineers, Clark says, “are terminally geeky. They will religiously avoid besmirching themselves by looking at something as unchallenging as accounting. To them, it’s basically adding and subtracting. If it doesn’t involve differential equations and advanced calculus, they’re not interested.”

It was a revolutionary insight to Clark, however, to grasp the notion of unit cost, a most basic calculation in production accounting: “You have to be able to sell a product for more than it costs to make it,” he explains.

Clark had been six years on the job before the significance of that measure dawned on him. At the company where he then worked, 90% of the unit cost was in the steam used in the reboiler, while “in engineering, we looked at steam as only a matter of pressure and temperature,” he says. Perceiving it as dollars was an eye-opener.

“I began to use the power of the computer to recalibrate steam in terms of dollars per hour,” he says. “This was a new number to the engineers. They began to optimize the steam flow shift to shift, and the volume began to drop. This is an example of what engineers need to do in hundreds of instances in their jobs.”

Communication and mindset

“If you’re an engineer, you like solving problems,” says Brandl. Thinking like a businessman and concurrently stretching to master new IT skills “gives you better tools to solve problems. I think it’s a great career path for engineers to engage more directly with the IT department. Becoming more involved ensures, for one thing, that the needs of manufacturing are directly addressed,” he says.

You have to understand that it is a different culture, says Leroux. “It requires a different vocabulary. You have to learn a new language. Initially, you have to spend more time listening and absorbing then talking,” he adds.

But the payoff is real. Rodney Howard, PE, senior engineer for Wisconsin Public Services, says, “Communication, speaking their language, plays a big part. When talking to someone who doesn’t have an understanding of what we’re doing, I’m able to explain it in terms that they do understand.”

Howard works for Vukovich, who himself started as a control engineer in a nuclear power plant and is now director of enterprise technology for Wisconsin Public Service. He serves essentially in the role of chief information officer (CIO), ensuring that all software and hardware fits and functions well together within the larger system framework.

“There’s a different mindset between IT and process control,” Vukovich explains. “With process control, you’re dealing with equipment: pumps and motors. With IT, you’re really dealing with people. The output isn’t a motor that starts, but a person doing a job. You need to start by understanding the end user.”

To do this, Clark of Invensys says control engineers need to venture out of the comfort zone of their own domain, meet people in other departments, and learn about what they do. “Get to know the production management. The people who do production accounting, inventory control, supply chain management, purchasing, and scheduling. Process engineers need to sit down and have coffee with these guys. Think about how you might help them do their jobs better,” he says.

Start where you’re at

To get greater visibility and respect, as well as more money, everyone contacted for this article stressed the importance of expanding your knowledge base. All suggested where to start, but with little commonality. Summed up, the advice is, “start where you’re at.”

“Leverage what you already know,” says Kevin Tock, Wonderware vice president. “Work backwards from a problem or issue and learn the meaning of all the buzzwords and standards you encounter. Read up on how they relate. Think in terms of what adds value.”

Jablonski stresses the importance of understanding operating systems. “Understand Microsoft Windows well—what domains and active directories are. Become Microsoft certified.” This is something you can learn on your own, he says. After that, he suggests taking on a programming language such as Visual Basic: “It has legs for the next 10 years,” he stresses. Enrolling in formal classes at a local community college or institute is highly recommended. “The biggest challenge is always the time required,” he adds.

Vukovich suggests starting by understanding network security. “In process control today, you have to understand security due to the threat of cyber crime,” he says. A solid foundation in how networks work also is fundamental to this skill. “If you have a good idea how systems work, the transition is not that difficult. It’s just a different piece of equipment on the other end of the wire,” he says.

Learn the language of IT to communicate better. Leroux suggests reading IT publications. “That’s where you start to get a slightly different perspective at how others look at things.” Clark, who encourages engineers to mingle with production managers, suggests they join APICS (the American Production and Inventory Control Society) to access yet another perspective. “It costs $50 dollars a year. Read their books. Expand your boundaries,” he advises.

As someone who is active in ISA as a co-chair of a committee guiding efforts on standards development, Clark also stresses the critical importance of becoming knowledgeable about standards: “Become aware and knowledgeable of ISA 95. I’m bullish on that.” Others quoted here are members of MESA International, the group that focuses on plant-floor to enterprise integration activities.

Brandl pushes the “broaden your education” theme. “Read everything you can. The technology is changing rapidly. Be aware of what the long-term trends are. And get involved in standards.” He suggests becoming knowledgeable of ISA 99 because “it deals with security and is a good place to start.”

If any consensus emerges from these diverse voices of experience, it is: get involved. Volunteer for projects that forge engagement with IT—the technology and the people in the IT department. Enlist to serve on steering committees, standards bodies, and evaluation and pilot teams. Expand your boundaries. And expect there to be discomfort, even pain. But embrace it.

“Typically when the pain is the greatest,” says Tom Vukovich, “that’s when the opportunity is the greatest as well.”

Resources for retooling your career
A career development thread at (more to come)

  • Search Career Update atop any page at (1998– 2000, under departments).

  • Career database in the Resource Center

  • Control Engineering Salary Survey 2005– Change: The New Normal

  • Cover story–Calmer Waters (2003 salary survey)

  • How to improve techno-business (2003)

  • Accounting needs will renew industrial technology investments (2001)

  • ISA


  • MESA

For the first three parts of this series on enterprise integration and the engineer, search for the following articles on

  1. Business Technologies Boost Engineering

  2. Building Bridges to the Enterprise

  3. Worlds in Collision — or Cooperation?

Resources for retooling your career

Go to the Career database in the Resource Center at

In the search box, atop any page at

Career Update (1998-2000, under departments).

Change: The New Normal (salary survey 2005)

Calmer Waters (salary survey 2003)

How to improve techno-business (2003)

Accounting needs will renew industrial technology investments (2001)

Also see:

ISA at