The Automation Profession is Reborn

My latest article about our profession in Control Engineering Magazine.

Thank you to Mark Hoske and CFE Media for providing the opportunity to educate our community.

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The Discussion continues: Today’s Leaders have an obligation to the future of our profession.


Dean Ford: Leaders are obligated to the future | ISA.

The article above begins a discussion based upon my thoughts on the responsibility and obligation that today’s leaders in ISA and the Automation Profession have to the future of the profession.  In reality, the ideas set forth apply to anyone in a leadership position.  Many of you have probably seen me on the various blogs and LinkedIn groups defending and supporting the International Society of Automation, the Automation Federation and the Automation Profession in general against attacks that are meant to do nothing more than create controversy and some make the critic more relevant to the conversation.  The fact is, these critics are relics of a time gone by and have unfortunately missed the opportunity to join the new movement that will propel our profession into the future. 

Being a leader is a great responsibility. One that is not shared by pontificators or followers. Being a leader is living in a glass house, setting a direction and following it even when it is not popular in some circles. If it is the right thing to do, you know it and you must follow that instinct.  I believe that if you are not upsetting someone, then you are not being effective.

I came to the conclusion in the article based upon the experience I had specifically in IEEE and ISA.  My IEEE experience was that of a student leader at my college and the ISA was a professional leader.  Simply put, I cannot rationalize how a vital profession like automation is such an unknown given two professional orginzations exist that could serve it.  After spending the beginning of my career in both IEEE and ISA, I quickly figured out that IEEE was too broad to effectively support the automation profession, my profession.  I then focused on ISA. 

I here rhetoric that the ISA was so well managed during the 90’s and had such large cash reserves.  I hear that and also say to myself that a lot of companies with no vision or leadership were started in the 90’s and made a lot of money but never really provided value.  Just about anyone could have raised money in good times such as the bulk of the 90’s.  I also see that other professions really took off in the 90’s.  Project Management, Information Technologies, Computer Science, etc.  Where was the Automation Profession during the period of tremendous growth?  Why did it not seize the opportunity to make a place for itself?

I can only draw conclusions based on what battles, walls and mountains we must overcome today.  Certain factions in the automation community don’t see a need to have a presence in government.  That baffles me as I cannot identify a single profession that does not have a government relations person, association or group of some sort, except of course the Automation Profession.  We solved that with Automation Federation.  Today the Automation Federation is the Voice of Automation.  We have taken our message to government and anyone else that will hear us.  As many of us have learned, it is shocking how little is known about our profession and the importance of it in the future of society. 

The Federation built the Automation Competency Model that defines our profession to use as a jumping off point with the public, education, government, end users.  Anyone and everyone that is somehow connected to our space.  It has taken on international appeal as many other countries are looking to adopt it to solve their own problems with the lack of understand of our profession.

I also cannot believe that the ISA is so disjointed and the governance was allowed to become so crippling.  The last several ISA Presidents and the current ISA Executive Director have made very tough and strategic decisions to lay the foundations that have gotten us this far.  All the while having to deal with the old guard that just wants to maintain the status quo.  How can you claim to have been such a great steward of our society and leave it in such a disjointed, non communicative mess?

And I really don’t understand the necessity of some of our volunteers and volunteer leadership to treat the dedicated staff of professionals that we have so poorly.  I have seen some egregious e-mails and witnessed some very disappointing conversations by members to our staff.  I am quite certain these same folks would not treat peers or subordinates in their own company this way but maybe they do.  Either way, I won’t tolerate it and you will know it when I learn of a line you have crossed.  I am very proud of the staff we have and the dedication they show me every day.

And finally, there is a major issue of accountability, or the lack thereof, in our volunteer leadership, members, senior members and fellows.  Being a part of this society requires commitments and those commitments are made to the membership.  We will be working to hold these folks more accountable for their actions and to live up to the ISA Code of Ethics.  I am a proponent of having metrics for our volunteer leaders and the membership should demand that these people meet the minimum expectations of the roles they fill.  These roles are not to populate your resume. 

Now is the time for action to turn the society into what it can be, not ponitification on what the society should be or what is was during a different time and different world.  We already know the answer to that problem.  Either helps us move these mountains or go find something else to do and keep your mouth shut.  Armchair quarterbacking serves no use and only hinders our progress. 

As automation professionals, you really just have two options.  Sit on the sidelines and watch others control your future or join the fight and help us get this profession moving forward even faster. 


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The ISA I Know by Nick Sands

As I was working to formulate some of the feelings I have about the only professional society that fits us, ISA, I thought back to a fantastic post by Nick Sands early this year.  Nick has been active in ISA for many years and is probably the most influential on me getting involved.  I found it an excellent read and very helpful in reminding us why we get involved in organizations such as ISA.

reprinted in its entirity with permission from Nick Sands.

Over the last 7 years I have had the opportunity to be a part of some very good things through ISA; the development of the Certified Automation Professional (CAP) program, the development of the ANSI/ISA-18.2 standard on the Management of Alarm Systems in the Process Industries, and the new Applications in Automation Conference, among others. These three activities exemplify some of the great parts of my ISA experience.  My conclusion: it really has been the case that the more you put in, the more you get out.

In the spring of 2003, in Memphis at my first ISA leaders meeting, I was looking for a program that we could use in my company to recognize process control competency. I talked with several leaders and was directed to Vernon Trevathan and Dale Lee. Vernon was pitching the Certified Automation Professional program to ISA leadership. We talked and later Vernon, an ISA Fellow and member of the Control magazine Control Hall of Fame, invited me to be a part of the CAP development team. There were many experienced professionals from many companies involved in meetings early in 2004. Many of us met again to write test questions for the exam, and still more met to assemble the exam from the questions. By the fall of 2004 there was a certification program for Automation Professionals, following the ANSI/ISO/IEC standard. Several of us from the development team became CAPs.

It was an impressive effort, funded by the new venture investment program at ISA. It took some time for the ideas to be formulated and reformulated, but with the incredible passion of Vernon, and the support of many ISA leaders, a new certification program was launched. Since that launch, the CAP program has steadily gained acceptance, albeit more slowly than hoped. Still the related training and books has are in high demand, so the evidence indicates a good level of interest.

I extracted some lessons from the experience, not necessarily new, but still lessons.

  • One person can make a difference. Without the passion and energy of Vernon Trevathan there would be no CAP program.
  • Together we are much smarter than we are alone. No one person had all the answers during the program development.
  • People don’t always want what they ask for. A survey showed 80% of respondents would be interested in getting CAP. The numbers show far fewer actually have applied.
  • Success (genius) is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. It takes work to make ideas reality. Without the work, the ideas mean nothing.

In the fall of 2003, at my second ISA leaders meeting, Vic Maggioli, then VP of the ISA Standards and Practices Department, asked me to get involved with the ISA-18 standard committee and help get a new standard written. At the short committee meeting we approved a scope and then went forth to built the team that could write the standard. It took 6 months to get much of the committee collected. It took almost 2 years to get the work processes down and the first real draft. It took another 2.5 years to get to the standard to the ballot stage and then another 6 months to work that process through to approval. In the end a committee ~90 people, with ~40 active members and ~25 voting members submitted and addressed ~8000 comments. Conservatively, it took over 10 person years to produce ANSI/ISA-18.2-2009 Management of Alarm Systems for the Process Industries. I think it will have a very positive impact on industry.

Co-chairing ISA-18 with Donald Dunn has been one of the greatest learning experiences of my life. Along the way I learned quite a bit about how alarms are used in different companies and industries, and how standards are written and edited, but mostly about how to work with people. Every person brought their own views and biases, including me. Some came with a bias that their view was always right. Then, we got to know each other and began to appreciate the views of others. That led to consensus, and in the end, to a standard. It is not perfect, but it is quite good I think.

Again I extracted some lessons from the experience.

  • A few people can make a difference. Without the passion and energy of the core group, there would be no ISA-18.2 standard.
  • Together we are much smarter than we are alone. No one person had all the answers during the standard development.
  • Success (genius) is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. It takes work to make ideas reality. Without the work, the ideas mean nothing.

Though I have had the opportunity to be part of many ISA teams that have completed many projects over those 7 years, the last example I wanted to share is one that has me excited today, the ISA Mid-Atlantic Applications in Automation conference ( ). The Applications in Automation conference is a small technical conference born of the desire for local talent to share their knowledge and experience with local people. This 3-day event in Wilmington, DE, March 23-25, features 2 days of training with a technical conference on the middle day. The conference committee consists of members of the local sections and requires no support from ISA headquarters. We are very optimistic about the conference.

Leading this team of exceptional volunteers has been very exciting. Each person brings their own talents. Together we are able to do things we could never do alone. All it took to get some of these talented people to join the effort was the opportunity. They wanted to be a part of something like this. They only needed the opportunity. And it is fun.

From this experience I have again extracted a few lessons.

  • A few people can make a difference. Without the passion and energy of the team, there would be no conference.
  • Together we are much smarter than we are alone. No one person had all the ideas for this conference.
  • Success (genius) is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. It takes work to make ideas reality. Without the work, the ideas mean nothing.

These experiences at ISA, among others, are why I continue to volunteer my own time. I have found it very rewarding personally. It seems to me that there are very few limits on what you can do if you really put the time into it and you get a few people to work with you. There are people willing to work with you. I have no bone to pick, no wrong to right, no point to make, only some experience to share, and a few lessons I seem to learn again and again.

Thanks Nick for your dedication and professionalism.  I look forward to many years of working with you in promoting our profession.


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