OK, so you want to be a process control guru. Can you explain your job in one sentence?

Not so easy, is it? Try explaining it to your Mom, or your Grandma, or your neighbor, grocer, or kid’s basketball coach. You might say something like “I work in the automation of process plants, like oil refineries, paper plants, and chemical plants.” That still doesn’t really explain what you DO. Trying to explain it in any level of detail, and you’ll have to explain HMIs, PIDs, PLCs, DCSs, and a host of other TLAs (Three-Letter Acronyms..ha ha).

It is simply a fact that our industry has a lot of jargon. To the layman, it can seem like we are talking another language. “We’re using fieldbus, so we upgraded to Smart IO, but our DCS HMI can’t show the diagnostics, so maybe we should have stayed with 4 to 20 milli-amps.” You get a puzzled look from operators, managers, and even engineers from other fields. How can we combat this problem?

When I first started as a control engineer, DCSs were “the new thing”, and they weren’t well-understood. I began to think of myself as a ‘translator’. I spent a good deal of my time explaining to managers and operators. They wanted to know about costs and benefits of DCSs. They also wanted to know how they worked, why they would be reliable, and so on. I had to find ways of explaining new concepts (even “network” was a relatively new term to many). The more they knew, the easier it was for me to do my “real job”, actually implementing the DCS systems.

Explaining ourselves does not always come naturally to we engineers. We draw on a different base of experience than “lay people”, and we can come across as arrogant if we over-explain. So it is a good idea to practice how we communicate. Here are some suggestions for how we can practice explaining ourselves:

1. Explain your job to a 5-year-old.
2. Explain your job to a grandparent, or someone who doesn’t use computers.
3. Practice an “elevator speech”. Imagine you have 30 seconds to convince your boss’s boss to fund your next big project. What would you say? Now, practice it. Really. Say it out loud. Time yourself. Don’t waste a single word.
4. Try to explain something complicated in a simple picture. Try “ratio control”, or “feedforward”. You are limited to a half a sheet of paper, or one napkin. No more than 5 written words allowed.

These are just some practice exercises to help you develop your ability to get your point across quickly, and simply, without drifting back into “control engineer language.” Good luck with it.

By the way, here’s a cool example of visual communication from a mathematician: