Anything Can Change, But Not Everything Must

By Alex Ruddick, UOP Good morning! Or should I say good evening? The sun is just setting as I write this in Mangalore, India, where the time leads the U.S. by half a day. By the time this article is printed and appears online, India Standard Time will join the growing list of time zones in which I used to live. My employer, the refining technology company UOP, sends me to various countries like most employers send people to meetings. My boss rarely tells me where I'm going very far in advance because she doesn't know either. The likely candidates for my next move are Colombia, Russia, and China, but there is still a chance I'll be sent to some other country entirely. Working as a field service engineer means dealing with a lot of changes, but there's a lot more to these changes than just passport stamps. I've had to learn a few key lessons to survive the challenges of this job.

Get ready for change

Because the tasks I'm assigned are so diverse, my answer to the question "What is your job like?" usually involves a slight sigh and a cliche?d "It depends ..." On one assignment, my mentor and I sat in the corner of a cramped room trying to explain terms like "loss of catalyst seal" and "valve output ramping" to our translator. She would look up unusual words on her phone and then pass the concept along to the non-English-speaking engineer troubleshooting with us. Another assignment found me hanging onto a rope ladder deep inside a steel vessel, holding a taper and a box of matches to test temperature sensors. (Normal testing programs can't hold a candle to that!) A third assignment involved tracking down valve design information, although the valves had been renamed multiple times, undergone a partial project revamp, and become caked with ten years of filth. The same task hasn't come up twice.


Keep things interesting

Early on I decided that I would strive to make sure any report I wrote was interesting. I never sacrificed accuracy, but I sometimes traded a bit of thoroughness for a laugh or two. I was surprised when a colleague remembered my first-ever presentation to company employees, a year prior. Neither of us remembered the other half-dozen excellent presentations given that day. The difference was that I had used my research, along with stories and colorful language, to support a thought-provoking claim instead of just presenting it directly. This helped people remember things about my work they otherwise might have forgotten. At times this method is poorly received -- after all, colorful language in technical reports is typically frowned upon. Without changing the underlying goal of the reports, I now keep my writing precise and use pictures to catch readers' attention instead.

Pick a basis and normalize

Plenty of advice for young engineers boils down to "be ready for anything." This isn't bad advice, but it misses the fact that some things remain the same no matter where you are or what task you are working on. When you are in a different country, units and time zones change, but core ideas remain the same. Engineers must be clever enough to account for these changes while recognizing the similarities. A chemical engineer must be able to pick a basis and then normalize from there, despite the conditions.

For example, in the petroleum refining industry, we use barrels as the basis for measuring volume. Other industries use gallons or liters to measure their product. Ultimately, everyone normalizes to his or her own preferred units. Converting to a desired set of units is one of the most common tasks in any type of engineering. By making a decision to normalize into familiar units, solving for the remaining unknowns is simple. Furthermore, you can pick a basis and normalize for tasks themselves. Choose the essential core of an activity. Keep that core, and adjust the implementation to match the environment. Take inspections, for instance. The meters and monitors I work with require initial calibration. The core of this task is very simple -- find the calibration value and write it down. On one assignment, finding the value meant walking outside to locate the instrument in question and scraping off years of grime from a metal plate. On my current project, few of the instruments are marked outside; instead, they self-report their calibration values to a central computer. Similarly, "write it down" could involve entering a reading on a formal logging sheet, taking a photograph, or jotting down scribbles on the back of a piece of paper. One particularly bad case involved asking someone to email me his copy of a photograph of scribbles on the back of a water-logged piece of paper after mine was destroyed in the rain. As long as the final goal - in this case, an accurate recorded value - is accomplished, feel free to use the most effective method to do it. The most significant lesson I've learned is to choose the most important part of anything you do and ensure that it happens. Pick your basis and normalize according to the norms of your coworkers, company, or country. What time zone are you in? As long as you can tell time, does it really matter? This YPOV article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of CEP magazine.