Skills Shift to Software

July 1, 2008
Engineers Must Now Keep Up with a Lot of Microsoft Hot Fixes and Software Patches to Solve Vulnerabilities
By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

Do you know how to do your job? Can you do it better? And, of not, do you know where to find out how to do it and do it better? These questions used to be easier to answer because technologies and their required job skills didn’t change too quickly. Needless to say, things have changed. Over the past 20 to 25 years, few if any major industries have been unaffected by the advent of computers, software and their related networks and data communications. For process controls and automation, this meant the emergence of more sophisticated distributed controls systems and programmable logic controllers, increasingly open and accessible software and related systems, and networks that evolved from proprietary roots to commonly defined and applied fieldbuses and onward to Ethernet and now wireless flavors that appear open—even if they don’t actually interoperate.

So, I’ve been wondering how much have process engineers’ job descriptions been changing lately? What skills do refineries, chemical plants and other applications need their engineers to have that they didn’t need until recently?

My informational saviors this time around were Whit McConnell, PE, senior staff engineer at ExxonMobil Chemical’s engineering and manufacturing support department, and Doug Bach, global manager for Honeywell Process Solutions’ (HPS) contract management services, who jointly presented “Support Planning—Align Your Support Strategy with Your Business Strategy” at the 2008 Honeywell Users Group Meeting on June 16 in Phoenix.

“Open systems can have a positive impact, but they also bring challenges,”  says McConnell. “These include virus and worm attacks, multiple software vendors for OSs and applications, proliferating PCs and hardware performing specialized tasks, hardware that reaches obsolescence quicker than proprietary systems, new skills required for management and support, and an overall technology churn because hardware, OSs and application dependencies each have short, unsynchronized life cycles.”

Over the past 10 years, McConnell says, the roles of ExxonMobil’s engineers and operators have changed dramatically. Staffers that used to know how to replace field terminal assemblies (FTAs), service VMS operating systems (OSs), proprietary PMX software and TDC 300 components must now maintain servers and workstations running Microsoft Windows OSs, understand basic industrial networking and operate TDC 3000 devices.

“Engineers now have to keep up with a lot of Microsoft hot fixes to solve vulnerabilities. Handling these software patches can be very time-consuming, so we evaluate and do a risk analysis for each one and prioritize them to minimize labor and downtime,” says McConnell. “We still need to know how to change out FTAs, but now we need to know networking switching too. So we’ve borrowed skills from our business IT folks and incorporated them into process control. This enables us to use Microsoft’s capabilities to manage hot fixes, but we don’t do it in fully automatic mode to blow down changes to devices at 2 a.m. either.”   

To secure these newer skills, ExxonMobil recruits rookies that have them and conducts formal and on-the-job training. “We previously hired a lot of electrical engineering degrees, but now we hire more computing and IT degrees. These days, while our engineers must know 4-20 mA and point-to-point hardwiring, they also need to know Ethernet and Microsoft OSs, SQL servers and databases for applications.

“Today IT folks have many of the needed skills because the plant guys say, ‘This device looks like yours, so you handle it.’ Many  older guys who worked on proprietary systems don’t want to know about IT stuff, while the younger people just consider IT tasks as part of their jobs. In fact, a lot of engineering curriculums include PCs and networking, and  then young engineers learn about the older stuff from veterans or vendor courses. So they must have both. You can’t survive with one or the other.”