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Think You're Analytical?

Aug. 31, 2011
Are You a Control Engineer or an Analytical Thinker? Are You Both?
By Jeremy Pollard, CET

You might think that one goes hand in hand with the other, but I wonder about that. I wrote a column a few years back that argued that engineers are born and not made. I still believe that. The reasons could be a bit off center, but I found it interesting when I read a column by Alan Norton entitled "10 Curses of the Analytical Thinker" (www.ControlDesign.com/curses).

I also read an excerpt of an InfoWorld blog that talked about the next big things in IT. I wonder if IT people really are any different than control people. Primary differences aside, our sandbox is very different. We need to think more.

One of those next big things was common-off-the-shelf (COTS) software embedded in devices. You might have bought a new printer and, lo-and-behold, the drivers were on board. Novel idea, at the time. I also wrote about having embedded code in a device that would be browser-based, and have the ability to monitor and configure anything on the floor, much like a router of today.

[pullquote]So, I wondered, what kind of an engineer or product development manager would it take to develop a PLC that had the programming software built in? Of course, the associated documentation would also be locally available. Which of the 10 traits that compose an analytical thinker would be needed to cross that boundary?

The analytical thinker, Norton says, has up to 10 specific traits. Information addict is one of them. Duh! Ever seen a controls guy run into something cool, and not want to find out how it works? Many hours are spent researching why it works.

Trait 2 addresses our ability to make things more complicated than they really are. We think about different ways to approach an issue, and in the process take way more time than the issue deserves. My wife sees that one daily.

Coupled with trait 2, the more we think, the more options we create, and thus struggle to make a final decision. Have you ever been in a meeting with an engineer who won't accept a decision until he/she ruminates for 7-10 days?

Norton's trait 5 suggests that the true analytical thinker is habitual and resistant to change. I agree. This reason alone created many tombstones on the software battlefield.

It seems the social graces of some techies leave something to be desired. Go to an ISA conference, and you'll see that first hand. One of my first programming gigs 30 years ago was working with a chap who was very proud of his design ability. I found it funny that every time I went to the office, he always wore a brown checked shirt, and brown checked pants. Yes, he was single.

Point 7 suggests that skepticism is alive and well. Without the details and thus the proof, most of us will not believe what is said. It's kind of like watching the news, conspiracy theories abounding because that "just couldn't be happening."f

Marketing departments are filled with creative, politically correct people. No pocket protectors there. That segues into point 9 quite well. Being politically correct means being soft and subtle in the things that are publicly stated. Therefore, I say no more.

I don't agree with the 10th point. We as a group can enjoy time alone, but I wouldn't necessarily say, as a group, we would be loners. Maybe we just prefer our own space. But if you consider the aforementioned nine points, you could get the impression that we don't play well with others.

That brings me to my own trait 11. Listening to the opinions of others is not easy when it doesn't support our own thought processes. A good friend of mine believes that an opinion worth listening to comes only from someone with letters behind his or her name. Guess common folk need not engage in conversation, eh?
So, how many engineers does it take to embed programming software into PLCs to help folks on the floor deal with laptops and iPhones?

I'm afraid to think about that, analytically or otherwise. 

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