Today, as engineering professionals, information technology and software skills are generally a key part of our skill set. Whether it is only using Word and spreadsheets, troubleshooting an errant industrial automation system or specifying the requirements for a new PLC and SCADA system – software is a key part of our daily work.

So the question that is often asked is this: What are the skills (and indeed, personality traits) that make you extraordinarily successful in working with software and IT infrastructure?

A few suggestions follow. If you can work on these suggestions; you can surely improve your performance in this much-in demand area. Often these traits are deeply embedded in who you are. So are difficult to immediately change. But as with everything (I know from playing and improving my previously mediocre tennis game) with determination and persistence one can build up a significant skill set.

Adaptability to working in an ill-defined environment
Working in the IT area is surely non-routine. There are constantly changes and challenges and it is a strongly ambiguous environment with a varying stream of demands from deleted files/servers that crash and hackers finding new ways into your critical system. There is no routine and the work load goes in sharp peaks and troughs and you may end up working late at night to keep the plant operating with a fix to the SCADA system software applied late at night.

Rapid Change in Technology
Of all the professions, surely IT has one of the most supercharged, fast moving and changing environments in terms of technology change (mostly, supposedly improvements but as we know - not always). We have rapidly progressed from PCs operating alongside mainframes to network servers, virtualization and now cloud computing. From network systems as varied as floppy disks (before we had networks) to ArcNet, Token Ring, Ethernet. From protocols such as NetBEUI, IPX to TCP/IP. From hubs to routers and switches.

You have to be a sponge in absorbing what is going on and seizing the opportunity to upgrade when it is economically and technically viable. Often the supposed technological change is a mirage and your careful investigation has to show it for it truly is – a waste of time and money and resources. And you have to avoid it.

Adventurous and Eager to Learn
You must thrive on learning new things. It must be a source of satisfaction (perhaps, ‘joy’ would be too much?). Look for new trends and ways of doing things. And watch for the traps for the unwary. Ensure your skills are kept current and avoid the dying areas of technology. Thrive on and build your skills in the new needed areas so that you are constantly in demand as the resident guru. Improving your skills doesn’t mean going on formal courses but keeping in touch with your virtual network of contacts, attending webinars, reading blogs and browsing web sites. All the time, building solid skills in the new developing areas. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and to fail in the application of your learning. Try and reinforce your learning with hands-on applications where you confirm your theoretical knowledge with solid hands-on work.

Play as Part of a Team
The days of being an isolated engineering IT professional operating quietly on her own without interacting with others are long since gone. You are part of a glorious (well, not quite – but esteemed, perhaps) team of IT professionals and a key player within the corporate structure. Ensure you understand how you interact with others in the engineering and IT world and how you contribute to the business.

Ethics, Morality and Trust
With your access to the network and servers; you often have access to passwords and critical confidential information (of the operation of the company and of individuals). Ensure you keep the trust at all times.

Enthusiasm and Passion
Always be a ‘can-do’ person and be passionate about what you do. You have enormous power in being familiar with the IT infrastructure so try and assist everyone where possible. It is easy to be negative and to try and get rid of people without helping them. Showing a positive outlook on life in this way, will help your career enormously.

Know your Limits
There are always new developments in the IT area and it is fast expanding area. If you are unsure about the application of a particular technology; it is best to be honest and admit it is outside your skill level. No one can expect you to be ‘all-knowing’. Engaging in installation of IT technology where you are unsure about the final results is a sure-fire path to disaster for your firm and for you.

Don’t be embarrassed to call in the experts in a particular area – whether it is a new way of setting up an industrial firewall or some peculiar way of running your plant infrastructure from the cloud.

Document, Document, Document
There is a ferocious amount of detail in working with the IT area. It is vital as you troubleshoot or conduct a new installation that you document everything that is happening so that you can review it later. Perhaps, to avoid future mistakes or to reset everything to the original state or to act as a record for someone else investigating a similar problem. But to protect you later if awkward questions arise as to why something has happened. It is virtually impossible to commence documenting a complex installation process after the event. (A tiny tip: When documenting in Notepad, press the F5 key to add date and time stamps along the way).

Back Up Always
IT systems are often critical to your overall operation. Ensure that you have everything backed up at all times for the inevitable time that your server crashes. Or your power supply fails. Ensure you have alternative fixes when something does crash. You may have an old ISDN phone system as a back up for your state-of-the-art Voice over IP system. You may have another SCADA server or data communications channel for when there is failure.

Thanks to John Hales from Global Knowledge for a thoughtful dissertation on a related topic.

I like Douglas Adams’ comment (especially relevant to IT systems):  A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof was to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.

Yours in engineering learning,