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From ISA Connect: What are Some Standard Automation Career Paths?

The following is taken from ISA Connect’s Technical Discussion Forum.

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Mary’beth Ramey, Automation and Process Control Engineer for DuPont, asked the following:

“What are some examples of a standard career trajectory for automation engineering career paths in process industries? Are there certain roles that you think are best for entry-level positions vs. experienced? What about balancing or focusing on different automation concentrations like functional safety, electrical & instrumentation, cybersecurity, and machine safety? What are some key deliverables that automation professionals should achieve in each role before moving on to the next level? And how do you differentiate between different levels?

Would be interested in hearing different perspectives and experiences.”


In response, Scott Reynolds, ISA’s 2021-2022 Treasurer and 2024 Presidential Candidate, had this to say:


“First, I encourage everyone to reference the Automation Competency Model that was developed by ISA and the Automation Federation: Automation Competency Model

Second, this is from my perspective of a water/wastewater controls engineer where my career began, but hopefully you can gain some insights from it. As someone who started as a control system integrator, I focused on duplicating people's work so I could start to provide value. Then, as I did that, I continued to grow my skills in areas where there were gaps in the organization: Networking and cybersecurity.

Here are my thoughts on each of your questions:

Are there certain roles that you think are best for entry-level positions vs. experienced?

Most roles usually have early career and late career roles, so don't get hung up on that. There are some jobs that require experience from multiple disciplines to get there.

What about balancing or focusing on different automation concentrations like functional safety, electrical & instrumentation, cybersecurity, and machine safety?
The objective is to know enough to know when you need to ask questions or pull someone in to help. Having a solid baseline understanding of these roles will make your life a lot easier no matter where you head. For example, I know enough about functional safety to know when I need an expert in safety to help me with something I am working on.

What are some key deliverables that automation professionals should achieve in each role before moving on to the next level? 
Nothing is key, only growing! If you are looking to advance internally, simply look at the job description and make sure you are already doing most of the things that the more advanced roles have in the description. If you are looking to another functional area or another company, take a look back at all the stuff you have already accomplished, and make sure you can translate that into being successful in the new role. Just apply and take the risk. A lot of people have this idea that there is something magical that needs to be done before trying to move forward in your career, but this isn't true.

I will say, keep in mind that if you are looking to move forward down a technical track or a management track, this will help you focus on where you need to focus your growth on to keep heading in that direction (don't be afraid to change your mind). I started down a technical track and moved over to more of a management role. Having that technical background as a manager gives me a lot of useful tools that people who are solely focused on management don't have.

And how do you differentiate between different levels?
The more experienced you are, the more you become a mentor for others. You start to take on larger, more complex scopes, and rely on the entry level people to help with the details and more prescriptive steps.

At the end of the day this is what I think helps everyone in their career:
Don't be afraid to mess up, as long as you learn from it.
Always be learning.
Always find a way to provide value.
Find the gap in your team and fill it. Become that expert.
Always be teaching—No one likes the person with "job security" by hoarding knowledge. The person with "job security" is also the person who can't be promoted because they are too critical for what they currently do.

That's my perspective, hope you find it helpful.”


In a follow-up, Scott also added:

“Career opportunities never come to you just because you are lucky. They come to you because you set yourself up to be ready to be lucky. You apply for the job you aren’t sure you are completely qualified for and when you learn that skill that was a gap in your team, you become focused on teaching and knowledge transfer. This is how you set yourself up for those lucky opportunities and how to fail forward when something doesn’t go as planned in your career. You can turn it into a lucky opportunity.”

You can read the rest of the discussion here.

Scott Reynolds
Scott Reynolds
Scott has over 15 years of experience working in collaboration with Engineering, IT, and Cybersecurity. He is currently the Treasurer of ISA, and is a 2024 ISA Presidential candidate. During the day, he is the Network and Security Infrastructure Manager for Johns Manville, A Berkshire Hathaway Company.

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