Winner of ISA’s prestigious ISA Life Achievement Award in 2010 and many times recognized and awarded for his achievements during the course of his career, Greg McMillan is ISA’s most prolific author. Greg cranks out at least one book—sometimes two—a year, has written several articles for InTech and other magazines, and just completed the third edition of his book, Good Tuning: A Pocket Guide. He is currently working with coauthor Hunter Vegas on a new title, 101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career, which was inspired by the ISA Mentor Program and will make its debut at the ISA Automation Week bookstore in September.
It is truly an honor to know Greg. I have appreciated his expertise, attention to detail, and quick wit throughout the 10 years we’ve been working together publishing his books. My question for Greg at the end of each year is always, “What’s next?” And every time a new idea quickly forms, as he is keen on sharing his knowledge with the next generation. His hope is that other subject-matter experts in the industry will do the same, sharing your knowledge in the form of a book, magazine article, mentoring, or something else. His major concern: Don’t let your knowledge die with you.
In light of this, I asked Greg some questions on how he got started writing, what influenced him growing up, what pearls of wisdom he can impart to you the reader, especially in the areas of writing and sharing knowledge, and, finally, why he wrote his most current book on tuning loops. As always, his response to my questions was immediate and thought-provoking.
You’ve been writing for a while now and have written so many books and articles. What got you started?
In Monsanto Engineering Technology (ET), where I spent most of my career, I had the privilege to work with the world’s best in modeling and control. The ET director, the late Dr. Jim Fair (Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas), encouraged us to document our research and development and publish the results. I didn’t realize at the time how unusual this was, in that many users are not encouraged or supported by their companies and are overly restricted with excessive concerns about proprietary, legal, and public relations aspects. In ET, we were encouraged to advance the technology of our profession.
My first three books on tuning, compressors, and pH were expansions of my Monsanto research reports. Building dynamic models caused me to develop a fundamental understanding in terms of first principles. The dynamic models provided an experimental laboratory to verify and expand on what was learned in tackling difficult plant problems. The conceptual knowledge gained paid off for decades and to this day provides a basis for solutions seeing the commonality in seemingly diverse application problems.
How do you come up with ideas for books and write them so quickly?
In ET, there were few rules. It was up to the individual to find and exploit an area of expertise. Most of my time was funded, so I did not need to do a project simply because it would pay the bills. I found control problems that could not be solved by conventional practices. I sought out the best expertise—not only in my company but also in the key technical people of the suppliers. In my book, Advanced pH Measurement and Control, particularly, I felt I could phone the key technical person at all the major suppliers of pH electrodes. Sad to say, many of these experts are gone with no replacement. I am still blessed with freedom, resources, and applications and am using this opportunity to continue the process through the ISA Mentor Program.
The toughest part is getting started. Once I get past the first page, I get into a flow. I find an incredible release in expressing myself and being myself. Writing also gives me a sense of closure, allowing me to move on to new areas opening up new perspectives.
All of my books have been written while listening to classic rock with headphones. The music seems to inspire creativity by exercising the opposite side of the brain as analysis and logic. New ideas evolve in the process of fully explaining previous ideas. The faster the music, the faster I write. I find random play more stimulating, although most of my columns for a period of five years were written listening to the rock band Concrete Blonde.
Growing up, what influenced you to become an engineer and an author?
My life was sports, every conceivable kind I could play in the streets, sandlots, and courts, but I read a lot, too, some of which was the philosophy of science. I wanted to understand why things work. On a more grand scale, I wanted to be a nuclear physicist but realized from my quantum mechanics, statistical physics, and astrophysics courses that the level of nerd required—epitomized in the show “Big Bang Theory”—was beyond my level of achievement. I am still fascinated with colliding universes, black holes, strange particles, string theory, and quantum effects at a distance where a change in spin of a particle will result in a coincident change of spin of a companion particle in another part of the universe separated by millions of light years.
I write so ideas are not lost. I realized in the ET environment that a lesson learned is a lesson to be shared. To me, it is a crime to see the expertise that is being lost each day as the most experienced professionals are encouraged to retire, never having the opportunity to pass on the knowledge they gained the hard way. The automation profession is a school of hard knocks. The lone course or two on control in chemical, electrical, and mechanical engineering were steeped in math that 99% of automation engineers would never see on the job. We learn the most from making mistakes (ideally caught by mentors before the plant can suffer). The sad fact is the same mistakes are made over and over again, and nearly every new engineer goes through this same rite of passage. To stop this insanity, my motto to this day is “Learn and Share,” which is why I write and teach.
What advice would you give someone who might want to start writing?
Try explaining what you know to a friend. Then write what you just said. Your friend can help. You can even make the friend a coauthor. Try recording your conversations, if this does not cramp your style. Break up the paragraphs and sentences (shorter is better). I prefer to give a concept besides the particulars. Most of all, get started, and don’t over think the process. Don’t worry about grammatical details at first. Express your thoughts. Writing is not an exact process like engineering. In fact, this is the most common obstacle. Engineers tend to be overly concerned about how exactly to say something, resulting in a brain freeze when trying to write. You will learn how to improve your writing from the edits by the copyeditor. With practice comes skill. Remember, an idea imperfectly written is vastly better than an idea never written.
Start by writing a paper for ISA Automation Week and graduate to writing an article for magazines, such as Automation World, Control, and InTech. Try to write with associates or a mentor, but a supplier is almost always a willing coauthor because of the beneficial publicity. Publication will build your career and advance our profession. Pay forward.
What prompted you to write your current pocket guide on tuning loops?
Control loop performance depends upon tuning. Most loops have tuning that is far from optimal. In some cases, the poor tuning actually increases variability, resulting in the loop being put in manual. There are dozens of tuning methods and equations, with the developers claiming their respective method or equations to be unequivocally the best. I wanted to provide the user a choice depending upon the application and then found in the process that all of the major methods reduce to the same equations for gain and reset time (with possibly different factors) if approached from the same conceptual objective taking advantage of key PID features. I find the unification of tuning methods appealing because of my search for a conceptual understanding, and it is perhaps analogous on a much lesser scale to a unified theory for relativity and quantum mechanics.
Most automation books sit on a book shelf gathering dust. The idea of Good Tuning was to make the book fit in a shirt pocket so the book could be there with you in the control room, a meeting room, office, or wherever you might be when needing to understand and explain how a loop should be tuned. In the future, if we write the books we need, I expect the books will be on a tablet computer as a key resource to get the job done right.
What do you hope readers take away from all your books?
I want readers to develop a conceptual understanding with concrete examples. Toward this end, I started writing “Insights” and “Rules of Thumb” in the third edition of my Advanced pH Measurement and Control book. I have also come up with checklists to provide a concise source of details for the selection and installation of an automation system. These checklists will make their way into future books. The upcoming book, 101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career, distills the essentials for instrument and control systems projects into 101 tips, each concisely presented on two pages. Checklists will be in the appendices.
Note: On the ISA Interchange website, see Greg’s post of Tip #1 - Always Ask “Why?” – Never Stop Learning by coauthor Hunter Vegas. New tips will be posted each Friday.
Click this link to find all of Greg’s books and other ISA titles.