Getting Into OT

With all the public emphasis on infrastructure, many are asking how to “break into” Operational Technology (OT). It isn’t hard. But there are a few caveats. This blog is my experience and perceptions. There are others, so don’t take what I say as the only reality.

There is a widespread perception that field work in industrial settings is dull. Most people shy away from it, as if something that looks so much like physical labor can’t possibly be part of OT. But, as I have pointed out in other forums, OT is not just IT with hardhats. You need to know a lot about what industrial work you’re automating.

Most plants and other industrial operations are socially very provincial operations. Operators and Technicians are rightfully wary of well dressed people because those well dressed people usually bring ignorance and unwarranted arrogance with them. The first element of getting your foot in the door is being willing to get down and dirty with the work.

When I say “down and dirty” I mean understanding the hazards, willing to open up panels in a remote site, and examine how things are wired up. It may be a super-sanitary food processing operation, or it may be a sewage treatment plant. Nevertheless, this is how you earn respect in this business. If the operations and technical staff see that you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and measure things with a voltmeter or turn a screwdriver, they’ll be more willing to give you the straight scoop of what they’re seeing. Otherwise they’ll have doubts you will understand what they’re saying, so they probably won’t bother talking to you.

There is an entirely new language and concepts for you to learn. You may hear of “grasshopper fuses” or “bumping a motor.” You probably will hear about “confined spaces”, “arc flash”, “neutral current”, “NEMA 4 cabinets”, “explosive environments”, “flashing steam” and the like. These refer to physical layer things. You need to understand physical plant infrastructure.

You’re very unlikely to know all this in your first day on the job. But if you are always dressing in office attire, rarely ever going on to the plant floor, then you won’t get a chance to learn. A willingness to learn the terminology and get dirty with the technical and operations staff goes a long way. If your immediate supervisor discourages you from doing this for any reason other than safety procedures and training, that’s a red flag that something isn’t right about that place.

Understanding some background about the instruments and actuators, and how they fail, is a big part of this job. Next, do you understand what options you have for safely parking or stopping a process? Someone needs to keep track of what the automation does. That’s usually OT. In other words: YOU.

Again, this is crucial. You will need mentors. As old saying goes: “The reason most people do not recognize an opportunity when they meet it is because it usually goes around wearing overalls and looking like Hard Work.” This was never more accurate than in the OT business. Your mentors might not be the most erudite, or well dressed people. One of my mentors was a guy who looked and talked like he was some sharecropper farmer. But he knew specific quirks and tips about keeping the instrumentation properly calibrated that most people overlooked (things such as one particular site tends to foul the sample lines and they need to be flushed more frequently than the others).

There are many who say you don’t need to know these sorts of things. Well, they’re partly right. You don’t need to know this to start. But you’d better be willing to learn. Do you need to know about pump curves and Cv for a valve, or about torque settings for a VFD? No. That’s for the engineers. But you do need to be aware of those subjects and recognize whose problem something is, and when to hand off in issue to others.

Likewise, you do need to know a lot about fundamentals of networks. How does ARP work? How does DHCP work? How does one negotiate a TCP connection? Why? Because someone needs to set up switch trunks and firewall settings. A security person may not be aware of which protocols use producer/subscriber multicasts and thus may not know where IGMP snooping may need to be enabled. You also need to have some awareness of the various services on a computing platform, whether they’re needed, and how to disable them from starting.

Like many other professions, if you aren’t learning something new frequently, you’re not fit for this line of work. You don’t need to know a lot to get in to this business. But if you want to thrive there, a little humility, working outside an office, and learning to ask good questions will go a long way.

One last thing: We all screw up. Learn to identify and admit mistakes or accidents as soon as possible. I’ve been there and made my mistakes. The sooner you admit them, the less reason anyone will have to get angry with you. But above all, don’t be a damned cowboy, ignoring safety procedures. I have seen people get quietly pushed out of an organization for making some very basic mistakes and then treating it like it was no big deal. Word gets around fast. If you’re one of those “safety third” sorts, you’ll quickly find that nobody will want to work with you. We all want to go home safe and sound at the end of the day.

That’s how you “break into” OT. If someone led you to believe this was a clean job behind a desk, they lied.

With more than 30 years experience at a large water/wastewater utility and extensive experience with control systems, substation design, SCADA, RF and microwave telecommunications, and work with various standards committees, Jake still feels like one of those proverbial blind men discovering an elephant. Jake is a Registered Professional Engineer of Control Systems. Note that this blog is Jake's opinion ONLY. No Employers, past or present were ever consulted with regard to these posts. These are Jake's notions. Don't blame anyone else for them.