Last Week at Work – A Quick Review of Accomplishments

Well, today is the first day of the last week at my current job. I’m currently the lead motion control engineer for an international company dealing in capital equipment with price points well above $10 million. It’s a decent gig where I felt like I did a lot of good, but the company is in dire straights and the upper management has redoubled their investment in a proven-to-fail-slowly strategy.

The point of this site is not advertise my technical skills; suffice it to say that I had my pick of new jobs (none of which I applied for) when I decided to leave and that my work was well known within my industry. Instead, I’d like to recap the value I added to my current company that was deftly ignored as hard as possible.

A Rough Start

When I interviewed for this job, the title was “engineer” and it was an entry level position. I had a fresh education under my belt and it seemed like a reasonable place to start. I interview pretty well in general, but college had beaten the confidence out of me so I was pleased to get an offer. What they didn’t tell me was that they had lost most of their motion control engineering talent when they decided to switch to Siemens’ Simotion platform.

MasterDrives (Siemens’ previous generation of motion control hardware) was a transitional piece of technology. It fell between the just-developing realm of motion control and standard drives technology which made it a comfortable transition into the word of real mechatronics. Company X (my current employer) was transitioning from shafted designs to shaftless on performance-critical hardware.

Well, at the dawn of the Simotion era, Company X didn’t make the appropriate engineering accommodations and the engineers felt like it was a recipe for failure. Rather than adjust and adapt to meet a new age of engineering, Company X let them leave and started hiring entry level employees; like myself. (You’ll find that “refusal to adapt” is a common motif of Company X.) It was unfortunate for Company X, but fortunate for me.

I started working on a mix of projects under the tutelage of a Siemens applications engineer from Germany. The motion control group, at the time, was under the technical leadership of gruff 40-or-50-something guy with a PhD and 20+ years of experience. Unfortunately, at his heart, he was a “drives guy” and his leadership style would best be described as Stalin-esque. Since I entered the group with no assumptions, I decided to adapt to the real-life situation: I sat in my cube, learned everything I could about our products through marketing material, studied up on Simotion and the corresponding Sinamics drive hardware, and came up with a new architecture for our motion control system which unified multiple product lines under a single software project.

Of course, at the time, none of this was my responsibility.

Every iota of progress I would make would come at the cost of a berating from our lead engineer. Often he wouldn’t understand the reason behind something or would simply disagree with it because the idea hadn’t come from him. Of course, I didn’t feel like I had much of a choice, we were selling products that had to be engineered and a one-off approach was a recipe for disaster.

To make a long story short, I worked to rally the motion control group around me. I took the fall for their  mistakes (when feasible) and propped them up. During a layoff we lost about half of the group and Company X transferred a PLC engineer into the group. I worked to find the projects that best matched each guy’s skill set and would get them off an running and kept the momentum up by checking back and providing new insights.

When our design lead left, I took his place and all motion control for the company was unified (we had two disparate groups loosely joined together).

There were just five of us in the motion control group; down from seven “drives guys” before I was hired.

Working Towards Sanity

Around this time, I finished work on a unified motion control project which required no software changes to run 95% of the equipment we sold. By using a standard XML text file placed on the motion controller’s CF card, the controller would read the data and configure itself for the equipment it was attached to.

No one had any motion control background, but we made it work. Each guy had an important skill to bring to the group.

  • “The programmer” is a great guy to help develop side tools for releasing projects quicker and, if he has a good grasp of what needed to be done software-wise, he can crank out top-notch code. He is able to complete his own small projects easily within a few years of the introduction of Simotion. His lack of understanding of the master project’s architecture makes it difficult to give him projects involving it, but he’ll eat through stand-alone projects to great effect.
  • “The drives guru” is a 900-year veteran of Company X and knows drives and motors inside out. He can smell the difference between an induction motor and a synchronous motor. He outright and blatantly refuses to learn anything about motion control, but knows plenty about drives. When I developed the XML configuration file I encouraged “the drives guru” to take charge of the release effort. He gathers mechanical data and builds the configuration file.
  • “The technician” is incorrectly named. I call him that because he doesn’t think of himself as an engineer. It’s true that he doesn’t have a strong engineering background, and most of the work he had done with with embedded Windows systems, but he has a strong “get to the bottom of it” ethic. He was the first guy I’d go to if there was a reported problem. I’d give him a list of the things I thought it might be and why, and he’d investigate each (sometimes with a few followup questions). His dedication to learning the system made him valuable.
  • “The PLC guy” is another interesting asset. He’s a very friendly guy and works well with everyone in the group. He certainly has a “get it done” mentality but lacks a strong motion control understanding. When a new generation of product was being developed, I decided that it would be a prime time to get him working on the nuts and bolts of motion control. I started the “next gen” software and then handed it off to him for debugging and implementation testing. It was a steep learning curve, and he hasn’t mastered the mechatronics side of it, but he’s coming along and seems to be the nature successor to lead the group.

The months before I gave my two week notice were probably the smoothest operating days the motion control group has ever seen. We had a plan for every product we were selling, we knew what our software could do and what it couldn’t, and we understood which direction development needed to go for new feature sets.

We were stable.

Deciding to Leave

In my mind, I had cleaned up a real mess that Company X didn’t even know they had. In fact, almost 100% of management at Company X still refers to the motion control group as “drives.” Meanwhile, Siemens has set up a semi-permanent residence inside of our doors to watch our progress as we ride the bleeding-edge of their technology and to help prop us up when their technology lets us down. I travelled to Germany once to meet with the developers of the Simotion hardware and Scout software. I got to tour their motor factory in Bad Neustadt and have a nice dinner with the head of the global motion control group for Siemens.

I had made it. I went above and beyond, conquered my company’s problems without being asked, and added more value to their existing employees than they could’ve gotten out of hiring new ones. I took a dysfunctional mess and turned it into a finely-tuned machine. In the midst of company-wide furloughs and pay-cuts, I received the only promotion and retention bonus.

I was ready for my next challenge.

But there was none.

Instead, I was thrust back into the fray. Developing new projects and keeping things chugging along. I had a proven history of “making things I touch better” but Company X was redoubling their efforts to fail. I had lowered the cost of operation, improved customer relations, slashed time lost to repairs and troubleshooting, and vastly increased the value of my engineering group. Instead of applying what I had done to other parts of the company and making better use of me, I was essentially pushed back into a just-developer role.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not playing the victim here. People are responsible for their own destinies. However, companies are responsible for their own destinies as well. After modernizing the motion control group, and maximizing the value of the few employees in it, they couldn’t imagine a bigger or better use for me.

My ego got the better of me and I decided it was time to find a place that could use my skills more completely. Around the time I decided to leave, I had gotten job offers from two companies. One of them was a company I had contracted to for some motion control work before. They had taken a contract they couldn’t fulfill so during one of our many two-week furloughs, I joined them got the project done and helped them collect their cash. They called me back for another contract job as well as a training seminar on Simotion technology (which turned into a class on motion control principles).

Anyway, that company made a bid to get me to join them as well as one of their employees who spun off his own company very close to my home. So I had two open offers from small companies. Neither was very appealing, however; a lot of money, but no upward mobility.

The Right Fit… Maybe

Then I got a call from, what would become, my new employer. It was a recruiter from their HR department. He had seen my profile on LinkedIn and thought I might be a good fit for a job there (in a related, but distinct industry). I tried to leverage my reputation into a management position, but they wanted someone… older.

Anyway, I got the offer, negotiated a good salary, and accepted. Today is April 9th. I start on May 2nd. I’m going to take a week to go see my sister down south.

I told both of of the other companies that made me offers that they could retain my consulting services on flat-rate contracts or an hourly schedule.

My new position at, oh… let’s call them, Company Y is just another development role, but I’m sure I can leverage my management and leadership skills into something more soon enough. Life is just a constant stream of challenges and opportunities. If this new place doesn’t turn out to be the right fit, or they get stuck in the mindset that I’m “just a developer” then I know my skills will land me another job somewhere else.

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