A Special Chemistry – The Business of Chemical Engineering

Tank, pipes, and stairs inside a multi-level industrial plant
The first thing you notice about Mike Basista when you speak with him is his curiosity. Mike is one of Aerotek’s most seasoned contract engineers. He’s an engineer who has spent a rewarding career working as a chemical engineer. Engineers are supposed to be curious. We picture them as the kid who needed to disassemble the mechanical toy to understand how it worked. But Mike’s curiosity seemed to be operating at a different level.

Blood and guts engineering

One topic Mike’s been curious about since early in his career is the business side of engineering. “When I started fresh out of school with my chemical engineering degree I was doing a lot of what I call ‘blood and guts engineering’. It’s what they put you to work on early. It’s really the basic blocking and tackling part of the job. I found it extremely enlightening. But, even as I was working in the trenches, I was starting to see the connections to the bigger picture. The system, the plant, the business itself.” Mike’s sense of curiosity, coupled with a spirit of ingenuity were clearly cultivated during those early career days. Judging from how his career has unfolded, both traits served him very well.

A career in process

We asked Mike to talk about his particular passion – chemical engineering. “People often are confused about what a ‘chemical’ engineer does. I tell them it’s got a lot of similarities with other engineering disciplines, but some pretty important distinctions too. If you’re a mechanical engineer, the essential idea is expressed by how physical things work together. If you’re an electrical engineer, you might say your base ingredient is the spark. In the area of chemical engineering I’ve built my career around, we’re working with the process, which is about measuring and understanding chemical reactions. One of my favorite projects was building a pilot plant for a chemical manufacturer. We built a full, working prototype plant where we tested the processing of chemicals in a continuous process. We designed and engineered a working pilot plant to prove we could scale from small scale batches to several billion pounds per year. That was immensely satisfying work.”

That special chemistry

We wanted to understand Mike’s decision to move from his early blocking and tackling work into process and project management. “Well the pilot plant project showed me the connection between engineering and the bigger picture, the business picture. It was the perfect marriage between pure chemistry and engineering. But also, between engineering and the business. I’ve become very involved since then in the business side of chemical engineering which is really what the whole job is ultimately about. How do you apply the natural laws of chemical interaction to scale things like process, production and distribution? These are the big business problems we solve, engineering the chemistry from bench, to small pilot plant, to full-blown scale. You’d be surprised how often it’s not as straightforward as the business owners would like. You might also be surprised how engineering isn’t always ‘exact’.”

The tricky part of being “exact”

Mike was heading into an area which intrigues us, the idea of perfection and exactitude in math and science — in engineering. We asked him to elaborate. “Most people are surprised when we explain that engineering is often based on estimations. Using the current data we have and the variables that bear on the process, how do we design something like a chemical plant to meet the business needs? Getting really good at making these calculated judgments is something that really only comes with deep experience.”

Investing in the business

Mike was insightful when returning to the theme of engineering and the business needs. “The commercial imperative is never far away from what we do as engineers. In a way, we’re all business leaders now. Getting good at what we do is good for the customer and good for the business — and in my line of work, good for the people who work there. Most of the chemical plants I’ve worked at have a highly refined sense of safety — for the employees and the environment. And we’re solving problems now that we once didn’t pay much attention to, less than a generation ago. Like how do you significantly reduce the waste that a chemical plant creates compared to what we once produced? Engineering plays a key role in making what’s good for the business good for everybody.”

Knowledge is gold

Given Mike’s unique career and his thoughtful perspective on the business side of engineering, we asked him for his final take on the state of the industry, the state of the craft. “I made a conscious decision early in my career to move into project management. But I never would have been as successful as a manager if I hadn’t spent the time building up my knowledge of the fundamentals. Knowledge is like gold. When I came into this business I thought I was pretty smart. But I quickly figured out there was a lot I didn’t know. So I became a sponge — a knowledge sponge. A lot of that knowledge I had to learn for myself but a lot I picked up eagerly from the old-timers on the job. Now it’s my turn to pass it on. Sometimes critical knowledge doesn’t get passed on from one generation of engineers to the next. I’m trying to do my part to make sure that doesn’t happen, at least in my little corner of the chemical engineering world.”

If you’re like Mike, curious, ingenious and eager to apply both in advancing your career, we invite you to create a free career account and view our current engineering opportunities.