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Listening to Controls Engineers on Social — Lynchpins of 21st Century Engineering Disciplines

In a world where automation rules and everything from our juicers to our cars — and much in between — it’s no surprise there’s an increasing demand for talented controls engineers. Controls engineers are the people who apply automatic control theory to design practical ways for managing how machines and systems operate. We know from lengthy experience, the top controls engineers can come from a variety of training and experience backgrounds — mechanical, electrical, software and even chemical engineers. 

We recently turned on our own “social listening” machine to explore the online buzz around all things controls engineers. As often happens, we were not disappointed in the volume and quality of conversations on social media about this essential, lynchpin discipline in the world of engineers.

Where do I start?
Many engineering students and fresh grads aren’t fully aware of the range of jobs, projects and products that controls engineers are needed to work on. Here’s a sampling of the social conversation starters from self-declared newbies tapping into the online community of ever-helpful engineers to jumpstart their careers.

“I’m an entry-level water waste process engineer. How do I develop a career in instrumentation and control?”
“I need help using raspberry pi for tractor operator feedback and data acquisition systems.”
“Any ideas for a good book for gear train modeling?”
“I’m a newly graduated mechanical engineer and I want to build things I can control or program through my computer but I don’t know where to start…”

Following the conversation threads, we found volumes of informative and in-depth suggestions, many spawning multiple comments and sub-threads of their own. Our big take-away is that engineers absolutely love helping each other out, especially when fresh colleagues are just starting out or branching out into new intellectual terrain.

Home of the AMA
For common users of social networks, the Ask Me Anything model made popular by Reddit is an opportunity for experts to share their knowledgeable experiences with anyone with a question.
These mini-symposiums, AMAs for short, create a dynamic venue for knowledge-share and debate. One AMA we listened in on started with an original poster (O”) humbly declaring, “I’m a biomedical engineer … here to answer questions about brain-controlled devices and neural implants. Ask me anything!” 

About halfway through the AMA session, our OP excitedly shared that his lab was planning to test direct brain-to-computer connections in 2018. The almost five hundred (and still counting) questions, answers and related comments resulted in an extraordinary conversation about the bleeding edge frontier in the rapidly evolving world of the controls engineer discipline, body-to-machine integration. 

Another “ask me anything” session launched a similarly rich discussion with a simple, “I’m a food and beverage engineer — ask me anything!” 

One of the more interesting questions was, “What’s the big opportunity for controls engineer in his area?” The OP responded persuasively, “We are tasked with solving the world’s food supply problems, agriculture problems — and delivering fun and essential food products to the public. The millennials are VERY picky about the ingredients we use!”

Degrees, experience and passions
One of the popular conversation topic trends was student engineers who felt their skills, background and passions make them uniquely valuable for carving out a lucrative and rewarding career in controls engineering.  Here’s an example of one engineer asking the Reddit community for advice about career path, based on their degrees, experience and passions.

“I have a bachelor's degree in Mechatronics Engineering and I currently have about 2 years of relevant work experience. I've been advised to go for a Master's in Computer Science, as that, along with an engineering degree, would open up many opportunities for me. My concern is the expectation that having a master’s in CS may set with future employers. Ideally, I'd like to join a master's program that caters to people from other backgrounds as well. My interests are pretty broad, but generally speaking I like working with hardware, especially hardware programming. Thoughts? Advice? Comments?”

Out of the scores of comments his request triggered, this response resonated with us the most.

“I worked as a mechanical/piping/mining engineer and then control systems engineer over about 7 years then switched to a software job. I didn't go back to college to study computer science. I managed to get a foot in the door job as an analyst developer. There's no substitute for building things on the job. Even bootcamps or self-built projects. Participating in the open source community is a decent second best. Going to meetups and meeting like-minded people also helps immensely!”

Stepping Stone Skills
Like many of us from all walks of work/life, controls engineers use social forums to explore career advancement opportunities. We found a considerable number of very robust conversations started by controls engineers crowd-sourcing advice about the range of cross-over disciplines, and how they could leverage their existing skills and experience to advance into different engineering fields. 

Many conversations started with posts like this from a recent Reddit thread — “I’m a controls engineer with a computer engineering degree and am looking to move into software development — I need advice!”

Another user posted — “I’m working as an automation controls engineer on PLCs and robots, and have a computer engineering degree looking to move into software development, particularly web applications. Looking for advice…”

Not all controls engineers seeking career change were aiming to move into software development, as evidenced by this engineer posting — “I enjoy controls theory and systems engineering. Interested in ideas for where I can do more of this work as a biomedical engineer.”

Of the numerous ideas offered in response, our favorites was this inspirational suggestion from this commenter — “Powered prosthetics come to mind — all those robotics arms, surely!  Artificial organs like dialysis machines, but more cutting-edge, another product area [for you] to explore. They are making an artificial pancreas at the moment!”

We came away from our survey of the social conversation around all-things controls engineers with an equally inspired take on the current and future state of this uniquely critical engineering discipline. 

If you’re a controls engineer thinking about ways to inspire your next career move, we’d love to be your sounding board. Check out our current engineering positions and create your free Aerotek career account.