I'm Jason Firth.
I'm not normally the sort to comment on current news stories (apparently I'm making a habit of it, though). I would rather my blog not become overtly political, and personally I think the idea of 'picking sides' in partisan nonsense is a great way to lose friends and make enemies.
However, when it comes to the stories coming out about Harvey Weinstein's reprehensible behaviour, I'm willing to make an exception.
In years past, I wrote about the environment women in technology and the trades might find themselves in. When I said "it won't be fair", I was referring to more passive behaviours I saw: looks that weren't appropriate for the workplace, comments behind people's backs and behind closed doors that weren't the most professional. What I was absolutely NOT referring to is overt sexual harassment or sexual assault in the workplace.
I want to be crystal clear: Overt sexual harassment or sexual assault is not acceptable in the workplace, period. There is no "Oh, work your way through it" in such situations -- such a person should face the legal and practical consequences of their actions, and nobody -- male or female -- has any reason to work under such conditions. It is against the law for a supervisor or manager to sexually harass a worker under any and all circumstances. There is no excuse.
In fact, in Ontario, "wanting it" isn't a defense. If a supervisor or manager is making advances against workers, that's unlawful harassment under the occupational health and safety act. Speak up. If that supervisor won't listen, then another will. We have a legal duty to.
Thanks for reading.Aug 192017
I'm Jason Firth.
It's been a long while since I updated, because I've been transitioning into a new role: planning and supervising the instrument shop, and supervising the gas fitters.
The transition from front line worker to front line supervision has meant a whole new set of challenges, and a whole new viewpoint.
As a worker, road blocks are a nuciance. "They really ought to make this easier", I'd say. We'd all say it. Now, navigating those road blocks and keeping workers away from them is a big part of my raison d'etre. The more I can keep my guys working on jobs, the better job I'm doing.
There's a lot of road blocks out there, too. From inception, the question of whether work should even be completed ought to be answered by supervision and management before a worker is ever even close to being assigned the job.
In maintenance planning, there's a lot of processes that should exist and be followed to ensure the job is properly vetted. For corrective work, risk analysis can help justify work. For preventative maintenance, a methodology like Reliability Centred Maintenance can define and justify which work shall be done. For proactive maintenance, there are a number of failure mode analysis tools which can help dictate what work should be done in response to different unmanaged failures.
Following processes like these can help on two fronts: it helps ensure that front line workers aren't wasting their time on work that is going to be immediately vetoed, and it helps ensure that supervision and management have their finger on the pulse of exactly what is going on and why. Besides that, it ensures that appropriate documentation to support work exists so you can go back as part of a living program and see how your assumptions worked out.
Next up are planning road blocks. Ideally, you should have all the parts kitted for the job, you should have all the steps identified, correctly documented, and permits pre prepared as much as possible. If you can schedule the job as well and coordinate with operations to get the equipment in question, that's another major roadblock that front-line folks won't have to deal with.
During execution, your best people will have their better nature working against them. People will want help with their personal priorities, but the problem is if you're focusing on everything, you're focusing on nothing. It's important to keep your people on the task at hand. For those who have personal priorities, they need to enter their work into whatever work management process you have.
Looking at the big picture, the work management process is your most important tool. See the work, prioritize it, plan it, schedule it, execute it. This requires teamwork not just amongst your team, but amongst your site.
The "hey buddy system" is any time where someone sidetracks the work management process and tried to get their work done through side channels. This is sometimes appropriate for high criticality work, but usually it isn't appropriate. Every job that gets done on the "hey buddy system" is another job that went through the proper channels that got delayed. When someone successfully gets their job done this way, it reduces the credibility of the process, and increases the number of "hey buddy" jobs done.
This is the easiest roadblock for great workers to hit: the traffic jam. A hundred uncontrolled jobs hit at once, and in trying to keep everyone happy by focusing on all these jobs, none but the simplest jobs get done.
If I'm doing my job right, then everyone should win: the workers should be less stressed out because they can focus just on doing the work safely. Operations should have the right work happening at the right time. Supervision and management can complete their due diligence in preparing work, and a system of continuous improvement should help make the process consistently smoother.
To be honest, although I took the career track change for professional reasons, the reason I get out of bed in the morning (and one of the big reasons I applied for the job) is knowing how difficult life is on the front line when you don't have someone there willing to handle these problems.
As for a different perspective, You get to peek out from the front line and see (or even steer) the path ahead. Changing from being a passive observer of what's coming down the line, you can become an active participant.
I'm sure I'll have plenty more to say in the future, but this is what I've learned so far in my crash course on supervision.
Thanks for reading!Sep 012015
September 1, 2015
I'm Jason Firth.
Fly-in Fly-out jobs are becoming commonplace in Canada, because the places where resources happen to be are not the places people want to live, or places where it's not practical to place a down, or simply because the skills you need are not in the same place as where you need them.
I've been flying a lot lately in Ontario, and so I've been flying a lot on Porter Airlines.
I noticed something interesting in their frequent flier program. They have a "goal meter" on their website for their VIPorter program. It shows the $1500 level before you get to the Passport level, and the $3000 level before you get to the Priority level, but after that it shows $10,000.
How bizzare? I decided to look further into it.
It turns out Porter has another level to their frequent flier program. It's invitation only, and requires a $10,000 annual spend on flights. It's called the "VIPorter First" program.
It looks like it has everything the VIPorter Priority status has, and in addition:
2 Free checked bags
Free premium seat selection
Free last seat guarantee on sold-out flights
Free same day changes to reservations
Now, another note for people who travel very frequently:
Your spending shows up on your VIPorter level when you have completed the flight, not when you book your flight. By contrast, your VIPorter level when you book the flight is the level the flight will be treated as in their computer system, not the level you're at when you fly.
This means that if you buy 6 months of tickets in advance in January, you won't VIPorter status for any of those flights, in spite of potentially spending more than the $3000 level with them, even once you've taken $3000 worth of flights. Your new status won't kick in until you've purchased a flight AFTER your status has activated.
Thanks for reading!Aug 152015
August 15, 2015
I'm Jason Firth.
Recently, I accepted a new role within my organization for a while: I'm assisting with a project to deploy a new Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system. My role is to bring maintenance expertise to the project specific to the plant I'm stationed at.
When I told my team about it, my partner was confused: "Why don't you want to be an instrument guy anymore?", he asked.
In fact, it's exactly because I'm an instrument guy and because I plan to continue being an instrument guy that I accepted the role!
Let's look at some of my reasons.
1. Instrument technicians are information mongers.
There's no two ways to put this: Instrument Techs, or at least good instrument techs, are information mongers. Every piece of information we gather is another tool in our belt that we might make use of.
This project is going to leave me and my shop with comprehensive lists regarding equipment and maintenance for everything on site. We're going to have access to more people and more information than we ever would have had as just instrument guys. That sort of information is invaluable at moments you'd never have imagined -- because until you have it, you never consider it.
Everything is connected, and the more information you have, the easier you can make the connections yourself. The more you can make those connections on your own, the more effective you can be.
2. Potential synergies between these two roles.
I always hate to use the S-word, but it's absolutely true. I'll explain.
Work that's been done as part of other completely unrelated projects suddenly becomes relevant, and you don't have to do anything but cross-reference. This means the project benefits from that work. Work I previously did on SCADA, establishing equipment taxonomies and working within constraints, suddenly becomes extremely important because it's already done.
As well, work that's done today may have a dramatic impact on future trades projects. In particular, having a say as to how business critical systems are set up on Day 1 means those same systems are structured in a way that might facilitate the information's re-use later. All it takes is a little vision, and you can make everyone's life easier in those future projects.
3. The wrong person doing this can sink entire shops.
The Computerized Maintenance Management System (CMMS) aspect of ERP is one of the most important elements of a modern shop. It facilitiates communication between operations and trades, it stores information about the history of work done, it keeps track of costs and of time spent on jobs, and it plays a key role in material management.
If the wrong person is setting up the system, communication between operations and trades may become ineffective, history may be lost or unusuable, costs can't be tracked, and materials can't be found. All this adds up to a skilled worker not spending time using their skills.
4. The right person doing this can let us spend more time being tradesmen.
Along the same lines, if the right person sets up the system to its potential, communcations between operations and trades (and between trades and other trades) may be enhanced, history may become a key tool in predicting failures or detecting current failures, costs and time spent on jobs can be effectively measured and managed, and materials will always be where they need to be when they're needed.
Modern ERP systems also allow supervisors to assign jobs to certain individuals, and to allow those individuals to see their work queues on mobile devices, so the work is always at their fingertips. They can allow test results to be stored and historized immediately without additional paperwork. They can allow work completion comments to be added directly when a job is complete, increasing the speed and accuracy of the history. They can even allow documentation to be carried around for instant access to key information.
All this adds up to one thing: Tradesmen spending less time on paperwork, and more time on trades. That's good for the business, it's good for the tradesmen, and it makes everyone's life a little easier.
5. Ultimately, you need a voice from the front.
There's a lot of perfectly reasonable sounding suggestions out there.
It's easy to sit around a desk and come up with this stuff, and the technology is amazing, you can implement anything you want. The problem is, how will it affect someone on the front line? It's those people who are going to keep your plant running day to day, and even smart people, with the best of intentions, can make a decision that works very well in theory, but is disasterous in practice. Someone from the front line is absolutely neccessary. You need a canary to tell you when things could get bad.
Thanks for reading!Feb 172015
February 17, 2015
I'm Jason Firth.
There's one thing most people don't know about the law that they should: The law isn't the same everywhere.
Often, people will talk about "how things are", as if their experience in their location describes everyone's. That's incorrect, and it's quite dangerous.
In an earlier entry, I talked about what it takes to become a Certified Engineering Technologist, and in another entry, I talked about what it takes to become a red seal Journeyman. I know first-hand about these things because I went through the process in 2013.
However; in 2013, I also made a mistake. I applied for, and achieved, my Certified Engineering Technologist designation in Manitoba. At the time, I didn't know if I was covered nationwide, so I called the Canadian Council of Technicians and Technologists and asked if I could use my designation across the country. They told me it was fine.
They were not being entirely truthful. In 2010, the governments of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario split from the Canadian Council of Technicians and Technologists to create Technology Professionals Canada, a new organization dedicated to the profession of Engineering Technology in Canada.
As a result, and as a result of the wording of Section 11 of the Ontario Association of Certified Engineering Technicians and Technologists Act, 1998, S.o. 1998 C.Pr7, the use of the CET designation is restricted and it is an offense for anyone who is not a full member of OACETT to use the title.
Not realizing that the title didn't automatically transfer like a red seal, I used my CET title in Ontario, only to receive a Cease and Desist letter from OACETT's lawyers.
In my case, I asked about my options as a member of CTTAM, and the lawyer told me:
1. You can maintain your primary membership in Manitoba and apply to OACETT as an out-of-province member. You will pay full dues to Manitoba. You will need to pay out-of-province member's dues in Ontario which are one-third of what a regular member pays;
2. You can transfer your membership to Ontario; or
3. You can transfer your membership to Ontario and maintain out-of-province status with Manitoba (assuming Manitoba has this provision).
After paying a small fee, I was able to transfer my membership to Ontario without any further difficulty. It took about a month, during which I stopped using my designation in Ontario.
I ended up taking the third option, transferring my primary membership to the province I practice in, and using an out-of-province membership (at a cost of about $100/yr) in Manitoba.
Something to keep in mind!
Thanks for reading!Jan 292015
January 29, 2015
I'm Jason Firth.
Today, when people use the word "Connected", they're usually talking about ethernet networks. That's not what I'm talking about today.
Quite often as an instrument technician or technologist, I get asked to help participate in jobs that don't immediately appear to be related to my trade. In one case, I was asked to participate in the Reliability Centred Maintenance initiative. In another, I was asked to help set up a site's maintenance management system. A lot of people heard this, and immediately went "That's not in your job description!"
As much as that might be true (depending on how the job description is worded), I belive that everything we do is connected.
Let's look at the workflow for RCM. The very first task is to get a complete list of equipment at your site. Occasionally you already have that list, but often you do not. At one site I worked at, gathering a list of equipment was a massive undertaking, requiring cross-referencing of every single piece of information available, from the existing maintenance management system, to maintenance records, to data from the PLC and SCADA, to some good old fashioned leg work. This might not be part of the job description, but it certainly makes life easier having that information. Suddenly we know exactly what we have, where we didn't before.
The next task is to sit down with operations personnel, and get them to help define the function of every piece of equipment. You record that definition for later. Let's look at the incredible value you get here: Not only do you personally get to sit down and learn one at a time exactly what operations believes each piece of equipment does, but you're recording it so anyone can look it up. You can gather this information together later to improve operations documentation, or to add invaluable context to the PLC or DCS program, or to produce complete disaster planning.
Next, you determine the dominant failure modes; the scenario for each failure mode; criticality of each failure; what the consequences are of failure; and what maintenance will be done to address each failure. This might seem incredibly specific to preventative maintenance, but imagine the value in having this available on a minute-to-minute basis. Imagine getting a trouble call and knowing immediately how it can be prioritized in a situation where multiple breakdowns are occurring. Having that information closely at hand could mean the difference between a plant facing safety hazards, environmental impact, capital damage, or productive loss, and not.
Finally, by having an instrument guy in the room, sometimes new solutions to failures can be found. Systematically discussing everything with operations personnel and other maintenance personnel can be a great catalyst for innovative solutions to problems that have plagued a site for ages.
As for helping to improve a maintenance management system, that's something you don't realize you needed until you have it. A properly set up system will have all your different pieces of equipment, so you can build a history of things you've done to that equipment. History is a key information source in Reliability Centred Maintenance. A really well done MMS will fundamentally change how reactive maintenance gets done. When a tradesman recognise that a piece of equipment needs to be changed out, instead of immediately hunting for some indication of what the part they need is, they can immediately head to stores with the tag number and recieve the exact part they need from the asset Bill of Materials.
These are just two examples of how things that don't seem to be at all connected to what we do can nonetheless make our day to day work easier. "That's not in your job description!" is a great way to make that job harder.
Thanks for reading!Jan 082015
January 8, 2015
I'm Jason Firth.
This June will mark the 9th year that I've been working in heavy industry.
I started my career and spent four years in design and maintenance planning and another 5 years as a technician. Of all the pieces of advice I wish that I'd been given this one is probably the most important: don't give the people what they ask for; give them what they need.
Something to remember is that as an instrument technician or an engineering technologist or an engineer you have depth of knowledge regarding instrumentation, control, and automation that regular operations and maintenance personnel don't have. Sometimes they're asking for one very specific piece of equipment, but if you give them that piece of equipment you're going to get in trouble because it's not going to work.
One very specific example came from my time in the pulp & paper industry. Creating pulp and paper takes an incredible amount of power. One of the ways that paper mills get this power without excessive costs is by burning the bark has been removed from trees before their used in the paper process. This removed bark is called hog. This hog is then send to a hog bin which is attached to a power boiler which burns the hog to produce steam, which is in used throughout the process. I was asked to put one of two extremely specific level switches on one of these hog bins. Instead I started looking at the history of the unit, and discovered that that level transmitter has already been tried and has been removed because it didn't work. I looked at all the different environmental concerns within the bin, and decided on a completely different level measurement than what they asked for. However, this level measurement worked. By giving them what they wanted instead of what they were asking for, my internal customers were far happier with the result.
As a technician, I end up with many extremely similar circumstances. The difference is that whereas they wanted me to design a level measurement before here they would ask me to do the same maintenance task over and over and over again. The company was wasting money on me, the Operations Group wasn't getting the control that they needed, there was no reason to keep on giving them what they were asking for. Instead, I focused on what the real problem was. In many of these cases, I was able to find a problem that no one ever knew existed. By giving them what they needed instead of what they asked for everybody won.
Let me be clear: I'm not suggesting insubordination. There is a chain of command in workplaces, and it isn't a good career move to violate it. However; in most cases, you have some latitude to make decisions that you think will work best. If you don't have that latitude, you are still a voice within your team, and you may be able to change minds if you provide a good reason for people to listen.
If you get this right, and manage to give people what they need and want instead of exactly what they ask for, you're going to look like a miracle worker.
Thanks for reading!Dec 292014
December 29, 2014
I'm Jason Firth.
Merry Christmas, and happy new year!
On my "About me" page, I wrote: "With this blog, I have a few goals: I'm hoping to get some of that information together so control professionals from all over can use it. I'm hoping to take some of the extremely cryptic academic work out there and simplify it for industry."
Recently, I was speaking with someone from the aaOpenSource project, which was started in part by the guy at the Archestranaut blog over at Avid Solutions. I definitely recommend the blog. It isn't always updated, but when it is, there's some great information there.
One thing we both agreed on was that this industry needs more openness and sharing.
I started my "programming career" such as it is in open source. I started off by learning GWBasic, then progressed to QBASIC, then learned Visual Basic and C++ and a bunch of other programming languages afterwards. It might be a bit sacreligious for the hardcore programmers out there, but I always enjoyed BASIC, because compared to many other programming environments, you don't need to micromanage as much. The runtime library contains most things you'd need for simple programs, so you don't need to manage library binaries or header files. Eventually, I ended up using the FreeBASIC project. It's very much like a C++ compiler with a very comprehensive runtime library built in. I ended up contributing a small amount of code, and working as much as I could to improve the documentation for new users.
No matter what programming lanugage I was learning, whether it was gwbasic or C++ or assembly or php, open code was a crucial piece of my learning experience. It was much easier saying "What does correct code look like?", than trying to decipher sometimes archaic documentation. Having a library of code snippets to call upon means you can focus on solving the novel parts of your solution, rather than reinventing the wheel.
Two pieces of code in particular were things I was particularly proud of improving upon when I was back in high school were a graphics routine, and a keyboard handler.
In DOS programming, and particularly real-mode DOS programing, you end up having to manually handle your graphics to a large degree. I found some code demonstrating a simple pixel set routine for 320x240, a video mode called "ModeX". It has some really cool features, such as allowing you to draw to an off-screen part of the video memory while showing a different part of the video memory. This is called "Double buffering" when there is an onscreen page and an offscreen page, but ModeX supports two offscreen pages and one onscreen page, called "Triple Buffering". The most difficult part of programming this to run quickly is that there's all sorts of insanity in how you write pixels properly. You have four "planes" which you have to write to, and each plane has the graphic laid out in an odd way. The original code showed me how to initialize the video mode, but the code for placing a dot on the screen involved calculating the memory location (involving a multiply and a divide), and setting the plane. After months of staring at the code, I came up with a clever way of writing an entire plane's pixels in one step consisting only of additions, then I could write an entire screen with only 4 plane shifts. Without the original code showing how ModeX worked, I would have had nothing to start from, and I probably wouldn't have gone with the arcane video mode without some sample code to start from. Without open documentation, the person who wrote that code probably never would have had a place to start.
Another challenge is key detection. For multikey applications, you have to capture each button press and unpress to determine the keyboard state. To accomplish this, you must create an interrupt handler to replace the existing DOS keyhandler, which only captures one key at a time. Then, you must continuously poll the port. I found some novel tweaks to the code to allow more accurate polling of the port and recording (and retrieval of) multikey values. Without the original code showing how raw keyboard polling worked, I would have had nothing to start from, and I probably wouldn't have gone with any sort of continuous multikey detection without some sample code to start from. Without open documentation, the person who wrote that code probably never would have had a place to start.
These are small programming problems, but they're how I started to learn. Without the documentation and open code, I never would have had a place to start, and never would have learned the fundamentals I use to solve problems on a regular basis today, a decade later.
However, our industry is built upon certain open standards. The PID, for example, or Zeigler Nichols tuning, or 4-20mA, or 3-15 PSI. Everyone who learns about the trade needs to learn these things, and by learning them, doesn't need to reinvent the wheel later.
One thing that should be immediately obvious is that all those standards are from 40 years ago. In some ways, it's like our trade hit a time warp, and although we're seeing more and more new technology, it's all a black box. Some specialized experts understand them, but they're in the minority.
I come from a few industries where people believe that if you hoard information, and ration it out in little bits, that's how you stay valuable. I don't believe that. I believe that the way we stay relevant is by proving to the world all the interesting ways we can provide value to their organizations. We're tube benders, but we're not just tube benders. We're cable pullers, but we're not just cable pullers. We're calibrators, but we're not just calibrators. We're documenters, but we're not just documenters. We're programmers, but we're not just programmers. We're electronics techs, but we're not just electronics techs. I could go on all day, because our trade and profession is so broad, we end up with a view that is equally broad. Instead of being jealous and trying to protect this information, we should be teachers, trying to help each other, and also the other disciplines become better. If we try to go alone, to fend for ourselves, then we're going to be swept away by the tide of all the new stuff we need to keep on top of.
That's one big reason why I wanted to start writing this blog, because I was able to build upon the work of others, and I'd like to continue to do that. Together, we can build the future.
Thanks for reading!Dec 202014
December 20, 2014
I'm Jason Firth.
I'd like to suggest today, that women should look more at the trades and technology as a career choice.
Of course, there's lots of people right now suggesting that. There's people who are way smarter, and way richer, and way more powerful suggesting that. Obviously, another voice isn't really that useful right now.
So I'd like to give the one thing I have that many of those people don't: A view from the floor. I'm going to tell you why it makes a lot of sense to get into the trades and technology, I'm going to tell you about some of the challenges you can expect to face, and I'm going to tell you why the trades and technology is about a lot more than wires and ports.
Let's start off by by looking at why the trades and technology are a great choice for anyone. Many jobs in the trades and technology are highly skilled, highly paid jobs that tend to have great benefit plans as well. Even tradesmen who lose their jobs, often find new ones way faster than others. Besides that, you get respect: If there's one thing that people respect, it's "I can't do this thing, but this person can, and I need them."
Besides that, the trades can be really fulfilling. Imagine, at the end of the day, looking at a building you've helped build, or light, or control. Imagine working in maintenance and being the person who solves the problem nobody else could, or getting a plant running that was down, costing tens of thousands of dollars an hour.
As for why women in particular should be interested, let's start at the beginning of your career: When any woman I know says "I'm thinking of going back to school", I immediately suggest taking an engineering technology course. As a starving student looking at scholarships and bursaries, it was immediately obvious that there's thousands of dollars up for grabs in scholarships and bursaries for women in technology. There are plenty of other options for women, and many sort of "Traditionally female" choices out there, but why pay full price to follow what others do if you can get a helping hand to try something different? Besides that, taking an unconventional path has other benefits: Companies want to hire women for trades and technology positions. The problem is that the applicants aren't there! The rewards are there for someone who wants to take the risk of doing something different.
Now, it isn't always going to be easy.
Imagine being the first human on an alien planet, and the aliens don't know how to be around a human. They might behave quite inappropriately at times. Unfortunately, because technology and the trades are so male-dominated, you get people who don't know how to act with women in the workplace. I have to admit, you'll sometimes be treated unfairly based on your gender. It isn't acceptable, but it is real. It takes courage to lead, and the only way things will get better is for more women to engage.
Another thing that is true, is that some trades take more physical strength than others, and that can put women at a disadvantage. If you're a millwright, you might be asked to really strain against a wrench. If you're an electrician, you might be asked to pull really large cables. In these cases, you're going to have to rely on your team to help, or find a different way to do the job. Not every job is like that. Instrument technicians don't tend to need much brute strength for most of their jobs, and you don't need arms like tree trunks to use a mouse and keyboard to draw in CAD.
But one criticism that I don't believe is true is the image of trades and technology as a cold, inhuman field, all ports and wires and bolts, disconnected from people.
I've always been told that it isn't just important that you can do these huge things, but that you can help others understand it too. Besides being a person who can do things, you need to be someone who can teach others, to help better understand what you can do for them.
Consider the largest company in the world right now by market cap: Apple. Steve Jobs wasn't the first person to make a home computer, but his company made the home computer accessible for human beings. They weren't the first to create a smart phone, but they were the first to make it accessible for human beings. They weren't the first to make an MP3 player or on-line music store, but they were the first to make it accessible for human beings. It's important to be good at your trade or the technology, but it's equally important to be able to connect the technology with the people who aren't you.
I personally spend a lot of time repairing and calibrating instruments, tuning loops, running cables, designing systems, and programming. However, I spend more and more time working with people who aren't instrumentation and control specialists trying to help them understand what my team can do for them, or helping people learn exactly what tools we provide and how they can use those tools to help themselves, or describing to non-technical folks work we've done. The genius who doesn't deal with people probably isn't going to succeed compared to a person with less technical skill who is nonetheless willing to work with other people and other groups, and really help those groups make the best use of instrumentation, controls, and automation for the benefit of the organization.
There's no reason why women should count themselves out of that.
Thanks for reading!