Unlike other tech and engineering systems, supervisory control and data acquisition systems – SCADA for short – have often been deployed for decades; at CGI some of the SCADA systems we support are over 30 years old, making them ancient in tech terms.
Maintaining healthy working relationships over such expansive timescales isn’t something you often have to think about in tech. But in SCADA, you do. These relationships rest on the soft skills of those doing the work at any one time, and empathy - the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes - plays as important a role as any other.
Are soft skills really that important as an engineer?
Empathy is important in any job in which you deal with people, which is to say every job (apart from lighthouse-keeping perhaps!). In SCADA engineering, we build long-term relationships with clients, because our systems will be deployed for many years. We need to get to know a client’s personality, preferences and pain points, and use this understanding to develop empathy for them.
Engineers are more often seen as robotic problem solvers than people pleasers. Even uni courses don’t tend to focus on the soft skilled, interpersonal part of the job. But the truth is, soft skills are a huge part of SCADA engineering, and always have been.
SCADA engineers find themselves in a range of situations that require them to engage with a range of personalities. Gaining understanding, resolving conflict and delivering successful and amicable outcomes are everyday tasks.
Using empathy throughout the SCADA engineering process
The start of a new client relationship is crucial. This is where you begin developing empathy for them. As you’re gathering requirements and defining exactly what they need, you need to work to understand how they communicate: misunderstandings can send the project down the wrong path. Listen to their requirements and investigate any potentially confusing areas at this early stage.
There are a number of separate skills that fall under the banner of ‘empathy’:
- Being a good listener
- Being observant
- Being inquisitive
- Learning from your mistakes
This last point is arguably the most important. No one is perfect, and there will be times when you misunderstand or make mistakes, so it’s important that you learn from these slip-ups and use them to be better.
Another part of empathy is being able to contain your mood. Sadness, frustration and anger are legitimate feelings, but passing them onto unconnected colleagues or clients does everyone a disservice. Say the fluoride level rises in a region’s water at 2am, and it's an issue with SCADA. Calls may need to be made to people who are asleep. Getting cranky with the person doing their job and making the call doesn’t help anyone. Remember this is a larger issue than yourself.
The ongoing need for humanity within SCADA
When I speak about the importance of soft skills in SCADA, certain questions inevitably pop up. What about AI and automation? Won’t engineers eventually be replaced?
The answer is simple. No.
At CGI we deal with many clients currently trying to deploy AI, and it has become obvious that there will always be a big place for the humans in the process. . Patterns veer off track, so engineers need to be there to identify and rectify this. Often the required pattern won’t yet exist, and it will be up to the engineer to understand, develop and improve upon these new scenarios.
SCADA systems handle millions of data points per day, so automation certainly has its place. However, anything high level needs a human to investigate. AI simply can’t be programmed to solve problems that we don’t yet know exist.
SCADA engineering still needs, and always will need, the human touch.
SCADA at CGI is tangible and exciting
I never thought I’d end up in SCADA, but I’m glad I did. To enjoy the fruits of your labour is rare in IT, but it’s something I get to do: at CGI we’re faced with interesting challenges, and solving them makes a real difference.
When pushed, you can live without internet, or even money, for a while. But you can’t go more than a few days without water. When I get to work, I help to manage the remote terminal units (RTUs) of the public transport network, which I use to travel to the office every day. These are the things that make the work tangible, and to me at least, far more exciting than other IT.
Add in the human element - also quite unique within the tech space - and you’ve got a career that’s often pretty unlike anything your university lecturer described.
Keen to find out more about what a career in SCADA looks like? Head to the CGI Careers page!