When It Comes Time For a New Career
Beginners discover there are many things they don’t know about the PLC programming career. They focus so much on learning to program that they are totally unprepared for the real world as a programmer.
A Look Ahead
These lessons I’m sharing with you today usually all come out within your first year. Well, I thought I would save you 11 months and 29 days of worry and give you a short-cut lesson.
In this post I am going to give you a years’ worth of experience in just a few minutes, if you are considering a leveling up into the programming side of the world. There are 7 real lessons you need to know, and they will prepare you for everything you could face in that first year.
And the best part of this lesson is that you can prepare for them even before you even get that first job, putting you a year ahead of your competitors who are fighting for that same first job.
These lessons are not in any order of importance, as they may arise at any time in your job, they most likely will arise at different times for different people, even those who work for the same company. The level of importance is usually driven by the project.
For example, on programmer ‘A’s first day he may be asked to work with the design team on a new machine being built while programmer ‘B’ who started the same day and has the exact same skills may be asked to travel to Baltimore to work on a project. So, keep this in mind while reading this post.
1. Accept Responsibility For Being Self-Taught
You should probably get over the thought that someday someone will take the time to teach you everything you need to know to become a world class programmer. It’s not going to happen, no way, no how.
Now that we have that settled, it’s extremely important that every beginner understands that this career field requires that the professional in it is a self-starter and a consummate learner.
Someone who isn’t afraid to take on new challenges, dig in deep and constantly make time to learn, and someone who realizes they will be working with a constant stream of ever-changing technology.
During a typical day it would not be uncommon for new techs and engineers to work with vision system cameras, scanners, robotics, design software, multiple programming languages, and lasers.
You must be willing to figure things out, make calls to vendors, try different things (without breaking anything) in order to solve the challenge. Because NO one will be able to regularly take the time to answer all your questions.
I am not saying there is no help, I am saying it will not be at your fingertips, you will struggle, but if you are prepared and enthusiastically willing to learn on your own you will succeed.
But if you expect to have someone help you anytime and everytime your stuck, find another career, this one is not for you.
2. Learn More Programming Languages Than One
Almost every beginner PLC programmer learns the graphical language (LD) ladder diagram, and everyone at least hears about the IEC 61131 syntax and semantics which consist of two textual languages, IL (Instruction List) and ST (Structured Text), and two graphical languages, consisting FBD (Function Block Diagram) and the above-mentioned LD (Ladder Diagram).
These make up the standard languages every new programmer is likely to learn and or at least hear about, but then the day comes usually within their first year where those languages become real.
You have to work with them, you have to work around them and take it from me there is no greater fear than not knowing how to program something when it’s your job to program.
However, the fear doesn’t stop there as you will almost certainly work with several other programming languages as well to include; (VB) Visual Basic, in my experience it was used to build an HMI, (SQL) pronounced ‘sequel’, Python, both SQL & Python were used to move data into databases.
I’ve also worked with C++, it was used to build an HMI. Each of these languages bring different abilities to the PLC programming world that the languages of the IEC 61131 languages cannot bring by themselves, making them important for beginners to be aware of at least.
3. Build Your Own Personal Library
One of the biggest unknowns for every beginner is wondering how the skilled professionals learned what they know.
What’s the secret, who taught them, where’s the library their using, and can I get access to this source? I mean it makes sense when you think about it, there must be a library that these guys go to.
Well, let me tell you the real secret that NO one tells beginner PLC programmers when they start. The real question isn’t where is their library, but where can I can one for myself?
What is their secret?
Well, you are right. There is a library, but the secret is that every programmer builds their own. They literally start collecting code they have used and save it in a code library on their laptop and even in a safe online storage site with little chance of losing it.
I know several programmers who have the same code saved in multiple places for fear of losing their library. Depending on what type of work you do, depends on just how large your library is, lots of different work generally requires a larger library, as it’s difficult to remember all the code off the top of you head.
One final secret, is that often hardware manufacturers have template code for their devices that can integrate into a PLC. Just call and ask them if they have some sample code you could use for your project with their device.
A PLC programmer will have to be a project manager, a service tech, an electrician, and a programmer and be willing and able to change from one skill set to another in minutes.
4. Be Willing to Do Anything & Everything
If there is anything I learned as a programmer, it’s that I am not just a programmer. You are going to need to be an electrician, a draftsman, a project manager, a mechanical technician, a purchase agent, a supervisor and literally everything in-between.
Generally, a company won’t have enough programming to keep you busy all day, every day. So, you will need to lend a hand anywhere and everywhere management needs help.
Sometimes it will be working on the project your building a program for, maybe the company is short electricians and you may be needed to help wire the machine.
Or, maybe you need to get on a plane a help troubleshoot an issue at a customer’s site, which you discover has nothing to do with writing code.
One thing for sure, your value to the company will largely depend on your flexibility. Along with constant learning, is having the willingness to be flexible, to help the company out when they need someone to fill in.
You may fear losing your spot as a programmer if you spend weeks or months as an electrician.
But dont worry, constantly update your skill set and be willing to work overtime as needed to help other programmers out and to stay in the loop and showing them you are constantly working to improve your skills and value to the company.
Keep a positive attitude no matter what task your given, it’s worked for me more times than I can count.
5. Commit to a Lifestyle Not a Career
Writing code in today’s world is anything but a career. In today’s world, from the moment you’ve decided that you want to become a programmer you made a pact that you will change your life.
You will no longer consider your job a 9-5 job, you decided that you will want a new lifestyle. Your saying ‘I made a decision to change my lifestyle”.
A helpful note from me to you would be that “you had better make this statement” because to get good at anything will take the rest of your life.
There will be late night calls to help troubleshoot a machine, trips across the country with little or no warning, weekends in hotels banging your head trying to figure someone else’s code fiasco.
You will be the reason the machine won’t run, the dummy that can’t write code to make the machine do what the end user wants, and you will often be alone.
Now before I scare you away from a great career turned lifestyle, keep in mind that you are choosing to live a life that requires constant learning, a career that requires someone who can fit in and get the job done no matter what it takes.
You are choosing to be that guy or gal, someone above the cut, someone special and this career is not for everyone.
6. Be Ready and Willing to Travel
I recall the time I got my passport. It was right before a trip to Brazil, and I mean right before the trip. The company I was working with just said “hey we need to send you on a trip to Brazil”.
I said, ‘no problem when do I leave’? Then they found out I didn’t have a passport, and then they had second thoughts about sending me.
I almost missed out on the trip, all because I didn’t have it, well that was a life lesson for me that I am passing on to you.
Get yourself prepared to travel, get a passport, get your home life set so that it will run successfully without you for weeks at a time.
Set up you’re banking payments and such to continue without you needing to do something in person. Have someone you can trust watch out for your home, like retrieve your mail, watch out for intruders etc.
This is crucial, if you want to grow in this career, as travel demonstrates a high level of competency and trust.
Every company wants someone they can send anywhere at anytime to solve a problem at a moments notice.
Someone who won’t screw things up, someone who can be trusted to not only get their and solve the problem but someone who can make the company look good and protect its interest all at the same time.
7. Be Open and Smart About Opportunities
One final lesson; is that this career will come with many twists and turns as all of us come to learn.
It will have moments that is filled with strife, it will be a constant barrage of things to do, a career where you have to be willing to be everyone, to many people and be able to wear many hats at many times.
But one of the most rewarding benefits to this career is the enormous opportunities that will come your way throughout your career.
You will be confronted by customers who love your work and give you lucrative job offers, you will be heavily sought after by recruiters looking to land themselves a high 5 to 6 figure job candidate, (which means more money for the recruiter).
You will notice dozens of opportunities that you could land if you sought them out. This career is a candy land filled with cutting-edge tech, world travel (if you want), and laced with opportunities to lead multi-million-dollar projects.
But the biggest opportunity you will have, the opportunity to literally secure your future for the rest of your life is the opportunity to connect with other professionals.
I’m mentioning this as a lesson to learn because you may not yet appreciate the value of building a network of professionals who can feed you a constant supply of high 5 & 6 figure opportunities. But in time you most certainly will.
Maybe haven’t leveled up to a career where you find it more valuable to search for your next contract or project through your personal contacts list than to go to Indeed or Monster.com or CareerBuilder.