Learn From Highly Competent Professionals.

As the saying goes you won’t know the skill of a person standing next to them, but you will discover their competence when working with them. Get a snapshot into the world of PLC programing through the eyes of professional programmer, Stephen Gates.

Logix Magazine asked Stephen Gates from MY PLC Training.com to let us interview him for our spotlight on a pro feature.

He granted us a unique view into his life and career experiences.

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So Who Is Stephen Gates?

I graduated in 2011 with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from Missouri University of Science & Technology.

He has worked as an engineer at a small family-owned electrical switchgear business.

One of his main responsibilities has been to program industrial automation devices (mostly PLCs) to automate switchgear, generators and substation switches. He recently, his Professional Engineer’s License in Nebraska.

When I’m not working, He loves hanging out with my wife and other family and friends. And is a Bible-Believing Christian and music-lover.

An Insider’s View From an Automation Professional

How did you get started?

I started learning PLCs in college at Missouri University of Science & Technology. The instructor had worked in factories and plants implementing automation/PLC systems for years before he became a teacher.  I learned a lot from his class! I still recommend his textbooks: here.

  1. Who was your mentor? My mentor was my teacher in college, Dr. Kelvin Erickson.
  2. What is the future of automation? Anything is possible! Some newer things that are definitely making a big impact right now and will likely be for years to come are: 1. improved robotics, 2. artificial intelligence/machine learning, and 3. virtual reality. 1. I think robots are going to get more and more versatile and will likely replace some automated machines eventually. 2. AI and machine learning already allow companies to detect patterns in equipment and machines and start making accurate predictions about when equipment will need to be fixed/maintained. 3. I don’t see a huge value of VR yet, but I think as more people start playing with it we will see some pretty creative uses for it in industrial automation.
  3. Do you have to go to college to join the industry? Absolutely not. In fact, we initially started myPLCtraining.com specifically to help electricians and maintenance techs get confident with PLC programming to improve their careers, WITHOUT them needing to get a degree. Many of them don’t have college degrees or at least not engineering degrees. I have stories of several electrician guys who worked their way up from electrician to automation engineer/specialist. Pretty cool what’s possible right now, for those with good programming and troubleshooting skills!
  4. Can you learn enough on your own to get a good job? Definitely. Again, I have stories of guys who did this. However, when you say “on your own”, I include Youtube, online/offline classes, etc. You have to learn something from somebody, obviously. But I think your point is that you don’t have to have a formal college degree in automation or engineering to get a good job in the industry. I fully agree with that.
  5. What training do I need? It varies depending on the job, but here are some of the basics you should definitely focus on: foundational understanding of PLCs (how they work, different hardware components, basic PLC wiring, Ladder Logic basics), confidence with the appropriate PLC software (installing the software, creating a project from scratch, adding/configuring I/O, tags, data types; downloading/connecting from your computer to a PLC) plenty of programming and troubleshooting exercises and practice with Ladder Logic and/or other programming languages if possible.
  6. How much money can I earn? If you get really good, up to $150k and possibly more. But $100k is a reasonable goal after a few years in the industry.
  7. What tech do I need to learn? Get VERY comfortable with Windows computers! Installing software, locating files, extracting/zipping folders, etc. Basic stuff, but very important if you want to get into PLC programming. Then start playing with PLC software. Rockwell has free versions of Connected Components Workbench and RSLogix 500 that are worth getting.
  8. What is the lifestyle like? It depends whether you work as an in-house programmer or integrator of automation for many clients. The integrator jobs are more common and that lifestyle usually involves a fair amount of travel. Usually 20-50% of the time. The average is probably 30% travel, 70% office work.
  9. What is the biggest mistakes most newbies make? I don’t know what the biggest one is, but one that I have made and seen others make is not doing enough work upfront to validate and test PLC logic/configuration before implementing in the field. I highly recommend figuring out a  way to simulate your PLC logic in a controlled environment before implementing it on the real thing.  You can avoid a lot of embarrassment, travel time, equipment damage and even injuries by doing more careful programming and simulation before implementing the real thing.
  10. How fast can I break into the career? It depends. If you have some basic confidence with PLC programming and/or troubleshooting and 1 or 2 of the right connections, it can happen quickly. I saw a friend  “break into” the career in just a couple months after going through a basic PLC course and talking to his boss about moving into another role. If you have no skills and no connections yet, you can probably get there in a year or two.
  11. Where are the best jobs? If you don’t like to travel, the in-house programmer jobs for big companies and factories are probably the best but difficult to come by. The ones that pay the best are probably integrator positions.
  12. Do I have to learn to program robots? Not necessarily, but it can help.
  13. Can I really learn enough PLC programming from YouTube to get a job? Probably, but you have to be a strong self-starter. Generally you’d be better off taking a structured course with access to the instructor first and then filling in gaps or  with YouTube or other courses.
  14. What are the best resources for newbies? Besides the plethora of helpful stuff on YouTube, we have a website and blog full of free articles, videos, downloads as well as our paid PLC training course membership called, myPLCtraining Academy. Check out myPLCtraining.com for more info on both our free and paired content!
  15. Who are the best people to learn from? myPLCtraining.com of course 🙂 Haha, but in all seriousness, I haven’t taken a lot of online courses on PLC programming so I can’t speak from experience. However, I know Paul Lynn also has a good course on Udemy.
  16. Do I need hardware to learn? Not if you have a good course that thoroughly teaches you the software using emulators/simulators AND that provides explanations of the hardware. But having PLC hardware will definitely help, if you can afford it..
  17. What is the advice you would give your kid if they were going into the field? Assuming he was old enough to have a job already…1. Get involved in automation related equipment and projects at your current job. 2. Making friends/connections with PLC programmers, automation technicians and automation engineers. 3. Get good at solving problems in your current job. 4. Learning PLC-related skills on your own time/dime (if your company won’t pay for it). If it was before college age, I’d recommend he try to get a job working around automated equipment AND go to school for electrical or automation engineering.

Closing Thoughts From Stephen

Here’s what I’d say:

  • Set aside AT LEAST 2 hours each week to go through some PLC training videos/worksheets or to play with/learn the software. Anybody can make that kind of time. If you do that every week for a year you’ll have racked up over 100 hours of learning and practice without breaking a sweat. 
  • If you can, spend 4 hours per week. You’ll get there faster.
  • If you can, spend 6 hours per week. You’ll get there even faster!  

And you can start by signing up for our newsletter and joining our community here at Logix Magazine (free) and then going over to MyPLCTraining.com and signing up for Stephens training course.

The Take Away

With this article we’re hoping you’ve learned and left with some questions answered, hopefully we’ve sparked your curiosity and shared some useful information.

But, we know you may need more, so we invite you to contact us for some follow up questions or to discuss your unique needs.

Just go to our contact page and reach out to us and we’ll get back to you asap!