Hey folks, Phil Zito here and welcome back. In this post I'm going to be talking about building automation careers. Now, we've covered this a couple times in past posts, but we still continue to get questions on how people progress in their careers. I'm going to do my best to address both:
- How do you get into the industry?
- How do you continue to succeed in the industry and expand your career?
When you finish reading this post, be sure to check out The Guide to BAS Careers. It’s an article I did on careers earlier this year.
So, who's the audience for this topic? If you're looking to get a career in building automation, then you're going to want to read on. If you are a manager, and you're looking to hire people, you're going to want to read on. If you're looking to grow in your career, and exceed in your career and get more money, more challenging experiences, things like that, you'll want to read on.
First off, in order for us to discuss a career in building automation, we need to understand where the roles exist. I find that people will focus in on one kind of role, and they'll miss all the other potential roles. So, for example, people will say, “I want a technical role in building automation.”
They'll think that they have to be an installer, or they have to be a technician, or they have to be a programmer. In actuality, there are other technical roles, roles around energy analysis, roles around facilities operations. Maybe you work for a mechanical, as an MEP coordinator, and you focus on the controls business.
There are so many different things you can do in regards to controls. Just figuring out what you want to do, has to be your first thing that you want to do. Now, I will say at the time of this post, you're in a good environment for wanting a job in controls, because they are so short staffed. A common joke I hear from managers is, “If you can breathe and spell BAS, then they'll hire you.” They need people to go and execute work.
I don't think that's always going to be the case, I think, like everything in life, things are going to ebb and flow. But if I were you, and I'm either trying to hire people into building automation or I am trying to get into building automation, first thing I would do is really identify: what are the key things I want and need.
So, for the managers reading this, I see so many job postings that are outrageous. They have requirements that are not at all related.
- So, you want an installer, but this installer also must be able to create control submittals.
- This installer must also be able to do programming.
So, what do you want, an installer or do you want a supertech? I mean, which one is it? If you want a supertech, then call it a supertech. If you want a programmer, call it a programmer. What do you want? What do you need?
What is the most important aspect like, if this person came on the job and could only do this one thing, then they would be successful. That's what should be on the job descriptions. It should not be just a bucket list of things and you're hoping one of them sticks.
What Do I Need to Get the Job?
For the person who's looking for a job, don't be overwhelmed. I often rally, and this gets me blowback, but I often rally on Facebook about how I don't think you need to be a mechanic to get into controls. I also don't think you need to be an IT expert. I don't think you need to be an electrical expert.
I think you need to have technical acumen to get into controls. It would help if you had a mechanical background. It would help if you had an IT background. It would help if you had an electrical background. But the reality is, most of what we do at the end of the day is a series of processes.
You'll see people post on LinkedIn and on Facebook in response to a lot of my posts about “what do you need to be a successful tech” and they'll give you this long laundry list where, if I'm honest with you, I feel like they're just tooting their own horn. I feel like there's a couple of them who are being genuine in their posts, but a lot of them I think it's an ego stroke that they know as much as they do.
I find myself thinking, yeah, you probably know more than I do, but I don't need to know that information. It reminds me of a famous story by Henry Ford. People were calling Henry Ford ignorant, and so Henry Ford was like, “I'm not ignorant.” For some reason he went to trial or something, if I remember correctly, but basically, what he ended up saying to people was, “Why do I need to know this when I can make a phone call and I can get five experts on the topic with PhDs in here to answer any question I have.” That's kind of the world we're in today.
I'm not excusing ignorance. I think you should have technical acumen, as I've mentioned, multiple times. The ability to research, the ability to Google, I know, people get up in arms when I mention “Why are you going to memorize something you can Google?” They look at that as a cop out.
If we look at where stuff gets really hosed up in our industry. You ask anyone about BACnet integrations, and you're probably going to get a couple horror stories. Oftentimes, when I would have managers, and they would come alongside us as a training company, they would talk about how their employees are struggling with an integration.
I would ask them, “Well, what are they struggling with?” Then they would say, “Well, it's this integration.” Then I would sit down alongside them and be like, “Okay, well, what did you do to handle what they're struggling?” Then they would say, “Well, we just answered the question, because I've done it before.” And I'm like, “Well, you're just going to keep getting asked the question, and the reason you're getting asked the question is because you're not teaching the people how to actually research the answer to the question.”
So, there's one thing with knowing BACnet, knowing that you need BBMDs, knowing that you need BDTs, knowing that you have to have certain BTL profiles in order to have certain objects that come in. There's another thing with just knowing that you should Google the part number for the BACnet card. You should look up that BACnet card and find out its points list and find out if those points correspond with the sequence. Those are research tasks. They're not necessarily knowledge tasks. Sure, you need to have a little bit of knowledge to be able to read a sequence, to understand BACnet, but you have to have the ability to find information that is not included.
When I look back at my experience in the military, I was in the US Navy, I was a missile technician. When I look at my experience, it was a lot of looking up information in Tech Pubs, so, you learn to research. Then I look at a lot of the military people who are successful in this industry, and it's because of that ability to go and research. I'm seeing my kids being taught that in school. Nowadays, they're being taught to research and create presentations. I think that's a great shift in learning, but when I was a kid, that type of learning didn't occur. That type of thinking didn't really occur, at least in the schools I was in.
So, when I think about, what do you need in order to be a successful building automation technician, I get this question probably once a month, at least. The first thing you really need to do is to research. You need to find the companies around you that are hiring technicians, and that's not going to be hard if you do research. Next, figure out what skills they want that you don't have. Then, you need to figure out how to close those skills.
My hope is that you would turn to us, and that we would train you and we would help you close those skills. I used the Honeywell Gray Manual when I was starting off and used controllers that I got off of job sites, or stuff I got off of Ebay to be able to learn controls. So, whatever that looks like for you, that's what you should be doing to get into controls.
Step one: Research the jobs.
Step two: Identify the key tasks in those jobs.
Step three: Find out if those key tasks are things you would actually want to do. Maybe that looks like doing a job walk with the company just saying, “Hey, I'd like to shadow one of your technicians so I could see if this is something I'm interested in.”
Step four: Once you've identified those tasks, and you have indeed verified that this is something interesting to you, then you need to create a learning plan. You need to honestly assess where you are at. Do you understand? For example, if it's a test that says, “You need to be able to install and perform point to point on controllers, and they're associated IO.
- First level: Do you know what a controller is? Do you know what an IO is? Do you understand what point to point is?
- Second level: Do you understand the basics of mounting a controller, installing DIN rail? Wiring things up using wire snips and using wire strippers? Do you understand how to use the tools?
- Third level: Do you have a process? Do you have a process for performing point to point? Maybe this is as simple as going to a mentor, or someone more senior than you, in the industry and asking them, “How do you do point to point checkout?”
Write that down, create your own process, buy an Easy IO FW-08 from a control website, maybe acquiring some Basic I/O. Once you've done that, getting a 24-volt transformer off of Amazon, and build a little lab and do some basic point to point. Then, all the sudden, you walk into that installation interview, and you understand what a DI is, you understand what an AI is, you understand how you wire up milliamp versus how you wire up volts DC, you understand the difference between a triac. You understand what relays are, what outputs are, volt-amperes, all this stuff because you start researching it.
You have a curiosity as you're looking at a controller and its associated installation document, and you notice that it requires so many VA’s, or that it's rated for so many amps. You might say, “I don't know what VA means,” and you start to look into that. Over time, you will develop this curiosity for learning, and that my friends, brings us to how you advance in this career.
How do I Advance in this Career?
This is where a lot of people get stuck in what I like to call the No Man's Land of Control. So, I don't know about you, but I do Jujitsu, and I'll be honest, I took a little lull there over the summer for Jujitsu, but I was really into then getting back into it. I will tell you, because it has so few belts, and because it's so technical, you have this like burst of knowledge where you're like, “Man, I'm learning so much, I'm learning so much,” and then bam, you hit this plateau and you feel like you're learning nothing when in actuality you are learning stuff, but it just feels like you're learning nothing.
If you don't seek other experiences, if you don't go and grapple with different people, you don't get different looks at different styles, you don't start off in positions that you're weaker in instead of positions that you're strong in, you’re not going to grow as much. So, what you need to look at is, when you are in that phase and how do you know when you're in that phase?
You know you're in that phase when stuff becomes repetitive like, when you drive somewhere and you're like, “I have no idea how I got here, it was just memory.” And then you're like, “I have no idea what I was just doing for the past 20 minutes. This is kind of scary.”
That is what you need to look out for in your career, and you need to say to yourself, “Where am I in my career? Am I on autopilot? Am I just doing install and I'm not really learning anything, or I'm programming and not really learning anything? Then you have to ask yourself, “What is it that could stretch me?”
For me personally, I was blessed by ignorance. I was really ego driven very early in my career. I was probably ego driven until, if I'm totally transparent and honest with you, probably until last year. This past year, I've humbled more, but I will tell you, that ego was good and bad.
The bad got me in a lot of areas where if I’d had self-reflection, I would have learned more, but it worked out in some ways, in that I took on things that I should not have been taking on. I volunteered to do all sorts of integrations, volunteered to do APIs, because I said, “I read a book on API's, I could do API's. I read a book on cybersecurity and got like halfway through my Master's in cybersecurity. I could do cybersecurity.”
By volunteering for these situations, I grew, and I started to, as part of this growth, learn what I liked and what I didn't like. So, it started to really expose to me areas where I was like, “Okay, that absolutely sucked. I hated doing that” or “I did not like doing that, but I'm really good at it” and “Oh, I'm really good at that and I like doing it!”
So, once I understood where those areas were, then I could start to focus more on them. I could start to expand into those areas and that naturally led me to promotions and increases in responsibility. I think one of the traps we get into in our career is that we think that in order for us to have increased responsibility, we need to have a promotion.
In a lot of cases, there's nothing stopping the technician, other than the mindset of, “That's not my job,” from learning how to do submittals, from learning and doing some programming, from learning and doing some integration. There's nothing stopping them.
Oftentimes, it's either “That's not my job,” or there's this fear of, “Hey, I don't know what I'm doing.” I've yet to meet, personally, a manager whose employee wanted new experiences, wanted to learn things, and was willing to do this on their own time to learn things, that wouldn't facilitate that learning or wouldn't come alongside them. Sure, there are managers like that out there, but they tend to flush through the industry pretty quick, because this is a small industry. You just don't tend to hold on to people if you don't invest back into them.
This could be where you're a salesperson, and all you've ever done is plan and spec work, and maybe you're hitting your goals, filling your pipeline. Maybe outside of that, you want to work a strategic account, maybe you want to try to influence a capital project, maybe you want to influence some capital plans, stretch yourself a little bit. So, you start to seek out these different experiences.
As a manager, you should be asking yourself, “What is it that gets my people fired up?” For some, it's going to be money. For some, it's going to be time. So, I have a person on my sales team who wants to be their best self, and I'm not saying the other people on my team don't want to be their best self, but this person holds themselves accountable. They need to produce tons of activity and maximize their earning potential. I have another person who wants to have good quality of life, and then I have another who's kind of a mix between the two. So, I look at that, and that makes me think, different people are motivated by different things.
There are different things that are going to bring satisfaction to the people on your team, and you really need to understand this. It's through conversations, and sometimes it's just simply asking:
- Hey, what makes you tick?
- What motivates you?
- What makes you happy?
- What do you want to get out of this career?
- Why are you working here?
- What do you want to achieve?
By asking these questions, by understanding the motivations behind people, you can help them to grow into their best selves. You can help them to really maximize their job satisfaction, maximize what they're doing to develop themselves. This is something that has to be intentional.
In my experience, it has to be something that you make a mental note to do. Like, I have to make a mental note, to ask my people how they're doing, I have to make sure that I am really just fostering the environment to where they can say, “This is what I want to achieve. This is what I want to build. This is where I feel most creative.”
I know that you're probably thinking, “What does this have to do with building automation?” This has everything to do with building automation, and here's why people are going to leave your company. They are going to find something that is going to bring more value to them, and there's a point at which you can't pay them more, either through company policy or just simply due to the finances of the business.
So, you have to ask yourself, “What can I provide of value that isn't monetary?” Breathing into people, truly being invested in your people, understanding your people, understanding what they want to achieve, understanding what their vision is for their career, helping them create a vision for their career, that is going to build loyalty, that is going to build attachment.
As a training provider, one of the things we often get told is, “Well, we're going to train our people, and then they're going to leave.” You know what, yeah, and some people will respond with, “What if you don't train them and they stay?” But what if you invest in them, not just monetarily by buying training, but with time? What if you invest in them, learn what's important to them, contribute to their development? What do you think their response is going to be, when another company comes in and offers them $1 more, and they ask, “What's your policy on development? How are you going to foster my career? What is your plan?”
If an employee was says, “Hey, I'm considering leaving for another company.” First off, I'd ask, “What is it that they are going to do for your career? What is their plan for your career? If it's just money, what is that going to do for you? If it's $1 an hour, and you're doing more or you're doing the exact same thing you're doing here, and they have no plan for your career, then why are you leaving?”
Yeah, it's $1 more per hour, whatever, but if you've gone and painted a career path and a vision for them to advance, that ties to what they value, the likelihood that they're going to stay with you is pretty high. I know this has been kind of new agey, kind of let's all feel and sing Kumbaya, but I don't feel like this is discussed enough in our space.
We're men and women in a construction trade that makes us “tough by nature.” You envision the construction trade, and you are not envisioning someone sitting in a therapy office, talking about feelings and culture. I feel like talking about culture and everything has gotten really a bad rap, because it seems like whenever you talk about culture, diversity, inclusion, any of those topics that are softer in nature, people use them to beat you over the head.
They’ll tell you you're not diverse enough for a company, you're not inclusive enough, you don't have a good enough culture, you're not reflecting on the needs of your employees, etc. Instead, they should be saying, “Hey, there's a benefit to having a diverse team.” Take my team for instance. I have 2 women, I have someone who's Hispanic, I have a guy who's Caucasian, like myself, and they all have different life experiences. They all bring different thoughts, feelings, approaches, and ideas to the business.
It wasn't intentional that I hired these kinds of people. But because of that, I get different thoughts, different viewpoints, and different experiences brought to my business. If you invest in your employees, and you spend the time to develop them, then you're going to get different perspectives, different ideas, and different processes.
One of my favorite exercises when I was running a team was, how fast can you wire up a VAV box? By watching people do that, some people had electrical background, somebody had HVAC background, some didn't have any background, you would get all sorts of different approaches. Some people would pre-stage things, some people would just take an “I'm going to go at it like a hammer and a nail,” and because of that, you would learn different things that you wouldn't have seen otherwise.
Now, for those of you who are still reading, and I didn't lose with this kind of pie in the sky culture stuff, what does this have to do for those of you who are looking for a job? I encourage you, if you are in the search for a company, and you are looking for a job, especially today, ask them what their plan is for you.
- Ask them how your career will develop with them.
- What does a career roadmap look like at their business?
- What does the career path look like?
- Is there mentorship?
- Is there guidance?
- How will you continue to get experiences where you can learn?
Or, is this just going to be the same repetitive work again and again and again? You only have one life, you want to live it the best you can, you want to grow, you want to get experiences, and you want to be your best self. So, definitely consider those things as you approach your learning experience.
So, I know this was different. We're getting back to technical topics in the next blog, but this is just another thing that was laid on my heart that I don't hear being addressed in our industry. I don't hear anyone talking about it. I don't read about anyone talking about it. It does not seem to be something that is fascinating, but it is something that is pertinent, real, and important. I hope you will internalize this, both as a leader as well as a self-executer who is out there doing the work.
If you have any questions, anything here that you are interested in, let me know. I am pretty good at responding to people who ask, and feel free to reach out. Thanks a ton and take care!