After my second year as a control systems engineer I received some important advice. It was part of my annual review. I was sitting at a round table with my manager and the managing director (the company was relatively small probably about 30 people at that stage). They sat opposite me and went through the usual stuff: I was making good progress, but there were a number of areas I needed to improve before I could get a pay rise.

The managing director went on to explain that “our company (I have since left) services the mining industry. Our clients are tough men. They are in charge of multi-million dollar operations. It is a rough industry. People in this industry need to be hard. Basically, your manner is not assertive enough.” Fair enough, I thought. It’s a tough industry, I have to be tough. The next part caught me by surprise – my managing director went on – “I’m not necessarily saying you have to swear more, but consider it. Try to be more to the point. If you need to find out something interrupt the person with the information. Carry on with plant operators so they feel more at home.”

I consider this some of the worst advice I ever received. I don’t swear much, it doesn’t sound right coming out of my mouth. My approach is often reserved and polite. I haven’t seen any compelling reason to change it.

After this disputable pearl of wisdom, my manager told me that to improve technically the best place to start is to RTFM. Not having a suitably soiled potty mouth I did not realise it stood for “Read The _ Manual” (Nope, still doesn’t sound right). He went on to explain that when he started, he would find manuals for what ever piece of hardware he was working on and read it cover to cover. He read the documentation on all PLC instructions for the brand of PLC he was working on. He would read manuals while on the train or at home after work.

I consider this one of the most valuable pieces of advice I received while at that company. I gave it a go. After a while you start to realise that most manuals are similar. Once you have seen a cross range of equipment, new equipment that does the same thing is no longer daunting. You learn how things work and that removes the mystery. When you are faced with a new job, using equipment you have never used before, you are confident that it probably operates like some other thing you have experience with. Or that it will be easy to get the information that you need to work it out from the manual. Manuals are jam packed with useful information – who would have thought?