4 January 2022


Looking through the glass — pivoting into startups & tech

Firsthand experiences can serve as invaluable teachers. These tend to be the ones that stick, in comparison to the stories you might hear or read about.

In 2018, I had decided to leave my hometown of Perth, armed with the ambition of creating a new life for myself in regional Queensland — on the opposite end of Australia. Through this journey over the past 4 years, I was able to see a lot of the ‘real world’ and of what it takes to work a ‘real job’ — as a contrast to the 4 years prior which I had spent in the world of textbooks, theories and contrived lab experiments.

I got to work at Australia’s largest cement plant and explored what it meant to be a field production engineer — to develop a capacity to troubleshoot critical production problems, make decisions under pressure, collaborate with people across all walks of life, facilitate plant wide morning meetings through effective communication, stay accountable for my work while juggling multiple priorities and learn directly from industry experts.

Day in the life

What even is production engineering, you might ask? It is a sub-branch that roots back to the discipline of process engineering. The question then becomes, what is process engineering?

Sticky note diagram illustrating the variety of engineering disciplines
Created in Miro

The analogy I use to think through this is as follows.

Problem statement:

Basic illustration of a ‘how might we produce 1000 birthday cakes within 2 hours?’ problem statement
Created in Miro

With the known outputs of a specific quantity and quality required within a set timeframe, a process engineer then has to think about what the system that delivers all of the above would have to look like.

  • How might we mix those 1000 cakes worth of eggs with the flour? What does the mixing bowl have to look like?
  • How might we bake 1000 birthday cakes within 2 hours? What would the oven have to look like?
  • What if things break? What would we have to do to keep production going?

A process engineer’s work would be focused on design, in the creation of new process equipment or the design of improved processes for an existing plant. A production engineer’s primary focus is in continuity, to sustain the production of all of the expected outputs of an existing process.

His core competency is in being able to balance the macro and the micro. He needs to be able to zoom out and to look at the process as a whole, with an understanding of all the key inputs entering the system and the key outputs that are expected to be delivered, while also having the ability to zoom in and troubleshoot the minutiae within any of the operating components that form this system.

It is through the multi-layered context provided by having views of the macro and the micro that allows for production critical decisions to be made, wherever necessary. The priority was to maintain continuous awareness of what levers might be pulled to reach the end in mind and how to manage any of the second and third order consequences that might emerge from those actions.

Deep work

Every single day that I got to spend at the plant was thrilling, and no two days were the same. I got to learn a lot about myself as the experiences during the journey revealed many aspects about myself that I would not have otherwise known — of the type of work that I liked and the rest that I did not enjoy as much.

In hindsight, the work I found most memorable were systems-based projects, where I got to work directly on the machine that was delivering value to end users.

In one particular instance, as a graduate process engineer I got to work on a ‘high level process control’ software upgrade that the process operators would ultimately use in their day-to-day work. High level process control can be thought of as a cruise control mechanism for running a continuous operation industrial plant. The intention was not to replace the human being in the seat but instead supplement and support the battle tested human judgement that has been accumulated through years and years of experience.

For example, the program could be designed to remove small, re-occurring nuisance plant behaviours that might have otherwise demanded human input or implement functionality that would be too time consuming or complicated to execute through manual operator control.

I enjoyed diving into the program’s structure and seeing firsthand what was beneath the glossy user interface, to understand the underlying mechanisms of how it worked. Through building this understanding, I was able to use the code to troubleshoot when things go wrong as well as implement improvements after taking on-board any concerns the operators might have.

I found this process and workflow very rewarding, as I could directly see the benefits (or frustration) that the machine would provide to the end users and also the feeling of incremental progress over time — that problems were being addressed and not shelved for a rainy day in the future.

Of course, this does not mean that there were zero problems. A continuous operation industrial plant is complex and constantly in flux, which meant ever evolving problems, but there was a defined trajectory of improvement over time.

On the other hand, the nature of my work as a production engineer was to fend off urgent and critical production problems day-by-day, and what I came to learn was that a lot of the problems I was working so hard to deal with would re-emerge due to the complexities of the plant environment. As thrilling as a single day might have been, of going all-in and putting out fires, I eventually realised that my learning had started to plateau after fighting the same problems over and over again — as explored previously in Uprooting.

The next iteration

Since leaving Gladstone and returning to Perth, I have spent much time in reflection and have reached a point where I am ready to look forward, through the windscreen instead of the rearview mirror.

I have come to learn that I intrinsically enjoy solving problems that make a difference by working alongside great people.

As an engineer, one of my deepest ambitions is to do work that would allow me to contribute towards solving the world’s most challenging and interesting problems. I am currently aspiring to join the spaces of startups and technology, because it is these arenas that appear to attract the most ambitious people who come together to tackle the world’s most important and challenging problems.

How might I bring something to the table? I hope to contribute, and continue to build upon, my existing skills as a field-tested engineer but also my abilities in frontend development (HTML, CSS, JavaScript) as well as my capabilities as a design thinking / human centred design practitioner.

Being self-taught in frontend development since 2017, it has shown me how powerful and rapidly code (technology) can be used to build scalable, real-world solutions while human centred design has given me a framework for building useful solutions that people would actually want to use. Designing technology-leveraged solutions hand-in-hand with the people who are going to use it, and not behind closed doors, may sound simple but it is no easy, for human beings are complex.

Ultimately, I hope to participate by applying the power of code together with human centred design to create technology that improves human quality of life and enable flourishing at scale.

Based on what I know as of today, these attributes are pointing me towards the more specific roles of frontend development, UI / UX or perhaps even Product Management. But these remain only as guidelines, as I intend on talking to more builders and operators who are actively working in the space to understand more about what happens beneath the surface.

“If you want to understand how this world is made or where it came from, the only way is to actually get up and go out there, feel it with your body. That’s how I learned. Actually meeting people, actually climbing mountains. And after all my travels, I am more and more certain of that now.”

— Naoki Ishikawa

‘Build in public’

Ever since starting this experiment of writing on Medium, the one principle I have kept at the forefront is to ‘build in public’.

Much of my published writing up to this point have been reflections of my thinking and life experiences, and I hope to continue to do more of the same this year — as I transition into my next stage of work.

I hope to document this process, to show the behind-the-scenes as I continue to work on bringing up to speed my online professional identities and re-hauling my personal website at juliangoh.me.

Other resources: