By Ken O’Malley aeSolutions Founder and President
Think back to 1998 when technology, as we know it by today’s standards, seemed to be in its infancy.
Businesses relied upon fax machines. E-mail had recently become the communications standard. E-commerce was reaching mainstream. And Google had just launched.
1998 is also the year that two partners and I, with no business management education or experience, founded aeSolutions, an industrial engineering consulting startup driven by a vision to accomplish great things, but in a different way.
Our original vision, as it remains today, was to assemble a highly talented, creative, and engaged team driven to solve the process safety and automation problems that industrial companies face every day. Give smart people the freedom to act and the safety to fail, and they will outperform the expectations placed on them. To that end, I’m particularly proud of our high-performing employees, whom customers seek out because of their ability to solve problems.
It's safe to say that the world, just as aeSolutions, has come a long way in the past 25 years.
The Early Days
So, what was it like when we started? While our particular industry takes codes and safety standards for granted today, it’s rather shocking to imagine there were fewer of them and were less broadly known or understood. For example, out of a roomful of people, only a few might know what SIL (Safety Integrity Level) stood for, which today is commonly understood.
Second was the absence of options for sharing large amounts of data across diverse systems. Some may recall the communication “bus wars” where a few companies competed fiercely with their protocols for market dominance. Who would have guessed at the time that “indeterminate” ethernet would ultimately reign supreme?
In fact, the industry’s widespread adoption of ethernet has made collecting and sharing data across varied systems almost inconsequential today —something that was difficult and very expensive to do even on a limited scale 25 years ago.
The technology limits of the time were offset by deploying larger project teams and having longer project timelines, timelines that would seem lumbering by today’s standards. Back then, projects were executed serially, with earlier disciplines mostly finishing their work before downstream disciplines would start. Today project timelines require almost concurrent execution enabled by advanced models and shared database tools.
Perhaps it was youthful naivety at the time, but having the confidence to be an early mover has contributed to our success. We’ve always been eager to take on new technical challenges and open to accepting a few missteps along the way.
For example, we started building our process safety consulting business more than 12 years ago and very much underestimated the challenges and how different this business would be from our detailed engineering disciplines.
This move considerably stretched our business systems and challenged everything we thought we knew about operating a professional technical services firm. The good news is that we pushed through it, and today have an incredibly skilled process safety consulting team.
Another notable achievement was our industrial cybersecurity consulting business, which we built from the ground up and eventually sold. Once again, we were an early mover and eager to take on new technical challenges. Interestingly, cybersecurity risks rank among the biggest challenges facing our industry, followed by tightened project timelines and a growing lack of engineering talent available in the workforce.
What We’ve Learned
As a company founded and run by engineers, we always prided ourselves on our ability to identify and implement a solid technology solution to almost any problem, putting little emphasis on the human dimension.
Today, however, that dynamic has shifted. When approaching a new problem, we start with the human impact. We’ve learned that the best solutions usually fail if they don’t acknowledge human nature both in initial buy-in and in long-term adoption and success.
We’ve also placed greater value on teamwork. While we once focused on hiring rockstars in their fields, the strategy of hiring independent, self-performers only works to a point and won’t scale. Team members who focus more on supporting the growth and development of those around them make for a more successful organization and a far better place to work for our team members.
Improving With Age
As it should, our industry has noticeably improved and matured over the past 25 years, which ultimately helps everyone. We’ve witnessed operational efficiency, increased automation and productivity, and reduced costs as a result of minimizing labor-intensive processes and optimizing resource utilization.
Better interoperability and improved safety, along with improved process automation schemes for greater accuracy and reduced errors, also have helped elevate our profession.
Engineering’s Evolving Role
Being a naturally curious bunch, engineers are creative problem solvers, with problem-solving often seen as an art form that comes with great pride and at great cost.
Today, however, engineers must shift their identified value from developing “born-here” solutions to achieving objectives with less effort, lower cost, higher quality, and fewer surprises – something achieved through modularization and standardization. Engineers must embrace building on the work of others and continual improvement, which requires a culture focused on teamwork.
What’s Next for aeSolutions?
We were a new startup in 1998 leading the charge in functional safety and critical systems deployment. Given how the industry has matured over the past 25 years, I’d like to believe we’re in a better spot today because of our leadership during those early days.
Our company has been through 9-11, the 2008 financial crisis, an oil market crash in 2015, and the passing of my business partner, Brian Merriman, who was a close friend, and the original visionary of our organization. These challenges and many others have forged us into a resilient organization that should not be underestimated.
As we advance in the years ahead, we are committed to the long-term growth and development of our employees. If we empower our employees with more information and the education to understand and apply that information, and if we do this consistently, we will be successful by every measure.
Finally, my advice to others looking to make their mark in this industry: identify the unique value that you can bring to your clients. Build a brand around that. And plan to work incredibly hard to separate yourself from the competition. Ken O’Malley is Founder and CEO of aeSolutions, a South Carolina-based industrial engineering and consulting firm. He welcomes his role of inspiring the aeSolutions team to excel and improve. As an inclusive, ethics-first, and genuine leader Ken is driven by a desire to establish and maintain aeSolutions as a destination employer that cares deeply about its people.