Ian is working on different projects for Grimbergen Industrial Systems in Finland. He studied computer science at the Hague University of Applied Sciences in Delft and has worked for ALTEN for two years as a Technical Consultant. About a year ago he started a secondment at Grimbergen Industrial Systems. They offer consultancy in the area of large industrial computerization projects. Ian is responsible for the development of the software for a number of projects and regularly has to travel abroad.
From two to six projects
“Grimbergen builds large machines for different clients and the development and production is all in-house. The work is very diverse as a consequence. I’ll be working on software for a lifting machine in a shipyard that has to be able to turn ships’ decks with enormously heavy bulkheads, and then I’ll be working on a conveyor belt that’s hundreds of metres long that takes steel panels from one area to another. I’ve also worked on machines for a cement factory where they make walls and floors for apartments. These are walls that are lifted out of moulds by means of a vacuum. You have to make sure that an enormous crane can hold the plates with suction and stack them.
There’s quite an overlap in software in all projects. The machines are controlled by a PLC, in which people and machine safety is controlled. The PLC then receives instructions from a PC application that maintains the total overview of the system. The application can also give the operator a visual image of it.
At ALTEN I initially supported/developed two projects, but I’ve now worked on six projects. Grimbergen was looking for someone who could develop software but who could also draw-up requirements. A senior role, in fact. This was a challenge I couldn’t refuse. Luckily I could regularly discuss things with experienced software developers at ALTEN, and I often did.”
Dare to ask questions
“The art of a consultant is to have self-confidence and not to be afraid of asking questions if you’re not sure. You learn a lot more then. Have the courage to look beyond your own points of reference. An interest in technology helps as well, of course. If I can give an example from my time at Grimbergen: walk through the factory, look at all the machines they make and ask questions. You get to know the project that way and you gain the client’s trust.
I’m regularly in Finland for two of the projects. You then notice that you’re often at the end of the chain when you’re a software developer. First there’s the mechanical part, then the electronics, then PLC and then, at the end, there’s the software application. To ensure that the software didn’t cause too much delay at the end of the projects, I worked with three other ALTEN colleagues on the Finnish ones. There was also a software tester in the team so we could solve problems before the machines became operational in the factory. We created a simulation of the system and how the factory worked before the mechanical part was completed.
Most projects at Grimbergen are unique and there is little or no overlap with previous projects when it comes to the mechanics. That was also how the software projects were handled. However, there is a recognisable pattern in the software. This allowed me and my colleagues to work on new architecture, which helps the re-use of some of the parts.
As said earlier, it’s important to gain the client’s trust. By regularly discussing current and future projects, you first learn a lot about the company and the projects, but you can also put forward new ideas. This is how I was able to persuade Grimbergen that developing new architecture and using a tester on the project was a good idea.
Travelling for your work and working abroad is a nice challenge. What is special at Grimbergen for me is that I can see very well what the software is used for. You’re often stuck in front of your desk as a software developer and you don’t really see what happens. In a manner of speaking, you regard the software in an abstract way. Because we work with such large, tangible machines, you immediately see what you’re working on and it becomes much more real.”
Working in Finland
“When I go abroad, I often work three weeks in Finland and then one or two weeks in the Netherlands. In the last 12 months I’ve been abroad around 18 weeks. Working there is really good, but not as romantic as a lot of people think. It’s a day’s travel to the client for this project. I often stay with several Grimbergen colleagues there, some of whom have been there longer than me. We all have our own apartment, so you have the space to do your own thing.
I work 5 and a half days in Finland. We are picked up by the bus from Grimbergen at 6 am to take us to the yard (15 mins.). In the week we work till 6 pm, on Saturday till 12.30 pm. Then I do the washing and on Sunday I often watch the world go by on my back.
Working in Finland is very different than in the Netherlands, even if it is a western country. There are a lot of similarities, but Finnish colleagues work strictly 8.00 am to 4 pm. It’s not common to work overtime. It’s just eight hours and then home. So we’re an exception.
I don’t have much time (or energy) to do anything in the evening really. We do go out to eat with colleagues a couple of times a week though. What I have noticed is that everyone usually pays for themselves in restaurants. They think it’s very strange if you say “just put it all on one bill”.
What I’ve also noticed is that they’ll say that they don’t have any room even if the whole restaurant is empty. “Okay, maybe we can find a table for you after all”. And then you sit there the whole evening, the only one in the restaurant. I don’t know if that’s typically Finnish…”