125. Hero – Mike Rathbun, Power & Control Solution Architecture Manager at EECO Transcript
And as I look back on my career and my life, I think when you spend a lifetime doing and learning it’s not necessarily which decisions you made, but what you learned, what happened through that. It makes you, the person you are today as good and bad, it molds you to understand and it all adds up.
Welcome to EECO Asks Why a podcast that dives into industrial manufacturing topics, spotlights the heroes that keep America running. I’m your host, Chris Grainger. And on this podcast, we do not cover the latest features and benefits on products that come to market, instead, we focus on advice and insight from the top minds of industry because people and ideas will be how America remains number one in manufacturing in the world.
All right. Welcome to this episode of EECO Asks Why and today we’re digging into a fun topic that I enjoy. It’s a hero episode. And the hero that we’re going to sit down with today is Mr. Mike Rathbun who is the Power Control Manager of our solution architecture group. A fun guy. Mike’s brought a lot of value to several episodes that we hope that the listeners have enjoyed. And definitely look forward to your feedback on those. Mike brings a ton of experience to the team. He’s just a fun guy.
When I think of Mike, I think I want word is passionate whatever he gets into he’s all in. There’s no way around it. So looking forward to talking to him a little bit about his journey, how he got here, things he’s experienced in the past. So welcome Mike and if you just want to kick us off, just tell us a little bit about your journey to the role that year you’re currently in now.
Thanks Chris for having me. I think I ended up where I’m at in my career knowing at a very early age that I wanted to play with electrical things. There was no doubt in my mind from the time I was probably six, seven years old that I would eventually do something with electrical, electronic things. I think the first indicator of that was one day, very young, maybe in grade school. And my father came home and found our brand new Sylvania TV set and all of its components laid out on the front living room carpet and the look on his face. I think that was, that was the entrance.
Yeah, that was the entry.
That was an interesting deal. I think he was concerned whether any of us was going to figure out how to put the TV back together. I think we did get it working at some point. It’s an interesting journey. I grew up in Silicon Valley in California. At the original technology, boom when companies such as Commodore and Apple were just getting started there.
So it was that environment of the technology electronics was booming. And everybody in that geography grew up in working in that environment, in the jobs associated with early technology and the advancements in personal computers and all those things that came along.
Had my first job in that industry when I was still in high school, working for the Commodore computer company. In the very early stages of the early Commodore computer. So it’s been pretty cool. Yeah. It wasn’t attractive job, not so much now. I definitely wasn’t a lead engineer at that point in time. I worked in the cable harness shop. If you could imagine cutting wires and zip tying them together for eight hours a day. A little monotonous, but that was my entrance into the electronic field at that time.
As I got through school to high school anyway, and started journeying into upper education. And finding that it was in those days was a bit of a challenge economically. I ended up joining the Navy and served in technical roles, technical technician type roles in both the electronic and electrical fields.
And hey, thank you for your service.
Thank you. Thank you. I’m glad to do it. Probably one of the bigger pieces of my life. They grew me to the, to what I am today. Fulfilling a career in the Navy and from there it’s been everything from I had always been pretty driven to work for myself, found the opportunity to start my own integration company which is really what elevated me in terms of automation, PLCs process type work and then ultimately found my way through reliability and at home that’s been very satisfying here at EECO for the past 10 years.
That’s great, awesome journey. Since you’ve been here at EECO you go see a lot of customers you’re heavily involved industry. Definitely regarded as one of the experts. Our personal customers love engaging with you. What have you learned? Where do you see as some of the greatest challenges to industry that may be facing over the next five years or so?
Right. I don’t think there’s anything new. There’s been a lot of discussion with, especially with us working from the electrical side of a lot of processes is the knowledge pool. I can remember the days working in the Silicon Valley and you would walk into a room at a company and there would be 50 engineers, working and developing and improvements in all those things. And we just don’t see that this days.
We walk into a large manufacturer, something such as a paper mill or a processing plant. And, as companies have tried to manage profitability and those things, having that kind of bandwidth there with engineers with with a lot of experience capable of developing and improving their processes internally has, effectively gone away and is now supported through third parties. I think that’s the biggest thing is that knowledge gap and just the capacity, having enough people. To go about the investigations, the development of the things you need to do to improve a process.
Yeah that’s a definite gap. It’s one we’re hoping to close a little bit, at least with the area that we cover and try to support in the Southeast. So think back to when you first started. What’s a piece of advice you wish someone would have gave you when you first entered the industry?
Probably stay in school.
You know, if I would have stayed in school early and achieved my degree. I ended up taking that path much later in my career, but I don’t necessarily think that was a bad thing, having the opportunity to get a lot of hands-on knowledge with the things that we do was beneficial.
I think with me it was easy because there’s a passion, right? I’m a nerd with this stuff. I can sit and talk about it. I can look at the equipment the making things work, solving the problems. I think it’s easy to enjoy what you do for a lifetime, if you really enjoy it. Right.
You know, I have this discussion with my son who’s about at that critical point in his development, he’s graduating high school this year. And he’s about to start school at the Citadel next year. So he’s following along military lines, which we’re very proud of that.
And he has chosen to go down and electrical engineering field, but having, making those decisions, trying to find something that you truly are interested in. And it was easy for him, I guess it’s in the blood, right, for us. That’d be my advice. It wouldn’t be anything specific about what school you should go or what industry it’s try things, talk to people. And find some things and if you find interests, then explore those. Yeah. And it makes it’s, I think that’s a key to life beyond just a career, right?
Yeah, no doubt. So like from a resource standpoint, if you are, if you find yourself interested in a path like this, solution architecture, what are some resources that our listeners could go to and try to learn more about. What this industry is and what you do?
Well, obviously you need to listen to this podcast, right?
Well that’s number one.
With, the ability to put out information through the technologies that we’re all absorbed in right now through social media right now it’s so easy, in my eyes, to look and to explore beyond the traditional, “I’ve got to sign up for a program at a university.” Explore what’s out there. Talk to a few boomers that have lived his life. I know that’s not a, as my son would call me a “whatever boomer” in most topics, I think we still carry a lot of knowledge and experience that we could pass on and maybe give some guidance too.
But to me, looking at what’s available in this time it’s almost endless, right? There’s so few barriers to being able to look and explore and educate yourself that there’s nothing that should hold somebody back from finding what their passion is.
Absolutely. And when you say sharing that information. I’m thinking influencers. If you were to think back over your career or just life in general, name a couple of you, and this is an opportunity to give some praise to some people who have been a pretty good influence to you in your life or mentors, if you will, who would they be?
For me, that would be a long list of, as my career has gone through, from my military career that’s really a long list there of mentors that helped drive me through that part of my career.
Anybody stand out on that list?
Yeah I would say an initial instructor as I got into my early, the very early side of my technical instruction in the Navy there was an instructor who was, who is pretty critical to it. What I found when we went and started going through that technical instruction in the Navy, it’s like going to an advanced a university course. That would typically take you two to four years. And they’re going to slam it through a fire hose and in term of about six to eight weeks,
Right. It encompassed something that may take you several semesters to do. And I like to think of myself as fairly smart in these areas, but that was the challenge.
So what was a day. Like there. What time did it start? When did it end? What was the typical day? When in that time?
Typical day, when you’re in that instruction environment, going to one of the technical schools is you’re studying a subject in a classroom for eight hours a day, five to six days a week. And what could be more challenging about it, depending on the subject matter that you were working with? Sometimes that meant that your materials from the classroom had to stay in the classroom and you could spend four to six hours after school kind of in a study hall. So your learning is a full-time job.
So you couldn’t take the materials out?
In some cases yes, based on the subject matter. So it really is a full-time job.
So just the math you just did, that’s 12 to 13 hours a day of nothing but hitting the books.
You gotta fix some food in there somewhere.
And they do you know, that’s what marching is for. You would March to the food. But that environment really sets you up. And that was my challenge getting back to that is being able to, it wasn’t necessarily the level of the material, but how much you had to consume. And that was one of the challenges for me initially. And the leading instructor that I was working under at that point in time really had to pull me out. I think he saw the technical ability I naturally had in this area, but had to convince me that it was consumable to some degree.
So what’s the select the completion rate for programs like that? Is it a pretty high dropout? Did most of the guys finish? It sounds extremely difficult to get through that.
It really does vary as a subject matter shifts to specialties with within, quote unquote, the engineering skills trades. But you could typically see, this is an ongoing process and these technical instructions, right, in the schools. And they could be fulfilling a class every six weeks, every two months, but in general, you could see an attrition rate of anywhere from 30% to 50% of the class. Wow. For a variety of reasons. It just can’t get through the material or just can’t stick with it long enough,
That just sounds grueling.
It could be it at times it was I say grueling you’re in a classroom.
But it’s a, yeah I’m comparing it to my experience at Old Dominion. And I thought that was tough. And it was definitely had its moments where you just have this feeling, “Can I do this?” But it sounds like this was probably, you know, amp that up a little bit.
When you’re motivated in a military environment to succeed as well.
So the some of the freedoms that you enjoyed probably at Old Dominion after you were out of class weren’t necessarily translated to that military environment. You’re not as exposed to some of the things that would take you away from it as much.
I’ll admit this man over the years. The hires we’ve had together. We worked again on a lot of projects, but the personnel with the military experience, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It teaches, obviously just the values and the work ethic. It’s it is something we definitely support. No doubt.
So thank you for that, Chris. It goes a long ways. Yeah. But it translates. It does translate.
No doubt. So that we’ve looked back for awhile. So now let’s look to the future. You’re involved in some pretty cool stuff. What excites you about the future?
There’s really, what I’ve seen is the conversions of technology right now down to things that are simple as power. And the basic gray boxes of yesteryear that, that hung around these industrial plants that just did a very basic function, turned a light on or started a motor the movement of technology for this, whatever you want to call it, industry 4.0 or IIOT and all these secrecy in there is reality to that right now where things are really becoming connected to the, to make them this process or this thing work in conjunction with that to enhance capabilities and production efficiencies and all these things.
A lot of the barriers that were associated with technologies of even just 10 years have been blown up. And we’re even moving quickly beyond that as you start exploring some of the, some of the visualization capability, augmented reality, digital twins. These things are at the forefront now are just amazing to look at and how they can impact what you do. And especially for me being older and seeing the regression where doing maintenance task and repairing and designing and building things 30 years ago was a very manual intensive process. Technology now is really opening that up that the ability to have all the information and the things that you need to consider at your fingertips, at any point in time, and to be able to manipulate that is, is extremely powerful.
So that’s where I get a lot of the enjoyment right now. I think bringing high level visualization is something that I’m really keen on and working with right now, so that whatever it is you’re working with, whether it’s a power plant and industrial facility, and you’ve got the power infrastructure and all of that there, the ability now to have that information visualized in front of you, for instant understanding and diagnostics is pretty cool.
So that’s where you get your kicks at.
That’s a lot of it that’s really an enjoyable piece of where we’re at right now.
That’s awesome. That is really great. So there are a lot of myths out there about engineering, what we do, how things get done. What’s a common myth you’d like to debunk? You got the platform now. What’s something that you’d like to say, “Hey, this is what people think we do, but this is not reality.”
I think I’d equate that to a conversation I had with my son early on as he went into high school. I’ve done a lot of travel. It just that’s the way my career has developed where I’d work on projects a lot. And he never really considered me an engineer because in his eyes I was going out fixing things.
And I still, I equate that as when I was growing up, when somebody said an engineer, I thought more of like my dad at, AT&T sitting in an office with a pipe and a big CAD board, drawing and designing this thing. And I don’t know if that’s everybody else’s myth, but I always had that kind of a picture that’s what an engineer was. I kind of spent my career fixing things, right? And solving things and then woke up and realized I was an engineer, but I don’t necessarily sit in a big whiteboard and design things on a day-to-day basis.
Yeah, absolutely. So you’ve done some pretty cool things in your engineering career. What’s a highlight that you’d like to share? Something that maybe a cool project or something, you know, process, whatever it may be just to highlight that you’d like to share with the listeners.
Going back sometime I think this really speaks to me is I started first creating my own integration company and got involved in the automotive industry very specifically. And work with a large tier one companies in that industry and was able to put together a project here in the United States that at this time was the largest automated stamping system which is for, if you’re not familiar with that industry basically takes big chunks of steel and forms them into a, that piece part that goes into a car.
And I think I was a little bit fortunate just to the people that I knew and was working with that I was able to be intrinsic in that project. It was actually documented on one of those discovery shows at one times, the how does this work (How It’s Made) done back in the nineties. So that was significant. And I didn’t even realize really how significant it was at the time until we actually started getting the feedback of, “There is no other system in the United States that had the capability of that system.”
So that was definitely a highlight. I’ve still got pictures of that one hanging in my office.
That is pretty cool, man. Look back on that and feel a lot of joy. I’m sure. That’s great. So let’s tell her about Mike outside of work, man. Do you have any hobbies, anything like that you’d like to do when you’re not fixing the world’s problems with power and power management?
Besides being an electrical electronic nerd, I do have two other passions and both started very early as well. Probably the first one was golf.
And to this day, I’m an avid golfer. Both my parents golf. My father actually was a semi-pro golfer to played on a little California tour when I was young.
Either that, or they just gambled and drank and played golf, I’m not sure, but he was always golfing something to that extent. But so my parents introduced me to golfing at a very early age. I was, I probably got my first golf club when I got my first bicycle. So I was playing golf at a very early age and I’ve carried that on. Even through my Navy career when we leave on deployment, I’d have my sea bag with me and my golf bag with me. I’ve actually been able to play golf overseas in a couple of different places. So I still carry that on and try to play as much golf as I’m allowed now.
Um, music’s always been very big to me. I think it was most for a lot of people in my generation. You either play guitar or you played guitar. That was pretty much it. At a young age, played in bands, play guitar, sung. Still do a little bit of that now, nowhere near as much, but I’ve been able to pass that along to my son as well. A typical Friday night at the Rathbun house is the amps get turned up and the music gets loud and my son and I had that ability to interact through music, that’s pretty powerful.
That’s great. I just, I remember your son probably when you first started here maybe nine years ago, coming to the man he’s grown into now and this relationship you guys have, for me it’s role model. For just how tight you guys are. I hope my daughters we grow to have the relationship you guys have one day, but when I see the videos, you have a you and him jamming out together, and that’s just it’s just too cool.
I am blessed in that aspect having a relationship I do with my son is this is everything.
Absolutely, man. Absolutely. I got one more question and I’ll let you off the hook. So if you were to step in my shoes, what would you have asked yourself that I didn’t?
And I think a question we always ask yourself, would you have done it differently?
Then I do ask myself that question. There was a fork in the road, a couple of forks in the road making the decision to join the military. I look back on it now is a bit one of the best decisions I ever made in my life, but at that same time, I was really involved in music and it could’ve just as easily I could have said, “Nah, I want to try and be in music.” And who knows where that would have led? So I probably made the right choice with that one. Right.
I don’t know, Mike, I’ll tell you, with your passion. I think whichever path you take even from your past and in the future, you’re going to be successful, man.
I appreciate that. It’s nice to feel that you can drive and just do what you want to do and do what’s important to you. What would make sense. But that’s a pretty important question. And as I look back on my career and my life, I think when you spend a lifetime doing and learning it’s not necessarily which decisions you made, but what you learned, what happened through that. It makes you, the person you are today as good and bad, it molds you to understand and it all adds up.
Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, Mike, I think this has been great. Hopefully it gives our listeners a little bit more of the insight to you, your world, and you’ve brought some great information to listeners on previous episodes. So thank you for that as well, but I just really enjoy sitting down looking forward to working with you for hopefully many more years in the future. You’re just a great man.
Oh, thank you, Chris. And hey to any of our listeners out there, I do live in Pinehurst. So any new golf junkies that are out there feel free. Send me a note. There’s generally an open tee time I’m looking forward to seeing you out there.
Absolutely. Absolutely. I don’t play golf, but I’m happy to take you up on that. Just to ride around on a cart with me for a few hours.
That’s always needed.
Thank you, Mike.
Thank you Chris.