About The Series: ESIG members play many different kinds of roles in energy systems integration and have followed unique paths to their current positions. This “Career Perspectives” blog series taps into the diversity of experiences and perspectives of ESIG members through interviews that explore their educational backgrounds, career trajectories, key decision points, and mentorship experiences, as well as how they see today’s workforce needs in energy systems integration and what advice they would give students considering a career in this area.
Nicholas Miller, HickoryLedge LLC
What field of study did you pursue in your undergraduate and graduate education, and what were your original career goals?
My father (and my role model) was a mechanical engineer, who worked for General Electric during the golden age of steam turbines—bigger, hotter, more efficient, cleaner, more economic—that powered the economic revolution of America after the war. Growing up, I got to watch the post-World War II technological revolution.
He had gotten his undergraduate degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute during the war, and so I, without a whole lot of thought, also went to RPI. I started out wanting to study transportation systems, as their engineering questions looked to be quite interesting. But as I got into the more advanced engineering classes, they just weren’t doing it for me. I switched gears, and ultimately got a bachelor’s and a master’s in power engineering. I was a good student, though not great. I’m still not very disciplined. I take my work seriously, and work hard, but I tend not to be very linear.
What job did you move into after grad school, and how did it intersect with renewable energy and energy systems integration?
I started to have identity problems toward end of my university career. I’d gone to college 20 miles from home; I was in the same industry as my father and my father-in-law. I swore I wouldn’t go to work for GE. So I looked at Pacific Gas and Electric, and Westinghouse, but got coaxed into talking to the systems engineering group at GE in Schenectady, New York. I didn’t resist that too much, because I knew that group included giants in the industry, and a number of textbook writers, including the author of one of the most impossibly dense books in power engineering, by Edith Clark—a wildly under-celebrated power engineer, the first female member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, first electrical engineering Ph.D. by, I believe, MIT. She took concepts by Steinmetz and built a wall of math around the power industry’s ability to analyze power systems. It’s gratifying to me that the group at GE where I went on to spend my career had the institutional wisdom to create an environment where a woman in the 1940s could reach the zenith of her career.
So, in 1980, I went to talk to the systems engineering group, a brain trust for the company, doing the pioneering engineering work for power systems. I’d been saying I wasn’t going to work for GE, but the roots of this group and the present staff were the best in the world, and I thought, this is a place I should at least experience.
Were there key people in your career trajectory who played an important role in your arriving at your current work?
A couple of years after I took that job, my willingness to dig in and chase things down led to a senior engineer, who didn’t have good computer skills, asking me to do calculations for him, make drawings, etc. I ended up working for him for five years, and he became a valuable mentor for me in a number of ways. He was pushing the envelope for several technologies for GE, on the cutting edge of applied engineering, and I got in there at a level I never would have otherwise. In addition, he was articulate and engaging when talking to customers and potential customers; he could modulate his message to the audience. He set an example to me for how to communicate, which was critical to my career.
And, he set another example for me, though I didn’t appreciate it at the time. He was a “recovered manager.” In those days, the corporate pyramid had many layers, and he had bailed from that career path. He was the department’s guru, like the witch doctor off on the side. He got the interesting problems, got called in when nobody else could figure out what the hell to do. He didn’t have any staff, any budget responsibilities; he was the brains.
I thought that was the coolest thing. But, that’s not how a corporation works. As I got promoted, I got more responsibilities. At that time, in the 1980s into the 1990s, GE was famous for its management institutes—its way of creating managers was the envy of the rest of the industry. I went into that mill. I got promoted to a significantly high management position, and then we got reorganized. I was miserable. After a few years, I said, let me out.
I ended up on the organizational chart in a little box off to the side. It was wonderful; I spent the next 18 years in that box having a ball. About two years into that delightful existence, in 2002, GE bought the Enron wind system at fire sale prices. From the day GE inked that deal, I started supporting the wind business. In the 2000s, I worked with and led teams involved in the bread and butter of the constituency of ESIG. I was in the right place at the right time, but I also made my luck. In 2002, wind was a source of derision at GE—we make steam turbines and gas turbines, we make real generation. That first decade of wind at GE for me was a golden age of engineering for wind power. I never had more fun in my entire life.
What guidance would you offer a young person interested in a career in renewable energy and energy systems integration?
One piece of advice my dad gave me and I pass on, is to get really good at something. I got really good at a couple of aspects of power engineering. I became an expert in wind turbine modeling, how to model a wind turbine in grid stability studies. It was a case where I challenged an accepted truth: in the 2000-2003 window, there were a few models to simulate how wind turbines worked in the grid, but the mentality in the wind business said these things are secret. You can’t let the world look inside this model. The stability models were black boxes. But, I had just spent the preceding 25 years working with the industry using models of everything else in the power system. It wasn’t a black box. It allowed the engineers to go in and see how the thing ticked, and make sure they were using it properly. I went to GE wind management and said, if you want to be successful and have the product be accepted on a broad basis, you need to make a model that isn’t a black box. I got hell for that. But I persisted, and there’s a document out there by me that’s the very first document that opened the box. That turned out to be an astonishingly good move both for the industry and for GE. We set the standard. GE got a competitive advantage and has sold half of all the wind turbines in the United States in the last 20 years, in part due to this.
Another thing I would say to a young person is, if you’re really sure you’re right, stick to your guns.
At the same time, always be willing to be convinced that you aren’t right. Be willing to stand on the shoulders of giants. I work with a lot of really smart people, and it’s served me well to have a little bit of self doubt. If there’s a good chance I’m wrong, I’d better listen.
Keep your eye out for opportunities. Make the ground fertile, so that when luck strikes, you can take advantage of it.
Lastly, surround yourself with smart people. This can be really hard for young people. The thing not to do when you’re presenting or talking to people is to show how smart you are. You are trying to convince your audience how smart they are. The evidence of a successful communication is when the customer (in the broad sense) says, oh yeah, I could have thought of that. Not, oh, that’s complicated, you’re so smart to have figured that out, I don’t quite get it. That’s a fail. You lose their engagement with you and with the idea you’re trying to get them to adapt and take seriously. You want someone to say that’s the obvious course of action: “that is so obvious, why would I do anything else?”