Edmund O. Schweitzer, III

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Edmund O. Schweitzer, III
Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories (SEL)

Q: What was your first paying job?

A: Cutting the neighbors’ grass when I was about twelve years old.
In high school, I started working for a company that made electronic organs, mainly for churches. At some point in high school, I taught swimming lessons, and right before college, I worked at Nuclear Chicago.

Q: When you think of the word “success” who and what comes to mind?

A: The who: Anyone who’s happy and productive.
The what: For a project, if it’s “on time, on spec, on budget,” it ends with a happy team of people ready to start another one!

Q: What’s the best advice you have ever received?

A: “The best technical advice is that when you’re working on solving a problem or designing something, go back to first principles and start from there.”

Q: Which values are most important to you?

A: Honesty, integrity, hard work, and creativity. At SEL, pretty early on, we decided on nine values important to us as a company: Quality, Customer Focus, Discipline, Communication, Integrity, Creativity, Community, Ownership, Dignity of Work. When we hire people, we find that these values resonate with many of our candidates personally.

Q: What advice would you give to a 20-year-old that would have resonated with you at that age?

A: Keep learning, keep asking questions, keep wondering why things are done the way they’re done. Be curious and work hard! Never give up. Other people will talk about the bad parts of your idea, and you have to listen, but don’t give up!

Q: Who would you say has been your biggest mentor and why?

A: My dad. He worked hard, always had a great sense of humor, loved us kids, and always had time for us, as did our mom. I realize how much he did with how little: he didn’t graduate from college, but he knew everything about plastics, pharmacology, chemistry, electronics, and physics. He could fix a watch! He could build everything and anything. One day I went to visit him at his company long after I’d moved away from home and gone to college. He had designed and built his own toroidal coil winder. He was so happy, just tickled pink. He got satisfaction from having an idea and turning it into something that works and is useful.

Q: What drew you to start SEL, and how has the mission changed since its inception?

A: I went back to school to pursue a Ph.D. and got interested in putting science, math, and technology together with the new technologies of microprocessors and digital processors for application in the electric power system. I realized that relays are really just specific-purpose signal processors. I saw ways that we could build better protection using digital signal processing theory and microprocessors: better, for less money, easier to use. When I was done with school and graduated with a Ph.D., I didn’t want to stop working on that topic. I wanted to end up making things with my own hands that other people would use, so I kept pursuing the research and development to the point where I decided to start a company.

A: The mission has grown—we’re doing communications, computation, cybersecurity, all sorts of areas— but the mission remains unchanged in the sense that we go back to first principles and go back to a clean sheet of paper. We ask: what has changed about the problem over time? What’s new and different about today’s technology that we can use to solve the problem to come up with better products and solutions?

Q: What is the most impressive innovation SEL has developed to date?

A: It’s difficult to pinpoint one because we’ve got so many exciting things we are working on. One of the innovations I’m really excited about is our rugged computing platform. We’ve developed a state-of-the-art thermal management system that enables our computer to operate with no fans or moving parts. This computer withstands even the harshest environments with operating temperatures range from –40° to +167°F. It’s been great to see this product take off and to see it being used outside of our traditional industry. Harris Corporation recently purchased 300 of our SEL-3355 computers to use in the Federal Aviation Administration’s NextGen Data Communications project.

Q: What challenges do you foresee for the electrical engineering industry going forward?

A: We have inherited a major legacy of safe, reliable, and economical electric power—with the fantastic levels of reliability and cheap, clean energy available at the flip of a switch and at the speed of light. No other industry can deliver its commodity as conveniently and quickly. It’s a challenge to beat the legacy! In fact, there’s risk that we may even fall behind, even see prices go up and reliability go down if we’re not careful.

Q: As president of SEL, what does a workweek look like for you?

A: I get up at five, read the news for an hour and a half to keep up on current events around the world, what’s going on in our industry, and more world affairs and economics. This is also the time when I try to answer questions in emails left over from the previous day or that come in overnight so that I have the first hour at work to try to think a little bit. I have breakfast with my wife and—sometimes—exercise. I get to the office by 8:00 or 8:30. Then, we get busy with all kinds of interactions. These days my major three obligations are paying attention to R&D, preparing communications to others through speeches and letters and meetings, and ensuring that all parts of the business are running like clockwork. I typically have lunch in my office with a group of people where we have a little fun collaborating and eating together. I’m probably out of the office about 30% of the time with speaking engagements, guest lectures, customer meetings, conferences, and so on.

Q: Given the recent “cyber terror” activities and news, how do you feel that ensuring a secure utility grid may impact utilities?

A: My first job after college was with the Defense Department. I gained a good grasp of how important it is to protect information and how many different ways others would try to take it.

From SEL’s beginning, we’ve taken security seriously. Even our first products in the mid-1980s required two levels of passwords to change a setting, and even when successful, these products closed their alarm contacts, providing an independent means of knowing something was going on with the relays. Over the years, our safeguards and technologies have advanced and many times outpaced or avoided direct threats.

We have become experts in cybersecurity, including encryption, penetration testing, authentication, supply chain integrity, protecting our designs from compromise, safeguarding our customers’ information, practicing “need to know,” and security in-depth throughout our company. These are further enhanced by physical security.

Security needs to be considered integral to business, just like quality or performance. It’s hard to design in security after the fact, just like it’s hard to design quality in after the fact.

People’s desires to communicate with everything from anywhere using anything challenges the security of our businesses and electric power systems. I don’t believe that society in general has begun to temper connectivity with any regard to security or privacy. Our industry in general has done a pretty good job, though, being careful, for example, to not connect everything to the Internet. Security has to begin with serious thinking and understanding in the boardroom with the engineers designing and operating electric power systems. Security won’t come from a regulation, a standard, or a mandate. Being compliant doesn’t mean you’re safe.

Fortunately, the control and protection systems of electric power utilities and users are much easier to secure than all the open networks and devices that so many people use today. One of the things that makes it easier is that the electric power system runs just fine with little or no communications in many regards. It’s not like banking or Internet retail, where the open communications are an essential central ingredient. Because control systems use a small and known set of commands and protocols, it’s pretty easy to detect unusual communications patterns or types of communications that don’t belong there.

I have written SEL’s top ten tips for covering basic ideas that when followed keep us all pretty safe. We also promote security throughout our company and beyond with our Sensible Cybersecurity Best Practices Posters. We do have our own challenges; however, we cannot tolerate latency or jitter in many types of communications. So, SEL has developed secure, low-latency, fast-healing communications with essentially zero jitter.

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We will be fine when we educate ourselves; learn and follow good practices; make security a priority of our leadership, design, operation, and maintenance activities; and when we are aware of the threats and best practices to mitigate them.

There’s a lot of discussion these days about the government’s role. I believe the government has two major roles in helping us be safe. First, it needs to teach the threats in a timely manner and with all due respect for sources and methods. Second, I believe the government should share its ideas for best practices in security for critical assets.

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