FERC Fives – Mark Thompson

FERC Fives – Mark Thompson

Five questions that help us get to know employees within and that support the FERC Jurisdiction.


Mark Thompson, an engineer manager in the IEC 61850* Substation Automation group, began his career with National Grid two-and-a-half years ago in the Substation group. Originally from the Thousand Islands area of New York, he currently is based in Syracuse. Mark has an engineering degree from the Rochester Institute of Technology, and currently is working towards a master’s degree in Public Policy at Syracuse University. He is married and has an 18-month-old son who keeps him very busy.

You’re a relatively new employee. Based on what you know now, what advice would you have given yourself when you started at National Grid?

Prior to starting with National Grid, I worked for an engineering consulting firm with clients from a variety of industries. My education and experience gave me a basic knowledge of what to expect coming into National Grid, but there was still a lot to learn. The best advice I could’ve given myself back then is that it’s important to communicate and be open to opportunities. I’m looking ahead to see where I fit in and how I can help out and assist other programs to benefit our customers. Since National Grid is a large company, there is a lot going on outside of my field of vision, whether it’s something in another department or another state. That’s why communication is so important. There’s a lot to gain by working openly with everyone and understanding there are many ideas to be considered across the entire organization.

What projects are you currently working on and how do they benefit National Grid customers?

Our group is responsible for deploying modern computer networks at our electricity substations. We are working to optimize how we design, build and ultimately operate them. This will benefit our customers by reducing costs in the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of the stations. We’re also responsible for developing the standards around the use of this new technology, and we have created labs in Syracuse, New York and Lincoln, Rhode Island where we can test and evaluate different technologies. We also will use these labs to train the engineers, operators, and the people who will construct the substations.

How do you challenge the way we do things and find a better way?

First, I figure out what we are trying to accomplish.  It may sound like common sense, but it’s important to ensure the team is in agreement about our goal, which should always begin and end with the customer.  It’s also important to keep track of our customers’ needs, which can change and evolve.  Continuous collaboration with our customers and other stakeholders will keep us focused on their requirements and their expectations.  This means we may have to redefine our approach and propose new solutions.   It’s easier to get people to build a solution rather than focusing on a problem.

Our group is responsible for interviewing project stakeholders and developing and proposing a solution – and some proposals get rejected.  We don’t see that as a failure, because there is value when that process sheds light on deficiencies or changing requirements.  In fact, sometimes a rejection can prove to be the basis of the better, final solution.

It’s also important to challenge the status quo.  Sometimes we get into the habit of doing things the way they’ve always been done because “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”  But this approach can cause us to lose our ability to alter course effectively when needed.   We work in a highly regulated industry, and most regulations were initiated to serve the customer.  If we run into a regulatory roadblock that may hinder our ability to deliver customer benefits, we should explore options for addressing the best way of removing it, which in some cases may mean working to change the regulation.

What do you think/hope will become obsolete in 10 years as a result of engineering advances?

For the most part I enjoy driving, but 10 years from now I’d love to have a self-driving car that could operate on the highway without my constant supervision. I don’t necessarily want driving to become obsolete, but I do a lot of commuting and there are times I wish I could put the car on auto-pilot for those long, routine trips.

Name someone living or dead with whom you’d like to have a conversation.

I just read a huge book about Alexander Hamilton. It was interesting how pragmatic he was. He did what he thought was right regardless of how it affected him. One of his greatest legacies was his creation of the financial system we have in the United States today.  It’s pretty amazing that he was able to organize that entire concept. I would love to pick his brain about the formulation of those ideas.

From the same time period I think Benjamin Franklin would be fascinating to talk to. He was an entrepreneur, an innovator, a diplomat, a little bit of everything. People back then had to wear many hats and I admire that because it’s something I’m also trying to do. As our industry evolves there are a number of areas where I would like to get involved. With my education focused on engineering and public policy, I’d eventually like to work on the regulation side of cyber security. It’s an area that is a new frontier and will require an innovative approach, learning how to marry the technical requirements with societal needs. We have to understand that it’s not a local, state or federal issue, it’s international.

*IEC 61850 is acknowledged as the global communications standard that enables increased control, monitoring and automation within electric power systems.

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