LinkedIn: Erik J. Heels: Rautaruukki

Rautaruukki OY, Raahe, Finland.

This article is one in an ongoing series about my life experiences, the people that I’ve met along the way, and how I’m using LinkedIn to reconnect with them, both directly via LinkedIn itself and indirectly (since people frequently search for references to themselves on the Internet) by publishing their names in these articles.

So far, I have written about the following:

This article is about the best summer of my life. You’ll see why.


After I graduated from MIT, I had to wait up to a year for the Air Force to call me to active duty. (The Air Force does this in order to manage its budget, by pushing some jobs from one fiscal year to the next. They’ve been doing this since, I believe, the 1950s, and as far as I can tell, it’s never made the evening news. It was certainly a surprise to those of us graduating and getting commissioned.) The Air Force could have called me to active duty from 1 to 365 days after graduation. This made interviewing for traditional jobs a bit tricky. “Yes, I’d like a job, but I may have to leave immediately with no notice, and, oh yes, I can stay no longer than a year.” Not a particularly good pitch. Or I could have lied about my Air Force obligation, but that’s not my style.

I set out to find a job in Finland, fully disclosing my situation. MIT’s career office was very helpful. They put me in touch with Marc Chelemer at MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program. Marc told me about the Association for International Practical Training (AIPT) and, in particular, their IAESTE United States program. IAESTE stands for The International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience, and AIPT runs the U.S. branch of IAESTE. IAESTE places students in foreign countries on a one-for-one basis, so if I wanted to go to Finland, a Finnish student could travel to and work in another IAESTE country. At least that’s how I understand it. Even though I had graduated, I qualified for the program, and they were eager to have me (perhaps because not many people were seeking jobs in Finland).

I am half Finnish and frequently write about Finland. Marc initially tried to place me in the Helsinki area, where all of my relatives live, but that didn’t work out. I remember the day that he called me and asked, “Would you accept a job anywhere in Finland?” And I said that I would. Which is how I ended up working for Rautaruukki in Raahe, Finland, about an hour south of the Arctic Circle and nowhere near my relatives (some of whom probably thought I was a bit nuts).

I was surprised that I was able to get a college degree without having to read a single classic novel. But maybe MIT would have to extend its undergraduate program from four years to five if it required one more paragraph of reading. A five-year engineering program wouldn’t be such a bad idea, come to think of it. So I arrived in Finland with a suitcase full of classic literature and spent a lot of my spare time reading. I also taught myself basic conversational Finnish using books that I checked out of Raahe’s library. I have many stories about trying out my broken Finnish on the unsuspecting natives (who weren’t used to hearing broken Finnish), but I’ll save those for another day.

Rautaruukki (now called just Ruukki) is a steel mill that produces sheet and rolled steel. But this is not just any old run-of-the-mill still mill. Rautaruukki has its own harbor, its own railway station, a research center, and employs a large percentage of the town. Steam from the steel production process is piped from the mill and is used to heat the vast majority of the homes in Raahe. The continuous casting rolling mill is one kilometer long. This is an impressive facility. It is Europe’s largest still mill.

My perks included a company apartment and company transportation. The latter was not a car but a bike. The same kind of one-speed bicycle that the workers used to get from one side of the facility to the other. I had special permission to take the work bike off of company property, but heads still turned when I rode it in town. “There’s that crazy American with the stolen Rautaruukki bike,” I imagined them saying.

I worked at the research center, Tutkimuskeskus, for four months (June through September). My work consisted of creating a prototype of a network program (using transparent and non-transparent task-to-task communication between IBM AT and DEC MicroVAX computers on a DECnet local area network) for use in manufacturing process control. I programmed in TurboPascal and VAX FORTRAN.

I also learned a great deal about other aspects of steel production, such as manufacturing process control, primarily from editing technical reports written in English by Finns. For example, in making steel, there are a variety of processes, each with varying degrees of efficiency, but the ROI of the entire process may be improved more by taking one process from 99.2% to 99.3% efficiency rather than taking another from 60% to 70% efficiency. One project included optimizing the steel rolling algorithm to minimize the amount of waste steel that was trimmed off to make steel sheets.

That summer, I also made memorable trips to Leningrad in The Soviet Union (now Saint Petersburg, Russia) and to Finnish and Norwegian Lapland, where I went swimming in the (very cold) Arctic Ocean. My persona for that summer was “Mr. Adventure.”

My future brother-in-law, Mikko Kovalainen, also worked at Rautaruukki that summer. Which gives away why the summer of 1988 was the best summer of my life. It was the summer I met Pirjo, now my wife. We were engaged, in Raahe, in 1990 and married, in Raahe, in 1991.


So here are a bunch of people that I worked with at (or that helped me get to) Rautaruukki in 1988. I am still in touch with some of them (like my brother-in-law) but not all of them.

Marc Chelemer, Barbara Chrenko, Erik Heels, Seija Junno, Mikko Kovalainen, Timo Lehtinen, Markku Niskanen, Tero Nivala, Esa Pallaspuro, Lasse Pesonen, David Porter, Peter Sandvik, and Jari Turunen.

So if you’ve got a LinkedIn account and are interested in linking up, great. If not, that’s OK too.

View Erik J. Heels's profile on LinkedIn