I want to volunteer with the Society of Petroleum Engineers, but how?

Going above and beyond your usual duties to volunteer your time to the broader oil & gas industry is a sure way to be noticed professionally.  What if doing so could actually be just as fun and personally rewarding as it is beneficial to your career?  It certainly has been for me, so this week I offer my thoughts to a reader asking how to become more involved with the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE).

Remember, if you also want to participate in “Building Hydrocarbon Bonds”, please get in touch with me either through my website, LinkedIn, or through email.  If the answer to your question ends up turning into something substantial, I’ll post it (keeping your details anonymous) so that others can benefit as well.

Your career profile has been a source of inspiration to me.  Although you’ve said that you didn’t exactly plan the journey, there are some distinctive pointers which I’ve found very helpful, like speaking a second language and becoming an active member of the SPE, among others.

I’ve been looking through the SPE website and its publications; they’re a gold mine of knowledge shared by experts.  A young professional has plenty to learn, but in what ways can we contribute? Merely paying the dues and accessing web based events wouldn’t help much.  Also, the conferences are quite expensive (equal to the average monthly salary drawn by a fresh undergrad in India).

Would you mind sharing your initial experiences as an SPE member and how you became an active participant? How can one contribute to the SPE such that it results in value addition?

I would really appreciate your insights and guidance.  Thanks!

Excellent questions!

You’re alluding to a truth that applies to SPE involvement as much as it does anywhere else:  you’ll get out what you put in.

Rest assured that while some events do require payment (the SPE has to keep running, after all), cost is not as big a hurdle to involvement as you might think, or even a hurdle at all.

Cost

If you’re a student, conference and SPE lunch attendance is HIGHLY discounted.  In fact, I believe that if you’re unemployed or a student, you’re allowed to attend one SPE lunch a month for $5, which is incredibly good value.  Conferences are also highly affordable:  instead of paying hundreds of dollars for a ticket, as a student you can usually get a ticket for around $50, and you may even be able to recoup that through your school or particular department.

I mentioned in my piece last week (“The Best Places to Network In Oil & Gas”) that events for Young Professionals (YPs) are a lot of fun.   Well, it turns out that many of the YP happy hours and get-togethers are also free to attend, making them an excellent way to get involved and meet people for a very low cost.

If you’re a working professional, you have fewer cost constraints in that many companies will allow you to expense a certain number of these events.  In that case, the onus is on you to communicate the benefits of these events to justify not only your attendance but also the cost to your company:  meeting more potential sales contacts, building your knowledge of the industry which makes you a more effective contributor, or learning a new “best practice”.  Ultimately, your improved performance on the job as a result of all of these benefits should speak for itself, and in fact I’m sure that a lot of my success in my current role has been due to my diligent involvement with the SPE.  It’s a virtuous circle:  the more you attend, the more you learn, the better you perform, and the more you have permission to attend more events!

Even if it seems like there’s always too much to do at work to take the time off to attend these conferences, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND clearing your schedule regardless to get out there and broaden your horizons.  It’s very easy to get lost in the day-to-day things, but in the grand scheme of your career, making time for these events is key (as I explain here).

If you do end up having to pay out of pocket, you can also look at what “bang for the buck” you get for each event and prioritize that way.  For instance, the SPE occasionally puts on day-long workshops that might cover a collection of papers on one topic, or provide a summary of a recent big trade show event.  I went to one a few years back on deepwater drilling (this was after the Macondo incident) and I remember that it was around $100.  If you consider that one SPE lunch can cost $30-$50 and lasts a few hours, $100 is an excellent value for a whole day!

My story

I attended my first SPE lunch because a more senior colleague of mine had an important meeting come up that prevented him from attending a talk on a topic he wanted to hear about; he asked me to stand in for him and let him know the details.  At that point, I didn’t really know what these meetings were.  Even after that initial lunch, I didn’t attend many of these meetings:  I had things to do at the office that seemed more pressing, and driving to these meetings just seemed like a big hassle.

It wasn’t until I received my first copy of “The Way Ahead” in the mail that I really wanted to contribute to the SPE.  The articles seemed like they were written for me personally, and I felt strongly enough about one of them to send a letter for the editor.  He came back with an invitation to join the magazine, and since I enjoyed writing and wanted to be involved in making this great magazine, I of course said yes.

From there everything snowballed:  I got to know people on the magazine, and when I started my new job after business school I found myself having to build my network, which “forced” me to attend more lunches.  After the first few, I couldn’t imagine NOT participating.  In fact, the more I saw myself benefiting from my involvement in the SPE, the more I wanted to do!  That enthusiasm just kept growing, and now five years later I’M the editor in chief!

This is not at all a one-way relationship where the SPE gets free labor.  It’s actually very much a two-way street, and the fact that so many volunteers continue to contribute once they get going is a testament not only to their dedication to the oil & gas industry as a whole but also the benefits they see themselves gaining from volunteering.

The SPE comes up a lot in my writing, not because I’m being paid to advertise for it or because there is someone over my shoulder telling me what to write.  I have nothing but good things to say about the SPE because it is absolutely a world-class organization, and a true testament to the best parts of the oil & gas industry:  smart, hardworking and devoted people pooling their knowledge and abilities to create something tangible that can be shared with others.

How can YOU contribute to the SPE?

If you want to become involved in the SPE but don’t know where to start, here are some suggestions:

Start small, and try as much as you can:  Of course, some regions will have more things going on than others, but before you commit to anything, try and attend at least one of each of what your area offers.  In Houston, we’re spoiled for choice:  lunches, trade shows, training courses…

But, if the SPE chapter near you only offers lunches, that’s still a great opportunity to learn something new and meet people, so don’t be discouraged by the lack of choice.

Make sure you take the time to get a feel for the people there, the subject matter discussed, and the times of the events (are they compatible with your schedule?).

As you become comfortable with the format and scheduling, build your attendance to as much as your schedule allows and you find useful.

If you’ve found something you like particularly, don’t be afraid to volunteer!  The SPE always appreciates volunteers that want to contribute, so don’t hold back due to fear that you will be rejected:  the chances are that there will be plenty for you to do, and the more you do, the more you can grow into newer, more substantial projects.

Don’t be discouraged if your area has less going on than others.  The oil & gas industry is global, and projects are completed even when teams are scattered across countries and time zones.  The SPE realizes that professionals in more remote places can still be valuable contributors, and has many initiatives that lessen the need for physical proximity.

For instance, the SPE has an “e-mentoring” program that you can participate in, either as a mentor or a “mentee”, and as the name implies it takes place over email/Skype, or any other online tool.

The magazine I lead currently, “The Way Ahead”, is a great example of pooling resources from around the world.  I oversee a team of over 30 editors scattered across many countries , and believe it or not I’ve never actually spoken to many of them!  Rather, communication is done through email or Google Drive, and this has worked very well, so much so that the magazine is celebrating its tenth anniversary next year.

Many of the organizers of big SPE conferences rarely work near each other, so those too must be planned with teams working remotely.

If there are things you’d like to try but your region doesn’t offer, why not start your own?  Perhaps you can organize a YP happy hour, or invite a professional to share some of his knowledge with others.  Whatever you do, taking the initiative to start something gets you very involved from the get-go, while allowing others in your area to benefit from an event that previously didn’t exist!

And now the MOST IMPORTANT PIECE OF ADVICE regarding volunteerism for the SPE (or any organization, really):

Once you have joined a committee or made any kind of commitment, treat it as you would your job.  When it comes to volunteerism, many make the mistake of thinking “well, it doesn’t matter if this gets done or not, because I’m just volunteering”.

That is a completely misguided attitude, because it doesn’t take into account the fact that someone else may in fact care greatly whether or not a project gets finished.  Also, remember that while the oil & gas industry is very large, people tend to appear and reappear over the course of your professional career, so you never know if that person you blew off because you were “just” volunteering comes up in a professional setting where there is money involved (potential sales lead, or maybe even someone who is in a position to recommend/deny you for a job).

I treat everything I volunteer for as a job interview, and the people I volunteer with are those that could potentially hire me.  My goal is to get them to see things this way:  “Wow, if David gives 110% in his spare time, I can’t imagine how good he would be if he were working with me full time”.

On a personal level, many of the people I volunteer with are now my friends, and no one wants to let their friends down.   I respect them, and they respect me, so whatever we promise each other just gets done, regardless of whether or not there is money changing hands for services.

The bottom line:  when you volunteer for something, you gave your word that you would complete a certain set of tasks.  It’s only ok to move on or drop out when you’ve fulfilled your initial commitment (stayed the whole term, or the event you volunteered to plan is over).

The more you contribute, the more you are noticed, and the more people will come to you with more opportunities.

Only in this way will you be able to take on more responsibilities and grow your involvement with the SPE!