Commentary: Your Career Path In Oil & Gas Won’t Be A Straight Line

Two weeks ago I offered some tips for those who are just starting their careers in oil & gas.  New joiners to this industry will (hopefully!) use this advice, do a great job, and after a few years of positive contributions make the decision to go back to school.  Then the question of “MBA vs. technical Master’s” comes up.

Then what?

What happens when you’ve earned your “baseline” qualifications and then have to make some hard choices about which direction you’d like to go in?  What happens when there is no diploma or certificate to work towards, and you’re left to your own devices to find the path forward?

I’ve been out of university for some time now, and if I’ve realized one thing, it’s that it’s not possible to plan from day 1 of your career how the rest of your professional life will unfold.  Sure, your end point might be fixed (becoming CEO, retiring at 45…), yet the way you get there is anything but.  As I was writing the body of this article, I was reminded of how winding my own career path has been so far, and I’m in good company:  according to a recent article in Forbes, it’s estimated that Millenials could have as many as 15-20 different jobs over the course of their career!

I touch on this in almost everything I write for FuelFix, but as a Young Professional writing about issues affecting other Young Professionals in oil & gas, perhaps the best piece of advice I can give you with regards to managing your career is that YOU have to manage your own career path.  Unfortunately, there’s no guide book or clear instructions on how to do that, but  there ARE a few lessons you can take to heart.  In my experience, once you become aware of and apply them, things become much easier.

All of this is to say that I’d like to use my column this week not only to explain how I arrived at where I am today, but also use that to encourage you to take the next step in your own career (whatever that may be) and share with you some ways to make that happen.

By the way, it’s turned out that for me, “career progression” has meant moving around a bit.  If you love where you work and can’t imagine going anywhere else, that’s great!  But, keep in mind that a lot of companies these days are so large and diverse that even changing roles and moving up or down a floor can seem like hiring on with someone else!  For this reason I believe what I’m about to write will interest anyone thinking long-term about their career plans.  If you have anything to add, please feel free to contribute in the comments section at the bottom of the page!

Here we go…

After graduating from Rice with a degree in mechanical engineering, my career actually started out working in Information Technology (IT) consulting, for Accenture.  It certainly wasn’t what I’d trained for, but somehow (probably from speaking with some jaded graduates a few years out of school) I’d gotten the impression that pure engineering was “boring” and that consulting was where the real fun was.  I tend to set goals for myself far into the future, and believe in “if you’re going to do something, do your best and take it as far as you can”, so on my first day of orientation there, I was convinced that I was going to make a career at Accenture and eventually become a partner.

Well, Accenture is in fact a fantastic place to work, but I realized that though IT might be many professionals’ “thing”, it just wasn’t mine.  I appreciated that the work WAS important to clients, but I just personally couldn’t get myself excited about doing it. That’s a fundamental problem when you have to do it every day!  My clients were all involved in oil & gas, though looking back I was only tangentially involved in each company’s primary mission of producing hydrocarbons.  Searching for my next opportunity, I figured “why not give engineering a real shot?”  My father had spent over two decades working for Schlumberger, so that seemed like the first obvious place to look for new employment, and, go figure, I was hired.

I was placed in Cleburne, Texas, and though it was ridiculously long hours and hard work, and it moved me away from a place I’d called home for most of my life, my time at Schlumberger made me realize that oil & gas was where I wanted to be professionally:  I loved all the machinery, the camaraderie within the field crews, and getting to apply directly what I’d learned in school.  Also, the fact that the oil & gas industry is crucially important to the world made me feel that by being a part of it, in some small way I was contributing positively to society.

Less than a year in, I started to see just how much business considerations played into what happened out in the field, and the more I started meeting people higher up than me and discovering their qualifications and credentials, the more I started to realize that an MBA was probably going to be in my future.

Honestly though, I also realized how important having a “work-life” balance is to me.  At Schlumberger, I worked hundred-hour (or more…) weeks in a town far away from where I was used to calling home.    Today, I still work long hours going to work and then studying, but at least I can spend my downtime in a place I’m comfortable.  Balancing what makes you “you” with your job is different and important for everyone and for me, I’ve realized that I’m ok with working hard, so long as most of my time is spent in the city I grew up in.

These two realizations motivated me to seek out a way to get back to Houston.  My time at Schlumberger was really a crash course in oil & gas, and made it much easier for me to land my next industry job.  So, I started work as a technical adviser for TAM International, the industry leader in swellable and inflatable packers.  Before accepting the offer, I was a little wary of specializing in such a niche product so soon in my career, but the people I met during the interview process seemed friendly, and taking the job was my ticket back to Houston.  Plus, the company offered some generous financial help for those looking to go back to school.  That was the real catalyst in my decision to pursue graduate studies:  in my mind, I had no family to care for, so this was the perfect time to tackle work and school at the same time, and if I didn’t accept the aid the company offered, I was basically leaving money on the table!

So I took a chance and started working at TAM, applied and was accepted to business school, and did my best to find a routine (if you could call it that) of fitting in trips to the field and other offices (sometimes as far away as Australia), studying (first for the Fundamentals of Engineering test and then business school), and keeping in touch with my friends and family.

Fortunately, though swellable and inflatable packers are quite niche products, they’re used EVERYWHERE, and while TAM had no formal training program, I was basically sent and utilized wherever I was needed.  I had the opportunity to work around drilling and workover rigs, wireline, coil tubing and slickline, and I saw locations around the world.  Also, since going to conferences and writing papers was encouraged, I took the opportunity to get a few SPE publications under my belt.  I’m still proud of those!

That period at TAM was a great time for my growth as a technical professional, but ironically it was being so deeply involved in the technical aspect of the oilfield that made me realize I wanted to shift my efforts to different types of roles.

It turned out that going to business school while working for TAM really opened my eyes to the “Big Picture”.  While spending my weekends attending classes on pricing strategy, marketing, and negotiation, I realized that there was much more to working at a company than figuring out equipment calculations.  I wanted to apply everything I was learning in school and switch to a new role, but unfortunately the timing wasn’t right at TAM for me to do so.  Luckily for me, a classmate of mine said his company was hiring for a position that would allow for more high level work, and it allowed him early on to use all of his skills (technical and business development) as well as gain responsibility quickly.

I took another chance on that classmate’s recommendation, and here I am now with IHS.  My days of calculations and job procedures are well behind me!  On some days I miss them, but then I remember all the things I enjoy about my current role:  presenting directly to clients (sometimes in some really amazing places), being encouraged to go to SPE technical and networking events, and generally being more involved in broad initiatives as opposed to very focused, well-by-well operations.

All of this is much more “high level” stuff than what I was used to, but I’ve found that the work suits me well, and I think this is what has contributed to my success here more than anything.  I care about what I do and making my clients happy, I really like the people I work with, and I’ve taken advantage of the opportunities I’ve been granted here to meet even more people and contribute in more ways to the oil & gas industry!

So here I am now.  Seven and a half years removed from Rice University, four companies into my career, and close to earning a second Master’s degree.  It’s been a wild ride!

What have I learned generally in that time when it comes to career paths?

A LOT, presented here for you in convenient “list” form.  If any of these sounds obvious, keep in mind that the tough part is actually DOING them…

The period when you first start working is crucially important.  You’ve heard the saying “30 is the new 20?”  Well, I disagree with that, and you’ll find here and here that others do also.  It’s absolutely ok to take on new roles and opportunities, but don’t take them “just because”.  Always ask yourself “will this move me forward?”, and remember that if you think more schooling is in your future, it’s better to start and finish in your twenties than in your thirties:  you’ll have longer to reap the benefits!

When you reach thirty, you’ll have about eight years of solid work experience, meaning you should have an established personal brand, and should be reaching your stride professionally.  Make sure you spend the early years of your career preparing for that!

I actually turn 29 on Saturday, and looking back on my twenties, I can feel satisfied with what I’ve done so far.  I’m ready to hit the afterburners as I move into my thirties!

Switching jobs and/or companies and/or roles is not a “bad” thing.  Just because on your first day working you saw yourself following one particular path, that doesn’t mean you won’t change personally and professionally and then want to change your mind!  If you originally saw yourself being the world’s expert in a subject but then decided you wanted to manage a company’s finances, don’t feel bad about moving away from your first goal in pursuit of another one!

Furthermore, don’t let colleagues and/or managers “guilt” you into staying, and don’t beat yourself up over leaving people you’re close with at the office.  The fact is, moving to do something else isn’t personal, it’s business, and it’s for the good of your career.  Even better is that you can now just be friends with those former colleagues!

Making that switch is in a lot of ways taking a risk, but no one has ever grown without pushing themselves. Your company has its own goals and pays you a salary, so it has a right to utilize you in ways it sees fit to achieve them.  However, it is YOUR right to go in another direction if its goals aren’t compatible with yours.  The onus though is on YOU to make that switch, and while doing so is a risk, if you have truly thought about the decision and are ready to move, things will work out fine.  Just remember:  once you go, do your best at your new occupation, take advantage of every new opportunity that comes your way, and don’t look back.

Personally, I’ve found that the times I’ve grown the most were the times I was faced with a big decision such as whether to stay in a role or move on to something else.  Looking back, if I hadn’t taken the leap to Schlumberger, I probably wouldn’t have fallen in love with oil & gas like I did, and I probably wouldn’t be here writing this today!

You can’t plan on your career path following a straight line.  As you can tell from my story, there is no “set” way to grow your career, and there’s no way I could have predicted on the day I started working where I would be today.  I’m nowhere near making partner at Accenture, and frankly, I hadn’t even heard of TAM and IHS at that point.

The important thing is just having a goal in mind:  do you want to be a CEO?  Do you want to be an industry “thought leader”?  Whatever you want to be, think of all the skills, network connections and experience you would need  to achieve that in the future, and make sure that you use all the opportunities you have available to you NOW to cultivate those things.  Focusing too narrowly on one way forward could cause you to miss out on other challenges!

Be proud of what you do.  Have you ever read the “Dilbert” comic strip series?  Or watched “Office Space”?  They’re hilarious.  Unfortunately, they do tend to minimize the role and importance of technical personnel.  The fact is EVERYONE contributes:  a manager may lay out the plan, but the engineers and field personnel are the ones executing that it.  I want to emphasize this point because some people do feel some insecurity about their roles, and think that “if only I were on another path, then I’d really be contributing and get more respect”.

Personally, though I preferred to move away from pure engineering, I still recognize how crucially important it is to have strong people performing those functions.  I like getting out of the office, networking, and going on client calls, while others want to be alone and dive really deeply into their research.  That’s awesome, and there’s room for everyone, so be proud of what you love to do!

If you do what you enjoy doing, you’ll be great at it and success will follow.  Yes, it’s a cliché, but this follows that last point logically.  You can be good at a lot of things without necessarily liking all of them.  Finding the one you like the most means you’re more likely to work harder at it and be more successful doing it, and finding those few areas you’re passionate about takes some trial and error!

Always do your best.  You may want to make a move, but companies understandably can’t accommodate every employee’s wishes right away.  That doesn’t mean that they won’t help you out, but it does mean that you to have do your part.  If you’re a field engineer wanting to move into supply-chain, that could mean attending training classes in your spare time, or pitching in on projects outside of your day- to-day responsibilities to show that you’re enthusiastic and capable enough to make that transition.  Remember also that you will be rewarded for keeping up a good work ethic:  no one will help you if you just complain about where you are currently and that you just can’t wait to move.  Do your best every day, at whatever it is you’re asked to do, and opportunities will come.

Never discount an opportunity to learn a new skill or improve an existing one.  I’m going back a ways here, but during my senior year at Rice the engineering department really started trying to develop writing and presentation skills in its graduates…and I thought it was pointless and got in the way of “actual” work.  Sure, I still did my best, but I always wanted to get that work done so I could move on to more engineering material.

Well, fast forward to the present, and now I do almost nothing but write and make presentations!  The lesson there is that you can’t predict the future, and you can’t predict whether something you do now will be useful then or not.  Make the most of everything so as not to close doors prematurely.

Understand that while you can pursue one path or another, you have to have a very solid foundation in EVERYTHING.  I realized years ago that getting lost in the engineering details of a project, or optimizing code until it ran as efficiently as possible wasn’t for me.  That does NOT mean that I don’t appreciate why these things aren’t important, or that I wouldn’t understand if someone walked me through these details and optimization procedures.  Yes, I’ve chosen to pursue a more business oriented path, but one of the big reasons I went back to school for a degree in petroleum engineering specifically was to ensure that I was as well rounded a professional as possible in this industry.

Always strive to see the “Big Picture”.  You’ll find me using that expression a lot, because in my opinion it’s THE key to building a successful, rewarding, and well-rounded career.  If you focus only on what you do or what’s immediately around you, how can you plan your progression?  If you can connect the dots within your organization, and from that organization into the broader industry and economy, you will be very well positioned to spot trends and make decisions.  Realizing that your work affects and is seen by many people in the value chain should also push you to turn in your best efforts!

Share your time, information and insights generously, without expecting anything in return.  The more you’re willing to share all of these things, the better people will see you and the more opportunities will come your way.  Don’t expect anything in return immediately, but with time you will be compensated in spades for your efforts.

Work/life balance IS really important, and how you define that is up to you.  Furthering your career is important , but so is furthering “you”.  Having friends and outside activities makes you a more empathetic, fun-to-be-around and interesting person, all qualities that will help you professionally!  Work is definitely not everything, so whatever it is you like doing, get out there and do it.  A few suggestions though:  always make time to keep in touch with friends and family, and remember that while you may only hold a certain job position temporarily, your body is yours permanently:  make time to keep yourself in shape!  Incidentally, that does contribute directly to your earnings…

As I like to say, the fun thing about the future is that it’s always a surprise.  There’s no way I could have predicted my path so far, and I’m anxious to see what the rest of my career has in store for me.

And you?