Commentary: A failure nearly ended my oil & gas career, and then drove me to success

So far, my career has gone pretty well.  Sure, I’m not even close to feeling like I’ve “made it”, but overall things have gone more or less my way.  Still, that doesn’t mean I haven’t suffered a few setbacks, and I always think about how things could have turned out if those setbacks had ended differently and I hadn’t caught a few lucky breaks.

Here’s the situation:

I’ve just begun my transition from IT consulting to oil & gas, and I’m about three months in to my tenure at Schlumberger.  At that time, when you started out with the company, you were a “Field Engineer Trainee” or FET.  From there, you had to be promoted to Field Engineer (FE) 1, then FE 2, then you became a “General Field Engineer” at which point you were expected to start moving out of the field into more management or research-oriented positions.

The process to get from one level to the other is more or less the same:  you spend a few months in the field learning as much as you can, then you have to test in to a mandatory training class.  After, you go back to your district to prove you can apply that theory in the field, at which point you’re (hopefully) promoted to the next level.

For well cementing, my first training class was 8 weeks long at the company’s training center in Kellyville, Oklahoma.  Every Saturday, you were tested on the previous week’s material.

Fail one test:  a warning letter is sent to you and your district.

Fail twice:  you are sent home from the training class, and it’s highly likely you will be fired upon return.

I remember the first day of class being told by the head instructor that we would all start from the bottom; everyone would learn the same things, so there would be no excuses when it came to evaluation time.

The first week was a practical assessment, where we had to be become proficient on the pump.

This took place in Oklahoma, in January, so the weather was awful.  I remember wrapping myself up in my coveralls and regulation fire retardant jacket, and trudging down the hill at the training center to a waiting test pump.

I also remember never feeling quite comfortable controlling the pump by the end of that first week.

So we come to evaluation time, and…

I did awfully.

Sure, I memorized the pump diagram, and I had memorized the steps, but this just meant I knew WHAT I was doing, not WHY I was doing it:  looking back on it, by the end of that first week, I had not gotten the concept, or the “big picture” of operating that pump.

Regardless of the root cause, I can tell you that the experience was completely mortifying.  I remember spraying water (water that in real life would have gone back into the cement tanks) all over the practice area, and shutting down the pump feeling completely crushed.

The aftermath:

Sure enough, I found out the following Monday morning that I had failed the assessment.

1 week in, 7 more to go, and I had already used up my one lifeline!

The worst part came at lunchtime that day, when I was escorted (along with two other classmates) to that same lead instructor’s office, the one who had said there could be no excuses for anyone’s poor performance.

We were then handed our warning letters, and asked if we had anything to say.

The other two in there did attempt to offer an explanation, but I kept my mouth shut.

What did I have to say, really?

The bottom line was that I had messed up:  I hadn’t prepared the right way, and I (I alone) had failed that pumping exercise.  At that point it was on me to adjust my learning methods to pass the following seven weeks’ tests.

Luckily for me, 6 of the seven remaining tests were on paper (I was very comfortable with math and theory), but that still left another shot at the pump that I HAD to pass, or my oil & gas career would end almost as quickly as it started.

Catching a lucky break

Week 3 was my rematch with the pump, and the weather had gotten worse, to the point where the practice equipment had to be dismantled to clear out the built-up ice.

All that week I had prepared, asked questions, and basically done everything I could possibly think of to get ready for this test.

I couldn’t have done any better, save for one problem…

In the process of clearing out the ice, a valve that should have been closed was left open!  This was unusual:  usually that valve stayed closed all the time except for during a job.

I saw the mistake during the job rather than before, and despite my efforts to fight the consequences, I still ended up with results that would have been inexcusable in the field.

That could have been it…but I caught a break.

It turned out the instructor had noticed how hard I had prepared, as well as the fact that I made no excuses for my first inadequate performance.

She also took into account that fact that had the pump not been “tampered with”, I would have done fine, and I knew enough that I would not make the mistake twice of not checking that valve!

In the end, she didn’t feel I deserved to fail and gave me a (barely) passing grade!

Proving myself

From that point, I was determined to prove to myself, the instructor, and the rest of the class that I deserved to carry on with the program.

I aced every last one of the tests, including the end of program project, and on the final evaluation with my instructor she told me that on that day my two classmates and I were given our letters, she knew I would be the only to make it to the end, because she saw that I held myself accountable for what happened and because of that I would take steps to fix the situation.

Sure enough, I made it.

My two classmates were sent home about halfway through.

What did I learn from this experience?

Clearly, I wouldn’t share this story if I didn’t think there were some “take-aways” I thought would be useful to you, the readers!

I can almost guarantee that you will have (or have had) some similarly awful experience in your oil & gas career; my hope is that you can use my story to either a) avoid mishaps completely or b) learn from my mistakes so that you can “soften the blow” and come out of it a better professional.

In fact, what I described to you happened almost seven years ago, but it was so formative for me that I still think about it almost daily, and I apply regularly the lessons those two months in Kellyville taught me.

Hold yourself accountable

You’ve heard the saying “90% of solving a problem is admitting there is one”?  Well, that absolutely applies to your career:  the quicker you admit there is a problem, the quicker you can work on remedying it.

Remember also that the problem definition is critically important.  Imagine that a building has gotten complaints from its tenants that the elevators are too small, and more should be added to handle the peak capacity.

That’s really expensive, so what if the building just put a few TV screens in the lobby running the days’ current events and financial news.  That solution is much cheaper, and at that point, maybe the tenants are distracted enough that they don’t notice the wait!

Two problem proposals:  one is lack of elevators, the second is just giving people something to do to pass the time.  Hopefully they provide the same outcome (happy tenants!) but think of the cost in time and money of one versus the other.

The problem definition inherently dictates the solution.  If you are able to face criticism or recognize that there something is not right at work, YOU are empowered to define the problem, so YOU are empowered to solve it.  Not everyone has this skill, so developing it can have a very positive effect on your career!

Take everything one step at a time

When I found out that I had failed that first test, I could have gone two ways:  either tell myself “well, that’s it, I’m done”, or recognized that in fact I wasn’t done until I failed another test.  I chose the latter, so every week all I did was focus on the upcoming Saturday’s test.

Had I kept thinking, “wow, there’s no way I’m going to pass so many tests”, I don’t think I would have made it.  Instead, I convinced myself that while I may not have been the smartest person in the class, I certainly wasn’t the dumbest:  if everyone else was expecting to pass, I could too!

I usually advocate seeing the “Big Picture”, but in the case where you have a big challenge at work, don’t do that.  Focus on breaking it down into small steps, and just take them on one at a time.

Don’t look back

This one is critical:  you can’t fix the past, so it shouldn’t have any bearing on how you do in the future.  Yes, I had failed the first test, but did that imply I was inevitably going to fail another one?

No way, and again it was just about getting in the right mindset:  “yes, it happened, but it’s over and if everyone else is capable of doing well in the future, so are you”.

When you get through the rough patch, by all means, reflect on and continue to learn from it, but until you’ve reached the end, there’s only one way to go, and that’s forward!

Use tough times as motivation for the future

First I tell you not to look back, and then I tell you to use past negative experiences as motivation for the future.

Contradicting myself?

No:  when you’re in the thick of it, by all means keep your head down, focus on the present, and get the job done.

Once it’s over, you should absolutely take a look back and see what you’ve learned and how you can utilize that knowledge in the future.

In fact, I still think a lot of what I do today is driven by a need to “make up” for that one failure, as well as somehow prove to my classmates at the time that I deserve my current position.  Keep in mind that I haven’t seen most of them since I left Kellyville, but that’s how impactful that experience was on my career!

And you?

Have you had an experience in your career that was particularly formative?  Let me know in the comments section or send an email to!