Petroleum Engineering—The Best Profession

Short of choosing a life partner, deciding on a profession may be the most important decision any of us ever makes. And there are many who would debate which of these takes precedence. I consider myself amazingly fortunate in having made perfect choices in both categories. Anyone who has met my wife, Dina, can vouch for the first one. This is my opportunity to talk about the second.

When people ask me what I think about petroleum engineering as a profession, I answer, “Petroleum engineering is not just a great profession; it’s the best profession.” Here is why. Name another profession that is fun, intellectually and physically challenging, personally and financially rewarding, and critical to true global sustainability on both a macro and micro scale. I can’t think of one.

Beyond the basics of skills, aptitude, education, and interest, the way we choose our professions has changed dramatically over the past 50 to 60 years. The goal for many of our parents, and even some of us, depending on our age, was to join a company where we could make a good living, rise in the ranks, and work from graduation to retirement. That world no longer exists.

Today the question of what to consider when choosing a profession consumes magazines, books, and the internet. A 2018 online Harvard Business Review (HBR) article reported on what motivates people at work, beyond obvious basics such as salary, time off, and benefits. To find answers, HBR’s people analytics team collaborated with Facebook. Based on surveys conducted twice a year asking what employees value most, the team identified three big buckets of motivators: career, community, and cause.

As the article said, “It turns out we’re all hoping to find a what, a who, and a why.”

Career—The What

According to HBR, career is about work. It’s about autonomy, about using your strengths, and promoting learning and development. It’s at the heart of intrinsic motivation. It’s what you do throughout your working life, and may span many jobs and many companies.

Engineers share many traits, perhaps the most common of which is our love of solving problems. Petroleum engineering is the pinnacle of problem solving. For the 7.2 billion people on our planet, we have to solve the problem of how to deliver affordable energy from oil and gas, and how to do so safely and economically. We must solve the problem of operating in ways that don’t threaten our planet and its future generations. And, we must do all of this in a way that helps our employers achieve acceptable return on investment.

Solving problems on this scale requires a flexible, results-oriented culture that is more interested in successfully completing a job safely and with excellence than in clocking a set amount of work hours during a specified time of the day. As petroleum engineers, we are given the freedom to complete our work, and we are trusted to perform it without someone constantly looking over our shoulder. We are also expected—and given all the tools, training and support necessary—to ensure that everything we do has a fundamental focus on safety. That is non-negotiable.

Our work is challenging, both physically and intellectually. It requires continually expanding our learning and updating our skills. There is no question that our industry goes through stormy times that can challenge the most stalwart among us.

Like all challenges, ours come with amazing opportunities. We can contribute to game-changing technologies, be active in professional societies, publish papers, travel globally, learn from peers and mentors, and experience new geographies and cultures that contribute to our growth, both professionally and personally.

Finding and producing hydrocarbons generates vast amounts of data. Our industry uses data science and data management to drive faster, more accurate decisions that help us find new resources, increase recovery rates, and reduce environmental impacts. The digital transformation that is now disrupting our industry brings some of the toughest challenges many of us have faced in our careers. It also brings the opportunity to leverage innovation on a global and pan-industry scale. It is innovation that drives our industry forward and enables us to survive and even thrive, even during the challenging times.

Community—The Who

Community is about people. It is about feeling respected, cared about, and valued by others. It drives our sense of connection and belongingness. It is something we carry in our souls. It also drives our professional development and achievements.

As the 2018 HBR article points out, engineers care a lot about connecting with people. This is particularly true of petroleum engineers. For the most part, we tend to solve our problems in teams. Teamwork encourages communication, trust, support, and a positive working environment. It makes us more productive than we can be in isolation. And, it breaks down projects into more manageable chunks that can be worked on in parallel. Finally, it creates redundancy that leads to a more robust work architecture that helps us spread knowledge and do things in a way that other people on the team can pick up if necessary.

As members of a team, we learn and develop as we share ideas and experiences. This is crucial to innovation in technologies and methods that can change the game across the board, from exploration to well abandonment. Accelerating innovation and its uptake requires a culture of collaboration.

I like to say that there is really one degree of separation between each of us and someone or something that can spark the next big innovation. To be innovative one needs knowledge. The good news is that knowledge is everywhere; we just need to go out and seek it. The stronger, wider, and more diverse our community, the more we can learn and accomplish together. Knowledge is in various departments within companies; across companies, disciplines, and industries; across academia, geographies, and cultures.

Diversity is a business imperative for more ideas, better decisions and solutions, improved performance, and premium valuation. Diversity in culture, gender, age, academics, technical discipline, and expertise creates a platform for real innovation that is critical to the safe, efficient, and profitable development of hydrocarbon-based energy. Bringing all of this diversity together is a recipe for success. And no industry is a bigger melting pot—or salad—than oil and gas.

Today we are expanding our community and enhancing our recipe for success to include experts from other industries. An excellent example is an international, interdisciplinary technology transfer consortium I belong to called Pumps & Pipes. I also like to call it docs, rocks, and docks. It brings people from medicine, energy, aerospace, and academia together with community professionals and leaders to solve problems by “exploring your neighbor’s toolkit.”

With all of this diversity, “soft skills”—social and emotional intelligence, a positive and flexible attitude, and communication skills—are crucial to helping people navigate their environment, work well with others, perform well, and achieve their goals. We can’t learn from, or collaborate with, others unless we can communicate effectively with them. This may require a little extra work on everyone’s part, the rewards, both professional and personal, are well worth it.

My community is deep and wide, and it includes people of all ages and walks of life, and from different disciplines, industries, geographies, races, cultures, and genders. My community makes me a rich man, and I am certain I would be much poorer had I chosen a profession other than petroleum engineering.  

Cause—The Why

Cause is about purpose—about feeling like you make a meaningful impact, about identifying with a mission, and about believing that you are doing some good in the world.

The “what” of what we do as petroleum engineers is also the “why.” The impact we achieve with our problem solving makes it possible to bring safe, affordable energy to the world. That is our mission. That is the good we do.

Six areas of research will ignite the future of our industry: extreme machines; super materials; intelligent internet; mapped minds; brilliant factories; and energy everywhere. Petroleum engineers will play a critical role in the innovations that bring this about. At the same time, the petroleum engineering discipline is changing. As we move forward at breakneck speed, the focus will be on recruiting, developing, and retaining the best and brightest talent, irrespective of training. For example, sustainable chemistry, high-performance information, advanced measurement and actuation, designer materials, and high-press/high-temperature electronics are just a few technologies that will make a major impact on unconventional shales as a sustainable hydrocarbon source for years to come.

The digital transformation is consumer focused. Common threads include evolutionary leaps, relentless efficiency, minimal assets, and value chain vision.

Author, professor, and Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes (CSPO) Co-Director Daniel Sarewitz sparked a lot of debate last year when he wrote, “Science isn’t self-correcting, it’s self-destructing. To save the enterprise, scientists must come out of the lab and into the real world.”  His article in The New Atlantis addressed the need to steer the scientific enterprise back to solving real-world problems. His premise: Greater engagement with tangible issues—safe drinking water, disease treatments, better nutrition, and more equitable economic prosperity, for example—is the only way to help science fulfill its tremendous potential for social benefit.

This is what petroleum engineers do, and why we do it. From the very first wells to today and into the foreseeable future, petroleum engineers have, and will continue, to “do the impossible” by inventing and applying technologies and methodologies that make oil and gas the safe, low-cost energy source that drives thriving societies. Our collective accomplishments have positively impacted world economies while sustaining and improving—and even saving—people’s lives. And they will continue to do so. It is our contributions that made it possible to tap this incredible natural resource and make it safe and affordable to produce and, more recently, to take us from the fear of running out of oil and gas to having supply that is greater than demand. What could be better than that?

Rustom K. Mody, SPE, is vice president of technical excellence-enterprise technology for Baker Hughes, a GE company. He has more than 35 years of experience in drilling and completions, holds 17 patents, and is the author of more than 70 articles, technical presentations, and publications. He is an active member of SPE, the American Association of Drilling Engineers, International Association of Drilling Engineers, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and has served on various subcommittees of these organizations. In addition, he has served on the board of advisors for numerous universities and organizations including the US Department of Energy, University of Houston, and University of Oklahoma. He recently was appointed to serve on the advisory board of the US Council on Competitiveness Technology Leadership and Strategy Initiative. Mody earned BS and MS degrees in mechanical engineering and an MBA in finance. He is a registered professional engineer in the state of Texas.

Petroleum Engineering—The Best Profession

Rustom K. Mody, Vice President Technical Excellence-Enterprise Technology, Baker Hughes, a GE company

01 March 2019

Volume: 71 | Issue: 3

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