10 years in ‘big oil’ – 5 things I learnt (part 1)

So this one has been a bit of a toughie. I started writing/drafting this post pretty much from the day I left. Trying to consolidate a whole load of thought into a blog post (make that two) is not easy. Maybe that’s a good thing, ten years is a very, very long time. Looking back at my ‘career’ I don’t personally regret any of the decisions made nor the jobs that I did. Yes some parts were an absolute grind, but there were also many enjoyable experiences within it all. I think I was a bit fortunate in the jobs I was placed in. They had the right balance of challenge versus what i needed to become ‘competent’ – a term I will get back to later on in the article. I worked in two countries which encompassed a highly diverse people and made some fantastic friendships along the way. All in all not a bad time.

But what did I learn? Actually I should rephrase that and say what did I learn that is actually relevant to outside of the oil industry. Unfortunately not everyone will appreciate the technical chops needed to drill 5000m deep for gas. I’ve broken it down into 5 overarching themes:

  • Process
  • Competency
  • Motivation
  • Risk
  • Corporate


I’m starting with a dull topic. But it’s probably the most transferable ‘skill’ acquired during my time. As so-called engineers we spend a large part of our time jumping through hoops and gates to progress projects along. This can turn out to be a bureaucratic monster and a bit of a political game as people manoeuvre for their own gains and not what’s necessarily best for a project (maybe that should have gone under corporate…). But at its core, process is not only useful but also necessary to maintain business discipline. Small mistakes can have a large impact on your project.

Process became ‘hip’ a few years back in the startup world. ‘The Lean Startup’ pioneered the notion of build-measure-learn, essentially a process to capture learning and implement it back into the business. It also emphasises on the need to iterate and work fast. Unfortunately corporate slowness means if you don’t pass a gate at the first opportunity you’re kind of screwed – iteration or going back can kill a project.

So how do I use my experiences for going forward? In theory it should be simple. You want to balance the assurance a process gives with what a start up needs – simplicity and the ability to adapt, shift and change. We talked about iteration, but we do not want iterate aimlessly. Having a process will let you focus on what is important and objectively make decisions on the things that need to be changed with priority. One word of caution for startups. Don’t ‘iterate’ for the sake of iterating or ‘learning’. I do think you need an attached vision/roadmap of where you are going. It’s a process not a goal. Big corporate process in the end has a point. That point is the end delivery of a project; there is a vision outlayed in the beginning of the whole thing, even if it can get blurred through the myriad of paperwork.  

So startups need process. Startups are very good at wasting resources.  A structure and a framework can keep you on the straight and narrow while saving you a lot of time and money. And who best than someone who’s seen the benefits and evils to guide people along the way?


Big companies hire good people. Scratch that, they hire very good and capable people. Yes the process of hiring can go awry, but most of the time it doesn’t.

When you turn up on day one in the office you get told how awesome you are and how your graduate program is gonna look like. You then get told it’ll take you 7-10 years to become competent. Wait, what!?! 7-10 years to be good? You’ve just hired some of the brightest people and then tell them they’re basically not capable to become good unless they’ve 20 years (remember 10 years to be competent and another 5-10 to be ‘good’…). Nonsense. Now first up, this is not rocket science. As someone said to me once, in drilling we are basically glorified plumbers. Nice.   

I want to talk about experience and competency. It’s a bit of a chicken and the egg situation. Can’t have one without the other. But here’s the thing, young people are keen. And if you push and challenge them they can and will deliver. And the added benefit is they become more confident and go on drive a company forward. Yet alas if you’re young best you watch and observe and not get your hands dirty. Not competent enough.

What do I take from this? Learning is easy with the right resources. As a friend pointed out, learning a programming language is easy. So many resources available to you. Gaining more than basic proficiency is not problem. So if you hire good people, teach them what they need then use them. Don’t be scared to throw people in the deep end – yes you need the right supervision and they will make mistakes but trust them. And startups have to rely on that. Every person not only needs a purpose, they need to be working on 10 different things at the same time. Maybe that’s something startups can really teach corporations; amongst many other things I imagine.

Two down, three to go for next time. Lot’s of stuff in this and lots more to go through. Let me know your thoughts!


3 thoughts on “10 years in ‘big oil’ – 5 things I learnt (part 1)

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