Monday, January 30, 2006

week 5: agendas

Everyone has an agenda. This is not about working in the oil and gas industry or even something I learned from work. However, it is something I have become acutely more aware of since I started working. In particular, as I have spent more time managing people, and will do a fair bit of it this week for various reasons, the agendas that different people promote are becoming increasingly obvious. And those whose clearly differ from mine are the most absolutely aggravating to work with.

The thing about everyone's agendas is that they're all different. And having to work closely with others makes those differences all the more apparent. (There I go again, using a word in a somewhat misleading fashion. Agenda is perfectly good word to use to describe what I mean, but by phrasing it the way I have, I certainly have made all these agendas sound far more nefarious than any of them really are.) The issue becomes a matter of divining how different your agenda is from that of your employer and also figuring out what everyone else's is up to. You might think I could use the word goal instead of agenda (and sound much less sinister). However, I don't feel that it's quite apt since everyone has an agenda, but very few people actually have goals. They might not realize it's an agenda, especially when they mistake it for actual goals.

Yesterday, I hoped work would inspire me and it has. Today, it reminded me once again of the divergent agendas that people enjoy promoting. A couple weeks ago, I wrote about communication. Not to get too far off topic but this is a tangent of both that topic and this one. There's a curious irony at work. I am given a fairly large amount of decision making authority yet simultaneously have no actual power to discipline those who do not follow instructions. In the organizational chart, while I am laterally higher than some people, I am no one's actual manager. (The true irony is that if I ever badly erred, I could always feign ignorance and say I should never have been asked to make certain decisions, but that would be disingenuous and is not something I would ever do.) How does this relate to agendas? Once again, I can only persuade people to my own since there is no threat of discipline that I can command. Therefore, the agendas of others are not only something I see, but also something I must continually negotiate against.

There is far more to say about this, but now is not the time.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

grab bag

I really have nothing to say right now. Events from earlier have passed and now it's off topic to discuss them. But, since it'll fill the void, I might as well. Actually, I'm more concerned with what to discuss tomorrow. I was thinking about something on the image of the oil and gas industry, but I can't find the relevant articles and links that I have seen before. I'll whip something up tomorrow. Perhaps actually going to work will inspire me.

I enjoy using words in ways that, while technically correct, are not how most people commonly use them. This is especially true for words that generally have a positive connotation, but are not necessarily positive words. A perfect example of this can be seen in my last post. I called the blown piston spectacular, but it's hardly a good thing, simply dramatic and sensational.

Two Fridays ago, as in January 20, was an absolutely brutal day for stocks. Personally, it was my worst single day loss ever and the largest percentage loss too since I've had enough to legitimately diversify my principle brokerage account. One of the things I've learned from investing is that weathering bad days is part of the process so I've become pretty nonchalant about stomaching them. I've had my share of them, but I've had plenty of good ones too to come out ahead. Admittedly, when it comes to what I call my principle brokerage account, I'm overweight in some areas, but am very aware of that. In the end, considering all accounts, I'm reasonably balanced.

However, being diverse and balanced is for passive investors and now I'm pondering how passive an investor I want to be. I'm not going to turn into a day trader or any such nonsense, but I can become an active investor, doing significantly more research and taking more control of the whole process. Along with being active comes the possibility of un-diversifying as well. If I have done my homework and have a high degree of confidence in my decisions, then there's more potential gain in being heavily invested in a few holdings rather than being moderately invested in many. There's certainly more risk too, but I'm also at the point in life where I can accept a fairly high degree of risk. This isn't happening tomorrow, but there's definitely some research going on and some make believe investing happening as well.

Why do I get religiously themed mail? More accurately, why does my address get said mail? And how come I never got stuff like this when I lived in California? General demographic reasons? Until this latest piece that I'm going to describe in a momentthey were generally solicitations for donations. However, the Saint Matthew's Churches feels that starting a letter "Dear…Someone Connected with This Address" is an effective means of getting my attention. How touchingly personal.

The letter than goes on to have too many words for me to really want to read but a cursory glance reveals a lot of bold text and underlined words. The best stuff is on the back of the letter where I can ask them to pray for me for the following choices: my soul, a closer walk with Jesus, my health, a family member's health, confusion in my home (I assume to clarify the confusing things, not for more confusion), my children, to stop a bad habit, a better job, a home to call my own, a new car (getting a little secular here), a money blessing (it gets better though), to be saved. The last option is really the best though. It's to "pray for God to bless me with this amount of money: $____" and yes that is a blank space to write in how much you want/need. Then there's a second page with testimonials from people who have been blessed with various things though none of the quotes indicate to me that these people (assuming they exist) have achieved a closer connection with God. And there are pictures of two of the people that the testimonials are supposedly from that look like they are either straight out of the 80's or off the cover of a tabloid. And here I was getting nostalgic for big hair until I saw how atrocious it generally was.

There's more. There's also a "prayer rug" included that is really a piece of paper that was folded to a sixth of its size to fit inside a standard envelope with Jesus' picture on it. Of course, Jesus is depicted as looking much more Anglo than you would have thought someone from that part of the world during that time would look. Tragically, all of these pages have a date with my shredder. It's not about the content or anything personal. I just like to shred my mail, even the stuff that doesn't contain personal information or pre-approved credit card offers.

In the end, I would assume that a properly religious person (as if someone like that would care about my standard for them) would be appalled by this mailing. It totally lacks any spiritual depth, implies God rewards prayers with material objects, and has a bar code on it.

It appears I did have a couple things to say. Imagine that.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

blowed up

Let's say that this is a reasonable animation of a diesel engine. Now let's say that you look at this picture here. Tell me, do some of the pieces look like they belong inside the engine?

The pieces in the photo are what one of the trucks blew out of its side. Basically, a piston on the deck engine was blown through the engine block. Pretty spectacular, in a certain sense of the word.

Monday, January 23, 2006

week 4: safety culture

The recent mine accidents that have made the national news have brought mine safety into the current media discussion. In a more general sense, they will likely create more awareness about industrial safety issues. In a more specific sense, it reminds me of the safety issues that are faced in the oil and gas industry. The long and short of it all is that safety is about money and the industry has decided that the cost of being safe is more profitable than the alternative. The overall response in the last 15 years has been a strong push for a comprehensive safety culture from the biggest players in the industry.

Working in the oilfield is an inherently risky operation. In short, there are lots of moving things, combustible things, pressurized things, some radioactive things, and it can be very noisy. In the United States the oilfield used to have the perception of being a bit of a cowboy industry and much of that perception was deserved. That is gradually changing as technology and safety become increasingly important, but there's still plenty of the "git 'er done" spirit to be found.

At a corporate level, the shift towards an increased focus on safety seems to have started in earnest about 15 years ago. If you wanted to try to single out a particular incident as a watershed event for the industry, it would probably be the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. It brought safety into focus by highlighting the need for corporate responsibility all the way down to the local operations level. If a company allows a known drunk to operate a vessel and has never intervened to stop the drinking or discipline the employee, then the company is just as culpable. Plus, corporations have deeper pockets than individuals. It's no different than if Schlumberger allowed someone who was known to be drunk to drive a commercial tractor-trailer vehicle. By informing employees of the consequences of their responsibilities and performing random drug tests, the company is doing what it can reasonably be expected to do to make sure it is not being negligent. Beyond that, individual accountability still matters but individuals decide what matters based on what they see from management.

There is much more to the safety issue than strict legal liability. That is certainly a cost that companies take care to avoid by training their employees and performing audits and making sure the rules are being followed. However, it's much more subtle than a matter of strict legal costs. Would you want to work for a company that you knew was not taking all reasonable measures to ensure your safety? Probably not, especially if you could go get the same job somewhere else for an employer that did care about safety. For the unsafe company, it's very expensive to deal with employee turnover and retrain new hires and bring them up to speed. Now imagine if you lose qualified, highly skilled people from all levels of the company. It becomes an ongoing personnel problem at that point and begins to affect business.

Now, the legal cost is certainly the biggest factor. It costs too much money to be unsafe given the nature of civil trials and punitive damages. It's especially apparent that companies in this industry have received that message. The general rule is that the larger and more public the company, the stronger the safety culture is. Schlumberger has developed a very strong safety culture partly due to its size and potential liability, but also because it understands that safety goes hand in hand with service quality. And as a service company, our reputation for high service quality is crucial to making money. Our larger clients that I have interacted with definitely have stronger safety policies and better enforcement of them than the independents. That is something that is quite apparent in the field. However, the Schlumberger standard does not change for the client. We always maintain our standards unless we're actually working for a client that has a stricter policy. In that case, the stricter policy is followed, but such instances are fairly rare.

Additionally, for a long time, and even today, the public image of the oil and gas industry has not been well managed by the industry. For the most part, industry leaders have let others define and engage in a rather one-sided discussion. (This is largely a separate topic from safety, but it is related. I'll probably write on this at some point.) By aggressively engaging the safety issue, the industry has slowly begun to define the public discussion on its own terms. This is important for an industry where winning at the public relations game to gain popular and political appeal is an important part of business.

The point has been reached where all the biggest companies have largely similar policies. Perhaps Schlumberger's are stricter in many cases, but most operators are willing to accommodate those for what I feel is a corresponding increase in service quality. Yes, it is true that there are small independents that wouldn't know safety from the hole in the ground they're trying to drill, but all the big operators and service providers are mostly on the same page. The strength of a company's safety culture really boils down to, not what the rules say, but how the rules are followed and enforced. That is a matter of local responsibility, but developing a sincere interest in safety comes from much higher up. The local level of operations picks up indicators of upper management's earnestness based on audits and reviews and whether they visit districts and ask the right questions about safety. A local operation also knows and remembers when things are swept under the rug and who is ignoring what. In those terms, my experience is that Schlumberger has done very well. I've met our district manager's boss as well as the safety person at the same level. I've met the President of US Land. They engaged me about safety and most other people they met at the district.

For Schlumberger the signs point to a strong management committeemen to safety. The local level impact is noticeable. I have seen operations shut down to address the most serious of incidents. I have seen supervisors decide not to perform operations they decided were unsafe and I have seen management back those decisions. We have quarterly safety stand downs, monthly reviews, weekly meetings, daily briefings, pre-trip convoy meetings, pre-job safety meetings, post-job meetings, bulletins, and more papers and risk analysis forms and boxes to check than you can shake a stick at. For me, I interpret all the information directed at in a very simple way. My number one goal when I go into the field is to make sure that my crew and I go home safe at the end of the day. Sometimes the safety barrage feels like overkill, but I'd rather it be that than get someone I know killed.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

it snowed, that is all

Hooray, it finally snowed again. It might have been as much as a whole two inches too. If I'm going to be somewhere cold, it's nice to get some snow to pretty up the place every once in a while.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

a certain malaise

Now I remember what I meant to write about when I first got back from the Bay Area. It's how it was nice to see people (alas, not everyone, never enough time) and see that people have largely figured out what to do with themselves, at least for the next couple of years. No one (I associated with in the past) has become a pimp or a drug dealer or addict or anything terrible like that.

In all fairness, my friends from high school and I were never exactly high risk youth. By in large, we were not exposed to the risk factors that go hand in hand with being socio-economically disadvantaged. If anything, the real hindrance for some of us to live a productive, contributing life was being too privileged. There's a certain malaise that sets in for people who are never given a challenge and never find one for themselves.

I've spent a lot of time since shortly after I started college wondering in various forms whether I have that problem. It started then and continued through college because I was never quite sure if it was supposed to be so relatively easy. I don't mean to slight the hard work that people put into earning a college degree and I'm not saying that I didn't work hard, but it never seemed hard. I think that's a good sign. Thus, as to whether or not I suffer from a privileged malaise, the short answer is no. The slightly longer answer is not really, but there's always that fundamental issue of drive and purpose that need to be defined. I'm working on those.

Monday, January 16, 2006

week 3: criticism

While many things can be described like this, criticism is really easy to do badly and really hard to do well. I hear a lot of it through work both in and out of the office (not directed at me of course because I'm the golden boy from California with the soft, luxuriant hair) and almost all of it is the badly done variety.

The criticism falls largely into two categories. The first is criticism directed at the people being criticized. It's usually of the 'maybe if I shout at you enough, you'll do your job properly' kind. I'm not a big believer in that school of thought. I'm much more into the 'coaching and persuading by showing how this is our common goal so we should work towards it' kind. I like my way because shouting does one of two things to most people. Either it makes them nervous and nervous people usually don't perform well or it causes them to tune out and be non-responsive thus repeating the same mistakes over and over. Plus, most of my authority at work is derived from respect and persuasion maintains that respect much better than shouting ever will.

The other type of criticism is when it is said when the person it is about is not around. It tends to take the form of second guessing decisions that were made. There's the Monday morning quarterback for the plan that went badly in the morning, along with the Monday afternoon quarterback for those decisions that don't quite play out later in the day, then the Tuesday morning quarterback for whoever didn't pitch in their two cents on Monday, and the Tuesday afternoon quarterback who just wants to rub it in, and, you get the picture. People who engage in this type of sniping are almost always the ones who don't have to make decisions that can be questioned. If anything, their jobs tend to be devoid of almost all actual decision making. And it's really easily to criticize when it isn't your own reputation and authority at stake.

Ultimately, constructive criticism is the goal. If you stop and take a moment to consider a situation and inquire about how it arose, it's far easier to give constructive criticism. But if you want to receive constructive criticism, you really cannot expect people to ask questions before they open their mouths. The best way to combat that is communication. If I succinctly communicate my reasoning for a decision, I can both receive worthwhile feedback on it and it enables other people to adjust when the situation changes.

In this business where the situation can change very quickly and jobs can go unexpectedly early or new ones can call in, it important that everyone is on the same page. That enables decisions to be made that don't bollocks up other plans. Plus, if I usually take the time to explain a decision, then the few times where it is not possible to do so, I can get the benefit of the doubt that there is some sort of compelling reason that I did not. Additionally, if I explain why we're doing something a particular way and convince others that it is an effective method, then they'll do the task more enthusiastically and ultimately do a better job.

Communication is a small investment that yields incredible returns. It heads off pointless criticisms and makes you look intelligent and aware. And yet people do so little of it.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

no title

Being miserably sick is, well, miserable. That's why I haven't posted much lately. Don't worry though, my piece for tomorrow is ready and written. And that's not some lie like last week when I said the same thing but had only sketched some notes. It's actually written it and could post it today if I wanted. I won't because I want to keep up the Monday thing and sit on it for a day and review it tomorrow before I post it.

I can't wait to get my W-2. It's probably not normal to be this excited about doing one's taxes. I suppose it doesn't hurt that I fully expect to get a refund.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

i have to go where?

When I was back in the Bay Area last week I mentioned to a few people that work was sending me to Denver for a meeting the first week of March. I was wrong. It isn't Denver. It's much better than Denver. I get to go where everyone only dreams that their employer would pay for them to go. And that would be Las Vegas. Judging by the events schedule, it looks like a lot of fun with a little bit of work sprinkled in. Seriously, it's mostly work during the day and then fun at night.

I increasingly believe that I could pass a state bar exam without going to law school. I'd have to study a whole bunch and learn a lot of the language of law to give answers that use all the right legalese, but it doesn't seem that hard. I wasn't planning on actually taking the bar exam anytime soon, but I decided to check it out. Since I'm in New Mexico, that's the exam I looked at. Apparently, they want some sort of proof that you went to law school before you take the exam. What a load of garbage. Then again, it doesn't say the law school must be accredited. (Closer inspection reveals that the school does have to be accredited.) And they also want "three character and fitness statements from attorneys in good standing" as if to imply lawyers are good assessors of character. And the filing fee, well, now I'm definitely not taking the test on a whim. But I could still pass it.

Monday, January 09, 2006

week 2: big/small

I thought this piece would write itself. I thought I had sketched out enough ideas last week before I bumped this week's piece to its present place. I was wrong. I found it incredibly difficult to express in words what surrounds me all the time.

One of the reasons I applied for and ultimately took this job was the chance to work with people who were different than me. Meaning, people who were not from California, had not gone to college, and did not share my Bohemian ideals of truth, beauty, freedom, and love. (Bonus points if you can tell me what movie that's from. Oh, and that last bit is not entirely serious, but it's not entirely a joke either.)

Growing up in California, it was hard to fully understand what an unusual place it is until I left it. Sure, I knew it isn't normal or average, but I didn't fully grasp how different it is from so many other places until I lived somewhere else. On its good days, California is progressive. A place for ideas and discourse along with a vision of what the future can hold. On its bad days, it’s a little dysfunctional, which, unfortunately, is what outsiders tend to see.

And then there is Farmington, NM. It's a little different than California. Just a little. I swear. This job has given me a chance to meet people that I would never have met and learned from if I sat in a cubicle and more button down shirts to work. Though I am loathe to, I'm about to try and characterize an entire region in a few words. If I didn't, you would never understand how I've come to see this place. Keep in mind, this is more a comparison to the Bay Area than a straight characterization of Farmington itself. Things here are simple. Nuanced isn't a word people go for. The big picture isn't their problem so it isn't their concern. This world isn't very big either and not because globalization has shrunk it. It's not very big because it's not very big. People have their folksy wisdom and some people really do believe all those old wives' tales.

However, people have their folksy ignorance too. (This is not to say that there isn’t plenty of cosmopolitan ignorance to go around.) One of the things that I am having the hardest time understanding is the general dislike people seem to express towards doctors and medical professionals in general. Look, I'm sure you want to hear something from the doctor other than that you should quit smoking and that you should lose weight. But frankly, the doctor harps on those things because smoking and obesity are enormous risk factors for many serious medical problems. Plus, they're probably the root cause of all the problems you currently suffer from. There, I got my rant out. Seriously, compared to the Bay Area, smoking and obesity exist in Farmington at much higher rates.

I suspect that most of what I've noticed is a big(ger) town/small town issue. (Perhaps that's why the doctor thing exists.) These are issues that would come up in dozens of other similar places. Me personally, I like the fast-talking, slightly highbrow, and mildly arrogant elitism of big(ger) city life. Oh, what I really mean to say is I like the analytical, intellectual, and nuanced air of the Bay Area. But that's not my home anymore. Farmington isn't home either, it never will be. But it is where I live now. It's a place I have learned from both personally and professionally and I will continue to do so.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

so fleeting

There's never enough time to see everyone on those trips home. Hopefully next time. Until then, you all know how to reach me through somewhat less personal channels.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


Why do I have so many batteries? Why can't I bring myself to get rid of them? Everything I have now either requires a proprietary battery or I use it so infrequently that there's no point in having a large cache of batteries. I have spares for my flashlights and smoke detector. Beyond that, everything else is 'stuff' and I don't need 'stuff''. I need 'things'.

I knew yesterday's post would ramble. It really dealt with two very different ideas. The first was the vulnerability of net oil and gas importing nations. The other was the vulnerability of operators to the sometimes capricious governments of the countries they work in. The latter idea was definitely not as well hewn, but the gist was that service companies are more insulated to such caprice. However, service companies do face a host of other challenges and I'll discuss those some other day, possibly a Monday. But not this coming Monday. That's for what I originally meant to write about yesterday.

Monday, January 02, 2006

week 1: current events

Recent events have prompted me to change topics. Thus, this is somewhat thrown together and I'll probably leave some things out that I'll try to come back to later in the week. The good news is that my piece for next week is largely written.

One of the recent events I speak of is the natural gas situation between Russia and Ukraine and how that is impacting the rest of Europe. The Russia and Ukraine situation is played out in several articles, but how the situation is affecting Germany is a good example of the impact the disagreement is having. The other event to catch my eye is Venezuela's change in how foreign companies may participate in the way the country operates its fields. Venezuela made changes to its laws to ensure "the recovery" of several fields in its country. The country also made some tax changes to account for what they call "tax irregularities."

Russia's leveraging of Ukraine reveals the inherent vulnerability that oil and gas importing nations suffer from. Oil and gas are commodities. They will go to the highest bidder, but ideological differences will sometimes cause countries to refuse to sell, even to those who have money. The United States has money. It also has many ideological differences with some of the nations that it imports oil and gas from. In a way, the United States hedges (original article) where its imports come from, but that may be due to how much oil and gas it consumes. As domestic productions continues to decline, those imports obviously become more important which also increases the exposure of the United States to the decisions of others. While the United States receives no more than a sixth of its import from any single country, that would be a hard loss to stomach if a country stopped sending us oil. Additionally, countries like Canada that are reasonably favorable to us already send us 99% of their exports. There's only so much slack that they could pick up.

The point? Obvious enough. The United States must continue to hedge its import sources, but it needs to enhance domestic production in meaningful ways. (The fields in the ANWR are not all that meaningful in the greater scheme of things.) Enhanced domestic production will be driven by technology more than any political maneuvering. It also must, absolutely must, make a more concerted effort to develop alternative energy sources. Due to the high energy density of oil, it will remain the energy source of choice for transportation for a long time. Oil companies can project to be in business for at least another 50 years, probably much longer. However, it will become necessary to wean energy consuming devices that are stationary to other sources of power. If you don't need to haul your fuel source around, then there is far less cost involved in settling for something that is a bit bulkier, but still gets the job done.

The play that Venezuela is making is something that oil and gas companies are keenly aware of. When oil and gas prices are low, private enterprise is invited to help build infrastructure and develop fields. But when the prices rise and the profits become fat, countries do anything from impose windfall taxes to nationalize the operations or something in between. There's nothing quite like having the rules changed in the middle of the game. That's part of the exposure of being an operator.

Service companies like Schlumberger are much better protected from changes like that. Service companies do not have a direct stake in acquiring reserves and extracting, refining, and selling oil and gas. No matter who operates the field, they will still need service companies to do most of the upstream work.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

a plan

I hope to make tomorrow the first in a series of regular posts on things I have learned and observed from my experiences at work. It'll be Mondays with Schlumberger a la Tuesdays with Morrie, except not. The reason it won't is because I've never read Tuesdays with Morrie, nor do I plan to, so I have no idea what it's about. Actually, the reason it won't is because I don't plan to actually write about Schlumberger-specific issues. Instead, I want to write more generally about work and the oilfield as I have seen them. That might include writing about Schlumberger, but only insofar as the company relates to larger issues that affect the industry or other service companies. Plus, I plan to restrict my factual comments to what is public knowledge or what I feel is easily inferable or common sense. My interpretation of those things may be aided by my uncanny genius and above-average looks though.

There are very obvious reasons for why I have generally not discussed Schlumberger-specific matters in previous posts and those same reasons hold for future posts as well. I think it's enough to say that I have enjoyed my time so far and I believe I will continue to do so in the future. I've said more than that before, but you'll have to hunt around for those things.

I am aware of the risks involved with writing about work. How can I forget when my mom keeps sending my e-mails about it. However, I know what I'm doing. Remember, I'm the infallible golden boy from California who triumphantly moved to a slightly less glamorous state and introduced the locals to exciting things like Sonicare and PSP.

And don't worry about the timeliness of that next post. It's already written, more or less.