Deja Interview

In 1988 I wanted to find a better opportunity and arranged to get a job interview with a reservoir engineering manager at a large independent company. It was my first interview in two years and I was serious about improving my career. I was also realistic about my chances for getting an offer but thought the interview would be good practice.

It was a sunny afternoon when I met with Bob in his office. I recall the weather because the window blinds were down but partially open, and the sun was in a perfect position to set up a dazzling slotted-light pattern directly behind Bob’s chair.

Bob’s interview style today would be considered “old school” but back in 1988 it was just “school”. He pulled out a legal pad and told me he was going to ask some “specific” questions. I stifled an urge to promise to give specific answers and said I was ready.

I only remember a few of his questions but they were typical. What was your greatest accomplishment in your previous job?  What do you feel are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? If you were an endangered native California species which one would you be?

No, he didn’t really ask that last one. After I responded to each question Bob wrote a note on his pad.  I attempted to maintain eye contact and speak with confidence, but as the interview progressed I realized I was getting an “ocular migraine”. That angled light/dark pattern from the window blinds behind Bob was really bothering me. It was developing into one of my typical migraine headaches complete with temporary vision and speech problems and numbness in my face and fingers. I did my best during the discussion but fumbled my words a bit and my train of thought was derailed a couple of times. Bob must have noticed my difficulty but gave no indication.

We finished the meeting and I thanked him for the opportunity. Before I left the parking lot I opened my notebook and wrote down everything I could remember about the interview, including Bob’s questions and my answers. After struggling through the headache I didn’t feel confident about the way things went but I had obtained some good empirical data and I planned to use the notes to prepare for future interviews and develop better responses.

As expected, I didn’t receive an offer.  I continued looking for opportunities but the industry was still in a downturn.

Two years later in 1990 the same company had another opening for a reservoir engineer.  I contacted the HR department and was somewhat surprised when they invited me back for another meeting with the same manager.

The night before this second interview I studied the notes from my discussion with Bob two years earlier. I was impressed with, and thankful for, the level of detail I had captured and carefully reviewed the questions and my answers. The notes helped me remember Bob’s personality and style, and how I had fumbled quite a bit due to the headache. I was pretty confident I would perform better this time.

I met with Bob in the same office and this time there was no problem with the window light. After exchanging pleasantries Bob pulled a file out of his desk with my name on it. He said he had notes from our previous interview and was going to update them during our conversation.

He asked me his first question, and I recognized it instantly as the same first question from the last interview. I gave my answer and he looked at his notes. He paused with an interesting expression on his face, then continued. He asked another half-dozen questions and during each answer he studied his sheet. Finally he put the paper down, gave a little laugh, and told me all of my responses were “remarkably similar” to those I had given two years earlier. He appeared to be impressed with my consistency, and I guessed it never occurred to him that I might have my own notes from our previous conversation.

I felt much better about this interview, but still took time to write detailed notes before driving home.  A few days later I received an offer which I accepted. Bob was my manager for the next three years.

I recently heard a writer recommend the practice of “being good to your future self.” The idea is to look for actions you can take today that will make things easier for yourself in the future, a form of being your own best friend. Writing everything I could remember after that first interview with Bob certainly helped me out two years later, and I continued to write detailed post-interview notes through the rest my career.

(Adapted from the forthcoming professional memoir “Plugged & Abandoned”)

Engineers in Company Cars Getting Stupid (Part 1)

When I started my petroleum engineering career in the early 1980s oil was still booming, the beginnings of the next bust still a couple of years away. One of the best perks enjoyed by many oil and gas professionals at that time was the use of a company vehicle and my first company had a great policy.

Newly-hired drilling and production engineers were immediately assigned a personal company car to travel to field offices, well sites, and drilling locations. They were able to take the cars home each day. They were also allowed to use the car for personal use, at company expense, up to two hundred miles from the office. I knew several engineers who sold their personal cars after receiving their company vehicles, saving a ton of money by avoiding car payments, maintenance, insurance, and buying gas. The two-hundred-mile limit allowed them to drive as far away as San Diego for a weekend trip, and gasoline purchases would be reimbursed through expense accounts.

For reservoir  and geological engineers, who did not get to the field all that often, the policy was different. REs and GEs had to complete two years of employment before receiving a company car with the same privileges, still a nice benefit. New reservoir and geological engineers who did not yet qualify were still able to get the occasional use of a company car. When someone went on vacation or was out of the office for even a few consecutive days, they were required to give their cars to another employee who did not have one.

All of the managers had company cars, and the policy applied to them as well. When Harold, the regional vice-president, was out of the office his practice was to give his Ford Crown Victoria to the most senior technical professional (geologist or engineer) who did not yet have a company car. Occasionally I would be notified by Harold’s secretary that he was going to be out of the office and that I should come to her desk and get his keys. I was nervous and paranoid about driving the VP’s car, commuting to the office each day and parking in his assigned (and covered) parking spot close to the building. I rarely took Harold’s car anywhere but home and the office, afraid of picking up a ding in a grocery store parking lot or, worse, damaging the car in an accident.

engineers in cars

My fear and paranoia about damaging a company car was not unjustified. In my first solo trip to the field for a rare daytime logging job, I checked out one of the pool cars. The drilling site was located near the foothills south of Bakersfield. After turning off of the highway I traveled through a fruit orchard and then came to a long stretch of dirt road, very smooth, dry, and hard-packed. It had obviously been graded recently and was in terrific shape. I could see that I had a few miles of perfect road ahead and no one in sight so I increased my speed. I had left the orchard behind so I had no worries about kicking up a big dust tail (I had been warned that the local farmers would get angry if you dusted their valuable fruit trees). Soon I had increased my speed to about 75 miles per hour. The national speed limit was 55 back then so I was excited about going this fast, a rare opportunity for speed without fear of consequences.

As you no doubt have guessed from the title of this post, this was an incredibly stupid thing to do. I’m driving along and suddenly horrified to see a ditch a few yards ahead cutting across the road. It was a small drainage or irrigation channel about three or four feet across and maybe a foot and half deep. As a driver familiar with seeing “DIP AHEAD” signs all across the land during my previous automotive journeys, I experienced a half-second of surprise and then I was airborne.

As canyon jumps go it was really not that impressive. I was not Stevel Knievel flying a rocket-bike across the Snake River, or jumping a motorcycle across eleventeen buses and a Roman water fountain at Caesar’s Palace. It was just a freaking four-foot drainage ditch. Still, in not-so-classic Dukes of Hazzard style I did manage to get air under all four wheels while simultaneously keeping all of the fluids inside my body. (For the small chance that a millennial might be reading this: please use the Internet search app of your choice for clarification of my obscure cultural references.)

The General Lee (corporate model: Olds Cutlass, brown, four-door) bounce-landed on the far side of the ditch. I had been traveling just fast enough and the road was sloped up just enough that the rear wheels barely cleared the far edge. I still cringe when I think of the horrible sound and the huge jarring thump when the car bottomed out. I hit the brakes and tried to maintain control. Everything worked somehow and the car stopped. I got out to take a look, shaking a little and waving my hand to clear the swirling dust away from my face.

I was stunned to see no signs of damage. My engineering brain kicked in, and corrected myself: No external signs of damage but the suspension system must have taken a beating. I looked under the front and back of the car as best I could but saw nothing obviously wrong. Whatever was broken, I was not going to be able to diagnose it visually, but I knew  the car had to have been disabled.

No cell phones in 1981, and the pool car had no radio. I’d have to wait for someone to come along, or walk back to the highway to flag somebody down. I finally decided that since I had been able to control the car when I brought it to a stop, maybe it was still drivable. I probably couldn’t make it any worse, so I slowly put the car in gear and crept forward and heard…nothing. No metal on metal shrieking, no rhythmical thumping. The car moved forward and I tested the brakes. Everything seemed okay, so I crawled along at a very reasonable three miles per hour for a bit, then I goosed it up to ten.

I continued on and was proud of myself for detecting each of the next three drainage ditches in plenty of time to cross them ever-so-gently, keeping my speed very low all the way to the well site. I had been lucky, and a Lesson Had Been Learned. On my return trip to the office just before I reached the highway I saw a sign on the left side of the road. I twisted around to read it: CAUTION UNEVEN ROAD SPEED LIMIT 20 MPH. Rookie mistake, I had missed it entirely.

A few months before I reached my two-year employment anniversary and would be assigned my own car, the company changed the policy. In a cost-cutting measure reservoir engineers now had to be a “Senior” engineer to qualify for a car (a promotion that typically occurred between three and five years of service). I continued to occasionally get the use of Harold’s car, and I was extraordinarily careful with it. I also made sure to get it washed and fill it with gas before returning it to him. It was the right thing to do, of course, and I thought a few brownie points might help.

A couple of years later I thought I might be getting close to that Senior Petroleum Engineer promotion and would finally get my new company car. Instead, Harold’s secretary called me to his office so he could deliver the news that I was being laid off. Oil was going bust again.

(Adapted from the forthcoming professional memoir “Plugged & Abandoned”)

Photo: jbwarehouse.blogspot.com  The hazards of early driving in Toronto, as represented by this Model T which met a muddy fate just east of the Ford plant. Crowd looking over fence at wrecked automobile in ditch, south side of Dupont, east of Christie, circa 1910. Photo by William James. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 61.

Cool Boss (Part 1)

I really enjoyed working for engineering managers who had a good sense of humor, some awareness of pop culture, and were comfortable in their own skin. Paul was one of my favorites.

Thursday morning, main conference room, the daily operations meeting open to all of the regional office staff. A good opportunity to hear the latest information on drilling activities, recompletions, and other relevant business happening in the company. The room was full and a few of the staff had to stand in the doorway.

A proposed well location stimulated a brief discussion about the nature and quantity of the hydrocarbons in place, specifically how much of the shale gas in the reservoir was free, and how much was adsorbed in the rock. After a couple of the geologists had their say, Paul, the regional vice-president, thought it was time to move on.

“Guys, I will choose…” he paused, “free gas.” He had a small smile as he looked around the room.

He spotted Kyle and me sitting next to each other against the opposite wall, and we grinned back at him. No one else seemed to recognize what he had just done, so Paul went on to the next operations report.

After the meeting, Kyle and I waited behind. Paul came up and gave us a grin. “Did you like that?”

“That was great!” I said. We complimented him on the excellent use of Rush lyrics to make his point. He had borrowed a line from the song “Freewill”, changing it from “I will choose freewill” to “I will choose free gas.”

“I thought you two would like that.” Paul knew that Kyle and I liked Rush, and he was also a fan.

“Ok, but next week I expect you to work a little Jethro Tull into the discussion,” I said. I don’t know why Jethro Tull popped into my head, probably some kind of loose association with Rush from the music I liked in high school and college. Paul laughed and left the room.

A week later, same meeting. A well recompletion report with some operational challenges. At the end of the discussion, Paul leaned forward and said “Guys, I’m just trying to avoid a bungle in the jungle.” Paul looked at Kyle and me with a big smile, and we cracked up. Every one else in the room wondered what was so funny.

Paul was very cool, it was a pleasure working for him.

(Adapted from the forthcoming professional memoir “Plugged & Abandoned”)

Perspective

I was laid off in March 1986, a casualty of falling oil prices and a downturn in the industry. This was incredibly stressful. A little over four years since graduating from college I was now unemployed and my wife was seven months pregnant with our second child.

The company provided decent severance benefits and “outplacement” services. These included the use of temporary offices, telephones with unlimited long distance service, and clerical support for typing resumes. They also arranged for a psychological counselor to conduct some group therapy sessions as many of us were reeling after the sudden loss of our jobs.

It has now been over thirty years since those outplacement counseling sessions, and I don’t remember much of what was discussed, with two exceptions. The counselor led the group in a couple of very useful exercises designed to help us understand and accept the proper perspective on our situation, and to remember what was most important in our lives.

She asked each of us to start with a clean sheet of paper and to draw a line down the middle of the page, top to bottom. At the bottom we were to label the end of the line with a zero, and at the top of the line we were to put our age (I was twenty-six). We were then directed to recall major events and meaningful experiences in our lives, such as key relationships, marriages, births, deaths, graduations, vacation trips, anything we thought was personally significant. We were to make tick marks and labels for these events in the appropriate place on our life time line. Each of us marked our page and we all included a tick mark at the top of the line just below our current age that was labeled “Laid Off” or “Terminated” or some other sarcastic (or profane) description for what had just happened to us the week before.

The counselor told us to look at our life lines and consider the nature of the events we had noted.  They had emotional impact at the time they occurred, but the significance and relevance for most of them had now faded.  They were still important memories but likely did not affect our current feelings and thoughts as they once did. They were now just part of our history.

She asked us to imagine the line extending up from the top of the page, and depending on our current age stretching two, three, or even four times its current length to represent our total life expectancy. The age at the top would now be 75, or 90, or 100. She encouraged us to think of the multitude of future significant life events we would experience and to mentally add them to our lines. Could we see that the tick mark representing the layoff was just one of many marks that would appear on our final life line? This exercise helped us gain perspective on the relative meaning of our recent job loss compared to the sum of our past and future life experiences.

For the second exercise she asked us to imagine that we had died at the end of our extended life line. She told us to write down what we would want to have inscribed on our tombstones to indicate that we had lived a successful life. We all gave it some thought and wrote our responses. After a few minutes we were surprised when she had each of us read our definition for success out loud to the rest of the group. There was a mix of answers. Many had to do with family: “He was a good father.” “Successfully raised three kids to be responsible adults.” Some were religious: “Lived a good Christian life.” A few were materialistic: “Traveled around the world” or “Retired rich and lived debt free.”

After all twenty-five of us read our descriptions of a successful life the counselor pointed out that not one of us had said anything at all about working for the company that had just laid us off. No one mentioned the oil and gas industry. Our definitions of successful lives had absolutely nothing to do with working as engineers or geologists or accountants. We all got it: she had helped us gain a reasonable perspective on what had just happened to us, that it was a big deal short term but was not going to define our lives forever going forward.

Stopping occasionally to consider the big picture is a valuable exercise that helps us maintain a healthy perspective in our lives.

(Adapted from the forthcoming professional memoir “Plugged & Abandoned”)

A Special Day

In the fall of 1981 I had lived and worked in Bakersfield for only about three months when I experienced the terrific advantages of living in the Golden State. Mark, a fellow reservoir engineer, had received free tickets from a service company representative for a Los Angeles Kings hockey game on Saturday night, November 14th. He invited me and his friend John to go. (John was a geological engineer but Mark invited him anyway.) Mark also suggested we drive to California City for a round of golf in the afternoon before driving to L.A. for dinner before the game. It was a great plan, and before the end of the week would get even better.

In April of that same year NASA successfully completed the first space shuttle mission, with Columbia making a spectacular first-time wheeled landing on the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base. This was a very big deal and an estimated crowd of 300,000 watched the historic event. Many people with RV’s set up camp days earlier to be in prime viewing location for the landing. After a perfect touchdown and a quick turnaround process which included a cross-country return to Florida mounted on the back of a reconfigured 747 aircraft, Columbia was scheduled for its second mission in October. Technical problems caused delays and the shuttle took off on Thursday, November 12, scheduled for five days in space.

A fuel cell failure caused the mission to be cut short, and the landing was rescheduled for early Saturday morning at Edwards after only two days in space. This landing would also be historic and popular, the first time a manned vehicle had been reused to enter space and return. Large crowds were again expected, particularly as the landing would occur on a Saturday.

Edwards AFB was about 85 miles from Bakersfield, and not far from California City where we planned to play golf that afternoon. Mark, John and I easily decided to add the shuttle landing to our plans, and we obtained a car pass from the Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce for access to the public viewing site. The plan was to leave very early on Saturday, drive to Edwards and watch the landing, drive to California City for golf, then on to Los Angeles for dinner and the hockey game.

Mark had a company car and was allowed to use it for personal use up to 200 miles from the office, so he was the driver for the trip. After leaving very early Saturday morning we were well on our way to Edwards when we heard a radio news report that the shuttle would make an additional three orbits for some reason and the landing would be delayed until early afternoon. We caught a lucky break; just as we heard this announcement we came to the turnoff for California City so Mark made a snap decision, executed a quick one-lane slide-across and took the exit. We would play golf first then head to the shuttle landing.

It was still dark when we arrived at the golf course and we waited a short while until the clubhouse opened. The pro shop guy let us shift our tee time, and we would be the first group to play as soon as there was enough light. It was very cool to be standing on the No. 1 tee box taking practice swings and watching a beautiful desert sunrise light up the virgin golf course laid out nicely ahead of us.

A few hours later we had finished our round and enjoyed cold beers standing by the car. I had brought a multi-band radio to listen to the live news broadcast during the shuttle landing. I tuned it to the air force band and we heard jet pilots aloft reporting that the winds were favorable. Columbia was cleared to land after completing its current orbit. We threw our clubs in the trunk and headed to Edwards. We cut it pretty close and a massive crowd was already in place as we were directed to park at the far end of the large parking area.

The public viewing area was bounded by several miles of temporary fencing and the crowd stood behind it, fifteen to twenty people deep. Farther back were numerous large RV’s with folks sitting on the roofs in lawn chairs ready with binoculars and cameras. Armed security staff patrolled along the fence in jeeps to keep people from going over the fence. Vendors had set up stands selling drinks, t-shirts and other shuttle merchandise. I purchased a souvenir coffee mug, thinking it would be a cool memento to display on the bookcase in my office.

columbia-1981

We walked forward as far as we could, somewhat disappointed to be at the very end of the viewing area but excited to see the landing. We listened to the news on my radio. The live broadcast originated from the base facilities on the opposite side of the dry lake bed, where NASA was set up and hosting various VIPs.

It was getting close to the scheduled landing time when the radio broadcaster announced they had heard the twin sonic booms caused by the shuttle’s approach. Mark, John and I looked at each other, we hadn’t heard anything. Several seconds later we heard the twin booms and we realized just how large the lake bed was that separated us from the news crews on the other side.

Someone yelled and pointed and we spotted the shuttle, a white speck high in the blue sky. It dropped very fast and circled, and we discovered we had caught a second lucky break that day. Due to wind speed and direction NASA switched the landing to an alternate runway. This caused the shuttle to make its approach very close to where we were standing. It was an incredible sight as it flew right in front of us at a high speed, maybe a hundred feet or so in the air. We had a perfect and thrilling view and then it was past. By the time Columbia touched down and rolled to a stop it was far out of sight.

We bolted for the car. Since we were last in we were also first out and hit the road ahead of the crowd, most of which would also be heading to the Los Angeles area. We made it to the city in time for a great Mexican dinner before parking at the Fabulous Forum for the Kings game.

Another lucky break: the free tickets were for excellent seats a few rows behind the glass close to the rink, in a section where the Forum staff took your food and drink orders and then delivered them right to your seats. We had a great time even though the Kings lost to Winnipeg 2-3. Two and a half hours later we were back in Bakersfield, the end of a fantastic day.

I read a lot of science fiction as a kid, and growing up during the Apollo missions I became a big fan of America’s space program. I remember exactly where I was when my family watched the first men land and walk on the moon. One of the reasons I chose engineering as a profession was an admiration for NASA and the engineers and scientists who made space exploration happen. The space shuttle was a massively complex machine with more than a million components that not only had to work, they had to work together in dozens of systems. I consider the space program to be emblematic of “true engineering” and seeing the space shuttle land at Edwards will always be one of my favorite life experiences.

Footnote: In writing this essay I discovered that my memories were partly wrong. Many times over the years I have thought about this special day and always remembered that we attended a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game that night, and I had a fuzzy memory that the opponent was the Houston Rockets. I decided to confirm that it was Houston and used Google to check the Lakers schedule in 1981. This was very easy to do, and I was able to confirm that the Lakers did play a game on November 14, 1981, but they were not at home, they were at Phoenix playing against the Suns. Huh.

Clearly I had made a mistake, and decided it must have been a Los Angeles Clippers game instead (perhaps against Houston?). I Googled the Clippers schedule for 1981. Yep, the Clippers had a home game that day against Indiana. The SAN DIEGO Clippers. The Clippers did not move to Los Angeles until 1984. Huh.

I did some more thinking, some more Googling, and finally realized that we attended a Kings hockey game that night, not an NBA game. Once I had that straight I remembered that it was my first time to attend a professional hockey game, and that we had great seats with the food and drink service. I had mixed up memories of later trips to L.A. to attend Lakers and Clippers games with the space shuttle landing trip.

Google also helped me “remember” that the Kings lost that night to the Winnipeg Jets 2-3. I had not remembered the outcome of the game but was not surprised to learn that the Kings had lost; they were mostly terrible during the years before Wayne Gretzky joined the team. Edmonton traded Gretzky to LA in 1988 (thanks again Google!) Just like the moon landing I remember exactly where I was when I heard this stunning news.  I was having lunch with my friend Buddy in a Pizza Hut in Taft, California and saw it on television.

It is interesting to think about the contrast in culture and technology from that day in November 1981 to this day in January 2017 as I write this post. We were listening to an FM radio station on the car stereo during the drive to Edwards, which interrupted with a “special news announcement” that the shuttle landing would be delayed a few hours. This was radio-worthy news in 1981, but certainly would not be a special bulletin today, except perhaps for specific Internet sites dedicated to space exploration and enthusiasts. By the end of the space shuttle program most people probably weren’t even aware when America had men and women in space.

At Edwards I used a multi-band portable transistor radio (a Christmas present several years earlier, thanks Dad!) to listen to the air force communications and the live radio news broadcast during the landing, holding it up high so my friends could hear it too. There were no smart phones delivering an Internet broadcast to your ear buds in 1981.

From transistor radios and space shuttles then to the Internet and Google today, I am very thankful for engineers and the technology they provide.

(Adapted from the forthcoming professional memoir “Plugged & Abandoned”)

31 Flavors of Career Guidance

I have worked for thirty-five years as a petroleum reservoir engineer because Phillip knocked the spigot off the Moa-Moa punch dispenser.

It was a hot July night in 1975, my high-school sophomore year, and I had a summer job in a small Baskin Robbins ice cream shop in east Tulsa. Phillip and I were handling the after-movie crowd, scooping orders from deep freezers containing exactly 31 varieties of ice cream and sherbets. We were in the “zone” that night, quickly dodging around each other, throwing up freezer lids and diving head first into the frosty air for a single dip of Baseball Nut, or a double scoop of Jamoca Almond Fudge. Sugar cone or regular cone? In a cup? Sure, you got it.

Phillip turned to the back counter and grabbed a double-scoop cup from the stack. As he rotated back toward the freezer the scoop in his hand banged into the Moa-Moa punch dispenser, knocking the spigot completely off and down to the floor.

Instantly opening the choke to the maximum setting (64/64ths) exposed the Moa-Moa reservoir to atmospheric pressure and Absolute Open Flow conditions, resulting in a glorious gusher with the unmistakable fragrance of tropical fruit. Without a blowout preventer the red-orange liquid splashed onto the floor in steady-state single-phase flow. (Note: Moa-Moa punch is a low-viscosity fluid and the effects of gravity drainage yield excellent production rates.)

Phillip was oblivious and went into the freezer for a scoop of Pralines and Cream. I saw it all happen, along with a dozen now-delighted customers, and sprang into action to contain the spill and mitigate surface damages. To control the flow I grabbed a three-scoop cup and held it under the nozzle. Flowing at an estimated rate of 73 barrels per day the cup filled up in 0.8 seconds and overflowed onto my hand. I yelled at Phillip, put the cup on the counter and grabbed another. Phillip finally figured out what happened and came over to help. For the next 45 seconds or so we treated our audience to a free performance of our loose interpretation of the classic “I Love Lucy” scene in which Lucy and Ethel cope with a runaway conveyor belt in a chocolate candy factory.

The Moa-Moa reservoir quickly depleted with an Estimated Ultimate Recovery of 99% of the OPIP (Original Punch in Place). The one percent residual saturation covered the bottom of the tank below the outlet. We had about a dozen cups of punch scattered around the back counter, and a reportable sticky spill all around the location. The customers gave us a nice round of applause.

Later while mopping up the mess I made a Serious Life Decision: I would not be pursuing a career in retail frozen-dessert sales. I had no idea, however, that the fluid properties and flow behavior I experienced that evening would be an integral part of my work and career for over three decades…

(Adapted from the forthcoming professional memoir “Plugged & Abandoned”)