Career Development

Choosing Your Side of the Table

Linda Ames reflects on how she has moved between operating and service companies during her career and provides advice on choosing the right path for you.

Business woman

More than 25 years ago, I sat at a table across from a petroleum engineer for an interview with a major E&P company. I was graduating with my bachelor of science in geophysics, and like all new graduates, I had very high expectations for my first “real” job. I sat up straight in my chair, listened eagerly, and tried at every opportunity to ask intelligent questions. Little did I know, this very conversation would shape many of my future career decisions.

The invitation to write this article forced me to reflect on past experiences and examine their outcomes. It made me remember the interview, which I had all but forgotten. In the early 1980s, E&P jobs were the most coveted. The perception was that only the students with the best grades could work for the E&P companies. Other students, those whose grades weren’t quite as strong, were destined to work for a service company. An E&P company would provide on-the-job and classroom training, formal career development, challenging assignments, and a big paycheck. A service company would send you to faraway places, pay you very little, and work you to death. The distinction was clear. Beyond this perception, I really had no idea what it would mean for me if I went to work for either type of company.

The interviewer used the following analogy to explain the difference. He started by asking me to imagine owning a house (a challenge at the time, considering I could barely afford the new apartment where I had just moved). He went on to describe how a homeowner, though somewhat knowledgeable about all its parts, would not be an expert in any one thing. The owner could turn the doorknob and open the front door, switch the lights on and off, and run hot water for a bath. But it was the locksmith who could install the door locks and ensure they functioned properly; the electrician who could wire the house safely and effectively; and the plumber who could route the pipes throughout the house to ensure proper water flow. The owner had the financial responsibility for the house and the decision-making power to call out various contractors when needed. But the locksmith, electrician, and plumber provided essential services crucial for the continued proper functioning of the house.

The oil and gas business is structured in much the same way. E&P companies own the asset (in this case, the reservoir), and service companies provide specialized services that keep the asset functioning. At the end of his story, the interviewer told me that I would need to “pick a side of the table” on which to sit (E&P or service company) and be prepared to stick with my decision for my entire career because it would be virtually impossible to get a job with an E&P company after having worked for a service company. This was my introduction to the different roles of E&P and service companies.

Without really understanding his point or how it applied to me, I (unconsciously) took his advice and chose to sit on the owner’s side of the table. Upon graduation, I accepted a position with an E&P company that would keep me in southern California for the next 10 years. During this period, I was exposed to all aspects of the E&P business. I succeeded in developing a strong technical base by working as a geologist and as a production and reservoir engineer. My experiences included everything, from gauging meters to reservoir-simulation studies. I became an expert in petroleum-engineering software applications and eventually was promoted to area manager. I also began graduate studies in petroleum engineering. Throughout all this, I interfaced daily with contractors who supported this huge operation, and I became quite sure that I had picked the “right” side of the table.

But by the end of the first 10 years of my career, I found myself unhappy and dissatisfied. I was restless. I wanted more career development and exposure to different types of businesses. An important outlet for me at the time was our local SPE chapter, as it provided a forum where E&P companies came together with service companies for technical exchange. This experience gave me a different perspective about working for a service company. I was intrigued by their work flexibility, level of responsibility, and expert knowledge. I began visualizing myself sitting on the other side of the table!

This became a reality when I was presented with the opportunity to work for an oil and gas consulting and training company. The role involved extensive travel; teaching courses for US and international E&P companies. I developed new skills in networking, knowledge of how to run a business, and deeper understanding of various industry-related subjects. After a couple of years, I transferred to the company’s software unit, leading the sales and marketing group. The role required that I have a sound technical background to understand customer needs, as well as leadership skills to manage a piece of the business. I really enjoyed calling on clients around the world and raising their awareness about how to transform a part of their business. Making a “sale” was very rewarding, too! This experience was heightened when a leading oilfield services provider purchased the software company where I worked. Overnight, our engineering product line had access to an extensive corporate structure, vast resources, and technology research and development (R&D). The service I could now provide had expanded substantially!

When the time came for me to move on to something different, it took a couple of attempts by a major E&P company to convince me. My “position at the table” was less clear than ever.  But this E&P company recognized that I had skills and knowledge valuable to its organization. I made the move and have not looked back since. I have now been with this company 12 years. Along the way, I have experienced several mergers and quite a few ups and some downs. I’ve managed technology projects, spent a year working in our corporate headquarters, led an information-technology business, and managed a supply-chain team. I was exposed to our downstream retail and refining businesses and am now providing reservoir-engineering support to a clean-power project in California that will capture produced CO2 emissions and inject them for CO2 enhanced oil recovery and sequestration. I have truly come full circle in my career.

Without intending to, I have proven the interviewer wrong! It is possible to have a successful career working for both a service company and E&P company. As you make career decisions, “picking a side of the table” is the last thing you should do. Although we might make career decisions based on things such as salary or job location, it is more important to know yourself so that you can choose a close fit between who you are and the work that you choose to do. Take the time to understand the things you are good at, what you enjoy doing, your values, and the aspects of work that are really important to you (challenge, travel, technical subjects, people, recognition, etc.). Only then should you pick your seat at the table.

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there,” wrote Lewis Carroll. To help you decide whether an E&P or service company is the right fit for you, here are my observations:

  • E&P and service companies compete with each other for the best talent. I’ve had the great thrill to work with the smartest and most innovative people in both types of companies.
  • Every company has a specific culture that includes how people are trained. I’ve received on-the-job training and formal training from both E&P and service companies. My experience is that on-the-job training is almost nonexistent in today’s environment; it’s just on the job. You are expected to deliver from day 1, regardless of your level of experience.
  • Career development or advancement occurs fastest when you take control of your career. I used to believe that it was my company’s responsibility to “develop” me. I’ve since learned that it is my responsibility and that I need to reflect continuously on my career goals, whether they are still valid, and how to go about achieving them.
  • R&D at a service company is an integral part of their long-term strategy and always includes implementation. E&P companies tend to focus R&D on short-term progress that supports business delivery and portfolio needs, though this is changing with many E&P companies now moving toward long-term research to strengthen their industry positions or to fill market technology gaps.
  • With a sound technical base, it is possible to succeed as a generalist in either an E&P or service company, but the majority of people are technical or business experts.
  • E&P and service companies rely on each other for success. Remember, a house wouldn’t be much of a house without the locks, electricity, and plumbing.

Linda Ames is appraisal lead, Carbon Management Business Unit, BP Alternative Energy, Houston. She has worked more than 12 years with BP and held various leadership positions in E&P Technology, Supply Chain Management, upstream and downstream information technology, and in the Gulf of Mexico Business Unit. In an oil-industry career of more than 25 years, Ames has been involved in strategic planning, digital technologies, project management, and production and reservoir engineering. Before joining BP, she worked for Schlumberger, OGCI, and the City of Long Beach, California. Ames holds a BS degree in geophysics from California State University. She has received the SPE Young Member Outstanding Service Award and is a Distinguished Member of SPE.