Career Development

Perspectives on Career Transitions: Life Stories From Six E&P Industry Professionals

Six young professionals share the stories of the career transitions they have faced, the challenges involved, and the soft skills they used to succeed in them.

Sign post pointing to career, success, growth

Finding and starting a new career can be a fairly straightforward process for some or a daunting task for others. The transition may start in the mind when one begins to first foster thoughts about it. A significant change in direction, particularly when it breaks free of the status quo imposed by a peer group, often comes with its share of self-doubt lurking in the corner. However, when one does go through with the career transition, there are often rewarding results, although sometimes not in ways initially envisaged.

In this issue, the TWA Forum section in collaboration with the TWA Soft Skills section present to you six different perspectives on career transitions from the point of view of exploration and production professionals. You will read about how the transitions improved the careers and lives of the individuals, the motivation behind the change, and what had to be sacrificed to see it through. Read on to see how previous experiences help with career transitions, what sorts of resources were invaluable in managing the transition, and the soft skills that were relevant in ensuring that the career transition was a success.


Directing a Career: From Filmmaking and Physics to Engineering

Rodrigo Rueda Terrazas, Total E&P

I believe that one of my biggest professional transitions, which set me onto my current path, was switching from film and physics studies to petroleum engineering. In 2004, I was attending university in Florida. At the time, my plan was to complete the general engineering core curriculum in order to transfer to another university, and major in engineering physics. On top of that, I had a great desire to take some film classes in parallel.

Unfortunately, this combination was not possible at the school where I was registered, and as a result, I decided to transfer to Brazil and attend university in Rio de Janeiro. This transfer had its downsides, such as having to retake several of the core courses for engineering. However, on the upside, in Rio I was able to study physics during the day and film studies at night.

By 2009, I had completed my major in film studies, and had begun to realize some achievements related to it, such as directing, writing, and producing diverse short and medium-length films; cofounding a small independent film production company; and directing a full feature-length film. Furthermore, some of these films were selected for presentation at international film festivals such as Cannes, Clermont-Ferrand, Brazil National Cinema Awards, and others.

Nevertheless, as much as my film career developed, it also started to become clear that it was an unreliable career choice in Latin America in terms of job stability. In the same manner, after several semesters in physics, the questions of career stability started to arise. All of a sudden, I felt completely lost. Although I had pursued two different areas of study, none appeared to be a stable career choice, and instead of minimizing uncertainty I realized I was surrounded by it. I needed to rethink choices I had made years ago and determine ways to make the most of the time and effort I had already invested in my education.

Luckily, as a physics major, I had the advantage of being able to take several electives, which gave me the chance to study geology, geophysics, fluid dynamics, thermodynamics, and economics, all highly relevant for a petroleum engineer. In addition, and critical to my career transition, I learned about SPE, and attended a weekly fair organized by one of the local SPE student chapters. This event not only demonstrated to me all that petroleum engineering offered as a career path, but absolutely confirmed my desire to follow that path.

Several years have passed since then, and thanks to SPE, and my current employer, I can proudly say that I have found my true passion. What’s more, most of the knowledge I obtained in my previous studies has been extremely useful in my career as an engineer, such as problem-solving tools from physics, and project management experience from filmmaking. My experiences have shown me that all knowledge, regardless of the field, is relevant and useful for future development.

Rodrigo Rueda Terrazas joined Total Brazil in 2011 as an intern in the gas and power division, and then worked as a gas and power market engineer. In 2014, he joined the exploration and production division, in the planning and development sector of the Libra field. He graduated as a petroleum engineer from Universidade Estácio de Sá (UNESA) in Brazil, and is currently enrolled in Heriot-Watt University’s petroleum engineering master’s program. Terrazas has been involved with SPE since 2011 when he cofounded and became the first president of the UNESA student chapter. In 2014, he joined the SPE Brazil Section board as young professionals director, where he acts as young professionals committee chair. He received the SPE Regional Young Member Outstanding Service award in 2015. Terrazas acts as vice-coordinator of the Brazilian Petroleum Institute youth committee, from which he received the Professional of the Future award. He is currently an associate editor for the TWA Forum section.

The Value of Engineering in the Financial Sector

Shawn Faurote, Edward Jones

As an expatriate engineer who had lived in India with my family for 3 years, I had already gone through a substantial and rewarding transition in my career. Not only did I learn a great deal about food, culture, and language, but the posting also provided a wonderful perspective on the United States—my home country.

However, upon returning to the US, I began to reflect upon the possibility of yet another career transition; this time to a different industry, financial services. For years, I had considered the possibility of making this transition, as it would allow me to help both individuals and families to plan for meeting their own goals and aspirations, by helping them achieve their long-term financial goals.

When I worked as an engineer, I also worked as a mentor and manager for a global team. In this role, I was often challenged to make complex topics approachable and easy to understand. In a similar way, as a financial adviser, I am challenged to make complex investments straightforward and easily understood so that investors can take action. 

I have found in both of my careers that a good analogy is a powerful tool in helping customers and clients understand the potential risk and return that they are facing. Another thing I took from my previous career was that people, and engineers in particular, often try to substitute a lack of understanding of a concept with more data. This typically does not work; people often do not need more data, but instead they need to take the time to fully understand the data they do have.

There is a forest of challenges before the world today and engineers have a unique set of skills to assist with these problems, and not just in the standard engineering disciplines. Engineering attitudes toward problem solving, such as being willing to overcome the challenges that others are not with hard work and determination, are tools that cut many trees.

For any potential career transition, I think it is critical to understand the “why” before the “what” and “how.” It is the “why” that will sustain you for years and across different jobs, careers, and pursuits. The “what” and “how” can change to fit the situation. 

Shawn Faurote is a graduate of the Iowa State University with a BS in mechanical engineering. He served in various engineering and management roles for Halliburton in the US in Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico before taking an international assignment in Gurgaon, India, and later in Mumbai. Faurote returned with his family to the US in 2015 and is currently serving as a financial adviser for Edward Jones in Colorado.

Changing Continents and Careers at the Same Time

Samuel Ighalo, Halliburton

I have had several career and life transition experiences since I graduated from college but I would have to say that location transfer had made the most impact. Making the switch from one job to another within the same geographical region or country is sometimes as daunting as it is exciting; however, making a transition from one country to another without a job in hand is an entirely different proposition with far-reaching consequences.

Such was my situation when I made the decision to leave my job as a drilling engineer in Nigeria along with my family and friends in order to relocate to the US. The biggest motivation for my location transition was to join my fiancée at the time. She was just graduating from law school in the US and was making a decision as to where she needed to go next. After carefully evaluating all available options, we thought we would both be better served if we started our lives together in the US.

Thankfully, I had good family support during my relocation from Nigeria to the US. However, I did not have any prior experience on how to relocate to a new country and embrace a new culture. I experienced a cultural shock the moment I landed in the US. It was palpable and I knew from the very start I needed to jump-start my integration into this new culture. I looked for organizations that assisted new immigrants. I was led to Upwardly Global (a resource for skilled immigrants) based in San Francisco and other selected cities where I was coached on résumé building, professional networking, and job interviews. These sessions really helped and made it a lot easier for me to acclimatize quickly to the US work environment, and secure a new job in petroleum engineering.

I found that I had to utilize a great amount of soft skills to speed up my integration process in my new work environment. The soft skills that I utilized the most were adaptability, willingness to learn, understanding the culture, innovation, resilience, and networking. These skills were very invaluable to me during all of the transition phases I went through and even to this day at the workplace. Despite the challenges I faced, I still believe my career transition to the US was the best thing that happened to me.

In the US, there is a huge amount of competition for skilled jobs and this presents a challenge, albeit a positive one, for you to become excellent in your career. In order to stay ahead of the competition, you have to hit the ground running through hard work and dedication. At times, you may have to upgrade your skill sets either by pursuing an advanced degree and/or attending professional courses. It is a lifelong learning experience in order to keep progressing in your job and your chosen career.

I feel that anyone can make a successful career transition if they have a clear understanding of what they want, set and manage the right expectations, and have the resilience to deal with unknowns. Things might not always work out immediately the way they were planned. Instead of throwing in the towel, you should reassess and manage your expectations based on the current reality with your long-term goal in mind.

Samuel Ighalo joined Halliburton Energy Services in 2007 and is currently a senior drilling consultant with Halliburton’s consulting and project management division. He has more than 10 years of experience in well planning and drilling engineering. Most recently, Ighalo has developed expertise in advanced tubular design in deepwater and unconventional resource plays. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering with honors from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria, and a master’s degree in petroleum and project development with distinction from the Institute of Petroleum Studies, Nigeria. Ighalo recently completed a master’s degree in petroleum engineering (smart oilfield technology option) from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. He is a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and an editor for the TWA Forum section.

The First Career Transition

Aman Gill, Nexen ULC

Having been hired as a new graduate employee for the same company where I had done a student term, I was looking forward to coming back and also wondering what new challenges awaited me. Looking back at my brief but busy full-time career, I realize that the road has been both challenging and rewarding. My career and life have already improved dramatically since I started working full time, as growing responsibility at work has strengthened many of my soft skills both in and out of work. As my responsibility has grown, I have been given more tasks which have bolstered my organizational skills such as learning to prioritize daily tasks. I have learned to be a team player who seeks continual feedback and support from both technical and nontechnical coworkers in solving operational problems and contributing positively to the key results of the company.

The main challenge that I have faced in transitioning to a new graduate role from my previous student role has been the realization that my development is not just for a finite 16-month term but rather for my entire career. In line with this, I have learned to be keen on seeking senior mentors at work, both for career mentorship and in supporting me in tackling and solving challenging operational problems.

Working in a technical team and implementing recommendations with operations and maintenance teams has strengthened my communication skills and flexibility in receiving feedback. My role has sparked my interest in learning the elements of a variety of other disciplines, which helps me in achieving my daily tasks, be it by using maintenance software or reading instrumentation manuals.

To students transitioning into the industry as new graduates, the advice I offer to you is to be tenacious in seeking to improve the efficiency of your organization. Make an effort to understand and fit into the culture of the company, and make sure you align your goals with the goals of your team. Understand how your role fits into the company and how you can add value. Seek out senior coworkers to provide assistance to you when required, and always, always ask questions.

Aman Gill graduated from the University of Calgary in 2014 with a major in chemical engineering and a minor in petroleum engineering. After a 16-month internship at Nexen’s Long Lake facility in 2012, he returned to the site as an engineer-in-training in an operations engineering role in 2014. Gill is the lead editor of the TWA SPE 101 section. He has also served as the president of the University of Calgary SPE Student Chapter in 2014.

A Career That Takes You Places

Onyeka Ndefo, Total E&P

Moving from one location to another has been a major transition that has impacted my career. In the course of my employment, I have moved from field offices to head offices, changed locations within my home country of Nigeria, and then moved to countries outside of Nigeria before returning in 2014.

In 2011, I was asked to move from Lagos, Nigeria, to The Netherlands. At this time, my wife and I had two children and my wife was expectant with another. In addition, my wife had been working for 5 years and when this opportunity came up, we saw that for it to work that she would have to quit her job. They say that kids adapt quicker than the adults for changes like this, and that was exactly what happened. They had a smooth transition. When we got to The Netherlands, the challenge of finding employment proved to be frustrating for my wife. However, she decided to take advantage of the transition and used it as an opportunity to go back to school.

My transition was different than that of the rest of my family. I was going to be doing a similar role as a geologist in The Netherlands as I was doing in Nigeria, albeit with a different context. In addition to the technical differences I experienced, I also had to adapt to the pace of work in my new location, as it was a smaller affiliate of my company, and was thus slower paced than what I had experienced in Nigeria.

My family and I lived in The Netherlands from 2011 to 2013. Afterward, we moved to the head office of my employer in Pau, France. I joined a team that was looking into service quality on a global scale. That involved less technical work than I had previously been doing, but I worked autonomously, incorporating information from affiliates.

The biggest issue with this career transition was the change in culture. Although I speak French fluently, I found that speaking a language is different from understanding its culture and society. It can be quite overwhelming, and I found this the most difficult career transition I faced. However, thankfully, there was an international school in Pau and a vibrant Nigerian community so the transition was made easier for my children and wife.

Upon moving back to Nigeria, my wife and I were surprised that the transition did not go as smoothly as we expected, given that we were moving back to our home country. As our children had progressed a great deal through the Western educational system, their education was not focused on the same concepts as the Nigerian educational system. As a result, my wife had to provide extra guidance to our children with their homework, and they had to spend additional effort learning some topics that they were not previously exposed to. However, at the end of it, they adapted, and their hard work paid off.

I have found that there are certain soft skills that can help you to manage career transitions. If you are new to a location or group, you need to be patient and demonstrate respect for those that are there already. You can certainly have your views, but be open minded, ready to adapt, and appreciate that not everyone will see things the way you do. Being able to communicate effectively and efficiently is critical. You also need to understand what the group does and how it can achieve the common goal of the organization.

For anyone considering a career transition, I would encourage you not to be afraid. But recognize that transitions by definition, never really last for a long time. Try and appreciate your transition. You are often most challenged then, not to stress you but to test you. The test could bring out the best or worst in you. It is an opportunity to be a better person and a better professional. If there is a cultural change (due to the country, or the work itself), immerse yourself in the culture of the new environment.

Above all, enjoy any transition. There are a lot of opportunities to enjoy in a new environment and during the change. It is not the time to be closed in. It is a great opportunity to meet people, especially people outside your technical sphere, for at some point you may end up working together. Looking back on it, the career transitions I went through were formative for my development as a professional and in my progression within my company. They were moves I needed to make.

Onyeka Ndefo has a bachelor’s degree in geology from the University of Nigeria and an MSc in petroleum geoscience from the University of Manchester. He has worked at Total E&P for more than 10 years, starting in 2004 as a wellsite geologist for the Niger Delta. Ndefo then moved to operations geology and worked on a variety of major deepwater projects for Total. Currently he works as a manager for deepwater operations geology. Ndefo is married with three children.

Striking a Balance Between Career and Family

Jane Norman, Santos

My career transition from full time to part-time work was triggered by starting a family and then taking on a new role at a different company. Prior to having children, I had worked full time for nearly 10 years.

Working part time keeps you in the workforce during the years your children are young and you wish to spend more time at home. It might feel like you are putting your career development on hold, but part-time work, and flexible working arrangements, allow you to keep your skills up-to-date. In addition, it lets you decide when you are ready to increase your work commitments. 

It can be challenging working part time if your organization has a full-time culture. The more senior you are, the more challenging this can be.  The lack of “full-time hours” can be wrongly perceived as a “lack of commitment” during the hours at work. The onus really falls on the employee to take ownership and demonstrate they are 100% committed, regardless of the hours they put in.

The soft skills you need to make a transition to part-time work are really the same skills that make you an effective member of any team: strong communication, trust, consideration of others, personal integrity, and being very clear on priorities. Flexibility and transparency are key, both for you and your employer. There will be times when you have deadlines and need to stay late to finish work, and times when you need to reschedule a meeting to take care of a sick child. 

To paraphrase an interview published in the 2015 April issue of Vogue Australia between Australian author Anna Funder and actress Cate Blanchet, “my family and career are mutually supportive and inspiring and I can’t imagine life another way. ... Children have expanded my world and my understanding of human nature more than I could have known, to say nothing of my limitations and failures. ... Children teach one about compromise. They are spirited, passionate, political, and demanding.” All these are skills we need to hone for the work place.

My advice to someone considering a career transition to part-time work: Be clear with your employer on what you are and are not prepared to do so you are both on the same page. Be willing to accept opportunities and challenges which might appear daunting. You can usually adapt your childcare and home situation to make things work. Remain engaged in your career when you have children; do not cut off options, and you will be amazed at what you are actually capable of.

Jane Norman completed her chemical engineering degree in France and joined Shell International E&P in The Hague as a process engineer. After 3 years with Shell UK E&P on the graduate engineering program, working offshore on the Brent field redesign project, operations at the St Fergus gas plant, and in facilities optimization in Aberdeen, Norman transferred to a commercial role with Shell UK in London with responsibility for developing agreements relating to the southern North Sea fields. After leaving Shell, she held corporate finance and equity capital market roles for several years with Cazenove & Co. and Goldman Sachs, where she specialized in the oil and gas sector. In 2005, Norman joined Santos and moved to Adelaide, Australia, where she has been the manager of strategy and planning since 2011. In that role, she has responsibility for developing the company’s corporate strategy as well as oil and liquefied-natural-gas market analysis. Norman is married and has three daughters.