An industry as magnificent as oil and gas shines brilliantly because of the people who make it grand. It’s just amazing to note that despite all the turbulence, the people in this sector just refuse to give up. Talk about oil price crash, layoffs, geopolitical strife, recession, trade wars, and the corona pandemic too. People have represented extraordinary courage and resilience. Amid this backdrop, every individual has a story – a story that contributes to the growth of the oil and gas industry, and a journey that inspires great actions. In our Stories That Inspire series, we have with us Mr. David Vaucher, an Associate Director in IHS Markit’s Cost & Technology group. In an exclusive conversation with Energy Dais, Mr. David shares his eventful journey in the world of oil and gas.
In Conversation with David Vaucher
What motivated you to join the oil and gas industry?
I’ve been exposed to oil and gas my entire life, but funnily enough, I didn’t really have any inclination to join the industry until after university, at which point that motivation came on quite suddenly.
My father worked in finance for Schlumberger during the entire time I saw him building his career. When I was growing up, I was aware he was in oil and gas but didn’t think much of it, it was just “the thing my dad did”. If I’m being completely honest, I may even have found it a bit boring: “put hole in the ground, get oil, right”?
Clearly, I was young and naïve, and it’s with some embarrassment that I say this attitude carried over to university: despite many of my mechanical engineering classmates at Rice University going into oil & gas after graduation in mid-2006, I had somehow been convinced myself that a career as an engineer just wasn’t that exciting, or at least not as exciting as a career in consulting, so that’s where I started. It turned out that I only had to find out a little bit about the oil & gas industry to change my mind and become hooked.
It was in mid-2007 that I started to realize that, actually, I did miss engineering quite a bit. I was looking to use and develop my technical knowledge, and since I was living in Houston and my family had a history in the industry, I thought “sure, why not, I’ll try oil & gas”.
In any given career, timing and luck will always play a role, and sure enough, this was right around the time shale development was taking off and natural gas prices were very high. Looking back, it almost seemed that if you had an engineering degree and a pulse you would be considered, especially with regards to service companies; surely enough I received multiple interview offers quite quickly, one of which was with…Schlumberger also!
The company flew a group of candidates out to one of their locations in Colorado and started the process off with a presentation of the types of jobs they did, and I remember being instantly – honestly, it was instantly – hooked.
The equipment looked amazing, the lifestyle looked exciting, and most importantly this seemed to be just about the most ideal opportunity I could hope for to become a “hands-on” engineer.
And that was it, from that orientation presentation onwards I’ve been in the oil & gas business.
What is that one thing about this industry which interests you the most?
There are numerous aspects about the oil & gas industry that I find interesting and rewarding, such as the opportunities to see the world, work with very diverse groups of people, and build skills that go well beyond whatever job function you were originally hired to do. As I mentioned earlier, though, what I find most fascinating about the business is the machinery and technical achievements that have enabled the production of hydrocarbons.
Think about hydraulic fracturing, or a deep-water floating rig, or an ice-breaking vessel. These are all awe-inspiring, a testament to the things that humans can do and build when faced with a problem, and as a mechanical engineer I can’t think of anything more exciting than that.
In fact, I originally chose that academic path to work on something like cars, airplanes or rockets, but the oil & gas industry also provides so many opportunities to work on and with amazing machines!
In your book Drilling Ahead: Your Guide to Starting, Building, and Securing a Career in the O&G Industry, you mention: “What you may not know is that the industry has quite literally shaped my life.” We would love to know how.
I was gently going to work in a plug for my book, but you beat me to it, thank you!
Whenever I step back and think about just how much the industry has shaped me, I can confidently say that it’s been the entirety of my life, starting even before I was born.
My father started his career as an auditor and met my mother while he was staffed at an oil & gas company she worked for. From the moment I came into being (in Singapore!), I started life with the huge advantage of being in a financially stable family of diverse, international backgrounds where speaking two languages was common.
From that point, I was able to travel the world and go to international private schools which in turn was a huge advantage in making me a serious, well-rounded student who could go on to have a rewarding future career. In hindsight, I had an upbringing that very, very, very few people get to have – my wife teaches in a public school and the stories she tells me almost daily remind me of how lucky I have been – and it absolutely shaped the person I have become.
From a career standpoint, despite not initially thinking I would go into oil & gas, of course I did shortly after graduation, and since then I’ve been granted even more opportunities that have shaped me further: the chance to become a better engineer and manager, the chance to see many different countries and meet many diverse colleagues, and of course the chance “just” to earn what I think is a very good living.
So yes, overall my life has been almost completely shaped by the opportunities granted to my family and me by the oil & gas industry, and I do my best to be grateful for them every single day.
According to your experience, how do you see the industry changing? Particularly in terms of workforce.
Let’s get this out of the way: my own view is that climate change is real and that the burning of hydrocarbons is a contributor. For me, that’s not up for debate, it’s a fact-based assertion.
However, we have to be pragmatic and recognize that as with nearly everything in life, the issues aren’t black and white. We have to recognize that a) hydrocarbons have helped societies and individuals progress, so there have been benefits with the costs (see my own career!), b) the use of hydrocarbons will not and CANNOT stop overnight, but c) the world is facing a climate crisis which needs to be addressed and that will/has to involve moving away from fossil fuels towards other sources of energy.
So, while all industries are having to face aggressive changes faster and faster than ever, the oil & gas industry in particular is facing what I believe is a looming, existential set of changes, and I do believe that the currently more-junior slice of the workforce has a huge role to play in facing that paradigm shift.
Even though we don’t talk about “The Great Crew Change” as much anymore, a big takeaway from this was that new entrants to the industry were going to have to get up to speed faster and become as cross-functional as possible, thus allowing companies to do more with fewer people. I believe these demands will continue to be placed on new employees and honestly, responding to them just makes good career sense: the more versatile you are, the more value you can create, and the more opportunities will come your way.
I think the big change for today’s workforce is that now we all have to be responsible ambassadors for the business and responsible stewards of the environment, perhaps even more so than others because of the fact that we do work in oil & gas.
For me, that means working with complete integrity at all times, acknowledging the fact that society will, out of necessity, move away from oil & gas at some point (this is happening as we speak), and living responsibly with respect to your own carbon footprint.
I’m actually really optimistic about this, because many of the new colleagues I meet ARE aware of both the industry’s costs and benefits and try as best they can to balance their careers with their obligations as global citizens and stewards of Earth.
Having said that, there are many very bright young people now who have plenty of other options – Amazon, Google, Tesla, SpaceX, BCG, entrepreneurship, just to name a few – who have in fact said to themselves “you know what, I want nothing to do with oil & gas as a career”.
So, to turn your question regarding workforce around somewhat, oil & gas companies also face their own set of challenges:
- Convincing new and current recruits that they can work for them while still staying true to their ideals and beliefs.
- Keeping up with the demands generally that Millennials and increasingly Gen Z have of a workplace: flexible hours, working remotely, continuous efforts to improve workforce diversity and provide equal opportunities, training options, etc.
You have taken up such diverse roles in the industry – Business Analyst, Field Engineer, Technical Advisor, Consultant and so on. Which role have you enjoyed the most and why?
I should start by saying that regardless of whether or not I enjoyed these roles, I learned from each and every one of them, and indeed any time I was considering a switch to something else (that happened often…), the question I always asked myself was: will you learn something from this?
No matter how hard the job turned out to be, if I could look back on it and say “I learned something”, then the struggle was worth it (and as with most things in life, the harder the job, the greater the lessons…).
I can honestly say that I’ve never been more professionally happy than I am today at IHS Markit. It’s been a journey to get here but it was worth it.
The company is very diverse, has an enormous – I would go so far as to say uncommon – respect for work-life balance, and employs extremely bright, caring people. Within that framework, my own role allows me near-complete professional freedom, I have earned a good deal of respect from my peers, and I’m proud to work with a team that is exceedingly capable and ethical.
Tell us a little about your time on the field. What was a typical day at work like?
I started out in cementing, and the joke among crews was that “cement only hardens at night” because we only seemed to work when the sun was down! That’s the difficulty in describing a “typical day in the field”: the expression is almost an oxymoron, but there were a few common threads.
The trip to a location was almost always interesting since many of them were very remote; sometimes you were driving through a jungle, other times you were taking a riverboat to a shallow-water rig, and then one time in particular I was lifted with a crane from a barge to the platform.
Once you arrived there was always downtime, since operators would rather pay for standby than have a rig idling. I became good at fitting in study time (since I was working towards my MBA then) but I’ll be honest, this was the most frustrating part of field work for me: I’d get called out on short notice and miss something I cared about, only to end up waiting for hours, sometimes days before the job actually started.
Once the job did finally start, you crossed your fingers things would go well, in which case you could be finished in half a day or so. But, if a tool got stuck in the hole for instance (which happened more often than you might imagine…), you could be up for days trying to resolve the problem!
The silver lining was that while you would be cursing at yourself when things were going badly, once the job was over and you’d had some time to rest you could tell yourself that so long as the client ended up happy, the fact that there were difficulties meant you ended up learning much more than if things went well all the time.
I’m paraphrasing here, but the saying “smooth seas do not make a sailor” definitely applies to the field!
How are you looking at Oil and Gas 4.0?
I think the industry will adapt to the next few decades. It has done so before – take a look at the numerous boom and bust cycles of the past – and quite frankly it will have to, if only to keep attracting the best and brightest; after all, without people, you have nothing. What exactly the industry will look like in, say 2040 or 2050, I can’t say and will defer to some of my other colleagues in IHS Markit.
As for how I view this looming shift personally and how I approach it, I try not to get too caught up in any one specific view of change. Rather, I just always tell myself that some kind of change IS coming, and it’s up to me to be accountable to face it. That means continuing to build my skill set, to put my points of view out there, to meet new people and to say “yes” to opportunities that I feel could teach me something new.
I can’t predict the future exactly, but I believe that by doing these things I can set myself up as well as possible for whatever comes my way, whether that happens to be Oil & Gas 4.0, the Great Crew Change 2.0, or something else.
What would be your message to the young generation seeking a career in Oil and Gas?
Oil & gas is a business that employs professionals like any other industry, so the keys to success are pretty general. There’s only one oil & gas-specific piece of advice I can give, so I’ll start with that and then cover the rest.
- Early in your career, seek out as much field experience as possible. I’ve had many people ask me a question that goes something like “I’ve gotten an offer from a service company but I really want to work for an operator, should I take the offer or keep trying for an operator?”.
Every time, I’ll recommend the service position because doing so allows you to see where the rubber meets the road in oil & gas, and that experience is crucial as a foundation for the rest of your career. Indeed, being in the field regularly will allow you to gain responsibility quickly once you’ve proven yourself, it will give you credibility later on, and it will make you work in a team with people who may have very different backgrounds from you. If eventually you still want to make the leap to an operator, your time in the field can only help you!
I’m not going to tell you I don’t like the comfort of an office and regular hours now, but I attribute earning that privilege in large part to the time I spent in the field early in my career.
- The CEO of one of the last companies I worked for always used to say “hard work is your passport”. It’s a great saying that succinctly reminds me that you should do your best at whatever you are tasked with; eventually you will gain a reputation that will grant you the pick of opportunities.
- You don’t owe any company or anyone your health, life, morals, self-respect or dignity. Yes, occasionally you will have some periods where you have to work harder than usual to make things happen, there’s no getting around that. But any company that asks you to give up your health and life over the long-term, or compromise your morals and dignity at any time, is one that you need to run away from as fast as you can. Even if short-term rewards (money, stock, a title, etc.) seem to make the trade-off worth it, believe me, they’re not.
- Make the most of the early part of your career, but don’t necessarily put all your eggs in one basket by focusing solely on your job. I have the freedom now in my thirties to explore things outside of work because I have a great role I earned not only by doing well at my job, but also by hustling like crazy in my 20s.
This is the time for you to go back to school, learn as many skills as you can, and switch jobs when opportunities arise, even if there is some risk involved (such as joining or starting a startup).
- Always keep in mind that change is coming, faster and more aggressively than ever before, so you must adapt to keep yourself relevant. Even if you don’t believe (and you should…) that oil & gas is going to face heavy competition from renewables in the next decade, the reality is that our industry has always been cyclical.
So, if you start as a reservoir engineer and your goal is to be an even better reservoir engineer, what good will that serve you during the next bust when there is no work for any reservoir engineer? What good will that do you in thirty years when reservoir engineering as a profession might be obsolete, perhaps replaced by AI?
My point here is that you’ll start off with one responsibility which you SHOULD do well at, but pretty quickly you’ll need to learn new skills and combine them to turn yourself into a provider of value with a unique personal brand so that you’re never worried about finding that next opportunity.
- Life is a contact sport, and you should keep that in mind when it comes to finding that elusive “work-life” balance or happiness, generally.
It’s ironic that to find happiness would be so difficult, but you really do have to fight for it. For one thing, everyone’s view of happiness is different, and to be honest I’m not sure most people could even articulate what theirs is. So first you have to go through the work of finding what makes you happy and then you ALSO have to make that vision a reality…and remember that no one will do this for you!
It took me 14 years of hard graft, but I made it, and it’s amazing. I wish everyone could find the same contentment from their life and career as I do.
- BUILD YOUR NETWORK! I’ve gotten more opportunities from knowing the right people than submitting my resume online. Indeed, if you think that simply putting your head down and “being the best” at what you do will help you, you may learn a hard lesson when the next downturn comes.
How do you build your network? It sounds daunting but really it’s simple: if you proactively seek to become involved in things, you do good work, attend the occasional conference, help people, seek out help when you need it and just generally be a good person, you will build your network.
How do you look back at your journey in the industry? What are you looking forward to in the times ahead?
Wow, such simple questions with such difficult answers!
Looking back makes me think multiple things. First is just how fast time goes: I can remember the exact date of my first day as a professional as if it were yesterday, but then I think that I am closer than not to 40 years old now.
I also look back with a sense of pride. I’ve done a lot in those nearly 14 years, including taking the initiative to switch jobs when I felt I needed a change, going back to grad school twice (while working full-time both times and then paying off all the loans), and doing many side-projects such as taking online courses to teach myself how to program, writing the book mentioned above, writing an energy blog for my local paper, and leading the Society of Petroleum Engineers’ “The Way Ahead” magazine.
Beyond that, I look back with humility and gratitude. I am here because I worked hard, yes, but I am also here because I was at the right place at the right time, or I knew the right person/people, or I was working with other people who were so good they made me look good in the process (like my current team), or just simply because I was born into a very lucky set of circumstances. I believe that luck, timing, and other people’s help will continue to play a significant role in my future.
Speaking of my future and what I’m looking forward to, it’s a hard question to answer. I’m only 35 years old and I have a hard time imagining how I could be much happier: I have a beautiful wife, friends, family, health, a few nice things, a great job with great colleagues, hobbies, and time to enjoy those hobbies. What more could I possibly want and what more could there possibly be out there for me?
And yet…On one hand, I’m highly content and mindful of not falling into the trap of always wanting more, but on the other hand I’ve always got 1000 projects and goals on my to-do list!
Looking ahead, unlike in my 20s, I’m not sure that my career will be about accumulating professional achievements. Back then I had a huge chip on my shoulder to prove myself and overcome people’s preconceptions about age and lack of experience/aptitude, so I chased every diploma and qualification I could. Now, I just want to provide my company the best work I can and be a good, accountable teammate and if things happen, then great. If not, as long as my clients, company and colleagues are happy, I’ve done my part.
Personally, I’ve spent the last 14 years not just discovering what I want out of a career, but also figuring out what I like to do as a person, and what I’d like to say I did when my time here is up.
I’m somewhat obsessed with time, particularly how fast it passes and what’s left after. Since my focus has shifted away from career-only considerations, I think a lot about leaving my mark; I want to leave things behind that say “I was here in passing, but I left contributions that weren’t”.
That means writing as much as I can on topics that interest me, growing my (non-oil & gas podcast), helping people who come to me for advice, volunteering when the opportunities come up (another thing we do well at IHS Markit), becoming a better guitarist (maybe even writing a few songs), and building things with my hands whenever possible.
(Suggested Read: Managing Your Career during the Corona Outbreak)
If you had to describe your story in one word – what would that be?
(This is an excerpt from an exclusive interview with David Vaucher and Energy Dais reserves all rights of publication. The response was recorded before the world started feeling the full impact of COVID-19. )