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Interview

Schlumberger NAL Drilling President Stephanie Cox on OFS Challenges, Workforce Retention, and Digital Change

Interview conducted by TWA Editors Bruno Rivas, Esther Umeh, and Thomas Shattuck

Stephanie Cox is president of North America Drilling, a position she assumed in May 2018. Prior to her current role, she was vice president of human resources for Schlumberger and held various management positions, including president of North America, president of Asia, vice president of human resources, GeoMarket Manager for Gulf of Mexico, human resources manager for North and South America, and global oilfield services information technology manager.

Earlier in her Schlumberger career, Cox held various leadership positions in human resources, manufacturing, and supply chain services in multiple technology centers. She began her career with Schlumberger in 1991 in the supply chain organization. Cox holds a BA in materials management from Michigan State University.

Cox has served as a board member on the Schlumberger Foundation and founding member of Schlumberger’s Connect Women, and serves on the AWTY International School Board of Trustees.

The Way Ahead team spoke with Cox on a range of issues, including the challenges facing the oilfield services (OFS) industry, how these companies can better manage their workforces, and the opportunities that new digital technologies hold for drilling and completions. We also got her views on how young professionals can best navigate a dynamic and cyclical industry like oil and gas.

Oil and Gas Industry Trends

We have seen consolidation in the US upstream sector, particularly in the Permian. How do you think this will affect US shale development? Do you expect that we will see similar deals among OFS companies active in shale?

Shale production is expected to continue at a steady pace even with the volatility in the market. There are many financially strong producers who can benefit from opportunities with companies who have weaker financials. Companies today are focused on increasing cash flows and earning returns for their investors. Companies are selling acreage and assets to generate needed cash which in this cyclical market is a benefit to the buyer who may not have had as easy access otherwise. This is one of the many challenges in the cyclical market for both the operators and oilfield service companies.      

What are the biggest challenges still facing US shale? What technologies are on the horizon that can tackle these obstacles?

As companies are more focused on their bottom lines, they need to continue to produce. Tight investment budgets and the demand for shareholder return have required our customers to seek further improvements in both drilling efficiency and increasing well productivity. From the drilling side, this has been achieved through pad drilling to boost efficiency, longer laterals to increase reservoir contact, and faster drilling speeds to lower drilling times. These drilling trends drive the need for new technologies to deliver the capability, performance, and efficiency required. Rotary Steerable technologies are key to drilling faster in longer laterals where conventional drilling motors are challenged to reduce drilling times and to drill smoother boreholes for improved efficient well completion. Also, drill bit technologies with 3D cutter elements have proved to be a step change in innovation, with specialized bits for targeted applications. Each shape is developed with unique modeling software that can design and select the right bit for the right formation.

How can OFS companies better develop their talent and manage their workforce?

It begins with recruiting from top universities and providing training from the start. Schlumberger has for decades recruited fresh out engineers from universities throughout the world to develop the talent where we work. Providing exciting challenges and giving early responsibility helps with workforce development and exposure. Even during the cyclical downturns of our industry, it is important that the service companies continue to recruit and develop talent. If you are focused on the longer term, you cannot have a boom-bust cycle of stop-and-go with talent management. Our industry also needs to change our image with the new generation, who are often not aware of the astonishing progress and achievements we have made, and the critical role of technology in the industry. We need to highlight how they can contribute to developing innovative technologies that aim at efficiently producing energy resources while lowering environmental footprint.

Reducing costs, uncertainty, and development time has been critical during the price downturn. How can service companies create value for their clients in US shale and elsewhere in the current business environment?

Service companies have supported the price downturn significantly by reducing prices and almost to an unhealthy extent. The real value is when the service company and operator can work together to achieve the desired goals. Traditional approaches of soliciting tenders for discrete services has become increasingly inefficient and expensive for operators to manage and often fails to boost efficiency.  As the pace and complexity of operations have grown, we need to integrate services in field operations at the well site, as well as technologies and engineering workflows back in the office. The ultimate integrated operation would be one in which both parties—oil and gas company and service provider—are fully aligned and work together as one.

Big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence are all common buzzwords in the industry today. What applications do you see for them in drilling and completions process?

Digital technologies can provide massive opportunities for our industry.  They can help transform how we operate, optimizing pretty much any aspect of what we do, and will also attract a young and IT-literate demographic into the industry. In drilling and completions, we have been collecting data for years, but we have not done this on the scale of big data, nor in a form that is easily digestible.  As we add more sensors and capture more data at the rig in a consumable and consistent manner, the applications for improvements will cover every aspect of what we do.

For example, several years ago, we started to equip downhole tools with multiple sensors to capture tool performance data. Based on results, we’ve modified our maintenance schedule to be driven by the tool’s health rather than a set time or usage schedule. This has increased tool reliability, performance, and utilization.

More generally, major efficiency gains can be made in planning and operations by using modern digital technologies to enhance workflow integration. Gathering all of the data into a single environment fully enables collaborative domain workflows that are then executed in accordance with a digital well plan. These solutions include automated designs so repetitive tasks are removed and designs can be optimized. These applications allow for better planning and help to drive procedural adherence. As more wells are drilled, and new data is added to the plans, the use of intelligent automation, machine learning, and data analytics will be integrated into these workflows and the future programs can learn from prior experience. As a result, you can drill and complete better wells more efficiently leading to sustainably lower development costs.

Personal Experience and Career Advice for Young Professionals

While the oil price environment has improved in the last few years, the industry remains challenged. How can young and mid-career professionals adapt to the cyclical and often volatile industry?

The past few years have indeed brought a lot of challenges. I experienced a cyclical downturn within the first year of joining the oil and gas industry and wondered if I had made the right career choice. Each industry has its own challenges. The up and down cycles in our industry bring opportunities and the best way to adapt to change is frankly to embrace it and not be afraid of it. It allows you to learn and grow. Our industry constantly seeks innovative ways to find, extract, and produce the hydrocarbons our society needs. Technology will always be a key part of these cycles, which will require talented engineers who can continue to invent and discover new applications to meet the challenges. 

How can companies like Schlumberger best attract diverse talent?  What are some solutions to increase the number of women in oil and gas and other STEM industries?

At Schlumberger, we want to be the best at what we do in our industry and therefore attract the best talent. Our recruiting and training programs reflect that. At the same time, like other service companies, we are challenged with competing with other high-tech industries outside of oil and gas. Maintaining our recruiting programs, relationships with Universities, and recruiting where we work around the world is an important element. Career development is a cornerstone in Schlumberger and we find that some graduate students will change companies more than 10 times in their career. In Schlumberger, you can have 10 different opportunities all within the same company.

Collectively as an industry we need come together to continue to promote the exciting careers available in oil and gas. This is for both men and women. Increasing the number of women in oil and gas starts with increasing the number of women graduating from engineering programs, which still hover around 20%. This starts in at the junior high and high school levels. Many companies, and professional societies alike, are quite active in sponsoring various programs to improve this attraction and connection. This needs to continue with great enthusiasm for the long term.

What experience has contributed the most to your personal and/or professional growth?

There is not only one experience but a collection of experiences that have shaped my professional and personal growth. Early in my career, Schlumberger has provided me unique opportunities that no other company could match. The company took risks by giving me stretch roles by which I brought different skill sets. This at times was uncomfortable when you don’t have all the formal training but also very exciting as well. It taught me about the importance of taking risks, listening, and bringing the best out of the people that you work with and lead. There was a lot of on the job learning and being able to work with many different people of both professional and cultural backgrounds were key ingredients for success. Working in different parts of the company from manufacturing, functional support roles, and operations and in different countries has also helped me have a broader view and ability to contribute more to the company’s success.

What has changed the most in the industry since you joined, and what is your advice for young professionals who are just joining the industry today?

The speed at which technology has advanced has been the most visible and beneficial change. Access to information from anywhere in the world and the ability to share and collaborate has had a significant impact. My advice to young professionals is to take advantage of learning and to take risks outside of comfort zones to benefit from the various technologies available. Learn as much as you can from others that you work with and ensure that you are contributing significantly and always aim to exceed the expectations of yourself and others.

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