HR Discussion

A Generalist vs. a Specialist

My life has been shaped by opportunities that were generated by talking to people and embracing change. My original goal was to be a professor. That changed because I asked one of my professors, Gene Simmons, a Texan, about getting a summer job. He suggested that I write a letter to a friend of his who worked for Shell. I was offered the job without a face-to-face interview. That summer job at Shell Development’s Bellaire research center in Houston changed my career goal. I saw how I could apply my education doing applied research on exciting problems.

I was fascinated by seismology, but the seismology professor I worked with at MIT, almost 40 years ago, did not see much point in educating women. He assumed women would become housewives. In contrast, the rock mechanics professor, William Brace, invested time in me and put me to work on an interesting problem. At Stanford, the rock mechanics professor, Amos Nur, was a great adviser for me, so I never went back to seismology. When I joined Mobil, I realized that they did not consider rock mechanics to be geophysics, so I ended up working as a petroleum engineer.

The first 15 years of my career at Mobil were at the research center, but I discovered that some of the best science and most exciting work were in tech service. The highlight of my research career was identifying the underlying reason why there was more natural gas in the Indonesian Arun field than originally estimated. I was responsible for core analysis and always inspected the cores. When the first new Arun core arrived, I was surprised to find that whole mud had penetrated all the way to the center of the cores. A filter cake had formed within the vuggy pores. Coincidentally, I had also just been responsible for purchasing Mobil’s first computed-tomography (CT) scanner. It was as if the core had drunk a barite milkshake. The CT scans dramatically documented the whole-mud invasion in both the new and old cores. I revised the core-analysis methodologies for the vuggy carbonate cores and in close collaboration with the drilling engineers developed a new coring fluid to minimize whole-mud invasion. The end result was that we proved an additional 2.2 Tcf of reserves and justified another liquefied-natural-gas train.

My next big leap was when I asked for a transfer out of the research center into Mobil’s Upstream New Business Ventures. Since I was well known as a core-analysis expert and had founded the Society of Core Analysts (SCA), I felt that I was hopelessly typecast as an experimentalist. I thought I knew what New Business did because I had worked with them as a core-analysis expert, but I didn’t. Inadvertently, I had excellent timing and I got transferred barely a week later. It was the start of a very steep learning curve in which I became proficient in economic evaluations and in country relationship building. I had successfully shifted from focusing on very narrowly defined issues to big-picture ones.

When the intent for Mobil to merge with Exxon was announced, I seized upon it as an opportunity to proactively determine my own future. Don Paul, the then chief technology officer at Chevron told me that he saw me as someone who could “reinvent herself.” He gave me the chance to do something I had never done before—be responsible for the corporate global climate-change policy. I couldn’t resist.

When Chevron and Texaco merged, Paul asked me what I wanted to do. I told him that I wanted to do something new and was made a venture capital executive in Chevron Technology Ventures. Since then I’ve taken on three new roles, each one distinctly different from the previous one.

Intellectually, the biggest influence on me has been my thesis adviser, Amos Nur. Nur taught me to be unafraid to cross discipline boundaries. He encouraged me to think for myself and to challenge previously accepted concepts. Challenging previously accepted work and concepts is not easy, but if you are sufficiently persuasive, you can have a big impact. I’m still working on learning how to be more effective in constructively challenging the status quo.

Aziz Odeh, who was a senior scientist at Mobil when I joined Mobil, had a big influence on my life. Without asking me, Odeh volunteered me for the Geology and Geophysics Committee for the SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition (ATCE). The committee chairman had to take an overseas assignment. Even though I had not attended any committee meetings, I was asked to represent the committee at the overall ATCE program committee meeting. The next year, I was made chairman of the committee and I went to Odeh to thank him for having volunteered me in the first place. Later, someone told me that I was the only person to ever thank Odeh for being volunteered. Whenever someone proposed me for a role within SPE, Odeh would support my candidacy. After I was selected, I would visit Odeh to ask him how to get Mobil’s approval. His general advice was, “Tell them you will do as much of it as possible on your own time and do that. It will get easier with time.”  That was difficult for a mother with two small children, but Odeh was right. Companies are more likely to support you in professional-society involvement if they see that you are willing to invest a significant fraction of your personal time.

Impact of Different Career Roles and the Big Picture

The more constraints you place on the type of positions you will accept, the more difficult it is to advance. The narrower your specialty, the fewer roles you can fill. A technical specialty that is cutting edge and the focus of management attention, a few years later becomes base business and loses its luster. Experts may not understand the value of incremental information in their area of expertise. When a generalist is named as the supervisor of experts, they may think it is wrong. It happens all the time, because the company values their broader perspective.

Whether you are an expert in a narrow area or a generalist you need the ability to continuously learn. The science or engineering discipline you study is not as important as having a good understanding of fundamental scientific concepts. Although students enjoy the applied classes, it is more important to get a good grounding in the basics. Leveraging the fundamentals, you can teach yourself any application.

To satisfy my information needs, I founded the SCA with Joel Walls because SPE wasn’t publishing detailed studies of importance to me as a core-analysis expert. SPE leadership needles me about creating a splinter society, but the success of SCA highlighted gaps in SPE’s coverage and helped motivate the creation of the technical sections and technical interest groups (TIGs). I am proud of crafting a solution to a real gap and that the SCA is thriving and holding meetings around the world. However, because I am no longer a core analyst, I haven’t been active in SCA or attended a meeting in more than 15 years. To move on, I had to leave some things behind.

Challenges and Opportunities for Young Professionals (YPs)

Young employees will find it more difficult to obtain company support to participate in professional-society meetings. Those employees who invest their own time in writing papers, serving on committees, and engaging in other professional-society work are more likely to be approved to attend. Think of it as a matching plan. The company wants to see you investing your personal time before providing “matching” company time and travel funds.  

Universities should focus on teaching students fundamentals. No matter how new or advanced the material is that the university covers, it will not be the cutting edge in a few years. You must be prepared for a lifetime of self-guided education. Ideally, YPs will be able to attend SPE conferences, exhibitions, workshops, and forums, but even if financial restrictions prevent them from traveling, they can access SPE’s valuable technical resources online. OnePetro is the portal to a vast technical library. TIGs allow you to ask technical experts specific questions. SPE can deliver the educational materials you need to your desktop.

Modern Trends for a Generalist vs. a Specialist

Since geoscientists, engineers, and other industry professionals began more actively working together, as opposed to merely reading each other’s formal reports, there has been discussion over whether asset teams, other project teams, or technical specialties are the best ways to organize people. There is no perfect organizational structure. What is important is that the system encourages people to collaborate, fosters development of every individual’s technical competency, and appropriately recognizes both the individuals and the teams for their accomplishments.

Someone who aspires to be a technical specialist should become active in SPE, which has long welcomed everyone working in the upstream petroleum industry—whether or not they are petroleum engineers. Through SPE, you can meet your counterparts across the industry and discuss technical issues on a nonconfidential basis. Often the same technical disagreements that exist within a company exist on the industry scale. Hearing different groups of people discuss the same controversial technologies can take the personalities out of it. Serving on program committees and reviewing technical papers provide important insights into how the system works and helps you make it work for you. Presenting papers at SPE conferences, workshops, and forums, and publishing in SPE journals are good ways to build your technical reputation.

Choosing Between Career Paths

Everyone is different. Know yourself. Evaluate your strengths and weaknesses as well as your priorities. What type of work do you enjoy doing? Do you prefer working on people issues or with data or equipment? How would the management role you are contemplating impact your work/life balance? Periodically reassess your interests and priorities, as these may change with time.  

Do a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis of your current career path and the new one you are contemplating. There is a relationship between risk and reward. Everyone’s risk tolerance is different. Think of your safety net as a cocoon with a fixed number of threads in it. Not only does it stretch under you, but also over you. To rise, you must expand the cocoon. In expanding, the threads get further apart both above and below you. The cocoon doesn’t impede your rise as much, but it also doesn’t do as good a job of cushioning your fall.

Human Resources (HR) Strategies During a Time of Low Oil Prices

Staffing needs are driven by activity, which is related to oil and natural-gas prices. Drilling rigs are again being stacked. With current industry activity levels, there is not a shortage of experienced professionals. To survive, many companies are letting people go. Financially strong companies are better able to weather the economic storm, but hiring of new graduates is reduced and experienced hiring is restricted to special skills. We have gone from a job market in which employers were raising salaries and offering signing bonuses and other perks, to a market in which new graduates will be competing for limited openings.

The number of positions companies are seeking to fill has been further reduced because experienced employees are not leaving as soon as anticipated. Many older workers have postponed their retirements because of financial losses in their investments. Some of those who have already retired are trying to re-enter the workforce because of their financial woes. Even highly regarded experts are finding it difficult to secure the types of positions they want.

In the near term, retaining talent will be a lower-priority issue for companies because there is not a talent shortage. As companies seek to conserve capital, all nonessential functions will be carefully examined to see where expenses can be cut. HR departments will see their share of the downsizing. If having internal HR functions is not considered to be a cost or competitive advantage, companies may outsource some HR functions, including training.

Final Words to YPs and Companies

Do not judge an employee on their willingness to relocate unless it impacts their performance in their current job or a role for which they are under consideration. With the increase in the percentage of employees being part of dual-career couples, we should recognize that relocation does not need to be an essential aspect of every employee’s career development. Evaluation should be based on an individual’s skills and judgment and the benefit the company gets from how that person applies those skills. An employee’s willingness to relocate may change with time and the advantages of the position that requires relocation.

Post internally all positions and seriously compare qualified applicants with those preidentified by management. Companies tend to have underused talent in their ranks. Many people may be overlooked because they have a period in which they were not top performers. This may be due to a bad assignment; adjustment issues, such as working in an unfamiliar language or culture; or to family issues, including young children, health, or caring for loved ones. In the context of a 30- to 40-year career, these impediments may only last a few years. Companies lose if people must switch companies to get their careers back on track. People who have worked through their own difficulties may do a better job of nurturing those who report to them than people who have always been on a fast track.

Create and publicize a system that enables employees to go outside their chain of command for a neutral evaluation, if they believe that they have been subjected to bullying or illegal discrimination. Managers may be unaware of the bullying engaged in by supervisors who report to them and unwilling to believe that the person is a bully. In a tight job market such as the one we are now facing, bullying tends to increase because employees cannot easily find another position.

Surround yourself with the smartest people you can. Don’t worry about whether or not they will outshine you. People who feel secure in the value they are adding are much easier to work with than insecure people.

Eve Sprunt is business development manager, Chevron. Previously, as University Partnership and Recruitment manager, she focused on developing multifaceted strategic relationships involving recruiting, research, and public affairs with 18 leading universities around the world. Earlier, she held several technical and management positions—senior technical adviser for Chevron Technology Ventures, manager of the Advanced Energy Focus Area, and technology coordinator in  Health, Environment, and Safety, managing the corporation’s global climate change policy. Sprunt worked for Mobil for 21 years and held a variety of roles in upstream new business development. In addition, she worked in R&D in a wide range of technologies, including formation evaluation and production engineering. Sprunt has a PhD in geophysics from Stanford University. She received her master’s and bachelor’s of Science degrees in Earth and Planetary Sciences from MIT. Sprunt served as SPE president in 2006, is an SPE Distinguished Member, was an SPE Distinguished Lecturer during 1998–99, was program committee chairperson of the SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition in 1988, and has served on the SPE Board of Directors. She holds 23 patents and has authored 28 technical articles, edited two books, and has written more than 120 editorials for petroleum-industry publications. Sprunt is a founder of the Society of Core Analysts.

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