Pillars of Industry

Mentoring in Azerbaijan

Over the last decade, oil-industry investment in exploration, infrastructure enhancement, and project development in Azerbaijan has exceeded U.S. $25 billion. New facilities and new technologies are helping to take production to new historical levels. With all that growth and all that value creation, what is missing from this picture? The answer is people.

Skilled technical professionals are needed to work every aspect of the projects, from access to operating phases. While Azerbaijan has a long history as a regional oil-industry center, the shift in sheer magnitude of activity coupled with an already tight global marketplace for expertise has made people development a top priority for the industry. So where does SPE fit in this conversation, and what is the value of mentoring?

SPE’s mission is “to collect, disseminate, and exchange technical knowledge concerning the exploration, development, and production of oil and gas resources, and related technologies, for the public benefit; and to provide opportunities for professionals to enhance their technical and professional competence.” I would argue that in today’s marketplace, with our somewhat skewed industry demographics, the development of our “preprofessionals” (students) is every bit as important as the continuing development of our regular members. With the “big crew change” just around the corner, any activity that jump starts a young professional’s ability to contribute has to be viewed as important.

Three years ago, the SPE Azerbaijan Section underwent a major overhaul, and one of the top priorities the new board identified was the need to significantly improve our connection to students and young professionals. The need for additional professionals in the local marketplace was already becoming visible, and the board saw the need to help jump start our young professionals. A number of initiatives were launched to try to connect to our upcoming and developing professionals.

In its broadest definition (with apologies to Webster), “mentoring” is sharing life experiences or teaching. In our SPE section, the start of our mentoring effort was in helping to establish student chapters at the two universities in Baku that have petroleum engineering curriculums. The students were very enthusiastic about the opportunity to get additional insights into the industry, and the faculties supported the chapters. The two student chapters quickly exceeded 200 members, and the monthly section lectures were set up to allow for evening meetings at a campus auditorium. Attendance at the evening lectures was good, but the students needed a stronger, one-on-one, connection to the industry. They had questions on a wide variety of subjects that did not always get addressed in classwork or lectures. It was recognition of this need that led to our SPE mentoring program.

The board enlisted a Mentoring Leader, who was himself a recent university graduate, to help drive this initiative forward. A young professional was targeted to ensure that generational differences in perspective would be minimized in the setup and management of the program. Who better to know the questions and needs of an undergraduate than someone who was in the same position just a year or two earlier? When members were asked to join the program, a significant portion of the volunteers were new to the industry but keen to work with students. Because our student population is roughly twice the size of the regular membership, we targeted two “mentees” for each mentor in the program. Currently, 25–30% of our members actively mentor one or more students in this program. We still have a waiting list, and getting every regular member to act as a mentor remains our aspriration.

Mentor meetings are normally an hour long and are held once or twice a month. The structure and content of the meetings is left completely to the participants. In my own experience, the topics have ranged from basic engineering to new technologies (which forced me to do some homework) to career and education counseling. In soliciting feedback from other mentors, there is an overwhelming feeling that the mentors get as much satisfaction out of the conversation as the students get.

Mentoring can take many forms. With some minimal financial support from industry, a student symposium was held last fall. The symposium took approximately 60 students through a typical planning process. SPE volunteers made short technical presentations on key well topics (e.g., subsurface, directional planning, casing design), and then the students were allowed to work on the issue and make a short presentation to share their decisions based on the data presented. These work sessions allowed students to work with uncertainty in a protected environment. The sessions also focused on nontechnical areas and provided feedback to participants on leadership and presentations skills. Feedback from the presenters and participants was very positive, and the section has committed to a follow-up symposium this year. The content will change, but the sharing and learning opportunity will be kept intact.

In Azerbaijan, we have used lectures, structured mentoring, and a student symposium to mentor our developing professionals. Each of these activities has benefited the section and helped to build a more engaged and vibrant section. From simple and informal conversations to structured programs, every member of SPE can take a leadership role in ensuring that SPE engages young professionals early and makes their SPE membership a rewarding and lifelong experience.


Darrell Howard is the Drilling and Completion Manager for BP’s exploration and appraisal work in the Azerbaijan sector of the Caspian Sea. He has 28 years of experience in North America as well as international locations including Egypt, Congo, Norway, and the U.K. Howard’s past assignments have included high-pressure drilling and testing, underbalanced drilling, and large-field developments. Before taking his current role, he managed a technology program for expandables and was a technology team leader in BP’s Drilling Technology group. Howard has authored or coauthored three SPE papers and has been a member of both SPE and ASME for more than 25 years.


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