The Key Question from the Global Petroleum Show

Poster of Bits, Bytes and Barrels

The Key Question from the Global Petroleum Show

At the Global Petroleum Show in Calgary I fielded lots of questions about digital in oil and gas, but this was the number one question, and it’s not what you think.

The Global Petroleum Show

First off, I’m very grateful for the team at EnergyNow who invited me to attend the Global Petroleum Show as their guest, hold a place of honour at their large booth and sign copies of my book. Our position was strategically located at the intersection of two large aisles, with great sight lines and plenty of passers-by. I shared my time with another Calgary author, David Yager, who has written a book about the history of the Alberta oil industry, called From Miracle to Menace — Alberta, A Carbon Story. The EnergyNow booth was distinct among the rest of the show because it featured not one but two authors.

While I didn’t keep track of numbers, I did sell 21 copies of my book, or one every 20 minutes or so of booth time. Not what you’d call a ‘brisk pace’, but considering the circumstances, I was well pleased. Most people attending a conference have been trained to expect stuff for free. Exhibitors gave way trinkets, pens, booklets, toys and other items embossed with their brands, and a few booths even gave away reusable swag bags to carry all the loot. My book is not free.

Convincing someone who is conserving their shekels for an overpriced site lunch to pony up for a 1 pound paperback that they have to lug for the rest of the day takes some selling skills. Aside from describing what the book was about, my key message is that while the ebook is lighter (weightless in fact) and cheaper by two thirds, you can’t get the author’s signature on your Kindle. That seems to work, although I also point out that my signature is all but worthless unless it’s on a cheque.

The Questions

Visitors to the booth asked the usual set of questions:

What’s the book about? The answer is the impact of digital technology on the oil and gas industry. Not just upstream but midstream, downstream, services, capital projects, turnarounds and much more.

What is the impact of digital? Digital will be responsible for the likely quick addition of 500b barrels of new reserves worth $22T, the slow destruction of up to 50m barrels per day of transportation consumption, a steady reduction in industry costs of at least 20%, and a minimum 20% gain in productivity.

Why did you write it? Most other industries that have ignored the impacts of digital innovation have regretted that decision. Oil and gas has already ceded their mantle of most valuable industry to the digital industry in the space of just 15 years. The pace of adoption must speed up.

Can I get it on line? Of course, a book about digital innovation needs to be available in digital format, and the audio version will premier shortly. How ironic if it was not available across the digital media spectrum.

Is it really a best seller? Yes, in Canada, and in the narrow category about books for oil and gas and mining, although my wag of a son reminds me not to get too excited about that accolade. He suspects that oil and gas people don’t read and that miners can’t read.

I suspect that many visitors to the booth are also thinking to themselves “why should I care?” and “how will digital impact me and my company?”. These are harder to answer without a deeper dialogue than affordable at a busy booth at a noisy and distracting tradeshow.

People say “I’m not interested” in many ways, but the most memorable line after my pitch was “digital is way above my pay grade”. That guy struck me as the walking zombie employee, oblivious to the changing world, and lacking any curiousity about how his job was in the cross hairs of the 20% productivity improvements. I wished him well.

The Big Question

Two book buyers pose the hardest question of all, which takes considerable time to answer. Both chaps are in their twenties, I think, and part-way through their engineering training with their eyes set on the oil and gas industry. They are convinced that the future of oil and gas must feature a lot more digital, but are baffled at the complete lack of digital content in their university training programs. The conversations are more rich that what I usually get at a trade show and touched on a number of themes:

  • How is it possible, after the jet propelled growth rates of the digital sector for over a decade that their university level engineering training doesn’t even acknowledge that digital is a thing?
  • What are their job prospects when they reveal at their expected job interviews that they have no training at all on data science, machine learning, and other key digital topics?
  • Should they simply abandon their degree programs now, before they invest too much more in what appears to be training themselves for a market that doesn’t exist?
  • What additional technical skills should they acquire that will position them favourably in 3-5 years time?
  • What can they do to bolster their chances of finding a job, working largely against the the grain of the university-imposed program?

All good questions, I thought.

The Answer

The paradox for students in engineering today is that their university education is supposed to train them up for the job market. This degree, along with those in computer science, business, dentistry, medicine and law, is intended to create a job-ready professional.

But students aren’t stupid. They know that the job market, particularly in Alberta for oil and gas engineers, is tight. The downtown office towers are still vacant. The city crawls with job hunters in oil and gas, many with lots of prior experience. The transaction market is slow, production in the province has been curtailed at least once, pipelines aren’t getting built, and the federal government is hell-bent on gumming up the works with bills C-69 and C-48. Interesting new employers like Amazon pass the province by because the workforce lacks the skills for the new economy, in areas like data science, coding, and machine learning.

Alarmingly, for a student investing $100k in their career, a flood of money now seems to be gushing towards training up the legion of unemployed in these hot new areas, whereas their degree programs feel stuck in the 1990s.

Of course, undergraduate degree programs aren’t exactly at the forefront of human knowledge. Our base of scientific understanding is constantly evolving and expanding, and universities are typically the primary contributors to advancements in math, science and technology. You expect them to be a bit behind the times, with the edgiest stuff more the focus of the masters degree programs.

And I have to acknowledge that a data set involving just two people isn’t really a statistically valid survey. These two chaps could be misinformed, wilfully ignorant, or just plain mischievous. But why would they then drop $30 to buy a copy of a book on the topic unless they were confident in their assessment of their own reality? It certainly wasn’t because they wanted my autograph.

Advice to Students in the Field

Distilling the discussion to its essence, I offer the following observations for any student out there wondering about their career selections and how to best position themselves for the future:

One. Chill.

There’s still lots of demand left in oil and gas. It will take years for the transition away from fossil fuels for transportation, and we still don’t have a substitute for plastics. Oil and gas will need people for years to come. Digital areas are all experiencing double digit growth, so there’s plenty of work out there, even if oil and gas is a bit slow on the uptake. Don’t quit.

Two. Fix it.

I can’t explain why professional degrees have yet to respond to a trend that has been in the making for a 15 years, but who cares? Besides, even if the programs wanted to put some “digital” into the program, they’re going to have to drop something out, but what? Take ownership of your own career and inject into your studies some emphasis on the new digital fields of study. There must be some optional or elective courses available on the key topics (data science, programming, user experience design).

Three. Be it.

Be ready for the questions when they come. Claim to be a digital native, and demonstrate it with a proper online presence. Frankly, just using LinkedIn properly will be a differentiator. Build your own mini AI engine or blockchain proof, and you’re streets ahead.


While the Global Petroleum Show isn’t the ideal location for career counselling, I’m happy to do my bit for the future. At least two future grads are going to be better off for the discussion. Good luck, Luc and Henry!

Check out my new book, ‘Bits, Bytes, and Barrels: The Digital Transformation of Oil and Gas’, available on Amazon and other on-line bookshops.

Mobile: ☎️ +1(587)830-6900
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