Lessons From Two and a Half Oil Busts, Part 2

Part 2 in a series of homework reading assignments for my LAGCOE mentee. Part 1 is here.

Lesson 3 – Be careful what you don’t ask for.

I learned one thing about computers in college: I hated them. An assignment requiring FORTRAN programming meant hours spent in the campus computer center, punching 80-column cards in rigid format, hoping (usually at 3 AM) that your code wouldn’t bomb because of a misplaced comma or a semicolon. That, and the guys who worked in the computer center were, ah, uniformly unpleasant. We’ll leave it at that.

It was with that mindset that I met with my first real oil industry boss after graduation. I had been assigned as a junior engineer in the reservoir engineering group at Shell Offshore in New Orleans. My first meeting with my new boss Pat* went like this:

Pat: What kind of work assignments would you find interesting?

Me: Well, I always like to be learning new things. But whatever you do, don’t make me work with computers!


Pat promptly gave me responsibility for maintenance of MCAPE (pronounced em-cape), a massive FORTRAN program that the company used in deciding how much to bid on offshore leases. It was a complex Monte Carlo-driven program; you could tell MCAPE a few parameters and it would generate a ream of paper describing a block’s economic value, at least in Shell’s eyes. “Maintenance” meant that the program needed to be rewritten to handle new royalty schemes, taxation (including Windfall Profits Tax on oil, plus a WPT on gas that was never enacted) and federally-regulated oil and natural gas prices. Thanks, Jimmy Carter.

By the way, this happened in the olden days, before PC’s and spreadsheets.

Somehow, I made it work. Otherwise, there might have been disastrous and costly consequences for me, Pat and the company.

You know the story about the dad who teaches his kid to swim by throwing him in the deep end of the pool? Yeah, Pat had heard it too. Lucky for me, because what I needed was exactly not what I wanted.

Lesson 4 – Don’t let ’em hear you think.

This one happened after I took a new job during the 1986 bust. It’s my favorite example of how we sometimes unintentionally convey our negative thoughts.

It was my first day on the job, and my new boss Tim**, suggested we go get lunch.

We’re sitting there in the restaurant, waiting for food, and telling stories about college and high school. At some point, I mentioned something about sports, and the fact that I had played football in high school.

Tim: Did you say you played football in high school, Steve?

Me: Why, yes, Tim, I did.

{Long pause}

Tim: Was that a big school you went to, or a small school?

Me: Well, Tim, it was quite a big school. {Then, to put Tim’s mind at ease:} But we didn’t have a very good team.

I stopped short of telling Time that I had also been president of my school’s Lettermen’s Club. Good choice, because his head might have exploded. (My H.S. coach called me “Stump”. As a player I was small, but slow. But I did sell lots of popcorn at basketball games, and that’s how the club made all its money.)

Not telegraphing what you’re thinking takes some practice. Engineers are intelligent people, and the wheels are always turning in the background. But we’re not always the most intuitive people when it comes to subtle modes of communication.***

As it turned out, I worked for this guy for the next nine years, and being able to read your boss’s mind isn’t all bad. We were very different, but in a way complementary personalities. At least that’s what Myers-Briggs said. (More on that in a future update.)

* His real name.

** Not his real name.

*** My wife’s favorite joke:

Q. How do you know when an engineer is an extrovert?

A: He looks at your shoes when he’s talking to you.

I could never understand why she thinks that’s so funny.

More to come.

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