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Technical mastery: What is it? And when should you call on it?

When do you need to hire the services of a technical master in the oil and gas industry? Well, a better question might be: when can you afford anything less than a master?

When do you need to hire the services of a technical master in the oil and gas industry? Well, a better question might be: when can you afford anything less than a master?

It’s been said that if you think hiring professionals is expensive, try hiring amateurs. Although you might pay a premium to bring in certain experts, you’ll be saving yourself time, frustration and the ongoing costs of an unsolved problem.

So what exactly are you hiring when you hire a technical master? As Rockflow offers you a team full of people at the pinnacle of their upstream oil and gas expertise, we thought we’d dive into the components that make what we do special, and often necessary.


Complex problems need integrated mastery

Technical mastery is usually thought of within the context of a single discipline. If you play the violin for a lifetime, you can play any piece to awe-inspiring effect. If you practise geophysics for a lifetime, you can utilise seismic data to maximum effect with minimum effort.

In reality though, true technical masters are not those who merely reach a pinnacle within their own discipline – they are those who know how their own specialism interfaces with every other related discipline. In other words, they know how to synchronise with every other musician in the orchestra and play an unmatched concerto.

Upstream oil and gas is composed of a number of disciplines, from geology to geophysics, petrophysics, engineering and commercial analysis. And in truth, you can’t be a master in your own discipline without also knowing enough about everyone else’s.

You might be a specialist in a niche area of geology but you need breadth to communicate and integrate your work with your peers, and to understand the value and limitations of everyone’s expertise.

Most situations we’re presented with at Rockflow are integrated problems that require integrated solutions – and some can only be resolved when you have masters in multiple disciplines on the task.


Masters are constantly learning and looking for more

It’s worth noting that wisdom is not the same as experience or knowledge. Wisdom goes hand in hand with mastery – decades of experience practising and honing your trade is a prerequisite – but it’s achieved through reflection and learning from your mistakes.

Early in our careers we perhaps rely too heavily on the latest technical tools to build complex digital models. The danger with these complex models is that it can be difficult to assess whether the answers they’ve given are correct.

As technical professionals develop mastery of their trade they begin to realise the importance of first principles. They learn when and how to use the most basic and classical techniques, either in support of or instead of complex models.

In this way, mastery saves time and enhances the quality of a technical assessment. It’s why our own Alan Atkinson insists on starting with pen and paper in his depth conversion courses, and it’s why masters will calculate oil in place on paper first before constructing complex deterministic and probabilistic models.

We’re often asked to perform a peer assist or peer review to provide technical assurance for oil and gas companies. Here we examine a team’s technical work, and we often catch basic errors and biases. We see more because we know to look for more.

Particularly in oil and gas, technical masters are comfortable living in an uncertain world. They’re working with reservoirs thousands of metres below the ground, which they’ll never see. And they’re content to put together a picture of what the subsurface looks like, knowing they’ll probably be wrong to a degree.

However, masters are more likely to focus on the risks and uncertainties that matter most to the project. They’re constantly reflecting on their process, the problems they’re solving and the wider context that’s influencing their work.


It’s a matter of mastering your discipline and enterprise

Masters don’t only have discipline expertise, they are also ‘masters of the enterprise’. This means that they also have mastery of specific parts of the upstream oil and gas industry. They are also experts in exploration or field appraisal or maximising recovery from mature oil fields.

You hire a master, not when you know the solution you need, but when you don’t yet understand the question. Technical masters will provide a diagnosis before offering a cure.

This level of understanding is crucial where the technical and enterprise intersect, as they always do in oil and gas. For instance, when we provide due diligence prior to an acquisition, we need to assess an asset’s technical challenges, such as fault compartmentalisation or flow assurance and how that relates to value chain challenges, such as well placement for a new development or production optimisation for a mature field.

Bringing together the disciplines you need to do this requires enterprise mastery. When you’re on a short time frame, you don’t have the luxury to build complex models, you need to bring together the right people and use quick and straightforward techniques, making sure calculations are built on sound evidence.

You need to communicate it all in the right way, reading the room and choosing a medium that enables people to absorb the information, see the value of what you’ve done, and potentially navigate disagreement.


Masters can provide a faster turnaround and more transparency

It takes mastery to find a solution to a complex problem in a very short space of time – which is usually all our clients have when they get us onboard.

That’s not an issue for us. Where someone with 10 or 15 years of experience might take weeks to resolve an issue, we can do it in days. There are few tasks we haven’t done before and we rarely need to design solutions from scratch – we have a bank of former solutions to draw on.

Also, with wisdom, you come to learn something: the most basic principles are often the most valuable. The simplest tools and first principles can often reveal the crux of an issue.

You don’t always need complex simulation models examining terabytes of data, which take months to construct and days to run. Sometimes you can solve exactly the same problem by writing a macro in Excel, or by making calculations on the back of an envelope.

Once again, this simpler manual process means we can explain to a client how we arrived at the results of our analysis. The logic that underpins the solution is clear.

If you don’t need our speed, assurance, or a master-level mind behind a solution, we won’t hesitate to tell you. There have been times we’ve advised clients that we’re not the best option for them – not because we can’t solve their problems but because hiring us would be excessive.

We’re pragmatic: while it can be more expensive to hire people with less experience, we’d rather recommend a cheaper option if a simpler route will do. Building trust with our client is a fundamental value of Rockflow.

What our team offers is the ability to solve the most complex problems with the fastest and most transparent techniques. To learn more about what we can offer, head over to our Technical Excellence page.


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