What follows is an email sent from an employee living in company accomodation to the estate services department of a Russian oil company.

Dear Olga M.,

I am resident of Block B leaving in (349). I wanted to inform you about a problem.

More than week ago I have started to here some rustle and scratches under kitchen sink (sink box). This sink box does have doors and seems to be isolated. This space is not fully isolated from rest of the flat and it turns out that rats can move and go out from kitchen fitting through big space in it.

One nice morning my wife clearly saw the rat (quite a big one with huge tail) which was shocking for her. The rat in the house it is not only shocking, it is also dangerous as rats are known for spreading diseases.

The next day I called to Nataliya G. (Helpdesk). From our discussion I understood that I am not the only one who has such a problem in Block B. I was assured that immediate action would be taken (placing rat-traps). I waited until Monday but unfortunately nothing happened and Nataliya explained that they had a supply problem.

The same day I decided to call Maria F. and during a nice conversation we discussed the possibility of poisoning them. But I am worried that the rats will die below the kitchen sink and the house will start to smell like a morgue. In this case more effort will be required to remove this corpse out from under-deck space. At the end of the conversation we agreed that the representative would come to set the rattraps and try to close the holes in the kitchen set. By this time, the rats had already damaged a pair of shoes (case happened in Block B).

On Wednesday this representative really came, but instead of normal traps he brought carton (A4 size) with glue on it. This is a maybe working for small mouses, but I doubt it is effective for large rats.

He tried to calm down my wife by telling her not to worry and that it will possibly last until December. As for the holes we can not do much since in case of dissembling it is a problem.

Despite of the doubt on the effectiveness of the A4 traps, they were set for all of last night. This morning in the sink box one carton was turned upside-down but unfortunately no rat in it.

I think this a problem that can be solved. And I do not think we should live under continuous danger of being bitten or getting infected and having my belongings damaged by rats.

Please could you somehow influence this matter?
Thank you for your understanding.

Best regards,
Sergei S.

Forget the Medium Term

A Royal Marine officer friend of mine, who took part in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, explained to me how he coped during a particularly fierce action.  Paraphrasing:

“Well, it was complete chaos and I didn’t really know what was going on.  So I concentrated only on what I had to do next and the two or three things after that, and forgot about the rest.  Once I’d done one thing, I moved onto the next.  And I kept doing that.  If I didn’t concentrate on doing one thing at a time, it would have been a mass panic.”

Here’s Ed Viesturs, one of the world’s most accomplished high-altitude mountaineers, in his book No Shortcuts to the Top (page 316):

“Look, it took me eighteen years to complete a very difficult endeavour.  Viewed as a whole, climbing all fourteen 8,000ers would have seemed almost impossible, but I took it one day at a time, one step at a time.  I was passionate about what I did, and I never gave up.

If you look at the challenge as a whole, it may seem insuperable, but if you break it down into tangible steps, it can seem more reasonable, and ultimately achievable.  The model for that strategy comes from the way I learned to break up the “impossible” 4,000-foot climb to a summit into tiny, manageable pieces; just get to that rock outcrop there, then focus on the ice block up ahead, and so on.”

It dawned on me recently that I’ve slipped into a similar routine – I’ve mentioned that word before – derived from similar methods to those which my RM friend and Ed Viesturs describe above.

It involves forgetting the medium term, and concentrating on the immediate while being mindful of the long.  I have to be in this posting at least another year, possibly two.  I have to keep in mind that at some point I will leave, and that I will be in a better position, a nicer place, on a better project, etc.  You have to keep thinking of the eventual goal, otherwise there’s no point in being here (it’s a means to an end, not an end in itself).  Plus you’ll go nuts.  But if you think about the medium term, e.g. “October is so far away”, or “my next leave is not until Christmas” and “this time next year I’ll still be here”, you’ll start to get depressed pretty damned quickly.  So you need to forget about it.  I do this by filling my head with today and nothing else.  If you started to contemplate how many more times you’d have to drag yourself out of bed at 6:00am before you get to work in a place with civilised office hours, you’d lose the will to live.  So you don’t.  You concentrate on getting into the shower, getting to work, doing what needs to be done today (and in the office you can afford yourself the luxury of thinking about the rest of the week, but no further), getting home, going to the gym, eating dinner, and going to bed.  Before you know it, the medium term ceases to be relevant because time starts flying.  Like the proverbial kettle that never boils, the time won’t move if you watch it too closely.

Now this doesn’t constitute much of a life, and it’s a strange thing to want time to fly by when you’re in (what people say) is the prime of your life.  But this is abnormal work I’m in, and it makes for an abnormal life.  The key to understanding the expatriate oil and gas business is that you must take the rough with the smooth.  Cliched it may be, but it’s true, and if there is one thing which should be dinned into all newcomers it is that.  And when you hit the rough patch, which can last a while, you need a method of getting through it.

But interestingly, when I watch myself doing the job I’m paid to do (insert jokes here), I notice that I tackle my work in exactly the same way.  My job is basically to coordinate engineering works.  I’d say manage, but that word gets abused so much half of you would immediately assume I do nothing whatsoever and stop reading.  Anyway, it might come as a surprise (although not to anybody who works with me, with the possible exception of my boss who hopefully doesn’t read this) to hear that I really don’t have a clue how to manage an engineering project in itself.  If you sat me in a room and asked me to write down how I would manage a medium sized engineering project, it would be full of generic guff which would serve no useful purpose for anyone executing the works (which, incidentally, adequately describes most documents being passed about in an oil company).  In fact, when presented with a new project (which happens about once per week) I have a momentary panic in which a voice inside me says “How the hell am I going to do this?”  So I hide from it.  Not in the detail, which is the mistake a lot of engineers make when promoted to management or coordination positions, but in a structured sequence of known, comfortable, steps.

I forget about how I’m going to actually execute the project, and identify the first thing I have to do.  Fortunately, that’s always the same: give it to people who know what to do and ask them to get their heads around it then get ready to explain it to me in a meeting, but do no more than that.  Once explained, I then move onto the second thing, which is also always the same: I create a work breakdown structure, which is effectively a multi-layed hierarchal list with the lowest level detailing every single activity which must be performed from start to finish (it goes without saying that I have those aforementioned blokes who know what they’re doing close to hand when I do this).  Once I’ve done this I can relax a bit, and I write a project execution plan which is effectively a narrative on each one of those items in the work breakdown structure.  The whole lot then gets passed to those who know what they’re doing, it comes back with red ink all over confirming that I am an idiot who doesn’t, but I make sure that by the time I’m finished they’re happy with it.  The management of the project then becomes a relatively simple matter of plodding through one activity after the other as per the work breakdown structure and execution plan, ticking them off as you go and rarely worrying about what is coming later on.  I cling to those two documents like a drowning man to a life-belt, because if you were to ask me what we are all supposed to be doing and I’d lost them, I wouldn’t have a clue.  I am unable to grasp the full scope of a project, even a relatively minor one, without it being broken down into manageable chunks.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?  Well, it is.  Half the time I feel like a complete fraud having taken information from people far more technically capable than I, compiling it into a single document, and waving it about as if it held the key to eternal life.  The other half the time I remember how project managers I worked for in the past did away with all this writing stuff down nonsense and waved their hands around and talked lots instead.  Or more specifically, I remember how their projects turned out.

And that’s kind of my point.  There is nothing original in this method I use of breaking down work, and the more testing parts of life, into manageable parts to avoid being overwhelmed by the whole.  This is, after all, the basis of any well-written procedure.  What I have noticed though is that although it seems obvious, and it really is pretty easy, there are an awful lot of people who can’t seem to do it.  Those that can seem to be able to get stuff done, as the two examples I started this post with show.  And if I were to sum up why people employ me, and have almost always done so since I graduated, it’s because, one way or another, I “get stuff done”.  It’s only recently that I’ve understood how to do it: forget the medium term.

Oh, and make sure you listen to those who know what they’re doing, especially if you don’t.

Macondo: In Praise of BP’s Response

This should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention:

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour disagreed with a report by US House Republicans that said letting BP lead recovery efforts for the Macondo spill was “outright offensive” to Gulf Coast residents.

Barbour, a Republican, told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee today that BP was sometimes more responsive than the federal government to requests from state officials after the April 2010 spill, Bloomberg reported.

“In fairness, to BP, to us, everything we asked them to do, they considered, and almost every time they did it,” Barbour said.

The report also cited “wide-spread concerns” about mismanagement of a $20 billion compensation fund set up by BP that create “unnecessary confusion among potential claimants in the Gulf States”.

The claims facility, overseen by Washington lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, has paid more than $4.3 billion in emergency and final payments to spill victims.

Barbour said he’s received few complaints.

“I think they are trying to do a good job,” Barbour said. Applying for compensation through the fund is “sure better than to litigate this”, he said.

There are few who would argue that BP didn’t f*ck up badly on the Macondo well, but that part of their performance was pretty much limited to the period before the Deepwater Horizon sunk.  After that, BP swung into action with money, people, and resources on a scale never seen before.  By any standards, let alone those of the industry, the response was impressive and the delay in capping the well was down to the technological complexity of the task, not BP’s response.  True, they didn’t manage the PR campaign too well, but they were never going to win that battle despite throwing compensation money around right from the outset.  My opinion is that it is better to tackle the actual problem and lose the PR campaign than the other way around, and there are few (and I mean very few) other companies who could have responded to the spill in such a manner.  Had the government been given the task, we’d probably still be bogged down in pay negotiations with unions and the EPA would be holding seminars on how high to build sand berms.  In many ways, the US is lucky that the spill happened on a BP well (with the added bonus of the company being British); had this happened to almost anyone else, they’d have filed for bankrupcy or fled the US minutes after the Deepwater Horizon touched bottom.  Expect the BP response to be used as a case study in the years to come, possibly even becoming an industry benchmark.