I moved into a permanent role as a gas plant engineer two years after my college graduation. In the previous two years I had been working in learning rotational roles at my current company (a major oil and gas company) and my previous company (a semiconductor manufacturing facility). I had mixed emotions going into the plant job. I’d being doing what I learned in school, so it should be familiar and something I’m good at, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to do what I learned in school. Chemical engineering wasn’t what I had expected it to be.
I was given the chance to make a big impact being one of only three engineers covering two plants (a cryogenic gas plant and a fractionator), and it was a role where I could immediately see the results of my work. I helped size and design a new compressor and watch it get installed. Seeing the results of my work was something that drew me to engineering in the first place.
Neither plant was in the same town as the company’s main office and where I lived. The cryogenic gas plant was in a town about a 30 minute drive away and the fractionator was in a city that was a three-hour drive away. Being the new engineer, of course I was assigned to work for the fractionator, which was located further away. I was based out of the company’s main office in town, but I drove for an overnight visit to the fractionator once or twice a month. It was important to get face time at the plant to get to know the facility, the people, and learn the operations, maintenance, and safety procedures.
I was one of the first female engineers to work at the plants and one of only three females onsite. I was new, young, cute, a girl, and an engineer – they didn’t know what to make of me. On the plus side, everyone was extra nice to me. They were respectful, held doors, gave me a ride in the cart around the facility when everyone else had to walk, and took me to lunch. But on the negative side, no one trusted my engineering abilities initially. I would write a procedure and give it to the plant manager to review. He would then ask my supervisor if he’d reviewed it yet (even though we all knew of course he had), then scrutinized every word and questioned every step and how I came up with the procedure. He was probably trying to help me learn, but I felt like I would never earn his trust. The plant operators also regarded me with caution. I’d call them on the phone from the main office to ask them questions and they were never very helpful.
Finally, I decided to go and spend two full days just sitting with the operators in the control room. I watched them work, helped when I could, asked as many questions as I could think of and we got to know each other. They started to learn that I was passionate about safe practices and procedures and wanted to do a good job. I learned that many of them had worked there longer than I’ve been alive and they had so much to teach me about how to operate a plant. From then on, they were always very friendly and helpful when I’d call with questions from the main office. I’d regularly go back and visit with the operators and spend a few hours in the control room every time I did a plant visit.
I learned the most during the turnarounds. Every year the plants had a one week turnaround, where they completely shut down operations to do maintenance work, safety tests and checks, and new equipment installs. It was organized chaos, so much going on, but every detail was completely planned out to stay on schedule and make sure all work was done safely. Planning turnarounds started almost a year before and I loved being involved in the process. At the actual turnarounds I could see inside the fractionation columns and tanks. I helped the maintenance crew and got my hands dirty. It was a great learning experience. We’d work 12+ hour days for the whole turnaround, but I loved every minute. I was learning so much and we had fun too.
After a year of working for the fractionator, I’d had enough of the traveling. I was newly wed and having to travel and spend the night away from home at least once a month was wearing me down. I missed lazy weeknights at home with my husband. The drive was long, especially when I’d drive alone. But often times, my supervisor would drive to the plant with me. We’d listen to books in the car on the drive and we’d talk. He was one of my favorite supervisors. He was good at teaching and giving honest feedback, he worked hard and inspired me to do better everyday. Everyone at the plants liked and respected him and trusted his word and opinion as final. I aspired to gain that kind of trust from everyone at the plants too.
I finally candidly told my supervisor that I was tired of the traveling and I’d like to be able to work onsite instead of in the main office, but I didn’t want to move. He said I could transfer to the cryogenic gas plant (only a 30 minute drive from home) and have my office located at the plant. I would still do occasional projects for the fractionator, but I would no longer be their main process engineer. I was pleased with this plan. I could work onsite, not have to do monthly overnight trips, but I’d have a long commute everyday (compared to the main office which was 5 minutes from home).
I really enjoyed working onsite at the cryogenic gas plant. I got to know the facility and everyone who worked there really well. Similar to my experience at the fractionator, I had to earn their trust in me as an engineer, but this happened faster at the cryogenic gas plant because I had been around the plant off and on in the previous year and they were familiar with me and my work. Now that I was onsite, if I had a question for the operators I could just walk into the control room and ask them directly instead of having to call on the phone. It was a well maintained facility with a superb safety record because everyone who worked there had pride in their work.
By the end of my second year working for the gas plants I had done some pretty amazing projects. I had done several large process safety studies ensuring the safety of the equipment at the plant, which was a passion of mine, and I was project manager of several major turnaround project at both facilities. I worked hard, I learned a lot, and I had completely earned the trust and respect of my co-workers at both plants. I enjoyed going to meetings and felt comfortable to speak up and give my opinion because I knew it would be valued.
Maybe it’s because it was my first real role as an engineer, maybe it’s because I had to work so hard to earn trust and respect that when I finally did I earn it I felt unstoppable, but whatever the reason when I look back on my career so far my two years at the plants are some of my fondest memories. My husband laughs when I say this because back when I worked at the fractionator and was traveling a lot and trying to earn everyone’s trust I was so frustrated and upset all the time. But now I only have happy memories – I guess time can change your perspective on a situation.
Did you have a favorite role in your career? Did a job you disliked at the beginning that turned out to be a favorite?
My next post will be about leaving the plants for an expat adventure!
Great post, Emily. Your grit and perseverance is what it takes to become experienced in any field. I too found that I learned the most in my engineering jobs by attaching myself to the operators. If I was nice and showed a willingness to learn, they were always pleased to teach me about their work. And they often knew more about how things worked than anyone higher up.
One of the aspects of my engineering experience that I disliked the most is that I didn’t actually get to do any of the hands-on work myself. I need to touch and feel and go through the process, not just spec it for someone else, before I feel confident leading. At one point, I was put in charge of an RF project coordinating between the software and hardware engineers who were building little long-wave RF units. I spent an entire weekend learning to program one of the units myself in a proprietary binary language. All the unit did was broadcast a specific code on a schedule, but once I got it working, I felt a lot more confident managing the project. This is really the heart of why I switched over to software design. I wanted to do the actual work myself, and software gave me to opportunity to create.
Thanks Florence. I agree, I think most engineers go into it because we want to do hands-on work and see results of our work. I’m glad you made the change to software design and are doing work that’s making you happier.