When I was 27 years old my husband and I took an adventure by accepting engineering jobs in Australia. It was exciting to move across the world and learn about a new culture and travel while we were still young and child-less. While in Australia we met some amazing people from all over the world and made life-long friendships with many of them.

One of the people I met in Australia who I’ve been lucky enough to keep in touch with is Elsa. I remember meeting Elsa and being so impressed by her work ethic, friendly personality, and drive to be successful. She is upfront with people and will not let anyone push her around.

She is very different from me – I can be pretty shy at work and in social situations and would love to be able to speak my mind more. She was always fun to be around and she is a very thoughtful and caring friend.

I knew Elsa has a great story to tell about her experiences as an engineer, so I was very excited when she agreed to be interviewed for the blog. Below is my interview with the brilliant, bold, and beautiful Senior Petroleum Engineer named Elsa.

Elsa with her husband and son

Engineering Emily (EE): What is your name and occupation?

 

Elsa Lee (EL): The formal version of my name is Elsa Barrand-Lee but I am more commonly known as Elsa Lee. I am a Senior Petroleum Engineer with Santos.

 

EE: How and when did you decide to become an engineer?

 

EL: I always liked hands-on stuff. I recall connecting the VCR to the TV and setting it up when I was around 7 or 8 years old. I’ve really enjoyed the accomplishment. I also assembled the lawnmower for my parents when I was around 11 and really enjoyed the process.

 

During high school I enjoyed Maths and Sciences. When it was time to choose university degrees I didn’t have to think much in what I wanted to do. The hardest part was, which engineering degree?

 

EE: What was your college major?

 

EL: I did Petroleum Engineering at University of New South Wales in Sydney.

 

EE: What was your university experience like as an engineering student?

 

EL: I had to admit I did not enjoy university life. We studied common subjects with Chemical Engineering during the first two years so we have a lot of students per lecture. With between 35-40 hrs a week of contact time with lecturers and tutors, I did not have much time to study alone to absorb materials taught. Although I did not fail any subjects, I was not happy with my marks. I wasn’t the drinking type so did not have much night out with classmates.

 

It wasn’t until Year 3 where we were taught about actual Petroleum Engineering subjects that I started to enjoy my surroundings. We had smaller classes so everyone helped each other out a lot more than the previous years. There were two subjects that I absolutely dislike and they were Reservoir Engineering 1, where the exam would involve deriving formulas from first principle. The other one is a Maths subject called “Keller Maths”, where the pass mark was 100%. Yes it was hell.

 

EE: Did you do any engineering internships during college?

 

EL: We had to do 12 weeks of internship in order for us to receive our Bachelor degree. I spent 12 weeks in Canberra working for the “Australian Geological Survey Organization” (now known as Geoscience Australia) where I did a lot of data entry work.

 

Did I learn anything? Not really. I applied for a number of internships; however, did not hear any replies. I suspect I was not picked was because I was not outgoing enough, as in not enough extra-curricular activities such as be involved with the SPE.

 

EE: How did you find your first engineering job?

 

EL: I absolutely LOVED my first engineering job. I worked for Baker Atlas in Australia and I was deployed to Moomba, Central Australia on a 3 weeks on 2 weeks off rotation. I get to go to places where a normal person would not go, I get to see the country side, and the most important thing is I get to use my hands and get them dirty!

 

My first few weeks on the job were all about manual labor work, lifting heavy tools and cleaning downhole hardware that were covered with gun powder. My work location changes every day and you can almost guarantee there will be a new challenge everyday!

 

EE: What industry do you currently work in?

 

EL: I am still in the Oil and Gas (energy) sector.

 

EE: What has been your career path from college graduation up to today?

 

EL: I worked for a service company (Baker Atlas) for 4.5 years, then got married and moved back to Hong Kong for around 10 months where I was a receptionist for a trading firm. I can’t stand the job and the small amount of salary that I was getting so I decided to go back to Baker Atlas where they were happy to see me back.

 

Baker was very generous and gave me a 6 weeks on and 4 weeks off roster and my flights back to Hong Kong were all paid for. Unfortunately because of the long distance relationship my marriage broke down and ex-husband and I went separate ways. I continued to work for Baker for another 2.5 years before I resigned.

 

After that I was with AGL for a short period of time doing Completion work. An opportunity came up to work with QGC in Queensland so I was with QGC for 2.5 years before I join Santos in 2012 until now.

 

EE: Have you travelled for work, and if so how often and to where?

 

EL: When I was working “fly in fly out” I travelled quite a bit and always enjoyed checking out airports. When I was in Moomba we have to travel to site almost on a daily basis in the four wheel drives. Since I’ve picked up the office job, work had been pretty boring compare to my previous life. Does driving to and from work count as travel for work? hehe

 

EE: Have you had to move for work?

 

EL: When I was working for Baker I chose to stay in Sydney where my family was. I didn’t see the point of moving to Adelaide (the flight to Moomba leaves Adelaide). I get to spend time with my family during my two weeks off. When I decided to move out of the field I had to look elsewhere for a job as there were only limited opportunities in Sydney. I moved up to Queensland for the job with QGC.

 

EE: What has been your best experience working as an engineer?

 

EL: I can’t remember particular examples but I felt very satisfactory when my hypothesis are right! I supposed the recent one would be when one of the wells had a drop in gas rate and everyone was wondering what had happened. I suggested that one of the well around 1.2km away had a frac in one of the zones the night before the gas drop appeared. No one believed that is possible however the water salinity from the well with gas dropped showed similar salinity to the frac fluid the other well used.

 

EE: What has been your most challenging experience working as an engineer?

 

EL: When nothing adds up in your formula, yet you need to come up with some sort of explanation to educate upper management and JV partners!

 

EE: How do you balance career and home life?

 

EL: I make an effort not to work on a Friday night to Saturday night (good 24 hrs). This is my family time however operation dictates sometimes. My little boy goes to daycare full-time so between 5pm and 7pm is a no work zone for me as I want to give him and husband 100% attention.

 

EE: What do you consider the challenges and advantages of being a working mom?

 

EL: I will start with advantages first. I enjoy being extremely productive at work as I know my work hours are extremely precious. I aim to get to work before 7:45am for the morning meeting and I have to leave work at 4:15pm sharp for daycare pick up. That’s a good 8.5 working hours. I found that I seem to be able to find quicker way to do things! Another advantages is I don’t have to stay back for nonsense meetings that starts at 4.30pm!

 

Challenges of being a working mum would definitely be trying to organize your life around the little kid. We normally try to get out of the door by 7am everyday. If the little boy decide to have a 15 mins sleep in, our schedule needs to be shifted by 15 mins but that doesn’t mean I will get to work 15 minutes late as the traffic can be quite bad within 15 minutes!

 

EE: What advice do you have for girls interested becoming an engineer?

 

EL: GO FOR IT! Don’t let anyone tell you anything different! The society had moved on! Women can do anything!

 

EE: What advice do you have for working moms?

 

EL: Plan your week/months (professional and personal) ahead of time. Use (multiple) whiteboard(s), apps, notebook or whatever is your forte. However always have an emergency plan at the back of your mind if your plan didn’t work out for whatever reasons.

 

Don’t forget to exercise, and eat well.

 

EE: Would you still become an engineer if you could do it all over again?

 

EL: If I have a choice I would choose to become a billionaire first, followed by being an engineer.

 

EE: Do you feel women are treated equally to men in engineering?

 

EL: To be honest the equality thing has a long road ahead. I’ve been lucky to have wonderful supervisors/bosses who either have daughters themselves or they’ve been working with professional women all their professional lives so working with a technical woman is just a norm.

 

I had seen women being treated unfairly, but at the same time, the woman in question did not stand up for themselves or what they believe in. I never dare to ask about salary equality, but then again, I personally feel rude to ask a colleague what their salary is!

 

EE: Any other information or stories you’d like to share?

 

EL: 

  1. Choose your partner/husband wisely.
  2. I recall I was near burn out while I was working for QGC and Chris asked me “Will BG wipe your a$$ when you get old or will that be someone else?” (sorry to be so bold about this but they were his exact words). It was like a light bulb moment for me. Moral of the story – love your family, they will be there until the end.
  3. Last but not least, look after yourself, professionally (seek learning/promotional opportunities, physically (stay healthy by exercising and eat well) and mentally (have some “me time”, smell the roses).

I’m sure you’re now as impressed with Elsa as I am! She’s has a long career in petroleum engineering during which she’s moved and changed companies multiple times. She shares some great examples of the kinds opportunities that are available in the oil and gas industry, like field jobs, rotation schedules, job relocation, and office based jobs.

Elsa has been though career highs and lows, but come out stronger and knowing what’s most important to her at the end of the day is her family. She is successfully balancing her full-time engineering career with being a mom. I love her advice about looking after yourself. It is so important because to care for your family and maintain your career you need to be happy and healthy.

Thank you Elsa for sharing your experiences with us! 🙂

If you or someone you know is a female engineer who’d like to inspire others and share your story for the Women in Engineering Interview Series, please contact me!

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