Extracting Aromatics and Knowledge: My First Job in a Refinery and Success Strategies
My first job at the ExxonMobil Baytown Refinery was as the “Extraction Contact Engineer.” When my boss called me to say they had a next assignment proposal for me, and explained what it was, I wasn’t even entirely sure what the title meant. I had studied extraction in my senior year separations class, and I knew it was a method of separating out components in one substance by using another to attract those components into it. However, I had absolutely no clue how this process was used in refining. My separations professor always used this super weird example of a pair of jeans with oil in it and adding a solvent to the jeans in the washing machine to extract out the oil.
At any rate, I knew I was ready for something new, and I wanted to get experience in a refinery and in a new technology. I started at ExxonMobil in our distillation group, a fancy term that essentially means boiling, albeit the equipment to achieve the goal may be complicated. I loved the technology and it wasn’t that I was running away from it; it was more I wanted to gain exposure to some other types of refining processes before determining what I would specialize in or do with my career. So, before even knowing truly what I would be doing, I said yes.
At the time, I was in Baton Rouge at our refinery there, working a turnaround. That’s when part of the refinery shuts down intentionally to inspect equipment, perform maintenance, make repairs, and install any new equipment for projects. After hanging up the phone with my boss, I called Scott, who at the time, was literally moving across the country to Houston, all of his belongs and all 6’4” of him jam packed into a 2004 Oldsmobile Alero. I felt slightly guilty that he was moving across the country for me, and when he arrived, I was 275 miles away in Louisiana. But, I figured, he knows I want to have a career, so might as well set the standard that sometimes I’ll have to choose work when I want to choose family (keyword: sometimes).
The second thing I did was send an e-mail to a coworker, Will, whose office was right next door to mine. He was in the same section as me, but was one of the leaders in our lubricants area. Will was previously the complex engineer in Baytown for the lubricants area, which was one technical level above the role I was taking. In that role, his responsibilities were to provide expert technical advice, strategic thinking, capital project support, safety study (called HAZOPs for Hazard and Operability review) support, and anything else needed to help the operation run smoothly. In the e-mail, I explained that I had just accepted the role, with a start date two weeks away, and asked if he’d be willing to give me a few lubricants and extraction 101 sessions. He quickly replied no problem, and we met the day I got back and a few times after.
I want to pause and explain what I later realized about this moment. Just like in college when you e-mail a professor or TA for additional help or go to office hours, you can reach out to coworkers, both those you know and those you don’t, and ask for help. I have cold e-mailed coworkers before, asking for help with a problem, insight into their role if I find it particularly interesting, or to ask for career advice. Not once have I been told “No.” The social, collaborative problem solving skills I learned in college were transferable to the real world, just substitute in coworker, expert, boss, etc. for classmate, TA, professor, advisor, etc. Be willing to learn, and don’t be afraid to reach out to people who can help you!
My first two weeks at the refinery was the typical “drinking from a firehose;” I was trying to take in so much information that it was hard to not be overwhelmed. Plus, the engineer I was taking over for, Gary, was very intelligent and had both delivered results and established sound working relationships with everyone on the team. It can be intimidating coming into a new role for someone who was a high performer, but instead of letting this turn into fear or doubt, I turned it into motivation. I worked very closely with our front line guys working as technicians out in the field, turning valves, taking samples, troubleshooting pumps, and our console operators who sat at the control board and really ran the unit. A lot of these guys didn’t have college degrees, but they had experience and they understood how things worked. A very common misconception that young professionals make is that people without a college degree aren’t as valuable or can’t do as good of a job running a unit, teaching concepts, and problem solving right alongside engineers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Some of the smartest people I have ever met didn’t have the traditional credentials, but their experience and skills made them invaluable. When working with our team directly, I was often the only female in the room. That didn’t matter, though, because I created a solid working relationship with our team by devoting time to learn from them, asking them questions, and engaging them in our objectives. We were able to accomplish a lot in the sixteen months I was in that role.