“[…] The work ethic [in Azerbaijan] is completely different. People [here] once they are told what they need to do, they usually follow instructions and carry it out to the letter of the law. This can be good and bad because you do want people to have the ability to think independently instead of sitting and waiting for the next step.
“The opposite is true in Trinidad; you have to sometimes force people to work because of the casual atmosphere in Trinidad. That’s the biggest difference. Here people follow instructions, and I think that has a lot to do with their Soviet background.”
Wired868 highlights the day-to-day lives of everyday people in Trinidad Tobago in our ongoing series ‘A day in the life …’
Today, we talk to Joe, an oil and gas professional who is stationed in Azerbaijan, a country with one of the largest oil and gas reserves in the world:
How long have you worked in the oil industry?
I have been employed in the oil and gas industry for the past 25 years. For the first five years, I worked in the downstream industry in various roles in operations and maintenance. I spent five years in the manufacturing sector before re-entering the upstream with a service company working with an oil and gas major. This relationship and experience with the oil and gas major was the main ingredient which allowed me to be successful in landing this job.
Was it always your goal to be part of this industry?
Not really. It actually happened by chance. I originally wanted to be a doctor, but things didn’t quite work out. At the age of 19, I decided to go to San Fernando Technical Institute; I got interested in the oil and gas industry there.
How did you get your current job?
After graduating from Sando Tech with a mechanical engineering technician diploma, I got my first stint in oil and gas at the downstream organization. Following that, I decided to go back to school where I completed a process plant operations diploma. I did the process operations course to better understand the processes involved in the oil and gas industry.
Following that, I completed my bachelor’s in mechanical engineering via distance learning with the University of Sunderland, and that prepared me for different positions within the oil and gas industry.
How long have you been a maintenance team leader?
For the last eight years.
What do you love about your job?
I love the difference that I make on a day-to-day basis, maintaining and optimising plant reliability. To me, maintenance is less about if something breaks you go fix it; it is more about what causes the failure, how you can optimise, how you can improve and make it better the next time around. Also, I am passionate about developing people to be able to have that mindset, to have that view that they are not just maintainers, but they are optimisers. And that calls for a different level of thinking.
What is most challenging about your job?
Interestingly enough, the most challenging thing about the job is having the right processes and procedures in place. Because they aren’t always fit for purpose, rather than try to fix those processes, people try to find workarounds and shortcuts to get things done. With that mindset, we can never truly improve or get better. That’s the biggest challenge that I have. How do you ensure that people don’t take shortcuts in their day-to-day activities, which could have negative safety consequences?
What are some examples of those shortcuts which could be life-threatening?
A major one is starting to work on a pump without proper isolations because the paperwork process is too long. Another could be silencing or bypassing a nuisance alarm on the control system because you know an instrument is faulty and it has not been fixed.
In the first example, technicians working on the pump could be exposed to hazardous liquids if proper isolation is not in place. In the second scenario, the operator could become numb or ‘immune’ to a real alarm since the practice has been to disregard nuisance alarms. Remember the story of the boy who cried wolf?
What are some of your job responsibilities?
The maintenance team leader is responsible for identifying equipment problem areas to repair defective equipment that would have been reported by Operations or anyone else on the platform. I am responsible for conducting those repairs as per manufacturers’ guidelines and quality requirements. I am also responsible for delegating tasks on a daily basis to the maintenance technicians and for ensuring that systems the team has to work on are safe.
I also have to plan for future maintenance activities, investigate the root cause of equipment failures, especially repeat equipment failures. So, if something has failed to work today, and then the following week or month, it is my job to figure out why.
What does your typical day look like?
I would typically get up at 5.30, get dressed and head down to the rec room to have breakfast. Breakfast on the platform is amazing, by the way. You get all sorts of gourmet food. By 6am, I’m done with breakfast, I review the last night’s performance of the team coming off duty—it helps me figure out what is the focus for that day.
By 6.30am, I have a meeting with my daylight shift team to prioritise the activities that came up from operations and to distribute work for the team for the next 12 hours. I then have to visit each worksite—mechanical, electrical and instrumentation teams—ensuring that they have been properly set up.
I usually then return to my office and plan activities for the next 2 weeks, because each job has to be properly prepared and risk-assessed for safety reasons; unless, of course, it’s an emergency, then you don’t have time for planning.
I would usually have lunch between 12 and 12.30, which, by the way [laughter], lunch is immaculate—complete with ice-cream, I usually have ice-cream every single day! [laughter].
After lunch, I would then make a site visit to ensure that the teams are working as expected, also to identify any support they may require. Around 3, I sit with Operations to discuss next day activities. Following this, I meet with the team, who would be ready to close off their daily tasks.
Before I end my workday, I prepare work for the night shift which is usually lighter maintenance tasks. Afterwards, if there is an issue at night, I am woken up if the situation cannot be otherwise handled.
When you are not on the platform where do you live?
I live in an apartment building in Baku, the capital city where most of the non-nationals or expats live.
Why not Azerbaijan? (Laughs) Azerbaijan actually has one of the largest hydrocarbon reserves in the world, so there are lots of opportunities there; one just needs to look hard enough. The country can still be considered relatively young as it relates to the oil industry, and as a consequence, there is still a large dependence on international experienced workers.
What can you tell me about Azerbaijan?
Azerbaijan is a former Soviet State. They got their independence in 1993, after the dismantling of the USSR. It’s predominantly a Muslim state, however, very few people seem to be practising Muslims. It is seen as one of the European emerging cities. In fact, they seem to liken themselves to other European countries like France, Turkey, the Czech Republic.
How is it different being there as opposed to a European country?
So, while they try to be European—the buildings are pretty much old European style, the shopping is very much European and Western style—you do, however, sense that it is not mainstream Europe because the country is actually ruled by a dictator. So it still has flashes of communism, although the people here may not admit it.
So, it is considered one of the least democratic countries in the world. There are trade-offs, for instance safety: you can walk the streets at night without being attacked or targeted. If you look at me, I am a black man, I would very much stand out in a crowd, but I have never felt threatened in any way. If it’s anything, it is more a sense of curiosity as there aren’t that many people who look like me over here.
How would you describe your life in Azerbaijan thus far?
In my off time, when I am not on the platform, I usually spend my time learning various aspects of the Azeri culture, from doing team ‘integrations’, which is the same as a Trini ‘lime’, to learning Azeri language—which is very challenging—to the occasional drive to the countryside to experience nature and the local cultures.
I also try to pass the time pursuing online courses, as well as focusing on health and wellness with the usual morning run or visit to the gym. And at least a couple times a month, I get together with people of other nationalities where we share each other’s cultural cuisine.
You do miss the environment in your home country, but I try my best to settle and enjoy the different cultural offerings. I am a firm believer in embracing this international experience by immersing yourself in the culture of this new environment.
Based on the location, it is also possible to take short flights to neighbouring countries. This also provides an opportunity to learn new cultures. I have already visited Georgia, Turkey and Kazakhstan. It is actually cheaper to visit those countries than it is to get to Miami from Trinidad.
What are some major differences and similarities between Azerbaijan and Trinidad?
One major difference that struck me was the adherence to law and order. Being a somewhat military state, there is a high degree of discipline and almost no mention of crime… I guess the consequences of committing crime could be fatal.
As far as similarities go, the people are very friendly, more so in the countryside regions where most families openly welcome visitors or strangers, offering lots of food and wine. Reminds me of how Trinidad used to be in the 80s in some of the rural communities.
Any surprising cultural differences?
One cultural difference that surprised me was the practice of raising toasts when in social gatherings. Every toast was completed with a shot of vodka—STRAIGHT! If there are 20 people gathered, everyone has to raise a toast; on any issue from your job, family, friends, children, wives, the government, sports, etc.
It was just never-ending. And they all stood up straight afterwards. They were extremely surprised when they saw images of carnival and the limited use of cloth on the costumes worn. A few of them have already applied for visas to go to Trinidad for carnival [this] year.
Do you miss family and friends at home?
Yes, I do, but I keep in contact with them by WhatsApp, etc. I speak to my girlfriend every day via WhatsApp video and speak to my parents every few days. I also keep in touch with friends back home via this medium as well.
How often do you feel homesick? How do you combat this feeling?
At times I do, especially when I can’t walk to the corner to drink a beer, more so when I’m on the platform for two weeks. But generally, I get items that I need to be comfortable because the system has opened up so much that there is now the availability of US and European brands for foods and everything else.
I don’t feel like I miss anything really, apart from the occasional bake and shark or doubles. But you get by. Recently, I met up with my girlfriend in London and she brought me lots of supplies. (Laughs)
Why can’t you have a beer at the corner?
Beers, in public, are not restricted, which was a shocker for me, but there is no proliferation of bars like exists in Trinidad. You do find a few restaurants, but outdoor seating isn’t always possible, except during the summer months. I often say that Azerbaijan is a Muslim country on paper only, as not many people here are actual practising Muslims.
Does your girlfriend visit you in Azerbaijan?
My girlfriend and I prefer to meet up at more central and interesting locations as we both enjoy travelling. So far, we have met in London and Paris. Next on the agenda is Rome, Athens and Prague.
Before I complete my tour of duty (four years in the first instance), she may decide to come over to Azerbaijan. But the distance is a bit of a deterrent at the moment, especially when there are so many more interesting places to visit. And her time is limited due to a demanding job.
How does working in Azerbaijan differ from working in Trinidad and Tobago?
For one, the work ethic is completely different. People [here] once they are told what they need to do, they usually follow instructions and carry it out to the letter of law. This can be good and bad because you do want people to have the ability to think independently instead of sitting and waiting for the next step.
The opposite is true in Trinidad; you have to sometimes force people to work because of the casual atmosphere in Trinidad. That’s the biggest difference. Here people follow instructions, and I think that has a lot to do with their Soviet background.
Following the closure of Petrotrin, do you feel job security?
Yeah, I mean the oil and gas industry is very cyclical, so as old players exit the market for pretty much efficiency reasons, it creates opportunities for new entrants in the energy market who are more efficient, more cost-effective and reliable. There is still a huge oil and gas exploration effort offshore, so that tells that there is still gas in the system available.
What advice would you give to anyone wishing to enter in this field?
Think carefully about what area you want to get into this field because what was once mechanical engineering and process engineering 10 years ago is evolving into a more digital environment. So, while the basics are still there, if you are preparing yourself to be in the industry in 10 years’ time, you need to think of where technology and society are going to be in 15 years’ time (as an example emissions reduction initiatives) and align yourself with careers along those lines.