Spotlight on a life in Real-Time Operations, Oil and Gas

Laura McFalls has worked alongside major oil and gas companies, including Shell Oil, and Halliburton. She has experience in real-time operations management, surface data logging, BOP health and compliance, and drilling monitoring.
As well, she is Vice President for Women Offshore.
Women Offshore is an online organisation and resource centre to support a diverse workforce on the water.

Laura McFalls in lab with rock samples working in Real-Time Operations

Laura McFalls – Real-Time Operations, Oil and Gas and Vice President for Women Offshore

Background and path to Oil and Gas

After university, you started your career in retail. What caused your move into the oil and gas industry?

I grew up in Northern Virginia. Then after high school I headed west to the Appalachian Mountains to attend West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia. While in Morgantown I began working at a locally owned gift shop where I worked my way up to General Manager.
It was there that I honed many skills including customer relations, social media marketing, branding, inventory control, and sales techniques. I was recognized for my management and leadership skills by many of our top brands including Vera Bradley and Trollbeads and even led seminars at a Vera Bradley conference.

After a few years as General Manager, I felt I had outgrown the opportunity and I began to search for my next career step.
The region I lived in had recently seen an influx in oil and gas opportunities. This was because of the drilling of the Marcellus shale formation and I became interested in oil and gas.

Moving industries

How challenging was it to make the change from one industry to another?

I applied locally with an MWD (Measurement While Drilling) company. However when I called to inquire about the field role they assumed I was calling for a receptionist role in their office before I could even express my interest in the field.
That did not stop me from continuing my search however. So, I reached out to my college roommate’s husband who worked at Halliburton out of Louisiana. He had progressed to a role where he had influence in hiring. So, he encouraged me to apply. I applied in October, my paperwork and pre-employment tasks were completed by December, and I moved from West Virginia to Louisiana on Jan 3, 2014 to begin my new adventure.

Inspiration

Having grown up in Virginia (near Washington DC) I knew very little about the oil and gas industry. I had heard stories from my friends who were MWD field hands in West Virginia and also from my roommate’s husband. The industry sounded exciting and full of growth opportunity.

Laura McFalls on phone in control room

Transferable skills

What did you take from your time in retail which has helped with your subsequent career?

Relationship building was a big takeaway. It has helped me throughout my career and my time with Women Offshore.
Active listening, patience, and tenacity were also key to keeping the brick-and-mortar business relevant in a time when online shopping was booming.

Data Engineer and Data Logger in Real-Time Operations

Can you explain what Data Engineers and Data Loggers do?

Colloquially known as mudloggers, the role of a Surface Data Logger varies based on the type of job. I worked specifically on deepwater vessels in the Gulf of Mexico, so my responsibilities looked different than say a land-based mudlogger.
I was responsible for analysing, describing, packaging, and organising the geological cutting from the drilling process, as well as logging and interpreting real-time gas data. The rocks and gas circulated back to the surface while drilling can speak volumes about the condition of the well. A large part of my role was to determine if the well was in good condition by looking for signs of cavings, influxes, and connection gas through rock and gas analysis.
I also monitored downhole and surface parameters like ECD (Equivalent Circulation Density), standpipe pressure, and flow out for signs of trouble.
Lastly, all the equipment used to gather samples and data must be maintained at the wellsite. So, I was responsible for:

swapping hoses on equipment as needed;
performing weekly checks and preventative maintenance;
and troubleshooting a multitude of sensors.

Challenges for Data Logging in Real-Time Operations

What is the most challenging part of these roles?

If the rig is drilling fast there is a lot to keep up with all at once. Your geological samples will be more frequent, and you may have phone calls, emails, and rig pages coming in while you are also monitoring the well. Added to that, you have one eye on the microscope describing samples.
It takes organisation and focus to stay on top of everything!

Laura McFalls on oil rig in hard hat working in Real-Time Operations

Ideal person for working in Data Logging

What type of skills do you need to be successful?

Time management is a necessary skill.
The ability to multi-task is critical and you have to be a great communicator.
People who succeed in deepwater mudlogging are:

detail oriented
technical in nature
work well under pressure.

Plus, a background in geology is always beneficial.

What sort of personality traits and skills are ideal?

This is a hard job for an introvert. There are lots of people with questions that only the mudlogger may have answers to, especially if there is not a wellsite geologist onboard.
For someone looking to get started I would say it is most important to have excellent communication skills, a background or interest in geology, and the ability to work under pressure and learn quickly.

Why would you recommend this as a career choice?

One of the best parts about being a mudlogger is the exposure you get to operations. Because you are actively monitoring drilling, completions, interventions, and all other aspects of the well lifecycle, you learn a lot about how different departments work together and about operations in general.

Offshore working in Real-Time Operations

When did you start working offshore?

My first few months with Halliburton I worked in a lab preparing and analysing geological samples using X-Ray Fluorescence. After helping in the lab for a few months a spot came open for me on a deepwater vessel in March of 2014.

What advice would you give to someone who is just starting offshore working?

Be a sponge and learn everything you can from everyone willing to teach you.
Understand that offshore hitch (amount of time spent offshore) work is not for everyone and if you find out it’s not for you, that is okay!
For me, I very much enjoyed my daily routine offshore of wake up, breakfast, pre-tour, lunch, dinner, gym, shower, bed.
It is key to find a supportive community – this could be your family and friends, colleagues at your company, or a group like Women Offshore.
GO into any offshore role knowing you WILL miss things at home. You’ll miss the comforts of your own home, your loved ones, and you will miss holidays, celebrations, and other events. This is one of the reasons working offshore is not a good fit for all personality types.

Laura McFalls on deck at sea

Work life balance

How do you maintain a work life balance when working offshore or shift working?

I usually worked 2/2 or 3/3. When I returned home, I usually took a day to decompress and then I was planning time with family and friends for my days off. My husband and I were notorious for travelling frequently on days off; we enjoyed the uninterrupted time to adventure together.

What is your advice for keeping time for family and friends?

Plan your days off with intention and well in advance when possible. You are not always going to be able to see everyone, but you will find a balance to make time for the most important people in your life.

Women in Real-Time Operations in the oil and gas industry

The industry is changing but remains predominantly male. What do you think will change over the next ten years?

Companies are looking for ways to make our industry more inviting and so welcoming to women. Oil and gas is far behind most industries when it comes to DEI (Diversity, Equality and Inclusion) but over the past 5 years I have seen many companies taking steps to change that. A diverse workforce will only better the industry.

Over the next few years, I think we will see companies reaching out to young women and girls earlier so that by the time they are leaving high school they have a better awareness of the opportunity oil and gas affords. At Women Offshore we have already begun reaching out to younger school-aged girls to share opportunities at sea with them.

I also think we will see some policy changes at major drilling contractors and operators. One of the challenges the industry faces is how to retain women after they start families. We have already begun to see different ways companies are trying to ease the re-entry to offshore hitch work after giving birth or adoption.

How can more women be encouraged into the oil and gas industry?

I think a lot of times young women do not see it as an industry for them. We can change that by reaching out earlier and providing information about opportunity and the diversity of careers offshore. Careers offshore have such a wide range when you consider electricians, engineers, mates, DPOs (Dynamic Positioning Operators), radio operators, and the multitude of different disciplines you find on board a drilling vessel. Shining a light on the vast opportunity is key for encouraging more women to come onboard.

Diverse teams

What do you consider to be the value of diverse teams and how does this benefit the oil and gas industry in particular?

Studies have shown the benefits of diverse teams time and time again.
Diversity allows for different perspectives and better problem solving.
Because oil and gas is such a global industry with fluid mobility around the globe, diversity within the industry also allows for:

different schools of thinking;
new methods;
and new ideas to flow freely.

Working in a Real-Time Operations Centre

In 2019 I moved on from Halliburton to work in Shell’s Real-Time Operations Centre. Instead of monitoring a single drilling rig’s operation, my team was responsible for 15+ vessels drilling for Shell across the globe. I worked alongside pore pressure specialists, drilling engineers, directional experts, and Blow Out Preventer SME’s to provide operational support.

Moving into BOPs (Blowout Preventers)

After departmental layoffs in 2022 I found my next opportunity with a BOP (Blowout Preventers) focused Real-Time Operations Centre. There I continued monitoring drilling activities around the world and was also able to dive headfirst into the world of subsea BOPs. I read every manual I could get my hands on and asked a ton of questions. I learned about BOP compliance, maintenance, and monitoring from some of the most knowledgeable subsea engineers in the industry. In return, I shared with them my expertise in well monitoring.

Laura McFalls in hard hat with machinery working in Real-Time Operations

Future roles in Real-Time Operations

What was your most recent role?

Most recently I moved to operations management within a pressure testing and well integrity company.

What are the key skills for a manager of offshore engineers?

As a manager I am passionate about people and so very much a servant leader. As well, I strive to encourage the teams around me and so help individuals develop and hone their skills.

What do you think your next challenge will be?

I am looking for my next opportunity in oil and gas. I would like to find a role where I can put my knowledge of operations, real-time analysis, and leadership to work!
My time in the industry has been exciting and I have no doubt the next decade will be the same. I am grateful to Halliburton for the opportunity to get a foot in the door and the companies that have helped me grow along my way, and certainly thankful for my amazing, supportive community at Women Offshore.

Women Offshore

You are now the Vice President of Women Offshore. Can you explain the purpose and objectives of the organisation?

My role as the VP of the Board at Women Offshore is a volunteer position. We are a working board dedicated to providing support and furthering opportunity and careers for women working on the water. I support the President, as well manage the Board, speak at corporate member events, and advise on strategy for the organisation.

I am most proud of the progress we have made with our programming in 2022. Our Career Services Programme has already assisted over a dozen women exploring offshore and maritime careers in just six short months! And we have plans to multiply that number in 2023. We provide scholarships for necessary training, interview advice, resume assistance, and more. I’m very excited for the future of this programme and it is great to see companies reaching out to us when they are seeking candidates.

After Midshipman X shared her experience in late 2021, we also launched the S.A.V.E Programme (Sexual Assault and Violence Eradication Programme). The aim of the programme is to provide better access to resources for victims and to create a safe space for difficult conversations.

Future of Women Offshore

How do you see the organisation developing over the next five years?

In 2022, over 400 women from more than 25 countries attended our virtual conference. That reach will only continue to grow exponentially. The past few years have been explosive and exciting for us as an organisation. For example, four years ago, I would not have even guessed that there were 400 of us working on the water globally; I could count the number of women I knew offshore on two hands. Now we have a global community.

In the next few years our programming will continue to expand, and so we will work with more and more corporate members to help them find candidates for their offshore workforce. So that means, we will bring more women into this exciting industry. We will continue to find more ways to support victims in our community, create safe spaces for uncomfortable conversations, and continue to inform the industry how to be better allies to women on the water.

Laura McFalls

Further reading

Field Service Specialist Michiel Lamens keeping offshore cranes working all over the world.

Rotational working – what are the positives and negatives?

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