An Engineer in the Philippines and in the UAE, Part 2

One platform, one barge

Part 1 was about Mike’s work in the Philippines, particularly his creating a bridge between the Filipino worker and modern technology—the CNC machine, which he calls the Swiss army knife of manufacturing. He advises using Filipino shops to build prototypes for new products.

By Part 2 Mike has moved on to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, where he waxes enthusiastic on a number of things he’s come to admire about the place. We talked via Facebook Messenger or Skype while he was in Abu Dhabi and I was in the Philippines. Thanks to Mike for the photos.

Mike’s list of great things about the UAE

  1.  Multiculturalism—Saudis, Syrians, Palestinians, Filipinos, Russians, Poles, Indians, Lithuanians, Ukrainian, Britons and Frenchmen all working together. I love getting into discussions with people from other places. My closest friend are from Russia and Poland, two places with a history of friction, but here we all get together at the zoo over coffee while our children are looking at the animals. Once I was standing in line while an international group of teenagers was in a nearby table engaged in a serious discussion and expressing well thought out opinions. I ‘asked the Americans what it was like when they went back to the ‘States. They said they just talked about pop culture. If a more serious topic came up it was awkward because their American friends were so uninformed.
  2. Education—Here it’s very good but expensive. Fortunately, tuition for my children is part of my salary package. My son is only two, but I hope we stay long enough to take advantage of this. I’d love for him to grow up in a multicultural setting.
  1. Health care—Everyone here, including non-citizens is required to have insurance, and what we have is a public/private arrangement like Obamacare was supposed to be. Medical care is the same for everyone. The different price ranges only reflect differences in things like hospital accommodations, not the care itself, including expensive items like organ transplants. The annual premium for my wife and child is $300 per year, less than one month of insurance in America. Having a child here costs nothing.
  1. By law, mothers get 45 days paid maternity leave. Everybody gets 30 days paid vacation per year. Foreigners receive a round trip plane ticket back home.
  1. Forward-looking government.—Potential problems are solved before they become problems, from traffic congestion to the oil market. For example, the plan is to stop selling oil in 2050. Solar and nuclear power are being developed as replacements in order to keep this country viable, healthy and relevant well into the future.
  1. Ultra-predictable weather—It’s almost always hot and sunny.
  1. Attitude—We are welcome, even in case of major health needs. I know personally people who’ve been treated for cancer or drug addiction while living and working here, and they were treated like citizens who belong. In many ways we are very much appreciated, temporary guests.
  1. Parks—In Abu Dhabi there are parks everywhere. These are world-class parks designed by the European companies who come here to build them. This includes the latest in playground equipment.

Mike’s story

I work for a large construction yard which makes off-shore platforms, giant steel structures out in the middle of the ocean that process oil, like what you may have seen in Deep Water Horizon (Link)

I’m a Lead Commissioning Engineer. To understand what commissioning is, imagine I want to sell you a vehicle but there is no gas, oil, water or air available for it. Somehow I need to prove to you, systematically, step by step, that every piece of that vehicle will function perfectly even without ever starting it. That’s my job for these off-shore platforms. I have to develop the process to test every single bit of electronic control system equipment on the platform and document it in such a way that our client will agree that when we get this thing off-shore and in its place, and we open the valves it will function as it’s supposed to.

That sounds a little bit like your job here in the Philippines.

The variety of work experience I have means that you’d be hard-pressed to find a system that I can’t understand very quickly, whether it’s an elevator, airplane or a custom control system for robots. I know how it works, and if it doesn’t work I can trouble-shoot and fix it. Somebody in my position should have at least fifteen years of experience in the oil industry. When I applied I had none, so I feel they took a chance with me.

The project I’m on now is for smaller platforms for Saudi Aramco, which is having their initial public offering. Saudi Aramco is paying for this apartment that you see behind me. But the previous project was perhaps more interesting.

I was hired for a three billion dollar project which included the Guinness Book of World Records largest off-shore topside. This thing is massive. It’s finished now.

I lived on the main channel of the Mississippi for over three years, so I’ve seen my share of barges floating down my front yard. How many does it take to move one of these platforms?

One platform, one barge. You wouldn’t believe it’s possible for one barge to take a platform from where we built it out thirty or forty miles off-shore in the Persian Gulf. The weather is predictable, so it’s not the same as a crazy body of water like the Gulf of Mexico.

Imagine a structure seven stories tall and the size of a large apartment building. It’s massive, but they’re solid steel, and it just looks like a jumble of pipes with giant boxes. The scale is hard to appreciate because the thing is divided into supersize decks on different levels, each 15 feet tall. I didn’t realize how big it was until I climbed up to the top. Everything on it is supersize. For example, one of the platforms we commissioned had three jet engine turbine electric generators. Each one was bigger than an engine on a 747. These jet engines generate electricity for the platform, but they occupy only one small corner of one deck. The project included five platforms. One is basically a hotel where the people stay. For engineering reasons, the laws of physics reasons and safety reasons, the processes are divided up and put on other platforms with the most dangerous one the farthest away from the people.

That’s a good idea.

Yeah, actually if you look at it from a purely engineering point of view, it is not the most efficient way to lay it out, but the company takes safety seriously and spends a lot of money to make it as safe as a commercial jet or a space station.

Everything is triple redundant. For anything to quit working it would require so much failure that it’s hard to imagine.

Part of my job is to simulate a failure in which other systems compensate and react appropriately. The system is so reliable that you could have a major failure, and not only would it not cause a safety concern it wouldn’t even stop production.

You take a jet engine and hook it onto an air compressor the size of a house, and it compresses the explosive gasses by the wells. They don’t sell the gas, just the oil. The oil comes up with dirty, toxic gas mixed in, so the gas is separated out and put into air compressors, pressurized and put back down in the hole.

What does it do when it goes back down? Is it dangerous to the earth?

Well, it was already there at the start, so it doesn’t do any harm to put it back. The old solution was to burn it in a flare. Have you ever seen flares burning on oil platforms?

Maybe in the movies.                                    

That’s how they used to dispose of it. Putting it back down gets rid of it and pressurizes the oil to come back up again. When a good oil reservoir is first popped, the oil comes shooting out like you saw in the Deep Water Horizon disaster, but after years of production the pressure doesn’t work anymore. You have to pull the oil out somehow or use the gas to help push the oil out, extending the life of the wells. These systems are all in place to keep the oil reservoir profitable as long as possible before it’s time to move on.

The offshore platform is a super- complex of five connected platforms. It replaces a lot of the processes that would be done onshore but instead are done in situ, where the oil is coming up. You have something like 30 or 40 individual wells feeding one platform. The platform separates out the gassy sea water, which would otherwise cause an ecological disaster, and powerful 10 megawatt pumps push it back down the hole. One of these massive pumps is bigger than the biggest train you’ve ever seen. When the gas is separated out, some it is sent to the gas turbines, the jet engines use it to generate electricity. The gas is just a byproduct of the oil coming out of the ground. Nobody wants it, but they take advantage of the fact that it’s there. The energy supports the 200 people on the platform. The unused gas goes back down the hole to develop more oil.

So my job is to test each of these systems step by step.  Here’s another analogy. You have a light switch and a light bulb connected with wires but no electricity. You have to prove that both the light switch and the light bulb will work individually and are connected correctly, so you do individual tests to show that they would work if you had electricity. Instead we are dealing with pressure and temperature transmitters, speed sensors and valve positions.

I write the procedures on how to test the individual systems, how to integrate the systems into the larger control system, and how to carry out these steps throughout the commissioning phase. On that project I had something like 40 or 50 guys working under me, and I was one of seven guys in my position. This project had probably a thousand people working just in commissioning.

Previously the commissioning was done by the clients, the end-users, but it makes more sense to find all the problems onshore. Once the platform is offshore, everything costs twice as much or four times as much. It’s crazy expensive and difficult and complicated.

Why is that?

You have to bring things on helicopters and boats. You have to bring in the technical experts. Onshore these guys might be in the next office to us, a phone call away or a short walk away.  Once the platform is offshore, everything changes. First of all, the platforms are about halfway between the UAE and Iran, so security has to be taken seriously. Everybody that goes offshore has to pass background checks and get special security passes. Getting permission to get on the platform is a two-month-long process. Then if you find out that a pressure transmitter isn’t working correctly, onshore it’s a one-day or two-day turn-around, whereas offshore it will be three weeks. If a helicopter is involved it’s very expensive. Safety is important onshore, but offshore it is raised to a whole new level. Also, once you’re offshore you are on the dirty business end, meaning oil is everywhere. Onshore there is no oil and no gas, so we literally had to import low-concentration the poisonous gas to test the gas tankers. Once you go offshore all those things are real. So every action, every activity requires more time and more effort. You are literally suspended over the water the whole time you’re offshore in the middle of the Persian Gulf.

There’s a psychological effect which can be pretty brutal. Technicians usually do stints of three or four months. It’s not far from going to prison, but maybe way more dangerous depending on the prison. People do kind of lose their mental health and have to be brought back because they start getting into fights or get very down.We have a lot of Indians and Pakistanis, who fortunately don’t tend to be violent. But they do tend to get despondent when they’re depressed. Morale gets really low when everybody’s been offshore too long.

You’ve been eating, sleeping and working with the same 30 or 40 guys for four months. You haven’t seen your family, haven’t seen land, you’re just stuck. You’re doing it for the money, but no matter what the money is, there comes a point when the human psyche just can’t take it anymore.

Some guys are fine after being out there for six months. Actually, the ones who are not weeded out tend to be stereotypical redneck Texans and Cajuns as well as British guys who did their time in the North Sea, one of the most dangerous seas in the world. The ones who have stuck around for 20 years and are now managers, they are a different breed. A lot of them are ex-military, meaning that they’ve been in situations where they didn’t have to like the guys they were with, but they did have to function as a team, setting aside personalities and whatever upsetting thing someone said the day before. They have to focus on the job. There’s a tight deadline, a lot of pressure and a lot of money.Millions and millions of dollars could be flowing out on a daily basis while money’s not coming in because the platform is not producing yet.

The work environment was unlike any I’d experienced before. There’s a lot of pressure and a lot of responsibility. At first I was surprised at how much responsibility they gave me. I wrote the procedures on how to test these important systems, but nobody on my team checked my work. It was reviewed by the client, who made suggestions during the writing and editing process. My signature is on documents which will be turned into the official operating procedures for the next 30 or 40 years. Somebody will pull a folder off a shelf, open it up and see my name and a date.

You know what technical writing means, like writing the instruction manual for a car. It’s a special type of writing, and I’m good at it. It’s almost an intellectual pursuit. I’m trying to take a very technical subject and very technical writing and do it in such a way that it can be understood by a Tamil speaker who has English as his third or fourth language. These readers don’t know commas and semicolons. I can’t rely on punctuation. You have to write these instructions in such a way that they can’t be misinterpreted because the worker will have no clue about the effect of what he’s doing. He is literally just following instructions, and as long as he does follow them nothing will blow up.

That sounds like what you were doing over here.

There is a similarity, yeah. Once again my prior experience prepared me for this job in a way that I would never have predicted. This is actually the story of my life. Years ago I was a carpenter patching holes in drywall or installing kitchen tile flooring. It’s hard to imagine how I went from that to a job as lead commissioning engineer on one of the largest oil industry projects in the world.


On one hand, I have to have the presence of mind to write these documents, which are 500 pages long or a thousand pages long. There’s a lot of copy and paste, a lot of figuring this is almost the same as that, so I could copy this section and then find the differences. On the other hand, I’m in the field, wearing a hardhat, surrounded by sandblasting and welding, and trying to help troubleshoot why this 25 megawatt gas turbine jet engine keeps sounding an alarm. So it’s a very interesting job in terms of the scope and variety of the work. It involves everything from getting the wording right on a legal contract on the remits between the client and the construction company to being out in the field and trying to prevent accidents—personal injury to the employees under me and damage to the equipment.

It’s easy to open the wrong valve and break something very expensive. A lot of the equipment is purpose-made, so making a replacement can take three months. It’s not like there are gas turbines lying around the UK ready to ship out to us.

I find the company people very kind and forgiving. They don’t like to fire employees and will keep them around to a fault. It’s not all about the bottom line. They will throw money at a problem here before they start firing people, they will make things easy for us because the money is all staying here in this country. About 70% of my salary goes for rent and other living expenses.

When I started working here the price of oil had already dropped to where it is now, like in the $50 range. Apparently when it was at $80 this country was booming. The guys I know who have been here three and four years longer than me, talk about how different it is now that the purse strings have been tightened and money is not flowing as easily as it used to. But to me this is still gravy, particularly after working in the Philippines where I felt I had to earn every peso I was paid.

In the UAE people seem to put some importance on being happy and satisfied. I know there is a lot of negative talk about how construction workers are treated, Pakistanis being brought into slave labor camps. But I haven’t seen anything like that, and if it exists I don’t know where it is. There are dorms in the construction areas where workers are housed. I think it’s a good thing that they don’t have to spend most of their salary commuting to the city like I do. Instead, they have a place to live and free food. There’s also the long vacation and the round trip airfare home every year.

I feel that the government here takes pretty seriously the happiness of their citizens and the people like me.

More on oil rigs, this time with feeling. (Link)