Monday, July 29, 2013

What Am I Doing?

Frequently asked question:  What will you be doing in Saudi Arabia?

photo by Pete Manson, Saudi Aramco
Since most of my friends in Austin know me either as a software developer or a filmmaker, it's understandable. Few know about my work in refineries and chemical plants.

Short answer: Engineering Specialist for Saudi Aramco in their Process Automation Systems Unit.

And that's all I know, they haven't told me what exactly I'll be doing. But I'm okay with that.

Flashback: in 1990, my brother Timothy left Texaco's Central Engineering Department to start his own consulting company, Coherent Technologies, Inc. in Houston, now based in Palestine, Texas where Tim and I grew up.

Side note: There's a great song by T-Bone Burnett called Palestine. Here's a video I shot of Sam Baker and Carrie Elkin singing their version of it with Gurf Morlix on guitar and Ray Bonneville on harp. You can play it while you read the rest of this long post. ;)

Tim got so much work so quickly that he asked me to join him. Soon after, in '91, a young Electrical Engineering graduate from Texas A&M, named Fayez, joined us as employee #2. (Tim and I both went to A&M, '73 and '84 respective, so I guess he was partial to A&M grads.)

That was another life change for me. I had worked as an engineer in semiconductor manufacturing, consumer electronics consulting, and for a military contractor. Now I was a consultant to energy companies. It's mind bending how much money is at stake: if even part of a plant goes down unexpectedly, at best it can cost millions of dollars and at the worst, lives.

Explaining exactly what I do for them is difficult. The short answer is that I automate the plants, controlling the valves and motors based on temperature, pressure and time. I create custom software that run the plants efficiently and safely.

With automation, the plant operators can focus on the big picture of running the plant and not the small details of when to open and close valves, start a pump, or throttle a flow. That means the plant can run more efficiently.

My proudest accomplishment was working on Emergency Shutdown Systems for Texaco's gasification process. Gasification takes waste hydrocarbons, the hard-as-rock crap that's leftover after the refinery squeezes out everything it can, and combines it with 99% pure oxygen at a high temperature and high pressure to produce hydrogen that the plant can then feed to gas turbines for generating electrical power. It's classified as green, alternative energy. It's also an incredibly dangerous process that can explode. (The inside walls of a gasification reactor is lined with a refactory like the heat tiles on the Space Shuttle and if there is any defect in them, the wall of the reactor can melt and cause an explosion.)

My job was to program a special computer worthy of NASA to start the process and shut it down safely.

So even though I work for an oil company, my job is to make sure they are efficient and safe. If we have to rely on oil to live the lives we live, I want to help them not waste the resource and process it safely so people aren't hurt.

Fast forward: in early 2012, my friend Fayez (remember Fayez?) was talking with me on the phone about Saudi Aramco where he worked. It sounded great so I asked him if he could get me a job there. I didn't think it would ever happen so I didn't tell anyone. It took over a year, a botched interview (they didn't receive any of the copies of my resume that I had sent!), and a thorough background check before I finally got the word that I was officially hired, around June of this year.

Now I'm about to board a flight and I still don't know what I'll be doing exactly. But I got my dream of working overseas in a different culture with the chance to learn a new language. Of course, I was hoping it would be someplace not as hot as Texas and a language that shared the same alphabet as English, but at least now I won't be eating cat food when I'm 80.

And I am looking forward to the new adventure and exploring the world around Saudi Arabia. That is, the places that aren't hotbeds of extremism and instability. (I'm not a thrill-seeker.)

Leaving Austin where I've lived for 17 years is bitter sweet. I'm ready for a change but it's difficult leaving the life I've built here and the friends I've made. But with Blaze having taken me all over the world, I'm looking forward to seeing more of this world.

Thanks a lot, Blaze.

1 comment:

wasamatau said...

Awesome Kevin, thanks for the heads up and really look forward to updates. Take care,