By Stephen Whitfield, Associate Editor
Sarah Kern has been in the oil and gas industry for only 13 years, but she is something of an industry lifer. Her father worked in the industry, so she grew up around it. She also spent several college summers interning in the industry. And now, she is a passionate advocate for the industry, never missing an opportunity to talk up its virtues, whether it’s in her current position as Senior Industry Affairs Specialist at Helmerich & Payne (H&P) or in her extensive work with trade organizations such as IADC.
Ms Kern’s personal story began in Tulsa, Okla. Her father worked for 25 years at H&P as an IT manager before retiring in 2020, and she recalled spending weekends in his office doing homework during her elementary and middle school years. A career in engineering was not necessarily a given, though. Ms Kern said she considered, among other things, studying interior design and philosophy. It wasn’t until her senior year of high school – when she had a conversation with her aunt, an engineer who was teaching at the US Naval Academy at the time – that she figured out her path.
“We were talking about college, and at the time I was considering the entire spectrum of what to major in. We got to the topic of engineering, and she said, ‘Sarah, engineering opens doors,’” Ms Kern recalled. “That has been so true for me and my career. A degree in engineering gives you credibility and – as many with engineering degrees know – many times it will lead to a job where you’re not an engineer by title. But it teaches you how to think, and the engineering background in the energy space can really help you to excel in your career.”
Following her aunt’s advice, Ms Kern studied electrical engineering while attending Oklahoma State University. In the summer of 2007, following her junior year of college, she began an internship with H&P, working with the company’s engineering design team in Tulsa and occasionally going out into the field.
She recalled one project where H&P sought to deploy on its rigs a video camera that could be mounted on a hardhat for troubleshooting purposes. The device would function much like smartphone or GoPro cameras today: footage could be streamed wirelessly in real time to engineers in the Remote Operations Center.
“It took so long to even find a camera with appropriate specs for the harsh field environment of a drilling rig. We couldn’t have anything that would destroy the integrity of the hardhat, but it also needed to be explosion proof and have all the ratings for electronics that you need on a drilling rig. Back then that was the thing – wouldn’t it be nice if we had a way to see exactly what someone was doing? We had to wait for technology to catch up, and now remote troubleshooting is a part of our everyday jobs. Everybody was just scratching the surface on those digital transformation technologies. It was a really exciting time to be involved,” she said.
She interned at H&P every summer until she graduated in 2010 and was hired by the company as an Electrical Engineer. Two years later, she transitioned to a Performance Engineer position, working to help meet various performance objectives, like a target ROP or reduced cycle time. The job required frequent visits to drilling rigs to drive continuous improvement, and Ms Kern said she enjoyed the change of pace.
“That job was so dynamic. There were a lot of quick turnaround times, and I traveled frequently,” she said. “There was a constant stream of communication with the rig managers and all our superintendents. There are so many moving parts in the field, and you’re trying to work with the operators on achieving their unique goals for their well programs.”
In 2018, H&P created the new data-centric role of Marketing Analyst, a great fit for Ms Kern as she had minored in marketing in university. The role involved gathering and analyzing market research data, along with internal and external metrics. “We spent a lot of time looking at macro-level trends within the drilling industry and commodities markets and examining how those trends could affect H&P decisions,” she said.
Then in 2021, she moved into another newly created role of Senior Industry Affairs Specialist. “We have so many great minds at H&P, many of whom have had a part in some pretty significant movements and accomplishments within the industry in general,” she said, noting that she focused the position on showcasing those accomplishments, both within H&P and within the wider oil and gas industry.
Ms Kern has been involved in a wide scope of SPE and IADC activities over the years, including on the program committees for many industry conferences. One of her favorite events to work on, she said, has been the annual diversity and inclusion session at the IADC/SPE International Drilling Conference. “That’s one of my favorite things about IADC. There’s just an eagerness to grow in areas of diversity and inclusion, membership, mentorship, this mindset of embracing what you don’t know so we can all grow from it. It’s so important that we have these events.”
Coming off her term as inaugural Co-Chair of the IADC Young Professionals Committee, Ms Kern now serves as Co-Chair of the IADC Advanced Rig Technology (ART) Committee, alongside Blaine Dow of SLB. Because the subject of advanced rig technologies is so broad, she said, she and Mr Dow want to focus on deployable initiatives, as well as getting more IADC members involved.
“There is so much going on with advanced rig technology, and the spectrum of topics we’re discussing just gets bigger by the moment,” Ms Kern said. “We want to look at splitting things down and look for projects with a defined scope and execution milestones. We want to make sure that all of those moving parts we’re seeing are actually moving toward a common goal. Blaine and I are hitting the ground running with the ART Committee.” DC