Thursday, March 19, 2009

OK State Graduates at Chesapeake Energy

Being an effective teacher and advisor requires an understanding of the careers college graduates pursue and the skills they require in those careers. To improve my understanding, I recently visited four of my former students at Chesapeake Energy.  A detailed narrative is provided below, but for those who just want the main points, see the bullet list below.

The Point...
  • Four Ag Econ OK State graduates currently work at Chesapeake Energy, where I visited them in March of 2009.
  • All have jobs that primarily involve managing data using Microsoft Excel.  All spend a majority of their time working in Excel.
  • Instant Messaging, Microsoft ACCESS and other databases, and Spotfire are used as well.
  • Their major form of written communication entails formal emails with data tables and Excel attachments.
  • After graduation, they found to play a pivotal role in finding their careers at Chesapeake.
  • While many suggest obtaining an MBA after obtaining work experience, the reality of going back to school while raising a family makes pursuing an MBA immediately after a Bachelor's Degree preferred.
  • Their happiness in their job stems largely from good colleagues.

My former students and current friends at Chesapeake Energy.

Chesapeake Energy is an impressive company.  Only twenty years old, Chesapeake mines natural gas (and some oil) from Texas to New England. Entering their campus, you immediately feel like you must be at a prestigious private university, but you are not; the campus was recently built using a regal but egalitarian architecture. Employees told me it was important to Aubrey McClendon, the CEO and founder of the company, that the company utilize multiple, shorter buildings instead of one tall building.  The idea was to construct a campus that reflected the decentralized and empowering decision making process utilized by Chesapeake.

While there is one large campus there are also other, off-campus office buildings belong to Chesapeake. Not all of them mimic the beauty of the main campus, but they are modern and notable. Employees have an impressive gym and cafeterias with a large, tasty variety.  They even expect to have a day-care center soon.  Over 2 billion cubic feet are pumped by Chesapeake each day.  Compared with the 64 billion cubic feet consumed by Americans each day, Chesapeake is an important part of everyday American life. 

Given the similarities between energy and agricultural markets, it is not surprising that Chesapeake regularly hires agribusiness graduates.  In March of 2009, I visited four of these graduates to learn what they were doing on the job, and how we can better prepare students for life.  Below, I will discuss each graduate individually.  Their individual stories are useful not just for advisors and teachers, but for the many students who go through college with little idea what they want to do in life--or even a good understanding of what their options are.

Bryan Sloan and Megan Barber

Bryan (shown right) was among the first group of students I taught when I arrived at OK State in 2003.  I remember Bryan well; he sold me his student basketball tickets, helping me develop a love for OSU basketball that I have since maintained.  A student with high grades and notable achievements, it took Bryan several years after graduation to find a place he felt like he belonged. That place was Chesapeake Energy.

Bryan and Megan Barber work in the same office and perform similar jobs, so I discuss them together. Megan has always been one of my favorite students, and I was fortunate to have her in two classes.  She always performed well in class, and after seeing her workplace, know that it must be in part due to her remarkable organizational skills.  Chesapeake was Megan's first job after graduation, and like Bryan, loves both her work and her colleagues.

Megan and Bryan have one major job task: to keep track of the gas being pumped and finding a buyer for a portion of this gas.  A majority of their time is spent using Microsoft Excel, with particular emphasis on the data lookup and reference functions (e.g. if, and, vlookup statements and linking cells between spreadsheets).  When it comes to selling natural gas, they negotiate sales with buyers through instant messaging (i.e. IMing).  Being young and bright, Megan and Bryan had no trouble adopting and using IM.

An average day will proceed as follows.  They arrive at work by 8 AM, and begin downloading data that meter readers input from the internet. These data indicate production of natural gas, and they export these data into Excel.  The next two hours are spent finding buyers for natural gas, negotiating transations through instant messaging.  By 10:00 AM all gas that needs to be sold is sold, and the remainder of their day is spent maintaining their Excel spreadsheets so that they can be effectively used the next day, along with other various tasks. Microsoft Access is used some, but not extensively.  

Lacy McCornack

Lacy not only attended two of my classes, but my wife's class as well, so she is like family to me. I had no doubt Lacy would land a great job and make important contributions to her employer.

Lacy works in the accounting division of Chesapeake, but her job requires more Excel skills than accounting skills-90% of her job is spent within Excel.  Her main job entails making sure the sales taxes from Chesapeake purchases are made correctly.  Most of us are used to paying sales taxes directly at the point of purchase, but for many purchases of large firms like Chesapeake, what tax should be paid on what purchase is not a straightforward question.  Answering this question is Lacy's job. It does not sound fun, Lacy admits.  For reasons difficult to explain, she does enjoy her job though.  Current students can take refuge in the fact that many of the business jobs that have boring job descriptions may actually be engaging and rewarding.

Soon after taking her job, Lacy contacted me noting that her boss requested she perform a data analysis that utilized regression.  Her job was to study the relationship between two variables, one a physical measurement and one a cost number.  Hopefully, Lacy's many classes in Excel, statistics, and algebra prepared her well for this assignment!  If any student wonders why they should learn algebra, computer software, or statistics, they should see Lacy for an answer!

Jason Elder

I fear this narrative may become redundant, but my former student and Chesapeake employee Jason Elder spends a significant amount of time in Excel.  Mr. Elder was a superb student, and with his many undergraduate honors and his subsequent MBA from OK State, he quickly found a professional home at Chesapeake.

When I visited his office, he had two large monitors opened to colorful, complex spreadsheets.  Jason's job is to keep track of wells being drilled so that Chesapeake knows when oil or gas will begin pumping and how much to expect from each well being constructed. Biweekly, Jason attends a long meeting to discuss wells coming online, and to communicate this information he relies on effective graphing tools.  It is at this point where Jayson requires something in addition to Excel.  While about 50% of his job entails working within Excel, he utilizes the program Spotfire for the type of graphs he needs to produce.  One aspect of Jason's job--that I have seen numerous times on similar visits--is that a large portion of a data analyst's job is not just to purge data, but to find a way to clearly communicate the data to others.  Every agribusiness graduate should be able to construct a clear Excel chart of graph quickly--every agribusiness student.

A Potential Agribusiness Career

Brent Williams was not an agribusiness student, nor did he take an agricultural economics class. Instead, he obtained an M.S. in management and an MBA and Oklahoma Christian University, and today is a hedging analyst for Chesapeake. However, an agribusiness student could easily become a hedging analyst, so it is worth chatting with Brent also.  Agribusiness degrees are very similar to management degrees, and agribusiness students can easily go on to obtain an MBA. 

Mr. William's career is interesting because he utilizes many of the concepts taught in agribusiness classes; including futures markets, hedging, and risk management.  Chesapeake relies extensively on hedging to manage their risk, and they provide an excellent narrative of their hedging philosophy here.

For those who teach hedging, it might be useful to know that Chesapeake does not usually hedge by selling natural gas futures contracts, such as those on the NYMEX exchange, but instead uses an investment bank to arrange the contract.  The concept is the same, except that the bank (referred to as a third-party by Brent) facilitates the hedge instead of a clearinghouse.  Teachers might also find interesting the fact that the major reason Chesapeake likes to hedge is so that they can manage their cash flow properly.  Put simply, it helps them plan, and make sure they can always pay their bills.


My conversations with these friends brought forth a few other notable thoughts.

  • The system for finding jobs is superb!  Bryan Sloan found that even more than a year after graduating, he could use it to help him find his career at Chesapeake.
  • Career Fairs are important.  Megan Barber went to agricultural and business school career fairs, and even career fairs in Oklahoma City and Tulsa.  If Megan had only attended local career fairs, she might not have the tremendous job she now possesses!
  • Don't be impatient looking for a job.  You will spend most of your life at work, so if you are not happy at work, you are in for a miserable life.  For this reason, Lacy suggests that students look around and do not feel like they have to accept the first offer (except maybe in today's economy).  If it takes time to find a job where you will be happy, consider the time taken an investment, not a waste.
  • Businesses communicate via email with attachments.  Teachers would serve their students better by focusing more on writing succinct email documents using proper etiquette than research reports.  Little things like alerting the reader to exactly what the email and the email attachment corresponds to may sound obvious, but without a course explicitly teaching and reinforcing this fact, the graduate may find herself sending confusing documents and getting off to a bad start with her employer.
  • All graduates wish they had paid more attention in school.  Students are sometimes surprised how relevant courses can be.
  • MBA's are a valuable accomplishment to possess, and it is okay to seek an MBA immediately after a Bachelor's Degree.  Both Jason and Brent lamented that their MBA might had served them better if they had earned a few years of work experience before their MBA.  However, when confronted with the difficulty of earning an MBA while married with children, they did not regret earning their MBA immediately after graduation.
  • You cannot learn too much Excel in college.
  • Students wish they learned more practical business skills, such as how to calculate the amount one should invest for retirement.

It brings me great pleasure to see my former students become successful and happy in life.  Now that they are professionals, they have much to tell professors and current students about what constitutes a successful college and after-college career.  Hopefully, the notes on my conversations with Megan, Bryan, Lacy, and Jason will help current and future students lead an equally successful life.