Wildcats@Work with Barry Abbott

Aviva Doery,
Barry Abbott's career has taken him to four continents! We caught up with him to learn what it is like to live and work in so many different countries.

Tell us about your career path from the UA to retirement.

I got two degrees from the UA, a bachelor's and a master's in civil engineering. In ’74 I went to work in Chicago for Chicago Bridge and Iron which was a specialist engineering construction company for anything made of steel. The joke always was that they didn’t build bridges and they didn’t use iron! One of the reasons I took that job was because they had a training program so for the first two years you got to go work in various parts of the construction line. After that you mutually decide which job was a good fit for you. So I ended up going into offshore structures for three years.

I left to go work back out west for a small engineering architectural firm. After a short time, my boss and mentor left and went to work for Chevron in San Francisco. Eventually I followed him there in 1980 and I worked again in offshore structural development. This was a very large offshore platform, about 600 feet in depth with a 20K ton substructure which had to be built in either Japan or Korea. So we ended up moving to Japan, my wife and daughter and I, for about two years on that project. We came back to the Bay Area to install the structure near the central California coast. I moved up from team leader to project manager and had more flexibility to travel and work internationally. I worked on deep-water projects in Australia and Angola for about three years each and then over to Canada for a couple of years before coming back to the Bay Area. I continued to work on projects around the world but was based in California.

I retired from Chevron in 2008 with the intent of doing some consulting which I started about six months later for an oil company in Switzerland. I ended up coming on as a full-time employee and my wife and I moved to Geneva for a while. It was definitely a different experience from working for a big, American-based company. We had about 250 people in the office and about 50 different nationalities. I finally really retired in 2011 at 64 and continued doing some consulting on the side. When the oil prices took a hit in 2014, deep-water projects became quite un-economical so I have fully retired since then. Now I volunteer in the College of Engineering in their leadership course where I mentor some students and give presentations about once a semester.

What is it like to work in various countries around the world?

Japanese culture is totally different than American or European culture so from a personal and business standpoint, we had to learn more about the culture. One day our daughter came home from kindergarten, she was the only non-Japanese student. So at 4 years old she was learning Japanese and came home and asked, “why don’t the Japanese ever say iie”, which means no in Japanese. My wife and I laughed and told her it’s just part of their culture but what I learned was that their way of saying no was very different. So when the project manager says, “well that will be very difficult” what that meant was there was no way they were going to do it! I learned that the Japanese are very honest and have a very strong quality approach to their business.

Angola was a Portuguese colony for 400 years and there was a revolution in 1975 followed by a civil war between communist and democratic forces. My wife and I arrived in 1997 and the civil war was still on. We stayed in the capital of Rwanda so from a safety standpoint we weren’t as concerned. We had a house with 24-hour guard but mostly to deter theft. We really learned to appreciate the Angolan people through getting to know the guards, the housekeeper and a lot of the people that I worked with. From a professional standpoint, I learned that they really wanted to get things done and they were very appreciative of expats because we brought in expertise to train and develop Angolan engineers. So we developed good relationships but were limited in our freedom to go and see the rest of the country because of the civil unrest.

How do you maintain a work-life balance in a global profession?

They key thing for me was I married the right person! My wife was very adventurous and interested in traveling. When we were making those transitions she would handle an awful lot of the personal aspects. Sometimes you’re selling houses, cars and having to buy new things. Without her help there’s no way I could have done it. So you have to have a partner that will support you through all those changes.

What’s the best advice you were ever given?

Don't think about promotions and competing with coworkers. Do your current job to the best of your ability including being a strong teammate and opportunities with come your way.

If you would like to be featured in Wildcats@Work, contact Aviva Doery at aviva.doery@al.arizona.edu.