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Software Engineer Lona Smith Helps ExxonMobil Keep Its Oil Flowing

By Rick Docksai

Oil and gas production is a process whose every step is supported by software engineering. Locating wells, extracting their oil, delivering it to customers across the country— are all enabled with computer systems today. Lona Smith knows this well: She interacts day after day with these systems and the people who operate them as a software developer for ExxonMobil.

lona smith
Lona Smith

“I didn’t always associate software engineering with ExxonMobil, but it’s a big part of the organization. I’m really glad to have found a software engineering job here,” says Smith, who joined ExxonMobil in January 2012 following her graduation one month prior from the software-engineering program at Mississippi State University.

Working With Numbers

As a member of a large team of IT workers, Smith tests and retests software programs—some of it produced in-house, some of it obtained from outside vendors—and, as needed, adds new plug-ins and apps. She’ll also be involved with rewriting some old applications to take advantage of modern programming languages and features. Many times, as old algorithms are rewritten, she will need to draw heavily upon the calculus and advanced math that she learned during her school days.

Smith credits Mississippi State in a huge way with teaching her the skills that she now relies on to get each day’s work done.

“It has been a challenge to learn some of those algorithms. A lot of math is involved,” she says.

Math is critically important to yet another facet of her job: working with in-house geoscientists who survey land areas to locate new potential wells and make business decisions about them. She makes their jobs easier by providing them with software-generated maps and other analytical tools.

Working with the geoscientists and geophysicists presents a bit of a cultural divide, as she acknowledges. Their background is earth sciences, not software engineering, whereas she is highly knowledgeable about software engineering but does not have a lot of formal training in earth sciences.

She and they both speak the language of math, however, and this suffices. Smith confers with them on a regular basis and uses Microsoft Excel spreadsheets and other visuals to go over the data that they are trying to analyze. Using numerical algorithms and mathematical equations, she will help her scientist colleagues understand how she might tailor a software program to solve the problems that they need to solve.

“I became much more familiar with Excel than I ever thought I would be in college,” she explains. “Code can be kind of scary to non-code people, so it’s a nice middle ground. Just being able to show some of the mathematics and being able to organize it in a way that they can understand it better certainly helps.”

Real-World Training

Smith credits Mississippi State in a huge way with teaching her the skills that she now relies on to get each day’s work done. Those skills include training in modeling, designing, and testing software programs. She is also grateful for her alma mater’s intensive lessons in programming.

Project management is yet another skill that she honed as an undergraduate. Several required classes in her junior and senior years revolved around this job skill, she explains.

Then came the crucible of her project-management training: the senior-year capstone project, in which she and her classmates spent an entire year working as a team to design and build a new software app from scratch. They decided upon a Web app that the Army Corps of Engineers could use to take locations of bases and other sites stored in their databases and bring up the coordinates for each in full visual display on Google Earth.

What mattered even more, however, was the thorough planning and sustained commitment that the senior project required. Smith explains that this was indispensable training for the large projects that she now regularly participates in as a team member.

“Having those skills when you’re working on the projects of the scale I’m working on at ExxonMobil is crucial: staying organized and being able to meet expectations and manage what I’m working on,” she says.

A Web of Support

Smith is very pleased with her career life today, but as she acknowledges, she once doubted that she would get here. When she was a freshman, she was very new to the world of software programming and was not sure if she wanted to major in it after all.

“The professors [at Mississippi State University] really want their students to succeed.” Smith says

She told her advisor that she was considering changing her major. He listened, and then he arranged for her to get regular tutoring sessions from a very knowledgeable junior. By the end of the semester, Smith had a solid A in her introductory software-engineering class.

“The professors really want their students to succeed,” she says.

Incidentally, she kept in touch with her tutor long after the tutoring sessions ended. That tutor is now reportedly working as a software engineer for the federal government.

The whole computer-science department enjoyed a strong spirit of community and camaraderie, in fact. Smith recalls department-organized movie nights, tailgating parties, and other friendly socials.

It helped that it was a fairly small program, with only 15 software-engineering students in Smith’s graduating class (the software-engineering program is part and parcel of the larger computer-science department, which Smith says numbered around 60 students in total at her graduation).

“You really get to know your classmates,” she says. “By the time of your senior project, you will probably have gotten to know and worked with everyone on your team.”

A Proud Alumna

Smith is still a frequent sight on the Mississippi State campus. She visited it earlier this year with other ExxonMobil coworkers to recruit more software-engineering students. She also graduated with an MBA in project management. Her undergraduate and graduate experiences made a very positive impression on her, and she makes no secret of it.

“I enjoyed the program,” she says, “which is why I went back.”


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