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Recent circumstances had me riding shotgun in a stranger's SUV, making the long but spectacular drive from Calgary, Alberta to Fernie, British Columbia. An hour or so into our 4 hour trip we had harvested most of the low-hanging weather and sports topics, and I thought I'd try and lead us into more substantive areas.

“What do you do for a living, Paul?” I asked my driver.

“I work in the oil and gas industry here in Alberta. Business is absolutely booming these days,” he said.

Canada, he explained, pumps huge amounts of oil and gas out of the ground, both for itself and for export. It's the world's 3rd largest natural gas producer and 9th largest producer of oil. Most of this comes from fields in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan, and in the Norwest Territories close to the Arctic Circle.

“So do you work on the rigs?” I asked.

“Not exactly,” Paul laughed. “I'm on the telecommunications side of things. My company sells satellite phones to oil and gas companies. That's the only way the home office can communicate with their remote exploration and drilling operations.

“My father and older brother own the company and I market and do some selling for them. But I did work as a roughneck on a rig for 6 months not too long ago.”

Intrigued by this last remark--he definitely didn't look the roughneck type to me--and hungry to learn more about the industry and the technology I pressed him for details: Who are the big players? How deep are the wells? How long does it take to drill one? How does the equipment operate? What are the dangers? What's it like to live out in the middle of nowhere for months at a stretch?

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Basil Harris, Jr. is the founder and president of MarketStreams (www.marketstreams.com), a strategic and product marketing consulting firm based in New Hampshire. He can be reached at bharrisjr@marketstreams.com