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My Career Hasn’t Transitioned, It Has Evolved

Originally published on LinkedIn

Since I announced my move to a new role as a program manager in Microsoft’s Azure for Energy division, I have received many notes of celebration and curiosity. The heartfelt ones from friends and colleagues messaged directly to me are extremely touching and inspiring. What I will talk about here are the hundreds of other messages I have received – from acquaintances and complete strangers – quizzing me on this move. Questions such as: “How did you jump from geophysics to technology?” “Can I call you some time to pick your brain on becoming a geologist in the cloud?” “Why did you quit geoscience?” and “If you find a position for me, let me know.” That such messages come from a place of fear and desperation at a time of unprecedented job loss is fully apparent to me, but this is exactly the wrong time for panic to dictate how energy professionals craft their future. So, I penned the following thoughts to help. I have struggled with releasing them and in this manner, but it is too important a message to shelve or dance around, and one from which professionals of all stripes and ages can benefit.

The Short Version

My responses to these queries are as follows: “I didn’t,” “No,” “I am still very much a geoscientist,” and “I’ll get right on that.” Technology for geoscience is a journey I have been on for twenty years – one of foresight, preparation, and patience – and opportunity finally struck in 2020, as the industry now has no choice but to catch up. I have master’s degrees in geology and computational science and looked for work like this back when I graduated at the dawn of the century. In the absence of such openings, I took fully geoscience and fully technology roles to build up consequential experience, and even once left oil and gas for a technology research and business development role. There is no magic pill, one-hour conversation, TED talk, or online course that will land a career subsurface professional a viable role in technology. Instead, the requirements are a love of your science, futuristic and risk-taker mindset, track record of learning complex, uncomfortable new things to further your work, and toolkit and human network that takes years to develop and curate. If all you want is a job, this space is probably not for you. Technology companies are really looking for deep hybrids: dynamic individuals who have energy and technology expertise, relevant industry experience and visibility, and vision to expand tech offerings into long-lasting transformational solutions beyond oil and gas. Lastly, here, I am neither safe nor done. There is no arrival, only a long, arduous, exciting, uncertain journey ahead, for which I continue to prepare.

Instead of rushing into another career phase that is now in fashion and then finding yourself in competition with thousands of others who had the same thought, take this time to breathe, imagine and figure out what you really want to do – be it in energy or not, no matter whether such a thing exists yet or not – and follow it with passion and dedication. Furthermore, take the time to form meaningful, giving relationships with individual members of your community instead of collecting and mining contacts, which is just taking. To thine own self and your people be true, all else will come from that.

The Long Version

My life philosophy along with educational and career steps have actively prepared me for this role.

I have always loved science and technology. As far back as I can remember, it was Why and How not What. My parents encouraged and created physical and intellectual zones for my scientific inquisitiveness (thanks, mom and dad), but being biologists and not very tech-inclined, paid little attention to that aspect of my education. Moreover, when I was growing up, engineering, technology and computers were the domain of boys, and the only boy I was supposed to follow was my brother, right into biology and medicine. Thankfully, physical science was so compelling that I went from being math-phobic (true story) to excelling at chemistry, physics, and higher mathematics (thanks, Mr. Kalra).

This fed into to my other passion: calculated risk-taking. Failure for me would have meant not getting into the university, academic program or job of my choice and may even have meant working in relative poverty, but it did not stop me. Take a few measurements and then jump into the unknown. In 1991, my parents bought me a computer which I set up and taught myself to program into the wee hours, and befriended those at my nerd high school who shared and challenged my views on everything from science to books and from politics to music (thanks to too many to name). In taking these intellectual and sometimes physical risks, I discovered geology and more about computing. More vitally, I let in as much as I could on scientific thought and the world and was no longer one thing. There was nothing and no one holding me to one known form, especially me.

After I wrapped up a wonderful BS in Geology at Illinois (thanks, Wang-Ping Chen and Steve Marshak) and MS in Structural Geology at Wisconsin, I passed up an offer of a PhD in Geomechanics to join another MS program in Computational Sciences for Geophysics also at Wisconsin. That decision was made after a summer internship at Mobil Oil in which I interpreted 3D seismic of complex deformation and constructed 3D visual models to compare experimental vs. field examples of transtensional faulting (thanks, Rolf Ackermann).

Geoscience is inherently 3D and 4D. Add to that the mind-blowing size and power of seismic data and attendant compute and harnessing that quantitative information with analytical tools for decision-making, and I was hooked. But not as a novelty and instead as a solemn truth: This is the future. We should all be working this way. Seismic data also made more than a computational impression; interpreting seismic as a geophysicist would be more useful than as a geologist. A seismic image is but a unique solution on which to paint a story. If the data change, so do the interpretation and the story. Morphing my education in this non-traditional way was a difficult decision for which I had extraordinarily little support from my geoscience peers. Many asked why I was leaving geoscience, and some went as far as accusing me of not having been a real geoscientist to begin with. I had to find the courage to tell them I was making myself a different and better geoscientist, and to wait and see.

My second MS taught techniques of computation and visualization which I simultaneously ported over to geophysics (thanks, David Alumbaugh). The short-lived but multi-disciplinary program mandated eight to ten core courses over two years – distributed computing, machine language, scientific visualization, art for visualization, engineering applications software development, and graduate level courses in students’ individual field of study – and a capstone project on a project of our choosing, which in my case was in borehole geophysics. I learned, worked, and created alongside a small group of nuclear engineers, biomedical scientists, climatologists, geographers, anthropologists, artists, and city planners, and that made our individual experiences so much bigger and more widely applicable. My favorite professor in this program was visual artist George Cramer who taught me a crucial story-telling and life lesson: Context is more important than content.

During this master’s program, I interned at another supermajor working on an assignment that included the seismic interpretation of an ultra-deepwater Gulf of Mexico discovery and seismic imaging as well as scripting and visualization techniques for kinematic structural restoration (stretch goals I tacked onto the project once there). At the end of this kick-ass, cutting-edge internship, I was asked by the company’s geoscience discipline manager if I wanted to be a geologist, geophysicist or “IT person” as I couldn’t be “all three” if I wanted a career there.

Fast forward to three months later when I was offered a role in Subsurface Information Technology by Shell in New Orleans. Here was a company that got it, until two years after running the immersive virtual environment and working with innovations in Shell’s impressive internal seismic interpretation tool (thanks, Stacey Lusk), I was asked a similar question, “Do you want to continue on the geophysics track or the IT track?” Not the most progressive of HR offerings, but to Shell’s credit, they wanted me to move up and succeed by becoming a solid interpreter and end user, to inform the interpretation engine and workflows going forward (thanks, Don Haefner, Rocky Detomo, and Keerthi McIntosh). For my next four years at Shell, I focused on learning as much about qualitative and quantitative seismic interpretation as I could. Yet, my heart was elsewhere. Why couldn’t I focus on and be career-rewarded for both geoscience and computing at the same time?

I left Shell in early 2009 to join a small geospatial technology company in northern Ohio, close to my family. While I soon discovered that the job was not a fit for my skills and ambitions, the variety of business opportunities that I managed in this role revealed that I am not simply a scientist, but one with commercial and managerial aptitude. Returning to the oil and gas industry soon after, I was essentially reinvented, with a renewed sense of geoscientific purpose and fresh career goals and aspirations.

The great opportunities at Nexen Petroleum, which later became CNOOC International, helped me grow a meaningful geophysics career (thanks, Jack Gregory and Lei Leu). While at no time did I hold a strictly technology role in nine years, I made it a point to stay close to quantitative and data-rich subsurface exploration and appraisal projects of significant impact to the bottom line. In fact, one of my most fun and valuable roles was working on a deepwater regional team while also a member of the quantitative interpretation team; this helped raise awareness of rock physics and seismic inversion for reservoir properties as a valuable part of the interpretation workflow instead of as a niche or luxury. Instead of waiting to be given opportunities, I petitioned management for and received roles of increasing responsibility (thanks, John Pritchett and Art Leibold), which included project management, people management and business development (thanks, Chris Dillistone and Lana Ellard). In my own time, I took online courses on new methods in scientific programming and mathematics for data science and machine learning, attended interdisciplinary science and technology conferences, made good friends with computationally-inclined geoscientists (thanks, Matt Hall), and read everything I could get my hands on with respect to geo-computing and integrated subsurface interpretation.

At the same time, I actively participated in the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG), the Geophysical Society of Houston (GSH) and other subsurface science and engineering societies. I helped found and grow the SEG Women’s Network (thanks, Klaas Koster) and now serve on the SEG Foundation Board (thanks, Glenn Bear and Anna Shaughnessy). I was also the First Vice President of the GSH (thanks, Amy Rhodes) and threw an exceptional symposium on the modern value of seismic inversion and a number of diversity and inclusion events that have brought together many subsurface women and allies in the Houston area. I am an avid writer, but thanks to social media, I can converse more immediately on topics scientific and not, and delight in my tight online network of geoscientists, scientists, and science enthusiasts.

Why do I do all this? I love people and helping them realize their best possible selves. I also believe strongly in Giving back to the community that made me. In so doing, not only have I constructed a solid network, I have gained reputation, a certain amount of respect, and lifelong friends. You may have noticed through the course of this essay where I stopped to thank some key people who really saw and took a chance on me, let me into their world. If you get nothing else out of this essay, please have this: The notion that each of us is an individual bootstrapper that has come up solely on our own merit is a dangerous myth. It is also indicative of an emotionally immature Taker attitude. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and grow from here because of our communities and the quality of the relationships we have with them. And, as scientists, we cannot serve our work without serving its people honestly and compassionately, expecting nothing in return. If something comes back, it is extra.

The more you learn and keep learning and hold the door open for others to learn and grow, the better you are for it. Unfortunately, humans have two bad habits: 1) They are resistant to change, and 2) Once they have something, they are reluctant to share it with others. These are the Stasis and I’ve Got Mine attitudes, the hobgoblins of little minds, which stand in stark contrast to Dynamic and Growth mindsets. It is never too late in life to start moving and diversifying your heart and brain, to open them up to new people and ideas. Growing into something seemingly new, however, takes a lot of time and preparation, but what it truly requires is courage and kindness starting with yourself. As the philosopher Alain de Botton says in A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success, “Our ideas of what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. They are sucked in from other people … Make sure your ideas of success are your own. We should focus in on our ideas and make sure that we own them, that we are truly the authors of our own ambitions.”

The following is an exercise I find useful in self-replenishing (getting unstuck), innovating and growing generosity: Take a sheet of paper and divide it into two columns. On the left-hand side, note down where and who you are, and on the right where and who you want to be. The trick is in writing down everything and then prioritizing the top three. Once you nail that down, ask if you can live with who and where you are and, if not, what you are going to do about getting to who and where you wish to be. This is hard emotional labor, but an unavoidable requirement to acknowledge and appreciate yourself for who you are, where you have been and the forms you have taken and to get on the road to a better you.

So, this is how I got here and am still going. I did not wake up one day, read the news, and make a switch to technology for energy. Instead, my whole life, education and career have evolved to balance my personal vision with on-the-ground reality. We are geoscientists and engineers, folks, and did not get to this stage of career without imagination and will. But, what we have allowed our careers to do to us is to categorize us, to clip our points to fit one box or another, when in fact, we can and should be this and this and this and that, and to be awesome at it all! On my part, I have spent my life refusing to be siloed and actively aligning myself and working with visionary thinkers, and this is one result. Again, I did not have to get this job and it comes with no guarantees. I am simply thankful long-term preparation finally met opportunity and will continue to work gratefully and graciously toward building a future we all want and deserve. 

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