Training digital scientists

Gulp. My first post in… a while. Life, work, chaos, ideas — it all caught up with me recently. I’ve missed the blog greatly, and felt a regular pang of guilt at letting it gather dust. But I’m back! The 200+ draft posts in my backlog ain’t gonna write themselves. Thank you for returning and reading this one.


Recently I wrote about our continuing adventures in training; since I wrote that post in April, we’ve taught another 166 people. It occurred to me that while teaching scientists to code, we’ve also learned a bit about how to teach, and I wanted to share that too. Perhaps you will be inspired to share your skills, and together we can have exponential impact.

Wanting to get better

As usual, it all started with not knowing how to do something, doing it anyway, then wanting to get better.

We started teaching in 2014 as rank amateurs, both as coders and as teachers. But we soon discovered the ‘teaching tech’ subculture among computational scientists. In particular, we found Greg Wilson and the Software Carpentry movement he started. By that point, it had been around for many, many years. Incredibly, Software Carpentry has helped more than 34,000 researchers ‘go digital’. The impact on science can’t be measured.

Eager as ever, we signed up for the instructor’s course. It was fantastic. The course, taught by Greg Wilson himself, perfectly modeled the thing it was offering to teach you: “Do what I say, and what I do”. This is, of course, critically important in all things, especially teaching. We accepted the content so completely that I’m not even sure we graduated. We just absorbed it and ran with it, no doubt corrupting it on the way. But it works for us.

What to read

TTT_rules.png

I should preface what follows by telling you that I haven’t taken any other courses on the subject of teaching. For all I know, there’s nothing new here. That said, I have never experienced a course like Greg Wilson’s, so either the methods he promotes are not widely known, or they’re widely ignored, or I’ve been really unlucky.

The easiest way to get Greg Wilson’s wisdom is probably to read his book-slash-website, Teaching Tech Together. (It’s free, but you can get a hard copy if you prefer.) It’s really good. You can get the vibe — and much of the most important advice — from the ten Teaching Tech Together rules laid out on the main page of that site (box, right).

As you can probably tell, most of it is about parking your ego, plus most of your knowledge (for now), and orientating everything — every single thing — around the learner.

If you want to go deeper, I also recommend reading the excellent, if rather academic, How Learning Works, by Susan Ambrose (Northeastern University) and others. It’s strongly research-driven, and contains a lot of great advice. In particular, it does a great job of listing the factors that motivate students to learn (and those that demotivate them), and spelling out the various ways in which students acquire mastery of a subject.

How to practice

It goes without saying that you’ll need to teach. A lot. Not surprisingly, we find we get much better if we teach several courses in a short period. If you’re diligent, take a lot of notes and study them before the next class, maybe it’s okay if a few weeks or months go by. But I highly doubt you can teach once or twice a year and get good at it.

Something it took us a while to get comfortable with is what Evan calls ‘mistaking’. If you’re a master coder, you might not make too many mistakes (but your expertise means you will have other problems). If you’re not a master (join the club), you will make a lot of mistakes. Embracing everything as a learning opportunity is less awkward for you, and for the students — dealing with mistakes is a core competency for all programmers.

Reflective practice means asking for, and then acting on, student feedback — every day. We ask students to write it on sticky notes. Reading these back to the class the next morning is a good way to really read it. One of the many benefits of ‘never teach alone’ is always having someone to give you feedback from another teacher’s perspective too. Multi-day courses let us improve in real time, which is good for us and for the students.

Some other advice:

  • Keep the student:instructor ratio to no more than ten; seven or eight is better.

  • Take a packet of orange and a packet of green Post-It notes. Use them for names, as ‘help me’ flags, and for feedback.

  • When teaching programming, the more live coding — from scratch — you can do, the better. While you code, narrate your thought process. This way, students are able to make conections between ideas, code, and mistakes.

  • To explain concepts, draw on a whiteboard. Avoid slides whenever possible.

  • Our co-teacher John Leeman likes to say, “I just showed you something new, what questions do you have?” This beats “Any questions?” for opening the door to engagement.

  • “No-one left behind” is a nice idea, but it’s not always practical. If students can’t devote 100% to the class and then struggle because of it, you owe it to the the others to politely suggest they pick the class up again next time.

  • Devote some time to the practical application of the skills you’re teaching, preferably in areas of the participants’ own choosing. In our 5-day class, we devote a whole day to getting students started on their own projects.

  • Don’t underestimate the importance of a nice space, natural light, good food, and frequent breaks.

  • Recognize everyone’s achievement with a small gift at the end of the class.

  • Learning is hard work. Finish early every day.

Give it a try

If you’re interested in help people learn to code, the most obvious way to start is to offer to assist or co-teach in someone else’s class. Or simply start small, offering a half-day session to a few co-workers. Even if you only recently got started yourself, they’ll appreciate the helping hand. If you’re feeling really confident, or have been coding for a year or two at least, try something bolder — maybe offer a one-day class at a meeting or conference. You will find plenty of interest.

There are few better ways to improve your own skills than to teach. And the feeling of helping people develop a valuable skill is addictive. If you give it a try, let us know how you get on!

Feel superhuman: learning and teaching geocomputing

Diego teaching in Houston in 2018.

Diego teaching in Houston in 2018.

It’s five years since we started teaching Python to geoscientists. To be honest, it might have been premature. At the time, Evan and I were maybe only two years into serious, daily use of Python. But the first class, at the Atlantic Geological Society’s annual meeting in February 2014, was free so the pressure was not too high. And it turns out that only being a step or two ahead of your students can be an advantage. Your ‘expert blind spot’ is partially sighted not completely blind, because you can clearly remember being a noob.

Being a noob is a weird, sometimes very uncomfortable, even scary, feeling for some people. Many of us are used to feeling like experts, at least some of the time. Happy, feeling like a noob is a core competency in programming. Learning new things is a more or less hourly experience for coders. Even a mature language like Python evolves fast enough that it’s hard to keep up. Instead of feeling threatened or exhausted by this, I think the best strategy is to enjoy it. You’ll never be done, there are (way) more questions than answers, and you can learn forever!

One of the bootcamp groups at the Copenhagen hackathon in 2018

One of the bootcamp groups at the Copenhagen hackathon in 2018

This week we’re teaching our 40th course. Last year alone we gave digital superpowers to 325 people, mostly geoscientists, Not all of them learned to code, as such — some people already could, and some found out theydidn’t like it… coding really isn’t for everyone. But I think all of them learned something new about technology, and how it can serve them and their science. I hope all of them look at spreadsheets, and Petrel, and websites differently now. I think most of them want, at some point, to learn more. And everyone is excited about machine learning.

The expanding community of quantitative earth scientists

This year we’ve already spent 50 days teaching, and taught 174 people. Imagine that! I get emotional when I think about what these hundreds of new digital geoscientists and engineers will go and do with their new skills. I get really excited when I see what they are already doing — when they come to hackathons, send us screenshots, or write papers with beautiful figures. If the joy of sharing code and collaborating with peers has also rubbed off on them, there’s no telling where it could lead.

Matt teaching in Aberdeen in October 2018

Matt teaching in Aberdeen in October 2018

The last nine months or so have been an adventure. Teaching is not supposed to be what Agile is about. We’re a consulting company, a technology company. But for now we’re mostly a training company — it’s where we’re needed. And it makes sense... Programming is fundamentally about knowledge sharing. Teaching is about helping, collaborating. It’s perfect for us.

Besides, it’s a privilege and a thrill to meet all these fantastically smart, motivated people and to hear about their projects and their plans. Sometimes I wish it didn’t mean leaving my family in Nova Scotia and flying to Houston and London and Kuala Lumpur and Kalamazoo… but mostly I wish we could do more of it. Especially when we get comments like these:

Given how ‘dry’ programming can be, it was DYNAMIC.”
”Excellent teachers with geoscience background.”
”Great instructors, so so approachable, even for newbies like me.”
”Great course [...] Made me realize what could be done in a short time.”
”My only regret was not taking a class like this sooner.”
”Very positive, feel superhuman.

How many times have you felt superhuman at work recently?

The courses we teach are evolving and expanding in scope. But they all come back to the same thing: growing digital skills in our profession. This is critical because using computers for earth science is really hard. Why? The earth is weird. We’ve spent hundreds of years honing conceptual models, understanding deep time, and figuring out complex spatial relationships.

If data science eats the subsurface without us, we’re all going to get indigestion. Society needs to better understand the earth — for all sorts of reasons — and it’s our duty to build and adopt the most powerful analytical tools available so that we can help.


Learning resources

If you can’t wait to get started, here are some suggestions:

Classroom courses are a big investment in dollars and time, but they can get you a long way really quickly. Our courses are built especially for subsurface scientists and engineers. As far as I know, they are the only ones of their kind. If you think you’d like to take one, talk to us, or look out for a public course. You can find out more or sign up for email alerts here >> https://agilescientific.com/training/

Last thing: I suggest avoiding DataCamp, because of sexual misconduct by an executive, compounded by total inaction, dishonest obfuscation, and basically failing spectacularly. Even their own trainers have boycotted them. Steer clear.

The new reality

In Calgary last week I heard the phrase "when the industry recovers" several times. Dean Potter even went so far as to say:

Don’t believe anyone who says ‘It’s different this time’. It isn’t.

He knows what he's talking about — the guy sold his company to Vermillion in 2014 for $427 million.

But I think he's dead wrong.

What's different this time?

A complete, or at least non-glacially-slow, recovery seems profoundly unlikely to me. We might possibly be through the 'everything burns to the ground' phase, but the frenzy of mergers and takeovers has barely started. That will take at least a couple of years. If and when any stability returns to operations, it seems highly probable that it will have these features:

  1. It will be focused on shale. (Look at the Permian Basin today.)
  2. It will need fewer geoscientists. (There are fewer geological risks.)
  3. It will be driven by data. (We have barely started on this.)
  4. It will end in another crash. (Hungry animals bolt their food.)

If you're a geoscientist and have never worked find-grained plays, I think the opportunities in front of you are going to be different from the ones you're used to. And by 'different', I mean 'scarcer'.

Where else can you look?

It may be time to think about a pivot, if you haven't already. (Pivot is lean-startup jargon for 'plan B' (or C). And I don't think it's a bad idea to think of yourself, or any business, as a start-up. Indeed, if you don't, you're headed for obsolescence.)

What would you pivot to? What's your plan B? If you think of petroleum geoscience as having a position in a matrix, think about our neighbours in that matrix. Industries are vertical; disciplines are horizontal.

Opportunities in neighbouring cells are probably within relatively easy reach. Think about:

  • Near surface: archaeology, UXO detection, engineering geophysics.
  • Geomatics, remote sensing, and geospatial analysis. Perhaps in mining or geothermal energy.
  • Stepping out of industry into education or government. People with applied knowledge have a lot to offer.
  • Making contacts in a new industry like finance or medicine. Tip: go to a conference. Talk to everyone you can find.

Think about your technical skills more broadly

I don't know where those new opportunities will come from, but I think it only takes a small shift in perspective to spot them. Think of your purpose, not your tasks. For example:

  • Many geophysicists are great quantitative scientists. If you know linear algebra or geostatistics and write code too, you have much sought-after skills in any industry.
  • Many geologists are great at spatial analysis. If you can wield geodatabases and GIS software like a wizard, you are a valuable asset to any industry.
  • Many engineers are great at project management and analytics. If you have broken out of Excel and can drive Spotfire or Tableau, you are gold in any industry.

If you forgot to keep your skills up to date and are locked into clicking buttons in Petrel, or making PowerPoint maps of the Cardium, or fiddling with charts in Excel, I'm not sure what to tell you. Everyone has those skills. You're yesterday's geoscientist and you don't have a second to lose. 

Working without a job

I have drafted variants of this post lots of times. I've never published them because advice always feels... presumptuous. So let me say: I don't have any answers. But I do know that the usual way of 'finding work' doesn't work any more, so maybe the need for ideas, or just hope, has grown. 

Lots of people are out of work right now. I just read that 120,000 jobs have been lost in the oil industry in the UK alone. It's about the same order of magnitude in Canada, maybe as much as 200,000. Indeed, several of my friends — smart, uber-capable professionals — are newly out of jobs. There's no fat left to trim in operator or service companies... but the cuts continue. It's awful.

The good news is that I think we can leave this downturn with a new, and much better, template for employment. The idea is to be more resilient for 'next time' (the coming mergers, the next downturn, the death throes of the industry, that sort of thing).

The tragedy of the corporate professional 

At least 15 years ago, probably during a downturn, our corporate employers started telling us that we are responsible for our own careers. This might sound like a cop-out, maybe it was even meant as one, but really it's not. Taken at face value, it's a clear empowerment.

My perception is that most professionals did not rise to the challenge, however. I still hear, literally all the time, that people can't submit a paper to a conference, or give a talk, or write a blog, or that they can't take a course, or travel to a workshop. Most of the time this comes from people who have not even asked, they just assume the answer will be No. I worry that they have completely given in; their professional growth curtailed by the real or imagined conditions of their employment.

More than just their missed opportunity, I think this is a tragedy for all of us. Their expertise effectively gone from the profession, these lost scientists are unknown outside their organizations.

Many organizations are happy for things to work out that way, but when they make the situation crystal clear by letting people go, the inequity is obvious. The professional realizes, too late, that the career they were supposed to be managing (and perhaps thought they were managing by completing their annual review forms on time) was just that — a career, not a job. A career spanning multiple jobs and, it turns out, multiple organizations.

I read on LinkedIn recently someone wishing recently let-go people good luck, hoping that they could soon 'resume their careers'. I understand the sentiment, but I don't see it the same way. You don't stop being a professional, it's not a job. Your career continues, it's just going in a different direction. It's definitely not 'on hold'. If you treat it that way, you're missing an opportunity, perhaps the best one of your career so far.

What you can do

Oh great, unsolicited advice from someone who has no idea what you're going through. I know. But hey, you're reading a blog, what did you expect? 

  • Do you want out? If you think you might want to leave the industry and change your career in a profound way, do it. Start doing it right now and don't look back. If your heart's not in this work, the next months and maybe years are really not going to be fun. You're never going to have a better run at something completely different.
  • You never stop being a professional, just like a doctor never stops being a doctor. If you're committed to this profession, grasp and believe this idea. Your status as such is unrelated to the job you happen to have or the work you happen to be doing. Regaining ownership of our brains would be the silveriest of linings to this downturn.
  • Your purpose as a professional is to offer help and advice, informed by your experience, in and around your field of expertise. This has not changed. There are many, many channels for this purpose. A job is only one. I firmly believe that if you create value for people, you will be valued and — eventually — rewarded.
  • Establish a professional identity that exists outside and above your work identity. Get your own business cards. Go to meetings and conferences on your own time. Write papers and articles. Get on social media. Participate in the global community of professional geoscientists. 
  • Build self-sufficiency. Invest in a powerful computer and fast Internet. Learn to use QGIS and OpendTect. Embrace open source software and open data. If and when you get some contracting work, use Tick to count hours, Wave for accounting and invoicing, and Todoist to keep track of your tasks. 
  • Find a place to work — I highly recommend coworking spaces. There is one near you, I can practically guarantee it. Trust me, it's a much better place to work than home. I can barely begin to describe the uplift, courage, and inspiration you will get from the other entrepreneurs and freelancers in the space.
  • Find others like you, even if you can't get to a coworking space, your new peers are out there somewhere. Create the conditions for collaboration. Find people on meetup.com, go along to tech and start-up events at your local university, or if you really can't find anything, organize an event yourself! 
  • Note that there are many ways to make a living. Money in exchange for time is one, but it's not a very efficient one. It's just another hokey self-help business book, but reading The 4-Hour Workweek honestly changed the way I look at money, time, and work forever.
  • Remember entrepreneurship. If you have an idea for a new product or service, now's your chance. There's a world of making sh*t happen out there — you genuinely do not need to wait for a job. Seek out your local startup scene and get inspired. If you've only ever worked in a corporation, people's audacity will blow you away.

If you are out of a job right now, I'm sorry for your loss. And I'm excited to see what you do next.

What now?

Times are rock hard in industry right now.

If you have a job, you're lucky — you have probably already survived one round of layoffs. There will likely be more, especially when the takeovers start, which they will. I hope you survive those too. 

If you don't have a job, you probably feel horrible, but of course that won't get you anywhere. I heard one person call it an 'involuntary sabbatical', and I love that: it's the best chance you'll get to re-invent, re-learn, and find new direction. 

If you're a student, you must be looking out over the wasteland and wondering what's in store for you. What on earth?

More than one person has asked me recently about Agile. "You got out," they say, "how did you do it?" So instead of bashing out another email, I thought I'd blog about it.

Consulting in 2015

I didn't really get out, of course, I just quit and moved to rural Nova Scotia.

Living out here does make it harder to make a living, and things on this side of the fence, so to speak, are pretty gross too I'm afraid. Talking to others at SEG suggested that I'm not alone among small companies in this view. A few of the larger outfits seem to be doing well: IKON and GeoTeric for instance, but they also have product, which at least offers some income diversity. 

Agile started as a 100% bootstrapped effort to be a consulting firm that's more directly useful to individual professional geoscientists than anyone else. Most firms target corporate accounts and require permission, a complicated contract, an AFE, and 3 months of bureaucracy to hire. It turns out that professionals are unable or unwilling to engage on that lower, grass-roots level, though — turns out almost everyone thinks you actually need permission, contracts, AFEs, etc, to get hired in any capacity, even just "Help me tie this well." So usually we are hired into larger, longer-term projects, just like anyone else.

I still think there's something in this original idea — the Uberification of consulting services, if you will — maybe we'll try again in a few years.

But if you are out of work and were thinking of getting out there as a consultant... I'm an optimistic person, but unless you are very well known (for being awesome), it's hard for me to honestly recommend even trying. It's just not the reality right now. We've been lucky so far, because we work in geothermal and government as well as in petroleum, but oil & gas was over half our revenue last year. It will be about 0% of it this year, maybe slightly less.

The transformation of Agile

All of which is to explain why we are now, since January, consciously and deliberately turning ourselves into a software technology R&D company. The idea is to be less dependent on our dysfunctional industry, and less dependent on geotechnical work. We build new tools for hard problems — data problems, interpretation problems, knowledge sharing problems. And we're really good at it.

We hired another brilliant programmer in August, and we're all learning more every day about our playground of scientific computing and the web — machine learning, cloud services, JavaScript frameworks, etc. The first thing we built was modelr.io, which is still in active development. Our latest project is around our tool pickthis.io. I hope it works out because it's the most fun I've had on a project in ages. Maybe these projects spin out of Agile, maybe we keep them in-house.

So that's our survival plan: invent, diversify, and re-tool like crazy. And keep blogging.

F**k it

Some people are saying, "things will recover, sit it out" but I think that's awful — the very worst — advice. I honestly think your best bet right now* is to find an accomplice, set aside 6 months and some of your savings, push everything off your desk, and do something totally audacious. 

Something you can't believe no-one has thought of doing yet.

Whatever it was you just thought of — that's the thing.

You might as well get started.


* Unless you have just retired, are very well connected in industry, have some free time, and want to start a new, non-commercial project that will profoundly benefit the subsurface community for the next several decades at least. Because I'd like to talk to you about another audacious plan...

On answering questions

On Tuesday I wrote about asking better questions. One of the easiest ways to ask better questions is to hang back a little. In a lecture, the answer to your question may be imminent. Even if it isn't, some thinking or research will help. It's the same with answering questions. Better to think about the question, and maybe ask clarifying questions, than to jump right in with "Let me explain".

Here's a slightly edited example from Earth Science Stack Exchange

I suppose natural gas underground caverns on Earth have substantial volume and gas is in gaseous form there. I wonder how it would look like inside such cavern (with artificial light of course). Will one see a rocky sky at big distance?

The first answer was rather terse:

What is a good answer?

This answer, addressing the apparent misunderstanding the OP (original poster) has about gas being predominantly found in caverns, was the first thing that occurred to me too. But it's incomplete, and has other problems:

  • It's not very patient, and comes across as rather dismissive. Not very welcoming for this new user.
  • The reference is far from being an appropriate one, and seems to have been chosen randomly.
  • It only addresses sandstone reservoirs, and even then only 'typical' ones.

In my own answer to the question, I tried to give a more complete answer. I tried to write down my principles, which are somewhat aligned with the advice given on the Stack Exchange site:

  1. Assume the OP is smart and interested. They were smart and curious enough to track down a forum and ask a question that you're interested enough in to answer, so give them some credit. 
  2. No bluffing! If you find yourself typing something like, "I don't know a lot about this, but..." then stop writing immediately. Instead, send the question to someone you know that can give a better answer then you.
  3. If possible, answer directly and clearly in the first sentence. I usually write it in bold. This should be the closest you can get to a one-word answer, especially if it was a direct question. 
  4. Illustrate the answer with an example. A picture or a numerical example — if possible with working code in an accessible, open source language — go a long way to helping someone get further. 
  5. Be brief but thorough. Round out your answer with some different angles on the question, especially if there's nuance in your answer. There's no need for an essay, so instead give links and references if the OP wants to know more.
  6. Make connections. If there are people in your community or organization who should be connected, connect them.

It's remarkable how much effort people are willing to put into a great answer. A question about detecting dog paw-prints on a pressure pad, posted to the programming community Stack Overflow, elicited some great answers.

The thread didn't end there. Check out these two answers by Joe Kington, a programmer–geoscientist in Houston:

  • One epic answer with code and animated GIFs, showing how to make a time-series of pawprints.
  • A second answer, with more code, introducing the concept of eigenpaws to improve paw recognition.

A final tip: writing informative answers might be best done on Wikipedia or your corporate wiki. Instead of writing a long response to the post, think about writing it somewhere more accessible, and instead posting a link to your answer. 

What do you think makes a good answer to a question? Have you ever received an answer that went beyond helpful? 

On asking questions

If I had only one hour to solve a problem, I would spend up to two-thirds of that hour in attempting to define what the problem is. — Anonymous Yale professor (often wrongly attributed to Einstein)

Asking questions is a core skill for professionals. Asking questions to know, to understand, to probe, to test. Anyone can feel exposed asking questions, because they feel like they should know or understand already. If novices and 'experts' alike have trouble asking questions, if your community or organization does not foster a culture of asking, then there's a problem.

What is a good question?

There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question. — Carl Sagan

Asking good questions is the best way to avoid the problem of feeling silly or — worse — being thought silly. Here are some tips from my experience in Q&A forums at work and on the Internet:

  1. Do some research. Go beyond a quick Google search — try Google Scholar, ask one or two colleagues for help, look in the index of a couple of books. If you have time, stew on it for a day or two. Do enough to make sure the answer isn't widely known or trivial to find. Once you've decided to ask a network...
  2. Ask your question in the right forum. You will save yourself a lot of time by going taking the trouble to find the right place — the place where the people most likely to be able to help you are. Avoid the shotgun approach: it's not considered good form to cross-post in multiple related forums.
  3. Make the subject or headline a direct question, with some relevant detail. This is how most people will see your question and decide whether to even read the rest of it. So "Help please" or "Interpretation question" are hopeless. Much better is something like "How do I choose seismic attribute parameters?" or "What does 'replacement velocity' mean?".
  4. Provide some detail, and ideally an image. A bit of background helps. If you have a software or programming problem, just enough information needed to reproduce the problem is critical. Tell people what you've read and where your assumptions are coming from. Tell people what you think is going on.
  5. Manage the question. Make sure early comments or answers seem to get your drift. Edit your question or respond to comments to help people help you. Follow up with new questions if you need clarification, but make a whole new thread if you're moving into new territory. When you have your answer, thank those who helped you and make it clear if and how your problem was solved. If you solved your own problem, post your own answer. Let the community know what happened in the end.

If you really want to cultivate your skills of inquiry, here is some more writing on the subject...

Supply and demand

Knowledge sharing networks like Stack Exchange, or whatever you use at work, often focus too much on answers. Capturing lessons learned, for example. But you can't just push knowledge at people — the supply and demand equation has two sides — there has to be a pull too. The pull comes from questions, and an organization or community that pulls, learns.

Do you ask questions on knowledge networks? Do you have any advice for the curious? 


Don't miss the next post, On answering questions.

How do I become a quantitative interpreter?

TLDR: start doing quantitative interpretation.

I just saw this question on reddit/r/geophysics

I always feel a bit sad when I read this sort of question, which is even more common on LinkedIn, because it reminds me that we (in the energy industry at least) have built recruiting patterns and HR practices that make it look as if professionals have career tracks or have to build CVs to impress people or get permission to train in a new area. This is all wrong.

Or, to be more precise, we can treat this as all wrong and have a lot more fun in the process.

If you are a 'geologist' or 'geophysicist', then you are in control of your own career and what you apply yourself to. No-one is telling you what to do, they are only telling you what they need. How you do it, the methods you apply, the products you build — all this is completely up to you. This is almost the whole point of being a professional.

The replies to Timbledon's question include this one:

I disagree with Schwa88. Poor Timbledon doesn't need another degree. Rock physics is not a market, and not new. There are no linear tracks. And there is no clear or useful distinction between rock physics and quantitative interpretation (or petrophysics, or seismic geophysics) — I bet there are no two self-identifying quantitative interpreters with identical, or even similar, job or educational histories.

As for 'now is not the time'... I can't even... 'Now' is the only time you can do anything about, so work with it.

OK, enough ranting, what should Timbledon do?

It's easy! The best way to pursue quantitative interpretation, or pretty much anything except pediatric cardiology, is to just start doing it. It really is that simple. My advice is to use quantitative methods in every project you touch, and in doing so you will immediately outperform most interpreters. Talk to anyone and everyone about your interest and share your insights. Volunteer for projects. Go to talks. Give talks. To help you find your passion, take the time to learn about some big things:

  • Rock physics, e.g. the difference between static and dynamic elasticity.
  • Seismic processing, e.g. what surface consistent deconvolution and trim statics are.
  • Seismic interpretation, e.g. seismic geomorphology and seismic stratigraphy.
  • Seismic analysis, e.g. the difference between Zoeppritz, Fatti, and Shuey.
  • Statistics, e.g. when you need multilinear regression, or K-means clustering.

Those are just examples. If you're more into X-ray diffraction in clays, or the physics of crystalline rocks, or fluid properties, or wellbore seismic, or time-lapse effects, or whatever — learn about those things instead.

Whatever you do, Timbledon, don't listen to anybody ;)

Are we alright?

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This year's Canada GeoConvention tried a few new things. There was the Openness Unsession, Jen Russel Houston's Best of 2013 PechaKutcha session, and the On Belay careers session. Attendance at the unsession was a bit thin; the others were well attended. Hats off to the organizers for getting out of a rut.

I went to the afternoon of the On Belay session. It featured several applied geoscientists with less than 5 years of experience in the industry. I gather the conference asked them for a candid 'insider' view, with career tips for people like them. I heard 2 talks, and the experience left me literally shaking, prompting Ben Cowie to ask me if I was alright.

I was alright, but I'm not sure about us. Our community — or this industry — has a problem.

Don't be yourself

Marc Enter gave a talk entitled Breaking into Calgary's oil and gas industry, an Aussie's perspective.

Marc narrated the arc of his career: well site geology in a trailer in the outback, re-location to Calgary, being laid-off, stumbling into consultancy (what a person does when they can't find a real job), and so on. On this journey, Marc racked up hundreds of hours of interview experience searching for work in Calgary. Here are some of his learnings, paraphrased but I think they are accurate:

  • Being yourself is impossible in a unfamiliar place. So don't be yourself.
  • Interview experience is crucial to being comfortable, so apply for jobs you have no interest in, just for the experience.
  • If the job description doesn’t sound exactly right to you, apply anyway. It's experience.
  • Confidence is everything. HR people are sniffer dogs for confidence. If you don't have it, invent it.
  • On confidence: it is easier to find a job when you have a job.

What on earth are we teaching these young professionals about working in this industry? This is awful.

How to survive the workday 

Jesse Shoengut gave a talk entitled One man’s tips and tricks for surviving your early professional career

Surviving. That's the word he chose. Might as well have been enduring. Tolerating. TGIF mindset. Like Marc, Jesse spoke about a haphazard transition from university into the working world. If you can't find a job after you finish your undergrad, you can always have a go at grad school. That's one way to get work experience, if all else fails.

Fine, finding work can be hard, and not all jobs are awesome. But with statements like, "Here are some things that keep me sane at work, and help get me through the day," I started to react a bit. C'mon, is that really what people in the audience deserve to hear? Is that really what work is like? It's depressing.

A broken promise

Listening to these talks, I felt embarrassed for our profession. They felt like a candid celebration of mediocrity, where confidence compensates for complacency. I don't blame these young professionals — students have been groomed, through summer internships and hyper-conventional careers events, to get their resumes in order, fit in, and follow instructions. We in industry have built this trap we're mired in. And we are continually seduced. Seduced by the bait of more-then-decent pay and plenty of other rewards. 

I talked to one fellow afterwards. He said, "Yeah, well, a lot of people are finding it hard to find a job right now." If these cynical, jaded young professionals are representative, I'm not surprised.

Were you at this session? Did you see other talks, or walk away with a different impression? I'd love to hear your viewpoints... am I being unfair? Leave a comment.

Try an outernship

In my experience, consortiums under-deliver. We can get the best of both worlds by making the industry–academia interface more permeable.

At one of my clients, I have the pleasure of working with two smart, energetic young geologists. One recently finished, and the other recently started, a 14-month super-internship. Neither one had more than a BSc in geology when they started, and both are going on to do a postgraduate degree after they finish with this multinational petroleum company.

This is 100% brilliant — for them and for the company. After this gap-year-on-steroids, what they accomplish in their postgraduate studies will be that much more relevant, to them, to industry, and to the science. And corporate life, the good bits anyway, can teach smart and energetic people about time management, communication, and collaboration. So by holding back for a year, I think they've actually got a head-start.

The academia–industry interface

Chatting to these young professionals, it struck me that there's a bigger picture. Industry could get much better at interfacing with academia. Today, it tends to happen at a few key relationships, in recruitment, and in a few long-lasting joint industry projects (often referred to as JIPs or consortiums). Most of these interactions happen on an annual timescale, and strictly via presentations and research reports. In a distributed company, most of the relationships are through R&D or corporate headquarters, so the benefits to the other 75% or more of the company are quite limited.

Less secrecy, free the data! This worksheet is from the Unsolved Problems Unsession in 2013.Instead, I think the interface should be more permeable and dynamic. I've sat through several JIP meetings as researchers have shown work of dubious relevance, using poor or incomplete data, with little understanding of the implications or practical possibilities of their insights. This isn't their fault — the petroleum industry sucks at sharing its goals, methods, uncertainties, and data (a great unsolved problem!).

Increasing permeability

Here's my solution: ordinary human collaboration. Send researchers to intern alongside industry scientists for a month or two. Let them experience the incredible data and the difficult problems first hand. But don't stop there. Send the industry scientists to outern (yes, that is probably a word) alongside the academics, even if only for a week or two. Let them experience the freedom of sitting in a laboratory playground all day, working on problems with brilliant researchers. Let's help  people help each other with real side-by-side collaboration, building trust and understanding in the process. A boring JIP meeting once a year is not knowledge sharing.

Have you seen good examples of industry, government, or academia striving for more permeability? How do the high-functioning JIPs do it? Let us know in the comments.


If you liked this, check out some of my other posts on collaboration and knowledge sharing...