INTERVIEW COORDINATED BY SATINDER CHOPRA AND DAVID GRAY
Earlier this year former Chief Editor Brian Schulte arranged to have Satinder Chopra and David Gray interview Oliver Kuhn. Oliver worked with Satinder for many years on the RECORDER committee, and he and David were classmates at UWO. Oliver has been a CSEG member since 1984 and over the years been involved in almost every facet of the society, including Ski Spree Chair, Doodlebug Chair, and CSEG President (2006). He won the Meritorious Service Award in 2003, and the Honourary Membership Award in 2023. He is perhaps best known to RECORDER readers through his Science Break articles.
SC: Oliver, our readers would like to know you better, so tell us about yourself.
OK, I’ll start with my early life up to university, because it was quite interesting. My father was German and came to Canada after the war (via the London School of Economics) to do his Master’s and Ph.D. at McGill. My mother was from a Toronto academic family – both her parents were professors at U of T. So, my parents came from totally different backgrounds, but academic families on both sides. I have 3 siblings, or had, my younger brother passed away some time ago. The way we were sort of stereotyped was my older brother was the genius, I was the sporty one, my younger brother was the black sheep, and my sister was the girl – each of us, of course, was much more, but you know the way you get pigeonholed within a family and how it can stick for a long time.
My father’s first teaching job was at the University of California, Berkeley, and that is where I was born. The Chair of the Economics department was Andreas Papandreou of the Greek political dynasty, and that was the start of a family relationship with Greece.
One year old Oliver with mother Naomi, grandmother, Mossie May Kirkwood and older brother Roland
In 1963 my father left Berkeley to join the World Bank in Washington D.C. One memory that stuck with me from that time was the day JFK was shot. My paternal grandmother (Omi) at this point had become estranged from my grandfather and left Germany to live with us. Her cognitive decline due to dementia made the family move from California to Washington very confusing for her. On that day she got lost, but the entire city was in a panic, and the National Guard and so on had mobilised to Dallas. We had to hunt for Omi, all very dramatic for a 3-year-old.
SC: So do you have dual citizenship?
Well, US Citizenship and Immigration may disagree, but no, I’m only Canadian. When I was born dual citizenship wasn’t permitted, and my parents registered me as a “Canadian Citizen Born Abroad”. I could have claimed US citizenship after I turned 18, but to be honest, I never felt any connection with the US, as we left there when I was 4-years-old.
The next stop was Athens, Greece, and I think the Papandreou relationship was a factor – Andreas’ father Georgios was the Greek PM at that time. We lived in Athens for almost 3 years, until the next World Bank assignment took us to Ankara, Turkey.
DG: What are some standout memories from that period?
Greece became a big part of my family’s orbit, and my parents and 2 younger siblings went back and lived there a couple more times. My parents bought a property on the big island of Evia NE of Athens, where my sister now runs a beachfront café named after my mother. I could go on at length about Greece, but I have vivid memories of Turkey, even though we only lived there for a year. Atatürk had been dead for over 25 years, but it was as if he was still alive. There were pictures and statues of him everywhere. Anti-US sentiments were very strong, and sometimes driving in the country people would throw rocks at our car thinking we were American. But it’s a beautiful, fascinating country and the Turkish people are as well. I remember visiting Cappadocia, and early excavations at the underground city there, Kaymakli – it wasn’t even set up for tourists, we just showed up and got toured through the tunnels by one of the archaeologists. I have lots of memories like that from ancient sites before they became popular tourist destinations and had restrictions placed on them. For example, in Athens, my older brother and I would explore secret tunnels and caves in the Acropolis. At Delphi he chipped his tooth when we were in the tunnel the performers used to pop up from the stage in the amphitheater. This period is definitely why I’m fascinated by the ancient world, and I think that shows in my RECORDER articles.
SC: So, when did you move to Canada?
After Turkey we spent a few more months in Greece, and then took an ocean liner across the Atlantic from Athens to Halifax, with our VW van in the hold, and from there drove to Toronto.
DG: What was that like after all the moves and exotic places?
I didn’t really know anything else; I think we’re all the same at that age, our family life is what we judge to be “normal”. But the biggest impact on me was at school. I’d gone to British Embassy schools in Athens and Ankara and had already mastered cursive writing, reading, multiplication, division, all the basics really. My grade 1 peers in Toronto had basically just moved past finger painting at that point in their schooling, so I got placed a year ahead, and I was still ahead of the class. I have mixed feelings about that. Those years in the British schools were torture, I remember being very unhappy, and struggling with all the homework (at age 5) – it probably scarred me in some way! So, I can see the advantages of easing kids into things, but I think it’s clear kids have a tremendous capacity to learn at those early ages, and we could challenge young students more in Canada, and give them more rote learning. I had proper grammar drilled into me by rote, and it’s been an asset, including at the RECORDER!
SC: It is interesting you say this. I have similar perspectives on the differences between the British and Canadian approaches to education. When we migrated to Canada our daughter had completed her Grade 6 in India and got admitted to Grade 7 after some persuasion. But she was way ahead of her class, and on finishing the daily problem sheets given to her in a fraction of the time, her teacher would ask her to go to the back of the class and read story books. This continued till she completed Grade 9. After that in High School, we encouraged her to go in for the International Baccalaureate Programme, and that is where she started getting challenged and working her way through her classes. So, there is a big difference in the two education systems. Was that it for the traveling?
No. My father at this point was working for York University. In 1969 he became part of a program that had Kenyan graduate students come to York for graduate degrees, grooming them for leadership roles. The other half of the program was that York professors went to Nairobi.
Oliver on the equator with mother , and siblings Roland, Christopher, and Nicola.
We lived in Nairobi from 1969-1972, and it was fantastic, some of the best years of my life. I should mention that my father suffered from bipolarity. My mother has told us that until 1972 he had not experienced a depression, at least to her knowledge, but was at the extroverted end of the spectrum. For her, compared to staid old Toronto, life with him was really fun and exciting. The first 2 years in Kenya, and all the years before, were one big adventure. We always had a VW van, and the whole family would jump in, and we’d explore. In Kenya, my father rigged up a DIY camping system of boxes, boards, and mattresses that all packed into the VW, so we’d drive around in the game parks and other sites, and at night throw a mosquito net over the entire van and sleep. I was a Sea Scout in Nairobi (which is really odd because it’s in the high elevation, arid savannah of East Africa) and did all kinds of cool things with that, like mountain climbing and caving. I also learned a lot of knots, but never went sailing!
In his pre-depression, slightly manic way my father did some crazy stuff. On one road trip into Uganda, we just kept driving west until we hit the mountainous border with what I think was Congo in those days, but they wouldn’t let us in. So, he just drove into a mountain village and asked to speak to the village leader, a chief of sorts. Next thing we were headed up into the bamboo forests to see gorillas. We found fresh signs of them, like beds and freshly chewed bamboo shoots, but the guide thought we were about half a day behind them, and we never did see any, which is too bad. But that was my childhood in a nutshell.
In 1972 my father had his first major depression, and once that episode was over, we returned to Toronto. After that, I became a teenager, and things got tougher for me personally. I found it hard to reintegrate with the kids I’d been friends with before the move – they were part of an alien teen culture that was new to me, and on the home front my relationship with my father deteriorated as I became a troublesome teen and he struggled with the bipolarity. Curiously, it wasn’t the depressions that were the toughest on the family, it was the insane, months-long manic phases. During this period I really got into sports, first competitive swimming, and then water polo.
SC: I did not know that about you. How serious were you?
Well, I competed at a high level in both, but once I discovered water polo, I dropped club swimming and only competed for my high school. But we were good, we won the Ontario high school swimming championships, and I remember our 4x50m relay team set a provincial record. When I was still swimming for a club, age 16, one of the guys I trained with, George Nagy, came 8th at the Montreal Olympics in the 200m fly, and several others competed successfully for Canada. But water polo was my real passion. Once I tried it, I was hooked. I played for the Toronto men’s team at age 16, and our captain, George Gross Jr., was also the captain of the Olympic team. So, I was competing with and against international-level players. But I was never destined to get to that top level, I’m too inflexible in my hips, knees, and ankles, and my eggbeater kick was terrible. Fast in a straight line, but poor at moving vertically and laterally, which is critical in water polo.
DG: This reminds me that you were the captain of the water polo team at Western when we were classmates, and quite passionate about it, as you say. I seem to remember you carrying on playing water polo after you got to Calgary too.
That’s right, for a bit!
SC: So, how did you think of getting into the oil industry, and why did you choose UWO?
When I finished high school, I wasn’t particularly sensible and didn’t have any career plans. I only knew I would go to a university, and I wanted it to be outside Toronto, and that was a sentiment shared by my father. A funny anecdote from then, he once cornered me and in his British/German accent said, “Oliver, I’ve done a cost-benefit analysis on you, and frankly…you’re not worth it.” Despite there being some funding available at both York and U of T due to my father’s and grandparents’ affiliations, I ended up going to Western, and that turned out really well for me as they had an excellent geophysics program. I was tempted to go to U of T because George Gross was trying to set up an elite water polo program via the university, but I really needed to get away from home. And I returned to U of T on a regular basis with the Western team to kick their butts!
I enrolled in the undergraduate business program at UWO, and by Thanksgiving, I knew it wasn’t for me. It provoked a moment of clarity in me. I decided I enjoyed the sciences and wanted a degree that would lead to a job with international opportunities. I flipped through the university program guide and came across geophysics, and that was it! I had a chat with the department chair, Professor Beck, and it was settled.
Another interesting family sidenote. Once I entered the geophysics program my maternal grandmother (Mossie May Kirkwood) told me that she had been friends with J. Tuzo Wilson when they were both professors at U of T. One of the first CSEG lunch talks I attended featured Wilson, speaking on his continental drift work, and I almost introduced myself after the talk but was too shy, something I’ve always regretted, as he died not that long after. I’d like to talk about my grandmother more here, but this interview could easily get way too long. She was an incredible, formidable woman, and had a big influence on me. She was one of several Canadian women who led the assault on gender barriers, both academic – becoming U of T’s first tenured female professor I believe – and societal, helping make career-plus-motherhood an acceptable option for women.
DG: What were the most important things that you learned at Western (UWO) that helped you in your career?
To be honest, I wasn’t a particularly good student and didn’t learn much geophysics in the full sense of the word. I learned how to memorize and regurgitate, because unfortunately that is one way to do well in an exam-based marking system. When I was older and wiser taking an MBA, I approached it completely differently and really immersed myself in the material and tried my best to learn it properly. But regardless, that younger version of me did get a lot out of undergrad, because of course it’s about so much more than the curriculum and marks. Over the 5 years I was there I matured and learned how to work hard and focus. By the time my last year rolled around, I’d really stopped a lot of the partying and was focused on the schoolwork.
In the summer before our last year, I worked for the seismology professor, Bob Mereu, and I learned a lot from that experience. He was part of the multi-year COCRUST project, and that summer was conducting a long-range, deep crustal refraction survey, to better understand the structures and tectonics of the Ottawa Valley – Bonnechere fault systems, which as I recall were part of an aulacogen event involving the larger Great Lakes region. Incidentally, I recently exchanged emails with Dr. Mereu and met up with him in London. He’s in his 90s now but still very alert and active. I went down there periodically as my son was a student there, just graduated earlier this year. In case you’re wondering, it wasn’t a follow-your father’s-footsteps thing. He went there because the Western squash team plays in the US college league, so it allowed him to get a Canadian university education while still playing high-level squash. And no, he’s not in Geophysics, he’s in Economics, following in his grandfather’s footsteps!
But from a geophysics perspective, most of what I Iearned was on the job, especially my early years at Geo-X. And I might add that I don’t really consider myself much of a geophysicist, I’m a generalist really. But I think I was a good processor.
DG: Can you tell us about the Geo-X years?
Yes, I’d like to do that. It was a really great company, and I worked with some incredibly talented people. Geo-X had a big impact on the Calgary geophysics scene, both directly, and through the many people who worked there and went on to form their own companies.
SC: What made Geo-X unique?
It started with the owner and founder, Don Chamberlain. I’ve never met anyone quite like him. I think he’s brilliant, a real non-linear thinker, but honestly, to this day, when I’m speaking with him, I’m not always entirely sure what he’s talking about!
He was a genius, and somehow came up with a secret business sauce or recipe with Geo-X Processing, and then later ARAM. Over the years I’ve tried to analyze and identify the key components. One thing he for sure did is provide a sanctuary or haven for talented people who didn’t necessarily fit into a conventional company structure, and those types of people had a big hand in Geo-X’s success. At ARAM a critical decision was to have field engineers directly involved in the instrument design, leading to instruments that were robust and simple to use.
Another thing Don did is give those talented people a lot of leash to succeed (or fail). It wasn’t tremendously efficient – for example at times we had multiple people all coding up prestack migration algorithms – but it brought out the best in people. Don also made sure he hired steady Eddy types to counterbalance his own chaotic style and the sort of untamed, organic environment it fomented. Key among those types was Don Simpson, a real mentor for me, and Don C’s son Chris who imposed proper financial and business practices at a key point in ARAM’s expansion, such as inventory control, budgeting, revenue forecasting, etc. Don also invested heavily in computing power. He developed a close relationship with IBM, and at one point it was said that Geo-X had the biggest, most powerful non-military computer facility in Canada.
Another very key business innovation I believe he introduced was to make processors the front-facing people of the company (i.e., dealing directly with the oil company interpreters) and pay them a commission on the work they did. My understanding is that prior to that, processors were doing the work, but it was the account managers who interacted with the clients. Don’s model fostered a much more collaborative work model, the interpreters felt more involved, and the processors experienced more accountability and pride in their work. And the commissions were lucrative if you were good at it. I would venture to say that many Geo-X processors in good years were making more than some senior oil company geophysicists, but I could be wrong.
DG: Maybe you could touch on how you got hired at Geo-X and the business environment back then.
Yes, as you know we both graduated in 1984, and a big oil patch downturn had started. Whereas the 1983 UWO class all got hired by oil companies, we struggled. The two people with the highest marks got jobs at Texaco, and that was it, the rest of us weren’t offered anything in Calgary, and most of us had assumed that was where we were heading. Anyway, in the summer of 1984, I stayed in London and did some NSERC-funded work with Bill Morris. He’s now a professor at McMaster, but surprisingly I still haven’t crossed paths with him here in Ontario.
Another classmate of ours, Dave Schieck, was a real mover and shaker, and he went out to Calgary and knocked on doors until Geo-X hired him. He recommended me and some others. Geo-X flew me out for an interview, and I was sweating bullets, very shy and nervous, studying seismic processing stuff on the plane, expecting to be grilled. Don Chamberlain ushered me into his office and immediately asked what the transform of a Dirac pulse was, no small talk, and I answered, “A white spectrum.” You know, that was a signal processing 101 softball question. He responded, “The job is yours if you want it,” and I was kind of stunned, not what I expected, but I accepted obviously.
There was a bit of a period between the oil companies cutting back on new hires and the real deep depths of the downturn still to come, and service companies like Geo-X were able to hire the grads that normally would have gone to oil companies. Because of this Geo-X built a solid base of very skilled, educated processors who could interact with the interpreters as more or less peers. I’d like to list all the talented processors I worked with, but just to mention a few: John Behr, Elaine Honsberger, you David, Steve Fuller, Laurie (Uchasz) Ross, Steve Carlton, Torr Haglund, Don Gee, John Chiu, and many, many more.
You may recall many years ago Ron Larson and I did a “family tree” of the Calgary processing industry, and it was incredibly complicated and interesting. Companies came and went, and key people spawned new ones, and so on. And in that way, Geo-X had a big impact on the industry.
Team Geo-X (back) Oliver Kuhn, Torr Haglund, Kyle Redmond, Don Gee, Ed Liukaitis, (front) George Lem, Colleen Catley, Tad Iwamoto, Linda Jay, Kelly Mourits, Abbey Rebillaco.
DG: Right out of school, you started as a processor at Geo-X, and then made your way up to be president of that company. Can you tell us how that happened?
To be clear, I was never President. To answer this question, let me take a step back. In 1989 I’d been working for 5 years and was in a bit of a rut, both personally and professionally. We worked incredibly long hours, and I don’t recall everything that was going on, but there was always drama of one sort or another. I think Al Bradshaw had left, and I was quite close to him, and I’d kind of hit a ceiling as Group Leader and was maybe getting bored.
At any rate, a former employee who’d moved on to work for Western Geophysical internationally, Joseph Law, pitched an idea to the two Dons (Chamberlain and Simpson), and that was to open a processing shop in Singapore. He felt Geo-X’s land processing expertise could really succeed there. He had connections with the Australian decision-makers in Perth for marine work, we could spruce up some marine processing code Mark Harrison had put together to perform a company-saving Madagascar project for PetroCanada during the downturn, and we could dominate the growing land processing market in SE Asia. I successfully threw my hat in for the Processing Supervisor role and headed off to Singapore with a key Geo-X guy, Brent Sato, in early 1990.
As you can guess it was not as easy as Joe had made it out to be and failed on several fronts. Our local partner was a government-backed company that provided emergency computer disaster backup services to big companies like banks. They used the same IBM mainframes as us and had tons of excess computer capacity since disasters rarely happen, at least in Singapore. But they never understood that we needed reliable 24-7 service and kept shutting us down without notice and stuff like that. Our marine code did not meet the technical expectations of the clients, who were big, demanding companies like Woodside (Shell). And perhaps most critically, we discovered their loyalties were more with Western than Joe.
At this time, in 1990, Geo-X was in the early stages of turning its acquisition division into an instrumentation manufacturer, which became known as ARAM. And another downturn hit. The Singapore venture was floundering, and Geo-X only had so much capital to invest, it was stretched too thin with declining revenues. Don S. flew out to Singapore and asked for my opinion. I told him that succeeding in Singapore was going to be extremely tough, maybe impossible, and even if we did, marine processing was a commodity, and the margins would be very slim. I remember one lunch where Joe, Brent, and I got some desserts to bring back to the office, and one of us said, “They are charging more for this little slice of cake than what we can get to process one marine shot record.” I think that’s when we all knew we were doomed. But anyway, I advised Don to shut us down and focus the growth effort into ARAM, and we all know how that turned out. I’m not saying that happened because of me, I believe I told Don what he wanted to hear, he’d already made his own conclusions, and wanted to get input from everyone, which was part of his management style.
DG: What happened then?
Well, it was good! I spent a couple of months there helping wind things down, still getting paid. I mostly windsurfed and had lots of fun. It was during that period I met my wife Tulimah, a native Singaporean. But I was also job hunting. I’d got a taste of international work and liked it, and I was a bit fed up and frustrated by Geo-X’s small company side. Ideally, I wanted to work for a bigger company, which I expected would be more professional and follow best business practices. And that’s how it turned out, at least the bigger part. Geco-Prakla had recently been purchased by Schlumberger, and they hired me as a land 3D processing specialist to oversee their first production onshore 3D in the Taranaki Basin in New Zealand. Tulimah and I spent a year living in Wellington, and on the personal side it was wonderful; on the weekends we’d toodle around and do all kinds of fun, adventurous things.
On the work front, it was challenging. Despite being part of a huge company, the New Zealand operation was really small and on the opposite side of the globe from the rest of Geco-Prakla, creating support and logistics issues. We were given an entirely new Unix-based processing system with little support. There was not much activity in NZ compared to the burgeoning Australian seismic market. The plug was pulled on the Wellington office one year after I got there, and a team of us moved to Perth, Western Australia to set up a new centre.
The year spent in Perth was again great from a personal perspective, it’s a fantastic place to live – it’s one of the most beautiful and pleasant cities in the world. It’s very remote, actually a shorter flight to Jakarta than Sydney, but that’s probably part of its charm.
Again, we struggled with the same issues we had in NZ and didn’t get much support. It was also a very tough market to crack; the main service companies were very well established, and it was a challenge. On the personal front Tulimah and I learned that we were expecting our first child (Sophia), and that of course triggered lots of thoughts about where we wanted to live longer term, who I wanted to work for, and that kind of thing.
Around this time I got in touch with Don Simpson back in Calgary, and he agreed to take me back at Geo-X on the understanding that once a management position opened up I’d be a preferred candidate. So, we moved to Calgary in 1993 and I went back to my Group Leader role, and that summer Sophia was born. Some time after Don Chamberlain stepped back, Don Simpson retired, and Chris Chamberlain took over as President; Darrell Letkemann was named Manager for the ARAM division, and I took on that role for the Processing division. Geo-X was never big on titles, and I would say functionally Darrell and I were at a VP level. So long answer to a short question! That was a great time, the industry was doing well, I really enjoyed my co-workers, I learned a lot from Don Simpson, and developed a very good working rapport and friendship with Chris.
SC: What happened next?
The Geo-X processing division was sold to Divestco in I think 2006, and Chris used the proceeds from that sale to fund a big ARAM expansion, an extremely smart and savvy business move. Around that time the market was declining, and then of course in 2007-2008 there was the sub-prime global financial crisis which put a severe damper on the Calgary oil patch. I think it’s easy to be viewed as a good manager when factors are in your favour, like a strong market and workforce, but when those turn the other way, it’s tough to be successful, and I can’t say I was particularly good at it. When there is a brutal downturn, like the ones Calgary goes through, tough decisions must be made and people must be let go, and that’s not a pleasant thing to carry out, and much worse for the people being cut. Another way to put it is, it’s easy to be a good manager in a growing company, and equally easy to be a bad manager in a shrinking company. So, there were some tough years in there for me personally, and everyone in general.
SC: You had been in the industry for more than 20 years when you switched to your new position of CEO at Quantec Geoscience. How did that come about?
Well continuing on that boom-bust observation, I was very concerned about geophysics and my personal future. I was too young to retire, I still had a young family to support. My friend and former colleague at Geo-X, Mike Perz, used to say that the Calgary oil patch was like a bouncing ball, but each time the bounce back wasn’t as high. I always had the thought of returning to school for an MBA degree. Maybe it was a bit of an unfinished business thing with me, but also, I recalled something my father had told me years before when he was teaching in York’s MBA program. He said the mature students with work experience got way more out of the MBA program than the inexperienced ones, because they could put what they learned into the context of their real-life experiences. I signed up to Athabasca University’s online MBA program hoping to open some possible options down the road to pivot away from oil and gas if needed. It turned out to be a great program and did help facilitate my move to Quantec. I learned so much, and it really gave me much more confidence knowing where my blind spots were. Often at Divestco management meetings my fellow VPs would have discussions and use terms and concepts that I didn’t have a clue about. The MBA cleared all that up.
What happened was that out of the blue, a Toronto headhunter found me and asked if I would be interested in the President & CEO position at Quantec. The incumbent CEO was moving on, back to a CEO job at an excavation engineering company, his actual field of expertise. I asked my family if they were on board, and they were, and so a few months later, in January 2014, I started at Quantec. It was interesting, my son William was particularly keen as the junior squash scene in Ontario is much more vibrant due to sheer numbers, and he relished the stronger competition and already had Ontario friends he’d made at tournaments.
SC: So how do you like your life as a CEO now? You are the boss. Tell us about the company you are heading, and the challenges you face from time to time.
Well, when I was interviewing with Quantec, I did my due diligence, and I knew there was going to be some tough work and dark days ahead. Their revenue had been cut in half from one year to the next due to the global commodities crash, and from their financials it looked like they hadn’t reacted quickly enough, understandably, it’s very hard to shrink a company without killing it, much harder than growing it. But I figured the mining downturn was close to bottoming out, and what the heck, I’d give it a shot. My first week I had to grovel to the bank, and some deep cuts ensued shortly after that. It was tough, but when we pulled out of it, it felt rewarding. I think the first two quarters after I started we ran losses, but we’ve been profitable ever since, so almost 10 years.
Satinder, you used the term boss in your question, and it reminded me of something. Last winter I was watching a hockey game, and they quoted one coach’s philosophy, which was, “Bad teams are led by no one, good teams are led by coaches, and great teams are led by the players.” That pretty well sums up my management philosophy, but I’d never heard it captured so succinctly before. I don’t really view myself as a boss in the traditional sense of the word, I see my role as mainly trying to support the employees and help them achieve their full potential and run the show themselves collectively. Of course, every now and then the buck must stop on my desk, to deal with certain difficult situations or decisions, but for the most part, I think if a company is running well, people in positions like me should not be involved too closely in operations. And to a large extent, I feel I’ve got Quantec close to that, still a little ways to go.
DG: Since that initial period, what are some of the challenges you’ve faced?
I think mass layoffs, unfortunately fairly common in our sector, leave cultural scar tissue, and it takes a really long time for that to heal. Employee trust in the company is damaged. I feel like we’re only recently really recovering from that, partly due to the addition of new employees who aren’t battle-scarred. Another challenge I feel we face is that as a long-established, successful company, we have a lot of history and most of our employees are getting up in age, including myself. I think it’s hard to find a way to allow the younger employees to rise up and have the freedom to make an impact and also to make mistakes; it’s hard to find the right balance between leaning on tried-and-true ways of doing things and experimenting with new approaches. With age comes conservatism, and while that’s valuable at times, it can also hold a company back.
SC: What personal traits saw you to the top position you are in now and have helped you stay there?
I think I mentioned earlier that I’m a generalist. I’m pretty good at most things but not excellent at much. In a company full of talented specialists, like Geo-X was, and Quantec is now, that’s an asset that is desirable in a manager, to oversee the employees who are experts in their respective fields. I think in technical fields like geophysics, there is a tendency for average technical people to be drawn into management roles, and I feel that’s certainly somewhat the case with me. We get thrown into these roles without any proper management training, and often it’s a case of winging it for many of us and learning as we go. I think that’s why I found the MBA so valuable. A lot of things started to make more sense, and I felt I now had some tools to deal with all the situations companies get thrown into; at the very least I knew who to ask for help and what to ask. But in short, I view one of my key assets as the ability to relate to and have an intelligent dialog with any person in a company – scientist, accountant, HR person, you name it – and empathize with them and help them solve their challenges. And I generally think I’m calm and display common sense.
SC: I think you’re being overly modest Oliver! Surely there must be some areas you excel in.
Well, I do like to think I was a very good processor. I don’t actually think that is a scientific job. It’s just the tools are based on science. I view it more as a craft, like woodworking. Many of the best processors I knew did not have particularly strong scientific backgrounds, they just had an innate feel for how much reliable signal they could pull out of the data, and they understood the limits of their toolbox extremely well. On top of that, they didn’t mind the repetitiveness of the work, endless velocity picking, or whatever – they’d get in a Zen-like state that allowed them to stay focused, start to finish. And many of the smartest people made terrible processors. There was one guy at Geo-X in the early days who was extremely intelligent – he was Alberta chess champion I think – but when processing he tended to get bogged down in details and see complexity everywhere rather than simplicity through the noise.
SC: What has been an intense moment, or shall I say an emotional moment in your professional life?
That’s an easy one to answer, and I think many people who were at Geo-X at that time would say the same thing. One of the Group Leaders, very beloved, great guy, Dan Norton, developed multiple myeloma, and slowly over several years we witnessed the toll of the disease. It was heartbreaking. He was a bit of a workaholic to start with, and he began to use his work routines as a way to keep up the battle against cancer. I forget how long he held on, much longer than the average for that form of cancer. There were a few guys who used to golf 9-holes early Friday mornings at Confederation Park. On one particular day I think it was me, Dan, Dale Shack, and Torr Haglund. We noticed Dan was limping a bit, and that was actually the first sign of the cancer eating away at his femur, he hadn’t been diagnosed yet. He left behind a wife and three young triplets. It was tragic and we all were impacted by it, I still feel choked up about it.
DG: Switching gears, what differences do you see between Calgary and Toronto, and oil & gas and mining?
That’s a really great question, Dave! First off, let me say I miss Calgary a lot. The people, the business environment, the city. Even though I’m kind of from Toronto, I never planned to return, I assumed I’d retire in Calgary. Coming back as an adult I’ve come to realise why many Canadians dislike Toronto. Don’t get me wrong, it has many advantages like the distinct four seasons are great, the summers are really hot and pleasant, and the restaurants are fantastic. But the traffic is brutal, and society is not as open and friendly as Calgary. Once I retire or move to another job, we’ll sell our over-valued Toronto house and take the money and run!
There are interesting similarities and differences between oil & gas and mining geophysics. One thing that I’ve observed is that trends in mining tend to lag oil & gas by 5 or 10 years. For example, we saw an emphasis on Health and Safety start several years ago in oil & gas, and that is a more recent thing in mining. Same with procurement departments. Even technical things – the value of 3D seismic was established years ago, but Quantec’s 3D DCIP and MT surveys are still not universally accepted. And Mining still has that prospector / wildcat exploration flavor that was stamped out years ago in Calgary by the M&A MBA crowd.
The client-to-service company relationship is quite similar in both sectors, so I immediately felt at home at Quantec in that respect. The development cycles are quite different – oil & gas can go from raw exploration to a producing well in a year or two, whereas getting a mine into production is a 10-year-plus exercise. I’d estimate the size of the oil & gas sector to be at least an order of magnitude bigger than mining, and the mining sector seems to be much more at the mercy of the capital markets than oil & gas is; mining is riskier and so the money comes and goes. And lastly, the science behind the electromagnetic methods is fiendishly complicated, and far more difficult to understand than seismic wave theory, but maybe that’s just an inability to learn new concepts at my age. Those are some of the things I can think of.
DG: The emphasis at UWO was on hard rock geophysics. Did you find that all came back to you?
No! We were in school so long ago, and I probably started forgetting the electrical and potential field methods as soon as the last exam ended, especially since I never used those in my career until Quantec. And the technology has advanced considerably. I vaguely remember that resistivity field data were plotted, and then compared with forward model responses, just visually matching curves, I think. Nowadays the data are inverted, and the algorithms are very complicated. And I’m not sure if IP (induced polarization) and MT (magnetotellurics) even existed as applied methods back then, at least not commercially, and those are the methods Quantec specializes in. Right after I started at Quantec, as part of my effort to educate myself, I wrote a primer-style Science Break article for the RECORDER with two coworkers, Darcy McGill and Kevin Killen (Electrical & EM Methods, May 2014). Since then, Martyn Unsworth at U of A has told me he uses that article to introduce first-year students to those methods, and I take that as a tremendous compliment.
SC: When you look back at your professional life, if there is one narration that comes to mind, please say that. What do you think you missed out on?
I don’t really look back much actually. I feel I’ve been very fortunate in my career, and it’s almost all been positive, no regrets. It’s been a good inning so far, as you would put it Satinder, the narrative has been one of good fortune. I consider myself a very lucky person.
SC: Sometimes, when you are holding a meeting of the company executives, and the discussion tends to go off on a tangent, how do you manage to steer conversations in a more beneficial direction, or keep it constructive, if it can’t be productive?
Probably a bad question Satinder, because I’m prone to going off on tangents at meetings! Surely you remember RECORDER meetings where you had clear objectives and I led us astray! Managing meetings is an important skill, and I try to do better at it, but I’m average at it.
SC: As the legends in our industry slip into the winter of their outstanding careers, do you think the heirs to their spots are up for it?
I don’t have any concerns in this regard. Historical archives are full of previous generations bemoaning the lack of this or that in the younger generation. I remember my grandmother saying that when she was a teenager, her parents felt that the radio and time spent listening to radio plays and popular music were the devil’s work and dulling young minds. And look what she went on to achieve! Skills critical to one generation can lose their value. For example, my long-winded, grammatically correct sentences are a burden via text, and the younger generation processes way more information than we ever did or could – succinctness and focus are more important now. My kids’ grammar isn’t so great, but their computer skills are far superior to mine. And I think the younger generation that grew up with the Internet is perhaps a bit more savvy about not believing everything they see there.
SC: You would remember we both started volunteering for the CSEG at about the same time. What are some fond remembrances for you from the early days we spent improving the technical content of the RECORDER?
Satinder, I was hoping you’d steer the discussion in this direction because I want to throw some kudos your way. I think it was in 2000 that Al Bradshaw recruited me and Satinder to take over the RECORDER. Up until that point it had at times been a pretty decent little publication, but it was modest. I didn’t know it at the time, but Satinder had bigger plans. He is a force of nature, and basically single-handedly built the periodical that is now like a Canadian version of the Leading Edge. I just went along for the ride. Satinder is great at asking people to do things, like write articles, and I’m not. I introduced more rigor by correcting grammar and improving the style of writing through judicious editing. And of course, in the early years, Satinder and I did all the interviews together in person. We’d record the interview, and then transcribe it. That was extremely time-consuming, so once advertising revenue increased, we hired a person to do the transcription, and then I edited that.
SC: Thanks for your kind words, Oliver. I think it is important to point out that you can contribute effectively when you have like-minded people working with you. Whatever ideas came to me were ably supported by you, and that way many new initiatives reached fruition. I fondly remember our years together on the RECORDER Committee.
In preparing for this interview, I remembered the umpteen times when you and I walked over to the interviewee’s office with a tape recorder in our pocket. And once when we were interviewing Abhi Manerikar, I put the recorder in front of him but forgot to press the ‘record’ button. You were smart enough to reproduce the whole interview later from memory. I really admired that. I also remembered how you and I used to transcribe the tapes by taking turns. It used to be a lot of work, but we enjoyed doing it. Those were interesting times.
I’d forgotten that with Abhi! But perhaps I can share something about the interview I’m most proud of, at the risk of offending you Satinder, but I assure you no offense is intended. Around the time I was preparing to move over to Quantec, in the fall of 2013, Satinder sent me an interview with Tom Podivinsky to edit. By this time my involvement with the RECORDER was mainly limited to my Science Break articles, and Satinder was conducting interviews with help from others, but occasionally he would still ask me to edit them.
I read through the interview with Tom and found it extremely dry. Satinder is a technology geek – you’d agree with that assessment right Satinder? – and so he is always interested in the scientific achievements of the people being interviewed, and that sort of thing, and so somehow, he didn’t ask the questions to unlock Tom’s colourful side. Now Tom and I were friends, not close friends, but I knew him well enough to recognize him as one of the most charismatic and interesting CSEG members of my generation. We’d both been Doodlebug Chairs and attended Ski Sprees together. So I called up Tom and told him what I was thinking. His reaction was almost like relief. He felt the same way about the interview but didn’t know what to do and was at his wit’s end, he didn’t want to insult Satinder or hurt his feelings. I told him I’d speak with Satinder and assured him that above all else Satinder wanted to run interesting interviews and would be open to improvements.
And so, with Satinder’s wholehearted consent, I sent a series of personal interest questions to Tom by email, and he answered and returned them. Then I worked this material into the interview as if I’d been there in person asking the questions. Early in 2014, just around the time the interview was published, Tom tragically died in a skiing accident. So the interview became a CSEG obituary of sorts, and I heard parts of it were actually read out at the funeral. That was something that touched me, and which I’m proud of.
SC: You have been almost a regular contributor to the RECORDER Science Break column for many years. What was your motivation there, and how have you decided to stop doing it now?
Well let me start with talking about the CSEG Convention because I know you’re going to ask me about that, and that was what actually got me into writing for the RECORDER. I don’t know what year it was, but Lee Hunt had been appointed Technical Chair for the Convention, and he asked me to be part of his committee. Now for those of you who don’t know Lee, he’s a crazy bugger in the best sense of the word, and anything he gets involved in is always fun. So I signed up and he didn’t disappoint. He chose an ancient Greek theme, a sort of Odyssey of Oil Exploration thing. It ended up with us in togas at the Convention Centre, swinging swords, but that’s besides the point! I came up with the idea of writing a RECORDER article to promote the convention theme by featuring historical references to oil throughout the ages. I like reading classical works, not just Greek and Roman, but really anything ancient. That article was called “The Odyssey of Oil”. After that, I wrote an article about ancient drilling methods in China, and then somewhere along the line I suggested to Satinder that I contribute a regular article on a general interest topic, to break up the sometimes-dry technical articles, and we settled on the name Science Break – science, but a break from geophysics. I aimed to reignite that exciting feeling of scientific discovery that probably first drew us to geophysics.
I’ve always felt a bit sheepish about the Science Break articles because they are very self-indulgent. They have allowed me to pursue my interests and motivated me to research and write in a way I just wouldn’t do unless there was a purpose for it. I’ve often told the various editors to feel free to cut it if people weren’t interested, but so far no one has taken me up on that. Except for one or two downturns when advertising revenue dried up and the high per-page printing costs dictated some cuts, and I was happy to put the articles on hold until things rebounded. Of course, that’s not an issue anymore with the RECORDER moving fully online, I could revert to my early bloated articles!
But why have I decided to stop writing the articles? It’s simple, I just don’t get the same enjoyment from writing them anymore. Maybe it’s a COVID side effect, I’m not sure. My most recent one was really a struggle to get across the finish line, and it was pretty straightforward, on sourdough bread. The passion just doesn’t seem to be there anymore. But maybe it will come back.
DG: What are some of your other passions then, that do engage you?
Baking bread! I read a lot, mostly non-fiction – history, science. For the last few years, I’ve been learning Indonesian, mainly because it’s very close to my wife’s mother tongue Malay, but also because it’s a very attractive language and fun to learn. Linguists will tell you that Bahasa Indonesia is based on a specific Malay dialect they term Old Malay – the differences are akin to those between American and British English. I participate in several different sports and physical pursuits. Hardball doubles squash is big in Toronto, and I’m totally addicted to that – I probably play 3 times a week on average except for in the summer, plus some singles. I cycle to work when I can. I swim for exercise. I have a 16’ Hobie catamaran at the cottage. Golf and tennis as well in the summer. Snowboarding and snowshoeing in the winter. But my real passion these days is woodworking and generally home projects.
Are you guys familiar with the theories around “flow” and optimal experience, pioneered by a Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi? Google him, it’s interesting but I won’t get into it here. I find that woodworking really gets me into that flow zone, where I’m concentrating, and achieving small milestones, and the time just floats by without me even realising it. I used to get that at times with the writing, but not so much anymore. And actually, seismic processing offers that same experience to a certain extent, for certain people. I plan to set up a proper workshop and focus more time on woodworking when I retire.
DG: What sort of things are you building?
A lot of times it’s small projects like making charcuterie boards from interesting offcuts I find at the lumber yard. But I usually have a bigger project on the go. I’ve made beds, drawers, tables, lots of stuff. And I like bigger projects like building docks. I am interested in joinery and minimizing the use of nails, screws, and the like. I recently built a crib dock, and the entire substructure is held together with half lap and dovetail joints, no bolts, I only used screws to hold the deck planks down. I also like to find an appealing balance between function and form. I’m no expert, I never had any training, but I’ve improved over the years, and derive tremendous satisfaction from it.
SC: What would be your message for young people who are about to join our industry?
Haha, good one! I’ve teased Satinder about this question because he always asks it! I’m not big on giving unsolicited advice. I think everyone faces a unique set of circumstances in their careers, and lives in general, especially when just starting out. There are so many variables that I think the only useful advice is sort of obvious platitudes or cliches, like keep your options open, keep learning, and so on. Actually, maybe I can think of something. I’ve found that opportunities tend to come along occasionally, and they might appear scary at the time, and the window to seize them could be short. In those situations, I think it’s not a bad idea to just go for it. It’s not exactly carpe diem, which is to seize the present, it’s more like seize the future, shake it up. I don’t believe there is such a thing as a bad decision – well, beyond the obviously bad ones, like getting a tattoo on your face – the key is to put in the effort afterward to ensure it was the right choice.
SC: Was there a question that you expected me to ask, and I didn’t?
Maybe something to get me going! How about, “Are there any aspects of your job over the years you didn’t like?” Well yes Satinder, now that you mention it! One thing that kind of bothered me at times in Calgary was that a small minority of oil company geophysicists seemed to act like they were superior to the ones on the service company side. In my opinion where we all ended up to a large extent was the luck of the draw, and at what point in the business cycle you graduated. There certainly seemed to be the same Bell curve of talent on both sides of the fence. I’m sure in private most service company geos would share stories about some of the challenging oil company geos they’ve had to work for over the years.
DG: Could you give some examples?
I could. I recall one interpreter who insisted on overwhitening his seismic data, and I mean really overwhitening, up into frequencies well beyond anything that could conceivably be signal. Geofantasy as we call it. Then he’d interpret these ringy images as cm-scale layers.
DG: How about the guy who made us under-migrate his data so he could interpret the residual diffraction energy that he was convinced were Wabamun reef edges?
Yes, good one, I’d forgotten about him! But those were the exceptions to the rule; I felt the level of technical competence and professionalism within the Calgary oil company geophysicists was very high.
Getting back to the oil company–service company relationship, I felt there were some bad practices in terms of some companies, often majors, who barricaded themselves off from the service companies and the geophysical community, and when they did interact with them treated them as inferiors to be exploited. Contrast that with other companies – PanCanadian springs to mind – that made an effort to be part of the local scientific community, worked collaboratively with the service companies, and allowed their data to be used in papers. I mean working with Bill Goodway and Ann O’Byrne was frustrating at times, but there was never any doubt that all they wanted was to get the best possible seismic results. They definitely pushed Geo-X to be a better company, and I’m sure other processing shops would say the same thing. Dave, you’ve worked both sides of the fence, what’s your take on that?
DG: Definitely. I worked with Bill Goodway, and more with Taiwen Chen than Ann. But they definitely wanted to help the service companies improve, and that was strongly supported by their manager, Dave Cooper. I’ll also throw kudos to Lee Hunt, Eric Andersen, John Logel, Paul Anderson, Glenn Larson, and all the E&P folks who co-authored papers with those of us on the processing side. When I was on the E&P side, I always considered the processors part of our team. My experience is that the best processing occurs when we leverage the processor’s knowledge of the processing and the interpreter’s knowledge of the geology, bringing them together by discussion throughout the processing.
SC: Earlier this year you were awarded an Honourary Membership by the CSEG. I’d like to congratulate you on that and ask you to comment on winning that award.
Ski Spree, L-R, Ken Lengyel, Kelly Zamiski, Oliver (& Sophia) Kuhn.
Thank you, Satinder! It was a real surprise to me, and a tremendous honour. I don’t view myself as the type of person that wins awards, and it’s a nice feeling to be appreciated and have my efforts acknowledged. The way I see it – and I said this in so many words at the awards ceremony at the Bow Valley Club in the spring – is that really, I was given this award for just being an enthusiastic participant in the CSEG. I got involved in almost every aspect of the CSEG except the Doodlespiel (which I regret) – Doodlebug, Ski Spree, Convention, RECORDER, Symposium, mentorship, the Executive, and probably other things I’ve forgotten.
But the thing is, I got way more out of the CSEG than I put into it, in terms of friendships, personal growth, networking, career development, and so much more.
It’s a really a big part of who I am, it’s been like my professional family. Really it should be me giving the CSEG my thanks and an award, not the other way around!
Incoming Chair Oliver, and Tulimah Kuhn at Doodlebug.
That sense of community and collaboration that I experienced in Calgary is something I really miss and will always look back on fondly and with appreciation. Lastly, let me say that I appreciate the opportunity to be the interviewee rather than the interviewer, it’s been fun!
Please note that the opinions and views expressed in the content of the interview belong to the person being interviewed. They do not represent the views held by the RECORDER team or the CSEG or any of its affiliates.