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Passion for Software

Headline: It’s been almost 20 years since I really dedicated myself to software development. I’m glad I did.

I left the search for oil and gas in 1990 to join Landmark Graphics to help develop software. One year later I realized that I could not continue both my role as a Company Commander in the United States Army Reserves and a member of a software team. In May 1991 I finally resigned my role in the military to focus on software development.

The Big Change – 1989-1990

In 1990 I finally decided to make the move to a software company. At that time I’d spent almost a decade as a geophysicist for Pennzoil. In 1989 I attended the SEG (Society of Exploration Geophysicists) convention (as I recall, it was held in Dallas) and witnessed the press conference for an arrangement between the Colorado School of Mines (CSM – my alma mater) and IBM to work on the use of workstations for collaboration among the disciplines – at that time focused on geology and geophysics.

Near the conclusion of the press conference Cecil Green, a founder at Texas Instruments, asked if he could say a few words. He and his wife Ida made significant donations to the Colorado School of Mines resulting in the “Green Center” – one of the largest buildings on the campus and home to the geophysics department in addition to the school’s largest auditorium. Given the impact Cecil made to the school the stage almost cleared immediately to make room for Mr. Green.

Before I strive to recreate some of Mr. Green’s words I must set some context. From 1982 until 1987 I worked in Pennzoil’s Denver office. The office was filled with individuals that had a passion for their work. In late 1986 I was informed I would be transferred to Houston to work for Pennzoil. Upon arrival I realized it was a different place. The official work hours were only 7 and 1/2 hours per day. Many people were tied to bus schedules or van pools so work hours were strictly observed. At one point I’d worked with someone for over 2 hours on the AIMS modeling package… a very unforgiving package – one mistake and you had to start over again. With only 10 minutes to completion of a job submission which I was helping someone with they stood up and said, “I’ve got to go catch my bus.” That meant that the last 2 hours work would be lost and that we’d need to start again the next day. (I might have forgiven a van pool, but not a bus for which there were others arriving every 10 minutes.) Less than 3 months later I was working with a colleague to assist them with a computer question… I was interrupted when there was a lightning strike in north Houston (which was easily visible from the 27th floor of Pennzoil Place in downtown Houston). The comment I heard was, “Wow! That was quite a lightening string! I wonder if we will still have our softball game this evening?”

Cecil H. Green Takes the Stage

As the representative for the Colorado School of Mines and IBM cleared the way, Cecil Green took the stage. He made quite a few remarks, but here is what I recall with great clarity:

“This agreement between the Colorado School of Mines and IBM is the most exciting then to happen to the [geophysics] department in the past 20 years.”

He went on to state, “I remember when people were so excited about what they were doing that they woke up at 3am with the solution to a problem. Now when I walk around work people are looking out the window wondering what the weather will be like for their softball game that evening.”

I remember when people were so excited about what they were doing that they woke up at 3am with the solution to a problem. Now when I walk around work people are looking out the window wondering what the weather will be like for their softball game that evening. – Cecil Green

I am NOT kidding… I wish I had a recording. This REALLY struck a cord with me.

Reviewing My Passions

After hearing Cecil Green speak at the conference I went back, saddened by the lack of interest I found in the Houston office. Over the coming months I spent most of my time reflecting to determine my real passions. Finally one day I listed all the projects I’d worked on since I started at Pennzoil. I placed them on a napkin at a restaurant down in the tunnel under Pennzoil Place and later ranked them from my favorite to my least favorite. I stared at that list for several months… Then one day is struck me. I could draw a line on that list… Every project above that line involved the use of computers while every project below that line did not. Then I realized, I don’t like searching for oil and gas, I enjoy technology!

Every project above that line involved the use of computers while every project below that line did not. Then I realized, I don’t like searching for oil and gas, I enjoy technology!

To drive the point home I had just finished a project where I had organized all the seismic data for the US Onshore. While I’d spent over 2 months trying to find the seismic data for a Zapata county project I was working on, only to find less than 80% of it, the newly created system allowed me to find 100% of the data in less than 15 minutes! When I demonstrated the capabilities of the new system and pointed out its importance in light of the new seismic interpretation workstations, I was “patted on the head” and told, “That’s nice technical work.”

What? Nice technical work? Given the salary I made at the time, that was a savings of almost $10,000! And that is just in personnel time. The opportunity cost of being 2 months late in mature areas was much higher measured in millions of dollars.

Software Was What I Should Pursue

I realized that I did enjoy technology and felt that my talents would be much more appreciated at a software company than at an oil and gas company. So I searched for opportunities that matched my strengths.

It took a bit, but I finally narrowed the field to Landmark Graphics, IBM (working with the School of Mines), and GeoQuest – in that order.

I approached the CEO at Landmark Graphics (at one of their Friday afternoon “Beer Busts”) and asked if there would be a role for me. I was told, “We don’t hire from our clients. We got in trouble for doing that in the past.” I did lots of soul searching over the weekend and spent some time with a good friend of my that worked at Landmark at the time (a colleague I’d worked a Pennzoil with for a number of years.). The agreed that my talents aligned well with Landmark’s needs. That conversation gave me the confidence I needed to make the move.

Resign? Are you Crazy?

After the weekend of thought, I decided that I had only one choice – resign Pennzoil so that I could be seriously considered by Landmark. I went in on Monday to resign only to discover that my boss was out of the office as was my boss’ boss, and his boss. To resign that day I would have needed to resign to the president of Pennzoil! That didn’t seem wise.

By Tuesday morning, my “one over” – Vice President of the Onshore Division was back in the office. So, I went into his office to resign, letter in hand.

The conversation went something like this:

  • Don: “What will you do?”
  • Me: “I’m not sure yet.”
  • Don: “I know you don’t know exactly what you’ll be working on, but who are you going to work for?”
  • Me: “I’m not sure yet. My first choice would be Landmark Graphics. But they won’t hire me while I work for Pennzoil. My second choice would be IBM helping coordinate the relationship between CSM. My third choice would be GeoQuest.”
  • Don: “You have twin 2-year old boys! I can’t let you quit a perfectly good job unless you have another one. Who do I need to call?”

Don made the phone call at noon on Tuesday… I had an interview at 5pm that same day, and received an offer letter via courier by 3pm that Friday. I was then allowed to tender my 2 week resignation letter. I’m extremely grateful to Don for allowing me to make that transition with minimal risk. I joined Landmark on 29 May 1990, the Tuesday after Memorial Day.

The first year

A lot happened in my first year working at Landmark. I worked in support, but spent most of my time helping guide product directions and to design the user interface for SeisWorks – Landmark’s flagship product. After that first year I’d put in many hours and realized how strenuous software development really was. In May 1991 I finally was forced to make a decision – “Do I continue in the Army Reserves, or not?”

I realized that I would never perform well in software development if my interests were divided. At that time I was spending about 10 hours a week in addition to 2 weekends per month for a total of 80+ hours a month working for the US Army. On top of that, I was a father of twin boy… which means I was a very involved father.

Resigning from US Army Reserves

After the realization that I could not be 1) a husband, 2) a father, 3) and employee, and 4) a Company Commander in the US Army Reserves I finally made the decision to resign from the Reserves.

Summary

A passion for excellence requires focus. I had to make some choices so that I could focus… Or else resign myself to mediocrity. I made my choice and I sleep well at night knowing that choice aligns with my values.

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