Tech Leaders

David White, President, Schlumberger Water & Carbon Services

Anthony Onukwu, José Condor-Tarco, Marie Van Steene, and Maximiliano Medina, Editors, Technical Leaders

The Way Ahead Technical Leader Interview invites senior figures who have become pioneers of innovation and technical excellence within the E&P industry to comment. For this interview, we traveled to Paris for a discussion with David White, President, Schlumberger Water & Carbon Services. – Anthony Onukwu, José Condor-Tarco, Marie Van Steene, and Maximiliano Medina, Editors, Technical Leaders


What was your first job in the industry, and what was your impression when you first joined? How has your view of the industry changed?

I joined the industry in 1983 as a research scientist in Schlumberger’s brand new Cambridge research center, working on multiphase flow measurement and bit hydraulics. The center was set up with several research departments comprising one or two “old hands,” while the rest were new to the industry. It meant that we got to challenge the status quo, but there were some mentors who could perform the occasional “sanity check.” It was an amazing time; there were so many interesting problems to solve and a real prize for doing so. Having come from academic research, where there were only 10 people in the world interested in my work, to joining an industry where our results mattered to thousands, was invigorating.

My view of the industry has not changed. The challenges are as big, if not bigger, than in the past. We need the very best scientists and engineers to work on the new problems, using the very latest technologies to keep up with the E&P problems we face.

What have been your proudest career achievements?

I have enjoyed taking technologies developed in research through to the field and seeing them in action. We installed computerized drilling monitoring systems on offshore rigs in the early 90s. We were ahead of our time, but these systems are commonplace today. I have worked for small companies in Schlumberger and helped to grow them significantly through technology development and implementation. It is really good to see something through from beginning to end, to produce results that can be seen and measured. Successful risk taking is always good. I vividly recall our drilling technology team developing an idea for a 4¾-in. rotary-steerable tool, seizing the opportunity, breaking some of the rules, and beating the competition to market. It was a great tactical and commercial success.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

The variety of challenges day to day and over the years. I have only worked for one company in one industry, but I have done many jobs. There is always something new, and there are opportunities to seize as your interests change. You never stand still. I moved from being a scientist to an engineer to a technologist and a manager—all very different, but all very rewarding.

Looking back, do you think it was a good decision to work in the oil industry and for Schlumberger in particular?

I have never regretted joining Schlumberger and the oil industry; it was everything and more than I hoped for. The technical challenges are fascinating. I’ve visited the most interesting places, but above all, I have worked with incredible people—inside the company and outside in the industry. I have made lifelong friends and had the chance to work with the industry’s best through organizations such as SPE.

What have you learned from your failures?

Fear of failure is worse than failure itself. To do new things, you need to take risks. If we fear failure, we don’t stretch ourselves far enough. If you don’t trip over occasionally, you are not trying hard enough.

Who has helped you the most in your career, and what lessons did you learn from your mentors?

I worked for some very talented people, from whom I have learnt a lot. Communication is very important. When your boss really involves you, letting you know all that is going on, you can see the big picture and know what needs to be done. Then having the freedom to just go and do it produces a great working environment.

I’ve kept in touch with these people over the years, even after they left the industry. You can always get good advice from people you have learned you can trust.

From what you have said, you have found some inspiring people in our industry. What do you think makes them inspiring?

The people who have inspired me are those who have vision for where we should be going, have the drive to take us there, and give support to those who are helping. They fight to overcome obstacles and naysayers. I remember a senior manager in Varco, who had a clear vision for rig automation and was systematically setting up his company to follow it.

How can a young professional (YP) best benefit from his mentor?

Develop a personal relationship, and then don’t be afraid to ask questions. That does not mean asking anything and everything—people are busy—but do ask about those things that you don’t understand or concerns that worry you. Ask for advice on important choices, be prepared to discuss and argue your position. That way you can learn how they approach problems and use that for the future.

What are the best ways to transfer one’s knowledge to young colleagues?

By partaking in the above. Getting to know them and being available on the phone to discuss issues and offer suggestions with a follow-up on how things went. Taking chances to meet up socially from time to time to see how things are really going.

What advice would you give to professionals in the early stages of their E&P careers, who are seeking a technical career track?

Be open-minded about what you do and where you will go. There are more choices out there than you appreciate; try to sample them to see what you really like or are good at. Be prepared to change and take on something completely different that is outside of your comfort zone. Don’t put limits on what you are prepared to try. Where you are today should only be the starting point for where you are going, not an anchor that will hold you back.

It seems that many young professionals, almost two-thirds, are hoping for a career in management. Would your advice change for these young professionals?

No, I think the principles are the same. There are very interesting things to do in management, but if you find you don’t like it, don’t be ashamed, and be prepared to go back to a technical career. You can even move between the two. In Schlumberger, we have parallel career ladders for technology and management that allow people to swap between the two career paths.

What are the qualities of a technical leader? What are the skills you value the most as a technical expert?

A technical leader needs to be a recognized expert in one’s particular field, outward looking, and prepared to communicate and share. A technical leader should be pushing the boundaries of where to take one’s field of specialty, actively seeking to bring in knowledge from outside industries and academia.

What are the best ways to develop your knowledge?

Being actively involved in projects or with people that require it. Taking an active part in outside technological organizations, such as the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or equivalent organizations. Join the special interest groups that are sponsored by SPE. Read books; a thirst for knowledge is essential.

What would you like YPs in technical discipline in general to focus on to become technical leaders?

Try leadership in what you are doing now; start right away. If you have an idea for how to do something better, talk to your boss and suggest things. If you feel strongly, argue—but this is where you need to develop your communication and persuasion skills! Set up interest groups with your peers, organize lunch-and-learns on topics that interest you around your specialty. Help others. If you are successful, they will come back to you. You can always tell who the leaders are by looking to see if anybody is following them.

With the right education and technology, can we explore frontiers in the industry that today look impossible?

I may be sounding old now, but when I started, PDC bits were just coming in, horizontal drilling was in its infancy, and extended-reach drilling was unheard of. Deep water meant a few hundred feet. Thanks to fantastic innovations in Brazil, we now have drilled in around 2000 m of water and are planning for 3000 m. I am absolutely confident that the next generation of technologists and engineers will meet all the challenges thrown at them. It will require the best brains at the masters and PhD level and very practical, talented individuals to make it work in the field.

We have a challenge to attract people to the oil and gas business in the first place; it does not have the best public image. If you think about it, on TV, the medical profession has shows such as House, Grey’s Anatomy, and ER. All we had was Dallas!

Do you think the Industry is investing enough resources in R&D to overcome the technical challenges ahead and fulfill future technology requirements?

I worry about this. In my own company we have a good track record for investment, in good times and bad. As an industry this is not so true. We need more R&D than we have ever done before, but we also need the vision on where to spend it. I am concerned that in a downturn we will see cutbacks that set us back when we cannot afford delays, if we are to meet the future production challenges. I also worry that good students will be put off from joining the industry.

How did you get involved in SPE? What has your SPE membership meant to you?

SPE has been important in my career. I joined at the very beginning and started by presenting papers at annual conferences, and so getting to know my peers in the industry. I attended SPE forums, a marvelous environment in which to explore important technical issues. I now help organize these activities for the new members.

Do you believe the industry recognizes the value of involvement in SPE activities?  Do different segments of the industry value it more?

Some companies value these events more than others, so it is up to all of us to make sure that management does recognize the value. I have a research/drilling background and have found that this segment is very active.

Finally, if you had to give a brief speech to young E&P professionals about the attractions of the industry, and specifically the technical challenges, what would you say?

Very few people realize that we develop and operate such complex equipment to find and produce oil and gas. Imagine sitting in an aircraft cruising at 30,000 ft and thinking that on the ground, far below, we are steering a drilling bit, on the end of a 4-in. drillpipe, along a road and measuring the rock around us with the latest brain-scanning magnetic-resonance technology. Except that we cannot see the ground and we had to work out where the road was through thousands of feet of solid rock.

In the future, we have to find and develop smaller and smaller reservoirs; we have to mobilize oil and gas that is locked in tight formations; and we are working to “create” oil by cooking oil shales. There is something exciting to interest everybody.


David White has been President of Schlumberger Water & Carbon Services since April 2006 and is based in Paris. He is responsible for the strategic development of two new startup businesses involving water resource management and the geological storage of carbon dioxide for climate-change mitigation, drawing upon the broad technology base of Schlumberger Oilfield Services. David joined Schlumberger as a research scientist in 1983 at its drilling and pumping research facility in Cambridge, UK, and later worked in drilling engineering management, business development, marketing, and product development in France, the UK, and the US. Before taking his current post, he was Marketing Director, Schlumberger Research, where he was responsible for joint research and development with clients and new technology adaptation and innovation across the company. David holds a BS degree in physics from the University of Bristol, UK, and a PhD degree in geophysics from Cambridge, where he also was a post-doctoral research fellow.