Syed Ali, Chevron Fellow, Chevron Energy Technology Company
The Way Ahead’s Technical Leader Interview invites senior figures who have become pioneers of innovation and technical excellence within the E&P industry. Each interview is a candid conversation that explores the careers, advice, and vision of these successful individuals while aiming to uncover lessons learned that have made each of these individuals prominent technical leaders. Interviews include representatives from such technical disciplines as drilling and completions; production and operations; reservoir description and dynamics; formation evaluation; facilities and construction; health, safety, and environment; and management and information.
Tim Crumrine, Technical Leader Section Editor
Anthony Onukwu, Technical Leader Section Editor
What led you to choose a career in the E&P industry?
I was not particularly interested in a career in the E&P industry. My interest was in basic research in sedimentology. While doing my post-doctorate at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, my mentor, David Ross, suggested that I may find a career in research an uphill battle because I did not have a niche research interest. He claimed that I had skills/academic background more suited for a career in the E&P industry. With certain difficulties, and helped by Gulf Oil’s former Vice President, I landed a job with Gulf Research & Development Company.
What was your first job in the industry, and what was your impression of the industry when you first joined?
The first year was frustrating because I did not have the necessary training to carry out the daily work (e.g., correlating logs, drawing contour maps). I was about to quit when my supervisor approached me and ask me to find myself a niche where I can excel and be happy and productive. A colleague of mine suggested that since I have a strong background in geology and chemistry, I should focus on a career in production chemistry—in particular, the impact of oilfield chemicals and workover/completion and stimulation fluids on the reservoir rocks. It turned out be an excellent advice. I made a career out of it, and I am having fun!
What are the most memorable experiences in your career since?
Many memorable experiences come to mind.
- Publication of my first book, Sandstone Diagenesis—Applications to Hydrocarbon Exploration and Production, in 1981 by Gulf Research.
- My first successful acid job in the Gulf of Mexico.
- Determining the cause of tubing-coating failure. Investigations showed that wireline work scratched the coating, and acetic acid used during acidizing caused the plastic coating to peel off the tubing.
- Characterization of calcium naphthenate deposits in the Kuito Field, Angola.
- Developing a systematic way to select completion fluid for deepwater completion.
Finally, two memorable experiences that have recognized a career dedicated to formation damage control:
- Receiving the SPE Production & Operation Award (2006).
- Appointment as a Chevron Fellow.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
As someone who has spent his career in a technical role, solving challenging field problems is what I enjoy the most. Part of solving challenging field problems is getting to work with the individual business unit and providing useful solutions for their specific problems.
What advice would you give to professionals in the early stages of their E&P careers who are seeking a technical career track?
Select an area of specialization and build a diverse network of coaches—peers in similar positions and technical professionals within your company and in other companies and people in higher positions. You will need a sounding board on a variety of technical challenges. Advice is usually better when it includes a diversity of opinions. Even if you do not feel as if you are making a contribution, and that you are not heard by more senior colleagues, keep trying. There will be a point at which a new idea will be needed. If you keep trying, you have a better chance of being at the right place at the right time. Early successes like this will do a lot to boost your career. Also, find a healthy balance between work and life outside of work. We often set high goals and expect high levels of performance from ourselves. Others tend to expect that same high performance all the time. It is important to find joy outside of work.
It seems that many young professionals are hoping for a career in management. Would your advice change for them?
Examine yourself and see if you have people and management skills to be an excellent manager. Aptitude in finance would be a great asset. The industry needs managers who focus on people, tap their hearts, and fire their potential. Managers can do this if they are highly qualified, fair, and people-oriented. So many young professionals are looking for careers in management because these careers tend to be more upwardly mobile. It takes a long time to become a technical expert, and in today’s fast-paced environment many young professionals are looking to gain knowledge in one area and move on. People don’t tend to build a career with one company or stay in one discipline in one particular area of expertise.
Who has helped you the most in your career, and what lessons did you learn from your mentors? Would you name one or two people who have been most influential for you?
I have benefited from the wisdom and guidance of my professor, Gerry Friedman, and my colleagues Bill Alman and Grant Steele. If you are passionate about your ideas, do not get discouraged with short-term setbacks, but keep at it.
What are the key technology challenges you see for the E&P industry now and in the next 10 years? What can young E&P professionals do to help?
I believe we will see continued advances in subsurface imaging, production optimization, permanent monitoring systems, and reservoir management. The size of new discoveries and the complexity of subsurface environment (especially deep water and ultradeep water) for new plays demand advances in imaging capability to allow further increases in success rates. In the production arena, we should see further optimization and economic development of unconventional resources—such as extraheavy oils and tight gases. For deepwater developments, the issue is getting the costs down for drilling and subsea completions; floating production, storage, and offloading systems; and pipelines. Flow-assurance issues in deepwater completions will continue to be an issue. For example, we know the seafloor is not smooth and flat. How will we attack the problem of flowing produced fluids along a cold seafloor and up thousands of vertical feet to land? What new technological problems will be faced in a subsea environment?
The future lies in the hands of young engineers who will continue to innovate and implement new technologies to create additional business value. Also, the industry faces a scarce talent pool; therefore, it must look inward to see how it can use its current workforce. How can companies tap their employees’ full potential? When employees are fully engaged, they draw on their utmost intellectual power, become more committed, develop more innovative technologies, and ultimately become happier and more satisfied in their jobs. Engagement does not mean harder work and longer hours; rather, it means working smarter, and feeling happier with the spark of innovation.
Chevron has changed drastically in the past several years, first with the Chevron merger with Texaco, and later with the acquisition of Unocal. What technological advantages or disadvantages have you seen?
Mergers are not always easy; reorganizations, layoffs, and integration of diverse corporate cultures are obstacles. Almost every company today has been faced with these obstacles. Of course, it is important that when companies merge, they take the best of what each company has to offer. Chevron has benefited from these mergers—more reserves, diverse technology portfolios, and a diverse, talented workforce. Because of these mergers, Chevron managed to adopt best practices from these companies to become more efficient and able to find more oil and gas. Integration of people and diverse corporate cultures is taking a little longer than desired.
What three changes would you make to the way our E&P industry develops people?
An important question to answer is how to pass down the experience and knowledge of the more senior personnel to those who are less knowledgeable today and those we will hire tomorrow. A key concern here is that our industry is focused on technology, and we must continually train the current workforce as well as pass down experience from the more senior staff. This makes training programs imperative.
Unfortunately, the workload carried by current senior staff often prevents the training and knowledge sharing we would like to achieve. This vicious cycle of not having time to train personnel continues to cause problems because inexperienced personnel make mistakes or have to “relearn” what is known by their more senior counterparts. On a corporate level, there are three changes that could be made.
- Develop comprehensive training programs in both the office and the field.
- Assign dedicated senior staff to train and share knowledge with less-experienced personnel.
- Require continuous training throughout an employee’s career.
What we can do to develop engineers on a more personal level without implementing a training process is simple, but it requires commitment from both junior and senior levels. Young people have the responsibility to seek out willing and experienced people from whom to learn as much as they can. More-experienced people have the responsibility to seek out eager young people with whom to share their knowledge and wisdom. Young people should be positive, productive, patient, and proactive.
Do you think the industry as a whole values technical roles as much as managerial roles?
Unfortunately, the industry as a whole does not. The situation, however, is changing because of the demand for highly technical people to tackle the complex and challenging producing environments.
You have had the opportunity to travel with your job. How do you see the balance between local and international careers today, compared with your early career?
Certainly, the compensation package is more attractive. Assignments overseas tend to be more challenging because of smaller staff. There is more opportunity to learn and implement innovative technologies because there is a direct line between engineers and management. International careers are a great opportunity to travel and learn about cultures.
How did you get involved in SPE? What has your SPE membership meant to you?
I started reading SPE papers when I switched my career from geology to production engineering. I was impressed with this resource that was so rich in technology and field applications. After attending my first annual meeting, I began to participate more in SPE committees. I found that SPE not only is a technical treasure but comprises an outstanding group of people who excel in working together toward noble objectives. Volunteering with SPE is often demanding, but always satisfying. I discovered that whatever I gave to SPE, I got back at least 10 times more.
Involvement in SPE offered me a unique opportunity to polish my technical, leadership, and social skills. SPE offered me opportunity in global networking, technology transfer, and the satisfaction of knowing that I am a key player in sustaining the prosperity of mankind. Many of my innovative solutions in production chemistry came from technology information within SPE.
Syed A. Ali is a Chevron Fellow for Chevron Energy Technology Company. Ali was the recipient of the 2006 SPE Production and Operations Award. An SPE Distinguished Member, he is recognized by the industry as an expert in formation-damage control, sandstone acidizing, and production chemistry, and he is a prolific author. Ali earned a BS degree from the University of Karachi in Pakistan, MS degrees from the University of Karachi and Ohio State University, and a PhD degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. An SPE Distinguished Lecturer during 2004–05, he served as Chairperson for the 2006 SPE Applied Technology Workshop (ATW) on Deepwater Completions, Cochairperson for the Acid Stimulation and Remedial Treatments Session of the 2006 SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition, Cochairperson for the 2006 SPE International Symposium on Formation Damage Control, and Cochairperson for the 2004 SPE ATW on Matrix Acidizing. Ali served as the Executive Editor of SPE Production & Operations from 2004 to 2006 and currently is serving on several SPE committees.