Q&A With Dennis Denney, JPT Technology Focus Creator
Longtime JPT Technology Editor Dennis Denney discusses his career at SPE and the development of the magazine’s Technology Focus feature.
In 1997, JPT debuted a monthly feature that represented an unconventional approach in meeting SPE’s goal of disseminating technical information to its members. Soon titled “Technology Focus,” the feature brought together subject-matter experts (SMEs) in a range of important industry topics to review technical-paper abstracts gathered from the previous year of SPE meetings, as well as the Offshore Technology Conference. Its architect, engineer, and pilot was Technology Editor Dennis Denney, who would become a familiar presence to SPE members and staff alike over a 17‑year career, although his industry roots extended to his college days.
Dennis helped recruit SMEs for review service; sent them hundreds of abstracts and full papers (monthly, that is; the cumulative count of papers he handled is likely a six-digit figure); answered their questions and concerns with prompt, supportive guidance; and then, once papers had been selected, synopsized them for publication in the magazine with the longtime help of Assistant Technology Editor Karen Bybee.
As this writer well knows, condensing a 10,000‑word paper on, say, distributed quasi-Newton derivative-free optimization methods for field development optimization into a 1,500‑word summary that captures the novelty and technical sophistication of its authors’ work can be a daunting task. Applying his own background as a petroleum engineer to methodically analyze and trim each chosen paper, Dennis did just that dozens of times a year, transforming these texts into svelte packages that included only one table or figure to deliver the highest possible quantity of quality to JPT readers.
When Dennis retired in 2013, I initially split his eyebrow-raising workload with fellow Technology Editor Adam Wilson (now JPT’s Special Publications Editor). It was immediately clear from the way that reviewers spoke about Dennis, and his contributions to the magazine and SPE itself, that he was held in the same high regard outside of the organization as he was within it, a testament to the reputation he had earned while working with so many members and SMEs.
It was entirely fitting that, for JPT’s 75th anniversary celebration, we caught up with Dennis to reflect on his achievements in the industry and with the groundbreaking Technology Focus feature he created.
Dennis lives with his wife Linda in Rockwall, Texas—not too far from SPE headquarters in Dallas, but not too close, either!—enjoying his retirement and his family.
(Note: For more on the development and history of the Technology Focus features, read the companion piece to this article, “Technology Focus Topics Reflect Industry Growth, Evolution Over 25+ Years.”)
Why did you decide to go into the field of petroleum engineering?
I worked several years as an engineering tech, testing gas wells, tracking well and reservoir pressures, and writing computer programs to analyze pressure data. The department manager encouraged me to finish my degree and become a petroleum engineer. So, after I received a scholarship from J. Harold Dunn (at age 28), my wife and I sold our house, packed our things into a U-Haul truck, and loaded two young kids into the car to move to Bryan/College Station to attend Texas A&M University.
How did you come to join SPE?
I joined SPE as a student when I enrolled in the petroleum engineering curriculum at Texas A&M University in 1974. All of the “PetE” students were highly encouraged to join SPE (after all, a student membership was free).
How did your engineering background translate into an editorial job with SPE?
I spent 20 years working as a reservoir engineer and production engineer for Mesa Petroleum and Maxus Energy and as a consultant. I happened upon a help-wanted ad looking for a petroleum engineer to work with JPT. It seemed like an interesting idea, and so I visited with Bill Pike, the managing editor, and found that the magazine wanted to publish Reader’s Digest-type condensed versions (1–2 pages) of papers presented at SPE conferences. I saw this task as an opportunity for me to pass along knowledge to fellow SPE members.
What did you find SPE’s strengths to be?
SPE’s strengths are in its members. Experienced members support young members in gaining knowledge to help prevent problems and improve efficiency in exploring, finding, drilling, and producing hydrocarbon energy for the world. Members all over the globe share ideas and information. This sharing happens at the many conferences and in presented technical papers. It happens in local section meetings. It happens in the synopsis publications. It happens in the SPE Connect communities.
How did the idea of the Technology Focus feature come about? Was a reviewing body always part of the idea?
JPT wanted to publish papers presented at conferences sooner than would be possible through the peer-review system of the time, which, in some cases, could take years to get published. An idea was developed to publish synopsis versions within a few months of presentation so that new technology could be shared faster. Initially, with the help of Karen Bybee (a part-time editor previously employed by Halliburton in their research facility), recent papers were reviewed for applicable content and a few were chosen for synopsis in JPT.
Although all SPE members received a copy of JPT, very few people would actually read the complete technical papers included during that time. Most people read about member and section news and looked through upcoming events. The newly introduced synopses, on the other hand, became popular and the synopsis idea expanded from a half-dozen papers per issue covering two topics, to 16 papers in four topics per issue.
The original editorial board of a few people evolved into a review board with an expert SPE member for each of the 48 feature topics in what became known as the Technology Focus feature. The expert reviewer selects recently presented papers to be published in each issue.
What was initial feedback like to the Technology Focus feature?
Initially, there was hesitation; many long-time members wanted only the peer-reviewed papers published. They believed that for JPT to be a true “journal,” it should publish only peer-reviewed papers. As more of the younger engineers found the synopsis publications, the process was accepted rapidly because they had time to read a one- or two-page version to understand the main points of the paper and envision an application of the technology to their situation. One of the most common comments was that young engineers have such a high demand of work tasks; they did not have time to read 15- to 20‑page full‑length papers.
The next step was obtaining the full paper for details. With the development of SPE’s online library, we were able to provide a link to the full paper. A short time later, SPE members were able to obtain a free copy of the full paper which continues today. As the number of papers presented at SPE conferences and the Offshore Technology Conference grew from about 3,000 in 1996 to eventually more than 10,000 per year, we began including a list of other interesting papers that would expand the specific topics and ideas highlighted in the Technology Focus.
What differences, if any, did you see in JPT’s role within the industry between your hire and your retirement?
The main difference was transforming JPT from a desktop dust collector to a valuable source of technical information. When I started with JPT, only the peer-reviewed papers were included in the Transactions publication each year.
One problem we had in the late 1990s was delivering JPT to members outside North America. Now that JPT is a digital publication, all members get access to the publication at the same time each month and to the JPT archive. Also, JPT technical articles are now included in SPE’s OnePetro online library for access to anyone around the world at any time.