Out of This World Technology: From Petroleum Engineer to Chief Technology Officer

TWA interviews John Saiz, Principal Industrial Fellow at the University of Cambridge and Former Chief Technology Officer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Saiz discusses areas where aerospace and oil and gas industries can collaborate, and shares his journey from petroleum engineer to CTO.


Interview conducted by TWA editors Nii Ahele Nunoo, NOV; Carter Clemens, BP; Bruno Rivas, Chevron; and Li Zhang, Independent

John Saiz is a Principal Industrial Fellow at the University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) responsible for collaborating with technology-intensive organizations worldwide with support from the staff at the IfM Centre for Technology Management. In this capacity, Saiz has worked with a number of multinational commercial organizations, industry consortia, and universities.

Saiz was previously the chief technology officer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). While at NASA, he directed a number of technology and flight development projects that included efforts spanning the full spectrum of “technology readiness levels,” from initial proof-of-concept laboratory demonstration through long-term spaceflight operations on the Space Shuttle, Russian Mir, and the International Space Station. During his tenure at NASA, he managed a portfolio of nearly 200 internal research and technology development activities.

Saiz holds degrees in petroleum engineering and mechanical engineering, and his industry experience includes a brief stint as a mud logger with Integrated Drilling and Logging in the Texas and Louisiana oil fields, and engineering and technology management roles at Honeywell Defense Systems, Oceaneering Space Systems, and Halliburton.

How can the energy and aerospace industries benefit from collaboration? Do you see any game-changing innovations on the horizon for either industry?

I would say that there are a number of technical interdisciplinary innovations that I think will work both in energy and aerospace, in particular, the robotics area. There is a lot of work being done in automation, such as automated drilling techniques. In the space program, we have been automating a lot of things that normally astronauts do to free up time for more challenging tasks.

There is also potential in the areas of modeling and simulation, for sure. Have you heard of “digital twin”? It is the ability to model something so well that you can have a representative version of it in the virtual environment. Through software modeling and instrumentation, you can represent systems and subsystems in a virtual environment to predict how they will react in a variety of scenarios; for instance, malfunction scenarios that should not happen, but if they do happen, you are prepared for them. Expert systems, augmented reality, and the digital twins are a few game-changing innovations that may be beneficial to both industries.

Also, navigation systems have possible benefits for each industry. Of course we use “star trackers” and other inertial navigation systems in outer space and there may be potential to leverage this experience with the types of navigation systems used to steer drill bits in unconventional drilling.

Lightweight structures present another prospect for innovation and energy/space co-development. I think that is an area where the oil business could benefit from advances in other sectors including aerospace. Of course, much of NASA’s mission involves launching heavy projectiles into outer space where 7 lbs of propellant is needed to lift a single pound of structure as a typical rule of thumb. I believe lightweight structures also have a place out in deep water and land jobs too.

So, in summary, I would say the areas of robotics, modeling, navigation systems, and structures are just a few of many areas where energy and aerospace could benefit from collaboration.

Some of your colleagues have described you as the “innovative change agent” for the Johnson Space Center. Do you have any tips or advice you can give about embedding new ideas or practices at a team or company level?  What about balancing the importance of training while also being conscious of a low-cost environment?

At the risk of sounding like an advertisement, you are getting into what I do now, which includes education and training in the areas of innovation and technology management. As you may be aware, I recently took an early retirement from NASA to work on behalf of the Centre for Technology Management (part of the University of Cambridge). Over the past 2 years, I have had the pleasure of working with chief technology officers, vice presidents for technology, and technology directors to help them develop and refine their research and development (R&D) strategy, improve their “pipeline” of developments, and help them foster an organizational culture that is conducive to ingenuity and creative thinking.

Regarding training in a low-cost environment, let us just say I am always disappointed when R&D gets cut—often times disproportionatelywhen times get bad. Let us be clear about this: The scientific research and the technology that an organization develops is the “seed corn” for future growth. And I would assert that the people who develop these technologies are the organization’s most important asset. These folks need to be nurtured and protected.

In your opinion, which cutting-edge fields of expertise will lead the industry’s growth in the future? Where should young professionals dedicate their continuing education efforts in order to keep up with these advancements?

We can talk a lot about computer science or nanotechnologies. There is a lot of cutting-edge stuff out there, but quite honestly, it is at the intersections of entire disciplinary fields that interest me. There are huge intersections between engineering fields, like mechanical or electrical, and related fields like physics or chemistry or computer science. I think it is at those intersections of fields that those really interesting things happen. So that is what I would suggest young professionals focus on--continuing their education in fields that are kind of adjacent to traditional fields like engineering.

Of course, understanding the business side of things is always useful, so I would suggest that an MBA, or at least courses in marketing or finance and accounting are helpful.  There are a lot of opportunities to learn more.  I did it.  I was a petroleum engineer and I went back to school to get a degree in mechanical engineering, but if I had to do it all over again, I would have obtained a degree in law or business. I would have done something a little different from engineering, but at the time, I just did not know what I know now so I just thought “Let’s just do another engineering degree.” I made it work but I would probably have done it differently the second time around.

You have been a part of several high-profile projects, some involving the International Space Station. Is there anything you found in your career that is helpful when trying to get teams to work together or communicate clearly between each other?

I will say this: At the end of the day people look for one or two things in a leader. First, they look at that person and ask is this person competent? Is the person smart? Does this person have the key skills to make this effort happen? Second, they look for integrity. Is this person going to be honest with me? Is this person going to be transparent? Can I trust this person? So I will just say that it is very easy to engage with people if they think you are competent and trustworthy. These two attributes are critical—do you know what you are doing and are you trustworthy and believable? If you have these two things, people will bend over backward trying to help you.

I’m also a strong believer in a thing called “servant leadership.” If you have a good heart, if you have the heart of a servant, you can be a good leader. Quite honestly, a lot of leadership is about getting out of the way. For instance, we need to do what we can to remove the barriers so that our teams can succeed. I have found that the best leaders serve the people who work for them.

You have had an incredibly interesting career that has spanned some high-profile technical positions. Are there any particular experiences you can point to that helped shape who you are today?

First, let me speculate that I’m a bit older than I look, so my career spans a fair distance. That being said, I would have to say that one experience, in particular, comes to mind. I was the project manager of a wireless instrumentation system project. Wireless instrumentation nowadays sounds like no big deal. After all, it is just sensors with batteries that you can stick in various places and you radio transmit temperature, strain, acceleration, and pressure information around the network and so on.

Wireless systems are not a big deal nowadays, but think what life was like when we were developing this stuff at NASA. It was in the early-to-mid 1990s and IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] had not yet developed the Wi-Fi or Bluetooth or ZigBee that we all take for granted today. We had to invent all the communication protocols from scratch. On top of that, think about the operating environment—the cold vacuum of space. Of course, the battery temperature gets colder almost immediately after launch and you need to conserve power, since you can’t exactly go outside to repair the network. And of course, each sensor unit has its own quartz crystal oscillators so you would have to resynchronize the network regularly to minimize communication “collisions.”

Aside from all of the technical details, I would say that the “people” side of program and project management is where I grew the most. For instance, I learned quite a bit about the difference between management and leadership.

Everyone at The Way Ahead was very interested to hear that over your career, before NASA, you spent some time as a mud logger. Is that correct?

Before my tenure with the space program, I started out in the oil business. In fact, I trained as a petroleum engineer specifically focusing on reservoir engineering with an emphasis on secondary and tertiary recovery—waterflooding, surfactants, CO2 injection, and so on.  That was really what I was trained to do and I finished my formal education in the mid-80s.

As you may recall, the mid-80s certainly was not a good time to come out into the workforce. I had to hustle to find anything here in the Houston region but I found some good work as a surface data logger, a mud logger, and it was an interesting time working out in the oil fields. I spent a lot of my time on the rigs right here in Texas, including the Permian Basin in west Texas, but also in Louisiana, and all up and down the Gulf coast. I worked on a lot of land jobs, a few barges, and offshore also.

What made you want to go back to school and get your MS in mechanical engineering? And what brought you over to the aerospace industry?

I got my petroleum engineering degree in 1985, so I would say that was one of the worst times to be a petroleum engineer. Although it is particularly bad right now, it may not be any worse than it was in the mid-80s. Particularly in the Houston area, we are a lot more diverse now than we were back then with respect to job options. It seemed like everybody in the Houston area was working in oil and gas so you really had nowhere to run. So what brought me into aerospace was that I really had no option but to obtain more skills—I went back to school and got my master’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Houston.

I got in touch with a professor, John Lienhard, who also has a radio show called “The Engines of Our Ingenuity” if you want to listen to it on KUHF in Houston or online. It is quite a show. I learned a lot from him and I did some experimental research in the mechanical engineering heat transfer area. I learned quite a bit that I think is quite valuable to the aerospace industry but also oil and gas.

With respect to aerospace, I really got into it out of necessity. It is interesting that I stayed in it for as long as I did. I was really looking to get into aerospace for just a few years and when the oil business turned around again I was just going to jump right back out. Working for NASA was a great experience and I found that I enjoyed it quite a bit more than I had anticipated so I stayed in aerospace for a little while longer.

Anything you miss about working in the oil field?

Well let me say that it is definitely a single person’s life—it certainly was that back then. Perhaps the arrangements are different nowadays, but you basically worked 12-hour shifts.  We would stick around for an extra half hour to debrief the new person about what happened in the last shift, and of course you would come in a half hour early as well.  So you would really have a 13-hour shift. I would not say I particularly miss that part of the job, but I do miss the environment.

Working out in the oil field was very interesting. There was always something going on and I learned quite a bit. Plus, it was just exciting working offshore, riding helicopters and crew boats, and so on. It was a very, very exciting time of my life. For periods of time, it was incredibly boring since you were drilling through clay or limestone, and depending on the formation, it would go incredibly slow. But within these slow times, there were stressful periods too. For instance, when we drilled through a fault zone with gas pockets and we did not have the mud weight exactly right. Sometimes we would be out of balance and introduce gas into the system. It is kind of a black art, you know—at least it was back then.

Which of your personal skills have you found particularly helpful in both the energy and aerospace industries?

Let me suggest a few basic skills that I believe are useful in any organization or any industry sector.  I’m talking about the soft skills; the interpersonal skills that one needs to enable collaboration and teamwork. This includes the ability to get along with people, the ability to inspire, and the ability to get along with management or your peers and so on.

It is also important to be genuine and transparent and to take the time to listen and consider other perspectives. Along with truthfulness or honesty, I would say these interpersonal skills are particularly helpful in any industry.

Are there any skills you learned in the oil and gas industry that benefited you at NASA?

Perhaps it was my training as a reservoir engineer, where we consider the interactions of multiple wells across an entire field. Regardless, it was during my experience in the oil and gas industry when I came to appreciate the importance of strategic skills. Of course, the ability to see the bigger picture is not automatic.  Not a lot of people have this ability, but I believe one can train him- or herself to understand how individual activities fit into the larger landscape.

Have you read any books recently that you think young professionals might find valuable?

Here’s one: It is a nonfiction book called Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. She is a political scientist who writes about presidents, in this case Abraham Lincoln. Interestingly, back in the day, Abraham Lincoln was not the people's first choice; he was everybody’s second or third choice.  Everybody was looking at people like Senator William Seward, Governor Salmon P. Chase, and former US Representative Edward Bates. At the Republican convention, people were split on who to vote for and they had to go to something like two or three ballots before they finally selected Abraham Lincoln.  The interesting thing is that after he got elected, he actually put his former rivals on his cabinet. These are people who did not always get along with President Lincoln, but in the end, they came to respect one another in ways that perhaps only Abe had envisioned. What confidence he had to include his rivals on his team! Obviously he overlooked the fact they really wanted Lincoln’s job and they probably did not trust him at first, but he had the servant’s heart and he turned out to be very, very competent.

Another book I recommend is called The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies by Scott E. Page. It talks about the power of diversity. I am not just talking about ethnic diversity, I am also talking about diverse ideas from people from different parts of an organization, people with backgrounds in different industries, and people who work in academia research organizations. You never know where the best ideas will come from, but if you cast a wide net you can harvest the best ideas regardless of where they are coming from.

Is there any other advice you can share that you think may be beneficial to young professionals?

Building on some other topics mentioned earlier, I’ll quickly touch on maintaining a balance between work and your personal life. It is easy to focus on one more than the other.

When you do take time away from work, look around and see the world. Be sure to travel and go outside of your country, because you are going to interact with people with different perspectives than your own.  In this respect we are at a bit of a disadvantage in the US, given that we are primarily surrounded by water. The Pacific Ocean is vast as is the Atlantic so we are kind of isolated from other societies. It is incumbent on us to make a concerted effort to travel outside of this country to interact with other societies and learn about other cultures. There is a lot going on in the world that we often claim to understand; however, we will benefit by actually taking the time to travel and talk with people and really understand what is going on.

I would highly advocate getting out into the world especially when you are younger. I can assure you that you will have a lot of fun and learn something new.

Related Reading

JPT. 2016. NASA Risk-Management Tool Could Help Offshore Industry.