“Every time we see a downturn, we are eventually in for one heck of an upturn!”

An interview with Dan Hampson and Brian Russell

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra | Photos courtesy: Penny Colton
Dan Hampson and Brian Russell

Dan Hampson and Brian Russell are well-known names in our industry. This is not only because of the significant technical contributions they have made to geophysics, but also because of the company they co-founded, Hampson-Russell Software Services Ltd., now a subsidiary of CGGVeritas.

This company has attracted world-wide attention for the quality of its software products. Geophysicists in companies around the world use these software modules, which are renowned for being user-friendly applications involving advanced algorithms and workflows. Their company, which started with a group of four people, has grown to over 70 people with offices in Calgary, Houston, Perth, Dubai, London, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Moscow.

Both Brian and Dan have received many awards recognizing their outstanding contributions to our science and industry, most notably the CSEG Medal and the SEG Enterprise Award. This reflects not only their technical and business achievements, but also their significant involvements in both societies at the volunteer level.

The CSEG is honouring these two individuals at the forthcoming Joint Convention by dedicating two of the geophysical sessions to them. A recent interview with Dan and Brian conducted by John Logel and Satinder Chopra (RECORDER Committee), is presented below so that readers can learn more about their body of work and experience, and why the CSEG values and recognizes their contributions so highly.

Let me begin by asking you both about your educational backgrounds and your work experiences?

[Brian]: I got my B.Sc. at the University of Saskatchewan in 1975. I started in physics and then switched to geophysics in my last year. I got my M.Sc. in geophysics at the University of Durham in the UK in 1978, while on a leave of absence from Chevron. Finally, I did my Ph.D. at the University of Calgary from the years 2000 to 2004. Kind of a late bloomer, you might say! In terms of my work experience, I started with Chevron, which was a great learning experience. I then worked for Teknica and Veritas, where I met Dan. Since 1987, I have been with Hampson-Russell. Has it really been that long?

[Dan]: I have a Master’s degree in Physics from McMaster University and an MBA from the University of Calgary. I started my career with Veritas in 1976 as a Processing Geophysicist. After a one-year interlude with Phillips Petroleum in Houston in 1979, I returned to Veritas as a research geophysicist. That’s where I continued until forming Hampson- Russell in 1987.

Brian, what kind of research did you do for your doctorate?

[Brian]: My Ph.D. thesis was entitled “The application of multivariate statistics and neural networks to the prediction of reservoir properties using seismic attributes”. With a title that long I almost didn’t need to write the thesis! Dan has done the equivalent of about three Ph.D. theses based on his original research and papers over the years.

What led you both to start your own software company?

[Brian]: My first job was as an interpreter with Chevron. I then moved into their geophysical technology division and found that I was more cut out for the software side of geophysics than for interpreting. After that I moved to Teknica to work with Roy Lindseth and then to Veritas Seismic where I started working with Dan. Veritas spun us off as a software company in the mid 1980s, and Dan and I soon realized this was what we had both been apprenticing for all our careers! So in 1987 we took the plunge and went out on our own. In retrospect it was a risky move, but we were both too naïve to realize it. With a bit of luck on our side it has worked out pretty well.

[Dan]: In some ways, our company was really jump-started by Dave Robson, the CEO of Veritas. In 1984, when Brian and I were comfortably going about our lives as researchers and trainers with Veritas, Dave decided to shake everybody up by forming a software company called Veritas Software. That was a big shock and resulted in 3 years of intense on-thejob training on how to run a software company. This was aggravated by the fact that Dave was really a little ahead of his time, and the technology wasn’t quite ready for us. Anyway, after we got the training, Brian and I decided we might as well be working for ourselves, so we left Veritas and formed Hampson-Russell, with Dave as a junior partner.

Fig. 01
(LtoR) John Logel, Satinder Chopra, Dan Hampson, and Brian Russell engaged in conversation.

Tell us about the challenges you faced early on when you started Hampson-Russell?

[Dan]: The biggest challenge probably came about because we were just at the beginning of the workstation technology. Our early sales were with batch programs, which ran on mainframes and required complicated installation at the site. The business really didn’t take off until PC’s and workstations became more mature.

[Brian]: As I said before, Hampson-Russell Software was started when we split off from Veritas Software. Dave Robson was gracious enough to let us keep the rights to some of the software we had developed at Veritas, like AVO, INVEST (now called the Parabolic Radon Transform) and GLI (a statics program). But our biggest hurdle was convincing our prospective clients that our upstart company, with four employees, was legitimate and here to stay. We kept plugging away and getting on flights to Dallas, where all of our initial big clients were, and it finally paid off.

What about finding the right kind of people?

[Brian]: We have been very lucky in finding extremely good people to work with us, right from the start. Kim Andersen and Nic Martini came with us from Veritas, whereas Arthur Lee and Francis Ma applied to us in the late 1980s, right out of university. We are pleased to say the all four are still with us, after twenty years! Over the years, we have continued to attract top notch talent, and have had very little turnover, which probably is my proudest achievement with the company.

[Dan]: That, of course, is the key to success. I’d like to take credit for it, but I agree with Brian, we were very lucky. Our best programmers have been with us since the beginning. They joined us more or less right out of school. What we did right is create an environment where they were happy enough to stay.

What lessons can other entrepreneurs learn from the example you set with your company?

[Brian]: I think that the key is to treat your employees with respect, give them the freedom to contribute in the best way they can, and then reward them based on their contributions. Everyone at our company has always felt that they are part of a team, pulling together for the same goals.

[Dan]: Probably, just a re-iteration of my previous answer. Treat your people well. Treat them with respect. Make them participants in the success of the company. Genuinely worry about their well being. After that, hope for the best.

Usually in a partnership, problems crop up down the road and then the partners part ways. But you both have stood together through thick and thin. What is the secret there?

[Dan]: The secret is to really believe that both partners bring unique gifts to the partnership and both are necessary to success. Brian and I share the technical and the marketing functions, but we do specialize in this way: Brian is definitely stronger on the marketing side and I am stronger on the programming side. Take away one and the other won’t get very far.

[Brian]: I think there were two keys here: mutual respect and absolutely equal financial incentives.

How did the takeover of Hampson-Russell (HR) by CGGVeritas affect your company and the way you do business?

[Brian]: Actually, we have been through two takeovers. We sold the company to VeritasDGC in 2001, and then VeritasDGC merged with CGG in 2006. Our experience has been very good with both companies. We are still basically operating as an independent entity within CGGVeritas, although we are fully merged in terms of management, benefits and so on. In fact, the company recently paid us a huge compliment by renaming all of the software and services parts of the company as Hampson-Russell.

[Dan]: Yes, CGGVeritas allowed us to continue our business, without much change. I would say the biggest impact is to reduce the amount of time we spend on administrative functions, like managing payroll and IT. We also benefit greatly from their wide-spread offices all over the world. So, the impact has been very positive.

Fig. 02

What is the future plans for your company? What future s/w modules can we expect in HR s/w?

[Dan]: Right now, almost all our resources are focused on modernizing the user interface for our software. This is very important for us, because we have always believed our unique contribution has been to simplify complicated technologies and make them more accessible to non-experts. The next generation of all our modules will look radically different from the previous, and hopefully, radically easier to use.

[Brian]: Yes, this new complete re-write of the software, will be version CE9. The new software will be much more integrated, have a more intuitive user-interface, and will offer features such as workflows for the new user. We are getting very good feedback from clients on early releases of the new package.

Can you share with us your biggest achievements, apart from starting and running a successful company?

[Dan]: One thing I am proud of is earning my MBA degree part time, while I was starting up the company. We started the company in August 1987, and I started the MBA program at the University of Calgary in January 1987. I finished it six years later, taking courses at night, while running the company in the day.

[Brian]: Certainly, it was a great honour winning the Cecil Green Enterprise Award from SEG. This was recognition from our geophysical peers that our company has had an impact. For me, personally, my biggest achievement recently was completing my Ph.D. at the age of 54, not so much for the letters after my name but for the great feeling of accomplishment in having finally done it.

Could you share with us some surprises also? I mean something that is not known to anyone?

[Brian]: Probably my biggest surprise came in the early 1990’s, when we had a few very bad months due to an industry downturn coupled with being in the middle of a major rewrite of the software. Dan and I decided we needed a 25% cut in operating costs. Instead of cutting staff, we decided to cut everyone’s salary by 25%, including our own. I thought we would lose several of our staff over this, but instead everyone stayed with us and worked harder than ever to turn things around. Within several months we had re-instated everyone’s salary and started a profit-sharing program. That period of time taught me more about running a business than any amount of business school could have.

As yours is a software development company, the s/w obviously, in this particular case, is used all around the world. What part of your business is outside of Calgary or shall we say North America? You could just give me a percentage for each.

[Brian & Dan]: We are fairly well-balanced around the world. Very roughly, we do about 50% of our business in North and South America (with the majority of that coming out of Houston and 10% of that would be from Calgary), 30% in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and 20% in Asia and Australia.

You both have won accolades for your contributions to the geophysical community, having received awards etc from the CSEG and the SEG. How does it feel?

[Brian]: I think that the great thing about winning an award is not the award itself but the fact it has been awarded by your peers. You recall the great people you worked with along the way. For example, a recent TLE picture shows the four 2008 SEG Honorary Award winners, all past SEG Presidents, of which I was one. It is obvious we were having a good time and it felt great to have developed such a bond with those individuals over the years through my volunteer work with SEG.

[Dan]: Yes, I agree, it feels good to be recognized by our peers.

Of all the different s/w modules in HR which one is the most popular? Why do you think it is so?

[Brian]: I would have to say that AVO is still our most popular module, and is certainly the program most associated with Hampson-Russell. This is probably because the program has been growing for about twenty-five years and has something for everybody, from rock physics through synthetic modeling through AVO analysis. This is not to say we can rest on our laurels, and version CE9 will hopefully take us to yet another level in the program’s development.

[Dan]: Yes, AVO is the most popular, accounting for about half of our business. I think that is because it is recognized as a genuinely useful but complex technology. And as I mentioned before, we believe our biggest contribution is in making complex technologies accessible to non-specialists. AVO is a perfect example of that in action.

Fig. 03

[John Logel]: At the time you started your company, AI inversion and AVO analysis were in there infancy and were carried out dominantly by specialist group; what did you see changing in the industry that lead you to the conclusion that the mainstream/ prospecting geophysicist would want to do this as a part of day-to-day life?

[Dan]: Honestly, we didn’t foresee the change. We really just hoped for the best. In a way, our company mission has been to spread technology beyond the specialist group. If that had not been acceptable to the market, the company would not have gone anywhere, and we would not be having this conversation. I’d like to pretend that we were capable of predicting the future, but the fact is we tended to work away on a daily basis, doing what was fun at the time. We were lucky.

[Brian]: When we first wrote the AVO program, it was on a 1980’s PC and was intended as a “what if” tool. That is, it had simple modeling and data analysis capability. The power came later when we converted it to UNIX on the Sun Workstation. Strata was also initially developed on the PC, because we felt that poststack analysis would be simpler than full pre-stack analysis, and we thought that AI inversion was the kind of thing that interpreters would enjoy doing themselves. Again, its power came with the Sun workstation.

I wanted to go back to the early days of AVO and ask you both: What was the motivation for you at the time to study AVO analysis? How successfully have you used AVO analysis in the projects that you may have done over the years?

[Brian]: AVO was developed in 1985 while we were still at Veritas and Strata were developed in 1989, as Hampson-Russell’s first new module. But to answer your question, we got into AVO analysis while the method was still quite new and somewhat marginalized. The program was started through a consortium of companies in Calgary.

[Dan]: It was a topic we were interested in, scientifically, but really didn’t know if the market would accept it. So, we started a little consortium of companies in Calgary, and everything just followed from there. I would say, we would never have predicted that that little program would be the main source of our work and revenue for the next 20 years.

[Brian]: Yes, we wanted to see if this new technique would really take off or not. I guess we bet on the right horse!

There was a summer workshop organized in 1992 with the theme: ‘How useful is AVO analysis’. People had burnt their hands at the time in that many wells drilled on AVO anomalies proved to be dusters, and so were skeptical about AVO application; hence the title given to the workshop. Was it opportune time to discuss this and how?

[Brian]: I was at that conference, held in Big Sky, Montana, and it was probably the best workshop I have ever attended. It was at Big Sky that I met people like Chris Ross, John Castagna and Maurice Gidlow, who were pioneers in the field of AVO. It was a great gathering of expertise in the field and it came at exactly the right time.

[Dan]: During that time we were constantly experiencing swings in the general acceptance of AVO. I used to joke that I could tell the AVO market was in an upswing by the number of times I was being asked to participate in a conference on whether it was useful.

The development of the s/w modules in HR would depend on the particular algorithms/ techniques that people would like to apply to their data and s/w can provide a convenient way to implement it. It is possible that such algorithms/techniques come from areas of geophysics that do not fascinate you so much? What do you do in such cases? This question is just to get your mind on that though you both have been all over the place.

[Dan]: If I understand the question, you are asking: what do we do if the useful area just doesn’t interest us? I don’t really think that has come up in practice. I tend to be motivated by the market. In other words, I get interested if the market is interested and I quickly lose interest if the market is negative.

[Brian]: It is hard for me to think of any area of geophysics that does not interest me, having worked in AVO, inversion, geostatistics, neural networks and the like. That being said, I would have to say that I am not an expert in seismic imaging or in nonseismic methods like EM, so would certainly look to others for their expertise if we wanted to implement these techniques.

What changes have you perceived in our industry over the last 30+ years that you have been around? I would like you to look back and tell us what comes to your mind.

[Brian]: I guess the biggest changes have been on the hardware side, and these changes have definitely benefited us. When we started, mainframe computers were still dominant, the PC was seen as a toy, and UNIX computers like the SUN workstation were still a few years off. The introduction of the UNIX workstation was huge for us, as it allowed us to put all of our software into the hands of interpreters. Also, the development of the PC as a serious computer spurred all the recent changes in our software. On the algorithmic side, it has been fun to participate in the evolution of inversion from post-stack through to pre-stack, where we can now reliably estimate P and S-impedance and density. This was only a dream twenty years ago.

[Dan]: Probably the biggest change that has affected me personally has been the radical change in the industry acceptance of inversion. Back in the early 80’s when I started working on this, I had the general impression that inversion was viewed as a coloured attribute with questionable validity. Now I find that has completely changed. People are looking to inversions these days to provide numerical measurements, which demand a lot from the data. It’s challenging, but it’s also comforting to know that I haven’t been wasting my time.

You have both volunteered for professional societies like CSEG and SEG. Why do you do this? I would like to get your viewpoint for our readers.

[Brian]: I guess it gets back to something I said earlier, the pleasure of working alongside fantastic people, and making lifelong friendships. And also the pleasure of giving back something to a profession that has been good to us all. I have been volunteering for almost thirty years and am still as active as ever. I would encourage all young geoscientists to get involved with their society, at any level. Some people enjoy getting involved in technical programs, others in fun things like the Doodlebug Golf Tournament, others on executive committees. There is something for everyone.

[Dan]: For me, my participation in the societies has been an opportunity to network and make contacts. That is particularly important for someone who spends a lot of his time sitting in front of a computer screen. I love the work I do, but I definitely need to be pulled away from it from time to time.

Brian, you like teaching and have you taught many courses. Dan you did not get onto this side so much. Any particular reason for this?

[Brian]: Actually, I don’t think people realize how much Dan teaches, since his course work is all done at the company level, teaching people how to use our software. I also teach our company courses but in addition have done a lot of training for CSEG and SEG, so perhaps I have been more visible. I have always enjoyed teaching and finding new ways to explain technical concepts, so it has just gone hand in hand with our development of new software ideas at Hampson-Russell. I have to say that without Dan writing all that great software I would have much less to teach!

[Dan]: I actually do teach quite a few of our courses, just not as much as Brian. You may be interested to know that Brian and I both did start as teachers. We were both volunteers in Africa, teaching high school, with CUSO. That was at about the same time (the early 70’s), but by coincidence – we didn’t actually know each other then.

In our current lives, I guess the different amount of teaching reflects our different personalities. I am most interested in the part of the teaching that uses the software. This gives me a very immediate way to tell how people are getting on with it. It always leads to ideas for improvement.

What other interests do you have?

[Dan]: Outside of work, I lead a pretty quiet life. I read a lot, mostly history and 19th century novels. I play a little piano. I travel quite a bit for pleasure. I have residences in both Houston and Calgary, and I split my time between them.

[Brian]: I am an avid guitar player and collector, but not quite ready to give up my day job, as anyone who has seen me perform can attest to! I also like to golf in the summer and ski in the winter, although my skiing has been cut way back since my kids left home quite a few years ago. Perhaps now that my grandchildren have reached skiing age I will get serious about it again. Elaine and I have a cabin on Columbia Lake, just south of Fairmont Hot Springs, so that gets me on the water in my kayak in the summer.

What would be your message for young entrants to geoscience? What are the most rewarding aspects of taking up a career in geoscience?

[Brian]: For me, the most rewarding parts of my career in geophysics have been the great technical challenges, the variety of methods I have been exposed to, from pure geology to pure mathematics, the great travel opportunities and, as I have already said, the great people I have worked with and got to know. The downside is of course the unpredictability of the industry due to the changing oil price. But this has certainly made life interesting and I know for sure that every time we see a downturn (like this one) we are eventually in for one heck of an upturn!

[Dan]: I find the most rewarding thing is the combination of business and science. In other words, geophysics allows me to put real science to work and get real rewards from the market when it makes a difference. I love the fact that I can fiddle with algorithms and then get thumbs up (or down) from the market on whether they are useful. I have never been satisfied with pure research. I am a tinkerer in maths, and geophysics gives me a perfect opportunity to do that.

And finally, what question (which I apparently may have missed out on) would you ask Brian and Dan, if you were in my place? And what would be your answer?

[Brian]: I would have asked: if you had it all to do over again, what would you do differently? And my answer would be: nothing!

Well said. Brian and Dan, thank you very much for giving us this opportunity to sit and chat with you. It has been both a pleasure and honour to be part of this discussion. As members of the RECORDER Committee, we appreciate it very much.

[Brian & Dan]: Our pleasure.


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