People, Products and the Power of Ideas

TCLABZ Energy Machine Learning

I joined Dan Yergin’s Cambridge Energy Research Associates in 1996 as a Director in its Global Power Practice.  My role was to leverage my hands-on utility operations, regulatory and data-driven tech experience to help our clients plan strategies for their business future.  It was very satisfying work at a very strategic level with Fortune 1000 sized global market leaders.

One of my business and professional strengths was the ability to see through the details of a problem to focus on the Big Picture and help the client play ‘what if’ in considering strategic choices among alternative approaches to both opportunity and risk. At CERA we used scenario analysis as a strategic platform to ‘test drive’ alternative solutions to business options.  With my knack for conceptualizing and summarizing big picture ideas I made a good living as the builder of recurring revenue information solutions then putting them to use as a strategy adviser for the next 20 years through the rest of my career.

Those years of front-line energy domain expertise with emerging technologies helped clients leverage their capabilities for the future. Later those lessons learned at CERA were put to work as head of consulting and advisory services at an eager to grow start-up called Henwood Energy Services.  The business problem Mark Henwood faced was while he had great software for doing energy modeling and portfolio risk analysis the solutions were difficult to learn and for the client to apply.  That difficulty limited growth.  Mark was looking for ways to improve user experience and thus scale the growth of software and associated services to help the business scale.

Moving from CERA to Henwood in 2000 proved to be one of my best career decisions.  At CERA I was part of a great team of well-respected energy strategy and risk advisers.  At Henwood I was a principal in a smaller but well positioned solution provider for the rapidly changing energy industry need for advanced analytics technology and portfolio risk solutions sweeping as competition and disruptive change swept the industry.

Mark Henwood asked Ron McMahan, the founder of RDI, who had sold his energy data services business to Platts to join the Henwood Board to advance the M&A agenda.  What followed was a rapid series of transactions that saw Henwood transformed as the platform for a $50 million capital injection from Steve Rattner, Managing Partner of Quadrange.  Henwood morphed into Global Energy Decisions with McMahan as the CEO in 2003 and a string of tuck under acquisitions built a powerhouse portfolio of advanced analytics solution over the next four years when Global Energy was flipped to form Ventyx in 2007 in a merger with principal competitor New Energy Associates.  Several more acquisitions were made before Ventyx itself was sold to ABB as the basis for ABB Enterprise Software in 2010. I cashed out in 2008 but it was a very fun ride.

The energy future is not like Thomas Edison’s dream—it’s better, faster, more dynamic blurring the lines between energy and technology.

We formed Global Energy Decisions and Ventyx at a pivotal time in the energy industry.  Disruptive technology was breaking down barriers to entry and democratizing the power grid with renewable energy. Cloud computing and advanced analytic made possible even faster changes in the use of microgrids, demand response, customer aggregation, distribution automation and machine-to-machine (M2M) to teach the old grid new tricks.

On the oil and natural gas side of the energy value chain the emergence of hydraulic fracturing, horizontal or directional drilling and 3D seismic mapping made access to light tight oil and gas formations in shale and tight light oil onshore economic.  Rapid advances in these tech applications turned the US from a net energy importer dependent upon OPEC for oil and imported LNG for gas into a global oil and gas superpower in less than a decade.

TCLABS Technology Drives Energy Transformation

The Principles of Product Leadership 

I credit my teachers and my first boss for teaching me the principles of leadership which I was able to successfully apply to the products I built for my customers.

Bear with me for a moment as I tell you a quick series of stories to set the stage for this broader discussion of product leadership and why assembling the right team of people with the vision, passion, and skills will make all the difference in your success.

Billows, Reed & Tedards. These were the teachers with the most profound impact on my life not the name of a law firm.  Mr Billows taught Civics and History, Miss Reed taught Latin and the Classics, and Mrs Tedards was my Speech teacher. Each saw something in me that I was only discovering for myself.  No, it was not just that I was a wise guy!

Separately, I don’t know whether they would have had the same impact, but unwittingly having all three during my formative years made a big difference.

  • Mr Billows loved history and stories of the formation of our country.  He told them passionately, made them interesting and sent us on detective assignments passed off as homework to force us to figure out not just “what” was decided but “why” and “how” it affected the formation and future of America.  It was this quest for why and so what does it mean that shaped my mind to see beyond the tree to the forest.
  • Miss Reed fit all your stereotypes for a Latin and Greek language teacher.  Stern, no nonsense, and relentless about completing our assignments.  She had a ruthlessly effective way of enforcing those rules.  In her Latin class, we read aloud—in Latin, of course—taking turns until everyone in the class had an opportunity to demonstrate they had studied their lessons long enough to recite them and translate them for the rest of us.  Talk about pressure.  But the discipline, precision and importance of results it taught us served me well my entire career.
  • Mrs Tedards our speech and debate coach was our self-confidence builder.  Her class routine was to use current events to force us to get the facts, boil it down to its essence and stand up in front of the class to tell the story persuasively while our peers evaluated us.  Time and Newsweek were our friends as they were the pages ripped from the magazines she handed us each day in class.  “You have 15 minutes to prepare a three minute improvised speech,” I can still hear her saying.

But while getting the story straight might have satisfied Mr Billows and Miss Reed, Mrs T wanted it told with style, presence, confidence and passion.  This daily torment is the stuff every business executive needs to stand up before a crowd and deliver his pitch, sell his product, and convince the skeptic.  Get it right and it feels wonderful.  Get it wrong and you’re out on the curb with no sale. These are the core competencies so many young people today still need to succeed in their careers.  But what I learned from these teachers I often had to teach to my new employees before they could live into their full potential.

Put together a high performance team with big picture strategic thinking skills to imagine new products from the ideas of clients and staff.  Ask “why” and “so what” until you understand the business problem that must be solved and the pain points that will get your customer to buy the product.  Then get the technical skills and production precision to deliver what you promise, on time and budget, every time.

  • Larry Rice. I finished my master’s degree courses at the University of Kansas, but to graduate required that I do an internship in addition to a thesis.  Larry Rice was a graduate of my alma mater and he hired “interns” from the program every few years.  The University organized the  process of placing interns, sending resumes to the alumni and others in the market for interns along with the phone numbers of the candidates and their faculty adviser.  Being on good terms with your professors in grad school is a lesson in networking every student learns fast. I got a call from Larry Rice one afternoon asking me if I was interested in being his intern.  Of course I was but I had not yet applied for Larry’s opening.  ” I know” he said, “but I already talked to Dr. Stene about you and he thinks we’d be perfect together, so how about it?  Do you want to come to Oregon and work with me?”

I worked for Larry Rice in Albany, Oregon for three years and from him I learned that integrity was the gold standard by which professionals are measured.  If you have integrity and treat people honestly, respectfully they will work hard to be part of your team.  Larry also taught me another important lesson.  Sometimes you have to think differently and break the rules if you are going to solve the problem.

The third lesson I learned from Larry was the “art” of leadership.  When he’d give me assignments he would take the time to not only tell me what he wanted accomplished but “WHY” and the “SO WHAT” result he wanted accomplished when I finished the task.  I still remember how it made me feel.  He trusts me—and he is counting on me to deliver for him.  He’s giving me direction and coaches me but lets me do it myself.  He asks me questions and offers helpful suggestions.  I worked hard to please him because I respected him and understood the objective to be achieved.  I was part of the solution not just a pawn used to move two spaces on the game board.  Give your staff that same sense of purpose, alignment and respect and they will work hard for you too.

Infect your team with your vision of the product and the ‘why’ and ‘so what’ that will come from building it.  Your job is to empower them as a team and as individual professionals to act for you. They must know that you believe in them!  You are counting on them! You have confidence in their skill and judgment and you will back them up. You must not only give them the task but help them to understand the importance of precision and care so that they bring the product in on specification, on time and on budget every time—and make it work to solve the intended business problem because—that is the way we do things here—-we do it right the first time and we solve our customer’s problem.

Over the course of my career in the software and information services business I have built many fine products.  I didn’t build them myself–it was a team effort.  I hired people who wanted to be part of great teams and grow as professionals.  I gave them great mentors and the best tools.   I promised that if they would work with me for three to five years that I would give them more experience in the driving force issues shaping the industry using the best analytics tools available than they would get going to work for one company in an entire career.  And when they were ready to move up I would help them however I could to be competitive with the best companies in our industry.

Advisory Products 4

I tell you candidly that of all the success I have had in my professional career, none is more satisfying to me that the success of the great teams and individuals who called themselves Global Energy Advisors.  Their enduring industry impact will be my most lasting professional accomplishment. I congratulate and celebrate and give thanks for each of them and the work they are doing today to improve the lives of their millions of customers.

Today those skilled professionals are leaders in companies around the world training new generations of talent about “why” and “so what” and the discipline of delivering on time, on spec, and on budget every time.


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