2017 SPE President’s Interview: Janeen Judah

Janeen Judah is the 2017 President of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, seconded from Chevron.

Her past Chevron leadership positions include general manager for Chevron’s Southern Africa Business Unit, based in Houston, Texas; president of Chevron Environmental Management Company; and general manager of Reservoir and Production Engineering for Chevron Energy Technology Company. Before joining Chevron, she worked for Texaco and ARCO in various upstream petroleum engineering positions, starting in Midland, Texas, in 1981.

Judah has held many SPE leadership positions, including SPE International Vice President Finance, on the Board as director of the Gulf Coast North America Region, and chairing both the Gulf Coast and Permian Basin sections. She was named a Distinguished Member of SPE in 2003 and received the Distinguished Service award in 2010. She started her SPE leadership as a student section officer at Texas A&M University.

Judah holds BS and MS degrees in petroleum engineering from Texas A&M University, an MBA from The University of Texas of the Permian Basin, and a JD from the University of Houston Law Center.

What will be your main goals as SPE president?

I have four goals in mind.

Guiding SPE through rough seas. My No. 1 goal is to keep SPE on an even keel. It sounds boring and un-ambitious, but we are sailing through rough seas right now. I’ve had people laugh and tell me I picked a great year to be president. I didn’t exactly pick it, but I am one of the best qualified to lead SPE in hard times because I have been so involved in leadership for such a long time. I was vice president of finance on the SPE Board of Directors, director representative of the Gulf Coast North America Region, and chaired both the Gulf Coast and Permian Basin sections. That experience brings a lot to the table when it comes time to make difficult decisions. For a steady hand on the wheel, I am a good person for managing in difficult times.

Developing engineers. During my term, you will see an emphasis on people capabilities as part of the Big Crew Change, particularly in developing countries. There is a significant push from governments for operators to develop local staff, and SPE can be part of the solution. I also have a personal soft spot for Latin America, and I am going to try to spend quality time there.

Reaching out to women. Another obvious outreach will be to women. I am the first female SPE president in more than a decade, so the latest generation has not seen a woman at the top. Young women in SPE look to me to be an example, so I will make myself accessible and visible to them. I realized years ago that I am an example whether I want to be or not, so I might as well step into those shoes. There are still very few women engineers in the industry—most women in leadership have a geoscience background.

Protecting the environment. I also want to emphasize environmental protection through responsible operations. I previously ran Chevron’s Environmental Management Company. We did offshore decommissioning, pipeline removal, handled all the Superfund sites for the company, orphan gas stations, any kind of end-of-life reclamation and dealing with regulators. The issue is doing things right as you operate and setting up your operation with the knowledge that someday you may have to leave there. I have a JPT column already planned for environmental stewardship, so look forward to more on that.

How has your career prepared you for this position?

Next year, I will be a 40-year member of SPE; I joined as a college freshman. Dr. John Lee handed out applications to the freshmen engineering students and told us that if you are going to be a petroleum engineer, you need to join SPE. I joined then and have been involved in SPE leadership almost continuously for nearly 40 years.

I was secretary of the SPE student chapter at Texas A&M University and, after college, moved to Midland, Texas, and became a volunteer starting with scholarship committee and then eventually became chairman at age 29. I was transferred to Houston and started over on the Gulf Coast Section Scholarship Committee and eventually became section chairman in 2001. I have served on several local and international committees and this will be my third term on the board, as regional director, vice president, and now president. I learned a lot from local section leadership because it is harder to motivate and lead people when they are doing it for fun rather than when you sign their performance review. Leading volunteers is harder and that has really helped shape the kind of manager I am.

And, conversely, my career has prepared me for SPE. I have either worked in or managed engineers in all seven of SPE’s technical discipline areas, so I have a broad view of the upstream industry. It has been a very diverse career, managing global people and projects in a large company. I managed the petroleum engineering technology group for Chevron and then the environmental management group, both of which were global.

When the industry recovers from the downturn, how will SPE be different, if at all?

The core business of providing technical knowledge to members will remain the same. Some of the delivery mechanisms may change, not only for efficiency, but also for generational differences in how members access programs and services. One of SPE’s biggest innovations is the OnePetro electronic library, which has pushed members online. Even people my age read The Wall Street Journal online and read their JPT on their iPad, so digital delivery is not only making communication more efficient but more globally accessible.

In the future, some of the delivery of technology that we did through meetings, or programs such as the Distinguished Lecturers, might be done through more webinars and interactive video, especially to remote locations that are hard to travel to.

But the core reason I believe that people get involved in SPE is relationships. There really is no substitute for the in-person meeting—the local meeting, local interaction, the networking element. You can’t substitute for it with Instagram and LinkedIn. Meeting other engineers in person is the way to build business connections and that is a big role that SPE plays for our members.

Everyone gets pretty complacent when things are going well and sometimes hard times are what forces us to innovate or to look around for other ways to do things. SPE is no different than any other business; in these hard times, we are looking at different ways to maintain our services and presence to the industry but doing it more efficiently than the way we have always done it.

Will the oil and gas industry be significantly different after this downturn?

I think so. Most people say there have been five downturns in the last 30 years. I was living in Midland in 1986 and experienced the full force of that downturn and I think this is the worst one since then. A generation of engineers retired in the mid-1980s and we are definitely seeing another generation retiring now. The industry in 2020 will look very different because of the staff changes and retirements. Many experienced staff are still around and will consult when things pick up, but they won’t be in leadership positions. The 40-year-olds are coming in to replace the 55-year-olds.

For the larger companies, I think that there will be much more of a focus outside of North America. Some companies have gotten burned in the unconventionals business, which will likely come back but with some different players.

I think you will have a different breed of leadership, a shift to the next generation. They will have different attitudes—more digital, more global, more collaborative, a different attitude about doing business particularly with national oil companies and the oil ministries than we have had with my generation.

Coming out of the price slump, how can SPE best benefit the industry and its members?

SPE has constancy—we are always there whether times are good or bad. We continue to provide both relationships and networking and technical information. Some sections have seen an uptick in attendance during this downturn, not just people who are out of work but also people who have jobs and realize that they have had their heads down for too long. Again, it’s about relationships—and that they need to get out and interact and talk to people, and hear about new technologies. SPE’s core missions of technology transfer and networking remain.

What are some lessons learned from the downturn?

We are relearning the hard lesson that all commodity businesses are cyclical. But oil has a greater impact on economies. You don’t hear as much about the farm business cycle or the metals business cycle as you do about the oil business cycle, but they have hard times too. This oil downturn is the hardest since the 1980s and is also causing a big demographic shift.

The oil and gas business is a long-term business with long-cycle, long-lived projects. We are not like the information technology industry with an 18–24 month product cycle. But oil company metrics, especially publicly traded companies, are short-term and quarterly to please the market, so it is really hard to find the right balance of hitting short-term metrics in a fundamentally long-term business. Some companies, particularly in US unconventionals, were not capitalized for the long term.

The big oil companies and service companies are in it for the long term. For example, Chevron is 137 years old and will be around after the downturn. But another lesson that we are going to have to learn again is that we need to find a better way for the operators—the national oil companies, international oil companies, and independents—to work with the service industry because they are key to our existence.

The operators have cash flow from operations so they will survive, but times are critical for service companies and drilling contractors. We need to rethink the business model relationship between operators and service providers. Operators can’t just shut everything down and expect the service companies to be there for them in a couple of years when business picks up again.

In a couple of years when things pick up, everybody will start calling around for rigs again, and the capability and the rigs won’t be there, the price will go up, and we just perpetuate the cycle again. The operators’ dependence on the service industry is underestimated and underappreciated. Back in the 1970s and earlier, the operators had a lot of that capability themselves. Operators had company rigs and our own research and development. But by the 1990s, the operators got rid of those capabilities and we are totally dependent on the service companies to implement our vision, whatever that might be.

What would you say to students who may be questioning why they are majoring in petroleum engineering or to young professionals who may be thinking about leaving the industry?

I think No. 1 is to not be discouraged about the short-term issues the industry is having now because it is still a fun industry and hard to beat as an interesting and diverse career opportunity. Being chased by companies and having 10 job offers when you graduate is probably not a realistic view of any engineering profession. Petroleum engineering graduates now may have to do more networking and more job hunting, but in 4–5 years this will be a completely different industry. There will be a lot of opportunity.

When I talk to young people, almost all of them say they want to be in management very quickly. That means lots of meetings, dealing with many people, and being a resource allocator. When you go into management, the demands on your time are more than they are when you are just an individual contributor, and your staff expects you to be there for them. Things like flex time or taking time off is harder. But if you take the technical ladder, you can go almost as high as the management ladder at the big service companies and the big oil companies. That is why I advise young people, especially young women, to not write off the technical track because often you have more flexibility and work/life balance.

What are the biggest challenges SPE faces in the short term?

The financial challenges with the downturn, particularly in the meetings business because that is the source of about three-quarters of SPE’s revenue. SPE will review our portfolio of meetings to see if we are serving the members or not. A secondary issue will be how the demographic changes in the industry affect SPE’s membership.

What about unexpected lessons you learned in your career?

Sometimes perseverance matters more than talent—being able to stick through things when times are hard to see something through to the end. Sometimes it’s being able to just put your head down and push through adversity even when every bone in your body tells you that you want to go home and crawl under the bed. My parents were both very poor growing up and, while I had a very ­middle-class upbringing, that’s one of the lessons I learned: you stick with it and you keep on trying, and that lesson has stayed with me.

What are your main interests outside of work?

I am a very avid reader and read an average of about two books a week and started keeping a list of the books I have read on the way to my first SPE board meeting in 2003. My reading tastes trend to biography, literary fiction, and business books. I love my Kindle for long SPE trips.

I am an avid home cook and a cookbook collector. I’ve taken a lot of cooking courses including from all three of the US Culinary Institute of America campuses. I play golf badly but I am also a certified instructor for both scuba ­diving and yoga.

2017 SPE President’s Interview: Janeen Judah

22 August 2016

Volume: 68 | Issue: 9

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