Calgary is the birthplace of quite a few workstations and a variety of people have been involved in their creation. Paul Dennis is one such person and since he is currently in the throws of documenting his family histories, he kindly accepted our invitation to write his own profile.
I was born in a small farming community in southeastern Saskatchewan while my father was training in the forces at the tail end of World War II. After the war my parents decided to take advantage of the VLA assistance to veterans and acquired a small farm. Apparently we lived in two granaries pulled together (one for kitchen /living room, other for bedroom) with an outdoor biffy for the essentials. It must have been pretty nippy the first winter with no insulation and wood stoves but we made it through to spring and moved into the farm house. It was a typical small mixed farm that my father initially farmed with horses and later on became mechanized with the first new tractor in 1950.
I have many memories of the farm and probably the experiences had a major influence on my career. Preschool incidents include getting bogged down in snow while trekking with the dog, being run over with the disc when helping my Dad (just a few scratches on my back) and sticking my little finger into the hand saw during some construction (I still have a funny nail on that finger). I rode horseback 3.5 miles to a small, one room school with one teacher for grades 1-8. I was pretty short and needed assistance to get on the horse. In the later years I had a trap line for weasels and muskrats which was training for starting your own business. Grades 9 and 10 were taken by correspondence at another country school with a better qualified teacher (it was 5 miles one way by horseback). I enjoyed correspondence and finished up early (except for final exams) so I could help my father with seeding in the spring. I finally got to ride a school bus and go to a school with separate rooms for each grade during grades 11 and 12. My first experience at public speaking was valedictorian for Grade 12 graduation where I forgot part of my speech that I had memorized while driving the tractor back and forth in the field. A valuable lesson learned, I now at least have a written outline and do not try to memorize the script!
Although I enjoyed farm life with lots of fresh air I decided to take the education route as I was interested in electronics and tinkering with radios. I enrolled in Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. I had never been away from the farm so I suffered culture shock during the first year of University living in a city. I had a difficult time and almost quit but I knew how hard my parents had worked to get me there so I persevered. My first exposure to the oil industry was as a summer student after third year with Hudson Bay Oil & Gas (HBOG). We got to be glorified maintenance workers at a gas field near Edson, Alberta. It was a dangerous environment with high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide operating at high pressures so one quickly learned to be careful before cracking a valve. After fourth year I had finally got the hang of this university life and decided to stay on for a Masters. I completed the MSc. in 1968 and decided to carryon and do a doctorate. At this stage my parents thought I would never get a real job and were concerned that PhD might stand for Post Hole Digger. By this time being a good engineer I had met a cute little nurse on a blind date and we both decided to move to Calgary where she could get a job nursing and I could do my doctorate. I wanted to do research in communications and started a new direction with a bunch of graduate courses. While at U of C. I was able to fit in getting married to Elva (the nurse) and taking on a consulting job. We were contracted to program and interface a DEC PDP-8 computer to a motor generator unit to demonstrate how signal analysis could be used to diagnose maintenance issues. The highlight of the project was figuring out how we were going to get paid. There was concern that the company was low on resources so we decided to only exchange the final version of the software for a cheque. We rushed off to the bank and cashed the cheque! We learned a valuable lesson in basic economics since others working on the project were not so fortunate when the company folded shortly thereafter.
My doctorate work finally started to come together in 1971 and Elva and I had our first child, Michael, in January 1972. I decided it was time to find a real job since I was finally going to graduate and I started checking into the local oil industry. I took an industry course on deconvolution based out of the classic Robinson Treitel Reader and realized that, except for all the technical jargon, seismic processing was quite similar to processing radar signals. I interviewed with about three seismic processing companies and got an offer from Sefel J. & Associates Ltd. Since I was not finished my thesis I could only work part time. Fortunately the development group at Sefel was very accommodating. Also, Elva and I and another couple had decided that we wanted to move out into the country (old farm boys always go back). We scrounged up enough money, with the help of our parents, to buy 1/4 section in the "boonies" southwest of Okotoks and got organized to build our own houses. The fall and winter of 1972 was extremely busy with writing thesis, working part time and on evenings and weekends gathering up used building supplies. In the spring of 1973 we moved an old trailer out on to the acreage and I got a short leave of absence from my employer to finish off the thesis. After graduation I was back to 2 jobs, working full time during the day in Calgary and pounding nails the rest of the time.
The job at Sefel was a wonderful introduction into the oil industry. Roy Rubenok, Bob Gray and I were the R&D and software development group for the company. They were patient mentors for a greenhorn fresh out of university. I had the opportunity to work on numerous seismic processing problems including source signature correction, deconvolution and surface consistent amplitude corrections. All programming was done in Fortran, input with punch cards and debugged by analyzing memory dumps. During those 4 years we rewrote most of the Sefel seismic processing system. At home Elva and I continued building the house and found time to have two more children, Tania in 1974 and Mark in 1976. House construction was a slow process since we had to learn construction, plumbing, gas fitting, electrical wiring, working with dry wall and finishing carpentry. I am sure Elva wondered if we would ever finish so she could shed her hammer and turn in her gloves. She was patient as the carpenter's helper and as Mom trying to keep track of the kids in the construction mess. She even consented to helping shingle the roof while pregnant (a little tricky trying to lean over!). However, we finally completed the upstairs and like gophers moved out of the "hole" (basement).
My next job was a research geophysicist at Shell Canada Resources. I worked in a special projects group with Tai Ng and Fred Peterson. Shell was generous with their training programs and I had the opportunity to learn some geology and geophysical interpretation from courses at the Bellaire Research Center in Houston. I analyzed a processing/interpretation problem involving deconvolution, did some investigations on surface consistent residual statics and worked with geologists on interpretation projects. Shell also supported me in teaching a graduate course in the Application of Communication Theory to Seismic Signal Processing at the Electrical Engineering Department at the U. of c.. It was an evening course where I struggled over the weekend to prepare enough material for two evening lectures. I barely kept ahead but the teaching was satisfying with a mix of geophysicists from industry, graduate students and one staff member. During the period of the course I had an opportunity to join three other fellows and start up a seismic processing company Seis-Pro & Consultants Ltd.
My 14 years with Seis-Pro was the most productive of my career. The house was done and with no outstanding mortgage we could take the risk of participating in a startup company. I was fortunate to have 3 partners, Albert Kinloch, John Bragg and AI Hartman who were experienced professionals in the industry. Each of the partners had a different area of expertise and I learned a great deal about production seismic processing and running a business. I had a title of Manager of Research and Development heading up a one man department consisting of me! I vividly remember spending the first Christmas holidays with Albert Kinloch in the computer center where we rented processing time, trying to get some seismic lines from Fred Peterson of Canadian Hunter processed using unfamiliar hardware and software. My parents thought we were crazy but we got through it all! Seis-Pro was fortunate to have a seismic processing contract with Tai Ng at Canadian Hunter that allowed us to get established. Also we started the company in one of the positive cycles in the oil industry and had a few years to grow in the early 80s. I was able to hire a couple of programmers so I had some help and someone to supervise. Seis-Pro was using Raytheon 704 computers running Seismograph Service Corp. Phoenix I processing software. We added improvements to deconvolution, surface consistent residual statics and developed a complete system for refraction statics. We recognized the potential of PC computers early on when we borrowed the administration PC from the secretary to test out some ideas for editing first break picks. I had to keep up my farming skills with a small herd of registered Limousin cows on the acreage. Also, during the early 80s Elva and I were able to take 6-8 weeks and go camping with the kids in the summer for a couple of years. We had a small travel trailer with cozy sleeping quarters for 5 and camped all over BC. It was perfect therapy for the stress of private business except when it rained for four days in a row!!
Then along came the crash of 1986 when business went to almost zero overnight. The image of partners sitting around the board room table trying to make a plan for the next year reminded me of the time that I sat at the kitchen table with my parents and listened to them plan a budget to survive over the next year. A vicious hail storm had devastated our crops, broken windows in the house and chewed all the paint off the south sides of the buildings. I guess the farm experience helps prepare one for these difficult times. The most difficult thing I ever participated in was downsizing the company by 50% and putting the remaining staff on work sharing. Fortunately things improved over the following 12 months and the company survived. However, this experience left a lasting impression when you see the financial security for your employees and yourself crumble. The oil industry bounced back and business improved. We started to investigate additional applications for PC computers. Displaying seismic data was slow so specialized CAD/CAM graphics hardware was programmed. This evolved into a DOS based 2-D seismic interpretation system called PICS (Personal Interpretation Computer System) which ran on 286 PCs. Although the Unix based systems had a good laugh at our meager efforts, we worked hard to become credible and the enthusiasm of our clients kept us going.
The company continued to grow and in 1990 we sold Seis-Pro to Raytheon and operated under the supervision of Seismograph Service. This provided a modest nest egg for retirement for the partners and potentially more security and opportunity for the staff. After a couple of years I left Seis-Pro and helped to form Kernel Technologies Ltd. Elva consented to helping out temporarily in reception until we got established and fin ally retired 4 years later. We wanted to commercialize some R&D efforts of Alberta Government Telephones (AGT) using ISD phone lines for high-speed data communications. Although the ISDN development was a technical success, Kernel was too small a fish to play commercially in the communications field. Fortunately we extended PICS into 3-D and had the first DOS based integrated 2-D and 3-D seismic interpretation system running on 386 computers. Selling DOS based computer software was bumpy at times, but with the introduction of Windows we finally had the opportunity to develop a real alternative which we called WinPICS. It is rewarding to see that the efforts to provide a low cost, high performance PC workstation are now starting to bear fruit. I am happy to have played a small part in making this happen. Although I would like to think I had some fo resight some folks probably figure I was just too stubborn (or stupid) to give up.
On the home front, the children grew up in the house we built and graduated from high school and University. Two are married and we have two very dear grandchildren. I have handed the reins of Kernel to the capable hands of Dennis Meisinger and I am now consulting on a part time basis so I can take winter vacations in sunny Arizona. The oil industry has been very good to us. Elva and I would like to thank the many friends and colleagues for all their encouragement, support and many good times over the years. I want to keep my finger in the industry in a small way but devote more time to pursuing some leisure activities. We enjoy international traveling and heading off with the truck and the fifth wheel for a few months in the winter. Fortunately the grandchildren are close by so we do not want to pass up the opportunity to spoil them. I have many hours of video to edit and with the advances in digital photography suddenly I am off on another tangent.
Share This Column