Wrong is good for you

An interview with Bert Bril

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra
Bert Bril

Bert Bril is a geophysicist who became a builder of geoscientific software. In 1988 he graduated at Utrecht University, majoring in geophysics. After working in geophysical acquisition (seismic, gravity) for two years he started specializing in software development, working for Cap Gemini and Jason GeoSystems. After joining TNO in 1993 he and Paul de Groot started dGB Earth Sciences in 1995. He is one of the original creators of OpendTect, the Open Source seismic interpretation system ( Bert has co-authored several geophysical publications, and has recently discontinued his blog on aspects of Agile development ( Within dGB he now acts as coach/consultant software development.

Good geophysicists, like all good professionals, continually learn. The classic insight is that the more you know, the more you realize how little you actually know. Thus, knowledge of your ignorance grows. In my experience, lots of people never pay attention to the fact that learning often implies ‘having been wrong’. Remember that next time someone tells you that you did it wrong.

Being wrong is not easy. Some people don’t like being told. They get angry. Some people – especially people from certain countries and cultures – react in a sort of apologetic way: ‘Oh, but I did it because…’, ‘How was I to know that…’, ‘It won’t happen again.’ I consider it my first task to attack that ingrained defence mechanism full-force.

  • You did it with all the best intentions (trust).
  • You are not an idiot (confidence).
  • That’s it. Stop whining. Loosen up and learn.

Invariably, at one time or another, I introduce the famous ‘Four stages of competence’. None of my students had ever heard of them before. Actually, I only learned about them myself a couple of years ago from a friend who studied adult learning. It is astonishing because the concepts are so simple, general, and intuitive. The two key ingredients are awareness and competence. Multiply these two and you get four states:

  1. unconsciously incompetent
  2. consciously incompetent
  3. consciously competent
  4. unconsciously competent

Think about the sequence of migrating from 1 to 4. When you do that, if you’re a bit like me, you’ll get a smile on your face. Such simple words, so elegantly wording what we all go through. To be able to get to the state of automatically handling something right, you have to learn how to do it, which you can only do if you understand that you couldn’t do it (right) before. The key thing here is the planting of the seed: the realization that there is something not right. Now apply the four states on a meta-level. You realize learning needs to go like this, so you start changing your response:

‘Hey Joe, what’s that? You’re doing it wrong!’

‘Eh?… But… hummmpf… OK.’

This in turn increases your social skills. People love being right, and like to be acknowledged. Now you have learned you were incompetent in handling your incompetence, you are starting to learn how to handle it. You’re moving to the consciously competent state in successfully managing your incompetence. And after a while, you get to stage four. You never hesitate to do the right thing:

‘Hey Joe, what’s that? You’re doing it wrong!’

‘Wow, thanks man! I owe you one!’

And this, ambitious geophysicists, is the key skill you need to reach the top. Yes there are people who have reached some kind of top without it, but may I call your attention to the problem of the local maximum? Go for the global maximum. Be good at being wrong.


Bert, you address two important points in your article. The first one has to do with the fact that we as geophysicists need to embark on a lifetime of learning, to stay abreast of the advancements in geophysics. The second one has to do with the behavioral skills of geophysicists as they interact with fellow geophysicists. You agree? Comments?

Let’s pull this question apart. You are talking about geophysics and geophysicists, as they are the main target of the book and this interview. But I would substitute those into ‘technology’ and ‘professionals’. If that makes no difference for you, then you are a hard-core academic. Nothing wrong with that, just not typical.

Now broaden ‘technology’ to ‘essential work skills’ and the second part is just a specialization of the first. Geophysics is everywhere in our work, what I’m trying to point out is that it may be a good idea to be as serious about our ‘soft’ skills as we are about our ‘hard’ skills.

As an aside, this pulling apart of a question is a nice example of one of the main things a software builder does, every day. We try to figure out how things really work, what makes things special, and what makes them common to other things. Almost like… science.

Tell us why you advocate with the first point. I would simply say, I would not be a geophysicists, if I were to practice geophysics in a boring way.

Well, I wouldn’t say that. I don’t think the essence of geophysics is in the level of adrenalin and oxytocin in our blood (the essence of life is another matter of course – and no matter how you turn things, our work is a significant part of our life). We want to do exciting things in life but that’s not what I’m in any way talking about in my article.

These days any professional – even a garbage collector – has to keep learning. Geophysics is no exception. So it may be interesting to not only understand more about frequency spectra, but also about how you acquire new knowledge.

Behavioral competencies need to be practiced at different levels, where the interaction takes place. For example, at the working level, at the boss-subordinate level, and so on. Could you elaborate on this?

I’m kind of opposed to even enumerate them as specific things that need to be practiced. It is like saying something like: `FFT’s need to be practiced at different places’.

The thing is that anything you do has several aspects to them that you need to be aware of. Just to be able to do them in the first place, but especially when you want to improve them. Like that example: FFT’s can be very useful in many areas, they have their do’s and dont’s, strengths and weaknesses, and so forth.

The ‘soft’ part of our work is similar. You need to become aware of what is going on, what processes, forces, rules apply. How you can influence things. Actions strong on one point can be weak in others – just like the FFT’s. To make a project or a team work you need start being interested in these ‘algorithms’.

The article I wrote is about one such ‘algorithm’. Why not be aware of at least some basic learning models and their impact on your work – and life in general for that matter.

You manage the R & D and the software development at dGB Earth Sciences. Tell us about the challenges that you face every day.

I don’t really carry that title, anymore. I now focus on doing special projects, internal consulting, and coaching. When we started 20 years ago I had no other choice than to take up a ‘management’ role, but gradually we’ve found talented people who are well up to that bit. So I’m more like monitoring things, and helping out where needed.

The challenges I have are – as they should be – manifold. I do lead projects, and they have to deliver quality – on time. People also ask me to help get insight in their problems, and maybe provide possible solutions (I prefer to make them aware of what they’re facing, usually they then solve the problems themselves. This is very motivating so superior to dictating solutions). I push projects I do not lead. I coach. That sort of thing.

Supporting the software development for a company that provides software solutions to users in our industry is a big responsibility as among other things you need to have a competitive edge. In the last 19 years, how have you coped up with this?

This is indeed a big thing. We have always had innovative technology, but what was innovative 20 years ago is old stuff nowadays. When you start you’re glad you have something that does some cutting-edge magic. When you grow, things need to improve in all aspects: uniqueness, usability, coolness, value-for-money, robustness, connectivity, you name it. And it’s got to be sold. People need to know we exist. And what we can do for them.

This brings me to dGB. I have had serious medical issues in my dGB years (about 6 years apart each, I had 3 major open-heart surgeries for my aorta and pulmonal heart valves). All I can say is that we have a fan-tas-tic team and the support has been marvelous. So while I myself may not always have been able to cope well enough, I had a great company to back me up.

So it’s hard work, but with a great team you can make truly exceptional things – as you can now see in OpendTect.

Tell us where dGB stands in the industry today and what innovative plans you have for the future?

The basis of everything is OpendTect. It is an Open Source seismic interpretation platform that is used by thousands of users worldwide. The system is also open for extensions (we call them plugins), and dGB offers a few commercial plugins for real advanced or professional use. Think about database access, or neural network processing.

The Open Source part is already a great tool for many users worldwide, and is used extensively in educational settings. We have a scheme (also open for other companies) for giving away licenses to the commercial plugins. There are hundreds of universities worldwide using this scheme.

Our own commercial plugins are available in quite a few areas. To name some: advanced sequence stratigraphic interpretation, complex attributes and filters, advanced quantitative interpretation, and access to various data stores.

Our next goal is to become the system of choice for “normal” seismic interpretation as well as for what is nowadays called “global” seismic interpretation work. Normal interpretation is horizon tracking, map generation, that sort of thing. This part is now being completely revised so we will have a fresh auto-tracker and a full basemap/mapping facility. This should elevate OpendTect from a system that can be used for seismic interpretation to a system that should be used.

Global seismic interpretation goes further: it aims to deliver fully interpreted seismic volumes. Once you have those you can extract a wealth of real geologic information from them. For this we use what we call ‘HorizonCube’ technology. It is based on auto-tracking thousands of horizons from the seismic dip-field. I think we may say that we have helped to shape this domain. We are currently implementing a completely new HorizonCube auto-tracker with more user control, together with what we already have (things like Wheeler transforms, systems tracts interpretation, seismic consistent geologic models, extracting geo-bodies…).

All in all, I think we really have something that can benefit an enormous amount of users, now and in the future.

Were there ever instances when your confidence faltered? Would you like to share some of them as it would be educative for some of our readers?

Yes, of course. I’d say the worst one was after about 2 years (that would be 1997). We had a product, we knew people could use it, but we couldn’t figure out how to reach them, and to get them to use it.

At the time our office was inside the office of a company specializing in ‘Business communication’. I can still remember a friendly visit from the CEO of that company. We started talking about our situation, and at a certain point we told him that we didn’t really know what to do. He said: ‘can you tell me, in one sentence, what you guys are doing?’ Ehhh… we couldn’t, really. ‘Our software helps companies to analyse their data so they can… ehhh… ‘ He didn’t say a lot more, but the question itself got us going. Later we started to add new questions ourselves: ‘Why would people change their procedures for us?’, ‘What actual, provable benefit has our stuff?’, ‘Why wouldn’t they use something else?’, ‘No really, would it be worth it?’ – that sort of thing.

Abraham Lincoln once said ‘Give me six hours to chop a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe’. Tell us, what all does it take to start a software company? Does it require lots of pre-planning? This is for those of our readers who may be planning become entrepreneurs.

Abraham Lincoln must have been living… well… in another age. The thing is, if it is possible to know up front exactly what your task is, where you’ll be going, how to achieve that – well, then what he says may make sense.

In any job that needs creativity – and every real academic level task needs this – you better start early. The trick is to monitor not only where you are, but also whether you’re still going the right way. To stay in Lincoln’s example, while he’s sharpening someone comes up with a chain saw. But even without that – while you’re chopping, you find out that you need a heavier axe. The grindstone, the tree’s structure…

Modern day business is like that. Good preparation: sure, don’t run off like an idiot, but if you really really go through everything, and enumerate all possible threats, then you’ll probably not start up at all. The trick is, I guess, to figure out how good your ideas really are, and if you’re convinced about their worth, then go to step 2. Can you make money with your ideas? That means: are they worth something for someone, and are they willing to use it and spend money on it? And so forth. And regularly go back to step 1, add ideas, re-evaluat the worth of your ideas, and so forth. The world is dynamic and that means that everything changes all the time.

To make matters worse, you can also not just hop from one idea to another. You need some kind of stability, a vision in your path. Having said that, if facts come in that invalidate your vision, you have to take action accordingly.

On the lighter side, Bert, what does it take to get over the hardships and challenges? Is it hard work, passion, conviction or something else?

I cannot stress enough how important it is to make sure you have great colleagues. There is no replacement for that.

Then… I guess fun is a big factor. I cannot imagine ever doing, for example, the work of an accountant. I might even be good at it, but I wouldn’t get through the day (I feel I’m not the only one – this must be why accountants get paid relatively well). Having said that, you need to be prepared to do the lousy parts, too. Every job has those. You cannot avoid them, and you have to put enthusiasm into those, too. So… work hard, but make sure you have fun.

Passion? A fuzzy buzzword, and if taken literally: no. Conviction? Yes, to a certain extent. But… beware of it becoming religious. Projects like your life need to work with facts, not revelations.


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