“On the road again…”

An interview with Mike Galbraith

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra | Photos courtesy: Joanne Lanteigne
Mike Galbraith

On a recent cold January day the RECORDER editors had the good fortune to catch Mike Galbraith for an entertaining discussion. One of the more traveled members of the local geophysical community, Mike was more than happy to share some of his experiences with us.

[Satinder]: Mike, tell us about your educational background and your work experience?

I was born in Scotland and I went to school in a little village near Edinburgh. Later on I went to high school there and then went to the University of Edinburgh from ’63 to ’67. I’d learned to like mathematics by then so I finished up with a degree in Mathematical Physics. I had no idea at all about geophysics, so I did not take any courses in geology or anything. I graduated in 1967 with Honours in Mathematical Physics.

[Satinder]: How come you switched from Mathematical Physics to Geophysics?

Oh that didn’t happen until I went to Canada. After university, I actually got a summer job in Switzerland teaching climbing, which is the other love of my life – besides geophysics of course. So I earned some money guiding people up mountains and I was almost at the point where I was thinking how maybe I should do that rather than mathematics. Then fortunately, or otherwise, my father got me an interview for a job in Britain doing computer programming with the Gas Council. I got the job and did that for a few years. It was interesting work – solving partial differential equations for flows and pressures in a gas pipeline network – although still nothing to do with geophysics! Then a friend of mine said he was going climbing in Canada, would I like to come? At that point I had just married, so my wife and I talked about it and decided we might as well emigrate – you know – go for a year or two, see what it’s like – maybe stay – maybe not. So I came to Canada in 1971; with a lot of mathematics skills and computer skills, but still no geophysics.

[Jason]: And climbing skills as well.

Yes, and climbing skills. After a great summer of climbing in the Rockies – then Yosemite, I started thinking about our dwindling cash supply and I discovered that the only computer jobs in Calgary, which was our base, were in a funny thing called geophysics. When I went for my interview, they said, “Well, do you know about Fourier transforms?” And I said, “Oh sure”! Well I did know them as an integral, but I certainly didn’t know them as a discrete summation or anything like that. Years later I realized the size of the gap I had jumped with my ready answer. So that was my first job in Canada - geophysical computer programmer.

[Satinder]: You’ve done a lot of work in different areas in geophysics, like wavelet theory, and 3D processing and DMO, migration and all that. Which is your favourite area?

Oh my goodness. I guess for the last little while, ten or fifteen years, I have concentrated more on acquisition design and that’s become an area of considerable interest to me. In other words how the design of a 3D can influence the processing and results. So you can divide it into areas like noise attenuation, imaging properties, things like that. This means I have to keep up on all the science and look at the latest noise attenuation algorithms, look at the latest imaging techniques and see how well they’re suited to today’s 3D design. So I pretty much try to stay up on all the different sides.

[Satinder]: How come you decided to go into the business of software development?

I guess that’s where I started and I didn’t want to switch. I started in programming back in Britain. My first job in Calgary was as a programmer, working on seismic processing systems so I just stayed with that.

Mike Galbraith, Satinder Chopra and Jason Noble.

[Satinder]: Where I’m coming from is that each business has its own challenges. Apart from that, the software industry has the big challenge in the sense that it has to remain current. It has to have all the latest techniques in the form of software packages, w h e re you have software support and entertain questions, queries from clients and things like that.

That’s pretty much what I did from the earliest days. The company I worked for at first, later became the fledgling Veritas and I was the head programmer at that time. Then I became the Manager of Programming at Veritas and remained there for a lot of years. Working in a processing company you get to see different things every day – it was always a challenge to keep up. I suppose it became a way of life after a while – I mean changing software every day to satisfy the latest demands.

[Jason]: You went from Digitech to Veritas, and then Seismic Image Software fell out of it?

Well the first company was actually RB Cruz and Associates run by a fellow called Rafael Cruz, a crazy Cuban guy, who oddly enough first got me interested in geophysics; got me fascinated by it in fact. Later on, when Rafael left the company, Dave Robson had come over as the Manager. Then later, Ben Berg came over from Digitech, and that was the beginning of Veritas. I was just one of the fixtures then, the resident programmer, but I kept going with the new company – Veritas – and it worked out. Then in 1987, Dave Robson decided to disband the software and research company he’d started some 3 or 4 years previously. That was Veritas Software. So, along with colleagues like Dan Hampson, Brian Russell, George Palmer and Rob Stewart who each went on to achieve considerable success in their chosen futures, I went off on my own direction and started SIS.

[Satinder]: Could you tell us about some of the initial challenges that you faced?

Well the worst thing for me was I had no idea what geophysics was all about and in the early ‘70s, to be quite honest, I think there was one book on geophysics; I can’t really remember any others. So for pretty much everything I worked on, even for simple things like AGC, I had to look up the code and work it out backwards to see what it did. I guess they call it reverse-engineering now. I would ask the geophysicists, but their explanation was steeped in terminology that I didn’t know, so the quickest way to find out what was really happening was to look at the code. After a long while I started to see the connection between the math and the geophysics. It was a huge learning curve, a very huge learning curve at first. But after five or ten years, it became a lot clearer.

[Jason]: What kind of changes have you seen from your end of the industry over the last few years, even over the last fifteen, twenty years in terms of the speed of software development?

When I left Veritas in ’87 and started up Seismic Image Software, the whole computer industry was just getting out of the FORTRAN loop and into C, then, of course, C++ later on. And that’s probably the biggest difference I’ve seen. In the past, we had teams of anywhere from six to 16 programmers all banging away at different kinds of FORTRAN. Today, you can replace that entire team with one person who is skilled in C++. That’s the huge difference which has happened in terms of programming.

[Jason]: The development pace is quite a bit quicker?

Yes, it’s just so much easier and there’s so much more available now, in terms of off-the-shelf software and the language itself; it’s just that much easier to incorporate off-the-shelf pieces into your own code. Things like 3D graphics toolkits, spreadsheet widgets and so on. And I shouldn’t really say this, but it also became much quicker, and safer, to do last minute changes in the hours before a convention started.

[Jason]: How many installations do you actually have around the world, of people that have bought your product?

Oh, boy. Lifetime or current?

[Jason]: Current.

I’d say it’s on the order of a couple of hundred. We have two pieces of software currently – Omni does 3D design and Vista does 3D processing. The numbers are fairly similar for both packages. I know for sure that there are 35 or more universities currently running Vista and there are a goodly number of oil companies and consultants and processing houses as well; so there are somewhere around two hundred currently. Well, that’s total sales for Vista. But there are probably close to a hundred that are currently maintained. That means that every year people pay us maintenance to do yet more wonderful things. But lifetime, a lot of people will buy Vista for a year or two and drop the maintenance because their job was finished. So if you think about the lifetime on the software, there’s probably been at least two hundred on maintenance, possibly more. And, of course, the numbers are similar for OMNI.

Mike Galbraith

[Satinder]: Could you tell us about the software?

Yes, as I said, we basically have two separate packages, Omni is a package for 3D design, and Vista is 3D processing. All of our software is based on PCs which makes them somewhat unique, rather than on the older UNIX systems. We have tried very hard to make a so-called user-friendly interface and I think we have succeeded. Especially when I think about the number of university students using our software . There is no quicker way to find problems than sticking some software in front of a student.

[Satinder]: So is there a special requirement, memory requirements or anything like that?

Not now. At first, ten or fifteen years ago, PCs were just not up to the level of the big UNIX boxes and we had to use various ways of boosting their performance with special hardware – array processors and the like. But nowadays I like to boast that you can run our software on the secretary’s machine – no disrespect to secretaries intended. It’s just that the average PC today is much more powerful than it used to be .

[Jason]: What role do you see on the world stage, for more small Canadian technology companies in terms of going head-to-head with a large international software provider?

You know, it’s strange because when I first started in this industry we were all quite scared of the guys in Houston. We all thought that they must know much more than we did. I remember in the early eighties, when the U.S. had a new love affair with refraction statics, which we had been doing here for at least twenty years before that, we started to get less overawed by Houston. That’s gone on for quite a few years now. I think currently Canadian high tech companies are regarded as leaders in the world. Certainly in terms of our own software, Omni is recognized as a world leader. Hampson Russell software, for example, is also very highly regarded. So I don’t think we have to take a back seat to anybody.

[Jason]: How do you spend most of your time with respect to software support?

I don’t get involved too much in day-to-day customer support. When we are trying to come up with new algorithms and so forth, I work with the programmers, to establish what we think is a good flow. Sometimes tricky questions come from customers about how one of our existing algorithms works and I’ll get involved in answering those questions. I tend to focus more on the theoretical geophysics side than any button pushing.

[Jason]: I’ve heard the comment made that you tend to play around quite a bit, working on various problems.

Yes, that’s correct – and with various data sets our customers send. Quite often there will be some unique feature – like the way it was acquired – or the type of noise present. There always seems to be lots of problems without even looking for them!

[Jason]: In a typical year, how long are you out of Canada?

Well I think the worst year ever was when Kathie counted it and I had been in Canada for 143 days including weekends. Last year, which would be fairly typical, I put in about 55,000 air miles. I don’t know how many trips I made, maybe ten trips, probably a week or two each. The last trips were particularly long ones, two trips about 6 weeks each with only a week or so at home in between. Most of that was in Mexico – with a week in Brazil – so it was certainly preferable to 12 weeks somewhere else!

[Satinder]: Why the apparent emphasis on the overseas market?

You know, I was asking myself that and I couldn’t really answer it. Maybe it’s the old bank robber thing, because that’s where the money is. Or maybe, as we say in climbing: “because it’s there”. I think very early on, we got a few inquiries from overseas and quite often I went to do training. We discovered after a while, that what was really happening by addressing the world market the way we did, it had helped to stabilize our business. We didn’t suffer the huge downturns in the late ‘80s, and some of the ‘90s; we just kept right on going. Because if North America was quiet then Europe was busy, then if Europe was quiet, South America was busy. Then when everybody was quiet, China went crazy.

[Satinder]: So that is your trick for surviving during the downturns?

Well I don’t think there was any great thought process that went into it; I think, we just noticed after a while that that’s what was happening. Plus, when your product is highly specialized, like our software is, any form of diversification is advantageous.

[Jason]: How many countries have you visited in the last two years?

In the last two years? Oh, I can’t remember, maybe ten. I’m afraid I don’t keep count any more .

[Jason]: Any interesting stories?

It’s just all the little things, you know, like the things you see when you’re travelling around. Driving along the road in North Africa, we saw a camel sitting in the back of a little Datsun truck not looking very happy. Going across China in the desert on a train, in 45 degree heat, you couldn’t touch any metal or you’d get a burn mark and waiting for your frozen water bottle to unfreeze so you could get a drink. Going through Russian customs; “You have pen?” I gave him one which he promptly dropped on a pile of others! Oh – and the menu choices on Aeroflot: “You vant to eat or not?”

[Jason]: What’s the most difficult trip?

I don’t know that any one trip was worse than any other. Some are longer. I took my wife on a trip to China; that was quite interesting because we went way up the back country to Changqing and Urumqi and places like that and stayed in the geophysical compounds with all the workers. Yo u get crazy little vignettes like they have piped music signaling the start and end of work and at the end of the day, the first song that came on was the Flower of Scotland which I thought was somewhat amazing. My host didn’t realize that that’s what they were playing.

[Satinder]: No real disasters though?

No, just lost luggage is probably the biggest annoying thing. You know, I arrived in Tripoli once and my luggage hadn’t made it. So the next day, I had to go down and visit an enormous warehouse where I had to walk around until I spotted it among 50,000 other cases. Most of my bags do make it home in the end. There was only one time where I completely lost a bag; that never came home. That was a recent trip actually, in the last two years. I’d come from Abu Dhabi to Libya. So somewhere near Cairo somebody is still hopefully enjoying wearing my suit. The last time I lost my luggage I went to the usual Air Canada desk and I said, “You know, I should have a pre-made form for this because I’m now batting ten for ten”. They said, “What do you mean?”

“Well for the last ten trips, my bags never made it.”

Mike Galbraith

But other than that, well I suppose the worst incident actually was almost a disaster. Some ten years ago, my host in Beijing was driving me to the airport and actually from there, I was going to travel to India and meet my wife and two other friends and go climbing in the Himalayas. On our way to the airport, the driver tried to impress me and he went far too fast and, in trying to narrowly avoid a cyclist, turned the car over on its side, which then slid across a six-lane highway and, of course, I wasn’t buckled in. I ended up going through the windshield, landing about thirty feet in front of the car. I had to pick bits of glass out of my ears and nose, then get into a taxi. I must say that the nurse at Beijing airport did a splendid job on cleaning out my eyes. Fortunately I was okay but, just to be safe, I took myself straight to a hospital as soon as I got to Hong Kong. That was the most exciting. I heard later that the driver still works for the Xian oilfield company despite the fact he had written off a brand new Jeep Cherokee. Anyway, ever since then, I insist that whoever drives me, I get a seat belt.

[Jason]: Typically not that dangerous though?

No, I’ve never felt too worried. I must admit some anxiety though, for example, when I went to Algeria and I swore up and down I was the only guy that didn’t have a machine gun.

[Jason]:Do you have a favourite place you’ve traveled to?

I think I have a lot of favourite places. There’s no particular one. There are some countries I enjoy a lot more than others. Do you want me to name names?

[Jason]: That might be held against you later.

[Satinder]: Mike, do you have any regrets about taking up software development for a living rather than doing research in a university or something along that line?

No, not at all. I think it’s been a most interesting life that I’ve had, being on the road and meeting all those people. Most of the places I go, I end up teaching a course and that’s very fulfilling. More recently I have actually been paid to go to foreign countries and do consulting work which, when you get down to it, is really more in the nature of a research project. So I really feel that I’ve had the best of both worlds.

[Satinder]: You’ve co-authored a book. How was that experience?

Well it really goes back to the early ‘90’s when so many people were asking me questions about how our software worked and clearly a lot of people didn’t understand it and so I started teaching courses. That was ’93, I think. And then, over the course of time, I developed some course notes and I knew Andreas (Cordsen) and John (Peirce) at GEDCO at the time. They also had some notes and we talked about things and it just came around naturally. Actually out of that experience of working together came the decision to sell SIS to GEDCO a few years ago – which is, of course, where my energies are now applied. Anyway we combined all of our material and the SEG heard about it and said, “Well you should put that into a book.” I was constantly asked during courses to put out a book. I must say the publishing experience was a much longer one than I thought it would be. From the time we handed our initial material over to them, it was a good two or three years before it was printed.

Mike Galbraith

[Satinder]: Why does it take so long?

It’s a long process – getting all the figures exactly right – formatting to a very strict standard – waiting for galleys – back and forth. And then there was a long silent period before it finally appeared – coincidentally at the Calgary SEG. I must say that the final product surprised all of us in the very high quality compared to the last galley we’d seen.

[Jason]: Other companies have had a lot more success with the 3D design end in Canada. Why hasn’t it been a bigger market for you?

In Canada? Within a few years we had sold one copy of our software to everybody in Calgary. After that we started on the rest of the world!

[Jason]: And avoided the design consultation end?

I learned the lesson early in my career that, when you’re writing software, one of the things you don’t do is compete with your customers. So, because we were selling copies of our software to consultants who wanted to provide design consultation, we basically chose to avoid it altogether. When it got to overseas, it was a little different because there was nobody there to provide the service and naturally we ended up doing it. But, by and large, we would always prefer to sell our software to people who want to provide the service, rather than trying to provide the service ourselves.

[Satinder]: Mike, have you ever volunteered your services for a professional society like CSEG or SEG in the past?

I did once. I was on a convention technical committee. That was quite a few years ago. My feeble excuse since then has been that, with my travel schedule, I just don’t have the time.

[Satinder]: But you do conduct courses with the CSEG or SEG, continuing education?

I have assisted in presenting several such courses – although I have not been involved in the arrangements. Most of the courses I teach are arranged privately – although they are often advertised to the general public.

[Satinder]: So what advice do you have for people who are entering our profession? You know that there is a decline in the geophysics profession as such. Very few young people are coming in and the median age is beyond 45.

Yeah it’s a big problem. I’m not sure what advice I would offer. One thing for sure is that you have got to be a generalist; you can’t afford to be a specialist anymore. There are simply not enough people in the industry today and I think we all have to know a little bit about everything. Fortunately, these days, there is a lot of good education out there; a lot of good teachers, so I guess I would say: “take advantage of them while they are still there”.

[Satinder]: Now you’ve reached a certain page in your career, what do you have planned out for the future?

Most people would say more of the same; I’m going to say less of the same. My plan is to cut back a little on my travelling and essentially do the same thing but not so intensely.

[Satinder]: Do you have any plans for looking at some specific problems when you cut down on your travels?

No, there’s no real specific plan. As I said before, there’s no shortage of problems coming from our clients, so I don’t have to add my own. The thing I have noticed is that when I go somewhere and solve a problem, they seem to find more , so they usually ask me back again and it keeps on going. It’s not a matter of making plans; it’s a matter of answering the phone.

[Jason]: Mike, how long have you really spent in Nepal? I’ve heard upwards of a year.

Well, that’s close; it’s not quite as bad as that. There were four separate trips over ten years, and each trip was pretty much two months each. The last trip was the longest one when I was the leader of a climbing expedition. That one was the 1992 Canadian expedition to Manaslu in the Nepalese Himalaya.

[Satinder]: Well thank you very much Mike. We have enjoyed talking to you.

It’s been my pleasure.


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