Guest column

Why Houston’s oil and gas leaders need to prioritize becoming a modern energy workplace

The energy industry needs to re-evaluate its priorities for the workplace. Photo courtesy of Thomas Miller/Breitling Energy

The oil and gas industry today is being shaped by truly unprecedented conditions. In the face of a global economic crisis, players in this space are grappling with how best to spend and save resources in a way that's smart, deliberate and centered on expanding a company's value.

But even when the price of oil was four times what it is today, only 13 percent of the oil and gas industry's leaders said they were moving fast enough from a tech investment perspective, according to data my company, Quorum Software, pulled back in October. This was the writing on the wall that the industry was unprepared for a crisis of this magnitude, let alone two.

At the same time, there are a number of critical labor challenges that could curb Houston's oil and gas sector's ability to rebound. In order to future proof the energy industry and attract and retain young and innovative talent, Houston's oil and gas leaders need to prioritize investments in technology and start creating specific business advantages through tech.

Create a place young talent will want to land

In the Houston area, millennials age 25 to 34 make up the largest percentage of the adult population, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Despite this, oil and gas has historically suffered a gap in talent for this employee subset.

As the Houston energy economy seeks to attract talent from Gen Z and millennial pools, they must invest in transformative technology and become a modern energy workplace.

In our recently released industry report, oil and gas decision makers made it clear that they understand having better technology generates more efficient workplaces. What's more, four out of five of these industry leaders think employees will leave without access to sound technology.

Technology will play as an essential part of crisis recovery, and Houston's business leaders in this sector must align their tech investments over the next two quarters in order to both drive business success and also retain and attract a rich talent pool.

Prepare for the long road ahead

Oil and gas leaders in this region are familiar with managing volatility. Prices rise and fall much more quickly than in other industries, with fluctuating regulations, border skirmishes, trade deals, weather and local and global politics all impacting an ever-changing market. We have entered a period when short-term stability and long-term success are both in jeopardy unless you innovate now – especially as the prognosis for long-term structural change in the industry indicates that things might get a lot tougher before they turn around.

In my 30-plus years in the software industry, I've heard thoughtful people talk a lot about disruption. The idea that companies use software and/or technology to disrupt both their internal operations or disrupt markets to make sure that markets don't disrupt them. In just a few months, the commodity pricing shifts have disrupted economic forces on our businesses. As much as we've talked about technology for transformation and modernization, we need to adopt strategies that allows for more agility and sustainability during big market swings.

Judging by the responses in our recent report, oil and gas decision-makers are realistic about the business challenges ahead of them and their inability to solve the problems using the technologies they have in place. Like their IT decision-maker counterparts, 95 percent of oil and gas industry leaders agree that in today's marketplace, a company that doesn't embrace technological advances will not succeed in terms of streamlining operations (land management, accounting, etc.). In fact, in oil and gas, 97 percent of respondents believe the industry will decline if it doesn't adapt to the changes around it.

The takeaway? To survive today — and thrive tomorrow — you don't need to disrupt your business, but you do need to modernize it to be agile and sustain revenue production. You need to bring new technologies into the fold to improve your efficiencies. You need to challenge the status quo, not only to help you endure today's conditions, but also get where you want to go.

This point is only unscored by recent reports that highlight how the Texas Workforce Commission is relying on tech from the 1980s as unemployment claims overwhelm the system. Across industries, and especially those experiencing the volatility that the oil and gas industry is, technology holds the key to attracting and retaining talent, streamlining operations, and staying afloat in these uncharted waters.

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Gene Austin is the CEO of Houston-based Quorum Software.

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Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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