31 Aug In Conversation with Brandon Ambrose, CEO of EZ Ops
I recently interviewed Brandon Ambrose, CEO of EZ Ops, a technology company, about the state of innovation in oil and gas for the front-line worker. This is an edited transcript of the interview.
Geoffrey: Welcome back to another episode of Digital Oil and Gas. My name is Geoffrey Cann, host of the podcast. And today I’m joined by a friend of mine, Brandon Ambrose, who is the CEO and founder of EZ Ops. Brandon, welcome to the show.
Brandon: Thanks, Geoffrey. I appreciate you inviting me.
Geoffrey: Today we’re going to get caught up on the role of the frontline worker, and how technology is impacting that frontline worker. You’ve had such an interesting story because you started out as a frontline worker, and now you’re a tech entrepreneur. Let’s start with your background, how you got to where you got to and what role you’re now playing with EZ Ops.
Brandon: Years ago, I realized that I thought a little bit differently than most. Ever since I was young, I had this weird obsession about efficiency. That drove my first endeavour, which was actually a honeybee business.
Geoffrey: You were a beekeeper?
Brandon: That’s right, in northern Alberta. I saved up my pennies for beekeeping equipment. I remember just being passionate about how I could play with the different harvest times, when I would take the honey to maximize the production that these bees were producing, and that would drive the bottom line. I got an early start in my obsession about efficiency.
Geoffrey: How old were you then?
Brandon: I was 13.
Geoffrey: I used to mow lawns to get pocket money when I was at that age. Why not beekeeping? Where did that take you from there?
Brandon: Fast forward five years later, my first true business was an asset management company in the oil and gas space. Having my obsession about efficiency, as soon as I was introduced into the oil and gas space, I just couldn’t ignore it. I could see all of these levers that I could pull in managing a gas plant or a well, whether it’s optimizing a process or a compressor, or managing the on-cycles for wells or pump jacks, I could really drive value through efficiency. That’s what it was when I first got into the oil and gas space in 2008.
Geoffrey: There’s a lot more levers to pull than a honeybee operation, I suspect, right? You’ve got equipment availability, where you locate it, high uptime and reliability, and its performance and labor. Tell us a bit about EZ Ops.
Brandon: After building Reliance Production Optimization, which was my asset management company, I was really good at tuning up these plants, facilities, and wells. I built a good team as well. The question I wanted to answer was how do I take this drive for excellence and efficiency that I achieved, and transfer that to my guys? Then, how can I scale it out beyond our team? What we did was we built everything on a web-based platform to create a digital twin of the operator’s workflow. And as the old saying goes, what’s measured, can be managed. We focused on measuring everything that was happening out there. Once we got all of the events into a digital format, we were able to provide positive feedback loops to the frontline workers and incentivize key things for operators on the front lines. That could be increasing production or maintaining maximum production, or decreasing costs or keeping costs as low as possible, while maintaining compliance and safety. That was where EZ Ops started. It was a solution that we built to initially help our team make better decisions, aster. But we found that producers liked that functionality as well.
Geoffrey: How did they find out that you even had this solution? Did they tell you somehow, or were they commenting on your performance and asking how are you guys doing this?
Brandon: We were seeing some incredible results reducing OPEX as a team and EZ Ops was the tool we were using to accomplish it. The market drove EZ Ops to become its own business; we realized that there was so much opportunity out there and we could actually have more impact on the oil and gas space and make our market competitive if we licensed EZ Ops out to producers.
Geoffrey: What about incentivizing the right behaviours in operations? Oil and gas field workers are hardworking. What they do is very demanding, and they pride themselves on execution excellence. And yet when you were running the business, you were seeing opportunities to take that further. What kind of behaviours were you trying to create in the field worker that weren’t there before EZ Ops, or behaviours that EZ Ops made it better for you to actually execute?
Brandon: Being from the frontline, I got to see and work with these hard working men and women firsthand. We wanted to maintain job security, we wanted to make sure that there is maximum production coming out of the ground, we wanted to make sure that there’s limited downtime, and we wanted to be as cost effective as possible. Everyone was extremely driven to have these results. It’s just they didn’t have the tools in place. They’re dealing with piles of spreadsheets, text messages, emails, charts on the wall, all sorts of pen and paper data. They’re expected to pull this all together and make sure that they’re not missing some compliance targets, and they’re on the hook when their production’s down. They’re also responsible when they spent too much money. They were striving for this excellence, but lacked the tools for doing so.
Geoffrey: So the goal was: “Let’s invent a tool kit that would enable that frontline worker to do what they really want to do best, which is achieve excellence and great results.” Now, tell us about EZ Ops itself. We know that it’s a cloud-based technology, but I’d like to hear your breakdown of how it works.
Brandon: It’s a progressive web application that can be on any device out in the field. Initially, it was intrinsically for safety. But we found later that people were starting to be a little bit more flexible with their expectations. We have a lot of clients now that are using EZ Ops on their phone, or on their desktop computer, or tablets. From there, they can access a digital twin of the operator’s workflow. An operator gets up in the morning and EZ Ops is displaying everything that he or she needs to do in the day, based on compiling data across teams, events, schedules and production. This helps the operator prioritize the day. Next, they go out into the field and complete this work offline, with no cell phone service required, completely in EZ Ops. They can do things like pigging, tank tracking, or chemical injection inspections on the platform. We wanted this to be an all-in-one solution, which is also great for adoption. That’s why we pride ourselves on as being domain experts in interfacing with frontline operations staff. It’s to get that adoption. That’d be hard to achieve if you have the operator bouncing three or four different platforms that they need to remember their passwords for. They just need to get up and do the work on the EZ Ops hub, and it integrates with the different platforms that the producer might be using.
Geoffrey: One of the points you mentioned is online/offline. At home, I’m on a tablet or my phone, and I’m syncing up with the data that I need to do work. Then I’m going to the site, record my actuals, and then when I come back into a coverage zone, it auto-synchronizes up so that everything stays consistent. Is that how it works?
Brandon: Yes, we’re looking to drive that collaboration across teams. One of the newest features that we put in because of COVID-19 was what we call easy light, which is a lot like Slack, but for frontline workers. It’s an event-based communication platform that’s tagged to locations. For anything that’s happening out in the field, we have the ability to tag anyone on our team to it and add context around those events. This essentially eliminated that need for those face to face meetings, while still maintaining and creating that safety that you get with increased communication.
Geoffrey: It probably saves a lot phone calls to try to track people down to get a piece of data.
Brandon: Yes, and text messages. You can figure out did someone see this? Did someone not see this? It creates that audit trail.
Geoffrey: I’m not hearing people talk about Slack as a platform of choice in the oil and gas industry. The whole idea of a location and event-driven communications thread related to incidences might still be a pretty novel concept in the industry.
Brandon: It really is. It’s progressing with the technology. Before we didn’t have the hardware to be able to house that platform. It is cutting edge because we didn’t have the ability to create something like this before. It was good that we were in the right place at the right time to be able to add this onto our platform.
Geoffrey: I’ve use Slack on for various community groups that I’m dealing with where I need online/offline chat, communications with teams, and so forth. It’s a great concept. Let’s turn to this behavioural question, because I think one of the unique things about that you’re describing here is that you’re trying to harness natural human behaviour to get things done. I know that you had mentioned to me in an earlier conversation that you have someone with a behavioural science background who is providing coaching. How does that work? What behavioural dimensions are you trying to harness that make EZ Ops distinguished amongst other possible platforms?
Brandon: Like any good operator, I ended up fixing the problem or creating EZ Ops, and then learning about the science or why it worked after the fact. It wasn’t until I brought on the PhDs and the MBAs and the behavioural scientists and they said: “Wow, you built a scalable performance management platform, you have all the key elements pinpointing what success looks like, measuring it, and then providing this positive feedback loop to the users so that they can be as efficient as they need.”
Geoffrey: If I were using EZ Ops, what are the behavioural cues that the solution is providing which gives me the evidence that says I’m on the right track or I’m on the wrong track? Is it a scorecard? Are you saying here’s what peers are at, here’s where you’re at?
Brandon: We look at what has been done, what needs to be done and how you rank or score compared to goals. That seems to be a bit motivating. But we also want to tie in positivity. There’s a lot of operators out there that do a tremendously good job and deserve to be recognized for it. They are pulling the weight of the entire team, and are maybe not recognized for it. We find that EZ Ops makes great operators better, and it tends to weed out some of the people that maybe aren’t pulling their weight. But we’re always advancing how we can provide a better positive feedback loop to the user on multiple levels. We should remember that operators are the base-level users, and that was what this was built for. It was a tool built for the frontline workers, but also as a mid-level management tool. Our focus is how do we create that positive feedback loop to them as well, because they’re the guys that are helping drive those savings and those profits. Those are your guys managing the micro-transactions that are happening out there. We want to be giving them a pat on the back as well, making sure they know when they’re doing a good job.
Geoffrey: I’ve found with implementing change in the field that it’s one thing to get field guys on side, but if you don’t have their supervisors on board, your change efforts are going to struggle. Now, what has been the reaction to this? I’m imagining a couple possibilities. One is they go, wow, this is the performance management platform for my field guys. Others might look at it and go, Hmm, this looks really complicated and hard to use. They project the uptake’s going to be really slow. Others might say, I have no time and money to spend on this sort of thing right now. A nice idea, but call me when oil’s at $100 a barrel, and we can have a meeting. What’s the reaction when people see EZ Ops today?
Brandon: It’s key to speak to the frontline worker. This is a product that’s built for them to help them. When we give them a quick demo, they say “this is what we’ve been dreaming of”. And typically, they’re excited to show us what they’ve built in their macros-spreadsheets. They’re so happy that someone has built this with the focus on actually tackling this problem. There are other solutions out there that are tertiary solutions that have been asked to try to fill this void that’s in the market. When really this is a very big problem that needs to be addressed directly. That’s been our focus with EZ ops is identifying and fixing this problem for frontline workers.
Geoffrey: So, the users like it, and they take it to the local field office and say, “Have you guys seen this, and what do you think?” That then creates a bit of pull so now the supervisors want to see it. Is that how it generally cycles through?
Brandon: The senior executives are very smart. They’ve been through this digitalization progression that’s happening, and they are aware that you can waste serious amounts of money if you can’t get adoption in your teams. The feedback from our client’s head offices is “if the field likes it, we like it.” The key is adoption. I was drawing this out with a colleague. It’s not about the initial capital costs, or in this case, the licensing of something like EZ Ops. When doing the economics of whether you should bring in EZ Ops, or any other digital solution, it shouldn’t be wrapped around the cost. The missed opportunity cost is the biggest line item when you are unable to get digitization adoption. Adoption is the most important piece to consider when looking for digital solutions.
Geoffrey: It’s a big prize. In my own work, I devote a huge amount of time to adoption. I view digital as a people and culture problem to be solved, not a technology problem. The technology is moving far too fast. The piece of the puzzle that’s not keeping pace is the human dimension of change. If you can create something that the human workforce wants to use, they’ll embrace it much more quickly than when somebody at head office is pushing it out.
Brandon: When creating performance management, you’re also creating that positive feedback loop and getting people to see value on the first few uses. We have a few strategies to get adoption, and they work because as frontline workers ourselves, we know the best way to appeal to and help workers.
Geoffrey: Has anybody reported to you how what kind of benefit they’ve picked up after they’ve deployed EZ Ops? On the one side, it can save you some time and some money, and that creates the economic case. But what do people tell you after they’ve been using it for a while? What changes have they detected in the business that they didn’t anticipate which are yielding a big benefit for them?
Brandon: When I’m looking at why someone should use EZ Ops, it’s all based on the dollars and cents, whether it increases production or decreases costs. It’s what we strive for: bottom-line profits for the producer. But it’s interesting to see that the majority of our clients that come on, while they love the cost saving aspect, it’s compliance, better data management, and making it headache-free that’s been behind the buying decisions. In terms of dollars and cents, though, we’ve seen a variance between upwards of a 10% reduction in ops techs just from streamlining these micro inefficiencies that are happening out in the field. But it really depends on how many modules of EZ Ops they bring on, and how chaotic their systems might have been in the past.
Geoffrey: It’s easy to capture benefits when you step into chaos. It’s a different matter when you step into a well-run company and they still get benefit. That tells you there’s some there’s some magic. When workers are engaging with the technology, it sounds like they speak about it with their peer group. Does that drive interest in the marketplace, as you hear from people who you aren’t even selling the technology to and yet they’re picking up the phone and saying tell me more about this?
Brandon: We have producers now where there might be a family of employees with a few operators spread around Alberta. It is really cool to hear the stories about how dad has been introduced to this software that’s helping him operate, and then the son or brother operator just got EZ Ops as well. Hearing stories like that is pretty cool. It’s also great to run into people on the streets and you find out that they’re using your technology.
Geoffrey: Yes, they had no idea you’re in the background, influencing their success in quite profound ways. Talk about the future of EZ Ops. As you’ve been exposed to, and maybe working in the frontline side, you’ve picked up the opportunity to improve efficiency. How far could the industry go in your estimation, in tackling inefficiencies?
Brandon: I don’t believe there is a limit. What we do is we interface extremely well with these frontline workers. Compliance changes across borders, but the fundamentals of performance management and interfacing with frontline workers is same here as it is in the States. We’re excited to expand, to build our model, to be a SaaS based product where we can develop super users to keep costs as low as possible for the producers. It’ll also allow us to scale with the demand that we’re seeing right now.
Geoffrey: Do you think this project is a North American phenomenon? Or is this more international? You’re principally in Canada, but are you picking up signals from the US, which is a much larger market, or beyond?
Brandon: We’ve been getting some interest from the United States, but also from Australia. We were at a conference not long ago and we had someone from there come up to our booth who really liked what we were doing. We are getting some interest around the world, and we’re happy to be a solution for workers globally.
Geoffrey: I can certainly understand Australia. I spent four years working there in the gas fields and the industry has more than 14,000 gas wells in Queensland alone. To supply the LNG facilities, the country will require many thousands more. If the plants run for 30 to 35 years, as opposed to their planned life of 20 or 25 years, it would be easy to see them needing 90 to 100,000 wells to supply that gas. You can appreciate how much service that’s going to take, how many field workers that requires to keep all that infrastructure running.
Brandon: And I think that’s one piece that we’re really looking at. We augment that frontline worker. We know that industry 4.0 is right around the corner and we want to participate. All too often producers are saying they want to get to industry 4.0. AI, robotics, all sorts of new technology. I think that a critical step is to augment or equip the workers to be the best they can be, and then tie in these new advancements. I think that’s why there’s a bit of pushback on digitalization from the field, because they feel like they’re being left out, or they’re going to be overstepped.
Geoffrey: I believe that people in oil and gas feel like they’re being left behind, in companies that are being left behind, in an industry that’s being left behind. That’s not a comfortable place to be. Helping people execute work and be successful in a time of change is pretty powerful. Now, you must have learned a few things along the way about what really drives a successful effort to digitize. We touched on embracing the frontline workers, because they’re the ones who need to receive value. Work with middle management because if they don’t get help, they don’t see an upside. Then they’re not going to be there to help you be successful. What other tactics have you found that really drive a successful digitalization effort?
Brandon: It’s really important to be user friendly for the front line, but also the senior level executives too. They have to be making that decision, and they have to be validating their decision to be moving forward with digitalization. One thing that we do well and we’re constantly working on to do better is communicate that feedback loop to senior level executives. That they know their team is staying up and being compliant. But our main focus is the frontline workers and the mid level management and that flows through and resonates. We know that we have domain expertise in communicating with the frontline worker. What we’re doing that’s different from a lot of other people is we’re looking for other innovative domain experts that maybe are in the pipeline side of the world, or maybe they’re in the business intelligence for Calgary. We want to be looking at how we can either be taking data in from those sources or be sending data out to be enhancing their systems. There’s a lot of specialized products that are out there that have a problem either getting information from the frontlines or sending and communicating information to the frontlines, and we’re going to own that space of interfacing with the frontline worker. We’re really excited and happy to be working with any of these other domain experts that have been innovative and creating these great results.
Geoffrey: Now, there’s a lot of industries out there that actually look a lot like oil and gas, whose infrastructure is widely distributed, covering a lot of geography. It’s online and offline. It requires technical excellence to safely manage and administer that asset base. It runs 24/7. It’s both delicate and dangerous. It has high compliance standards. The electrical industry fits in that category. So does railroads, water and wastewater, the petrochemical industry… the list goes on and on.
Brandon: We’re seeing that as well.
Geoffrey: Let’s close off with advice you might share with other individuals or entrepreneurs who are listening to this podcast.
Brandon: I think it’s really important that we need to be collaborating as vendors in the tech space, specifically in oil and gas. All too often it’s the focus of oil and gas producers to keep things close to their chest. I think it’s our responsibility as vendors to be collaborating and creating better results for everyone, because it’s not in the nature of the producer to do that. Understand really what you’re good at, hit it out of the park, and figure out how you can integrate with another product to synergize and make some amazing results for our industry.
Geoffrey: That’s good advice for tech entrepreneurs out there that might be thinking about their future. If they’re not networking, if they’re not reaching out from time to time within the startup community or the technology community to see who’s doing what, then they’re missing out. Brandon, thanks very much for taking the time today to speak with me on Digital Oil and Gas. If people want to learn more about EZ Ops, where do they go?
Brandon: Hit us on the web, www.EZOPS.ca. Or they could catch us on LinkedIn, and please give us a follow. We’re publishing some great stuff, and we really want to help educate the industry.
Check out my book, ‘Bits, Bytes, and Barrels: The Digital Transformation of Oil and Gas’, available on Amazon and other on-line bookshops.
Take Digital Oil and Gas, the one-day on-line digital oil and gas awareness course on Udemy.
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