Chiz Chikwendu joins to address the challenges that industrial businesses are facing when capturing data that has historically remained offline. In his conversation, he discusses implementing the new processes required to capture new datasets, creative methods to minimize the work required to ingest new data, and the importance of overall efficiency to save time and money for industrial businesses.
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When we first met, you were at the Shell TechWorks site, but can you tell me a little bit about what it is that got you to that point? What got you into the construction industry at large?
I was in aerospace, and I loved that job, just really building planes, doing stuff on airplanes and things like that, and traveling. And I left that job because I was moving to Massachusetts because voila, I found a girl. Right. It always leads back to that, always leads you back. So it was one of the two. So I said, bye-bye to that space.
Came to Massachusetts, got married, and basically not long after that went into the Medical device space. Just really doing hardcore engineering designs. And I actually got recruited. So one of the recruits from Shell TechWorks actually wrote me and asked if I'd be interested in coming and checking out an opportunity at Shell TechWorks.
And you wouldn't believe this. The day before that I was hanging out with a friend and he was like, hey man, you know, you should really think about working in oil companies. And I was like, Why? I'm like, first of all, there in Houston.
I don't want to move to Houston. I'm happy being in Boston. And I'm like, that's not going to happen. And then the following day I get this email from this recruit and I was like, oh man, how pressure.
That's it. Yeah, the stars just kind of aligned, right? Just a line. I was like, okay, this can't be coincidence, right? And then sure enough, the job was in Cambridge. I'm like, what's Shell doing in Cambridge?
So that really got me interested. I mean, it just kind of goes to show that it's all a little bit destined to be right.
Whenever you were within Shell TechWorks, you worked with a couple of different projects there as well, right?
What was the focus of all of that work?
So the focus of a lot of the work that TechWorks was doing was essentially rapidly deploying new technologies in oil and gas. I used to think aerospace was pretty slow in adopting new technologies until I got to oil and gas.
And the mantra, “if it ain't broke, don't fix it” works really well in oil and gas because it's like lots of profit, but everything's working. We don't feel any pressure to change things. But as the late 2000s rolled around and efficiency became such a heavy thing, everyone was considering, given the economic outlook, folks started their belts and trying to figure out how to leverage new technologies to actually solve old problems that we just kind of left, sort of.
And so TechWorks came to be and we were looking at a host of problems, like how do you abandon wells? How do you figure out supply chain around LNG shipments? Right. System studies looking for ways to optimize things and where you can bring in technology.
And it was really cool because it was an eye-opener, and there's actually a lot of tech that goes into oil and gas and at different phases.
So with that, with all this experience you have with tech words, with what you've had with Cumulus, it just leads to the big question, how do you build, deploy, and scale a construction technology solution?
And in in three words, how do you do it?
How long do you have?
Let's yeah, let's cover some of the high notes. How did how did this process go when you guys spun out from Shell Techworks? So you were part of Shell TechWorks, you had the solution and you spun out as your own product.
What sort of lessons did you learn in that process? We could probably even take it back a further step of when you were in TechWorks, right. You said in oil and gas, “if it ain't broke, don't fix it.” And there were a lot of lessons that you learned through that process.
Do you want to go over what it was like developing a product and deploying a product in the construction industry?
Yeah, I mean, where do you begin? It's never as simple as, hey, have great tech that works.
Hey, let's deploy. There's a whole bunch of things that go into it. When I'd give you an example that I personally worked on was something we called LIPS. Right? And it had to do with leak interrogation path processing system.
In other words, if you're banning a well, how do I make sure it's properly abandoned and there are no leaks? Right. So we decided that we were going to design a tube that actually has helium. If you know stuff about helium, it's not easily soluble and obviously floats to the surface. And then typically, oil and gas wells don't have inner gases like helium, right? So if you abandon a well, which basically means you're shutting it off, decommissioning it, and you stick in helium at the bottom, if it bubbles to the top, then you know that it didn't plug the well properly, there's a leak somewhere.
So that was a general idea. And so my job was to design essentially this slow release circuit I'm trying to use a nice word that basically sits inside of this cylindrical tube that looks like a missile, but it just has helium in it.
And after a certain time, it releases helium inside of the canister, which basically gets pushed out to all the tubes and the annular surfaces of your well. And if your packer and your cement line in, which typically is supposed to adhere to the walls of the tube, if those things are not done properly, the helium, being really small, will find a leak path through that whole column of cement all the way up to the surface.
And if you have a sniffer at the surface and you detect, you leave, and you know that you need to work to re-plug the well again. Now, the cool thing about that is it was supposed to save time, because a lot of companies, when they actually have to reserve money in escrow to plug wells, so that when it's time to plug a well, you go to the money you have in escrow and you use it to plug the well, right?
But that means big companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, all the oil majors, have huge money in escrow that it can't use because it's geared towards abandonment. But if you figure out your efficient way to abandon wells and you can show repeatedly that you do it well, maybe you can have some of that money back.
One thing that I know you worked on quite a lot, because there I was on the other side of you was when you guys were in TechWorks working on smart torque, right? And you took this and you deployed it on a couple of different projects.
You deployed overseas first, right?
Yes. In Singapore.
Okay. What sort of lessons did you end up learning early on in that process of deploying not even just in oil and gas, but in construction?
How is it that the craft respond? How is it that management responded? What sort of things did you see?
Oh, my God. You had to get buy in from the stakeholders at all levels, whether it was at a management level or at the craft level.
Any one of those ones could sync your intentions, do something that you think is really nice, because everybody also has different goals. So the manager wants to see an efficient running plant and wants to make sure that turnarounds go smoothly.
The craft is only doing enough work. That they're supposed to do. And the manager of a craft is. Typically a contractor who wants to get paid. So don't make me change the way I'm doing things. Don't make me change my tools.
Don't make me change the system. I've been doing it this way. I can price it adequately. Once you've added this element of uncertainty. I don't know how to bill you. Anymore, so it's not in my best interest to try to do something new.
Right. So you have to find a way. To win on both ends. And then obviously, there are the unique. Cultural communication issues that you have to. Deal with, because in America, for instance. In North America, when you're dealing with craft, you're dealing with people who are usually in trades.
So there's a way to communicate when you understand that you are craft man who's been in the business or craftsmen who's been in the business in that trait for a certain amount of time with a certain degree of qualification and expertise.
And then you go overseas somewhere in the Middle East or Southeast Asia, and you have guys that are just being pulled from different countries. They went a farm last week and they just got pulled in because, hey, your labor is cheap and we're going to train you.
We train you and voila. You might have never talked to a ranch, I mean, talk to joint before, but here you are with this wrench and then go do the work. So that has its own unique set of challenges, too.
Yes. There's a different level of competence barrier there. Absolutely. And then you actually have to prove that your system does work and that it does what you advertise that it should do. And typically people want to see that there are nothing detracting.
In other words, don't give me something that does really well, it does a specific job really well, but then it sort of detracts in a certain way, maybe takes a bit more time, or maybe I have all these aspects of things that I didn't used to manage before, I now have to manage.
People usually like that.
Yeah. Actually, speaking from the first person perspective on that, you're absolutely right because even where it is, we did a couple of times studies here and there just to know.
Right. So are we introducing new risk or are we not? To break off onto that tangent, we could probably we talked about that for a while. I think that's one of the things that's actually hindering progress in a lot of areas is just risk tolerance, which I totally understand.
But really, again, from the first person perspective, there were certain other areas that while we saw yes, this is. A great solution in the ways that you're telling me, well, now we have new data questions that we've never had before.
And you gave me an inconvenience over here. You gave me more than a convenience over here. You helped me out over here. But this inconvenience over here, I don't know if I want to continue to use this just because of that.
So it's that new sort of issue that was introduced very quickly, put people off, right. Myself and I know several others on project that are just very opposed right off the bat because it was something different and it took time to get over that.
How is it that you see that projects can, I guess, kind of to get over some of these issues, not just say, hey, deal with it, but how can we better manage some of these issues that come up like data preparedness, data integrity?
And what can providers like yourself do in order to ease some of that burden for projects?
That's a great question. Honestly, it's not an easy answer, right? And you're going to find people who will say, yeah, I don't want to deal with it.
But on the other hand, if you're willing to work with people and specifically different customers maybe have different pay thresholds, paying tolerance, and you are willing to provide any service that makes their life better.
So in a specific use case, like where we work, we're like, okay, let's build a cabinet where you can manage your charging. You can manage charging for your tools and for your tablet, where you don't really have to worry too much about trying to figure out, where am I going to put this, how am I going to organize it?
So let's give you a platform to organize your equipment. So that's one way of trying to make the. Problem a little better for the customers because you've now introduced a new set of tools that require things that old tools didn't require before.
Right, that's one aspect. The other aspect is you want to ingest data in a system that's always a problem. Training people early on how to ingest data like, well, we can do the first few for you. And part of doing that work is teaching how it's done so you can take a valid input file and say, here formatted it.
I've organized it in a manner that our system can more adequately ingest. And here it is. You can ingest it this way. Another way is, okay, well I don't want to keep typing things in my app to really figure out what I'm working on.
Can we make that better? Yeah, let's try to figure out how to create QR codes or some other way of preventing and minimizing that kind of work that you didn't have to do before. So it's not as onerous as it might seem.
Hey, real quick, this is Wes. I just wanted to let you know that if you have an idea for an episode topic or a great guest suggestion, we would love to hear from you. Just send us an email at WorkDoneRight@cumulusds.com. Now, back to the show.
I just kind of took it for granted whenever I was on Elba, for instance, about the cabinets that you all built and provided to us to help keep everything stored and organized and charged, and that that it is that you were being proactive about.
Hey, we identified this is a new problem, but we're going to solve this problem for you. Which, you know, something that you'll hear oftentimes on projects is don't come at me with a problem, come at me with a solution.
And you guys took the opportunity and were to say, hey, you know what, we see the problem. We're going to just give you the solution right off the bat. Don't worry about anything else. There were instances that I saw and I'd like to hear what your perspective was about kind of gaps in communication between understanding. You graduated from Yale. I, at the time, had very little college education and I was a construction worker. Built myself from the trades upwards. We spoke entirely different languages.
How is it that you found that you've been able to communicate with some of your customers to better improve projects? Is there a technique that you all use or is there anything that you do in order to help maybe clear up some of these gray areas?
Institutional education is not the best indicator of intelligence. You know that there are people who are very intelligent. They can assimilate data, they're quick thinking on their feet. They can be forward looking and forward thinking and understand how to translate certain things, ideas and concepts into reality.
So A, you're humble, b you try to understand the problems and the ways of working of your customers, understand what their needs are. And then when you understand those parameters, you can tailor your language around those needs, those ways of working.
And then you also learn their own terminology. And as much as those terminologies can apply to the things that you're doing. They use that same terminology that's through you were in tech works, you're deploying these technologies, new technologies, and it was really on the cutting edge of construction tech.
That was 2016, 2017, time frame. There weren't a lot of technologies that were out there.
And then you all spun out as what you are now. Cumulus, as the vest suggests and the sign behind the shows, right?
So what were you most surprised at whenever you spun out as your own company? You know, you're starting to interact more with some of these other companies. Outside of just Shell projects, were there any personal challenges that you faced or was there anything that was surprising to you with some of these other companies?
Coming up to speed, first of all, was something that I needed to do rather quickly. And what I mean by that is, knowing enough to ask the right questions to make sure the right people were doing the right things.
Right? So that was a challenge. The other challenge is from the board perspective, right? If you're totally tech focused and you don't have an idea as to how the business market works or let's just say the other legs of a company, right?
When you're in a C suite, it's not just enough to be technically savvy, you have to be business savvy. So I had to begin to sort of expose myself once again. So again, hence trying to get the MBA, understand these things so you can have the same language to communicate with.
So as you're doing that, then there are new things that you're open to. Things like, okay, you're now responsible for security of the platform. So that's a different arena that you didn't have to worry about before somebody else had to do it because it was a CIO's job at Shell to make sure that you were following the industry best practices.
Here we are a small company that has to play big because when you're playing with folks like Shell or XL Mobile or the other ones, one of the first things you're going to have to do is to answer. These security questionnaires that basically wants to know how your platform is built, how it's organized, not only about your technology, but really your company practices.
What is your security posture? How are you thinking about threats? How do you respond to things like those, like. Great business threatening events. Do you have a business continuity plan? How do you recover from disasters?
Okay, so you're having these conversations with customers. So it's no longer just about how good your software is, it's about how good your company is. There's a phrase that one of my old project managers, would say quite often. There's a lot that we know that we don't know. We just don't yet know what it is. I guess to continue down this timeline, one of the things that happened pretty shortly after spinning out as your own company is the project that you and I were on for quite some time, which was PennChem.
A big facility in western Pennsylvania where we went through, I think, something along the lines of around in total, about 300,000 work completions, which was a big project. What was the biggest lesson that you learned during that for your product, for your company?
The best thing PennChem did for us was it forced us to become a disciplined company. Right. Because it's not normal for startup software to be playing in a regulated industry where there are rules, and that typically means money.
When you're going to be compliant with regulations, it costs you money to demonstrate your capability and your compliance. From a third-party perspective, that's one thing that I wish I kind of thought about more in terms of what it was going to mean for us to get to that place where we became like, as disciplined as we needed to support PennChem.
Right. Adequately. So, as you know, we have problems with scaling. We had been dealing with systems that had up to 10,000 joints, maybe not more than 50,000 work completions. Here we are multiplying that ten times.
We had initial trouble just trying to scale whatever was technical because of the way our initial architecture was built. So then trying to maintain that service while building a new architecture and performing a seamless lift and shift was really hard, especially with the limited resources we had.
It's not like you had tons of money to go hire a whole bunch of people to help with that problem. You had your small team. And so at different times, I sort of had to carve certain people out and say, this is what you're going to work on.
Just focus on that, and I'm going to take all the crap work so you can focus on doing the really good work.
Yeah, because you're right. Anytime anything will go wrong, we blame you 100%. Is there anything that you would say most surprised you in the industry as far as when going on these implementations, when creating these new technologies?
What do you think has been the most surprising aspect to you, really, about construction and construction?
Construction tech overall, I mean, I would say the slowness to adopt new technology, I was surprised by that.
Right. Even in data center construction, people still building things almost the same way it's been going since the 60s, right? I mean, what's that's how construction is largely. Right. And and I was surprised about that because we come from aerospace background.
I was like, yeah, aerospace is slower, at least in my experience, to adopt new technologies compared to medical device, and they're both regulated industries. But the thing with aerospace is, hey, a plane goes down to not one person, there's a ton of people, and it's usually very loud.
So everyone makes sure that whatever it is that you do is fully tested, fully vetted, with tons of paperwork back in it. So the willingness to do things that are new comes with a huge cost that you have to have really weighed before you take on that adventure.
You just ask Boeing, then they'll tell you. You and I went out to a data center fair, and just thinking about the construction and the conference and some of the some of the ways that we're building things, we can believe it, right?
We couldn't believe it. And it was like, I thought oil and gas was slow. These guys are even slower. So that's the surprising thing to me.
It is surprising, just if you really think about 2023, right, how much society and civilization and technology has advanced everywhere else in the world over the last 20 years, 30 years, it is surprising, at least, especially as of five years ago or so, just how little construction had advanced, really, overall.
But with that said, kind of thinking about that point, we're what is it that the industry could do, from your experience, right, from your perspective? What is it the industry can do to better enable these innovations to be deployed on projects?
What can they do to better adopt these technologies? Honestly? Maybe a harmonization of standards is one way. Because when everybody knows this is the standard you have to design to, then there's a drive for conformity.
Now that sounds like a big stick approach. “Thou shalt.” But it's usually effective when it means trying to get everybody to do certain things right. So that sort of big stick approach helps. Now of let's say people coming down and driving a certain sort of standard, saying this is the way you do things.
Outside of that making it easier and cheaper to integrate technologies is another way that we can begin to sort of bridge that gap. And part of the things that maybe enable ease of use or ease of adoption is having conformance between different platforms.
Say you are building something new and you're using, I don't know, 360 model for instance. And you want to use that for capturing all sorts of information like tools and 3D models of different parts of your plant and actually model everything to the T.
Now that's great. Now. It would be good to have integrations where hey. I want to run a heat flow analysis or I want to run a CFD analysis because I want to figure out how certain things flow around here or there.
Or, hey, I want to integrate with some work management tool where I want to grab the data, have real time information as to what's going on in the field. Now that'd be great. So if there are interfaces and formats that allow information like that to become more and more plug and play, then it's easier to adopt new technologies.
In the field, then also the other thing that helps is having data connectivity. So in my experience, most construction sites, when you're building, unless you have LTE enabled types of equipment, it's hard to have connectivity.
Now, with LTE enabled equipment, that means that all of your devices are on some phone plan that becomes pretty expensive. But if you have a lower cost way of connecting things in your own site, then that's great because now you can share data and obviously having smarter and smarter tools.
If you start using smarter and smarter tools, you can get information that you didn't have before. You can make better decisions that maybe you weren't in a position to make because you just weren't seeing things.
By making all of this data more usable and useful, that people will begin seeing these benefits and they'll continue to adopt these platforms just to keep it going. Right. Because from there, you'll be able to make better decisions.
We'll start aggregating more and more and more past data we'll be able to go through and assure that our bids are more accurate. And it's really exciting to see, honestly, with that. Of the technologies that are upcoming for the industry, is there one that stands out to you that is most appealing or most interesting?
Honestly, I'm going to go back to my aerospace case. It's the idea that everything can be modeled, right? So we think of it in construction as digital twin, right? So to me, digital twin has a great potential to really, really shift how we do things.
Make designs more accessible, easier to change, easier to. To recognize where there are problems and easier to fix or quicker to fix to get a faster turnaround. And there's great traceability in that.
And with that, you could even have multiple integrators more easily work together if everybody is supposed to be able to work from the same source of truth. So if that can happen, that makes a huge honest change.
Imagine if builders who are not the same as designers can grab the same models as you're making changes and they can figure out where things are supposed to be or what's happening. Imagine how quickly you can turn around certain things.
There are other technologies that are also cool, like AR VR. I just think with ARVR, it's another way of going back to models, if you will, or capturing the same information that models will capture, except obviously you have a 3D visualization, you feel like you're there.
So that's good. But from the base level, I think everybody working to model based design is, I think, core. Yeah. And modeling all components. Right. There's a lot that's left a lot of projects. They already use a 3d model but there's still so much that's field routed and a lot of information that's just left out of the model that by enhancing the information not only that they put into the model and begin with, but also that we aggregate throughout the build process, we can really make it a lot more usable and again useful.
Rapid Fire Questions
Where is your favorite place you've traveled to?
Oh, man. I'll give you two answers for work has been Singapore. It's fascinating for me, having been in Singapore, seeing that side of the world and the way they do things and just how nice and neat and organized things can be.
And then with family, best vacation was in Paris. So the whole idea of being together with family and going down to the Seine or seeing the Eiffel Tower, that really was cool.
Cats or dogs?
You're revealing a lot about yourself. What one word best describes you?
Everybody tells me I'm nice, so I would say I'll use that nice.
Your favorite book?
Favorites. I don't do well with favorites, but one book that I read recently that I really liked is Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States.” So I just think it was awesome the way he, with his research, sort of crafted a narrative.
Since you're so good at deciding favorites, what's your favorite movie?
Oh, my goodness. I don't have a favorite movie, but there's one movie that I'd watch any time it shows up, and it's the Born Identity series.
Whichever one, I would always watch those.
What is your dream job?
Anything that has me building and traveling.
If you could have dinner with any one famous person in the world, living or dead, who would it be?
I would have been interested in sitting down with Lee Kuan Yew, who was once the Prime Minister of Singapore, because I really want to know, as a builder again, how did you take Singapore from where it was to where it is.