Three Catalysts of Digital Transformation

[updated June 11, 2018]

Digital Transformation is rapidly becoming the new, and overused, buzzword. There are many opinions of what constitutes Digital Transformation and many proposed magic solutions to Digital Transformation. But Digital Transformation is not an action or event, it is a journey. Even more than a journey, consider Digital Transformation to be a corporate mindset, a Digital Strategy, and vehicle for embracing new paradigms. We are firmly engaged in the 4th Paradigm of Science and that paradigm is the catalyst behind rapid advancements in Information Systems, Analytics, and Knowledge Systems. Digital Transformation is cross functional between the field or data point source, edge processing, subject matter experts (SME), and corporate vision.

All easy fluff. But how?

The Three Catalysts

Digital Transformation and Digital Transformation Projects require three core catalysts:

  1. visionaries - the catalyst that sees not what it is, but what could be
  2. senior leaders - the catalyst that understands long-term implications
  3. engineers - the catalyst that implements a vision

Life Experiences

I've been blessed to see digital transformation up-close and personal When graduating (the first time) from Texas Tech University in Electrical Engineering, Digital Transformation was in its infancy. But this infancy permitted me to grow as a transformative influence in several industries.

Robotic Process Automation

Recognition that robotic process automation of basic processes may be the precursor to Digital Transformation. Robotic process automation need not be thinking machines (they seldom are such machines); robotic process automation need not involve 6-axis movement (or even 1-axis movement). Robotic process automation is, however, "the application of technology that allows employees in a company to configure computer software or a “robot” to capture and interpret existing applications for processing a transaction, manipulating data, triggering responses and communicating with other digital systems."(1)

Robotic Process Automation is a relatively simple pay-off for Digital Transformation. But the three catalysts are present here as much as far more advanced projects.

Irrigation Controller

As simple as the concept may seem, an automated robotic process controller may operate 24/7 in a field, miles from anywhere, unattended, while delivering phenomenal ROI through irrigation cycle changes. A simple Z-80 based controller, a servo, and a battery is a significant Digital Transformation of a mundane process of irrigation. Such advancements have eclipsed this simple application, but I was fortunate to be on the leading edge years before Digital Transformation was a phrase. A small company had a visionary catalyst and engaged leadership. As a young engineer, I became the third part of the Digital Transformation team and was able to see the project into prototype,

Pump-Jack Controller

Sometimes a contribution to Digital Transformation and the Oil and Gas industry may only require a single visionary. If Machine Learning is "the science of getting computers to act without being explicitly programmed". (2) Then my first Machine Learning system was a single-purpose controller designed to monitor an oilfield pump-jack and then adjust the cycle-time and duty-cycle to optimize oil recovery. In West Texas, where many wells produce only a few barrels per day, this technology made the difference in field longevity. Visionaries and outside-of-the-box thinkers saw a possibility and recognized how digitalization and digitization will payoff large reward in Digital Transformation. Marketing potential makes the leader catalyst enthusiastic in any organization. My evolving skillset and architect and engineering catalyst permitted this project to reach successful prototype.

Military Avionics Systems

Visionaries and outside-of-the-box thinkers are the fundamental linchpin to Digital Transformation. Upper management endorsement makes the project move forward.

General Dynamics F-16

The F-16 fighter aircraft was a systems engineer field of dreams. New ideas, new approaches, new avionics, and new computational systems demonstrated a Digital Transformation masterpiece. The success, other than an awesome group of engineers, stemmed largely with the focus on opportunity. We did not realize the advancements being made in combat capability would transition into every facet of American Industry. The Digital Transformation on the F-16 became the forerunner to real-time processing, network theory, fusion of multi-source data, and the movement from individual control elements into common-bus systems control. The very essence of Digital Transformation.

The upper leader catalysts were quick to recognize the advantage to new cockpits, revolutionized through Digital Transformation. Teams of engineers formed the third part of the catalyst team. At each step of the process, the visionaries built and thrived in a culture of outside of the box thinking. Transforming the military aircraft into fly-by-wire and digital cockpits are as much of a paradigm shift as the transition from propellers to jet engines.

Sikorsky Seahawk Helicopter

Military helicopter avionics are both very different from fixed-wing fighter jests, and very similar. Reduction of crewman workload, successful accomplishment of objective, and superior performance are equally important and equally imperative. Rotary-wing visionaries, corporate and military leaders, and solutions engineers makeup the three necessary catalysts for Digital Transformation here too.

Industrial Systems

As my work with military avionics began to mature, I began to see a particular job description become evermore critical - the Systems Engineer. Today, that same engineer is frequently called the Architect, the Senior Architect, or the Principal Architect.

Oilfield Pipe Inspection

After working with the large military industrial complex, I had the fortune to join a small company which had a vision for pipe inspection. We created a revolution in the OCTG (Oil Country Tubular Goods) for pipe inspection. Prior to this opportunity as a Digital Transformation Engineer, most inspection systems utilized a rack of analog operational amplifiers (analog integrated circuits), paper chart decks, and bundles of cable.

As the Data Systems Manager, performing the role of Principal Architect, a new Digital Transformation evolved. The vision catalyst foresaw a computer, with digitalization integrated into the computer and all inspection operations being driven from the operator console and recorded on a Compact Disk (CD). The leader catalyst cultivated a willing board found willing customers. My role of third catalyst, the Principal Architect, was the most satisfying (personal opinion).

The resulting system has been delivered from the United States to the Far-East, in small mobile trailers and in large steel mills. Predating .NET applications, predating Raspberry Pi modules, and predating Agile development teams, these inspection systems were significant Digital Transformations and demonstrated fully the three catalysts.

Real-Time Upstream Oil and Gas Operations

The Oil and Gas industry, especially the upstream portion of that industry, are said to be locked into a "race to be second". The O&G industry seldom leads other industries in adoption of leading edge technologies and is seldom at the forefront of Digital Transformation technologies. Nevertheless, the opportunities abound and the industry has moved passed the concept of real-time data and 24/7 operations centers to more modern hubs of Digital Transformation.

A successful operation today must have information flow, information sharing, and information utilization. We are seeing these Digital Transformation occurring now, today, in front of us.

The Digital Transformation Engineer is not, yet, a recognized fixture but the contributions are becoming recognized. Digital Transformation, Machine Learning, Analytics and other buzzwords are often heard. The results of those activities will be driving the evolution of the O&G industry into the future.

How will the upstream O&G industry continue to advance? with three catalysts: visionaries, leaders, engineers.


The three catalysts to Digital Transformation and Digital Transformation Projects are:

  1. visionaries - the catalyst that sees not what it, but what could be
  2. senior leaders - the catalyst that understands long-term implications
  3. engineers - the catalyst that implements a vision

Of the three, the engineer / architect must catapult the vision into reality. Today, that role is often called the Principal Architect and is becoming frequently called the Digital Transformation Engineer.

What are your thoughts? I'd like to hear.


(1) Institute for Robotic Process Automation & Arificial Intelligence, What is Robotic Process Automation?

(2) Standford University, Machine Learning