Winter 1994 (2.4)
State of the Art Technology Transfer
Chevron / SOCAR Story
San Ramon, California, seems a sleepy, serene little community especially when compared to the cosmopolitan bustle of nearby San Francisco and Berkeley. But it's home to Chevron Overseas Petroleum, Inc (COPI, for short) where one of the most intensive training projects ever in the company's history is taking place with foreign geologists, geophysicists and computer specialists. And Azerbaijanis are center stage.
"We're looking for a long-term relationship in Azerbaijan," says Dr. Michael O'Day, Senior Advisor for the New Ventures CIS-FSU Section. "No doubt about it, with the redevelopment of the oil industry in the Caspian region, there's going to be a renaissance in Baku, which was, after all, the birth place of the world's first petroleum industry. Azerbaijan is going to play a key role for the oil industry in the region. The future of Azerbaijan is enormous. We'd like to be part of it. That's why we're working now to build up a solid foundation of trust and understanding."
Chevron is already committed in Kazakhstan for the huge Tengiz oil field. According to O'Day, Chevron was the first large company that started looking for projects in what was then the Soviet Union. "At that time, Moscow was pulling the strings in all the republics. No foreign company ever thought they would get a chance to work in Azerbaijan."
As is true at the beginning of any new project, the personalities of those involved shape the project and set the precedents, direction and philosophy for years to come. O'Day has been one of those pioneers for Chevron. With 20 years of experience "under his belt", most of which has been related to projects in foreign countries, he's convinced, "If you're going to do something, you've got to do it right." And that's become the trademark of Chevron's involvement with Azerbaijan.
What that means for a technology transfer project is that you don't donate lots of computers in a country in hopes of winning favor and then just walk away-not even if the nationals argue and insist they can train themselves. If people are not trained, the equipment sits in offices unused.
And so, on October 11, 1993, after 18 months of involved talks, planning, and negotiations with the Caspian Sea Geophysical Trust, one of SOCAR's (State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic) research institutes, Chevron signed a Joint Study Agreement to train explorationists in the use of computer workstations for seismic processing and interpretation.
"It's very much a partnership of mutual benefit to both parties," said Dr. Rick Caskey, Stateside Manager of the Azeri project. SOCAR provides the raw seismic data of the Southern Caspian and Chevron provides the capital to bring Azerbaijani specialists to California to train them.
So far, 15 Azerbaijani scientists have come to San Ramon. The first team arrived in December 1993 for assignments ranging from three to ten months. "Make no mistake," says Caskey, "they've sent some of their brightest scientists-these people are world class. We're simply providing some of the latest technology that they didn't have access to. It's like 'jump starting' them 10-15 years. They used to do these same processes on paper by hand, or on mainframe computers. We're training them on state-of-the-art computer workstations.
The English Language Dimension
The first hurdle to training is learning English-not an easy task since most of the Azeris, though bilingual in Russian and Azeri, have not had much exposure to English. The first two months of their stay is set aside for intensive language study. Chevron has hired one of the best known private English language training companies, International Effectiveness Center (IEC) in San Francisco to do the job.
"We can take beginners," says IEC's Director, Tarik Rouchdy, "and in two months, intensive one-on-one training, eight hours a day, make them competent enough to be able to carry on a social conversation for two to three hours." Rouchdy claims this would be equivalent to immersing yourself for seven to eight months in a country where you weren't able to revert back to your own native language. "In this short time, we take students to the point where they can comprehend about 70% of what they hear."
Since adults often have the tendency to depend on visualization for learning, IEC tries to re-accustom and retrain their ability to trust their ears. The first 40 hours of training doesn't include any reading or writing at all. Besides, for Azerbaijanis, the Latin script of English introduces another barrier since everyone has grown up reading Cyrillic.
Rukhsara Kuliyeva, one of SOCAR's seismic interpreters commented, "In the Soviet Union, we could go everywhere and communicate in Russian. But, now English will be the avenue for us to communicate with the rest of the world. If we can speak English, we can talk to people directly which is much better than having to rely on interpreters." Of course there are hundreds of computer-related terms that need to be learned as well just to handle the computer menus. Somehow, with an incredible amount of effort on everyone's part, they've succeeded.
In the future, Chevron is exploring the possibility of completing a considerable amount of English training in Baku before bringing the SOCAR employees to San Ramon for the technical portion of the training.
Computer Training In Pairs
But after two months of intensive English, the computer training begins. Chevron has committed about 25 of their employees, many of them senior geophysicists, for this part of the program.
Some of the SOCAR employees had never worked on personal computers before. "In the beginning, some of them were even afraid to touch the 'mouse'. Naturally, they didn't feel comfortable experimenting with the software for fear of causing serious harm," Caskey recalls. "We forget how much learning we take for granted before it's possible to gain facility with workstations." But those days are long gone and everybody is quite comfortable now.
Kamran Babayev, who is also taking some courses at Berkeley, pointed out the difference between education in Azerbaijan and the US. "At home, our classes are very theoretical, and people work for many years to learn how to apply their knowledge. In the American system, they learn how to apply the information while they're still in school. This makes them productive as soon as they enter the work force."
Walk the halls of Chevron these days and you'll immediately sense the rapport and spirit of team cooperation that has been built. "At first when the Azeris came, it was very awkward-like we were all 'walking on egg shells'. Everybody wanted to say and do the right thing. We needed time to develop trust and respect so we could communicate openly and comfortably with one another," said Lynn Ellis, Training Coordinator for the Azeri Project.
"In meetings at Chevron," Caskey points out, "we have this expectation that everyone in the room will participate. There's not much hierarchy or consciousness of rank. But when we tried it with the Azeris, it didn't work. They just weren't comfortable expressing their opinions in a large group. Of course, language was a barrier, too. We've changed our style now: instead of trying to develop consensus in a large group, we try to communicate more one-on-one. It works much better."
Pairing each Azeri scientist with a Chevron mentor has been the key to the success of the program allowing for quicker assimilation of the material and providing Azeris with a chance to practice their English language skills. More importantly, everybody gets a chance to really know one another better.
Diverse Ethnicity Advantageous
Chevron's training team is made up of personnel from several nationalities including Turkish, Pakistani, British, former Soviet, Korean, Sudanese and American. Ethnic diversity, in their opinion, is one of their strongest assets because they're already used to evaluating things from different cultural perspectives.
It takes a unique person with incredible patience to work in a pair situation cross-culturally eight hours a day. "We chose our Chevron team very carefully," observes O'Day. "Employees on this assignment must have the ability to sit hour after hour with people in a training mode. Many of the people we chose are senior scientists and we deliberately selected them not only for their excellence in the field, but for their disposition in working well with others."
One of the strengths of the program is its built-in flexibility. If something doesn't seem to be working well, management tries to identify and solve it right away. "You can't waste people's time if something's not working," Caskey confides. "You have to try to take care of it the very same day." And somehow, this approach seems to be working, primarily because everybody-Azeris and the Chevron personnel alike-are committed to making the project succeed.
The Azeris see the project as a great opportunity. "I never imagined that I would come to America-it seemed so far away, like another planet," said Taiisia Suleymanova. The SOCAR team has worked very hard. Many evenings long after everybody else has left the office and even on weekends, you'll find many of them still working away in front of the computers.
A profound friendship and respect has grown between many of the pairs. "My teammate and I share many interests, such as music, literature, values and norms. We never have had any difficulty communicating or understanding one another. She is one of the most highly educated and respectable individuals I've ever met." said Joon Kim referring to Aziza Aliyeva, one of SOCAR's seismic interpreters.
Chevron's Fattah Bakheit who recently visited Baku, reflects on the "kindness, generosity and genuiness of the Azeri culture" he experienced there. "When you make a friend with an Azeri, be prepared for a long term relationship." Janet Borgerding Murphy commented, "The people from Azerbaijan are very gracious and genuine. I've enjoyed their eagerness to learn and have been impressed with their overall subject knowledge and rapid grasp of new technology. Their soft-spoken conversational styles have often contrasted with our more boisterous manner. But more or less, they've succeeded in expressing their opinions, too. They've been a delight to work with."
This is not to say that everything has been simple or easy. There were incredible pressures, especially in the beginning as everyone was finding their own way. "I've really missed my family and children. Even though we talk on the phone, it's very difficult not to see them for such a long time," Nina Aliyeva admitted.
The first Azeri group felt the strains much more than the second group has. Training sessions of the two groups are scheduled with a two-month overlap. "It's been a softer landing for the second group," said Ellis. Chevron's Russian speaking, Tina Vengrinovich has been deeply involved in this adaptation process. "I've been working with the Azeris since the first day they arrived. At first they were nervous about everything-computers, communicating in English, how they would be treated by Americans, how they were going to learn so much in such a short time. It was easy for me to understand their fears because I had emigrated from the Soviet Union 15 years ago. I still remember the cultural shock.
Everything is different-language, food, relationships between people. From the first day in this assignment my role became clear: help the Azeris adjust and learn about this country and learn to trust us. Without trust you can't accomplish anything. I had to answer a thousand questions. They were interested in absolutely everything." Everyone has had to become somewhat accustomed to American life and familiar with things here-medical and dental practices, banking, and finding familiar, favorite foods at the supermarkets. The ultimate prize seems to be in passing California's driver's test. "Driving in the US is very, very easy because there are lines, and arrows, signs, and many traffic lights to tell people what to do. I'd like to take some paint home to Baku so I could paint lines on the streets there, too!" Eltaj Yusefzade mused.
Fun and relaxation have been built into the program, too. There have been trips to Lake Tahoe, Marine World, Napa Valley where wine is produced, the beautiful coastal town of Monterey and, even, a weekend trip down to Los Angeles to visit Disneyland.
Of course, the Azeris have developed their own impressions about their stay in the US. "The American people are very good natured. Before I used to think that they were too busy, too serious, too strict, but now I see that although they work hard, they know how to relax as well," observed Sakina Zalova. "I'm amazed how everything is computerized. It eases all aspects of life," said Aziza Aliyeva. Kamran Babayev was disappointed in the lack of equality he found here, "I've learned that things in America are not always fair, such as the educational and medical systems. These systems are very good but are not always available to people who do not have enough money to pay."
"The thing I like best about America is the water. There is so much water here. Whenever you want, there's water for everything," marveled Aziza Aliyeva, recalling how troublesome the lack of a dependable water supply is for everybody in Baku these days (See Azerbaijan Summer Issue 2:3, "Perennial Water Shortages in Baku").
Chevron's joint contract runs four years until the middle of 1997. By the time it's finished, SOCAR will have a team of world class scientists using the latest technology to identify and process seismic information.
What's in it for Chevron? It's obvious that for O'Day that there's a deep satisfaction that comes from leading a team that's "doing it right" especially in an educational endeavor that's likely to have far-reaching consequences for generations to come. But he's quick to admit that in the end Chevron hopes they will be chosen as 'the Partner of Choice' for future projects in Azerbaijan."
Aziza Aliyeva reflected on her ten-month training in San Ramon. "I'll always remember Chevron and the computers, so many computers everywhere! And I'll remember the Chevron people who have become my best friends. When I return home, I'll tell everyone that we were very happy here." And that's exactly what O'Day and the Chevron team are counting on.
From Azerbaijan International (2.4) Winter 1994.
© Azerbaijan International 1994. All rights reserved.