Rich Barclay: Pushing the digital envelope

SPIRIT Awards Lifetime Achievement graphic
by Jan Hester

Given the impact that Data Scientist Fellow and data analytics guru Rich Barclay has had on ConocoPhillips’ business, it’s astonishing to learn that he never took a computer science class. Among his many accomplishments, Rich recognized the need for a company-wide approach to data analytics and overcame considerable reluctance to use non-physics-based approaches for making predictions about subsurface and engineering phenomena. For his commitment and achievements, Rich received a 2019 SPIRIT of Performance Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Listen to Rich Barclay.

Rich’s 40-year career has spanned a technological revolution: the first PCs, networking, the internet and mobile computing. “My university didn’t even have a computer science department. Information Technology was a nascent career area, and the technology was just emerging.”

He launched his oil and gas career in downstream research. “One of my first jobs was designing process control systems for refineries that involved tens of thousands of sensors, all feeding into a central system monitored by operators.”

At college, Rich had studied the human brain and saw a parallel with that technology. “In process control you can think of the sensors as nerves, all feeding into a central unit not unlike the brain. I saw possibilities for advanced control and optimization, but computers of the day were very slow and had limited capabilities.”

Rich and Marjorie with mountains in background
Rich and Marjorie hiking the Mont Blanc trail in the French Alps

His early interest in computing led to challenging and rewarding projects. “I’m proud of a corrosion inspection system I designed for a refinery. It was state-of the-art at the time. Several years later, I returned to the facility and ran into the manager in charge of corrosion inspection. He showed me before-and-after charts with the number of fires, injuries and fatalities and said that the system I designed changed everything. It’s nice to do something that has such a big impact on safety and people’s lives.”

Rich followed developments in the field closely over the years and was enthralled when, in 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue computer beat world champion chess expert Gary Kasparov.

“That was a dramatic thing for computers to be able to do. They had gotten powerful and able to search many alternatives.”

A major milestone was in the field of autonomous vehicles. “It was a huge breakthrough for a computer to be able to drive a car, with all the decisions and sensor processing involved. That convinced me that things were changing. By 2010, computers were millions of times faster and much cheaper. Machine-learning (ML) algorithms had improved and the internet was available.”

The internet provided a rich ecosystem for people to learn. In 2012, two Stanford professors offered their artificial intelligence (AI) and ML courses online free. “More than 100,000 people signed up. I took those courses and subsequent training.”

Marjorie and Rich alongside rock wall
Marjorie and Rich hiking Hadrian's Wall in the U.K.

Rich was a leader in identifying the potential impact of advanced data analytics on ConocoPhillips. “It has always fascinated me that you can change the structure of your brain by thinking and learning. I’m also fascinated with how you can teach a computer. Instead of writing lots of code, you provide the information and let it learn things for itself.”

Boo, top, and Radley

For Rich, ML and AI haven’t always been an easy sell, but he won over the skeptics. “People don’t understand it and are nervous. The hardest work is building acceptance. There was early resistance, and it took time to bring people around. I found that working together with engineers on actual projects piqued their interest. When you show people what can happen, they suddenly become big proponents. To me, it’s been gratifying to see some of these analytics rack up reported significant savings.”

Rich and his wife Marjorie met as undergraduates at the University of Chicago and have been married for 39 years. She also spent most of her career in oil and gas. The Barclays have one son, James, who recently completed his master’s at Georgetown University and works in Washington, D.C. The Barclays have two cats, Boo and Radley.

Marjorie and Rich with wooded background
Rich, in a tartan kilt, and Marjorie

The couple enjoys travel, and they usually do a long trek every couple of years. “We’ve done the Tour du Mont Blanc in the French Alps and Hadrian’s wall in the U.K. Our next trip is to Africa for more safaris.” Other destinations include wine-producing regions and visiting friends.

When he retires later this year, Rich plans to spend more time reading and playing tennis — and less time attending meetings. He’ll also use AI and ML for personal projects in robotics and creative endeavors such as AI-created art.

How does he feel about receiving the prestigious lifetime achievement award?

“It was great. I wasn’t expecting it. Oil and gas has been a gratifying career. To be recognized in this way is fantastic. It’s rewarding to know that a small group of dedicated people can drive significant change. The award is icing on the cake.”

4 people among wine making equipment
Rich enjoys a wine tasting.