A Journey of Many Roads: Sales Engineering, the Energy Industry, and Texas Country Music

Thank you to our sponsor, Appian for supporting this Perspective article.

In a special bonus article for OGGN Perspective, contributing writer Stephen Forrester had a chance to talk to Brad Chatham, Director of Sales Engineering, US at Appian, about his childhood growing up in Midland, getting into the sales engineering profession and ending up at Appian, and how a passion for country music led him to manage an artist out of Amarillo, Texas.

Brad Chatham was born in Oklahoma but found himself in Midland, Texas when he was 11 years old. Despite those early years across the state line, Brad admits that he really considers Midland his hometown. Growing up in the heart of the Permian Basin and a bustling oil town, Brad has been surrounded by the industry and its people for as long as he can remember. “It’s kind of by dumb luck and osmosis that I have any connection to the oil business at all,” he says. Brad notes that due to how present the oil and gas industry is in Texas, we can’t help but find it seeping into our everyday lives, a pervasive influence that affects everything around us. When the industry flourishes, so too does the state, as people have more resources to live meaningful, fulfilled lives. This made Brad interested in and proud of the industry long before he had anything to do with it professionally.

The connection to oil and gas wasn’t entirely out of left field, though, as Brad’s father had been a safety and environmental engineer in the industry since Brad was born. In remarking on Brady Neal’s story of a completions consultant on a KLX Energy site who held his friend in his arms as he died, Brad notes that his father was part of something that didn’t end as tragically but was equally transformational.

When his dad was in Yemen in November of 2002, a helicopter carrying Hunt Oil Company employees taking off from Sana’a heading to an offshore platform in the Gulf of Aden was attacked by Al-Qaeda. As Brad recalls, things quickly went south.

“His helicopter was actually shot down by the same terrorist cell that bombed the USS Cole,” he says. “They opened up with automatic weapons fire and RPGs trying to down the chopper, and they were able to hit it enough times that it had to emergency land. There were a lot of people injured; my dad even had shrapnel in his scalp. Fortunately, they were rescued by corporate security forces before anyone was killed.”

When Brad was a kid in Midland in the 1980s, the city wasn’t exactly what it was now. “There were probably 80,000 people back then; now, it’s probably 150,000,” he explains. “So, it’s much larger now, and it’s flourished.” When the downturn of the 80s caused a massive falloff in commodity prices and oilfield work, people in the city suffered—and in such a tightly knit community, everyone was affected in some way. The struggles, however, bound people closer together, creating relationships that were fuller and more meaningful. “Your friends, family, acquaintances—really, your whole life was tied to the oil and gas industry,” Brad says. “So, I take a vested interest in it, working here at Appian in the Energy practice, and try to understand what we can do to help that cause.”

After living out his younger years in Midland, Brad returned to Oklahoma to get a degree at The University of Oklahoma in Norman. After briefly pursuing a chemical engineering degree and realizing it wasn’t for him, Brad started attending the Price College of Business, working on a Bachelor of Business Administration degree with a focus on management information systems and international business. While in school, he started working for the State of Oklahoma as an application developer. At that point, the idea of a pre-sales engineer was a totally foreign concept to him. “I had no idea what pre-sales engineering was, even though it was a widespread profession throughout technology,” he says.

After graduating, Brad got a call from a friend and former colleague who was starting a new venture.

“He called me up and told me he had a spot on his team,” Brad says. “And even though I didn’t know about pre-sales engineering, I trusted the guy—he was really smart and very likeable, and I’d done some homework on the company. So, I made the move.”

The company was Information Builders, which focused on using data and analytics to help organizations build, embed, and automate intelligence. After leaving and taking a brief stint with Cognos (now IBM) as a solutions architect, Brad ended up with a little company called Metastorm in 2006, providing customers with business process management solutions. When Metastorm was acquired by OpenText, a much larger information management company, Brad was brought on as a business process consultant for pre-sales engineering.

With existing knowledge of the oil and gas vertical and a desire to help grow that business, Brad regularly interfaced with various other teams, like sales support and account management, as a technical expert. His in-depth knowledge of the technical side of the business was invaluable in helping draw up requirements and helping customers select the solution that met their needs. Brad was a perfect fit for the oil and gas practice, as he understood what made people tick and the value of relationships, trust, and integrity. In 2014, he made the jump to Appian to help them start an oil and gas division, and he hasn’t looked back since.

“Coming to Appian a little over 7 years ago,” he says, “we didn’t really have an oil and gas practice. We barely had any energy practice at all.”

Now, working hand in hand with sales leadership and a fantastic group of account executives, Brad is leading a team of solutions engineers in the Southwest Region of the US. Over the past 7 years, they’ve made incredible inroads into the oil and gas market, adopted by some of the industry’s biggest names and trusted with their most critical lines of business and core competencies. It’s been a remarkable journey, one founded on not only the power of the technology itself but on Brad’s ability to gather talent and ensure the companies they deal with understand what Appian brings to the table.

Brad and the team at the 2020 Appian Sales Kick-Off.

But what exactly is it that Appian does? “When it comes to Appian, it can be a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” Brad admits. The company prides itself on being a leader in several key areas: low-code automation, digital process automation, intelligent business process management systems, and dynamic case management. With a legacy in business process management, the company is able to develop low-code automation through process modeling and execution.

When oil and gas companies grow through mergers and acquisitions over the years, there tend to be many business units and subsections within them that all operate with disparate systems and processes. In addition, many of the legacy businesses retain the same systems they had prior to being acquired, making integration a challenge and cross-business collaboration virtually impossible. All of this, combined with the nature of each business, its profitability, and how it’s managed, creates a challenge when it comes to aligning goals at a higher level.

Where Appian comes in is bringing together all the moving parts into one usable system.

“Think of Appian in the oil and gas space as an engine that orchestrates an entire ecosystem of disparate systems,” Brad says. “For example, a large oilfield service company we work with has a lot of different service lines, so when they’re executing a job for an operator, there can be an immense number of components associated with that job across service lines. None of them actually communicate with each other and interface appropriately, creating a lot of inefficiencies and problems when it comes to successfully carrying out the operation, managing vendors and partners, and so on.”

Appian, Brad says, is the single point of entry for all those systems. So, when a service company executes a project for an operator, they can now have full-circle, closed-gap visibility when exiting a product or service line and moving to the next. The service lines are no longer working in a vacuum, and the operator gets a holistic, deep systems perspective of the solution and the product and service they’re providing for the operator, from end to end. As a result, they’re able to radically influence the quality of outcomes.

Brad has faced quite a few challenges due to the oil and gas industry’s aversion to change. “When you’re talking about oil and gas, they’re often technology laggards,” he explains. “Companies just throw money at their problems, overspending and overextending themselves. They’ll invest in assets, but then you’ll see cycles of layoffs and reorgs. This makes it much more challenging organizationally to get things done.” Fortunately, he says, Appian has evolved as a company to address these difficulties, focusing more on sales and value to the customer. With a technical company like Appian, the level of knowledge and intelligence of the employees makes developing great solutions simple; by helping to more effectively get those solutions out in the real world for customers, everyone wins.

Brad also admits that due to the nature of the company, it takes a black-and-white approach to sales.

“We’ll be the first ones to tell you that the idea that you have to use our software isn’t a great one, and you should probably look somewhere else,” he says. “We’re all about outcomes, and competing like we do, sometimes we need to start small and expand our footprint. We’re driven by the success of the customers, and in an industry where quantitative ROI can be more easily measured, we’re a great fit.”

Brad is also proud of how agile the company is, as it allows customers to pivot and change rapidly in response to obstacles. Where many larger vendors might take 6 months or a year to develop a project, Appian could take around 16 weeks. It’s a culture of innovation and hard work that’s kept Brad inspired for his entire career at the company.

Brad also has a passion for music, and though not a practitioner himself, he’s been involved by managing a Texas Country artist out of Amarillo for the past few years. “It’s given me the chance to meet a lot of incredible people,” he says. “In an art form like country music, people tend to express things about their daily lives, and how their lives are affected by the things going on around them. There are parallels even there with regards to the energy economy.” Growing up in Midland, Brad had known talented musicians for most of his life, some of whom had wound up in Nashville as studio musicians or been in bands that were commercially successful. One close friend is a drummer and professional sound engineer who’s worked with everyone from the likes of Merle Haggard to Poison over the last 40 years; his second cousin had road managed Josh Abbott, a commercially successful artist in the Texas Country music scene, for a stint. All this to say, Brad had made connections he didn’t even know he’d ever use.

Casey Berry and Joe Nichols.

Looking back, it might have been clear to some people that Brad would be interested in the music industry. “As a kid, when my folks brought home an album in the vinyl days, I’d bust it open and read the liner notes—who wrote the songs, where it was produced, and what musicians played on it. Useless information, really, outside of music industry conversations,” he explains. So, when a friend reached out and Brad got offered an opportunity to visit with a struggling musician named Casey Berry who was dissatisfied with his existing management, he took it. Going to a show, Brad got to see him before they spoke, and he was blown away. “He could write, really sing, and play,” he says. “He was incredibly authentic as a Texas Country artist, and even though he didn’t have a lot of success on the charts, he was very well-respected by his peers, which is probably the single most important credential an artist can possess in this genre. When I listened to him, I immediately knew he had a chance to be special.”

Inspired, Brad offered to be Casey’s new manager for free for 90 days. The following 3 months, and everything that came after it, got Brad involved in a whole new world, learning how to work with booking agents, how to have conversations with record labels, and how to deal with venues. As it turned out, Brad’s intuition was correct—Casey has been successful. He’s regularly charted over the years and has made a real impact on the Texas music scene. One of his songs, “Stupid Angel,” was even showcased in an episode of ABC’s “Nashville.” Brad and Casey still work together to this day, and although Brad doesn’t manage other artists, he does work with representation out of Nashville to introduce artists to the Texas market.

Brad and Charlie Robison.

He’s met some really talented professionals as he’s walked this path, including people working with Tim DuBois, the legendary Nashville-based songwriter responsible for Alabama’s “Love in the First Degree” and discoverer of now-famous country acts such as Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, and Brad Paisley. Humble, Brad laughs off any brush with fame as little more than being in the right place at the right time. “I just kind of weaseled my way into this, but I’ll take it over almost anything else every day,” he says. “I don’t need to write the songs. For me, it’s about the creative presence, and being exposed to artists before anyone else is. How cool is it to see someone when they’ve first written a song, and then a couple years later see them find real commercial success? Seeing the joy in the journey they’ve had and knowing you had the opportunity to share in that is incredible.”

Casey Berry and Stony Larue.

Brad is currently working on an MBA at SMU, his commitment to continuous improvement taking shape outside of his day job. “It monopolizes my time,” he admits. “But the good news is, the networking at a place like SMU lends itself to making professional connections and unlocking new synergies.” With a strong academic background and the business acumen to make things happen, Brad was a perfect fit for the program—and at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, he wasn’t traveling to meet customers, so he had a bit of extra free time.

“I figured it was the perfect time to go back to school,” he says, and then, laughing, “but sometimes nowadays, when I’m working on those projects late at night, I just ask myself, ‘Man, what were you thinking?’”

As he says that he’s much more of a spontaneous person than a meticulous planner, Brad has actually come to appreciate the structure and rigidity inherent in the degree program. “It’s made me a bit more organized,” he says. “As someone who often intentionally takes life as it comes, it’s been a bit challenging to adjust. It’s required me to be a lot more disciplined.” At the end of it all, however, Brad is confident that the program has the potential to be transformational.

With his soon to be son-in-law going into professional fishing, you may very well find Brad out on a boat in the future, enjoying those spontaneous moments of joy. It’s something he just has to take advantage of, he says with a big smile. We at OGGN wish Brad well in his journey, and we thank both him and Appian for believing in the power of stories to reveal how human the oil and gas industry truly is.