Dan Jeavons: Envisioning the Future of Business with Digital Transformation

Dan Jeavons | VP Computational Science & Digital Innovation | IT CTO | Shell
Dan Jeavons | VP Computational Science & Digital Innovation | IT CTO | Shell

Sometimes you find what you are meant to do by eliminating all the things you can’t do. Dan Jeavons puts it this way “In finding out what I wasn’t, I found out what I was.” He wasn’t the best programmer, but what he was good at was finding patterns from large quantities of data.

Dan is currently the Vice President of the Computational Science & Digital Innovation department at Shell. He is a key contributor to Shell’s digitalization program. Since he started his own team at Data Science Centre of Excellence in 2013, its work has won multiple awards, one of which was Constellation Research’s Supernova Awards in the Data to Insights category.

Dan is recognized for his industry-leading work in the area of Digital Transformation. He was part of the team which developed the Shell.ai brand, which is now externally recognized. His team’s work and impact have been regularly publicized in mainstream journals like Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times.

He has also developed effective technology partnerships with Microsoft and others, contributed to Shell’s strategic alliance, and coordinated with Baker Hughes & C3.ai leading to the announcement of the Open AI Energy Initiative (OAI) in 2021.

Dan is passionate about Big Data, Data Science, and AI. He also has extensive experience in business process redesign, business transformation, and change. In 2020 he was listed in the Constellation Research #BT150 and Truata’s Top 100 Data Visionaries.

Dan Jeavons, in an exclusive interview with CIOLook, shares how dancing to his own tune has led him to success. Below are the highlights:

Dan, please brief our audience about your journey as a business leader until your current position at Shell. What challenges have you had to overcome to reach where you are today?

I knew I was never going to be the best coder but being aware of what I am not so good at is actually a superpower. From early in my career, I could see others around me who were better at what they were doing. So, in finding out what I wasn’t, I found out what I was – good at distilling large quantities of information and then making the connections.

Now I’m part of a team leading Shell’s digital transformation, which is playing an integral part in our net-zero ambition. My team is a core part of a traditionally slow-moving business – but one that is changing rapidly. And digital plays an increasingly important role. We’ve found that the ability to take large quantities of information – or data – and look for patterns and, in some cases, embed these insights software applications has delivered material impact for our business.

Tell us something more about your company and its mission and vision.

Shell is an international energy company whose purpose is to power progress together with more and cleaner energy solutions. Shell uses innovative and advanced technologies to produce and distribute energy in more efficient, reliable and sustainable ways. Digital technology is making our existing operations more effective and efficient, helping to offer our customers lower-carbon solutions.

Describe in detail the values and the work culture that drives your organization.

For me, it has always been about being part of a viral movement, growing from the bottom up. At the start, we were a really small group about five or six of us dancing on our own within Shell, like that YouTube video where a man is dancing on his own, and then there are two people, then four and so on all in sync. In 2013, I began building a team to see how Shell could reap more value from advanced analytics.

I had help from some pretty visionary executives. I hired a statistician and an engineer, and we started building stuff. A lot of it failed but I was given the time to try, and also smash into a few walls – eventually, one worked. That project paid for itself in six weeks. Suddenly we went from ‘Dan’s little hobby horse’ to: ‘OK, this is actually saving us money…’

When you’re dealing with a sector that has to think about safety every waking moment, you need a safe place to experiment with doing things differently. A sandbox – where it’s OK to fail. In the past, there were empirical models, where data came from watching what had happened and then applying lessons of the past to fix problems of the future. Now, with digital twins, it is possible to create an exact replica of a plant or facility virtually. Play the scenario and see the outcomes. Rewind then play again with a different set and scenarios, and keep doing this until we get it right.

Undeniably, technology is playing a significant role in almost every sector. How are you leveraging technological advancements to make your solutions resourceful?

Digitalization is one of the key ways to accelerate the energy transition because reliability, integrity and optimization are as relevant to wind farms, solar farms, battery storage, and hydrogen facilities as they are to gas plants and refineries.

Using data around the use of electric vehicles means charging can be optimized to place less burden on the grid for example. Shell is also using blockchain to trace and verify the provenance of energy created from renewable sources – so energy users know where their energy has come from. And a recent pilot project is Avelia – a blockchain project between Shell, Accenture, and American Express Global Business Travel which is aimed at increasing the availability and use of sustainable aviation fuel.

We work a lot with others companies. Microsoft, C3.ai, Baker Hughes, and Shell are founding members of the Open AI Energy Initiative. This first-of-its-kind program shares AI knowhow and finds ways to exchange digital technology to help solve tough problems within the energy industry – making sure assets run as efficiently as possible and improving maintenance, for example.

What, according to you, could be the next significant change in your sector? How is your company preparing to be a part of that change?

I believe that the two mega trends – that of the energy transition and digitalization are intertwined. Both are expected to have a profound impact on the way everyone lives their lives. I believe that technological innovation is key to help us make the massive changes needed.

Deep decarbonization of energy infrastructure and consumption would not be possible without a comprehensive digital transformation through the entire energy value chain. I am not advocating that digital technology can solve the world’s energy problems. But I am convinced that digital technology is one of the major levers to pull in the drive towards a net-zero future.

AI itself will not abate emissions. It is an enabling technology, versatile by essence; it allows new ways of working, which can have a systemic impact in transforming and decarbonizing the energy system.