The first things you notice upon entering Shell TechWorks (STW) are Star Wars replicas. Meeting rooms are emblazoned with names such as Imperial, Chewie and Leia, while Tie Fighter models hang from the ceilings.

This is no start-up, but a part of Shell. It was founded in 2013 as an in-house innovation centre comprised of people from outside the oil and gas industry. For Matthew Kleiman, its co-founder and Head of Programs, the Star Wars theme is vital for recruitment. 

“People walk in with all sorts of preconceptions about what Shell is and isn’t,” he says, conjuring images of a global corporate giant filled with traditional engineers and accountants. “We needed to signal very quickly that we are different.”

This approach also attempts to address a wider challenge faced by the energy industry. How does it attract the next generation of talent, when the lure of Silicon Valley and companies synonymous with innovation such as Facebook or Google prove increasingly attractive?

There is a need to act. Millennials, or those born between 1980 and 2000, will form half the global workforce by 2020, according to accountancy firm PwC. A study by McKinsey & Company, warns that careers in oil and gas are viewed unfavourably by this group – with 14% avoiding the sector altogether.

For Kleiman, the risk of a talent shortfall in the future has to be answered. And the layout of the office – with its open-plan seating, ping pong table, arcade machines and toy foam guns – are a nod to “co-creative” spaces now synonymous with start-ups.

“We needed a way of telling recruits that when you come here, you’re not walking into a staid corporate environment,” he says. “You are expected to bring fresh perspectives from your previous experiences to help us solve challenging problems. Your ideas will then be deployed in the field within months. Not years.”

New formations

STW was founded in 2013 as a response to changes inside the industry. Shell needed faster technical solutions to help it respond more effectively to changing energy prices. At the same time, digital technology was transforming the nature of work with the rise of remote monitoring, robotics and virtual reality.

For STW, as the business demands started to change, so did their talent requirements. About 90% of STW staff come from outside the oil and gas industry.

“We call the kind of people we look for ‘T-shaped’,” explains Julie Ferland, STW’s General Manager. “They are chosen for having a depth of capability in one area and the ability to apply it across many others.”

This approach has allowed STW to bring in expertise from outside to find unusual solutions. These include harnessing computer game technology to help connect pipes on an oil rig.

Inspired by computer game technology such as X-Box 360 Kinect, the team uses special cameras to calculate the precise location of a pipe on a rig. STW engineers and designers are also currently working on virtual reality technology that allows operators to simulate how to respond on an oil rig in the event of a power failure.

Scouting for talent

In order to keep pace with technology, STW needs to constantly stay ahead of the latest talent pool in and around Boston. Securing potential recruits can sometimes be tricky.

“Some of the people we seek may tell you that they don’t agree with many of the things that the oil and gas industry is doing,” says Ferland. “These individuals are motivated by the idea that their presence and work here can make positive impacts on the industry.”

Yet for a multinational corporation like Shell, such specialist talent has no purpose unless it fits into the wider business. “If you just have a whole bunch of smart people sitting in Boston building interesting things, it doesn’t necessarily add value to the business,” says Kleiman. That’s why the company relies on Shell’s internal experts to help ground what they do against the needs of the business.

Ultimately its location in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is what gives Shell access to the Boston talent pool.

“The idea that the Shell logo is going to draw people through the door may be true in some parts of the USA. But that’s not the case here. It’s something else entirely,” says Ferland. “It’s the hands-on engineering and rapid deployment cycles. It’s the frenetic nature of what we’re doing. It’s solving highly-challenging problems. It’s Star Wars.”


By Kunal Dutta

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