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Real-world advice from John Huff, CE '68

Is it destiny or hard work that spells success after earning a degree from Georgia Tech?

Students who attended a talk given by Georgia Tech alumnus John Huff learned that it’s usually a little bit of both. And a lot of vision.

“When you start to take on the future, remember that vision is about planning for the future,” said Huff, the Chairman (and former CEO) of Oceaneering, Inc., a multinational corporation with annual revenues of more than $2 ½ billion. Huff’s appearance was part of the Expert Jacket Series, sponsored by the Georgia Tech Student Alumni Association. “Your plans may change. They will change. But remember this: technological and social changes usually go hand-in-hand. Keep them both in mind when you are planning for the future.”

It’s advice that Huff, himself, followed in 1968 when he earned a civil engineering degree at Georgia Tech and took a job on an offshore oil rig. He enjoyed the swashbuckling danger of that first job, but he kept scanning the horizon for something truly challenging.

He found it in 1986, when he took over Oceaneering, Inc., a wildly unprofitable off-shore oil and diving company. Under his management, the company refocused its resources and its business plan. The result is the stuff of business lore: 26 years later, Oceaneering employs more than 11,000 people worldwide and has profits in excess of $300 million.

Critical to this success was Huff’s recognition, early on, that the future of oil and gas exploration would be linked to deep-sea exploration. The challenges this presented were many – working at great depths was physically dangerous to divers and was not very efficient. But the possibilities of this new frontier were mesmerizing to Huff, an engineer with a passion for adventure.

“Our mission, as a company, was to be ‘the solver of problems in harsh environments,’” he said. “This was a harsh environment. The first thing we did was to shift from being a provider of a commodity to being the provider of technical solutions.”

That shift eventually led Oceaneering to develop technology that would do much more than explore new energy sources. The company has developed remote-operated vehicles (ROVs) that assisted in the exploration of the Titanic, the wreckage of the Challenger capsule, and even the remains of the H.L. Hunley, a Civil War-era submarine.

Huff is proud of his company’s many “firsts” but he was quick to tell the next generation of Georgia Tech engineers that it was the work of many bright, ambitious and well-placed employees that made Oceaneering grow. He is most proud of guiding their efforts.

“In business, you don’t do great things every day, but you may solve a few things each day, and after a few years you look back and you might have accomplished a lot. In the end, I know that working hard is something that every employer recognizes, and that’s something they teach you at Georgia Tech.”