by Byron Connolly

An IT leader in it for the long run

Sep 30, 2015

It’s 9:00am in Hong Kong on a day in late June and the temperature has already shot up to somewhere north of 25 degrees celsius. The summer humidity that cloaks this metropolis off China’s south east coast makes it difficult for ultra-marathon runner, Andre Blumberg, to get out and train.

A German national, Blumberg has spent the past 14 years in Hong Kong, joining utilities provider, CLP Power in 2001 as an SAP integration architect before rising up the ranks to his current role as director, information technology.

“I’m one of those rare cases of succession planning actually working out,” he tells CIO. “I’ve had the opportunity to work in a 360-degree environment over the years where I’ve been in many different roles that are now reporting to me – much to the dismay of my direct reports because I know all their backgrounds.”

These days, when he is not leading IT transformation projects, Blumberg is going into battle against his mental demons in some of the most gruelling ultra marathon events on the planet.

This seasoned IT exec is a true ultra runner in every sense. Last year, Blumberg completed Badwater, one of the world’s toughest footraces, covering 135 miles in searing heat from Death Valley to Mt Whitney in California in the United States. He also found time to knock over the Tahoe 200, a 200-mile endurance run around the largest alpine lake in North America.

He is the founder and two times finisher of the Hong Kong Four Ultra Trails Challenge, a completely ‘self-supported’ event where athletes run all four of the city’s long distance trails – 298 kilometres over three days.

In 2013, he finished the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, four 100-mile mountain runs in the United States held over ten weeks.

But his life wasn’t always this extreme for Blumberg – in fact, it was quite the opposite.

Catalyst for change

In 2009, Blumberg was an unhealthy and overweight IT executive potentially on the road to an early death. His ‘work hard play hard’ mentality had taken its toll and an annual check up just shy of his 40th birthday confirmed the damage that had been done.

“My cholesterol was through the roof and I was overweight, grossly obese at 103kg,” he says. “I was working a lot, drinking a lot and it was work hard, play hard.

“The medical really came as a shock and the doctor said next year if I didn’t improve, he would have to put me on medication, cholesterol-lowering drugs. I really wanted to lose some weight, reduce the partying and get into sport.”

Blumberg embarked on a detoxification program and slow but steady sessions on an exercise bike at the gym. After six months, Blumberg had shaved 30kg from his 177cm frame. Since then, he hasn’t looked back, essentially skipping events between 5kms and marathon distance, to compete regularly in long distance trail runs.

And it’s a passion and way of thinking that he brings to his role at CLP Power, the largest vertically-integrated electricity generation, transmission and distribution company in Hong Kong.

“Having done some of these tough events, it really gives me a sense of perspective for my work life. I don’t take small things so serious anymore, I also tend to be more patient and balanced on a day-to-day basis,” he says.

“I have my run in the morning and it sets me up for the day – it just grounds me.”

Blumberg says there’s a fair chance that he won’t finish some of these races, and he’s fascinated by it.

“I pick 100-mile races that are challenging. I struggle in the heat, I struggle in humidity despite living here for so long my body just doesn’t adjust. Badwater was super hot,” he says.

Andre Blumberg at the finish line of the Tahoe 200, a 200-mile endurance run around the largest alpine lake in North America. Image credit: Patchanida Pongsubkarun

A high-pressure work life

All of these extreme running experiences set Blumberg up for the high-pressure environment of deploying new and innovative projects as an IT leader at CLP Power.

Today, most of CLP Power’s IT – data centres, application management, support and helpdesk, project office, and security functions – are managed in-house but the company is moving to a multi-sourced approach where commodity services can be sourced from third parties.

Blumberg manages a team of about 230 IT staff at CLP Power, which has had a recent focus on providing mobility solutions to its workforce.

The key focus here is on internal field force enablement, providing staff at its power plants, and across its network, transmission, distribution and retail lines of business, with mobile apps to make them more efficient.

Blumberg has also led pilot projects with Microsoft using the software giant’s Azure machine learning offering, a cloud-based predictive analytics service for big data mining and artificial intelligence. Data is mined and analysed to determine the propensity of customers to save electricity, subject to price signals.

“When you have smart meters, you can provide different time of use pricing and simulate customer behaviour in terms of consumption. Customers are using self-service tools that help them better manage and conserve electricity,” he says.

The IT group is also doing predictive analytics on data collected from sensors on machines in its power stations that measure vibration, temperature and pressure. This data enables engineers to take action before components in a machine fail.

“These components in power stations are very high value assets,” Blumberg says. “It’s a bit like an aircraft: You really want to make sure they are serviced well and keep the uptime so you don’t have to take them down to do an overhaul.”

This sort of data analysis is now very much mainstream, adds Blumberg.

“It’s not commoditised quite yet, but very much democratised. In the past, you had a small team of SAS experts who had studied statistics at university … sitting in the corner and doing their stuff.

“But now it’s going out into the mainstream and costs have come down as well so more people in the business are making decisions based on data rather than [rely on] reports which are outdated.”

Risk management

Managing risk is key in an ultra-marathon, particularly a 100-mile event, where the weather, fatigue and hydration can mean the difference between completing or pulling out of the race. Blumberg relishes the meticulous planning involved in determining where he needs to be at a certain point in the race and what supplies he will need at the various checkpoints.

Completing a long distance race provides Blumberg with a deep feeling of satisfaction, similar to delivering a large program of work, a system or transformation project.

“Six to eight weeks out before a race, I print charts and stick them on my bedroom door and my office whiteboard and just like a project plan, I see it every day and mentally go through it,” he says.

“It’s a bit like doing a large transformational project for 15 months and you do all the preparation and testing before implementation. And eventually the big day comes and it’s the cut over weekend and you’re in the ‘war room’ and everyone’s working as a team.

“Then something goes wrong, people work out the issue and you go live. It’s like a 100-mile race where you go through the motions and you have issues. In races this long, you always have some issues and it’s about overcoming them.”

Despite his hunger for running, Blumberg always makes sure he is in touch with colleagues while competing in events, locally and overseas.

“I was doing a Grand Slam race and we had a CRM cut over that weekend. At the 100-kilometre mark, I took out my smartphone and wife said: ‘What are you doing?’ I had to check on the cut over because I’m not there – I wanted to make sure it worked.”

Advice for other CIOs

Blumberg encourages other IT leaders to balance their work life with physical activities. He says many successful people, including Apple boss Tim Cook, who exercises very early in morning, have achieved that balance.

“Running provides that ‘me’ time, that thinking time and nobody can take that away from me,” Blumberg says. “I can think about the day ahead, what are the issues, the plans I’m going to make.

“Once I hit the office, there are calls, disruptions and so on. You don’t really get time to think. It gives me more energy as well to last for the day.”

It certainly is a work life balance that is to be admired.

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Follow Byron Connolly on Twitter:@ByronConnolly