by Divina Paredes

CIO100 2018 #12: Jen Cherrington-Mowat, Genesis Energy

Mar 28, 2018
Big DataCareersDigital Transformation

Genesis has transformed the way it operates over the past 12 months, using digitisation of the business to become a customer-centric, agile, innovative and cross-functional organisation capable of co-creating with business and households alike, says Jen Cherrington-Mowat.

Cherrington-Mowat’s role, executive general manager – technology and digital – is a new one at Genesis Energy.

IT at Genesis previously sat under the finance/HR functions. This was a deliberate move by chief executive Marc England, who recognises that being digitally fit is an organisation-wide requirement and a strategic input to the goal of being NZ’s leading energy provider, she says.

When England arrived in May 2016, he promptly moved ‘technology and digital’ (TD) to the top table, recognising that digitisation of the business would affect nearly all aspects of the organisation; needing it to be embedded at the top.

Since then, Genesis has morphed from a waterfall type operation to a fully-fledged Agile business in less than 12 months and is regularly called upon to advise other businesses on how to make this successful transition, she says.

“We’ve gone from one to 18 squads, created a ‘customer tribe’ using Agile methodology and are enjoying immense benefits from this change in emphasis.”

She says the technology and digital team also works hand-in-hand with marketing, customer ops, product, corporate and generation and wholesale on a significant programme of digitisation. This evolution in how we operate is not just at an ‘agile’ level, she says.

“It is also embedded in the more traditional infrastructure and applications team, where there is now a full-speed, cloud-based, devops to support that rapid change, empowering the teams to deploy in minutes what previously took days or weeks.”

“The business-wide digital evolution has enabled Genesis to create a consistent delivery rhythm and a way of working that really makes the efforts of each team transparent, regardless of which business unit they belong to,” she adds.

“This has fostered an environment where knowledge is shared, increasing the speed to market and delivery, and cost-effectiveness, lifting the core capability, retaining IP and increasing collaboration and understanding across the organisation. And we have fun.”

Genesis has already seen immediate benefits from this shift. An example is the Local Energy Project (LEP) in the South Wairarapa where, thanks to the local community, Genesis has a real-life incubation project, testing and learning from a range of products and services, she says.

These include solar and storage, monitoring hardware, and EV chargers, all of which help inform the new product development through data as well as qualitative feedback and input.

The LEP is helping Genesis trial future-facing opportunities and take steps towards our strategic vision to be New Zealand’s leading energy management provider and partner, says Cherrington-Mowat.

Parallel to this, Genesis runs multiple streams of technology innovation to enable the success of our business and tap into the expertise and passion of our people so we can deliver customer innovation and improvements, says Cherrington-Mowat.

In 2017, Genesis introduced hackathons, or what she refers to as “internal innovation competitions”.

Cherrington-Mowat invited non-technology staff to participate; inviting them to ‘reimagine’ the company’s services and products through use of digital technologies. The upcoming hackathons will involve customers this time.

The winning team

The business-wide digital evolution has enabled Genesis to create a consistent delivery rhythm and a way of working that really makes the efforts of each team transparent, regardless of which business unit they belong to

Some of the ideas that emerged during the hackathons are now full-fledged projects. One of them is the use of Hololens and Augmented Reality to show real-time power usage. One of the winning teams also pitched a chatbot to help with customer queries, which is now live on the Genesis website.

The second hackathon combined the skills of data scientists with energy generation engineers. Three projects from that event are now being rolled out. One of them is a mobile app which allows field staff to immediately access information about an asset or facility.

A recent innovation, Energy IQ, was launched to a beta group of 25,000+ customers in October 2017.

The first launched product, Electricity Forecasting, is an NZ-first, she says.

It combines a customer’s electricity usage data with advanced data modelling techniques and weather data to produce an accurate weekly forecast of energy demand unique to the customer, says Cherrington-Mowat.

After each trial, the products will be launched more widely, assuming they get the customer tick of approval during beta testing.

Another recent launch is Energyhub, an online marketplace to explore and learn about a diverse range of New Zealand-supported products to help users connect, manage and control their energy use.

The hub is currently in pilot phase and is the latest example of how Genesis is ‘co-creating’ with its customers to help them reimagine energy, says Cherrington-Mowat.

“Our innovation is not limited to product releases,” she says. “We recognise how crucial it is to be nimble and able to pivot in time scales never experienced before, so have invested in scalable, modular, flexible, best in breed, cloud and API-driven architecture.

“Never before have our teams been able to quickly make, test and deploy change, putting Genesis in a unique position in the utilities world, where legacy IT can hold back the best of intentions,” she says.

Cherrington-Mowat says like most groundbreaking plans, the real change has centered on culture.

“We are moving away from being a business that is led by its operations to one that is focused on customer outcomes first, truly keeping the customer at the heart of everything we do.

“One of the key differences is that we’ve gone from a purely outsourced software development model to creating a core capability for software development within the organisation,” she adds.

“At the same time, we have moved to the cloud and are using far more automation and tooling than previously. It helps when you have the advantage of an up-to-date stack that comes with the latest evergreen features and functionalities.”

Vendor management is critical to their success. We have also deliberately engaged with ‘best of breed’ partners as part of the journey, with the likes of Mulesoft, Salesforce, Datacom, Spark, Davanti, and we are one of the biggest New Zealand users of the Microsoft Azure ecosystem, says Cherrington-Mowat.

“Like all wholesale change, we needed the team to come along on the journey. We developed programmes to ensure our people and our leaders were supported.

“We’ve also grown our team rapidly and the influx of new thinking and behaviours, mixed with knowledge and experience, has allowed us to reset some of the norms and change perspectives. As a result, we have exceptionally high engagement rates.”

Cherrington-Mowat is part of the executive team and engages across all areas of the wider organisation.

“My goal is to demystify the technical and talk in ‘capability’ language that everyone can understand and, as a result, engagement is high,” she says.

The Board is equally engaged in our digital efforts and we talk to our highlights and lowlights each month as part of the business update, as well as over the morning teas on Board days.

“We actively debate options and challenges, which is a wonderful contrast to the IT days of old when the CIO only came out of the basement to be told off when something wasn’t working!” Cherrington-Mowat says her personal leadership style is “definitely more carrot than stick”.

She encourages and empowers people to do what they usually know is right. “I also ask that they step up and outside their comfort zones when they can.”

“We deliberately have a diverse TD leadership team, who are also very commercially-focused and work well with their colleagues, as well as leading their teams in a similar way,” she says.

“I value everyone’s input, no matter their role, and try to foster an environment that is respectful, safe, fun and challenging. Everyone should be an advocate for working for Genesis.”

She says Genesis Energy also provides formal and informal training “constantly on the go”. Aside from formal courses, the team holds multiple ‘brown bag sessions’, using internal as well as external facilitators.

Cherrington-Mowat has started the Women’s Network discussions inside Genesis, mentored several women and spoken at multiple leadership forums promoting greater diversity across the IT and energy industries.

Genesis is a big supporter of the Microsoft Accelerator programme, and has chosen 12 graduates to work on 10-week projects across the organisation. This is in addition to the company’s internship program. The team ensures the wider organisation understands and embraces our digital plan and the capability it brings, she says.

“We use roadshows, Yammer, videos and a wide variety of communication tools to collectively raise the knowledge and understanding of what is going on and in language people can understand.”

One of the most popular aspects of our agile working is the ‘show and tell’ where everyone can come and see what’s happening and what’s being produced, she says.

“These are usually standing-room only sessions. “Recently we had to reschedule a session on ‘Spreading the Architectural Gospel’ because over 120 people accepted for a meeting room that only held 20!”

Technology with a small ‘t’

“Being a CIO has everything to do with people and almost nothing to do with technology,” says Cherrington-Mowat, who spent 25 years overseas before returning to New Zealand to join Genesis Energy.

“I’ve been in commercial sales, product, marketing and management roles my entire career and never have I worked so closely with customers as I do in my ‘technology’ job,” she says.

“Having worked for large pure plays, like Amazon and eBay in the past, many people assumed our successes were technical triumphs, but every win was because we took a customer need and created a solution.

“Once I got past the mentality of ‘build and they will come’ and instead focused on solving issues, desires, challenges and, if we got lucky, delivering WOWs, then it was like having a fairydust pot.”

As she puts it, delivering any experience is a team exercise and everyone plays a part.

“There are no heroes, just people working together to achieve a customer-focused goal as creatively as we can collectively,” she says.

“Ever since then, I’ve tried to ensure that our planning uses the language of our customers, working with passionate people and doing whatever it takes to get the best outcome. The technology aspect usually appears with a very small ‘t’.”

Jen Cherrington-Mowat joins the team of scrum master Sam Fowler (Photo by Divina Paredes)