In 2001, I was hired as vice president of technology services at JEA. I was working for a technology-savvy CEO. So great was his passion for IT that he was convinced it would be a key catalyst to JEA becoming the best utility service provider in the nation. I had landed most CIOs’ dream job.
I felt invincible. I started to dream big. As I listened to my boss describe his priorities for IT and its partnership with the business, I could barely contain my excitement. However, once I left his presence, the magnitude of my responsibility seemed overwhelming. I prepared to roll up my sleeves rather than dream my way through the next few years.
I focused on the organization chart for the IT department, which had been designed by consultants. I had been appointed as the result of a corporate realignment that included changes in the organization’s structure, its philosophy and its management team. The intent was to create a flatter, leaner organization and enable quicker decision making. Although I was told I would have some flexibility with the org chart, some things were not negotiable: specifically, a position for an artificial neural net specialist.
My boss’s interest in neural net technology went deep. He had done much reading on the subject, and he believed this technology could help eliminate many of our inefficiencies. He was ready for implementation.
Forget that the business’s dissatisfaction with IT was so complete that one user boldly lamented “Outsource IT!” on his customer feedback survey. And disregard that for my eight VP peers, deploying neural net technology wasn’t even on their top-10 lists. This was the top performance priority for me. So I made it happen.
Learn the Territory
My first step was to hire Michael Eaton to head the neural net project. As an electrical engineer with an understanding of the utility business, Eaton had the right technology and business skills, and an insatiable curiosity about IT. Equally important, he had the fortitude to accept a mission in which there were few believers.
Eaton spent nine months learning about our business in order to understand its greatest areas of need and to determine where neural net technologies could help. At the same time, he investigated best-of-breed neural net software vendors, as well as which companies were actively using the technology.
He compiled a comprehensive list of possible projects for JEA. Then we spent many days dissecting each component of the puzzle: solutions, vendors and deployment sites to visit. We played prosecutor, defense counsel, judge and jury on each combination we considered.
Find a Customer, Then Wait
The politically incorrect next step would have been to have the CEO mandate one of the business VPs as a customer. This would have resulted in shared responsibility but not shared enthusiasm. The end result would have been further alienation of users.
Instead, Eaton and I made our pitch to the business leaders we believed we could support most effectively with the neural net technology. Now, I can almost hear you gasp, “But you picked a solution before identifying a problem!” Well, I believe this was different than the usual case. We had picked a concept that had proven successful at other companies. Our dilemma was not that there were no problems the technology could alleviate, but that the business did not recognize that IT-and a neural net solution, specifically-could address their priorities.
We selected a couple of vendors that had a good track record of working with utilities. Next, we identified possible executive sponsors and brought them together for a pie-in-the-sky meeting. In this meeting, I explained the CEO’s vision and provided some industry-specific examples of how neural net technology had been used. I requested that we be allowed to spend time in the field with their teams to see if we could determine how this technology could help them. After six months of field visits, vendor presentations and trips for our business users to other utilities where they could see neural net technology in action, we identified an appropriate business problem.
This problem was really big: Enhancing the efficiency of one of our aging gas-and-oil-fired generating plants while maintaining our emissions standards. The goal was to find the combination of oil and gas inputs that would produce low-cost electricity while minimizing emissions.
Before the project could start, however, we had to wait. The sponsors were curious enough to take some initial steps, however their resources were limited. So we agreed to shelve the project for six months and, once we got started, to have tollgate meetings, so that if at any point the project was not meeting the business unit’s needs we could cancel it.
During the hiatus, users who had attended the site visits started to lobby the executive sponsors in favor of the project. Meanwhile, the retirement of a manager brought in new leadership that embraced the project. When the hiatus was over, the business unit provided access to its resources and facilities for one year—and we were off and running.
Vision Becomes Reality
Our CEO demanded a win-win attitude, requiring us to believe that missions that seemed mutually exclusive could be coupled together to achieve a better result than either would individually.
We ensured this alignment for the neural net project by putting business needs first and remaining patient. It took two years before the business was persuaded to move forward, but now the neural net project is considered a win by everyone involved.
Our customers expected rhetoric and little else, but they received a solution that paid for itself within weeks while continuing to minimize our plant emissions. Today artificial neural net solutions are one of the most demanded services we offer to our internal customers.
The project renewed trust in IT, which in turn allowed us to receive the resources needed to replenish our aging infrastructure and hire the best IT workers. Satisfaction with IT has improved more than 30 percent, and our operational costs are under control. Our technology services group is now seen as the technology partner of choice at JEA. As a CIO with a passion for using technology to truly drive a business forward, I am excited where we have come from and enthusiastic about tackling the opportunities and challenges of the future.
Wanyonyi Kendrick is CIO with JEA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.