Utililty CIO: This is Your Life

By Kathleen Davis, senior editor

Just the title itself sounds stuffy: chief information officer. It conjures up mental images of men in blue suits sitting about smoking cigars and talking standards in clipped, articulate abbreviations. And, perhaps, that still happens somewhere in pockets of this “old boys’ school” industry. But, despite a long history, one place that old motif isn’t happening: JEA. There might be suits, and there might be talks of standards, but there’s at least one less man in the room. (Cigars are optional.)


JEA CIO Wanyonyi Kendrick.
Click here to enlarge image

For more than a century now, JEA has managed the electric system established by the City of Jacksonville, Fla. Today, JEA is the largest community-owned utility in Florida and the eighth largest in the United States. And, it has a distinctive CIO, Wanyonyi Kendrick. She’s spent the last 17 years of her career looking at the details of marrying technology with business and regulation, resulting in “solutions with measurable results,” as she puts it. Sharp, honest and charming, she tells us about the difficulties of being a utility CIO, the rewards of her job, how her department functions on a daily basis, and what’s for dinner tonight.

UAE: How did you come to land at JEA?

WK: I came to JEA as a consultant on their enterprise resource planning (ERP) implementation of Oracle that lasted 18 months. I realized that I loved the company’s strategy and culture. JEA is no ordinary utility.

After the implementation I was offered—and accepted—a position as director of corporate applications.

UAE: What sets being a CIO of a utility apart from other CIO gigs?

WK: Everything and nothing! A CIO of a utility has many of the same dilemmas all CIOs have, including linking IT to strategy to ensure optimal business value of our services. Most of the differences are industry specific, including an aging workforce and a rapidly changing policy/political landscape particularly when it comes to climate issues.

We are predicting that 34 percent of our workforce will retire in the next five years. To prepare, we’re looking at knowledge transfer, employee retention and job re-engineering programs. Technology is a pivotal part of each of these initiatives, including developing solutions such as wikis for knowledge transfer and social networks and other WEB 2.0 solutions for the new generation of workforce.

UAE: How will the growing concept of “smart grids” impact your job? Will it make it easier or more difficult?

WK: Smart grid is definitely the “buzz” phrase of today, as ERP systems (enterprise resource planning) were the vogue cost-saving technology solution of the late 90s onward. I hope the analogy doesn’t end there. With any luck and a lot of collaboration, 10 years from now there will be seamless two-way communication of meaningful data from our customers to utilities and back for optimal service decision-making processes. The smart grid of the future will continue to elevate the CIO’s role at utilities, becoming a valued business partner rather than just a technology service deliverer.

Although the underlying business processes and strategy for smart grid are critical for successful deployment, technology is definitely an enabling factor. At present, most of the technology in this area is only in its infancy, and, therefore, the CIO’s role is made more difficult as we pick the right platform(s) that will continue to mature in the future.

UAE: What would you consider the single most important thing you do as CIO of JEA?

WK: That’s a difficult question to answer, primarily because today’s technology pervasively impacts every member of the JEA team from the power plant operator to the customer care consultants, as well as every external customer both residential and commercial. Therefore, as we deploy technology, we need to better understand our employee’s diverse needs, especially when deploying a homogenous product such as Exchange 2007—and, particularly when it comes to training.

So I will “cheat” a little and say my one most important role as CIO is to develop and support a high performing technology services team by providing them the resources they need to meet both our internal and external customers’ needs.

UAE: What’s a typical day like for you?

WK: I am not sure I have had a typical predictable day since I was in high school. But, with that said, my routine has changed considerably since I first became the CIO of JEA [in 2000]. Back then, I was much more focused on putting out fires, communicating issues, apologizing to my customers and promising (while hoping, internally) that the incident would not happen again. Today, I have a great team in place, we have used process improvement tools such as six sigma, ITIL and CMMi to present our recurring services in a fairly repeatable fashion. Therefore, today, I am more focused on my executive role of spending time with my internal customers, partnering and finding ways to meeting their business needs using technology, understanding external customers’ needs, collaborating with CIO peers (both industry and non-industry specific) and supporting JEA’s mission to improve the quality of life in the community we serve through several not-for-profit board appointments.

UAE: What major projects are you personally working on right now?

WK: When Jim Dickenson became the CEO of JEA, his primary focus was operational excellence. Specifically for Technology Services, he requested that we prioritize our portfolio of products and services by critical business importance. This allowed our small team to focus our resources and attention on 12 out of 200 products and 459 services. Our five-year business plan is focused on these 12 systems that are universally considered critical for the efficient operation of JEA. (They are called essential systems.)

Each system has a three- to five-year strategic plan linked to the business that includes a recommended upgrade and expansion plan. Generally, I am most active in projects related to our essential systems, of which there are three this fiscal year: Maximo (maintenance planning system); upgrade to Oracle 7.x (ERP) and 12i; and jea.com Web site/interactive voice response (IVR) enhancement and alignment with our strategy.

UAE: What’s the biggest compliance issue on your plate at the moment?

WK: Well until the Northeast blackout happened, I would have said IT security, and, after the blackout, my opinion has not changed. The critical infrastructure protection requirements of NERC are well aligned with our present and future strategy, and we are working hard to ensure we are compliant.

UAE: Your CEO, Jim Dickenson, wrote an open letter to JEA customers in June discussing rising fuel costs and how to conserve energy to offset some of that. Have you implemented energy conservation changes in your department in response to that letter?

WK: Technology Services supports JEA’s community responsibility initiatives, focusing on energy conservation by looking for environmentally friendly solutions to technology problems. We are starting the second year of our “green initiative.” We leverage technology improvements that decrease energy use, reduce waste and show good stewardship of our natural resources.

Our standards for PCs include “80+” power supplies in new desktops increasing the energy efficiency of every new PC purchased, monitors that “sleep” after a period of inactivity and energy efficient flat panel monitors.

We have also focused on our server fleet (including server virtualization) to reduce our energy needs in our data center and have reconfigured our data center to have hot and cold zones saving even more energy. We have replaced our copying fleet with multi-functional machines that are more efficient to operate and use lower cost supplies, as well as setting our copying function default to front and back.

UAE: Do you see JEA’s investment in computer infrastructure expanding over the next five years, or are you at a spot where you’re simply “treading water”—replacing what’s needed but not really growing?

WK: JEA has been focused on operational excellence for the last four years. I expect this trend to continue, which means our focus will be doing what we presently do more effectively, replacing what’s needed. We believe our strategy of focusing on our 12 essential systems will allow us to get the best of both worlds: more functionality while adding very few additional servers. However, we are also starting to look for opportunities to use innovation to strategically differentiate ourselves, and so, from that perspective, where the business case shows return on investment, I envision we will have growth.

UAE: Give us a “look” at your department at JEA: how many employees, what they are working on right now, how their tasks break down.

WK: Technology Services has 114 permanent employees the remainder of our workforce (up to about 144) is either temporary or contract personnel. We support 2,500 employees. Again as mentioned earlier, our main focus is ensuring our 12 essential systems are meeting our customers’ needs. The largest project completed this fiscal year was an Exchange 2007 upgrade, which was very successful: on time, on budget and had positive customer satisfaction results.

UAE: If you could incorporate your dream set-up for your corner of JEA, what would that entail?

WK: I am living it: clear service level agreements with my customers, a five-year business plan incorporated into our capital budget, a next step desire to do more innovative work, and I report to the CEO. But, if I had to dream for more, I would like a less effective IT department to replace my team for a week!

UAE: There’s a lot of chatter in IT departments (and among CIOs) about service-oriented architecture (SOA), developing and integrating existing software to allow future “new” applications to be built with relatively low- or no-cost to start. Where are we now with the potential of SOA, and how feasible is SOA to bloom in the next few years and really be a viable function?

WK: I believe that next generation technologies need to have better, faster and cheaper integration, and, presently, SOA seems to be a potential solution. As more customers have access to WEB 2.0 functionality, there will be an expectation that service organizations can quickly update their technologies to meet a customer’s present needs without a nine month to a year project lag time. Furthermore, these needs will continue to become more customized to meet a specific customer’s preferences; no customer solution will be quite the same. Add to this the fact that the next generation (generation Y) has grown up with technology, and it is imperative that we have instantaneous, apparently seamless integration soon.

UAE: How much SOA functionality is built into JEA’s infrastructure?

WK: Technology Services has included SOA and Web services as our standard for solution architecture moving forward. We have completed a proof of concept, and the results met our business case expectations. We have recently brought the related tool sets (a combination of Oracle tools) and are planning on building a service bus with a few services to ensure better integration between our Maximo and Oracle systems, as well as more consistent service experiences between our customer interfaces through our Web site and IVR system.

UAE: In 2007, CIO magazine in the UK conducted a survey asking CIOs their top 10 concerns. (The results were: people leadership, managing budgets, business alignment, infrastructure refresh, security, compliance, resource management, managing customers, managing change and board politics.) What are your top ten concerns?

WK: I believe this list is as good as any.

UAE: Which concern ranks No. 1 and why?

WK: People leadership is my No. 1 focus. However, our initiative is called talent management—recruiting and keeping the right talent. As already mentioned, I believe we have a high performing team in a competitive market place. That, coupled with a utility aging workforce, means we have to continue to find ways to reinvigorate our present workforce, as well as attract new members to our team. However, we have a unique set of opportunities. Generally, utilities have not been considered an attractive place to work, although I believe this perception is slowly changing. Still, in concert with an environment in which our wages may not be considered too competitive (particularly municipals and coops) with other industries such as banking, we have a real dilemma.

UAE: What programs are you implementing to tackle that dilemma?

WK: We have created a three-fold initiative focused on talent management. First, we offer competitive, non-monetary benefits, including training opportunities, time to work on innovative projects, career plans/paths and various flexible work schedules. Secondly, we feature a coop/intern program that includes a four-year commitment through college, a job rotation and successively more responsibility. Thirdly, we have a process to capture wealth of information from soon-to-be retirees through knowledge transfer programs, wikis, job sharing and job shadowing.

UAE: What advice would you give other utility CIOs?

WK: I am not sure my advice would be any different than to another industry’s CIO: Know your customers, your team and your company’s strategy. Then, paint a picture that incorporates all three. Knowing both your internal and external customers’ needs will ensure you are effectively planning what they need today, as well as anticipating their future needs. I truly believe you are only as good as your team, and I have a great one. So, understanding the team’s needs, even if you can’t presently meet them, is also important. Strategy is the way you can take limited resources and make two plus two equal five.

UAE: How do you see the role of CIO evolving at utilities in general over the next few years?

WK: The CIO role can no longer be just a support service for the business; it is business. When a technology system is not working, then business does not happen. Therefore, technology will become part of the core competencies of utilities and CIOs will become respected partners reporting to the highest executive in the organization.

UAE: When you shut off your light and close the office door every night, are you thinking about what you accomplished during the day or what you need to accomplish the next day?

WK: Both. I believe understanding today, both the successes and opportunities, can help me better plan the greater successes of tomorrow. So whether it’s an employee that I am concerned about or a vendor that I believe can provide me greater insight, oftentimes this is what occupies my thoughts.

UAE: What were you thinking about as you left the office last night?

WK: Dinner. My homemade five-cheeses lasagna—and hoping my two boys (Aaron 10 and Joshua 8) had finished their homework before I picked them up from school. With a marriage of 23 years and three children, there’s little time to think about work once I leave JEA. My work thoughts are generally about relationships and strategy: how can I ensure better partnerships with the business, and what do we need to change about our strategies to ensure cost-effective and efficient deployment of our customers’ needs?

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