The technology orchestrator
- 27 October, 2014 09:17
Stephen Wilson, CIO, Sydney Water
Sydney Water’s Stephen Wilson isn’t like many Australian CIOs. For a start, he commenced his career as a market economist, moving through analyst, marketing and sales roles before taking up a post leading customer-facing technology innovation for a medical manufacturer.
He’s also never held a pure IT operations role, leaping straight to head of technology. Not surprising then, that he firmly believes CIOs can only be successful if they’re strategic business leaders.
“The first thing a CIO needs to do is understand the business they’re in deeply. If you don’t understand the business, you’re never going to add real value,” Wilson claims.
That doesn’t, however, mean ignoring day-to-day priorities. “I’m definitely in the strategic, business influence camp of CIOs, but you still have to keep the lights on and you have to run them efficiently and effectively,” Wilson tells CIO.
“Our role here at Sydney Water is to show we can do that, reliably and at least cost. There is always that tension and it is good tension to have. Anyone can have great ideas, but it’s the execution that matters. To do this, I have to have people in my team who are the experts in their field and who I can rely on heavily.”
Building a career vision
Wilson commenced his career as a market economist for Johnson & Johnson Medical, progressing through market analysis to product and sales management roles. An opportunity then arose as marketing director for Dick Smith’s Computer Stop stores driving sales of the new Cat Apple 2E and Challenger IBM PC clones. Given his interest in technology, Wilson jumped at it.
A request from the managing director of J&J Medical saw Wilson return to build an information systems division providing new capabilities for selling products into hospitals. First cab off the rank was an automated ordering system and electronic product catalogue.
“We updated the products and imagery over the telephone line and a hospital could go in, aggregate an order, and get back an answer on pricing and stock,” he recalls.
Five years later, Wilson was asked to run all technology for Johnson & Johnson Medical, and sent overseas for two years training. Under his leadership, the unified team not only managed back-end infrastructure, it also developed systems for customers around consignment inventory.
“About 70 per cent of business was coming through these systems, so it was pretty transformational,” he says.
In 1998, Wilson took his first CIO role in Miami at J&J subsidiary, Kordia, and spent several years overseas before becoming VP of IT for J&J’s pharmaceutical group for Asia-Pacific, Japan and Latin America.
But with travel becoming an issue, he switched tack and joined the Department of Education and Training in NSW as CIO on a five-year contract.
Public sector dilemma
The biggest difference moving into public sector was the “overwhelmingly” unstructured nature of the role, Wilson says. “I’d come from an extremely disciplined environment, where the processes and the rhythm of the way we did business was well thought through,” he says.
“We did our business planning twice a year, had strap plans, budgets and reports that all looked the same. At the Department of Education, it was issue management day by day.
“If you’re in IT operations you’re used to that, but I’d gone straight to leading teams. It took me a couple of years to realise what I had to do was go out on the front foot and shape that environment.”
And that’s exactly what he did. Wilson attributes his influence over three consecutive ministers to his ability to set a clear vision for what technology could achieve.
A highlight of his time with NSW DET was the Connect Classrooms project, which brought videoconferencing, interactive whiteboards and higher bandwidth into classrooms across the state. The project remains one of the largest videoconferencing projects in the southern hemisphere.
At DET, Wilson had 1500 IT employees overseeing their own data centre and communications hub.
“I spent a lot of my time out in the trenches, working with principals and other groups including the minister and chief of staff, trying to win them over and to stop doing things just because that’s the way they had always been done,” he comments.
As CIO, Wilson says it was vital to determine what the unique value proposition was for technology in education and stick to it.
“I was convinced it was to wire everybody up, give them everything they needed at the lowest possible cost, and standardise the environment so they could share IP, lessons, and have students collaborating with each other so it wasn’t 2200 isolated schools,” he says. “The power of the network would then come together.
“Everything I did was aimed at that.”
Wilson joined Sydney Water two years ago and says he was attracted to the corporate vision of CEO, Kevin Young.
“I’d come off a couple of years at Qantas where it was tough, things were under constant change and the business conditions weren’t great,” he says. “I wanted to re-engage with an organisation that really wanted to leverage technology and it’s proven to be true.”
Wilson’s first priority was to refresh the IT strategy and gain board approval. This would then be the vehicle for pursuing the right technology and skills. He claims it’s important CIOs get to the heart of what technology can do for a business and understand the key challenges and environmental factors.
Wilson’s 2013-2017 IT strategy, which was approved last May and is revised on an annual basis, talks about alignment to customer focus, business excellence and forward thinking – all key components of the wider corporate strategy. It then details five dominant elements driving technology capability and excellence: Information, mobility, cloud, integration, and identity and security.
With regards to cloud, Wilson says products and services considered a commodity that could run in the cloud, are being moved. “Anything we want to be very good at, we want to hold close to us and invest in,” he says.
This approach is also helping to slash money spent on maintenance. According to Wilson, Sydney Water spent 15 per cent of its total IT budget on maintenance of applications of servers in 2013-2014 – a figure down to 7 per cent in 2014/2015. Dollars allocated to the information area, meanwhile, have risen from 12 to 20 per cent, and cloud from 14 to 21 per cent.
“If you look at the changes to the job roles and where they are focusing, it’s all behind the strategy,” he adds.
Mobility is one of the biggest pieces of Wilson’s strategy, and he notes most of Sydney Water’s workforce is mobile today. The IT team is introducing Office 365 and Lync, and by the end of the year will have put email in the cloud. Employees can stream to up to five devices at home or at work.
The group has already implemented BYOD for phones and tablets, allowing Sydney Water to bring an iPad to work and connect through a mobile device management platform to receive corporate email and contacts.
Simultaneously, Windows Phone 8 smartphones have been rolled out across the organisation. Previously, the group had 700 ‘dumb phones’. He cites the seamless integration with Microsoft SharePoint and Office applications as key reasons for choosing the Windows 8 platform.
“We have about 1400 of the devices now so for the first time, we have equipped all field staff with these phones,” he explains. “The total cost of ownership of the whole fleet only went up by 7 per cent. And what we gave people is not just a smartphone, access to email and contacts but more importantly, data.
“Employees could take photos of incidents or unsafe things and report them immediately. We also targeted an app for safety reporting and put it on the Windows 8 phone.”
Wilson says the next test to see if mobility further allows staff to do their jobs better when Sydney Water shifts to Office 365. “If there’s no difference between Windows and another platform, we might ultimately say they can get anything they want as long as they use it in these parameters,” he says.
Wilson is also a great believer in the CIO as a contributor to great customer experiences. “The whole executive is focused on customers and we believe the success of this organisation will be determined on how much customers really value us and our products and services,” he comments.
“Let’s not mince words: Most people don’t think about their water service, and it’d be a mistake for us to say ‘our mission is to try and make you think about it’. What we want to do is be there when they need us, service the request as quickly and effectively as possible, and provide high quality but reasonable or low-cost service.”
One area of focus is customer-oriented mobile apps. Sydney Water has formed a new cross-functional team including individuals from IT and customer service and delivery to determine the best way forward.
“The customer app being tested was driven by the customer division, but we also have a safety app that has been driven by the people, leadership and culture division with service delivery; and we have a leak detection reporting initiative” Wilson continues.
“These are being brought together under a new group which is going to determine how we go forward with a centralised customer app strategy. It’s not just IT. We all work for the customer.”
Sydney Water is using its Windows 8 devices to beta test the customer app, with plans to expand to iOS and Android phones later this year.
Next up: Information intelligence
Like most of his peers, Wilson is increasingly relying on data and information assets to find new efficiencies. In 2011, the organisation implemented a ‘business intelligence’ program to look at asset performance information over time.
While sensors already stretched across the water network and data was being collected, no one previously looked at it, Wilson says.
“We put it into data warehouses, brought on data analysts to look at it, and you can see immediately if there is a problem with a pump that had been overworking while another is fine. Yet when we do a service, we’d service both pumps,” he says.
Wilson admits the work to date has largely been after the event. “In the future, virtually everything we buy will have a sensor and it’s going to tell you how it’s working, feeling, the level it is working at and when it’s getting out of range,” he claims.
“We’re going to be able to predict and act on information before an issue arises. We’re rapidly moving towards that at Sydney Water.”
In 2013, Sydney Water kicked-off a pilot project with NICTA to analyse water main fails over a 10-year period. The work combines machine data with traffic conditions, weather, soil type and other variables to help Sydney Water better predict what will happen in the next year.
“They were able to predict very accurately what was going to happen and where we should put our money,” Wilson says.
“We have hydrants every 80 metres in our system, so if we take this to the logical extreme, we could put a sensor in every one and monitor the water pressure and noise between each.
"We will get a report in the future where it’ll say something has change – we can hear something, it’s a small leak – and we need to go an investigate. If it’s something that needs to be attended to, we have the ability to fix it before it bursts and water gets to the surface.
“The money that saves the community is unbelievable. Water main breaks are very big disruptions, and can be catastrophic.”
Sydney Water also runs a massive water network interconnected by pumping stations and Wilson is talking to strategy and operational technology groups about how data can improve this area as well. In this case, he wants IT to work with the line-of-business teams so they control the analytics capability and correlated more data sources.
“That’s the big trick – half the time you don’t know what the magic thing is going to be or gives you the answer that produces the most value,” Wilson says.
With an abundance of bright people, most of which are engineers, managing Sydney Water’s IT capability is both dynamic and challenging, he adds. “We have a lot of people experimenting and doing things differently, which is great, but it’s difficult to get them all going in the same direction,” Wilson says.
Just like his time with DET, Wilson says it’s vital he continues to push an IT vision that keeps up with their needs. “The trick is to sell a compelling vision and to have people buy in on that and give you the licence to start to execute on it.”
Wilson’s key CIO attributes
- Understand the business you’re in deeply. “If you don’t understand the business, you’re never going to add real value.”
- Be a leader. “This is more than just having opinions and saying what they are, it’s about building consensus and inspiring people to come along. It takes patience and you need to change your style when necessary. You need to have great relationships with your peers and you need to have trust. That gives you a licence to play.”
- You have to embrace risk.
- You must have great people.
- You have to have sound judgment, and make decisions. “Sometimes those aren’t going to be popular, but should be ones people believe are considered. That takes a lot of experience.”