Having stumbled across a startup energy company created by some very smart investors six years ago, Bill Wilkins has built the tech function from nothing to one with a core operating platform on the same scale as the Big Six energy companies. He has combined that with a highly regarded customer engagement approach driven by automation, artificial intelligence and constant innovation.
Name and job title
Bill Wilkins, CIO and CTO, First Utility.
How are you influencing the products, experience and services your organisation offers to its customers?
As CIO, I lead a talented and experienced team that provides a scalable, robust and secure operating platform for the company that is capable of supporting our five-year expansion plans. As CTO, I lead a team of innovators who are building the two core capabilities of the company: a great digital platform for customers to manage their energy relationship with us, and automation and artificial intelligence to provide the best blend of low prices (thanks to lower operating costs) and great experience for our customers.
How as CIO have you driven cultural and behaviour change in your organisation and to what extent?
Our brand proposition is built upon an innovative approach to technology to improve the way a customer interacts with their energy supplier. The technology function has, as such, been heavily involved in defining that proposition and defining a culture to deliver on it. That includes aligning the formal organisation to the key goals of the company, separating out the management of our digital platforms from the optimisation of our operating platform and technology stack.
We support technological understanding across the business and ensure that we have the right relationships at multiple levels with the business. We softly support innovation and innovators across the business. A recent example was the formation of a proactive service delivery initiative within the technology group using a large number of data points to predict customers who might experience future issues; this has now evolved into a core part of the operational delivery across the organisation and engages a wide spectrum of business leaders who monitor and respond to the output of the platform with the benefit that fewer customers experience issues. The technology team led the development of this, engaged with business leaders and chaired the weekly review group, which has driven a more proactive stance across the whole company.
Define the key business outcomes that you have delivered over the past 12 months and their impact on your organisation's performance
We can categorise these into two key areas.
In 2015 as our new scale permitted, we have reorganised into a business-line organisation with separate technology teams supporting each of the strategic functions: marketing/sales, customer service/experience, core operations, etc. We have improved the scalability of our core operating platform so we can operate at the scale of our Big Six competitors – key when we're growing as consistently and quickly as we are. We have acquired technology company assets to ensure control of our core platforms. We have established an owned, nearshore R&D centre in Poland to access a new talent pool and support our expansion plans. We have added new platform capabilities to support our new telecoms product offerings. We have incubated and matured the business/operational team which developed the processes to support the new core billing and invoicing platform.
We have maintained our top-place rankings in mobile digital engagement store ratings and customer surveys.
Describe how you have used organisational and third-party information to provide insight that has benefited your organisation, its customers and products or services
Our data analytics and insights team has seen significant investment and I have attracted a new leader for this group, who will develop it much further. This group provides traditional MIS/BI reporting capabilities to support the core operational teams, but has also grown a new insights capability, researching complex data sets to explore how we can optimise our business further. Such analysis is allowing us to perform deep segmentation based on real customer data to allow us to improve the way we interact with customers and optimise our sales and marketing strategies and operations.
Describe how you organise and operate IT and how this aligns effectively with business strategy and operations
We entered 2015 using a traditional align, build and run organisation with enterprise architecture and data (align) functionally separated from software engineering (build) and IT operations (run). Our new scale has given us the opportunity to evolve into a more business-aligned model. Now we have distinct teams that support marketing and sales, customer experience and service, and our core operations teams. This leads to improved understanding of the specific needs of each group and better alignment of needs and capabilities. I have maintained IT operations and data analytics and insights as separate cross-cutting teams in part due to scale restrictions but also as there is value in sharing assets (particularly data) between business lines, thereby preventing data silos.
Describe your role in the development of digital strategy in your organisation
We are a digital business that happens to sell an expensive commodity and invest a high proportion of our revenue to make sure we build online capabilities that improve the experience of our customers and support our lower cost to serve model. I have three direct reports that lead different elements of this digital platform: customer service delivery (includes our AI engine and contact management platforms), digital retail (mobile, sales, acquisition and online self-service), My Energy (our consumer energy engagement platform).
Describe how you use and promote technology to redesign the processes, services and structures of your organisation to enable it to become more efficient and customer-focused
The mission of our team is to work on ways to improve customer experience or reduce our cost to serve. Six direct reports in my organisation carry a significant responsibility for delivering, with their business counterparts, a more efficient operating platform for the business.
The customer service delivery team is investigating better contact management technologies across digital and voice channels, extending to artificial intelligence systems to allow us to respond more quickly and accurately. The digital retail team is constantly looking at how to promote new business processes to our online platform, improving the experience of customers by reducing contacts and improving response times.
The core platform team invests with the business to identify the next set of processes that can be augmented and improved by automation or data. The data team analyses customer behaviour to identify new product opportunities or better digital intervention strategies. Finally the IT operations team optimise our portfolio of systems and vendors to ensure that we buy the right technologies at the best possible price point.
How do you engage regularly with your organisation about your team and the role of technology in the organisation, and what impact is this having?
Our team is formally organised to support our major business lines/functions. However, within that formal organisation we have established multiple special interest groups and communities that discuss a wide range of topics. Google, Google+, discussion boards and Confluence support these initiatives, but the software team in particular has had a lot of success with old-fashioned "brown bag sessions", which are sessions held by staff to talk about special interests they are passionate about. Research days and projects help foster a culture which accepts that technology is core to our current and future success.
How do you use social networks to engage in conversations across the industry about the opportunities and challenges technology is creating?
Our experience is that there is marginal value in subject-matter forums on social media platforms.
How do you bring the organisation together to explore and discuss technology and its challenges and to develop stronger alignment of the technology function with the full business?
Our formal organisational model, with business and technology aligned, promotes this naturally. Technology leaders are part of the line-of-business senior management teams and represent their functions in the forums within the business functions. Projects and programmes are pursued in a shared, open working environment where business and technologist sit together and collaborate on the outcome.
Describe how you keep up to date with developments in technology and IT management
We have a core technical product management (TPM) and enterprise architecture (EA) team that curates product roadmaps for the major platform assets. This team does independent research and works with vendors and analysts to review markets and competition. Each technology leader manages their own portfolio of technologies and vendors to watch.
As new business capabilities are required, projects are formed and technology requirements emerge, business stakeholders and project delivery organisations are supported by the TPM/EA functions to ensure alignment with current platforms (reuse is key to maintaining costs and complexity at manageable levels) and optionally support buy/build/blend opportunities. This may sound like a lengthy and overly formal process but it is not; there is sufficient continuous discussion about platforms and technologies that we seldom find ourselves lacking potential solutions to a problem.
Provide an example of how you have developed the diversity and improved the culture of your team
Gender and cultural diversity is something we monitor and track as part of our human resource management processes. Within technology we have a good mix of representation both male, female and across cultures. Last year we expanded to operate in four countries, which aids cultural diversity. Specifically, the senior technology leadership team is around 30%/70% female/male.
Describe how you collaborate and influence the organisation and its leadership team
Collaboration and influence happens through engagement at multiple levels within the organisation, from board meetings through business operational reviews, financial planning, product development meetings, project steering groups, one-to-one meetings and mentoring through to listening to customer calls in our call centre. We have an open culture reflected by everyone being in an open plan office from the CEO down. This supports open communication and the free flow of information. Collaboration tools such as Google Apps and Hangouts facilitate collaboration, making it simple for groups to communicate and share.
Tell us how you have developed your own management, leadership and personal skills
My background was on the supply side of the industry, originally working in the R&D group of a banknote printing company as an electronics engineer researching high-precision laser scanning and etching technologies. I learnt the basics of working in R&D there. I moved to Sun as a technical support engineer after experiencing the transformative effects of their platforms in our ECAD team. Sun was a fast-paced place to learn about technology and I got the opportunity to work with many clients in the banking and trading community in London. This gave me a broad experience of how different companies use technology and how different client management teams saw it as either a basic need or a lever for business value.
I moved from Sun to a technical marketing function in a system integration business supporting the introduction of Sun technology to replace a proprietary system. I learnt a lot about how disruptive new technologies can be for established businesses and how insiders may impede progress as it impacts on their personal goals or just changes the way things had been.
The role developed into supporting the business development director in managing a portfolio of software businesses. From there I got the opportunity to work in LA to turn around the fortunes of one of those software businesses in the position of CTO. Using that experience I moved to other software engineering roles until the business I was at (SeeBeyond) got acquired by Sun where I worked, based in LA, leading the enterprise integration/service-bus and related messaging products (ESB).
When Sun was to be acquired by Oracle I moved back to the UK to work as an interim, where I stumbled across this startup energy company created by some very smart investors and I stayed. I cannot understate how I feel I have benefited from the broad experience of industries and functions that I have been lucky enough to explore. In each of those roles there has been one or two folks you look back on, and you know they have taught you things that make you what you are today. The trouble is there are so many it is hard to isolate specific elements to specific mentors. That process does not end and I constantly learn from others.
What new technologies are you investigating, tracking or experimenting with?
AI, analytics using a wide range of techniques (including NoSQL), IoT, automation and wearables are all things we are either doing or continue to explore today. Another area would be image recognition and video detection.
How do you decide where to apply the best technological approach?
Through applying a set of basic questions around the capabilities that are new and required: will the new capability provide us with long-term differentiation or a competitive barrier so that direct investment by us to build will pay dividends? If yes, then we consider building. Does it exist as a product or open source project that we can acquire at a reasonable price? If yes, then consider buying. If neither of the above is clear, then we explore options to partner in building or "blending" bought and built components to achieve a suitable outcome.
Do you give yourself and your team time each month to assess or learn about technology vendors outside of the established providers?
Yes, both formally (through research days and projects) and informally as our teams are encouraged to look for new and better ways to solve problems. However, we do not spoon-feed this opportunity. Folks that want to do this will and there is soft encouragement from the leadership team.
Describe your sourcing strategy and your strategic suppliers
We source directly and have recently introduced formal procurement processes. We work with a small crop of strategic vendors and have significant contracts with them. It is not easy to become a vendor but once you are there we tend to invest for the long term. We constantly review standing contracts for value for money and whether they deliver the expected level of business value.
Describe the technology innovations that you have introduced in the past year and what they have enabled
My Energy is a consumer energy engagement platform released into GA (it was in alpha/beta in 2014). It provides content and tools to help consumers understand their energy spend, and data shows those that use it have significantly lower churn rates.
Video meter reads was launched in 2015 to make it easier for those with mobile phones and our app to submit meter reads just by holding the phone camera to the meter. It is still in its early stages and being trained on the wide range of meter types, but it does make the experience better for many consumers and signposts our desire to continue to innovate. Internally we replaced our core meter read management system, moving from an Oracle-based solution to a Cassandra/DataStax platform with significant improvements in speed and scale.
What strategic technology deals have been struck and with whom? What uniquely do they bring?
We replaced our cloud-based voice platform and have secured a three-year deal with LiveOps provided by Unify Communications. We have also engaged UK-based software company Utilisoft to support the extension of our platform to support the UK government's Smets2 smart metering programme. Acquisition of core software assets and staff will become independent on key elements of core platform.
Rank in order of importance your sources for innovative technology suppliers
1 Analyst houses. 2 Media. 3 CIO peers. 4 Industry body. 5 Consultants.
Has your organisation detected a cyber intrusion in the last 12 months?
Is cyber security led and discussed by senior management?
When did you start your current role?
What is your reporting line?
What is the annual IT budget?
How much of your IT budget is capital and how much revenue?
Around 20% capex, 80% opex.
What is your budget's operational/development split?
Around 35% run, 65% build/innovate.
How many users does your department supply services to?
Are you finding it difficult to recruit the talent you need to drive transformation?
Has recruitment and retention risen up your agenda as a CIO?
Does your IT organisation operate an apprenticeship scheme?
How many employees are there in your IT team?
Are you increasing your headcount to bring skills and the ability to react to needs in-house?
What is the split between in-house/outsourced staff?