We’re back with one of our favorite women in tech (aside from me, of course), Katherine Kountze! This powerhouse has been quite the successful leader in tech as she won the 2017 Boston CIO of the Year ORBIE Award for Enterprise as the Senior VP and CIO of Eversource and effectively spearheaded a merger between six different operating companies. Holy cow was that a task! Check out her insight on the merger process and its challenges below as well as her thoughts on design thinking, data analytics, and data protection.
KM: What is something cool or unique that you are working on at Eversource?
KK: Well, about three to four years ago, we went through a merger. I was the CIO of NSTAR, but now it is Eversource which is fortunate or unfortunate, Kim, it depends on the day [laughs]. It’s really lucky as a CIO to be a part of something that really makes a big impact. You know, you get to keep the lights on and everything and there are projects and such and there are some challenges there, but to get to do something that changes the entire direction of the company, it’s really a critical shift in the way we are doing business, you know it’s a really unique and challenging experience. We merged six operating companies into one. It goes from being cool to the worst thing I have ever done. I mean we’re taking two or three massive systems like HR and supply chain and payroll to one platform. It’s very complex, you know, we have twenty five year old mainframe systems that we somehow have to combine all into one. It’s how to bring technology together, but also the people challenge you even more. You’ve got two sides all with different mindsets and they both like their products. I hear them and I say, “Great. I’m glad you like your product, but now we have to move”. Not only is it a new product, it’s new ways of doing business processes. They’re used to their products and the ways that they have been doing things and they like their product and the way they operate, but we have to move, we have to change to a unified one. It’s over the top, ridiculously challenging. At the same time, Kim, it’s the most rewarding, celebrate with pops of champagne feeling ever. Supply chain rolled in this weekend, and the woman who manages that, you would have thought we’d given her a million dollars, she was so excited. It is really worth the long journey. As challenging as it is the reward is just as much.
KM: It does sound incredibly difficult as I imagine these old systems weren’t designed to interact or integrate with each other.
KK: Yes! No, they are certainly not made to communicate with one another.
KM: Though it is so rewarding, is this the biggest challenge you’re facing as CIO? The complications of merging these systems and people?
KK: Well, I would say the biggest challenge in this industry is change management. We are imposing change into the organization with all initiatives that we do. Specifically, one of the challenges in this industry is ten-year. A lot of utility people start straight out of high school, so our ten-year average is 24-25 years old. More challenging is that ten-year for the IT group is almost the same, which is really challenging with evolving technology. Technology is changing so fast even in these last ten years that their ten-year is based on. It’s hard when you have people who are still thinking back in those years. You know, we’re the change agent as the IT department. I feel my job is to go out and promote change transformation to help support the vision of the CEO, and that can be really tough if people on your team aren’t natural change agents. The people can be way more challenging than the technology because it can be hard to teach them to understand what this change means or why it is an improvement.
KM: What recent technologies or trends have you seen lately that you think are important to pay attention to? On the flipside, are there any trends that you think won’t be around for long or shouldn’t be trending?
KK: We actually just finished a weeklong workshop around design thinking. It’s really a different way of standing up solutions and touch points. It is focused on designing solutions and products based on user experience. It might seem basic and I know the idea has been around for a little while, but it’s a new way of thinking for us. I tried to describe it to my staff as, and I don’t know if this is totally accurate, but as best as I can I describe it, as, okay Kim can ask for a report, and you know, we make it and it may have all the information you need and all the information Kim asked for, but when we give it out, Kim can’t see it easily. The information might be there, but it’s not a clear format or it’s in a format that doesn’t really make sense, it’s not intuitive, not easy. Or, we can sit and try to give the user an experience that’s easy to read, easy to understand. All of the information is still there, but it is a better experience. So that’s a new process, teaching the team to produce that experience. I really think it’s going to be the future for most organizations for products and solutions for both employees and customers. We are improving the touch points for the customers like our work on the website. I think this really is a big change, my peers are shifting as well towards this way of thinking.
Another big one is anything data analytics, analyzing structured data. I absolutely think it is needed. To understand what customers are doing, where are they going, where they are getting stuck, on what website pages, where they are spending the most time, I think it’s huge in a lot of industries, most industries, fashion, for example. Then you have people on the other end of the spectrum, saying data is an answer to everything. I think that companies’ technology people need to determine what end of the spectrum they’re on. It’s not one stop shopping.
Another more on the fence is artificial intelligence. It’s talked about a lot now. For some industries it probably is a need, but we need to take a step back first and really look at it, and companies need to see whether it applies to their own organization and to what degree. I think the use and implementation for some companies could be huge, but for others it might not make sense to use it as much.
KM: How are you using data analytics for the utility industry?
KK: We use it for understanding customers better. Data analytics is key for that. We use it to improve the website and touch points, you know, are people having a good or bad experience when they come to our site? With analytics we can see, where they are spending the most time? Then we look at that and say, so maybe we should be focusing most of our marketing on those pages because they are reaching the most people. Or is it a negative experience and something’s wrong with that page that makes them stay on it for so long? Do we need to go in and fix that page? So it really helps us look deeper into what is happening with our customers and where we might want to focus or change what we have out there.
We also use data analytics to look at energy usage for our customers. How they are using their energy, where they are pulling most of their energy, and at what time of day? It really helps us with understanding demand, you know we might have a 90 degree day in Boston, which of course is different than 2am on a 60 degree night and the energy usage we see there. So understanding patterns is really something we can benefit from with data analytics. And there’s the introduction of electric vehicles, which will probably change things so data analytics can help us with that and predicting and measuring the impacts there. It helps us forecast and prepare for different effects on the grid. And to a smaller degree, data analytics is the same for employees’ engagement as our customers’, you know, we want to attract talent. We want to use it to improve our services. We want to see our employees, you know, do they like it? Do we need to put up more information? Or less? It can definitely help with that.
KM: Have you adopted the cloud?
KK: Yes, we have certainly adopted the cloud. We have a hybrid model right now, a mixture of onprem and in the cloud. We do not have a cloud first approach, as some companies would call it, or do, but as we are looking at new solutions, we get information on both models. We don’t just look at cloud, we still look at both options to see what makes sense for us, but we defer to cloud unless it’s not mature enough or security is not quite there yet. The only exception to that is anything critical to the utility industry, you know, we need to keep the lights on. We would never put grid monitoring in the cloud because I’m just not comfortable enough yet with that. Maybe in a few years it will get good enough, I’ll get comfortable enough with that, but not now. It’s not ready yet. Some of our unique utility solutions, like transportation, that are unique to the industry are not available in cloud yet either, so we don’t do those, but things like HR are in cloud. We just launched Microsoft 365 cloud service, our website architecture is sitting in the cloud, you know, we have done a lot where we could and where strategically it made the most sense for our industry.
KM: What are the biggest challenges you are facing moving into the cloud?
KK: The biggest challenges are change management and, after that, convincing leadership that we should and that it probably actually is more secure to move into the cloud although it might not seem like it. You know, finance organizations can hire expensive security people and things, but we don’t have that attraction or even the ability to bring on anyone with that level of sophistication. We have a very strong group, but not quite as strong as those that can spend millions of dollars on people. Also with leadership, once they saw how quickly the implementations go, faster than on prem implementations ever could, and that everything, so far, knock on wood, is going smoothly in the cloud, then they started to be convinced. So the challenge was really a change in mindset. IT is not the focus of the challenge as much as the people like I said before.
KM: So looking at your data protection strategy, what’s your biggest concern?
KK: Security, well I’m not going to give away our crown jewels, but we’re focused on what’s happening with market intel related to breaches, in our industry even more so. We are actually considered a critical infrastructure organization so our security staff have secret clearance for intel from the government as do I, which gives us access to one level up of information sooner, and really even more information than most other industries get. So we are close to government entities, we also work with third parties. Secureworks is helping us monitor security, looking for synergies or overlap and giving us a heads up as to where those are, or what we should look out for. Besides basics with the right tools and blocking, you know, like our firewall, our focus is around intel. We need to get information about the bad guys as soon as possible. We stay heavily focused as a company, we have a team that just focuses on emergency response. IT is separate from it, but we are always practicing drills, assuming that we will be breached, and if so, we are then ready for response mode to minimize business disruption and minimize outage if it happens as much as possible. We actually use a similar approach as we do for lightning storm outages, weather, we don’t quite know about impact and how big it’s going to be before, like if lightning strikes will it hit nothing? Will it hit just a neighborhood or will it knock out an entire city? We don’t know before, so just be ready for anything is our strategy. The downside with cyber security is that is doesn’t come with a weather warning. That is really the biggest challenge or scare. For CIOs the potential is the one real thing that keeps us up at night because it comes from nowhere. It doesn’t come with a warning, you start hearing about it either during or after. All we can do is just look for indicators. It is the thing I hate the most about my job. You know, a data breach with information is bad enough, monetary is hard, it hurts our reputation, I mean there are ways to mitigate people, but the bigger fear for us is the grid. It is everything, we protect and surround it as much as we can to make sure it is never impacted. We call it our crown jewel.
KM: What’s your favorite question to ask in an interview?
KK: Well that depends on who I am interviewing. You, Kim, I would ask about your childhood, what are you doing right now, and why you like it/dont like it, what you do personally more likely at your age. Or, if you have the experience, work.
Peers are a totally different story, it’s funny, we really pummel each other with questions like kindergarteners when we’re all in a room together. It’s quite entertaining to watch when we all get together like that. For those discussions I will always ask around vendors and rolling out big projects. I’ll ask them what are you looking for in a partner? Why do you like them? What is your strategy? And the pros and cons? Some people choose to stay loyal to one vendor because they get the most amazing treatment because they dedicate their resources to that one vendor and that vendor knows it. But others pick and choose from vendors for the separate best technologies or services. So I really ask about that because I’m asking myself, you know, do I explore many different providers so I can get the best service that each provides? Or do I, you know, bite the bullet and stick with one so I can be a loyal customer and they will be loyal to me? Then I ask them about things we touched upon earlier, you know a lot of the things you asked me about like what are you doing with data analytics? Then what do you do to keep business partners from bugging you about all of the thousands of the latest things in IT? [laughs]
Well, I would love to be around to see this “pummeling” as I think one could always learn a lot from all of the leaders in the IT world, but surely even more when the rigorous questioning comes from within. With more and more interviews, it is clear that CIOs are quite innovative and knowledgeable, and Katherine Kountze here has been no exception. It’s quite a feat to spearhead drastic change for your team’s entire strategy, and to use personalization and data analytics to do so is even more impressive. Check back soon for more data driven interviews!