The Grill: Energy Plus CIO Hugh Scott

This utility firm CIO made a quick decision to take his business into the cloud.

CIO Hugh Scott decided to move to the cloud just a few months after joining Energy Plus Holdings, in January 2011. His quick decision highlights the fast pace of IT today and illustrates how important it is for new CIOs to hit the ground running. To date, Scott has expanded his IT team from 25 to 50 people and moved core applications to the cloud using SunGard Availability Services. He has also brought his own management style to his new role at Philadelphia-based Energy Plus, a fast-growing online energy services company with 185,000 customers in eight states. Here, he talks about what it takes to move into a new leadership position and carry IT operations forward.

What was your strategy for a successful transition into your new role? I had a rough 100-day plan, and at the top of my list was to establish a working relationship with my peers and counterparts, to get myself out there and understand their business and their pain points and problems, and really understand what they were looking for from a technology and operations standpoint. Goal No. 2 was to get my head around the capabilities of the team. You inherit a team, and it's easy to do nothing or get rid of everyone and start from scratch. But the reality is you probably want to do something between those two, and it's difficult to find out what the right team is for the job.

And the third thing I wanted to do, I had to figure out who were our strategic partners in the vendor community. I spent time meeting as many of our vendors as possible and trying to formulate who I wanted to do business with and who was going to be a distraction. And I synthesized those three things into a plan.

What was the biggest challenge you faced as you moved into the position? Energy Plus had been looking to fill this position for a period of time. They deliberately delayed making decisions until I started. So you walk through the doors and find yourself having to make quick decisions without having the luxury of finding out all the facts first.

How did you handle that? [I went] with my instincts. That's where experience kicks in. It's not blind instincts, but you've got to go with, "This is something I dealt with before, and this is how it worked out." Sometimes you get it right, and sometimes you don't.

Why did you move to cloud computing? One of the things I had to decide on was new hardware. I had a purchase order for [$500,000]. I looked at that and asked, "Why are we doing this?" And one thing I was conscious of when I looked at the talents of the team was we didn't have any bench strength from the perspective of technology operations, as in the infrastructure. Cloud was the buzz at that particular moment, so it was advantageous to use from a staffing standpoint. And the big business problem I identified was that we had to build a very scalable platform very quickly. We're growing very rapidly, and my job as CIO is to provide a platform that will scale with our business, and I saw leveraging the cloud was a solution to a number of our challenges.

You say cloud computing requires a shift in mindset. What do you mean by that? You find this through adversity. We had challenges with our initial deployment. I was talking about some of the challenges, and people were keen to remind me that it was my decision to deploy our website to the cloud. It's tempting to point fingers and blame your partner, [but] my experience is that that might make you feel good in the short term but it doesn't solve the problem. I'd much rather work with someone who is willing and able and prepared to work beside you to get the problem solved, and the way to do that is to build up a partnership and not beat someone up.

What problems did you encounter? We had outages. Six or eight weeks into the deployment, I got a call on a Saturday that the website was down for 10 minutes. That's 10 minutes we're not taking enrollments. We automatically assumed it was SunGard, because that was the variable that changed. And SunGard was really fantastic about working with us. It turned out that when we were deploying, we inadvertently deployed some malware. It was something we did to ourselves, and the reason I talk about partnership is that SunGard did a stellar job working with us and they actually found the problem. I believe if I yelled and screamed at them from the top of my voice, they'd be less motivated to do that.

What benefits did cloud computing provide for your organization? Scale. It's really the ability to scale quickly. I know a lot of people talk about saving money -- and, yeah, it could be more cost-competitive over the medium to long term, and that is important -- but to me, it's about scale.

How do you build your team? Table stakes in a technology organization is understanding technology. So there are some fundamental skills you have to have. If you assume that everyone you talk to has those skills, the added value that you look for when you hire are people who are savvy, are interested in the business -- interested in Energy Plus -- and are able and capable of interacting with people outside their sphere of expertise. If you bring those people on, then you have to articulate a clear vision and clear goals within that vision. I think people respond very well to that direction. Then you let them get on with it. People rise to the challenge.

-- Interview by Computerworld contributing writer Mary K. Pratt (marykpratt@verizon.net)

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