IT workforce of the future
Q&A with American Municipal Power’s Branndon Kelley
Published In: Intelligent Utility September / October 2011
BRANNDON KELLEY, CIO AT AMERICAN MUNICIPAL POWER, based in Columbus, Ohio, is well-known for articulating the issues faced by CIOs in an era of change. Kelley says that CIOs need to be "champions of change," one of the themes of the upcoming Knowledge2011 Utility Executive Summit, Nov. 7-9.
In this Q&A, Kelley talks about generational issues in the workforce, the qualities he looks for in an IT recruit and preserving institutional knowledge as industry veterans retire.
INTELLIGENT UTILITY What are the workplace and personnel issues you deal with as a CIO?
KELLEY IT in general is experiencing a generation gap between the so-called "Millennials" who are just starting in the workforce, really gung ho and very optimistic about the technology, and the more seasoned workforce that wants to be sure that things work and are thorough in testing. You need new ideas as much as you need the discipline. Yet when you bring those two mindsets together at the table it can create real conflict.
To be competitive, in my department, we have to embrace new technology such as hosted services, software-as-a-service and "the cloud," potentially. Even when the right security measures are in place, seasoned IT people may be against that. Yet we cannot just walk into these new technologies blindly. As we lose seasoned IT people, that concerns those of us in charge of the integrity of systems.
We need to find a happy medium. It's really up to leadership to lead the charge.
INTELLIGENT UTILITY The world has changed tremendously since seasoned IT folks learned their craft.
KELLEY This new generation coming up is all about instant communications, texting, Facebook. To them, problems are solved with a reset button. The "dream team" for me is a happy mix - you want new ideas, yet you also want sophistication and maturity.
INTELLIGENT UTILITY Workers, their tools and the work environment have all changed. The IT department has to support a mobile workforce, sometimes with 24/7 responsibilities.
KELLEY That's right. People want to bring their own devices to the organization - smartphones, tablets, every gadget possible in order to do their job - and their work day may be eight hours, but it's strung out across various locations. So it's up to CIO leadership to respond and provide secure support. That's driving what I call the "consumerization of IT."
INTELLIGENT UTILITY Personal computing and personal communications have certainly changed expectations, haven't they?
KELLEY When I got into IT in 1999, they had better technology at work than I had at home - the computers were newer, the Internet was faster. Today, the technology at work is struggling to keep pace with the technology at home. For the generation just entering the workforce, they've been completely surrounded by that technology. If they need new software they're accustomed to just double-click and it's downloaded to their system. No bureaucracy. They come in here and say, "I can do better if you just give me the control." The more seasoned IT people will say, "We need to control security - the reputation of IT lies in the integrity of the systems and data." They're both right. Again, I go back to leadership to bring the two sides together. We cannot always say "No," but we can't always say "Yes." I have to ensure that what we're doing will ensure the security of our systems first, benefit the company second and satisfy our workforce third.
INTELLIGENT UTILITY What sort of candidate are you looking to recruit and how do you retain them?
KELLEY First, they have to know the technology. At the end of the day, they can have all the other skills, but they must have the technical skills, the certifications, the education. But the "soft skills" are important, too.
I need people who are leaders, who can rally the troops for the cause. Folks on the help desk may not actually lead, but they are the ambassadors for IT. Some people's only interaction with my department will be through a help desk representative.
I need people who are sharp business people first, technologists second. That could mean finding cost-based alternative solutions. I want people who understand there are always options.
I need people who are customer-focused and not consumed with our technology: people who get out and network, talk to folks in our industry and build relationships.
I want people who are lifelong learners and keep up with their craft. I put money aside each year to make sure that my folks who need training get training. To be effective in my organization, you need to continue your education and stay up with the latest technology.
One qualification goes right to this discussion of generational differences. I need change agents, not just people who themselves embrace change. (I need) someone who can communicate change, get out into our business and talk about changes in IT and champion change.
The last qualification is project managers. Even if you're not a project manager, you work on a team and you should think like a project manager. Does what I'm doing align with the company goals? When I'm finished, will this project serve the business's needs? Will it be on time, at or under budget? Will it deliver the intended results?
Keeping those folks is a challenge. I'm only hiring the absolute best. Everyone wants those people. So I have to make sure they're compensated fairly, have training opportunities, that there's a work/life balance and that this is a fun place to work. They need to know they'll have opportunities to learn and grow with the organization.
I addressed a college group the other day and I told them, "IT is unlike any other department." In our company, IT serves every other department in the company. So we learn something about accounting, about SCADA, about engineering, about generation. We have to be involved in every department because we own the systems and we have to understand, to a certain level, how those other departments get their work done.
INTELLIGENT UTILITY What's the value of peer-to-peer networking when everyone's challenges and solutions are different?
KELLEY A lot of my peers are implementing advanced metering infrastructure. We don't have a distribution system, so we're not doing AMI. But we all face aging infrastructure. We have to stop throwing good money after bad; it's time to replace things - not just hardware but systems and applications that have exceeded their useful life. Often these are back office systems and that's where I find commonalities with my peers, even if we're on vastly different scales.
INTELLIGENT UTILITY As seasoned IT people retire, what concrete steps can a utility take to retain its institutional knowledge?
KELLEY It's just good practice to make sure that your systems and applications are fully documented, especially if they're custom built. You need source code control. If you have people in charge of a critical system or application that are going to retire in the next three to five years, you need to be on top of that, getting people cross-trained. You can ensure that you're ready to take over that system or you can scramble. And scrambling and critical infrastructure is not a good place to be.
We've done business impact analyses to identify our critical systems, who knows them and where the documentation is. The biggest challenge with retirements and other workforce changes is that you could lose expertise and domain knowledge about running your business. If you don't have the bandwidth to do a business impact analysis, there are third parties who can help you. That's what we've done. Sometimes someone else's eyes can more easily spot a problem.