No Experience Necessary

One of the first major projects Robert Wong oversaw when he took over Toronto Hydro-Electric’s IT department was the total upgrade of its data centre, the servers of which are now 95% virtualized. Today, he serves as the company’s executive VP and chief information and risk officer. (Photo: Toronto Hydro)

When Robert Wong was asked to head Toronto Hydro-Electric’s IT department in 2010, he had no direct background in the field—but that didn’t stop him from delivering 

DOs & DON’Ts
IT Leadership

DO

Have a long-term plan.

Have people you can trust on your team.

Keep critical roles and responsibilities in-house. Use contractors to augment your project workload.

DON’T

Think you need a technical background to manage IT.

Fail to have the fundamental management models and systems in place.

Forget to track how well you’re doing. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

Consider failure an option.

If you took a poll in 2000, it’s likely that few would have selected Robert Wong as the candidate to take over Toronto Hydro-Electric System Limited’s 120-employee IT department. Though he had been with company for 25 years, he’d worked mainly in engineering and construction, so it was a surprise when his number was called. However, Wong had a technical background, being an electrical engineer by education, and he was known in the organization as a go-to leader who could fill any void, and the IT department had a big one.

“Our previous IT group had fallen into the trap of doing IT for the sake of IT,” Wong says. “There was no strategic alignment with the rest of the organization, so the business wasn’t getting the level of service it needed.” On top of that, making changes to the department wasn’t easy, because of Toronto Hydro-Electric’s size. The largest municipal electricity-distribution company in Canada, it handles approximately 18 percent of the electricity consumed in Ontario, including power for approximately 730,000 Toronto customers.

So Wong began his project more subtly, first simply getting the department used to the idea of being a service provider. “I told my team that we exist to serve our internal clients, and I created an online customer-satisfaction-survey tool,” he says.

With feedback coming in, Wong then decided to make a number of changes to improve the customer-service experience. “We really suffered when it came to executing on IT projects, and the business clients were losing faith in our ability to deliver,” he says.

Soon after, the IT team did deliver, making significant improvements to Toronto Hydro-Electric’s data centre, a critical piece of infrastructure that wasn’t being well managed. “We didn’t have enough backup power, we hadn’t ever tested failover to a generator, and the equipment wasn’t set up to split power to another uninterruptible power supply if necessary,” Wong says. Over a few years, Wong’s team cleaned up the data centre, virtualizing 95 percent of the servers and reconceiving its infrastructure so that Toronto Hydro-Electric will ultimately have two state-of-the-art data centres with complete redundancy and automated failover.

50%

Better employee attendance than the Canadian average

28%

Improvement in electrical-system reliability from 2007 to 2013

83%

IT’s customer-approval rating in 2013 (65% in 2010)

Today, Wong has turned his attention to the organization’s out-of-date enterprise resource planning (EPR) system. “We hadn’t kept up with the upgrading and patching of our legacy application, which isn’t even recognized as an ERP by Gartner; it’s more of an enterprise asset management application,” Wong says. “To be responsible, we stretched the asset as far as we could, but the legacy system just wasn’t going to be able to manage our core technology applications, so we’ve been working on a proposal for a new ERP.”

By emphasizing proactive behaviour and a focus on customer service, Wong is seeing 100 percent success from his IT team, which is now completing projects on time and on cost while meeting customer expectations for functionality and quality. The first year Wong ran a survey, the IT department’s approval rating was 65 percent; today, it’s 83 percent, despite resource and funding challenges. “It’s a catch-22,” Wong says. “As you deliver better and better IT service, your clients want more and more of your service.”