Powering Alberta

Maureen Higgins details how AltaLink, Canada’s only fully independent transmission company, keeps the lights on in the province

Imagine working in a field you’re uncertain about continuing—say, retail—and finding a phone number to your true career path while working that job. That’s how AltaLink’s vice president of integrated network operations and information services, Maureen Higgins, first entered the tech industry, back in 1987. Here she shares with Advantage some defining numbers from her time with Alberta’s electric leader.

12,500 km of transmission lines

AltaLink is responsible for approximately 12,500 kilometres of transmission lines and 280 substations in Alberta. This amounts to serving 85 percent of Albertans and owning more than half the provincial transmission system. Founded in 2002, AltaLink was purchased by Berkshire-Hathaway Energy in late 2014. “We’re part of that family of companies right now, which is great,” Higgins says.

6 direct reports

With three directors—two for IT and one for power-system operations—and three managers handling cybersecurity, facilities, and physical security, Higgins has six direct reports. She appreciates the way her managing responsibilities ebb and flow with the changing needs of both AltaLink and the industry itself.

“My catchphrase is ‘I don’t like surprises,’” Higgins says. “I’ll often ask someone when they can get something delivered to me, and my expectation is that if you make that commitment, you will be the one who comes forward—not the day it’s due, but in a reasonable time—to say, ‘I’m not going to make it,’ if you need to renegotiate that with me. I think all my direct reports understand that.”

2 chief operating officers

From 2013 to 2014, Higgins was co-COO at AltaLink. Having been with the company since 2005, she had a unique opportunity arise when her supervisor, the COO, was promoted to interim president, and she was tapped to help cover his old job for a year. “Learning how to prioritize became very important,” she says. “The task at hand may not necessarily need your eyes on it all the time; it might be a good opportunity for someone to learn something new.”

130 projects

Currently, there are 130 projects under Higgins in various states of delivery. Some are SAP-centric, which adds to the complexity of the projects. There’s also a Microsoft upgrade and a sizable transmission build-out continuing through 2017. “Considering the size of our organization, 130 is a pretty high number,” Higgins says. “There’s lots going on—it’s really a case of making sure we’re managing those dependencies and ensuring that we’re delivering the features we need to deliver in the time frame we’ve committed to.” Higgins stays involved in all projects from a managerial and financial perspective, noting that an IT group “has a high-level view of the projects.”

2 mobile stages

April 2015 was the anticipated launch date for an AltaLink mobile solution that allows individuals to get asset information in real time while out in the field. But due to technical challenges, AltaLink only did a technical launch. The application was officially implemented in June 2015. “We did the technical launch because we were doing an SAP upgrade and wanted this to be included in it,” Higgins says. The technical challenges were worked out over the next six weeks.

Higgins was nearing the end of university when the school installed smart cash registers at her retail job. Thinking there might be more of a future in the technology behind such machines, she called the phone number provided on the register and inquired about career opportunities—leaving retail behind for good.

3 major vendors

In the constant quest to know the latest and greatest, Higgins points to AltaLink’s vendors as an all-important window to the tech industry. Strong relationships are vital. “We really don’t have the in-house capacity or time to really understand the products with the depth we’d like to,” she says. So, in taking the time for sit-down conversations that they try to schedule quarterly, Higgins and her vendors can get better attuned to their respective road maps and how each can benefit the other.

“We’re an SAP and a Microsoft shop, and we use lots of apps specialized for engineering purposes since we’re an engineering company,” Higgins says. “We also use Project Wise, which is where we store our drawings.”

2 focal points

In the future, AltaLink is working on leveraging its relationships with its vendors, citing a need for such vendors to help AltaLink staff with thinking through future problems and strategies. “The phrase I’ve coined for them is ‘thought partners,’” says Higgins. “It’s important to have these good relationships with vendors. It’s about understanding the landscape of the industry and being able to ask, ‘Are we using our tools the best way?’ and, ‘Do we have the right tools?’ in our conversations—to make sure we’re delivering the key business functionality we need to deliver.”

Moreover, the organization is also looking to improve its metrics. “We started out with some metrics this year, and spent some time determining if we had the right metrics in terms of delivery, whether it was from the operational or capital side,” Higgins explains. Either way, Higgins will continue to ask the questions that will light the way to AltaLink’s next destination.