Public Power Magazine

Raising the Bar for Information Technology

From the September 2011 issue (Vol. 69, No. 6) of Public Power

Originally published September 1, 2011

By Jeanne LaBella
Senior Vice President, Publishing
September 1, 2011
"Whenever I faced a problem in my career, software development was my way out," says Fred Christie (wearing necktie), shown here with his IT team.

A decade ago, software engineer Fred Christie was chief information officer for an international manufacturing concern, leading a team that wrote software to automate production of metal conveyor belts. Two decades ago, he was writing programs to support U.S. military missile defense systems. Today, he leads a nine-person IT team at Easton Utilities on the bucolic Eastern Shore of Maryland and he is raising the bar for municipal utility information technology standards. He's also leading Easton Utilities, a provider of electricity, gas, water, sewer, cable TV and broadband services, into a seventh enterprise operation: IT products and services.

To many in the municipal power industry, an IT operation staffed by highly experienced software engineers would be nirvana. But six years ago, President and CEO Hugh Grunden recognized the need to upgrade his utility's
IT operations to a level consistent with the increasingly high-tech nature of the industry. Grunden's foresight and Vice President of Operations Geoff Oxnam's quest to consolidate customer service operations for the utility's disparate services led to creation of a utility business portal that supports EU employee access to the multiple software programs in place to support utility operations—a billing system, SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition), geographic information system, metering, outage management system, and telephone and accounting systems.

"Like all [public power] utilities, our primary focus is customer satisfaction," said Oxnam. Before building the portal, "we served our customers as if we were two different companies. That was driven primarily by the technology we were stuck with at the time. One billing system worked for cable TV and the other for utility services. With cable, you have features that you don't have to worry about with utility billing.  A cable system has to communicate in two directions with the set-top box. The utility system is more straightforward.  We input a service order or bring back a meter reading and plug it into the system. The system codes the data and out comes a bill."

The ludicrous nature of the problem was personal for Oxnam. "My mom's a customer," he said. "My mom would have to walk in to the utility side and set up service and then they would send her next door and she'd have to set up cable TV and Internet. The software systems didn't communicate with each other. Often, I'd hear a CSR ask the customer, ‘Well what did the utility CSR tell you about when your service was going to be installed?' The customer must have been thinking ‘Why the heck am I telling you?  You ought to be able to know that.'"

The technology developed by Christie and his team was essential to Easton Utilities' goal of having a single customer service representative address a customer's need with one interaction. The technology drove the change, Oxnam said.

Easton Utilities President and CEO Hugh Grunden recognized the need to evaluate the quality of IT resources at his utility. That change led to a new municipal enterprise opreation.

"It required a lot of training," he said.  "I had CSRs who had only been cable CSRs and didn't know much about utilities.  And the utility CSRs were scared to death to explain anything about cable TV.  We put everybody together, cross-trained everybody. We got everybody up to speed and gave them a tool Fred's group developed that would allow them to do it."

Christie's solution is part of his DNA. "Whenever I faced a problem in my career, software development was my way out," he said.

Having solved its own problems with development of the utility business portal, Easton today licenses it to other municipal utilities. Newnan Utilities in Georgia was the first utility to purchase the software from Easton. The two municipal utilities are similarly sized. Newnan once provided cable services, in addition to electricity, water and wastewater. Christie and his team met Newnan personnel through a user group for customers of Cogsdale, supplier of the billing system used by both utilities.

Easton began using the portal in 2006 and used it for two and a half years before sharing it with Newnan.

Jim Smith, IT supervisor for Braintree Electric Light Department in Massachusetts, saw a demonstration of the portal at an industry meeting and was very impressed.  BELD is installing the portal now and running general ledger accounting and electricity billing on the system.

"The only hard part is figuring out what information to put on the screen," Smith said. "There are lots of options."
The portal was built to be very configurable.

"Customization is costly and takes forever to get up," Christie said. "We decided early on that we would make this a malleable piece of software that we could configure for the needs of the individuals we were trying to reach." To achieve this, the portal is built on top of ubiquitous Microsoft platforms—SQL and SharePoint. Easton's portal was built on top of the free versions of the Microsoft products. And that does not bother the software giant; the company invited Christie and his team to demonstrate their portal at the Microsoft Convergence 2011 conference.

Utility software systems feeding into the portal do so through what Christie calls "sockets."

"We have one socket for our SCADA system, a socket for our phone system, a socket for our billing system, a socket for our finan-cial system and a socket for our GIS," he said. "Each socket provides a buffer between the disparate systems and the portal.  If the disparate system is upgraded, modified or replaced, the portal remains unchanged.  Only the socket for that system must be modified.  Furthermore, the socket will work for any client using that same disparate system.  For example, our Cogsdale socket will work for any Cogsdale customer.  It is the epitome of a reusable module and a key component of our utility business portal design."

At a recent Microsoft conference, Christie demonstrated how configurable the portal is by changing a socket during his presentation. The audience saw the system change within five minutes.

In developing the portal, Christie and his team focused on the needs of their 126 colleagues at Easton Utilities. Each user's home screen is customized to his or her business needs. The basic home screen is a daily news-letter for employees, full of soft news that piques human interest—birthdays, anniversaries, awards, wellness program activities. Top managers have information at their fingertips about key customers, comprehensive reports on consumption for all services, five-year bill summaries, year- to- year or month-to- month comparisons.

CEO Grunden made it clear that if there is an outage on the Easton Utilities system, every employee needs to know about it.  Color-coded alerts on the computer monitor let employees know if there are any service outages. A green 0 signifies no outages, the number turns yellow if there are 1-5 outages on the system, red if there are more than 5 outages. A mouse click or two shows what service is out and on what street.

"It buys us talent," said Christe of Easton Utilities' decision to make IT services a new enterprise.

The home screen also lists Easton Utilities' performance goals.  "We have at least seven or eight corporate goals that we need to hit," said Christie. "Each goal has a red light, yellow light, green light.  If it's green, we're hitting the goal, if it's red, we're not."

The home screen of the portal is the most important page because it keeps users coming back, Christie said. The aesthetics of the page are as important as the integrity of the software. Users go to the portal for information; their confidence in that information is subliminally determined by aesthetics, he said. The Easton IT team is guided by two mantras:  "One is, we don't want to be anyone's excuse and number two is ‘get it yourself.' We wanted to build a business portal where they could get the information themselves. It makes [all of] us more efficient."

Christie and his team built Easton's outage management system using Bing, Microsoft's free mapping system.  Today, Easton Utilities sells that outage management system to other utilities. The utility is also a reseller of Cisco and Dell hardware.

The Easton IT team sticks with Microsoft products—SQL, SharePoint, Bing, and Dynamics GP for billing—because the products are so well known.  By confining activities to such widely used products, Christie can attract new talent more easily when recruiting to staff his growing operation.

One of Christie's favorite custom web parts on the Easton Utilities portal is a timed shuttle that cycles through five different graphical reports in one footprint.  "It starts out with electric sales—you'll see the last 12 months of electric sales," he said.  "Then you'll see our cost of electricity, natural gas sales, the utility's cost of natural gas and water and wastewater sales.  "You can get to a specific tab if you want, but if you just leave it alone, every 10 seconds, it will scan to the next one."

The evolution of Easton Utilities' IT solutions into a whole new enterprise operation has been icing on the cake.  Like all of its enterprises, the IT Services operation has to be self-supporting, said Oxnam. For Easton's electric, gas, water, wastewater and broadband customers, the new enterprise absorbs a portion of overhead costs to help keep a lid on utility rate increases.

"We have it structured so that if Fred's business keeps growing, he can add staff," said Oxnam.  "If he has to scale back, we scale back.  Everyone involved with the project understands that.  It's very entrepreneurial and it's worked very well for us, largely because it's a great product that is doing what it's supposed to do."

"It buys us talent," said Christie, who also holds an MBA.  "I have an IT department of nine people in a $50 million utility.  That is a very big IT department.  Everyone here knows that if there is a problem here [at Easton Utilities] it's all hands on deck. Now, we have nine people who are turning their attention to our problems. IT is a resource that most people don't appreciate because they are not aware of it." And, he added, Easton Utilities is "a very nice place to work."

To date, seven municipal electric utilities have purchased the portal from Easton and more are in the works.

Easton Utilities also learns from its external customers. Each utility has its own ideas for using the portal.  "It makes it a giant user group," said Christie.  "Because it is public utility brethren—we're a not-for-profit business—we can all share ideas. Everyone we've been dealing with wants to help out."

Christie lured three of his colleagues from his previous employer to Easton Utilities. John White, Scott Sears and Michele Moxey, all software engineers, were the heart of the team that developed the utility business portal. Moxey died in May 2010 of cancer, but her spirit inspires the others to carry on.

"She was our test engineer," Christie said.  "Nothing that we ever put out was wrong, she made sure of that. None of this would have been possible without her."

Customer satisfaction rates soared after IT improvements were put in place, said Vice President of Operations Geoff Oxnam.

Utilities buying the portal from Easton are most excited about the customer page, which Moxey played a key role in developing. If a customer calls in to report an outage, utility staff can note the outage in the customer record. With a few simple mouse clicks, staff members can see billing history, payment status, even every bill ever sent to a single customer. Moxey also played a key role in developing what Christie calls "mirrors," data integrity filters that flag potential data errors. "We have mirrors for customers that have meter reads that are zero. These are things we can look at to catch problems before the bill is mailed to the customer. Other data mirrors identify customer bills with
the highest percentage increases month-to-month or year-to-year.

The system gives the CEO and other staff information without having to learn the system. "Everything is right there," said Sears.
Sears developed an electronic version of the manila meter cards that existed for decades.  The electronic version of the card is designed to look like an actual paper card—aesthetics that keep the user coming back.  But, with electronic data, Easton Utilities can meet filing requirements imposed by the Maryland Public Service Commission.

Next challenges for the Easton software engineers will focus on customer relationship management and SCADA. "Utilities want to see what's going on today, yesterday, the day before, so they can predict what's going to happen with load," said Christie. This summer, the team released two new applications for hedging—one for gas, one for electricity.

"It takes all contracts and costs associated with natural gas," said Christie. "You can see whether contracts are actual, or just ones we're looking at.  You can see whether a prospective contract would leave the utility properly hedged.  It's pretty sophisticated. Paul Moeller, our CFO, actually designed this system."

Before they write software to support utility operations, Sears and others on the Easton IT team immerse themselves in the utility functions they need to support. "We would actually be a customer service representative for a day or go out and install cable," he said.

"We know we can't support somebody if we don't know how they do their job," Christie added. One software engineer spent two weeks in the customer service department after the portal went live. Sears worked with the SCADA development team for two and a half years. The results of the business portal tool and customer service consolidation were striking and measurable. Easton's new-found efficiency paid for the cost of extensive renovations to the Customer Service Center by allowing it to leave two positions vacant that had opened due to attrition. In the first year after consolidation, customer service overtime hours dropped by 59 percent.

"Improved efficiency and cost savings were important," said Oxnam. "But the brass ring was improved customer satisfaction and the business portal delivered."

After the consolidation made possible by the IT team's software, customer satisfaction with in-person customer service improved 14 percentage points and over-the-phone service improved 10 percentage points. "What made this so striking was that we already had award-winning customer satisfaction scores," said Oxnam.

Software Engineer Scott Sears confronted one group's aversion to technology by designing an electronic meter card that resembles the old paper version.


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September 2011
Digital Edition

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