Posted on February 11, 2013

Karen Austin’s Tech Talk: PG&E’s IT Department Moved Mountains in 2012

By Karen Austin

Some say that Information Technology never looks back, but at this time of year I think it’s helpful to pause to reflect on what’s been accomplished over the last 12 months. PG&E’s technology team crossed the goal line on a significant number of company-wide projects that will benefit customers by helping our employees work better, smarter and faster.

And we are going to do even more in 2013.

First, let’s talk about my job as PG&E’s CIO. I’m here to equip the 1,600 members of the company’s IT team with the tools and support they need to deliver technology solutions that help PG&E deliver safe, reliable and affordable energy to our customers. Leveraging technology to truly make a difference for our customers is the best part of my job, so I wanted to share some of my external and internal PG&E IT highlights of 2012.

Actions will benefit customers

Let’s talk about what we’ve done that will be more visible to our customers.

In the field, we’ve begun to improve our IT infrastructure so that when our crews make gas safety upgrades or add new outage sensors to power lines, we can process, store, analyze and use the data to improve customer service. A good example of this is SmartMeter™ technology where meters signal when customers are without power so that our teams can then pinpoint outages, fix the hardest-hit areas more quickly, and deploy our teams more strategically. Gone are the days of relying on phone calls from customers to activate our outage response teams.

We’ve also unveiled some big projects like new data centers, including our latest located outside of Sacramento, a 12,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility that will help our team keep up with the increased pressure to improve the performance and reliability of our technology systems. From storing customer information and readings from SmartMeters to housing the software we use to purchase energy and respond to customer requests, this new data center will better prepare us for the unexpected – from natural disasters to cyber threats. It also will allow us to increase the stability of our service and decrease the frequency of outages for our customers. With this data center improvement, we’re taking a huge step forward to meeting the needs and expectations of our 15 million gas and electric customers.

Besides having real-time outage information for our customers when they call us, we’re also working on showing individual outages. That way, if there is a temporary, momentary outage, or an occasional extended outage, we’ll know when it started, the cause and the potential restoration time. We want to get the lights back on as quickly and as safely as possible, and these new alerts will help keep our customers informed.

And last but certainly not least, one my team’s biggest customer-facing accomplishments was our Green Button initiative that has jump-started the development of applications that will help customers become even better energy managers. Providing easily downloadable usage information—in simple standard formats—helps spur the development of innovative consumer applications and devices from entrepreneurs, big companies and even students. The Green Button is yet another enabler of customer energy management – and as we’ve seen with the Stegall family, saving money and energy is even easier thanks to SmartMeter technology.

Helping employees work better and more efficiently

Internally, we have made work life easier and better for our employees. I’ve traveled around PG&E’s 70,000-square-mile service area – a real treat for this Midwesterner – and talked to our folks in the field to see how we can innovate and improve what we do with new tools and streamlined processes.

From a new data center to quicker response to outages, PG&E customers benefited from technology in 2012, Karen Austin says.

Before I arrived here at PG&E, there was no wireless internet at our San Francisco headquarters office, our computers ran on seriously outdated operating systems (not Windows 95, but close), and our crews worked with paper maps and took notes on clipboards. Overall, these were not the most efficient (or technologically advanced) ways of doing business.

Our employees now have the ability to choose between an iPhone, Blackberry, or Android device – no Zack Morris phones, fortunately – to make their jobs simpler and more efficient. Our wireless network is now fully deployed in all critical locations. We’ve upgraded 50 percent of our office computers to Windows 7. And we’ve also equipped our gas operations folks with tablets and rugged laptops to enhance connectivity and mobility in the field.

Talk about a culture shift! We’ve gone from a “pen and paper,” three-year project timeline mentality to iPads in meetings and six-month deadlines. As a result, our employees are faster, smarter, and more efficient. And, by equipping our employees with better tools, our customers are better served.

We also made big changes to our employee emails. For years, our emails were along the lines of R2D2@pge.com. They were not very easy to remember and frankly didn’t make much sense (unless you were from a galaxy far, far away). Now, if you want to reach a PG&E team member, it’s as easy as luke.skywalker@pge.com – a logical and simple way for our field reps and energy-management account representatives to connect with our customers. Unfortunately, darth.vader@pge.com keeps bouncing back — rumor is the Death Star needs better servers — but more to come on that front.

All in all, 2012 was a banner year for our IT team – and there are more exciting developments ahead in the next couple of months, including some impressive and innovative enhancements to the way we use technology to serve our customers. Stay tuned!

Karen Austin is PG&E’s chief information officer and a senior vice president. She joined PG&E in 2011 after a long career at some of America’s leading retailers. In her monthly Tech Talk column, she’ll write about how PG&E is using IT to improve customer service and safety. Tell Karen what you think by leaving a comment at currents@pge.com.

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"PG&E" refers to Pacific Gas and Electric Company, a subsidiary of PG&E Corporation.
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