The A-list panel of CIOs that Silicon Valley’s venerable Churchill Club assembled July 24 in Palo Alto, Calif., hit on many of the trends that sit atop IT leaders’ priority lists, including cloud computing and the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) phenomenon. The panelists — Google CIO Ben Fried, Juniper Networks CIO Bask Iyer, PG&E CIO Karen Austin and Wal-Mart CIO Karenann Terrell – all had compelling views on the topics.
But, the subject of how to extract value from data was top-of-mind for the two panelists from outside the tech industry-PG&E’s Austin, and Wal-Mart’s Terrell. Austin, in particular, faces a monumental uphill task. She joined PG&E in June 2011, less than a year after one of the utility’s pipelines in San Bruno, Calif., exploded, killing eight people and destroying 38 homes. Subsequent investigation exposed PG&E’s antiquated data-management practices, an embarrassment Austin appears hell-bent on correcting.
"When I arrived, 90 percent of what we did in the field was on paper," Austin told the Churchill Club audience assembled at the Crown Plaza in Palo Alto. "That’s an opportunity to innovate."
While she didn’t elaborate on what forms that innovation might take, Austin said PG&E wants to tap its data to "figure out how our customers can save energy." The company’s heaviest data flows are coming from two sources. First, there are those pesky paper records, which contain critical information about the conditions of PG&E’s pipes. This information is needed in order to effectively run tests determining the maximum operating pressure of the gas delivery system. "There’s a huge effort underway for us to clean and digitize (that data)," Austin said.
There also is abundant data being collected throughout the day by the smart meters PG&E has been installing feverishly over the past few years. According to a recent Oracle Corp. survey on the so-called "big data" problem, utilities executives report that they’re collecting 18,000 percent more data from smart meters than they did from older meters. PG&E has been one of the most aggressive proponents of smart meters.
Given that kind of spike in data collection, it came as no surprise when Austin acknowledged that the issue of where to store all of that data is significant. PG&E doesn’t have the necessary storage capabilities in house, and Austin said cloud storage vendors aren’t a great option because their subscription fees represent the kind of ongoing operational expenses the company is looking to avoid.
Conversely, Wal-Mart isn’t hung up on collecting and storing data, but like most companies, it’s facing challenges when it comes to making use of its data. In fact, CIO Karenann Terrell went so far as to say that Wal-Mart and other large retailers were facing a "big data" issue before that terminology entered the IT vernacular.
Wal-Mart’s Vast Data Challenge
Wal-Mart collects data on some 200 million customer transactions a week. Terrell said the company’s "maniacal focus" on fully leveraging any investments in IT that are intended to enable the business means it’s doing everything it can to use this vast pool of data to improve the shopping experience. And Terrell is well aware that Wal-Mart’s rivals are doing the same thing. "There’s a lot of money being spent in that space," she said.
As is the case for many companies, Wal-Mart’s efforts on the data front are limited by the availability of talented data scientists. The company has been aggressively assembling IT talent at the San Bruno, Calif., facility that is headquarters for Walmart.com.
"The number of people who really understand the power of data and how to put it in order is very small," Terrell told the Churchill Club audience. "It’s a new, emerging area that got hot fast."