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PG&E CIO energizes California utility

Following a very public bankruptcy, a beleaguered California utility brought in a new team of executives to turn the company around and improve the efficiency of their data center. Among them was Patricia Lawicki, who made some progressive improvements to their data center, including attaining a legal standard to conserve energy.

Patricia Lawicki
Patricia Lawicki
San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) provides power for some 15 million people from Eureka to Bakersfield and the Pacific Ocean to the Sierra foothills of California. Among the largest natural gas and electricity utilities in the U.S., the $13 billion company has taken its lumps in recent years.

PG&E was the heavy in Hollywood's 2000 blockbuster Erin Brockovich. In 2001, stung by California's energy crisis, the company declared bankruptcy. It emerged in 2004 after distributing $10.3 billion to hundreds of creditors. A year later, PG&E was one of the most profitable companies on the Fortune 500 list, with $4.5 billion in profits. After the bankruptcy, a new team of executives was brought in, top to bottom. One of the first positions the company hustled to fill? CIO.

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Patricia Lawicki, CIO at NiSource Inc., a natural gas and electric utility holding company with 3.7 million customers in the Midwest and Northeast, was not looking and it took some persuading. But PG&E's determination to be a leader in its industry, in IT and in energy conservation was persuasive. Since joining in 2005, the 47-year-old innovator is getting a real charge out of making IT a star player at the 102-year-old utility.

In addition to an MBA, you have a degree in technology management. How does that relate to computer science, and the technology expertise one might expect a CIO to have?
Patricia Lawicki: The reason I have a B.S. in management from Purdue is that I started to work in the field before I graduated. I was lucky enough to start with an internship and then get a full-time job programming. What I found was that it was more important that I pay attention to a lot of the financial aspects and to have a broad business background. The technology, because I was working in the field, became less important from a schooling perspective than the other aspects.

Was there a moment when the light bulb went off that programming might not be the be all, end all for an IT professional?
Lawicki: As I got involved more and more in programming, I realized what I was doing was really solving business problems and trying to address or improve a business process. So, if I was working, for example, with the marketing department, or with finance, or in the manufacturing sector, what was important was really understanding what they were doing as a company so I could do my job better.

You worked in the gas and electric sector before joining PG&E. Is domain expertise irrelevant for a CIO? Does it come in handy in your case?
Lawicki: Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't. So, for example, I was [CIO] at an Indiana utility company prior to coming to PG&E, but I think the CIO skills themselves are definitely transferable. Industry knowledge is a plus, I would say, versus a definitive have-to-have.

When you're hiring your senior-level staff, what do you look for in terms of experience and expertise?
In very senior staff, obviously, I look for what have they accomplished and the ability to run multiple, large initiatives. That's a make-or-break factor and something I truly look for. Then, of course, at that level, they need excellent communication skills. How will they represent my organization? How well will they be able to communicate with the business?

Getting the top IT position at a large utility company obviously means you have great communication skills. Is that something that came naturally to you?
Lawicki: I kid everybody that I am a learned extrovert. I went into the field because I loved the technology, I loved the programming. I don't know how many CIOs now have programming as their core base, as I did, and moved up from there. But it became evident that communication skills, presentation skills, trying to translate the technology into business terms, is very key.

One of the ironies of working for a utility now is this push for energy conservation. In the good old days I think it's fair to say utility companies wanted their customers to use as much gas and electricity as possible. Do you have to worry about energy consumption in your own department?
Lawicki: At this company one of our core values is environmental responsibility and energy conservation. There is a program called LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design]. We took our buildings and are looking at what level of LEED we can make them into. We took one of our historical offices and was able to turn it into a LEED Gold facility.

What were some of the things you did to get a LEED Gold rating?
Lawicki: We replaced the old CRTs with more energy-efficient monitors; we also initiated automatic timeouts on machines and will make that part of our desktop buildout now. We worked very closely with facilities on how we could help. We have actually changed cubicle configuration to allow more natural lighting to come in, to reduce the lighting that we need.

What has been the response from the workforce with things like automatic shutoff? Was the cultural change hard?
Lawicki: Once the purpose is understood that this is for greening, for attaining a legal standard to conserve energy, it was very well received.

I read you are also addressing power consumption in your data center. You'd think that at a power company the one thing IT would have is a surfeit of electricity.
Lawicki: I always relate it back to -- we need to eat our own cooking. We did take our data center and made some very progressive improvements to it. But another reason we did it is that we are going through a major transformation from a platform perspective and a software perspective here. We are in the midst of a several-year program where we are virtually replacing hundreds of legacy applications on to some core SAP and Oracle platforms. With that, I knew that my computing capacity -- because we are going from manually based processes to automation -- was going to increase by 50%. So I challenged my team and said, 'We don't want to draw another kilowatt of energy into that data center. What can we do?'

Any metrics so far?
Lawicki: We consolidated 300 servers down to six. And with that our computing capacity has increased by 50% and we have actually decreased the amount of energy drawn for that particular data center. What was really exciting for me is that we were working with all these other high-tech companies on how they produce more energy-efficient products in general. When you look at just racking and stacking new servers, while they are more energy efficient, if you don't place those in your data center correctly, you could actually increase your consumption of energy.

So I challenged my team and said, 'We don't want to draw another kilowatt of energy
into that
data center.'

Patricia Lawicki
Because of the cooling issues?
Lawicki: The cooling. It's like your house, if you put a sofa over one of your vents. We did a thermal study where we actually had a robotic device go in and measure on a 24/7 basis, and at different heights and different times. I don't know many data centers that are doing this now. Some of the technology we really prototyped with IBM. We saw different areas ran hot or cold based on the time of day and the height they were located at. So that's when we moved some aisles, moved some equipment around, and built something called a snorkel, which helps recycle the air within a server. We brought in water cooling. And it was over a short period of time. We've been working on it for less than a year. This is all beta type work. And it's fun, working with some of our business partners to help bring some products to the market that could help everyone.

The company has had its share of hard times and bad press, bankruptcy, class actions lawsuits related to environmental problems. Do you think the bankruptcy opened up some opportunities to be innovative that might not have been there if things were humming along?
Lawicki: Absolutely. The point is so valid. IT and many companies really need that burning platform issue, to use an old term, to change. In this case, during the energy crisis that brought you the Enrons and books like The Smartest Guys in the Room, what it did for PG&E was highlight how little investment had been made in improving processes. There was so much spent on just keeping the lights on, ensuring customers got service, on how we were going to get power, much less improve processes and invest in new technology.

One of the positions that PG&E came after right away [after emerging from bankruptcy] was a new CIO. That was what attracted me to the position -- that the leadership was insightful enough to come and say, 'We don't have to just move our technology to next-generation; we have to leapfrog, we want to be the leader.' I wasn't out looking. They came knocking. They did some convincing and once I came on board, it's just been wonderful, honestly.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer

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