Direct Energy turns on a dime to meet new regulations

2009 InfoWorld CTO 25 Awards: Joseph Abidaoud

2009 InfoWorld CTO 25 Awards

Joseph Abidaoud
Head of IT, Home and Business Services Division

Direct Energy

Times of crisis are times of opportunity. So Joe Abidaoud, divisional head of IT for Direct Energy's Home and Business Services unit, took a deep breath and stepped into the breach. The situation was critical: New regulations from the Canadian government mandated that his business unit deploy a new billing system to serve 1.4 million customers in Ontario -- and it had to be up and running in under four months.

Recent organizational changes had created a leadership vacuum, which Abidaoud filled before quickly developing a plan of action. Working against the clock, he established a cross-functional governance structure, won $5.4 million in funding, and pulled together a working group of 20 business and IT professionals. The stakes were high. For every month the project was late, Direct Energy would be unable to bill its customers $30 million.

[ Discover how the lessons learned from the 2009 InfoWorld CTO 25 Award winners can help your IT efforts. ]

Given the tight deadline, the group's decision to build instead of buy was bold. "Although we looked into purchasing a billing program off the shelf," says Abidaoud, "we found that creating our own would simplify our business process and save us $10 million." Out of the gate, Abidaoud made three key technical choices that leveraged existing skills and accelerated the build: adopt agile development methodology, use Tibco middleware, and build the system using Microsoft .Net.

The toughest sell was agile methodology, which pulls developers and stakeholders into collaborative groups that build in iterations and solidify requirements along the way. "Implementing agile methodology for such a large program with so many functional areas was met with extreme skepticism by our business partners," says Abidaoud. "I led compact and intense workshops to teach all those involved how to make agile work."

But the biggest success factor, says Abidaoud, was the three-layer governance structure. At the uppermost layer was an executive steering committee led by him that consisted of the top decision makers in the business. The second layer was governance committee consisting of all functional department heads at the vice president or director level, whose role was to provide the resources and approvals necessary to deliver the program. The third layer was the staff that would ultimately plan and execute the delivery of the project. The structure Abidaoud built is now a model for all major cross-functional initiatives within the business unit.

A pragmatic, nonhierarchical leadership style -- and previous experience as a senior consultant at Keane Canada -- helped Abidaoud achieve resounding success. Business operations continued unbroken, and thanks to incremental cost savings, the project paid back all $5.4 million of its cost within 18 months.

"IT's role is not to focus on simply improving IT, but rather to focus on improving the business," proclaims Abidaoud, whose title has been upgraded to director of IS Services. "Just as other areas of the business like to have input into IT, we can have input into other areas, especially since, in some cases, we know the business better than anyone."

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