When Mark Bryant was driving through the aftermath of a snowstorm to his first day on the job as CIO at PCL Construction in early February 2013, he was reflecting on how change can be hard.
To pursue the new opportunity, Bryant had left his home in Toronto. His family was soon to follow, but they wouldn’t be able to join him in Edmonton until months later, after his two boys finished the school year. The surrounding industrial landscape was a stark contrast to the usual vibrant urban environment Bryant had grown accustomed to.
“Geez what have I gotten myself into?” he asked himself. “This is a different view from what I’ve been used to most of my life.”
When he did arrive at work, his worries quickly melted away as his new colleagues greeted him like family. Bryant has taken the close-knit family culture at this century-old organization and extended it out as the basis for all his interactions with customers and employees. That’s why he’s a finalist for the Information Technology Association of Canada’s CanadianCIO of the Year award, given in partnership with ITWC.
We’re doing a Q&A and podcast series with some of the most interesting CIOs nominated for our annual awards program. Follow along as we meet the technology decision makers that are driving innovation in Canada. Bryant used his family perspective to transform PCL across four pillars: cloud, integration, mobility, and data analytics.
The following interview is edited for length and clarity.
CanadianCIO: Your nomination for CIO of the year, put in by your solutions specialist Brian Kmet at SAS, was honest about the situation at PCL in 2013. It says that PCL employees called the Systems & Technology (ST) department “Sit and Talk” as a joke. So this is the department you’re coming into lead – what was the situation from your perspective when you started?
Mark Bryant: You’re right – unfortunately some people unaffectionately called the Systems and Technologies and the acronym S&T for “Sit and Talk” and if you think back five years ago certainly I don’t think PCL would be the only company guilty of this. You know, IT typically didn’t move as quickly as it could. Traditional IT shops didn’t move as quickly as they could and so that “Sit and Talk” moniker, again unaffectionately certainly described by some people, and possibly rightly so.
I looked at it as an opportunity to challenge the process and figure out “Okay, where are we slow and why? And what do we need to do to transform it?” And certainly that’s what we did, and I’m sure we’ll get into that.
CCIO: How was it that you came into the job?
MB: Certainly at my previous job I was head of an engineering consulting firm out of Toronto, MMM Group, and I spent five years there and personally felt that I had modernized that organization to a point that it was time for me to move on and add value elsewhere, and about that time I received a phone call indicating that PCL Construction was looking for it’s first CIO and it sounded appealing and interesting to me, albeit it was out of the city of Toronto where I’ve spent most of my life, made certain it was in Canada and that was an opportunity that I explored and once the opportunity was presented to me I had a conversation with my family and took up the challenge and moved out West, and I’m very happy that we did.
CCIO: What was it that surprised you the most when you started at PCL?
MB: One of the pieces of advice that I was certainly given when I arrived here was to take your time and understand the culture, and understand what’s happening in your IT group, or in the IT group, and what you could possibly modify to get the organization’s IT department into a position of moving more deftly and more efficiently, and certainly I did that.
There was certainly a lot of what I would call complacency. A lot of really talented people in the group. A lot of people with really good ideas, but complacency in making the necessary change to get to where we needed to go, or fear of making the change in where we needed to go, and so there wasn’t that catalyst in the group to push the team where they needed to go next. I became, certainly I became that agent of change and that catalyst, and sometimes that’s a very difficult job because when you’re not in control of the change, but you’re the receiver of the change certainly there would be many that didn’t want to embrace change, and then there would be that smaller fewer that were like “Wow, hey, this is great. Finally we’re making a move over here.”
So, those changes and those challenges can be a struggle, but once you get through them there is elation.
CCIO: Let’s get into some of the gritty details of your technology stack at PCL. I understand that moving to a cloud-first approach was a priority for you. You’re using Microsoft Azure for infrastructure, Dell Boomi for integration, and some cloud applications too. Can you take me through your journey from a legacy system to this new way of operating?
MB: It was about analyzing “What do we have for technology? And how are we organized?” And certainly the IT group and the lens that they were looking through was organized very well in terms of supporting sub-vertical silos, primarily centered around products that supported our construction business, and in doing so there was certainly a lack of cohesion across those vertical silos and so we had to figure out a strategy to flatten that, and part of that flattening strategy certainly involved reorganizing the group more holistically to focus on similar things that would advance the IT team forward and allow them to be holistically more agile versus vertically more agile.
So, you know, we needed to take out what I would call some of the impediments that were slowing us down and the group that most organizations typically have in a traditionally IT shop is the one that looks after the back of house, or raised floor data center infrastructure, and that group was overwhelmed by the fact that they had too many masters that, for lack of a better term, that would be asking for change, and that group was run off its feet and it was effectively chaos. One of our strategies was to certainly flatten and simplify that technology footprint, reduce it, and reorganize it, and part of that strategy, a huge part of that strategy of which I had four pillars was the cloud.
And we were already focused Microsoft shop. I asked “How could we simplify the infrastructure that we needed to manage and maintain, and deliver better service?” So a typical IT shop would take time to order equipment, time to receive equipment, time to rack, and stack it, and then configure it, and that was a big impediment certainly in getting us to market sometimes, that process itself would take months. So, Azure was certainly a key pillar in that strategy because we spit out boxes in hours versus weeks right?
So, that certainly was a catalyst in getting infrastructure simplification into our environment, and that was key tenet in our cloud strategy.
CCIO: What was the most difficult challenge in making this shift?
MB: The initial fear of folks in the organization was the security paradigm of moving to the cloud. We looked at what we invested from a security perspective here currently at PCL, and then we looked at the types of investments that an organization like Microsoft makes in its data centre and security investments, and frankly there was no comparison, and Microsoft has a beautiful chart on their website that shows the 40, 50 plus certifications, security certifications that they have today, and I compared that to what we have in terms of security paradigms and for us to make similar investments it would have cost more than the entirety of our IT budget.
Once we got over that hurdle and understood that we couldn’t invest the same in security that a Microsoft could, and we could increase and improve our time and efficiency speed to market, and lower our costs at the same time, it became a pretty simple equation for us to go with it.
CCIO: After four years with PCL you’ve done a real transformation of your department. You’ve even rebranded it with a new name. Tell us about that and the customer advocacy group you’ve formed in your department.
MB: So, the rebranding of the group from Systems and Technology to Business Technology was several things in mind. One, we certainly wanted to shake the moniker of S&T, or “Sit and Talk.” Two, we certainly wanted the business to see that we were, in a more agile fashion, looking to align ourselves with them and the journey forward. I could see certainly, and many people on my team could see that certainly the intersection of business and technology together was going to be much more prevalent in the future than it was where we were, and certainly the business was telling us “Hey, you guys need to be quicker and more agile.” And equally so you could certainly see many things being pushed to us from the business that we weren’t ready for.
That transformation was really around getting ourselves aligned, shaking an old acronym that we didn’t need, but also there’s something really powerful in the marketing of yourself, and Business Technology, those two words together speak to where we wanted to be, and where we wanted to go, and certainly we’re in a position today that is extremely healthy in the regard. We’ve gone from having a little respect to a ton of respect in what we do for the organization.
CCIO: You’ve realized a number of benefits through your transformation effort. The nomination lists several of them: $500,000 per year in cost reduction for infrastructure support and maintenance to your on-premises stack, about equal savings on your storage, and a reduction in servers from more than 1,000 to 212. Those are great efficiency numbers, but I want to hear in your own words what you are most proud of accomplishing?
MB: Well first and foremost I’m absolutely the proudest of my team. They embraced the change, they adapted, they rose to the challenge, they succeeded in their challenge, they’re proud of the challenge that they embraced, which I thought was an impossibility when I first relayed it down to them, and they have done an absolutely phenomenal job in making this transformation, so much so that they are excited and ready for the next one.
And yeah, you described some numbers there in terms of savings. We’re certainly several hundred thousand dollars a year run rate in electricity, half a million in infrastructure support, plus we’d be over a million in storage today if we were continuing to buy and build out in our own data center on an annual basis.Yeah, 1,000 plus servers down to 200. All great stats, but the reduction of that infrastructure and the maintenance and support of that infrastructure as well again puts in a position for the future.
The people were scared of that change, embraced the change, made the change happen, got retrained, many people, and educated during the state of change, and they are now in a position today to be stronger, better, faster on the journey forward and I couldn’t be more proud of the team and what they’ve accomplished together, and what they’re going to accomplish. There’s an excitement and a vibe in the IT organization about what we’re doing and where we’re going, and to me that is the biggest victory.
We’ve reinvigorated the excitement in IT and why people initially join IT in the first place is because they’re looking for continuous change, and to get their hands on the latest technology, and to make a difference in the organization that they can see with their peers and the customers across this great company that we deliver to, and to me that’s what’s exciting. It’s about giving people what they need, what they want, and helping them realize that excitement in their careers, and outside of the technology that’s the biggest thing for me that I enjoy is seeing people grow, and learn, and deliver value back to our internal customers and external customers through everything we do.