While he might not literally be laying the tracks for Canadian Pacific Railway Michael Redeker, CIO of CP Rail, he’s responsible for the silicon-based infrastructure that is crucially important to the smooth operation of the transportation icon.
When he joined the organization in 2012, the firm’s IT infrastructure looked like its age. The legacy systems of this transportation network had been outsourced to a long list of service providers. Redeker was tasked with changing that, and five years later his organization is completely transformed. Now not only does CP Rail have an iron network across the country, it has a digital one that delivers realtime analytics across the organization.
IT World Canada is 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. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
CanadianCIO: Your nomination for CanadianCIO of the Year describes CP as the most inefficient railway in North America before your tenure began. After new ownership came on and you were hired in 2012, things turned around. Tell me about the situation was like when you started.
Michael Redeker: In 2012 CP went through an ownership change and a leadership change. We had an activist group that acquired a fair portion of our shares and put in a new CEO, Hunter Harrison, who is an icon in the railway industry. We met probably two or three months after he joined CP, and Hunter asked me if I’d be interested in coming to run the IT shop here in Calgary.
At the time, IT operations were entirely outsourced. In total we had, I think it was seven large vendors that we outsourced literally every piece of our operations to. Harrison asked me to try to insource as much of those operations as we could. That was the ask, and within two years we had literally insourced everything – we built our own data centres, we insourced our application support teams, our network activities, and migrated everything off of a legacy mainframe to a converged infrastructure so we could operate more effectively.
CCIO: I understand you’re a major adopter of agile development methodology and you’ve used it to implement some new solutions at CP. Can you tell me about your agile process and go into detail about how that works for your team?
MR: CP was behind the curb in comparison to the other railways. If you took a traditional development methodology, you would be working on projects for years. We agreed that we were going to make mistakes, but take a totally different mindset and failures are OK – let’s just fail quickly and move on and let’s get solutions out the door in months, not years.
A good example is Railway Performance Monitoring (RPM). If you think of Google Maps, we can see every piece of track we have and we can see every locomotive. If you were to hover over a locomotive or piece of track, you get detailed information that enables our operations centre to make decisions more effectively. We built that solution in under eight months. We had three or four demos that we threw away, and that was OK. We learned each time and we got it right. Our business community was excited because they got to see products and solutions quicker than they ever had in the past. No disrepect to our outsourcing partners, but sometimes it’s a different conversation when you’re focused about a product and a solution rather than thinking about the cost.
CCIO: You used this agile methodology to implement a new health and safety dashboard across CP as well. I understand that it helps visualize the organization’s data. Can you tell me what data it’s exposed and how that has made an impact?
MR: We used a product called ClickView that is a visualization tool. We created a Microsoft SQL database that downloads information out of our environment and then exposes it to this tool. It was easy to get up and running, to be honest, but the benefits have been huge.
I can expose every employee inside our organization and tell how many tests they have taken and how many times they’ve passed or failed a safety test. I can tell, by age group, where we see the most incidents. For example, we were doing an analysis on all the safety stats and we saw a particular type of incident was happening only with employees that were here for three years or less. Now we were able to say to the workforce just getting started with CP, “You guys have to be careful in this area, because here’s where we’re seeing a trend in the incidents.”
CC: Let’s circle back to this ‘Google Maps’ style dashboard you built. I’m curious about how you built the backend to feed data to this service?
MR: We have sensors out in the field. These Internet of Things sensors will tell you when a train goes by and is fed back to our data centres. Based on the sensor information coming, we can say “train 101 just went by this sensor.” So now I can tell you where that train is. Then we have algorithms that we’ve built that says “OK, so train 101 went through a sensor in Toronto at 9:00 this morning and then it also went through a sensor 100 miles away at 9:30 in the morning. So that gives us the train speed.” We track train speed using this and I can tell you by region, by territory, or I can tell you what the individual train speed is.
What’s really cool is that we’ve pushed this out to apps on the mobile phones of some of our vice-presidents. So they’re in the yard and they can tell which trains are coming in and at what speed it’s coming in.
CCIO: Coming back to SAP and the nomination here, I know you worked with them to implemente a HANA database, which is the basis of which you’re collecting this big data and surfacing it with. SAP also nominated you and says that as a vendor, it learned lessons from you about how to build a database for the rest of the railway industry. What is your strategy to collaborate with your vendors and especially SAP here?
MR: We have a very good relationship with SAP. I know a lot of folks that try to get an ROI on HANA, and with all due respect, it’s very difficult to do. But I do believe in big data, I do believe in one single source of the truth, and I do believe that consolidation of information with a predictive analytics tool enable you to transform how you think, behave, and communicate in an organization.
SAP was able to learn a lot about the data we collect, why we collect it, and how we collect it. It applied that to the volume of data that would sit on your HANA repository. That was a very open and collaborative dialogue. Likewise, we as a team, learnt that HANA provided us far more than we originally anticipated. We were one of the first adopters of HANA in Canada, so we had a bit of growing pain, but it’s proven extremely successful. Just this morning I was meeting our engineering folks to plan on how to collect more asset information and populate it in HANA. We’re going to improve how we maintain geospatial information, how we maintain track information, and over time as we collect it and house this in HANA, we truly believe we’ll get much better at predictive analytics and improving our maintenace record in the field. SAP will help us through that journey.
CCIO: What advice would you offer to other CIOs about how to have that conversation with vendors about adapting their product to your needs?
MR: We don’t have a lot of vendors at CP. We have a few strategic vendors that we partner with. When you have a number of vendors, you create a bit of a headache. We’ve picked a few strategic partners and when we pick them, we have a very transparent and honest and open dialogue. It’s not about holding your cards close to your chest. Any negotiation or any scenario that you work with a vendor, if there’s a winner and a loser, you actually both end up losing.
The philosophy is always to create a win-win. I will help them get a better product and I will win in the long term because I get a better solution that I can roll out to my business units. If their product doesn’t work, I’m the first to have a conversation with them. When it does work and it works well, I’ll be there equally to take a reference call or help the vendor out, because it’ll get me a better solution.
CCIO: To finish here, I have to ask you something more fun – what’s the most memorable train trip you’ve been on?
MR: The best train trip I took… CP has lots of engineers that have done some cool things. We have a couple of tunnels called a spiral tunnel, and if you’ve ever had the opportunity to see it, it’s quite an engineering feat. You ride a train, it goes in one end of the tunnel and curls around in a loop. It’s much easier to get the train to go up a grade if it goes through a circle. So it goes in making a right-hand turn and it goes through the mountain, loops in half a circle and then it goes the right-hand side of the mountain. Our trains are so long now that when you get out of the tunnel on the right-hand side, you look over your shoulder and you can see the tail end of the train just starting to head inside the mountain. It’s just incredible.