Suncor’s John Hill talks IT strategy and leadership

As business is continually evolving, every enterprise is going to have to fundamentally rewrite the way they work in today’s environment. In the world of information technology, we often talk about continuous improvement around ‘people, process, and technology’, but the challenge for many is the ability to articulate exactly what that means, along with the strategies to implement for realizing business value.

John Hill, Vice President of Digital and Information Technology at Suncor Energy, is one of those rare thought leaders that takes a holistic view for driving better business outcomes. Suncor is Canada’s leading integrated energy company, with a global team of over 30,000 people. Suncor’s operations include oil sands development, production and upgrading, offshore oil and gas, petroleum refining in Canada and the US, and its national Petro-Canada retail distribution network (now including its Electric Highway network of fast-charging EV stations).  Suncor is responsibly developing petroleum resources, while profitably growing a renewable energy portfolio and advancing the transition to a low-emissions future.

John’s experience and expertise in this domain is what other IT leaders would be wise to replicate. Taking a pragmatic approach, John shares his insights to the benefit of those currently developing their IT strategies as well as those thinking about pursuing senior IT leadership positions.

Brian Clendenin: Disruptive competition tops the list of challenges for many industries. To what extent is the energy industry impacted by it and how is Suncor addressing it?

John Hill, Vice President of Digital and Information Technology at Suncor

John Hill: “I think the battle right now is around optimization of existing assets. Organizations that have made the shift to better utilization of digital and data as a way of optimizing the organization and its operations, using data and analytics to enable quick, informed decisions and using digital tools to gain insights and visibility into areas that historically we wouldn’t have access to are the organizations that are going to maintain a competitive edge.

Those are the organizations that are disrupting the marketplace. When we look at what the industry hyper-scalers have done to some of the less aggressive organizations in the high-tech industry, you can see a lot of their success is digital and data centric often focused on customer-informed insights. Having those types of insights on assets in the value chain or customers is going to prove crucial for players to stay relevant in the energy industry too.”

Brian: As a digital and IT leader with a long history in this field, how do you think the role of CIOs and other senior IT leaders has changed?

John: “I hope to think we have moved from traditional technology leaders to becoming a true business partner and technology enabler to tackle real business problems.

Historically, CIO’s were in the back office – focused on technology infrastructure, maintaining complex work environments and managing costs versus focusing on value and driving a business conversation. We still need a focus on infrastructure (what we now call platforms) and operations, but now we are using standardized technologies to focus on changing the business while confidently and quietly running the business.

Now, CIOs have a key role in transforming the organization’s culture and mindset. Our work is centred on ways to improve the business, streamline operations, making work seamless for clients and customers, improving collaboration and getting powerful technologies into the hands of our employees to drive innovation. We are brokering conversations around simplification and digital transformation to enable real-time access to information and reducing the time-to-market. That means we’re giving employees more time to think and concentrate on their work……removing technology friction. We’ve also formed strategic partnerships with different companies that are helping reduce complexity so we can focus on value and what’s driving the most competitive advantage for a company. That’s a fundamental shift from traditional IT teams.”

Brian: A lot of people have mixed feelings about automation, AI, machine learning, and the Internet of Things (IoT). How do you view these impacting your industry and the future of work?

John: “I think they will drive more time for employees to focus on high value activities. We’ll be able to relieve ourselves of some of the more mundane, repetitive actions and rely on solutions that can do these more safely, consistently and reliably. By using these technologies to automate and streamline running complex processes, we can focus on higher value business activities and innovation.

Suncor Control Room at Base Plant

Artificial intelligence, advanced analytics and machine learning are all elements of how we strengthen our intelligence through big data. We collect a wealth of data right now, but there’s no way for to us to humanly keep up with the volume that’s coming through. Automating that information will help us get insights out of that data and apply it in a way that will help drive our transformation.

These technologies don’t come without risk.  It is important to balance ethics and artificial intelligence. We do need to be thoughtful around how much we rely on machines versus having controlled human intervention. We also need to consider the privacy our data, ensuring that confidential information is secured and utilized in an ethical manner.

If it’s done right and we have guidelines, principles and policies around the use of artificial intelligence, I think it can make a vast difference not just for our company, but globally. From driving personal and business productivity to environmental improvements. By sharing knowledge with other companies both across our industry and beyond, we can accelerate solutions to global challenges. For example, with cybersecurity, we know that sharing of threat intelligence is key and it enables other companies to arm themselves better against cyber adversaries. Having advanced technologies at our fingertips for the right purpose will make things better for all of us.”

Brian: Traditional digital and IT groups are recognizing a need to shift their operating model to new ways of working. How are you making this shift at Suncor, and where are you on that journey?

John: “In the past, we may have outsourced our core services to third party suppliers. But the risk with that is losing control of your critical thinking and business knowledge, or worse yet, never getting the chance to build that muscle in your people or outsourced service provider.  Additionally, the delivery of our products and services may be overly complex, and in some respects, outsourcing could drive higher cost.  I have a philosophy to simplify and standardize your services before outsourcing them.  Don’t get caught up in the hype that a third party will solve that complexity just because they now own it.

One of the key shifts we have made is towards agile and business product models and new ways of working using frameworks like DevOps to change how we fundamentally support programs and projects. We’ve now employed smaller dedicated teams embedded closer to the business working on iterative development. While we focus on fewer projects, they are higher value projects that are going to make a real difference for the organization.  This is tough to do in a heavily outsourced environment.

We are already seeing significant improvement in delivery and at a lower cost. The ability to do more without having to increase our headcount creates a real advantage from a business perspective: better results at lower costs and quicker delivery. Further, our employees are more empowered. Rather than having to hand something off two or three times before an outcome, teams work on the project end-to-end and own the outcome. They are part of the strategic business conversations with a defined product owner who represents the business, and they are able to achieve incremental improvements to moving projects into production faster than ever before.”

Brian: How do you deal with legacy technology debt while trying to drive a digital transformation and innovation?

John: “You can’t just shut the lights off on legacy technology and focus everything on change initiatives – you need a balanced portfolio. That means allocating a percentage of your time, effort and monetary resources to changing the business and a certain portion towards running the business. Then you can start to optimize by working very closely with your business partners and technology suppliers, so you make advancements in removing technological debt in a controlled manner based on balanced risk.

In some cases, you grandfather technology. In other cases, you may determine it’s best to shut it off and go with a new technology altogether.

One of the key enablers for us is the adoption of software out of the box following industry standards and processes. We are doing very minimal customization and instead, working with the business to adapt to the best practices embedded in technology, leverage the learning from thousands of organizations that are optimized in the same software package. Similarly, with cloud computing, we’re able to cap off some of our legacy environments and take advantage of inherent cloud native capabilities for speed and potentially a lower cost.”

Brian: What advice do you have for someone with aspirations to enter into senior/executive level leadership roles in the digital and IT space?

John: “Formal education is important as a starting foundation, yet there are other drivers. Many IT leaders don’t have traditional backgrounds. They can come from finance, engineering, HR, etc. What’s critical to succeed is having an aptitude for understanding the importance of relationships and translating technology with business opportunity.

It’s important to expand your knowledge beyond pure IT and gain broad experience and understanding of the nuances of business operations. Take opportunities to work closely with business partners across multiple disciplines so you understand the broader business aspects of the job. Look at opportunities to shift roles every five to seven years including lateral movement to gain exposure so you can bring different perspectives.

I was in engineering by profession early on. I made the shift to IT and back to engineering two or three different times. That allowed me to think differently and understand different approaches to dealing with different technology, clients and customers.

The key thing is to always be learning. Learn from leaders that you respect and from colleagues whose ethics and principles you admire, and don’t be afraid to reach out to those individuals for mentorship either formally or informally.

Finally, do what you love. One of the best pieces of advice I received was from one of my university professors years ago. He said if you are in a job where you are always watching the clock because you can’t wait for the end of the workday, it’s probably time to move onto a different role. Working in an environment that aligns to your passion makes the day go fast and drives your motivation at the toughest of times.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Brian Clendenin
Brian Clendenin
"We are at one of the most exciting moments in history when it comes to innovation in IT driving innovation in business." Widely recognized as a powerful speaker intertwining storytelling and expertise, Clendenin writes and speaks on the topics of leadership, cloud, infrastructure, monitoring & analytics, DevOps, AI, machine learning, security, mobility, IT strategy, and digital transformation. Invests his time interviewing engaging thought leaders. (Connect with Brian Clendenin on LinkedIn)

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