zorandim75 - Fotolia

CIO interview: David Cooper, interim CIO at Centrica

Interim CIO at utility company Centrica tells Computer Weekly how his job is more than just keeping the lights on

David Cooper is interim CIO at British Gas parent company Centrica while it prepares to bring in a permanent IT head, but he not just keeping the lights on in an industry where IT is transforming operations and customer services.

Cooper, who agreed to become interim CIO earlier this year, will hand over to his permanent replacement, Mike Young - formerly CIO at advertising agency Dentsu Aegis Network, in a few weeks. At the moment, he is in charge of all Centrica’s IT, which is a diverse operation that includes technology for overseas businesses, oil and gas exploration and power stations, as well as the large British Gas estate.

After gaining a PhD in physics, Cooper began his career in research and development around optical fibre and lasers. “I then got into IT, particularly networking,” he says. “Then I deployed IP networks and was involved in the first UK broadband deployment when I worked for BT.”

Cooper then moved into mobile networking and took up a post at Three, where he worked on 3G networks. He was then at Talk Talk when it merged the customer bases of other operators.

In fact, it was his telecoms experience that got him a role at British Gas. “Because of smart metering, they wanted telecoms experience, which they did not have,” he says.

And it is smart metering and the introduction of smart technology across the business that is currently Cooper’s biggest challenge. “All these smart things make up the biggest project and spend,” he says.

Energy companies such as Centrica are entering a period of significant IT development with the government’s Smart Metering Implementation Plan (SMIP), which calls for the installation of millions of smart meters in homes and businesses across the UK to monitor their gas and electricity consumption and provide information that will help consumers and businesses use energy more efficiently.

“We have completed most of the big technical challenges this creates because we have been working on it for seven years,” says Cooper. “We have installed about two and a half million smart meters in people’s homes.”

Scaling up

It is now a matter of scaling the operation up and ensuring the infrastructure can deal with it, which is no small task, says Cooper. “There are an awful lot of meters still to go,” he adds.

There are two big internal drivers of IT projects at Centrica, says Cooper. “With the maturity of cloud, we are obviously taking advantage of that. For example, we are part way through migrating the business to Office 365.”

This will replace a desktop outsourcing deal with Fujitsu and is a major shift, he says. “We won’t have dedicated email servers with Fujitsu, and we won’t be using Fujitsu datacentres. This is a big change as we have an awful lot of users and applications.

“But Fujitsu will still be part of this as it will provide services that wrap around it, such as the IT service desk.”

Read more about IT in the utilities sector

Centrica has about 1,800 IT staff globally, with most in the UK, and outsources where it feels it can. 

“We outsource a significant amount and we have shifted the internal staff more towards strategy with more of the back end outsourced,” says Cooper.

For example, the company recently contracted Cognizant to standardise and automate processes and virtualise to reduce costs, as well as preparing the back end of IT for digital transformation. Cognizant runs many of Centrica’s processes, including its Oracle systems.

Outsourcing the back end has enabled the IT department to focus on strategic IT investments. In recent years, Centrica has used this impetus to pursue opportunities from the huge volumes of data it collects and stores.

Big data

A good example is big data, says Cooper, pointing out that data is located in multiple systems and has traditionally been difficult to access.

“We had lots of different systems with their own data,” he says, “so we created a large data lake to allow us to rationalise it and get data from the core systems of reference to our field users through Mongo DB cache technology. We now have a controlled mechanism for our field engineers to access core data.”

Centrica has about 17,000 people working in the field. Today, before an engineer steps into a customer’s house, they can see all the interactions the customer has had with the company through their mobile device, says Cooper.

This helps customer service, he adds. “If the engineer steps into the house and the customer, for example, has an outstanding complaint, it will be a very different conversation than if it is a happy customer. This [technology] allows them to tailor their conversation.”

This is also a sales opportunity because engineers can make recommendations, says Cooper.

Data is being opened up to field staff across the business, including those that fit smart meters or fix boilers, he says. “This was not possible before. We are now unlocking all the data, on systems such as SAP, through big data technologies.”

Read more on CW500 and IT leadership skills