Why the Energy Industry Needs More Hikers and Weather Forecasters

By Karen Austin, SVP, CIO, PG&E

Karen Austin, SVP, CIO, PG&E

As the head of IT for the energy company that powers California’s Silicon Valley, I need to make sure I’m at the top of my game to keep the lights on and gas flowing for the likes of Google, Facebook, and Apple. How do I do this? Building a strong and diverse team is a huge part of the equation. The energy industry is drawing all kinds of new talent these days, as utilities around the globe are modernizing their infrastructure to help customers save money, provide new levels of reliability, and combat climate change. In fact, our industry has experienced more growth and innovation in the last 15 years than at any other point in the past century.

All of this innovation has resulted in a new set of job categories, many of which haven’t historically existed at a utility company. Three examples that particularly stand out are design thinkers who help us create a more human approach to technology, IT telecommunications workers who get their hands dirty building the future energy grid and meteorologists who leverage the latest technology to predict what nature has in store for us.

"Innovative new devices are being placed on poles and wires to allow us to immediately identify and remotely repair outages "

Design Thinkers Chart a New Path

With the increasingly complex role that technology plays in the modern business, many companies are moving to a new approach that focuses on the end user’s experience. Called “design thinking,” this approach involves designing a new system, process, or application in a way that’s intuitive and simple from the user’s point of view. At my own company, we’re implementing a new approach to how we plan for and manage mobile technologies across the enterprise. Design thinking is a huge part of this effort, and we’re recruiting, hiring, and training people with this skill set. And I know we’re not alone. If you’re looking to grow within your current job or identify new opportunities, you’ll expand your reach with some design-thinking knowledge and skills under your belt.

IT Telecommunications Workers Climb to New Heights

Technology has come to the energy grid in a big way. Innovative new devices are being placed on poles and wires to allow us to immediately identify and remotely repair outages. These intelligent switches and remote sensors isolate trouble areas and re-route power where needed. But it requires a special skill set to install and maintain these technologies. IT telecommunications workers not only need to be technologically savvy, they must be able to operate in occasionally extreme conditions. A day in the life of an IT telecom worker might involve a three-hour hike to the top of a mountain to install a new switch, a helicopter lift to a damaged router on a remote power line, or a ride in an off-road vehicle to perform maintenance on a microwave tower. Team members who can exhibit this unusual mix of tech smarts and physical performance are in high demand across the industry.

Meteorologists Keep an Eye on the Skies

People have been attempting to predict the weather for centuries, but instead of relying on wind vanes and grandpa’s trick knee acting up, meteorologists today use the latest technologies to calculate what’s coming next. Weather forecasting plays a vital role in the energy industry, as utilities need to know if storms, heat waves, cold snaps, or high-wind warnings will impact their ability to safely provide power to customers. The six-person meteorology team at my company is using the latest storm outage prediction models, historical data, and digital mapping to pinpoint where the worst weather will hit. Their job, like that of their counterparts at other electric power providers, is to issue an early-warning call, helping mobilize the support of repair crews, customer care providers and company leadership. With El Niño bringing high levels of wind and rain to California this season, their job is especially crucial to company operations. For job seekers interested in technology and weather forecasting, this field shows no signs of slowing down — not only for the energy sector, but other fields such as aviation and shipping that rely on clear skies for smooth operations.

While these are just three examples, the fact remains that new and exciting job opportunities are continually opening up in both the technology and energy sectors. My advice for job seekers is to conduct exhaustive research to identify emerging opportunities like the ones I’ve mentioned, to keep their skills sharp through continuous learning, and to avoid limiting themselves to just one industry. If you’re following these tips, you just might be riding a helicopter to repair a remote sensor before the next wind storm.

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