Brent Fawcett, Head of Information Technology at Robert B. Somerville Co. Limited, discusses the critical role of IT and data governance in the oil, gas, and energy infrastructure sector.
Avenue Code: Tell us about your career path. How did you get to where you are today?
Brent Fawcett: I entered IT when computer science was emerging in schools. Fortran was the programming language of the day, which we had to submit using punch cards. My first personal computer was a Commodore 64. I spent many hours on BBSs (Bulletin Board Systems) that I accessed via “dial-up” over a 300 Baud Modem. I muddled around writing code in BASIC, but my career began in the hospitality industry. I was always technologically inclined, and I remember being fascinated by point of sale (POS) systems and inventory processes.
It wasn’t until I started having children that I decided to formalize my education, which led to senior roles as a networking specialist. My first role was at Nortel, and the progressively senior roles were at Harley-Davidson, Canadian Tire, DAVIS & HENDERSON, and Hydro One, which transmits about 97% of Ontario’s electricity. From there, I became an IT Operations Manager at Alectra before taking my current role as Head of IT at Robert B. Somerville. In my present position, I manage all IT operations and can make a strategic impact on business operations.
AC: What are the major responsibilities of an IT department in the oil, gas, and energy infrastructure sector?
BF: At Hydro One and Alectra, my primary concern was safety for workers and reliability for consumers since I was responsible for the infrastructure that the critical applications leveraged to controlled electrical transmission and distribution.
Delays due to technical failures have a huge impact on project costs, so at Robert B. Somerville, I’m responsible for making sure that end users have high-functioning apps with relevant data easily available. I’m also helping to transition the company to a remote work model, which is challenging for an industry that so heavily relies on travel and is slow to transition to newer technologies.
AC: How has COVID-19 affected Robert B. Somerville Co. Limited’s operations?
BF: There was no question of cancelling our current contracts, but the big challenge was that, while our revenue remained relatively the same, our operational costs rose exponentially. We had high PPE costs and logistical challenges related to social distancing regulations.
Before COVID-19, we already had a virtual environment utilizing Citrix and the Microsoft 365 Ecosystem (Teams, SharePoint Online, OneDrive, etc.) The infrastructure was there, but we had to quickly educate everyone in our company to transition effectively. Additionally, we had partners that had no virtual infrastructure in place, so we were called on to help them pivot as well. Moving our preferred method of engagement to our existing help desk system was also important.
AC: As Head of IT, what changes are you making to help the company adapt and sustain itself through the pandemic?
BF: One of my biggest focuses is business enterprise risk management. I’m helping the company assess which IT operations are critical for the business, including applications and data, confidentiality, integrity, and availability. We’re creating a security work stream and developing policies to protect data, which is even more important now that remote work means less control and increased vulnerability to malware, phishing, etc.
AC: Where do you see the biggest payoffs for your industry when it comes to investing in IT?
BF: Data analytics is critical. We’ve collected huge amounts of data for repetitive tasks, and now it’s time to visualize that data and convert it into actionable business payoffs. For example, we have a lot of expensive equipment without great oversight, so we need to use technology like embedded IoT to predict equipment failure, track equipment location, etc. This is an enormous undertaking that takes time, but it’s an important investment.
AC: What’s next for Robert B. Somerville Co. Limited in 2021 and beyond?
BF: From a business perspective, the demand for oil and gas remains high, so we’ll continue building pipelines for government and big businesses. We also plan to grow our utilities business into new verticals, especially in Ontario. From an IT perspective, we want to establish an intranet portal for information sharing, onboarding, external payment portals, etc.
AC: What roles will data, machine learning, and automation play in your upcoming initiatives?
BF: Like everyone else, we’re gathering massive amounts of data. Now we need to understand how to convert that data into efficiency gains with automation. For example, we sometimes onboard 500 people in a month, and we need to automate that process so it’s less time intensive for managers.
The same is true for security. We need to find a way to analyze data in our event management system and automate the process of identifying and sending alerts for malicious activity. Enabling data visualization is a process that requires specialists.
AC: What is the key to successful strategic partnerships in the IT area?
BF: Both parties need to be transparent and understand that it’s not a vendor relationship but partnership management. Anything other than win-win is always lose-lose. All of my partners have certain competencies and certain areas that aren’t fortes. Being candid about strengths and weaknesses saves time and money.
AC: What are you personally most passionate about in your career?
BF: I’m an information junkie, so I’m always challenging myself by investigating new technologies I learn about through vendors, mentors, and peers. Outside of technology, I’m very invested in the lives of my adult children. I’m also personally passionate about health and wellness and have become a triathlon athlete. Whether it’s tech or fitness, I like to push boundaries and be uncomfortable, because that’s where I grow.
AC: Thanks for your time today, Brent. It’s been great to learn about your personal career and hear your perspective on data visibility within the oil, gas, and energy sector.
Alfredo Moro is a Business Development Specialist at Avenue Code who is passionate about sales and loves to connect with clients all over the world! In his spare time, he enjoys watching the soccer games of his favorite team and cooking Brazilian BBQ in his backyard.