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HomeCIO SpotlightCIO Spotlight: Brandon Pfleckl, Chief Information Officer - PWCSA

CIO Spotlight: Brandon Pfleckl, Chief Information Officer – PWCSA

Walk us through your CIO path. How did you decide to pursue a career in technology, and how did you progress to your current organization?

I’ve always had a fascination with the aesthetics of the natural world as well as the mathematics behind it.  That fascination drove my early education into sustainability, technology, and the physical sciences. I settled into a Technical Program Manager role at a large, international firm, Wood PLC, where I supported environmental engineering projects with technology.  I was given a wide runway to explore team-building, client management, technology strategy, and business process management and was tasked with growing a Geographic Information System (GIS) business line in the Northeast. It was a daunting challenge but one I really enjoyed.

Starting with aggressive goals, no mandated approach, and no team gave me an opportunity to experiment, fail, and iterate rapidly.

After my time at Wood PLC, I started looking for new challenges. I found them in the water and wastewater utility industry where I joined Prince William County Service Authority (PWCSA), a nonprofit outside of Washington DC. I championed the cause of treating organizational data as a critical business asset and led development of a geospatial infrastructure integrated with condition, customer, and work order data.  In parallel, I began growing the internal technology team capacity and developed data quality and reliability governance programs to maximize the value of organizational data. 

I transitioned into a Chief Data Officer (CDO) role reporting to the GM which was a great opportunity to further business transformation and embed technology use into the company DNA.  I developed and chaired an executive leadership council focused on IT-Business alignment where we met throughout the year to identify and prioritize technology investments and track progress. With support from the GM, Board, and a strong technical team, I successfully led development of E2E infrastructure design and construction processes, water/wastewater network digital twins for use in real-time network operations, and implemented a data-driven capital investment prioritization framework.

I progressed from the CDO to the Chief Information Officer (CIO) position and pivoted my focus to defining more comprehensive technology strategies, policies, and processes focused on driving business optimization, security and reliability, engagement and transparency with our board and other stakeholders, and acquiring and retaining technology talent.  

Tell us about your company.  Speak to the industry, size of the company, and the services provided to your customers.

PWCSA is a high-performing, independent, non-profit water and wastewater utility that provides water and wastewater services to a population of roughly 400,000 residents and maintains roughly $1.5 billion in assets.  Technology security and reliability is especially important considering we’re critical infrastructure as defined by federal and state governments and essential to the sustainment of life. 

We’re proud of being industry leaders in service quality (with a 92% customer satisfaction rating) and a sterling environmental stewardship record. The SA has a phenomenal culture of continuous improvement and metrics-based performance management. This culture has earned us, among other awards, the Senate Productivity and Quality Award as part of the Malcolm Baldrige Performance Excellence program.  

What are your top 3 – 5 (ongoing) main priorities as a CIO in your organization?

My top three priorities as a CIO would have to be business optimization, security and reliability, and talent management. We employ a strategy of business optimization through technology simplification, automation and analytics. Our customers and stakeholders expect a good bang-for-the-buck for every dollar we spend. Our customer’s expectations have driven a need to leverage emerging cloud, automation, IoT, analytics and productivity technologies to improve our business processes.  

Furthermore, hospitals, fire departments, police departments, and our other customers require service 24/7/365.  Having highly reliable and available technology requires security, especially to address increased risks with remote work, ransomware, phishing attacks, and digital automation of workflows. All of this security must be implemented without hindering workforce productivity. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the job of acquiring and retaining diverse, team-oriented talent with cloud, analytics, cyber security, and data management expertise is never done.  We need to remain attractive to new talent and offer the right working environment, culture, and benefits to retain them.

I believe technology leaders are addressing big issues related to workforce development, security, and data right now. For example, the pandemic has accelerated the need for remote workforce capabilities, but it’s more than technology infrastructure and applications. There is an opportunity to re-model policies and processes that support real-time collaboration and workforce engagement in support of productivity gains. A few examples include: re-engineering workflows for e-approvals, fresh perspectives and policies on recruitment of non-local talent, and improvement in flexible working hours to support working parents. By late March we had transitioned 45 percent of our workforce to work from home (55 percent are needed to physically maintain our capital infrastructure) and deployed a strategy of process experimentation to deal with our changing context.

We were initially surprised at our productivity increases and have been working over the last few months to turn what works into updated policies, processes, and workforce training for consistent use.

Diversity and finding the right talent are also critical to the success of an organization. In my career, I’ve seen a disproportionate weight put on technical skills and too little focus on planning, team fit, an open-minded attitude, and a willingness to collaboratively brainstorm.  Navigating recruitment of the right talent and making the best use of the talent already present in the organization will require two critical things: (1) close partnerships with human resources and other senior leadership to develop the policies and processes to foster diversity and team performance, and (2) a commitment from senior leaders to evolve company culture through diversity. 

In today’s world, the likelihood and consequence of security risks, especially those for on-premise infrastructure and applications, evolve at an ever-increasing pace. Those risks are exacerbated by a recent transition to more WFH. This is a big challenge but also a big opportunity for technology leaders to hasten their transition to more cloud-based infrastructure, platform, and software services.

Last but certainly not least, analytical tools are prevalent and relatively easy to deploy, but a far greater challenge is implementing analytics that help move-the-needle on company performance in a measurable way. Technology leaders need to deliver data quality and governance frameworks, performance metrics aligned with strategy, clear success criteria for initiatives, and finally, analytical tools that support the aforementioned.  

How do you decompress from your role as a technology executive?  What do you do for fun?

Family is my highest priority.  Striving to be a good father has forced me to be more authentic considering children effortlessly see through veils of inauthentic behavior.  I’m convinced if you want your children to be gratuitous, integrous, and accepting of others’ differences you need to embody that – words alone don’t carry the message (the same concept applies in my role as a technology leader).

There is a real satisfaction I take from being a dad but to really decompress I seek the outdoors. Being alone in the wilderness offers an opportunity to connect to something bigger than yourself, get perspective, and navigate challenging scenarios. Solo backpacking in the Rockies, deserts of the southwest, and Sierra Nevada Mountains are favorite locations where I can remove myself from the daily hustle and bustle and take-on big challenges.

Can you list your top 1 -3 books that you would recommend for a technology leader to have on their bookshelf/kindle?

I’m a voracious reader of technology, economic, and leadership journals, and reading these journals helps me stay abreast of ever-evolving trends in the technology world and the economy.  The National CIO Review, MIT Technology Review, Bloomberg, and Harvard Business Review websites are some of my favorites.  The books Conscious Business by Fred Kofman and How Google Works by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenburg are two of my favorite books.  Conscious Business provides a science-of-psychology perspective of you and your staff as human beings and the impact human psychology has on a leader’s capabilities.  It has helped me change my perspective over the years and continuously improve as a leader, but also as a father and husband. Meanwhile, How Google Works is a fun read that helps take some of the guesswork out of how to run a company in a rapidly changing technological world and how to manage highly intelligent, creative, and competitive people. 

Can you share a specific quote that is a source of inspiration for you as a leader?

I’m fascinated with the personalities and perspectives of highly successful people regardless of whether they are athletes, politicians, scientists, executives, entertainers, etc.  There are many quotes to pick from but I use one of Einstein’s most frequently; “if you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough.”  I use that quote on a near daily basis as a barometer for how well I understand a topic.

As CXO’s, we face continual new challenges that require learning, decision making, and briefing to others.  If I can’t explain something simply it means I haven’t gathered and processed enough information yet.  And that is a trigger for me to dig-in and learn more before making a call.

Please share a recommendation or testimonial on the benefit that you see as a member of the CIO Professional Network?

The CIO Professional Network is one of my primary tools to stay connected with C-level technology-focused executives, review current industry trends, and technology opportunities. A few examples: the CIO Exchange is a fantastic forum to build a network and post comments/questions to the community of professionals that can bring the most value to the conversation; the Curated Articles and Research Briefs include targeted, timely information that helps me stay current with technology trends, challenges, and strategies; and the IT LeaderBoard targets the right audience for top-tier technology leader positions.

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