Sydney Water CIO tells his story

Summary:Sydney Water chief information officer Tim Catley tells in an in-depth interview how he restored the credibility of the organisation's IT department and exorcised its tech demons with strong governance and a simple 100-day plan.

When Tim Catley joined Sydney Water Corporation as its new chief information officer back in 2005, he had $17 million to 'keep the lights on' — the group's board was reeling from a failed billing system implementation in 2001. Today, armed with a $60 million budget, Catley is taking on transformation again, only this time with strong governance.

Catley joined the state-owned corporation during a tough period for its IT department. "The credibility of the business was at an all-time low," Catley recently told delegates at Gartner's 2008 Symposium in Sydney, where he detailed Sydney Water's three-year IT makeover.

"There was no confidence that we could deliver. And there was no trust between the business and IT. So [the relationship] was not quite toxic, but not great either," he says.

That lack of trust was what was behind Sydney Water's paltry IT budget of $8.4 million in 2003. By 2005 the budget had doubled to $17.2 million, reflecting some growth in confidence. But this year, Catley has $60 million to work with; mostly to remediate what he says was a decade of underinvestment, which left the organisation littered with small contracts and a raft of ageing applications.

We built a simple 100-day plan that everyone could subscribe to and we started to execute on it. We focused on building confidence that we could deliver, so that we could extend beyond keeping the lights on.

Sydney Water CIO Tim Catley

"We should have been spending around $25 million to $30 million a year," Catley explains to "We had been really under-spending for around 10 years and so we have had a significant amount of remediation to do."

A culture of poor governance and planning for IT projects had culminated in a highly publicised failed billing system implementation in 2001, which not only spooked Sydney Water's view of IT, but sent ripples across the entire state government.

Under a deal signed-off by then director of Sydney Water, Michael Costa, PriceWaterhouseCoopers had been contracted to build its Customer Information and Billing System (CIBS). The project was estimated to cost $38 million, but blew out to $138 million and ended up with Sydney Water deflecting blame to PWC as it wrote off $61 million.

"We walked away from a multi-million dollar investment," Catley says of the billing system project. "That rocked confidence from the board down."

"We really didn't have much of a strategy. Planning, at best, was year to year. Because we had no discipline, priorities changed all the time. It was really hard to get good delivery. And we were pretty inefficient," he says.

First steps
Having entered such an environment, Catley understandably wanted to change the board's perception that IT could not deliver.

"We built a simple 100-day plan that everyone could subscribe to and we started to execute on it," he says. "We focused on building confidence that we could deliver, so that we could extend beyond keeping the lights on."

Sydney Water's IT dept
has weathered some storms.
(Credit: Weather warning sign by
Kriss Szkurlatowski, Royalty free)

To reinforce the idea that IT could do more than keep the lights on, Catley turned the department's approach to intellectual property on its head. "Pre-2005 we used to outsource our really IP-intensive processes," he says. "What we've done over the last couple of years is in-source those high valued-add tasks. We moved very much to an organisation model that tried to create intellectual property within IT."

This has meant shaping the department's capabilities around Sydney Water's business process groups: asset control, such as maintenance scheduling; customer management and billing systems; and corporate processes, such as human resources and finance. "That allowed us to build IP and knowledge about those processes and business units," he says. "That means our solutions architects really understand the application road map in their areas — how the applications connect with each other and how they interact with infrastructure."

Catley admits, however, that change hasn't been all smooth sailing. Some staff dissatisfied at the changes had left, while the tight labour market in 2006 foiled Catley's plan to fill senior roles first, which, if it had worked, would have allowed them to shape the team around them.

The department has largely moved past this phase now, and consists of around 180 staff, many of which come from Sydney Water's IT service providers, Fujitsu and Oakton. The joint workforce has three core units: projects, IT services, and the help desk.

Recent user and customer surveys still show there is room for improvement, but by and large feedback has indicated a growing confidence in the IT department's ability to deliver projects and services, according to Catley.

An indication that confidence has returned is that today the majority of expenditure is discretionary, says Catley. A case in point is the this year's rollout of IBM's Maximo scheduling system for maintenance staff, which came with around 600 new rugged notebooks for remote access.

"The majority of investment now is actually discretionary investment — around improving the business, and making us more efficient. That's been a really important to the transformation. It's a validation that IT can deliver," he says.

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Liam Tung is an Australian business technology journalist living a few too many Swedish miles north of Stockholm for his liking. He gained a bachelors degree in economics and arts (cultural studies) at Sydney's Macquarie University, but hacked (without Norse or malicious code for that matter) his way into a career as an enterprise tech, s... Full Bio

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