Technologist taking on utility giants in the wild wild west

Dhwanit Shah, has been the CIO of Energy Ogre in Houston for the last 5 years. Energy Ogre is taking on the deregulated energy environment in Texas and introducing technology to help users optimize for savings.

**Please note that this interview has been abbreviated for this blog. 

Ras Gill-Boulos: That’s awesome. Tell us about what you mean about being a hybrid between an energy and a technology shop.

Dhwanit Shah: I tend to get very long answers for this. Texas’ electricity market is deregulated. It means people can buy electricity from a whole bunch of different places. Typically, the companies that do that are more marketing shops than actual electric companies. The delivery and generation of electricity stays the same no matter who you go with. Our idea was that the process of buying electricity is rather complicated. People tend to make the wrong choice when they’re buying something because they’re not fully informed about what’s happening.

Initially, we tried to make something that would show people more information on how things are done, just as an unbiased expert in the field. This tells you this is how you actually shop. More and more, the feedback we got from people was, “I don’t care. Can I just pay you to do it?” That’s sort of how this happened, where we charge somebody a monthly fee for handling their procurement of power, finding the right plan for them, switching them to it, handling all the logistics behind it of paying your bills and so on.

“We are able to roll things out as if we were a startup but with still the structure and the quality assurance that you would at a larger company.”

It’s not a cheap endeavor if you were to do this using humans. That’s how we actually started out doing it where we were spending far more money doing the work than we were getting. The idea was to build software that does a whole lot of these things on its own and use tools that are available in the market today that weren’t available a few years before. We’re based entirely out of a cloud, which today is a pretty normal thing.

Six years ago, that was sort of a risky endeavor. Building software that actually works on people’s accounts that actually goes in and makes financial decisions for them and goes in and executes them. That was something that people were not very comfortable a few years ago. They are getting to be much more comfortable doing it now.

Gill-Boulos: Tell us about the decision for the company to have you come in as a CIO and what exactly the day-to-day looks like for you.

Shah: It doesn’t feel like a leadership role. I mean, it obviously is. There are times that I have to make leadership decisions, and it’s based on that. Overall, it just feels like working at a really small company. Even though we’ve had a lot more people, we work pretty hard to maintain the culture of all the doors are always open. You’re able to talk to anybody you want. There’s not the kind of structure that you have at larger companies. We’ve actually gone out of our way to not have some of that. Several of our people here came from larger companies. I used to work at BP. The environment is quite different. What we noticed, is when we were smaller, there were a lot of openings that we had that you would normally not have if you had a giant structure where we’re able to shift from one idea to another idea fairly quickly.

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We wanted to preserve that culture. Because of that, there’s a whole lot of things that we do here that almost started out as a protest against what corporate culture is supposed to be like. Our dress code is far more relaxed. Our schedules are much more flexible, unless you’re working on something that’s actually timed. For example, if you’re working in support, you have to be here a certain amount of time. In terms of development or anything IT, in general, our culture is far more accepting of things like work from home when you need to. Come in later if you have to. If you had a long night, take some time off and not have it count as something against you, because you didn’t have enough butt-in-seat time.

We adjusted how we move things, how we do releases and so on. Rather, we have a fixed schedule that releases go out on. Rather than living and dying by the release date, if something really cools comes up that we want to get out in front of our audience more quickly, we are able to do that. We are able to roll things out as if we were a startup but with still the structure and the quality assurance that you would at a larger company. It’s almost like we picked and chosen the things that work for us.

Gill-Boulos: A question that we got from one of our users is, what does your organization structure actually look like on the CIO side of things? When you look at your team, what does that look like today?

Shah: It’s actually very flat. We have a CEO, and underneath him, we have a COO and CIO and that’s it. We have people underneath us. My team, for example, I have eight developers and two desktop/support people and a project manager. I’m not involved in the day-to-day work that they do. I’m still of what it is that they do, but I have a lead developer.

He handles some part of it. I have another lead who handles mostly RND and that sort of thing. I have a couple of programmers who do work with, in a very limited capacity, some outsourced teams. They’re teams that don’t actually work in our code base. They’re usually people who work on black boxes for us, and then they hand them over to us. We put them into our code base. We work with a company that has some developers in India. We’ve worked with a developer directly out of the Philippines. We’ve also had a few local contractors.

It’s one of those things where being a small company, there’s a lot more flexibility there. We still vet them, obviously, and do our due diligence before we bring them in. I do have the flexibility of saying, this particular project, rather than having two of my developers work on it for three months, I’m going to bid this out and then get somebody to do it. The developers on my team are still the ones that are maintaining that relationship and ensuring the code quality and the requirements are being met. They’re tested appropriately and that sort of thing.

Gill-Boulos: Got it. It really does sound like you also have the CTO role, not just the CIO role both rolled up into one.

Shah: It is a little bit of both. I can wear the hats separately. There are times when I have to go, okay, now I am the CIO, and I represent the business and this is what the business wants. I’ll turn around and be like, “Well, as the CTO, I don’t think that really makes sense. We need two months to do this, and that’s how long it’s going to take.”

Gill-Boulos: Dhwanit, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today. We really appreciate this.

Shah: Yeah. I had a good time. Thank you.

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