Chris Foster – TC Energy
On a cold, snowy day on the Canadian plains, where a biting wind howls and the chill runs from the eyebrows to the toenails, teams of technicians work to ensure that the region’s myriad energy pipelines are properly maintained.
It’s work that often sends them far afield to make sure there aren’t any issues or pressure changes disrupting service. What’s more, that data needs to be captured and transmitted quickly, says Chris Foster, chief information officer for the Calgary-based TC Energy.
At the beginning of 2020, Foster’s vision was to ensure that the company’s network of pipelines—which could circle the globe twice over—are able to relay the location of specific problems. He can’t get everyone in from the cold, but he can direct them to the spots that need attention.
By mid-March, Foster was focused on an entirely different flow as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world. But as the company pivoted, with employees transitioning to work remotely and company meetings drawing 7,000 online participants, Foster found his efforts to transform TC Energy through tech carried a new resonance.
“I want people to understand that IT at TC Energy is changing its culture, and it’s a fun and interesting place for people to come work,” he says. “But this has been amazing to see how people’s tolerance for change adapted so quickly.”
New data flows
TC Energy, which changed its name from TransCanada in 2019, has transported natural gas and oil for more than 65 years. Its oil and liquids network, which transports 20 percent of western Canadian exports, extends from Alberta to refining markets in Illinois, Oklahoma and the East and Gulf coasts of the U.S.
In fact, according to Foster, 25 percent of the natural gas used each day in North America is transported through TC Energy’s pipelines.
Pre-COVID-19, Foster’s focus was squarely on encouraging a culture change—one that not only empowered TC Energy employees to embrace the tech he introduces; but to use that tech to leverage better business outcomes.
“If someone asks for better field network, are we having the right conversation? Network is a ‘how’ and isn’t a business problem,” Foster says. “The business problem is productivity of our field-based workforce and making sure they have the tools they need to safely do their jobs. So let’s focus on that outcome before leaping to technology.”
Clarity during coronavirus
It would seem Foster was in the wrong place at the wrong time—half a world away in New Zealand—when TC Energy began shifting to remote operations.
First, he turned to the little-used Microsoft Teams, which he’d added in 2019 to improve internal communications. As the company tested to see how well employees could work outside the office, the platform proved its worth from the start.
As soon as TC Energy employees started sharing tips with each other on how to use Teams, Foster knew he had the tech buy-in. The company’s corporate communications team also uses Teams to hold town hall meetings spanning the breadth of operations. Failed TV sitcoms have drawn fewer viewers than the 7,000 TC Energy employees who tune in once a month or more to hear from company leaders.
Foster had already worked with Amazon Web Services to move TC Energy’s operations out of the data center and onto the cloud because of the analytics capabilities, and says AWS WorkSpaces have also helped virtually onboard over 200 students, providing them the opportunity to gain valuable work experience.
So while the AWS platform houses an AI prototype—crunching 240 million rows of data and making 4,000 calculations per minute—there’s also plenty of help available to make those numbers work for new business models, such as ensuring pipeline operators have the clearest and most detailed picture of operations and potential trouble spots.
Not all solutions were store-bought, however. While Foster worked with Equinix to ensure the cloud operations had the capacity to handle new demand along with a new, secure virtual private network solution, he and his team also created the EMCall app to enable better and quicker communication for field employees.
“The infrastructure in the field does not care if there’s a pandemic going on,” he says. “There were people who had to carry on working, and we were able to be very agile.”
The ability of Foster and his teams to add and leverage tech to keep TC Energy going came as no surprise to Troy Heibein, a client service lead at Slalom who works with TC Energy. As a global consulting firm, Slalom has no shortage of companies relying on it for tech strategies and business transformation. Heibein says its success comes in supplying the best talent and expertise required to drive change.
“A lot of companies are interested in the transformation, but once the rubber hits the road, the legacy and cultural roadblocks slow the process,” Heibein says. “For us, Chris’ superpower is that he proactively removes those roadblocks. As a result, they’re able to take advantage of what we offer and we can move ahead to create demonstrable business value.”
Coming to the country
Moving ahead in tech is not necessarily something Foster thought he’d do, especially in a western Canadian setting.
Raised in Bedford, England, about an hour north of London, Foster graduated high school at age 17 and went on to study law at Newcastle University and then Northumbria University. A practicing attorney who loved “the energy of getting up in a crowd and making a case,” he moved to Canada in the late 1990’s to be with the woman whom he eventually married.
However, while English attorneys can practice law with undergraduate degrees, Foster soon discovered a Canadian license to practice required more school than he had time for—or could afford.
Instead, he took an intensive tech course at Calgary’s Information Technology Institute, doing so well he became a course leader and facilitator for a year. Foster continued to teach tech at other schools while working as a programmer analyst at SuperPages and Bell Canada.
In 2005 he joined the energy industry as a senior program manager for Encana Corporation, and had risen to direct its IT infrastructure services by the time he left for TC Energy in 2016.
“I love the technology and find it interesting, but what matters to me is what I can do with it for business,” he says.
While the TC Energy post-pandemic office structure had not been determined when Foster spoke with Toggle in June, he says the digital transformation is far from over.
“TC Energy’s IT organization is not only a fun and interesting place to work; we’re asking people to go a step further and be outcomes obsessed—working with the business in a different way,” Foster adds.
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