Becky Blalock ,Senior VP & CIO, Southern Company | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND
A Career of Firsts
By Karen Rosen, Atlanta Trend
Becky Blalock has never been one to just go with the flow. Growing up an Air Force brat, she went to four high schools, three junior highs and eight elementary schools, learning to make herself feel at home anywhere from England to Oklahoma.
That resilience has served Blalock well over the last 33 years as she moved around nearly as much within Southern Company on her way to becoming Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer
“I do think that all that moving around, as painful as it was when I was young, has been key to helping me learn how to adapt,” Blalock says. “I’m not afraid of change and not afraid to go into new environments. Having done that a lot growing up equipped me when I came to work for Southern Company to make moves outside of my comfort zone.”
In her current role, Blalock directs information technology strategy and operations across Southern Company’s 120,000-square mile footprint, including nine subsidiaries. The company has 4.4 million customers in four states and more than 42,000 megawatts of generating capacity.
Within her scope of responsibilities, she leads a team of 1,100 employees who took a leadership role in Southern Company’s “Smart Grid” initiative, which includes the Smart Meter rollout.
Before taking on this pivotal role eight years ago, Blalock worked in more than half a dozen different groups within Southern Company, from Customer Service to the Office of the CEO. It’s clear her broad background has helped equip her for the challenges that come across her desk today.
Blalock never dreamed of becoming one of the most powerful women in the utility industry when she graduated from high school in Moultrie, Ga. She enrolled at the University of West Georgia with the intention of becoming a social worker. While she was in college, Blalock leveraged her advanced math skills and decided to start taking business classes.
“It’s commonplace today, but in those days I was one of only three women in the school of business,” Blalock says. “Girls just didn’t go to school to do those kinds of things and I found that I really loved business.”
Armed with a marketing degree, she was recruited straight out of school by Georgia Power in 1978 to join its Accounting Management Training program.
Nearly 10 years later and with an MBA from Mercer University to boot, in 1987 she again paved the way for women by becoming the company’s first female project manager in economic development. The job was gratifying because Blalock, a “people person at heart,” could see tangible results when a major national or international company brought jobs to the state of Georgia.
Georgia Power’s sponsorship of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics was a significant moment in the company’s history and Blalock played two integral roles. At this point in her career she was in a position lobbying the Georgia Public Service Commission, but left it to return to economic development as a Manager. Georgia Power worked with communities and other companies across the state and it was so successful with its program, Operation Legacy, that other Olympic host cities have tried to duplicate it.
Around this same time, Blalock also ran public relations for Georgia Power, a job which proved very educational. Blalock honed in on her ability to think and act quickly on her feet. Those living in Atlanta in the mid-90s will remember Hurricane Opal tearing through metro Atlanta.
“Any time a storm comes through, you’ve got to be proactive in communicating with your customers,” she says.
The company still has the same four key messages Blalock became so familiar with during that time: reliability, low prices, world-class customer satisfaction and being good citizens in the community.
Carving an IT Career Path
Prior to the Olympics, Blalock had a brief stint in IT. Though unexpected, it was a decision she would look back on with gratitude. For nine months she was a regional CIO. She took the position after participating in the Program for Management Development at Harvard University and serving as an assistant to Southern Company CEO Allen Franklin for five months. Franklin encouraged her to pursue the opportunity.
“I said, ‘I don’t know anything about IT, Allen.’ He said the job’s not about the technology. That job is about information.”
Once again, Blalock’s efforts proved to be productive. Her team successfully contributed to the difficult task of centralizing IT at Southern Company.
“Had I not done that nine-month stint, I would never have been put in (my current) job. So I think it’s very important for people to not shy away from developmental opportunities.”
While vice president in charge of Southern Company’s community and economic development group, Blalock found herself missing IT. She threw her name in the hat for the CIO position—and got it.
“I had always missed that pace I experienced when I was in IT,” she says, adding that “IT is so much about the future. You’re always thinking ahead. And it touches the whole company, so you get such a good view of what’s going on everywhere across the Southern Company footprint.”
In 2009, Blalock was named CIO of the Year in the electric utility industry by Energy Biz Magazine. Additionally, under her leadership, Southern Company has been recognized as one of the 100 Most Innovative Companies by CIO Magazine and one of the 100 Best Places to Work in IT by Computerworld Magazine.
Generating Power Through IT
For the “Smart Grid” initiative, Southern Company’s IT organization is helping drive the transformation of the company. A smart grid can closely monitor energy flow and use across a large network, as well as identify outages.
“I see IT teams in other companies that aren’t as embedded with the business as we are here,” she says. “And I think that’s a mistake. I don’t think IT -- in a vacuum – should be making decisions about what moves the business forward.”
Blalock says Southern Company is the most automated utility in the country and was proactive by rolling out smart meters without requiring a mandate from the state commission.
An aspect of Southern Company’s Smart Grid is Smart Power, which means generating power at the lowest cost and most effective way for customers. That includes bringing more renewables into the mix, and Southern Company has just announced a new solar farm in New Mexico. The company is also doing research on clean coal.
Besides automating the process with meters, customers will eventually have the ability to make smart choices and better manage their energy consumption.
Electric vehicles will also play a part. “Some of these changes won’t come about for 10-15 years, but we’ve got to be thinking about that from an IT standpoint,” Blalock says. “We want to be ready for it and we want to be an enabler, not a hindrance.”
She says that under Smart Grid, experts say that the amount of data will go up by as much as 8,000 percent a year. Today, it grows at about 30 percent.
Southern Company also is moving from a world of real time information to predictive information. While it can’t predict power going out because of a hurricane or because of a car hitting a utility pole, Smart Grid can predict a mechanical problem and proactively fix it.
Contact with customers also is increasingly made through technology, including customer care. The interactive voice response unit was recognized by the Technology Association of Georgia and won the Excalibur Award the first two years it was handed out.
“I think we’re doing a lot in the Smart Grid arena today that will earn recognition in the future,” says Blalock.
In the years since one of her first IT-centric meetings, when she was the only female in the room, Blalock says the CIO field is now full of women. “We tend to be very adaptable, can juggle a lot and that’s what it takes to be a CIO,” she says. “We tend to be very creative and visionary.”
Secrets to Success
- Integrity is the most important attribute that you should have. Integrity is about doing what you say you’re going to do.
- You’ve got to be a student of the business. I tell people coming out of college, “Congratulations, now your challenge is keeping yourself current.” A college education is obsolete in seven years and I believe that’s going to accelerate so you have to be out there, every single day, embracing change and learning new things.
- You need to understand that leadership positions are all about caring for the people who are on your team and being interested in their success.
- Be open to feedback. The first time you respond negatively and say, “How dare you give me that feedback?” you won’t get any more.
- You need to be a star where you are. Don’t be so focused on the next job that you don’t focus on excellence where you are
Becky Blalock is Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Southern Company.
Atlanta Trend expresses its thanks and deep appreciation to Becky Blalock for sharing her thoughts with us.
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