Cloud + Utilities
An Executive Interview with Charles Eckstrom, CIO of Metropolitan Water District of Southern California
I’ve been chatting with some of the execs I admire—from across a range of industries—to get insights on how they’re using cloud technologies and what it means for their business success—now and in the future.
Charles Eckstrom is the CIO of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. He’s been leading teams that successfully deliver large tech-driven portfolios for nearly two decades. Constantly leveraging technology innovations to deliver meaningful business value underlies his approach to both day-to-day IT operations and setting the technology vision for both public and private enterprises.
Charles and I sat down to talk about why he’s driving his organization to the cloud, the fundamental business value of IT, and how cloud is amplifying that value.
Q: What do you think the impact of the cloud will be on business over the next 5 years?
A: I’ve been leading IT teams in both the public and private sectors for a long time, and I see a huge cloud impact for every kind of organization. Already, 65% of businesses are using the cloud to some degree—in five years, that will be every single enterprise in some fashion.
Here at Metropolitan, we have a huge and incredibly important mission: delivering high-quality water to 19 million people. Delivering on that mission means we can’t also be in the data-center business—we need cloud infrastructure to do the heavy lifting. So we’ve spent the last year reducing our data center square footage and moving that infrastructure to the cloud. For large enterprises, it really can take years to make a complete move to the cloud—so in five years, the number of companies who have completed the shift will be huge.
Another reason cloud is so vital for my work—and why I think everyone is headed that way—is resiliency. Water is critical infrastructure—we can’t afford failure. The cloud providers have exponentially better data centers, better security, and offer higher SLAs compared to what we can affordably execute. We count on that high availability and uptime to fulfill our mission.
Finally, there’s the ROI. Of course, moving to the cloud requires some initial investment. But the cost benefit over time is huge. We’re shifting from capital investments to monthly operations numbers—it changes the color of money. All the big cloud vendors [AWS, Azure, Google] are competitive on cost, and we control that further by thinking about systems on the infrastructure side as well as the platform-as-a-service end of things.
Q: Are there any cloud technologies you’ve read about or heard about that you find particularly interesting?
A: One thing that’s really interesting came out of a meeting we had with Google around services for the public sector. They’re not selling infrastructure as a service. Instead, we can give them access to our data, and they apply machine learning and AI on the back end to turn all our historical data into business intelligence. We provide data and use cases, and they return dashboards of scenarios and analysis that support better decision-making. I’m not yet sure how we might apply it, but it certainly has me thinking about the possibilities.
Q: What criteria have you used in evaluating which cloud vendor your company will use?
A: Any large organization like ours is likely going to be multi-cloud. Our strategy is a cloud-first technology approach—everything we implement will either be Software as a Service (SaaS) or custom-built in the cloud. And the two main factors that drive our decisions within that are cost and performance. What we’re doing now is two-pronged: MS Azure and Oracle cloud. Azure makes sense for us because we have a lot of web applications that fit nicely into it. And on the Oracle side, there are just lots of useful applications beyond the ERP and PeopleSoft we can backend on Oracle.
We’ve got almost 500 servers, and most of them will move to the cloud. We’ve just gotten our first 22 servers in production on Azure—we’ll run it for a few months and then look at ways to apply flexibility on the CPU usage to reduce the cost. We need the storage there all the time, but we can take a look at the run rate and make things really cost-effective.
We’re doing a proof on concept now, taking PeopleSoft and moving to the Oracle cloud. As far as I’m concerned, success means the end users don’t even notice that it’s shifted into the cloud. So there are a lot of intricacies with performance we’ll pay attention to, then optimize and look at another batch of Oracle solutions.
Q: What advice would you give to CEOs everywhere in regards to emerging technology?
A: Looking at it from the highest level, the purpose of technology is to enable business. Our operations, applications, control systems—technology is what fuels all of it. And to enable business to run optimally, we have to be taking advantage of the latest advances—20-year-old software isn’t an option.
The flexibility to implement things with real business value is crucial. The turnover of technology is already rapid—and it’s just going to be happening faster and faster. On security issues, especially, we need to be poised to move over to better solutions incredibly quickly. That’s one place we don’t want to be stuck.
In the private sector, of course, there’s a profit motive to increase operational efficiencies. And the public sector needs those same efficiencies to be fiscally responsible. AI is the big buzzword right now—it’s already in a lot of the software we use, and it’s going to touch everything eventually. It’s just broken the surface, really, but will eventually change everything we do.
Investing in the cloud takes time and resources—you need time to ramp up, spend on cybersecurity. It’s not making capital investments to last the next 15 years—you’re investing to add value, now and in the future. The ability to spin up a server or take it down in an hour, the business intelligence for smarter strategic planning, the operational efficiencies—cloud makes it happen now.
Q: What advice would you give to people working in technology?
A: Some of the people on my teams have been here 30-plus years. It can be easy to get stuck in a maintenance mindset, especially when you’ve been in the field a long time. But that’s not what IT’s about—IT is the one place where change is not just constant, but always increasing. Lean into that change—that’s my advice.
The other thing to keep in mind is that 24/7 support really is necessary these days, especially because anything new that a business does will have some IT component. When I was in the private sector, we had calls coming in at all hours because we were spread around the globe.
Making sure you have that support in place and finding ways to make it more and more effective is crucial. Because IT is enabling the business to function—which, to me, is a huge part of what makes this work so rewarding.
It’s easy to get stuck in the day-to-day and forget why you’re working in tech in the first place. Remembering the reason we do what we do—that we’re responsible for everyone’s ability to fulfill this organization’s mission—is what I find fulfilling at the end of the day.