Train of Thought
Michael Foster, CIO And CTO, Canadian National
ILLUSTRATION BY JOEL KIMMEL
TITLE: CIO and CTO
ORGANIZATION: Canadian National
LOCATION: Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Canadian National (CN), Canada's largest railway, saw the biggest workload in its 100-year history last year. Under a new CEO, Jean-Jacques Ruest, the freight railway improved its ability to handle the surge in traffic and increased speed times on its 20,000 miles (32,187 kilometers) of track stretching across Canada and into the United States.
Keeping up with the increasing demand will require bolstering CN's technology now and in the future. That task falls to Michael Foster, who joined CN in March 2018 after spending 22 years at FedEx, where he most recently served as senior vice president of IT and CIO of FedEx Freight.
What's involved in your CIO and CTO roles—and why do you have both?
The CIO role encompasses the technology that makes it possible for CN to function—the infrastructure, information security, network engineering, application development, provisioning and customer-facing technology. The CTO role is about how we use current and future operational technology to improve the way we work. In many companies, the CIO and CTO roles are separate. But as a railroad, CN is all about applied technology.
How do you and your C-level colleagues drive strategy?
Formally, we have the governance associated with ensuring that technology investments underpin the strategy established by the C-suite. As CIO, I make sure we invest in the right technology programs to enable the business strategy. We also spend a lot of informal time together to build connections so that, when we use the formal mechanisms, it's much easier to execute strategy.
What does that time together look like?
The C-suite combines off-site meetings with operational site and customer visits to continuously improve our group knowledge of the business as a whole. We also get together regularly with the company's top 40 and top 200 executives. Recently, we asked the top 200 leaders to come prepared with their ideas to help improve business drivers like profitability, employee engagement and safety. Then the C-level leaders and senior vice presidents’ team got together with people from different disciplines—like finance, procurement, IT and operations—who pitched their ideas. We questioned them about how implementable those initiatives were and how they would impact the company. The best ideas were injected into our formal strategic alignment and business planning process.
How do you ensure projects remain aligned?
At the project level, we have cross-functional steering committees that keep projects on track. At a portfolio level, we continue to invest in the right things at the right times that enable our business strategy. We have quarterly governance meetings among the C-suite where we decide whether our projects are still enabling CN to meet its strategic objectives or if we want to delay or cancel any projects and redirect resources to higher-impacting initiatives.
How do your teams benefit from project management methodology?
There are a lot of things that hold teams together—the company's strategic direction, the culture and the team spirit. Historically at CN, we made sure as much of our work happened as close to the destination as possible, so project managers were decentralized. As we've made increasingly large investments in technology over the past five or six years, we needed to have a more mobile project management workforce. However, due to the historically decentralized nature of the project managers, they didn't have a common project management language. In 2018, we centralized our project management office and built it as a competence center so all our project managers have common standards, processes and language. We're already starting to see an improvement in the quality and speed of our delivery.
What project delivery approaches do you use?
For projects focused on revenue, regulation or safety, we tend to use a waterfall-driven process to make sure we have good checks and balances in place. As we build out new capabilities for our internal business partners and external customers, we are adopting an agile, continuous-development process.
What is the primary challenge you face?
The biggest challenge is also the biggest opportunity: operational technology. We're at an inflection point right now. As operational technology has started to mature across industries, it has tended to be something that is added on after the solution design. At CN, we're investing a significant amount of time and effort on incorporating operational technology within our initial designs. So it's baked in, not bolted on.
What's an example of baking in operational technology?
We have sensors that continuously monitor the temperature of trains’ wheel bearings, so that we can analyze that data and predict when a wheel will fail. The other challenge we had to address was deploying these technologies remotely by pushing software updates to them rather than maintaining them. We are taking these learnings and applying them to our next-generation sensors. PM
What's the one skill every project manager should have?
Leadership—understanding the business value of what you're delivering and being able to communicate that to your stakeholders.
What do you wish you'd known at the start of your career?
The importance of communicating a vision and the path to get there. When I was able to do that, and not just be technically competent in my discipline, that's when my career took off.
What do you feel is underrated?
In a world of fast-paced information, it's the ability to step back, take time to reflect and digest, and see the bigger pattern.
Who inspires you?
FedEx founder and CEO Fred Smith. He uses his extensive knowledge of global trade, economics, politics and leadership to not only set a strategic vision, but also to ensure that every team member knows how they can contribute to it.