Agility, Efficiency, And Innovation

Stephen Clemons leverages his experience running large organizations to keep SMUD—and California—on the cutting edge of energy efficiency

Stephen Clemons, Sacramento Municipal Utility District Photo: Jonathon Knox

Stephen Clemons says that having the opportunity to be creative in providing technology solutions is absolutely critical to being satisfied, regardless of the position he’s in.

The current CIO at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) has spent twenty years finding new and innovative ways for technology to help raise the bar at some of California’s largest public and private institutions. His current work at SMUD is helping one of JD Power & Associates consistently top-rated electric utility (for residential and business customer satisfaction) find increasingly powerful ways to facilitate customer interaction and provide energy-saving solutions for the nation’s sixth-largest community-owned electric service provider.

“Stephen’s experience as a CIO covers a vast range of networks across public and private organizations,” says Peter Martini, president and cofounder of iBoss. “He has a deep technical expertise, but what makes Stephen stand apart is his ability to see across different technologies and how they impact the commercial aspects of the organization which is essential for any modern day CIO.”

Clemons has overseen technology integration and executive roles for a variety of organizations ranging from pure technology companies to the entire state of California. “Being a CIO is about being able to collaborate with people, and in my case, the scope and scale of that group was very large,” Clemons says.

At the San Diego County Office of Education, Clemons oversaw data operations for 41 school districts that included 375,000 students and more than 55,000 employees, the third-largest academic payroll in the country. “Working in that environment with so many people and such a diverse portfolio, from running data centers to providing teacher trainings, it really got me to understand that to implement technology successfully, we had to be able to explain how to use that technology effectively.”

Placing a premium on understanding how customers, clients, and employees alike use technology would prove an enduring lesson, and one that consistently informs the CIO’s role at SMUD. “One of the biggest focuses here has been about how we get technology into the hands of our customers,” Clemons says. “Not just from a pure technology perspective, but also in how they interact with it, whether it be by phone, email, or text.” SMUD has overhauled its billing process and allowed customers who may have had their power disconnected reconnect much more easily and without having to be passed around on what customers can see as a customer service carousel.

“If we’re able to create the desire to fulfill goals that we set, those problems become learning experiences and we’re all better for it.”

SMUD has also proven to be one of the most energy-efficient-minded utility organizations, not just in California but in the entire country. Clemons says the increasing focusing on the internet of things (IoT) has kept the organization at the forefront of energy-saving initiatives. The potential for technology like smart thermostats to provide immediate feedback back to SMUD and even allow the two to collaborate on ways to save money is an increasingly real prospect.

“So many more of these components are becoming connected,” Clemons says. “From electric vehicles to Wi-Fi-enabled pool pumps to smart thermostats, these are all realistically connected to the grid in some form or another, and it’s interesting to examine what’s possible.”

One of SMUD’s most surprising and welcome additions to its own revenue stream has been the response to the organization’s SMUD Energy Store, an online retail operation offering customers a variety of smart and energy-saving technologies. “We wanted to start small to see what the response would be,” Clemons said.

From conception to execution, the store was operating in three months. Within six months, the store had done $1.2 million in sales. “We’re selling more and more every day and providing value to our customers in terms of energy efficiency,” Clemons says. The additional revenue doesn’t hurt either.

Having an operational online store with a key distribution partner up in three months isn’t wildly impressive to Clemons. It’s just a byproduct of some of the lean-minded methodologies he has worked to engrain to enable speed, efficiency, and cross-functional teamwork. “When I first came here, teams were operating with project plans and reporting, but operating Agile brings stories and epics to life about what you’re trying to create,” Clemons says. “I knew it was making a difference when our CEO started sharing videos about Agile with the whole organization.”

“I’ve worked with SMUD for twenty years and have found Steve very effective at getting his team to buy-in to his vision and then managing the execution,” says Bob Wicke, managing director at Deloitte Consulting. “A good example is his initiative to use Agile methods, which we have seen adopted broadly across both the business and IT.”

For Clemons’ own team of 275 multidisciplinary employees, the CIO says the name of the game is maintain customer confidence in everything that SMUD does. “We’re literally responsible for keeping the lights on,” Clemons says. “Our people are responsible for keeping the customer informed when there may be outages and be proactive in terms of providing solutions.” Clemons says the JD Power & Associates awards are a reminder that his team is best-in-industry but that there is always room for growth.

In his own growth as a leader, Clemons says that not getting rattled is not only his strong suit but also a requirement of an effective leader. “We’ve had system outages or similar situations, but my approach was to view it as a learning experience and push our staff to imagine what a 99.99 percent uptime would look like in the future,” Clemons says. “If we’re able to create the desire to fulfill goals that we set, those problems become learning experiences and we’re all better for it.”

Allowing that sort of growth, Clemons says, is a byproduct of the leadership at SMUD that has allowed the CIO to continue to think about innovation and new ways of approaching problems, old and new alike. “I couldn’t do what I do without the amazing and dedicated staff here,” Clemons says. “They’re amazing, and I have had the opportunity to think innovatively because of the leadership from the CEO, down.”