Time travel, talking computers, thinking robots—this is the stuff of Steven Pratt’s childhood imagination. Enthralled by the 1953 film Forbidden Planet and other sci-fi movies of the day, young Pratt was convinced that technology was the key to making his visions come to life, and that science would one day prove fiction as reality.
He wasn’t far from the truth.
This fascination with technology’s potential stuck with Pratt throughout high school and even as he wrestled with what to study in college. During an exploratory drafting class in 1978 (Pratt was considering a career in maps and architecture), a recruiter from an energy distribution company now called CenterPoint Energy arrived with a job offer that required no experience—digitizing hard copies of maps to create a GIS electronic mapping system. Pratt signed up and went to work.
“From the time I started at CenterPoint, no one placed any limitations on how I could learn and advance myself,” Pratt says, thirty-eight years later. “Even back then, CenterPoint was an innovative company because they were investing in their people.”
Providing that kind of freedom for employees remains one of the company’s highest priorities, as well as opportunities for continuous growth, diverse work, and the ability to present ideas for genuine consideration. “Over the years, we have only grown more committed to those things,” Pratt explains. “After all this time, I’ve never become stagnant.”
Having come a long way from digitizing maps, Pratt has worked through every IT position at CenterPoint and is now corporate technology officer. He oversees the entire technology portfolio and nine direct reports—all of which are focused on IT’s five-year plan. Pratt’s primary goal is to maximize output, minimize input, and increase the company’s overall value. His strategy for doing so has two prongs: operations and innovation.
While these may seem like opposing tactics with differing objectives, Pratt argues that because CenterPoint is a utility company, discovering new, innovative ways of operating is the only way to optimize cost. Innovation supports and improves operations, and operations supports and improves the company’s overall value. It’s the ideal technology strategy.
Pratt and his team are taking several approaches, one of which is a new level of excellence in customer and employee service. Their goal is to offer options for their 5.5 million customers and the employees to interact with CenterPoint through whichever method they prefer.
“If they want to walk in our front door, send us a text, email us, talk to a human on the phone—we want to interact in a manner that’s consistent with their desire,” he says. “Each customer should feel like they’re our only one every time they reach out to us, and each employee should have the tools necessary to support our customers.”
Of course, the best scenario is when a customer has no reason to interact with CenterPoint, which puts the pressure on Pratt’s team to deliver the core business function of energy distribution.
“Because we’re an electric grid company, it’s our responsibility to keep the power on and safe at all times,” he says. “And one of the most exciting ways that we do that is our maturing cognitive computing capabilities.”
As the name suggests, CenterPoint’s IT team has implemented a sophisticated software system that learns how systems operate to the point of being able to predict failures—to “learn” and “think” through potential problems and either fix them before they occur or supply information to help fix them. “It’s taking us into predictive analytics and is a step closer to technology that thinks for itself,” he says.
The team is also utilizing technology to leverage data in totally new ways. Through real-time analysis, they’re able to determine the reason that a customer is calling with a high degree of accuracy, just in time to direct their call to the right channel. In addition, technology is being used to ensure CenterPoint employee safety because, as Pratt notes, “distributing electricity is a dangerous job.”
“Without a proper perspective on safety, harm could come to people, so it’s a high level of focus where we apply technology in a number of ways,” he adds.
For Pratt and his team, developing innovation in operations is the ultimate way to contribute to CenterPoint’s overall success.
But constant innovation can be exhausting, and the goals of the IT team’s five-year plan are ambitious. According to Pratt, the key to fueling motivation is leadership.
“I ask all of my managers to consider their responsibility to both incite people and excite people, to provide all information needed to do the best possible job, and to offer the freedom to do things differently,” he says. Because CenterPoint operates as a company of equals, goals are recognized before titles, which emphasizes the value of everyone’s contributions.
The IT team at CenterPoint models the company’s commitment to offering a learning environment, an invitation to be challenged, and opportunities to explore diverse roles. Leaders that champion freedom and exploration are the hallmarks that motivate, drive, and keep employees such as Pratt coming back for years.
Pratt also leads by a personal code that has been whittled down over the years to four essential components. On his long drive home each evening, he asks: “When I interacted with people today (not technology), was I professional? Was I honest? Was I objective? Was I ethical?” If the answer is “yes” to all four, whether his to-do list was completed or not, the day was successful.
“People want to know that you’re not politically motivated and that you’re telling the truth,” he says. “They want to know that you’ll do the right thing and that you’re qualified to properly fulfill your responsibilities.” For Pratt, these are the marks of an excellent leader and the characteristics he admires in others.
After four decades in the tech industry, Pratt’s imagination is as creative and freewheeling as it was in 1953. He still has faith that computers will meet and exceed his vision for their potential. In fact, he’s surprised that they haven’t already. “I don’t see limitations to technology,” he says. “We know very little about the world and what is possible, but the reality is that we always find a way to make things better. It’s only a matter of time.”
At the same time, Pratt’s perspective is grounded in another reality: nothing can replace the spirit of a human being. Even as technology provides opportunities for humans to improve—eradicating cancer at the molecular level, perhaps—Pratt is confident that it will remain a supplemental tool.
As he approaches retirement, Pratt enjoys a greater understanding of technology than his younger, introverted self, but he also places a much higher value on the humanness that technology lacks.
“Our business at CenterPoint is less about technology and more about people,” he explains. “Our goal should never be to find the newest technology, because the world still runs on people.” There is no greater success for Pratt and his team than to use technology to make people more successful, and there is no greater achievement than that which others achieve because of their work.
And as they explore new dimensions of the technology continuum together—be it time travel, talking computers, or thinking robots—Pratt is still convinced that technology holds the key to bringing his human vision to life.