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Furqan Aziz is the Principal Consultant in ElectraLink’s Governance Services team. With a decade of experience in the energy sector, Furqan brings to ElectraLink his expertise working with several organisations to build their digital solutions for the future of the energy market. Since joining ElectraLink, he has made extensive progress with the digitalisation of DCUSA and developing data solutions to complement energy market participants’ existing digitalised systems.

We sat down with Furqan to learn about his experience, sources of inspiration and opinions on the future of the energy market in Britain.

Tell us about your background and how your educational path led you to the energy sector and digitalisation services?

It was a lot of little things all coming together. Whilst at university doing my Master’s degree, the Head of Marketing at an energy company came to our campus in search of some local talent for a six-month work experience opportunity. I submitted my CV, was shortlisted and then, to my absolute surprise, I got the placement. It was my first experience in the energy sector and…I hated it! I told myself there was no way I was going to have a career in energy.

A few months after my placement, while looking for my first ‘proper’ job, I kept seeing npower advertising for a Market Analyst role. I did tell myself “Never again!”, but it seemed like such a fantastic opportunity. The advert had been re-posted several times; I had applied previously a couple of months back but was rejected. This time round, I picked up the phone and pleaded with the recruitment consultant to secure me an interview. It worked, and at the interview with npower I passionately fought for a chance to prove myself. They took pity (I guess), put me on three months’ probation and that was it – my life in energy began.

My introduction to digitalisation was more straightforward. I did my first degree in Computing and therefore knew a tiny bit of code. I can recall one summer, in 2011 maybe, in the middle of Ramadan and I was at home bored stiff with nine hours until sunset. While browsing the internet, I came across a stunning website and thought, ‘I’d love to know how to design that’. And that was it – YouTube and Udemy did the rest.

Around the same time, maybe a few months later, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work for a local charity. They needed an expert to build their digital platform from scratch, and then manage all their tech and digital marketing going forward. My three-month self-taught experience was the closest match they could find. In hindsight, it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. I was given total freedom to build what and how I wanted. I was using the tried and tested ‘making it up as I went along’ method. I made a lot of mistakes but equally through those mistakes I learnt so much.

These two areas naturally came together as I progressed through my career in energy. Speaking the same language as the techies, understanding the industry and having a voice in the boardroom tie up well.

Why is digitalisation so important for the future of the energy market?

Let’s first explain what we mean by ‘digitalisation’. Put simply, digitalisation is about finding a better way of doing things which achieve the objectives of the old way. The term ‘better’ refers to making it faster, more efficient and less likely for things to go wrong. This is primarily delivered through introducing new technology, but there is much more that goes into digitalisation than the tech.

Coming to the question on why it is so important for the future of the energy market, I would argue digitalisation IS the future of the energy market. I’m not referring to a distant, utopian, blockchain new world order; we are talking way before, like right now!

I would describe the energy industry as a gigantic, inefficient, disjointed, complex piece of machinery. Nobody really knows how each cog works, it just does. Many elements within this machinery are already evolving through tech. How, where and what energy source is purchased is one of the more obvious examples but even how we communicate, market and service our customers keep on developing. There is no doubt the industry will become more and more complex as it evolves and especially the rules of engagement that the regulator sets.

The role of digitalisation is to help in this evolution process. It is designed to do all the heavy lifting. It can process and analyse the information, store and connect different parts of the industry, and make it run much more efficiently. This intrinsically applies to you, the energy market worker, as your business and processes will feed into and require access from certain parts of this big, old, complex machinery.

What are some of your favourite parts of working on digitalisation and digital transformation projects?

I absolutely love solving problems. It gives me the biggest buzz, whether it is a hack which automates a process saving 0.5 seconds or a solution that is worth millions to a client. The feeling of success is the same either way. The key is to never lose sight of the objective you are trying to achieve. When working on a complex problem, the best tactic is to explain the problem to an outsider (most times this is done metaphorically), and then analyse their thinking pattern. How do they see the problem and what is their approach to the solution? It sounds complicated but it’s not. An outsider will see things through a different lens.

And that leads to my second favourite part: I love working with different teams and individuals. I feel it is so important having a really balanced team behind you. Along with the usual suspects, I want The Often-Cynic, The Ever-Optimist and The Shy-Fresh-Faced all part of the same team. They will all see the world differently and therefore come with different solutions. At times, the most junior analyst will be the smartest person in the room, or The Often-Cynic will pull out a gem of an objection. I love managing digitalisation projects when we have that balance. It is part of my role to ensure everyone’s opinion is truly heard and respected. It can be hard at times.

How do you go about achieving senior stakeholders’ buy-in?

It is a crucial part of the role, and I spend a huge amount of time operating in this space in some shape or form. Stakeholder buy-in is the glue that keeps everything together. Even the loss of one senior stakeholder can severely jeopardise the success of a digitalisation project.

Engagement is so important and must be done from early on right up until the very end. Senior stakeholders must feel like they are part of the journey. Even if their influence is limited, they must always feel like their contribution is valued and they are aware of where we are in the wider delivery cycle.

I start off by identifying who our stakeholders are, and the role they will play. Ideally, I will talk to each one individually. This is not only to learn about their requirements, but also their expectations and fears, which helps shape my approach in terms of what information is shared and how often. Thereafter, I will put together a clear plan highlighting stakeholder engagement at each stage. During these engagement sessions, I will reaffirm the digitalisation goals and continually link progress back to the original objectives.

Which project have you worked on in the past that you are most proud of?

I was fortunate enough to work on a project that built an end-to-end digital insights platform which could save our clients thousands of pounds on each energy product launch and was genuinely unique to the industry. I started off as a one-man-band playing around, trying to develop a digital product which had real value. I then got the resource to build the team, and in the end there were about six of us working on it full-time. Within a few years, the product became its own vertical and the second most profitable P&L for the business.

Which trends in energy market transformation do you find most interesting?

Oh, it has to be electric vehicles. The implications are just huge and largely unknown. It is good that a bit of glamour will be brought to our industry as we get to rub shoulders with the likes of Tesla and Mercedes. But there is a lot to think about. Let’s start with the obvious: all cars will be EV that will be good for the industry, right?

Then, what is the impact on consumption patterns and thus purchasing? When, where and how much energy is being used? Can suppliers and the network cope? How will this impact on network charges and can suppliers manage this change? Will car manufacturers start to sell energy bundles? Do suppliers need to form new relationships? Is that good for the customer? What if EVs become self-charging? What next and what will be the impact on the industry after growth and changes are made? There is so much unknown, but it is all exciting stuff.

Is there a piece of advice you would like to give any business looking to digitalise their systems and processes, or industry colleagues who have been tasked with looking into this?

I can see this being difficult for businesses because the first question is where and how do we start? The first step is to get a digitalisation expert to perform an assessment. This will involve reviewing your digitalisation goals, workflows and processes (it does not have to be us, but we would love to help).

Some digitalisation experts will come in with a pre-defined set of products which, whether you like it or not, they are going to push. This is the wrong approach in our view. Jumping to a pre-baked product may not be the best option and the end users often reject it. They will just go back to the old way of doing things. Most digitalisation solutions are bespoke and tailored to a business’s workflows and processes.

Digitalisation is about making your business run better. To do this properly, we need to understand and diagnose the ‘problem area’ in some detail. This usually requires speaking to customers, internal stakeholders, defining the user journey and commercial implications. There is a framework and logic behind it all. Finally, and I will be frank, there will be upfront investment required before an end solution can be proposed; there is no way around that.

What do you like to do for fun outside of work?

Not much! The tech world keeps moving forward at such a fast pace and I spend most of my spare time trying to play catch-up.

My wife sets the social calendar which revolves around seeing the in-laws and the wider family during the week and attending some kind of event, which usually involves food, on the weekend. I also know my way around a kitchen and proudly I do have the honour of being the fifth best chef in the Aziz household. That is quite an achievement, I can assure you.

Please feel free to get in touch with Furqan and the rest of our digitalisation team at advisory-services@electralink.co.uk and they will be glad to answer any questions or start your organisation on the path to digitalisation.