Keith Courtoreille, Tech Strategist

Idea Machine, Manager – Innovation and Strategy, CN

Keith merges cutting-edge tech with one of Canada’s most mature industries in a job he designed for himself!

In 2007, Keith helped CN develop and implement a totally new IT infrastructure built from scratch. In addition to operating Canada’s largest railway, CN has an international arm that utilizes ocean vessels and seaports to import and export products to and from places such as Europe and China. The challenge to provide technological systems and support to a division thousands of kilometers away required a new way of thinking. Keith was only in his 20s and early in his career when he began to draft ideas on how CN could use new technology to do this.  He presented the ideas to his boss and chief information officer. They approved the project.

CN funded the initiative and helped Keith implement the idea by creating a dedicated team of 15 people.   The team got the primary work done within a year, transforming how CN supports the systems in its overseas business. “I’d only been with CN for two years and they let me do a large part of the design and the strategy for the entire project,” he says.

Keith's CareerMash

Keith had a grand vision of how cutting-edge technology could further improve CN’s business, but after the initial project was complete there wasn’t a job position that fit his ideas.  He shopped around a proposal for a new full-time role centered on innovation and technology. Management saw the value in it and now Keith leads a small team that looks at how both existing and emerging technologies can improve CN’s practices.

One project is the development of mobile apps geared at CN customers - retailers, mining companies, and other organizations that rely on CN to deliver their products. CN wants to see if it can leverage mobile platforms like the iPhone or the Blackberry to give its customers an efficient way to monitor their shipments from anywhere. “For us, innovation is delivering new functionality directly into the hands of our users,” Keith says.  In the future, his team has plans to explore cloud computing and areas like thin client computing to improve business and employee satisfaction.

A day in the life

Keith’s job is as dynamic as his ideas.  He travels to expos and events to learn about new technologies then brings his findings back to CN.  He and his team then envisions ideas, his team might prototype them, and then test them.  Through it all, the team’s focus is on delivering value. That sense of innovation and experimentation is extremely motivating.

He is always solving problems. Most are complicated and require him to find answers online and in the real world, but he likes this.  He recently used crowd-sourcing to solve an internal tech problem quickly and cheaply. 

Why this job rocks

The IT challenges in supporting a railway are always evolving, and rail is an industry that is incredibly high tech in its operations and management.  But it’s not just bits and bytes in this company as employees have the opportunity to hands-on learn about the rail operations of our business through training programs!  

Roadmap

  • Keith studied computer science at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, then got an undergrad degree in management, finance and marketing at the University of Lethbridge.  He held analyst and consulting jobs at tech companies while he was in school.
  • He moved to Montreal to pursue an MBA in international business at HEC Montreal.
  • He landed a job at CN as a business optimization specialist, then a business architect, then a business relationship manager, before spearheading his own destiny and creating his current role as the innovation manager.

Speed Bumps

Even though Keith gets to play with many of the crazy high-tech toys, he faces the challenge of finding value in a sea constantly changing conditions, and it’s not always easy.  He says” No company can continuously bring in new tech all the time and succeed, but you can’t just close your eyes either, there are some really valuable ideas out there”.

Tips for success

  • Have an open mind: “I never thought I would end up in IT. I was always going to be more of an engineer.  Once you get into the industry it really can grow on you. There’s so much opportunity,” Keith says. 
  • Walk the walk: Having a good technology background, or at least understanding or appreciating technology is so critical for any job today.  If you’re passionate about it, live it!
  • Talk the talk: Tech people need to be dynamic and have good social skills to present their ideas and sell their agendas.
  • Don’t close doors too soon: “If you want to be creative and innovative you can do all those things in IT,” Keith says.  “All my friends in IT have very interesting jobs.  It’s stuff you can’t even imagine!”
  • Pay attention: Keith says there’s a lot happening in the tech world, including mass retirements.  “You’ll be coming into an environment where you’re needed and you’ll be loved,” he says.