There’s two weeks left until this year’s much anticipated GTEC (Government and Technology Conference) and as such, we’re featuring a timely conversation with Dave Adamson, Assistant Deputy Minister at Shared Services Canada (SSC) of cloud brokering.
The IM/IT Community Enablement team at the Treasury Board Secretariat sat down with Mr. Adamson as part of their Pathway to IM/IT Leadership Series. The series features interviews with Government of Canada CIOs and highlights their individual career paths, exploring the role of CIO on a personal level.
Mr. Adamson’s focus at SSC has been to enable science-based departments to benefit from internal and external cloud-based services in a consistent, economical and responsive manner.
He has also been the Deputy Chief Information Officer (CIO) for nearly three years at Treasury Board and prior to that, was the Chief Information Officer at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
Overall, he has more than 30 years of experience in both the private and public sectors in systems implementation, large-scale project management and in operations management.
How long were you the Deputy CIO for the Government of Canada and how would you describe the role?
It was just short of two and a half years, including a period of about five months as Acting CIO. I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the Deputy CIO role in terms of the breadth of files seen there or really understanding the unique role that Treasury Board Secretariat plays in government. I can honestly say I learned something new every day and it was a privilege to be part of such a remarkable team at TBS. CIOs are well-schooled in the IT and IM spaces but add to that access to information and privacy, service, DSO security and project oversight – these are areas that are very active, often in the news and were key learning challenges to me.
What led you to the role of Deputy CIO and what were you doing before?
I belonged to IT organizations long before I ever heard of the CIO title. At my first summer job as a computer operator at the Unemployment Insurance Commission, I got to see firsthand what the IT world looked like and how it was changing so rapidly, even then. While I was there, I met a very interesting man who’d just come from Japan as an expert consultant in Burroughs Online Systems and he turned out to be the key to my future career. Burroughs was a big manufacturer of mainframes in those days and he was testing something quite new: computer to computer communications.
I would hang around him as much as possible on the night shift as he did his magic and he would tell me a little bit about what he was doing and why. This gave me a great appetite for knowing more about computers and programming languages. I remember going home and telling my mom how interesting I thought my work was and she more or less said “well, that’s never going to go anywhere—computers are just a fad.” (laughs)
When I was going to university, I obtained a summer job doing COBOL programming for a consulting firm. At that time I had few apparent skills apart from being able to write FORTRAN and COBOL programs—the President took a big risk and gave me the time to learn and become more proficient while earning a salary. I can honestly say that my secret for programming success was making every possible mistake in the book and then learning from each mistake.
One of the important things that the President of the consulting firm did was to bring me to the Unemployment Insurance Office to watch the people who were applying for income support benefits and looking for work. He wanted me to see how the system worked – what the experience of being unemployed looked like, so that I could see (and feel) how we needed to develop and refine products that would help citizens get back on their feet again. In hindsight, that may have been one of the most important lessons in my career – being sure to relate whatever I was doing at the keyboard to the impact it would have on people’s lives. I believe this is a key way of thinking about business problems in an innovative way.
“When a career opportunity came along, I would always ask myself: why not me?”
I initially had no ambition to become CIO or do much more than write COBOL programs. When a career opportunity came along, I would always ask myself: why not me? And that’s been my guiding star for pretty well my whole career. I haven’t had long-term goals and I think that’s probably a good thing. Since then I have had a series of great opportunities in both public and private sectors, eventually becoming a CIO at Justice Canada and then CIO at Citizenship and Immigration – experiences which gave me the background to be considered for the Deputy CIO GC role.
I knew something about online systems, but not a lot. We worked hard for probably eight months [trying to get the complex requirements for the system right.] It had so many transactions to run through, when you think about it – the external world of immigration, people coming to Canada and, and security. Imagine how many people that system has touched, including the internal workers who [used it every day.]
Can you point to a specific project that was meaningful to you?
One of the most rewarding projects I ever participated in was the modernization of FOSS – the Field Operation Support System at Employment and Immigration Canada. It was the mid-80s and online systems had really come into their own. It was also the first time I managed a team. We were given this challenge of reinventing a previous version of FOSS into a completely different technology environment – online systems on a Burroughs mainframe – and we had about 6 months to do it.
We worked around the clock in a race to create the necessary functionality while at the same time make it run on a computer that had about the same power as a 386 computer! I got to be a part of the beginning of FOSS as an online database, and ironically I returned to CIC 25 years later, just as the plan to eliminate FOSS was being finalized as the new Global Case Management System (GCMS) had been implemented for CIC business. Very proud to say that my colleagues at CIC and CBSA pulled the plug on FOSS in late 2015 – interesting to note that it probably took more work to decommission this mission-critical system than it took to build it – something we’ll need to focus on as we re-think how we will support business needs in the future.
Speaking of databases and information management, how do you see IM fitting into the CIO’s role in the future?
I think we’re finally getting to a point where we can really begin to think about the value of information, and more importantly, the value we’re not getting from all the information that we gather as a government. There is an incredible shortfall in information benefits realization as our policies, legislation and current practices get in the way of better service, more “joined-up” government and being much more proactive than we are now.
“CIOs need to focus on what could be done with our information assets while protecting privacy. Open Government is one key piece…”
CIOs need to focus on what could be done with our information assets while protecting privacy. Open Government is one key piece – developing APIs that make the use of Open Data much easier are another.
You’ve witnessed a lot of technological change in your career. How should IT professionals be looking at this change in terms of their careers?
The temporal nature of technology is something that I often think about and I pay a lot of attention to this by reading, talking to external experts and colleagues who have new and interesting ideas. We are at a major tipping point in technology in government – many industries have already tipped and we can learn from them about what works and what doesn’t.
Cloud will enable GC business units to have incredibly fast access to state of the art solutions without the long lead times of development, test and implementation. Speed will be very different. IT workers need to “tip” towards the skills that go along with cloud: business analysis, and business integration for example, as we look beyond the GC into provincial and municipal needs that we will be able to meet on a single platform. Similarly data analytics, but much more focused on tactical solutions. For example, what is all the information you need to manage a workforce, rather than how to deploy a BI tool and manage the extract, transform and load (ETL) function.
So my advice is to take the time to pay close attention to what’s happening in the bigger world; reshape your skills and move to where the demand will be. I don’t think that’s the answer everyone is going to want to hear but I think we all need to be realistic about this.
Do any metaphors come to mind to describe the type of work you do?
A teacher. Not necessarily having all the answers, but being able to ask the right questions and take people on a journey of explo-ration and to instill and encourage curiosity.
The wrecking ball metaphor as well. We had a couple of people from New Zealand talk to us recently about how they currently have a strong focus on 17 to 18-year old children who seem to be headed the wrong way. They combine information about school grades, truancy rates, trouble with the law, family situations and other indicators and focus more resources on helping these high-risk kids – sometimes 10 or 20 times more resources – including intervening with parents to attempt to avoid problems down the road. In Canada, we don’t do that. We have walls around data in the name of privacy and we do not share information, even for a citizen’s benefit. The wrecking ball will break down the barriers that need rethinking, as appropriate, especially if CIOs and their teams can show the enormous unrealized value of our collective information holdings.
“So my best advice to IT workers is to talk business, leverage our information assets, leverage the best in class platforms, and then do it again.”
So my best advice to IT workers is to talk business, leverage our information assets, leverage the best in class platforms, and then do it again. Rethink how you will contribute to this virtuous cycle for our society, our science, our businesses and our staff.
As we speak, I am actually feeling envious of our new workers who will miss the challenge I spent most of my career on in making technology work, but instead will enjoy the challenge of using technologies to make the world better – there are so many possibilities. Dig in and spend some time observing what people really want from government and the many ways that might happen.
“Lastly, keep learning.”
Lastly, keep learning. I was extremely fortunate to have attended an MBA program when I was 50 years old. The learnings from the program were a very key ingredient to my later successes and have given me a thirst for learning, an incredible network and many new friendships that will last a lifetime. There are so many ways to learn nowadays and I recommend that you dedicate some time each day to expanding your horizons, building new contacts and better understanding the business of government.