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CIOs in Conversation: John Messina

CIOs in Conversation: John Messina

October 26, 2016 | By | Add a Comment

Next week is this year’s much anticipated GTEC (Government and Technology Conference) and as such, we’ve been featuring timely conversations with Chief Information Officers across the public service. Recently, Laurentian Alumni Magazine sat down for a discussion with the Chief Information Officer of the Government of Canada, John Messina.

John Messina Photo: Laurentian Alumni Magazine

John Messina
Photo: Laurentian Alumni Magazine

John Messina is responsible for leading policy development, management oversight and community capacity development in the policy areas of information management and information technology.

He also leads security, access to information and privacy. Appointed in August 2015, Messina brings almost 30 years of IT-related experience at the Canada Revenue Agency, including his time as Assistant Commissioner and Chief Information Officer. You might say he’s come a long way since his Laurentian days.

As an undergraduate, Messina took Laurentian’s Honours Bachelor of Commerce program, graduating in 1981 and majoring in Accounting. One of his favourite aspects was the case study assignments they completed in teams, particularly those in finance class. “Everyone was given a company and there was a simulation of economic and financial events that happened outside of your company and you had to react to it. The economy would sink just as you were getting your inventory ready for a large year in sales, things like that,” recalls Messina, adding that these assignments “really forced us to develop collaboration skills.” Among his favourite professors were Austin Davey who, “really knew his tax law,” and Ken Loucks, whose ideas Messina says he still calls upon when making strategic decisions.

As a student, Messina played intramural football and hockey. “There was an arena at the end of Ramsey Lake road. I don’t know if it’s still there, but that’s where we played. It was good. There were both people that I had known from Sudbury growing up and people that went to Laurentian,” says Messina. He grew up in the Lockerby area and also had a part-time job at the Idylwylde Golf Club so got in some golf there regularly. Although Sudbury was his hometown, he was happy for the opportunity to meet newcomers at Laurentian and still keeps in touch with people from his undergraduate days over social media. He married his “high school sweetheart,” Marie McCahery, and now has two grown sons, Chris and Steve.

A big transition

After graduation, Messina started his career in Edmonton alongside three other Laurentian graduates working as a tax auditor at the Canada Revenue Agency. He also worked in Sudbury in the mid-1980s with five other ’81 grads, recalling the time as “a bit like a reunion.” A pretty standard accountancy career path so far, which sort of begs the question, “Um, how did an accounting major become the CIO of the Government of Canada?”

“That’s quite a story actually,” says Messina. “I was with the CRA as a tax auditor, but in the late 70s or early 80s they had this program—I got in in the mid-80s—where they were looking for people who had business experience but a capability to work in IT. They wanted business people running the IT systems. So what they did is tested you first on your business knowledge, and then if you had some kind of aptitude, tested whether you’d be good in IT or not. I was successful in that, and though I was working in Sudbury at the time, I moved to Ottawa.” There Messina joined a 15-month training program in which he learned programming skills and other IT training. In 1986, he started out in the role of Programmer Analyst coding in COBOL and ascended from there, eventually becoming CIO of the CRA.

While the move seems like a pivot away from his original path, Messina said he had always expected that to happen. “When I was in accounting, I never envisioned myself long term in that field. I wanted to get that background, but it was almost a natural thing to change careers because I always thought I’d move into something else. Having a strong accounting background helps you do anything you like,” says Messina.

“I couldn’t give up the opportunity to influence the future information management and information technology direction of the government, so I took the job. It’s just a great time to be in IT in government—I’ve been really enjoying the challenge.”

Messina was thinking about retirement when the top CIO job came up and gave him pause. “I couldn’t give up the opportunity to influence the future information management and information technology direction of the government, so I took the job.” With the Government of Canada transforming its IT to better serve Canadians through leveraging the latest technologies, improving efficiency and effectiveness of operations, ensuring the agility to respond to policy and security challenges, and improving transparency and accountability, “it’s just a great time to be in IT in government—I’ve been really enjoying the challenge.”

The way the government is structured, each department has a CIO who provides leadership and vision in the planning and implementation of IT initiatives in their own department. Messina’s branch leads the development of strategy and provides direction and leadership for the government as a whole in this realm. Messina chairs a committee of CIOs across the federal government, a forum that helps guide the use of information and technology across the departments.

“I belong to a multi-national organization of CIOs who get together to discuss what’s going on in the industry. There are 24 countries who are members of this organization. We get together once a year to have a discussion about the industry, the challenges we’re facing, what we’re doing, and how to use IT to enable the government to serve citizens better.”

He also meets regularly with CIOs internationally. “I belong to a multinational organization of CIOs who get together to discuss what’s going on in the industry. There are 24 countries who are members of this organization. We get together once a year to have a discussion about the industry, the challenges we’re facing, what we’re doing, and how to use IT to enable the government to serve citizens better.”

Open government, big data

Messina admits that, as technology gets more complex, so does his job, but says that his 30 years of experience in the field make him very comfortable with dealing with these issues. Today some of those big issues include open government, big data and the Access to Information Act. “What we are looking at is ‘how do we make data open by default,’ which is one of the things in the government’s mandate. Really being able to have both data sets and information more readily available to the public is one of the things we are looking into,” says Messina.

IT security is yet another big portfolio. “Cyber security is a big thing in the world right now. We coordinate the cyber security policy for the government of Canada and provide strategic oversight and direction during cyber security event response,” says Messina. “From a cyber security point of view, there is the policy work that we do, defining the actual policy and the mechanisms that departments and agencies should have in place in order to ensure that we’re safe from a cyber security perspective.” He adds that the Government also does the monitoring work to help departments and agencies implement those policies. If there were ever a cyber attack affecting the government’s ability to deliver services to Canadians, his team would coordinate the strategic aspects of that response.

So what does the CIO like best about his job? “I like the technical nature of the job, but I find both at the CRA and here, it’s just working with interesting people. Funny because a lot of people ask me that and I say ‘yeah it’s a technical job, but it’s always the people that make up the team.’ That’s still the best part of the job.”

Other Links

Read last week’s CIOs in Conversation with Dave Adamson here.

Register to attend this year’s GTEC exhibition floor, a free forum to explore innovative GC2020 solutions.

Reprinted with permission.

CIOs in Conversation: Dave Adamson

CIOs in Conversation: Dave Adamson

October 18, 2016 | By | Add a Comment

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.

Dave Adamson Source: Linkedin

Dave Adamson
Source: Linkedin

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.