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 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.”
Reprinted with permission.