Lukasz Zawilski says his team at the New Zealand Qualifications Authority is furthering the adoption of Agile practices and has started to implement product teams across the agency, as part the wider organisational Digital Transformation.
“This builds on the initial shift from traditional waterfall methods to Agile methodologies from the previous year,” says Zawilski, who took up the CIO role in 2014.
“The cross functional product teams look after specific areas of business operations and in conjunction with product owners (and customer/key stakeholders) ensure the highest value activities are always being worked on,” he says.
“Whilst it seems like a clich?, the biggest lesson in my career has been that it is all about people, more specifically awesome people working effectively together,” he adds.
“I’ve worked in a range of organisations, in lots of different cultures and geographies, and at the heart of success is always the quality and caliber of people around you.”
“Having the right people in the team has always allowed me and my team to punch well above our weight,” says Zawilski.
He says the NZQA IS function delivers services to 160,000-plus customers on an annual basis, to ‘four nines’ levels, with a modest sized team based in Wellington.
“We have to design intuitive solutions – we can’t train 160,000 customers – and deliver them to almost every type of device and connection imaginable. None of that would be possible without the awesome people around me,” he says. “Working with learners also means we work with ever shifting user expectations because their use of technology changes so rapidly.”
Zawilski says they had to set up new funding and governance approach – with the product teams having an approved annual funding envelope and working based on a customer/product owner prioritized backlog. “In many ways we resemble a digital start-up more than a traditional public sector organization.”
The team structure is a mix of cross-functional team members and business stakeholders. This has challenged traditional project methodologies which are usually ‘front heavy’ in terms of business cases, governance and prioritisation.
“For years now we have provided a service for students to request printed copies of their Record of Achievement (ROA) – in essence an academic transcript but only containing their NCEA achievements.
“It has traditionally been an expensive operation, requiring specialised printers and paper to ensure these documents are difficult to modify or falsify.
“We wanted to make these ROAs available in a digital format but ensure we can provide the same (or better) levels of assurance around their accuracy and authenticity, The value of these documents (and the qualifications they represent) hinges on the trust and confidence others put in them.
During the process, his team noted that: digital signatures are slow (‘1200ms round trip before anything is even done’), digital signatures are complex (requiring Hardware Secure Module (HSM) compliant with FIPS 140-2 Level 2) and digital signatures are expensive (HSMs cost around US$5,000 each to buy, and support for them costs between $15,000 to $25,000 per year per device, and double that to provide redundancy).
“We started to think there must be a simpler (and more cost effective) way to do this,” he says.
“After exploring a range of options – including using blockchain – we came up with a ‘simple and elegant solution’ which is an AWS-based serverless implementation to hash the ROA document when its produced and store that hash in a simple database.”
“We can now, within reason, prove the accuracy and authenticity of every document we produce using the ROA generation service,” he says. “We built a simple frontend app to allow people to check the validity of any ROA document which met the needs of our customers.”
“We were able to deploy this solution rapidly by building on our existing cloud based investments – such as our API gateway – and over the coming year we plan to deploy a range of new digital services on those platforms. We have been investing in the use cloud platforms for the past couple of years – pioneering cloud adoption across government.”
“We have also built prototypes of chatbot, AI and machine learning technologies which we will be taking to initial beta with customers this year, once our examination period is over. These will contribute to improved customer experiences, service delivery and enable our wider business transformation.”
Zawilski publishes a weekly blog (entitled ‘Lukasz’s Desk’) and hosts regular Ask Me Anything and all hands sessions with his wider team. “Given our size, it is essential we benefit from and build on the experiences of others. We regularly have guest speakers from industry leading and tech start-up organisations spend some time with our teams to broaden and challenge our thinking.” Speakers from the likes of Xero, Vend, PowerShop, Figured, Microsoft, Amazon and 8i have spent time with the team.
We have worked hard over the past couple of years to build a high performing culture and new capability – resulting in a significant lift in team performance, staff engagement and customer satisfaction. We lifted customer NPS score to 74 in 12 months. We captured this journey in ‘Our Little Book of Culture’ which is issued to every team member and prospective new hires.
The NZQA IS team is diverse, with staff representing around 12 nations, and over a third of the team (37 per cent) are female. “We did not set ourselves any targets or thresholds,” he states. “We employ the best people we can for any given role.”
“We have a strong focus on mentoring and training as part of our transformation to cloud based technologies over the past year. We are also creating opportunities for cross team working and secondments for our staff across NZQA.”
“We are now embarking on a large application modernisation initiative to shift our legacy business applications to modern platforms to be able to better respond to the changing needs of operating in a digital world.”
Brendan Kelly, CIO at Tertiary Education Commission, says Zawilski and his team are recognised across the education agencies as the leaders for the sector in cloud adoption.
“The work they have done has neatly balanced the management of risk and uncertainty with the clear drive to move the playing field to a new level,” says Kelly. “This positions NZQA to make real strategic game-changing gains in how it delivers its mission in a digital age.”