by Simone Kaplan

Career Advice from a CIO Virtual Mentor

Aug 01, 200112 mins

Peter Goudswaard

Goudswaard’s first IT job was as a programmer for the Sto:lo (pronounced “staw-low”) Nation, one of Canada’s reservations for Native peoples. At the time, he was studying for his business computing degree at the University College of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford British Columbia. After graduating in 1989, he spent five years doing tech support for the Metro Valley Newspaper Group, a multinational newspaper publishing company. He returned to work for the Sto:lo government as its IT manager in 1998. He leads a team of five that supports almost 300 people in three offices with a budget of $1.3 million.

Ruth Wittenberg

In February, Wittenberg became CIO of the British Columbia Ministry of Social Development and Economic Security. She previously spent just under four years as CIO of the province’s Ministry of Finance and Corporate Relations, managing a staff of 70 and a $5 million budget. She was in charge of IT strategy and monitoring the day-to-day operations of ministry systems. After getting a degree in English from the University of Victoria, Wittenberg went to work on a financial systems rollout at the Ministry of Transportation and Highways. She then worked her way up through the ranks.

When Peter Goudswaard left his private sector tech-support job three and a half years ago to become IT manager for the Sto:lo Nation reservation in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada, he swore he would never take another full-time corporate IT job. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate the good salary or the value companies place on technology. He wanted to give back to his community. Goudswaard is a member of another native group, the Montreal Lakes Nation.

Goudswaard knew working in the public sector wouldn’t be easy. He realized that IT is not a priority for Sto:lo officials, who devote most of their attention?and their budgets?to the social services they deliver. Though Goudswaard is the ranking technology officer in his organization, he does not

report directly to top government decision makers, so he has struggled to get their attention. His current projects?creating an enterprise architecture and developing shared databases?demand collaboration from departments that are run autonomously. As if that’s not enough to keep him busy, Goudswaard has more on his agenda. He’s been educating his staff about protecting the privacy of data the Sto:lo Nation has on its members, and like most CIOs, he is searching for ways to cope with his department’s heavy workload and keep employees happy.

Getting Support from Executives

Goudswaard: I’ve had some difficulty negotiating with our senior management because we don’t have a CIO position in upper management. I am the senior technology officer, but I’m middle management. IT is seen as a utility as opposed to a key part of strategy. I just ran a campaign to get senior management support for a major new enterprise architecture project that would be a blueprint for future technology plans. Right before Christmas, they gave their support for the plan’s concept, which was a huge step for me.

Wittenberg: If you can get a sense from each member of upper management what the sticking points are you can figure out a way to get technology to the table. You have to make it clear how technology can help them on their terms. For example, if there’s an operational area they are struggling with, you can let them know the task could be accomplished faster and easier with your help. Try to find supporters in the executive group. You can build opinion in your favor by focusing on those individuals.

Goudswaard: In many cases, management may not have the money for a project, so their approval isn’t always dependent on selling a good business case.

Wittenberg: When you’re in a leadership role, particularly in the public sector, you must be persistent. Sometimes things that are the right thing to do are no longer priorities because of a policy change. You’re reselling your cause at every turn. When major systems projects cross fiscal years, you may get funding one year, but there is no guarantee you will get money in year two. That makes it difficult to go ahead with major changes and business transformation.

One method that worked for me is creating a technology report card. In my former job, we assigned letter grades for technology to various divisions in the ministry. It was a very effective tool because it appealed to everyone’s competitive instincts. I took quite a bit of heat for that initially, but it made the departments care about technology, which allowed me to start reinforcing strategic decisions and the choices being made. The departments started thinking about the kinds of platforms being used and the technology being bought.

Encouraging Collaboration

Goudswaard: Because of the way the Sto:lo’s programs are funded, I have a lot of islands of automation. Each department has its own budget, and there is too little collaboration. My department is responsible for supporting everyone, but it’s hard to get people to collaborate when they have little incentive. And because budgets change annually, people have short-term vision. My first challenge is to get people to discuss this. My second challenge is coming up with workable plans, especially for database development, which is my number-one technical issue. The departments should work on database development together because we could cut costs, reduce redundancy and improve security.

An example is consolidation of information about the clients of many of our programs. Our education department collects the same information from clients as our employment services and social development departments. Another potential benefit would be the ability to see whether a client is receiving funds from more than one program. Right now we look for this manually and infrequently. Our new client management database project for the education department will be looking at sharing client information with the other two departments. Good cross-departmental communication helps to improve service.

Wittenberg: We had a similar situation in the Ministry of Finance. There were a number of divisions with separate IS branches. We had good results with what we called the Information Technology Management Steering Committee, which I chaired. It was made up of the ministry’s divisional information systems branch directors. We talked about common concerns, like migration to Windows 2000, and agreed on a corporate direction where it made sense. When I started at the Ministry of Finance, we were running a number of incompatible e-mail systems. This committee was instrumental in moving everyone to a common standard that was also the government’s standard.

One of the things we consider from time to time is whether there should be added costs associated with varying from an agreed technology standard. There’s no doubt that supporting many different technology platforms can be more costly than supporting one or two. There are many schools of thought around the best way to do this, and in my experience, there is no right answer to this question.

Goudswaard: I know there has to be a happy medium somewhere.

Wittenberg: Creating corporate standards that allow enough flexibility is a challenge. Technology should not drive a business process, even though we see it happen a lot. You do need to strike a balance between meeting unique business requirements and using standard hardware and software to create efficiency. We worked a lot with other ministries and our central agencies on standards development. Technology choices should be based on who it impacts, what the business need is and, finally, cost. We made our decision to move to a single e-mail system using those criteria.

Protecting Privacy

Goudswaard: I’m kind of taken aback that privacy and access to information really aren’t given attention. Maybe it’s because there haven’t been any negative stories.

Wittenberg: You can be assured the first time there is even a perceived abuse, it will become a priority.

Provincial legislation promotes open and accountable government, which has meant an increase in the public’s requesting information. The federal legislation that defines private sector privacy responsibilities has raised awareness of the importance of information management and access. While these issues could be ignored in the past, those days are quickly disappearing.

We developed a database to ensure that we knew what computer applications we had in the Finance ministry that collect personal information so that we can help programs manage it. People are often very distrustful of government and want to know what information government has about them. Educating your organization about its responsibility to both protect information and provide it is important. If you can use real examples of information you currently hold and how the law applies to it, that can really help increase their understanding.

Keeping Staff Happy

Goudswaard: As a small organization, we can’t afford to have a lot of staff. Each of us wears many hats because if we didn’t, the job wouldn’t get done. Our help desk has one guy, and he does 10 jobs. I have difficult decisions to make about compensation and responsibility.

Wittenberg: There is no doubt that as we lose staff, the scope of the jobs for others changes. The challenge is making sure you aren’t asking people to wear 10 hats where it doesn’t make sense. In my former job we were desperate for a good technical Web resource and chose to redeploy someone to work on Web development rather than on the network operations. That meant the other members of the network team had to take up the slack. But we felt it was a greater risk not to respond to the demands being placed on us by the Internet. It’s a question of calculating the risk and what you and the staff can handle in terms of workload.

Goudswaard: For the last two positions we’ve advertised, over 80 percent of the short-listed applicants declined because our wages aren’t competitive enough. But once we get people on board, they stay. We have a 100 percent retention rate with the team I’ve hired. We have good benefits and a casual environment with flexible working hours. They also say it’s a fun place to work. There are a lot of people who will make less money to stay close to family and friends. Unfortunately, this is beginning to change, and I expect our retention rate to drop if compensation levels aren’t maintained. If I don’t make the salaries equitable, people won’t be able to afford to work here, no matter how nice it might be.

Wittenberg: We have to be very conscious of the public’s view of public sector salary increases, so this is a difficult area. We are losing staff to the private sector, the United States and other public organizations where wage scales are higher. I want to address things like work hours and flexible working arrangements at home. There’s also the opportunity to sell employees on the interesting work they have the chance to do. Government work touches both private citizens and companies.

Managing Upheaval

Goudswaard: We’ve expanded to two other regional offices. I was contacted about setting up workstations for 50 people after they had already moved and no one had told me. That’s something we fight with a lot. There is both major and minor restructuring that goes on continuously. It’s hard to keep up.

Wittenberg: While I was at the Ministry of Finance, we had the same things happen. When there was a Cabinet change, we had to be in a position to move quickly?meaning hours not days?to get new ministers and their offices and staff set up with computers when the announcements are made. We had a lot of success with using a small team that has done this a number of times. The depth of knowledge the team had about the business needs of the client area was critical to making that work fast and smoothly.

Three Weeks Later…

Goudswaard: I took your advice and started to focus on members of the executive board who were supportive of the new enterprise architecture project that I’m working on, rather than the people who reacted negatively. When I proposed the next phase, I left the PowerPoint slides and the statistics behind and made the presentation extremely general. I sold the concept and not the project. That was enough to tilt the seesaw in my direction.

The other piece of advice I’ve followed up on is the report card. When I first came into this job, I implemented a comprehensive annual survey of the IS staff. I used the results to gauge performance, where the department stood and what needed to be changed. Then someone nixed the survey and that was that. For me, the report card will be a step back in that direction.

Wittenberg: That’s very important. I’ve found that the report card forces people to respond to issues. They become more engaged and are willing to do more.

Goudswaard: Also, I met with my boss, the executive director of finance and administration, and proposed an increase in salaries for my staff. It was a fairly large increase, and he was right on board. He’s well aware of demand for qualified workers, and he said the most important thing is to retain staff. We’ve put so much money into training everyone here that it would be foolish to lose those people over salary.