What's eating the public sector's top technologists?

By Stephen Easton

September 6, 2016

Network cable going through a tangled bunch of network cables isolated on white background

When it comes to information technology, how do you keep up with the latest developments at the same time as keeping the lights on? What do you do in-house, when do you outsource and when do you form a blended workforce with external contractors?

Three senior public sector technologists got the chance to chat about these and other challenges they are facing at a recent discussion hosted by the Trans-Tasman Business Circle. But that’s not to say there were any easy answers.

The challenge of maintaining the right balance of information technology skills in the workforce, in competition with other organisations, is one key issue that came up. As pointed out by the host, former Australian Government CIO Anne Steward, everyone is often competing to build the same capability from a finite pool of skilled staff.

One key workforce challenge for IT execs is the escalating cost and dwindling availability of expertise that can support their legacy systems, which are common in big organisations. Nobody is installing anything these days on quite the same scale as the large bespoke machines that marked an earlier era of enterprise IT, but what’s new today will be old tomorrow nonetheless.

Peter Lawrence
Peter Lawrence

“As we move forward with new technology you’ve always got the piece that sort of trails behind you; unfortunately that trail’s getting longer for a lot of us,” said Defence CIO Peter Lawrence. He believes most of the responsibility for tomorrow’s legacy systems lies with the users, not the vendors.

Most legacy systems aren’t as difficult to replace as the 1980s mainframe that doles out welfare payments for the Department of Human Services, which has embarked on a long and complex plan to do just that in an iterative manner.

As the department’s CTO Charles McHardie put it, “It works but it is very hard to look after.”

One of the major challenges of the Welfare Payments Infrastructure Transformation project, according to McHardie, is that “there are not a lot of people left in the world that understand the way Centrelink is put together, end to end”. This parlous situation only gets worse the longer such an old customised system stays in place.

“We’ve started doing some of it ourselves with our own developers so we can learn a lot of lessons before we really get stuck in over the next couple of years, but we don’t underestimate the size of the challenge,” he said.

In the United States, where McHardie recently visited the federal government’s social security agency, he said the approach was to “train up a completely new workforce” in assembly code (a venerable low-level computing language first used in 1949) so they can maintain legacy systems rather than replace them.

“We need more strategic partnerships across the federal government to make sure you’re not robbing Peter to pay for Paul.”

“Their strategy is to train more youth, more of those out of university in assembler, and continue with the code base that they’ve got because the appetite within the US government to upset the welfare apple cart is very, very low,” he explained.

“And indeed, they’re finding it hard to get a large injection of cash to be able to make a fundamental leap ahead in technology, whereas we’re in a different boat. We’re happy to take the risk, we’ve got some money, so we’re moving ahead.”

Marie Johnson, the National Disability Insurance Agency’s head technologist, also sees legacy systems as a fact of life and pointed out the next technological shifts — like the emergence of cognitive computing — will pose similar challenges to those that have been faced before.

“It’s 25 years since the internet was invented, right?” she said. “So the notion of ‘new’ and ‘legacy’ is life. And I think with that brings a whole discussion around skills, and how we blend teams to deal with that [need for] diversity.”

Talent search

McHardie says the “very blended workforce” DHS uses to keep everything running while trying to make that leap forward has been fairly successful. He said the mega-department’s style of agile methodology has worked very well as it begins rewrite the underlying code one welfare claim type at a time.

“We call it show, play, tell … we build a bit of code, a bit of functionality, we show it to business, we let them play with it, they tell us what’s wrong with it. We modify it, and we just continue down that path. …

DHS CTO Charles McHardie
Charles McHardie

“The big problem now is how to do you grow that methodology out, across a very large set of development teams. We have four whole divisions that are doing development and this has only been a small subset of that … so that’s the challenge over the next few years.”

Although there’s always that issue of the getting the best people to work on the job at hand.

“We do struggle at many times to get some really bespoke skillsets,” McHardie said. “We need to set up more and more … strategic partnerships, particularly across the federal government, to make sure you’re not robbing Peter to pay for Paul.

“I talk very closely with the CTO in Defence, with [Aiyaswami] Mohan, particularly on the SAP front because we both have a lot of reliance on the SAP product, to make sure that we’re not affecting one another, which I think is extremely important.”

He is referring to the fact Defence is running a major enterprise resource planning overhaul at the same time DHS pursues the WPIT program. Peter Lawrence says the agencies “don’t want to step on each other’s toes” but the conversations are at an early stage.

“We don’t look at it as a Canberra issue,” the Defence CIO said. “It is an issue of where do we look nationally at where the optimal delivery sectors are and that will in part depend on who we partner with … and where they can bring capability from.”

McHardie pointed out the two projects had quite different aims. Defence is working with an SAP product designed for its purposes whereas for welfare payments, “there is no complete end-to-end industry vertical in any core software platform” which means DHS has to build it out, according to its CTO.

Another workforce issue for public sector IT is ageing senior staff, which Human Services is attempting to address by bringing in graduates from science, technology, engineering and maths. McHardie says its master programs are run by people in their late forties or fifties, and the 150 STEM grads hired this year are expected to bring new ideas with them. “We’ve taken on the burden of training them in the ICT disciplines that we think are important to us moving forward, and we’re going to do that for at least the next couple of years,” he explained.

“At least 10 to 15% of our workforce will be new graduates from across science technology engineering and maths because they bring this new level of energy, a new level of innovation, a different way of thinking than the older workforce that is extremely important as we go down this transformation journey over the next seven years.”

Benefits of diversity

The NDIA also benefits from the STEM program run by DHS but in a different way. Johnson said a newly minted Doctor of Neuroscience on loan from the larger department was helping the agency understand “how information and meaning is communicated” to improve user experiences with technology interfaces.

Marie Johnson
Marie Johnson

Working on similar issues, the NDIA has a reference group whose members bring their own insights from living with disabilities like quadriplegia, cerebral palsy, deafness or blindness.

“These people are absolutely brilliant people and it really shows that when you look at things traditionally, how limited our own thinking is because we look at things through our own paradigm,” Johnson said.

“They’ve figured out many things that we don’t know — how to navigate complexity when you can’t speak or you can’t see or where you have physical limitations.

“Interfaces are all about this so …. this is not about disability, this is absolutely understanding that the diversity shines a light in areas we may not otherwise have even looked. And therein lies innovation.”

“A lot of the issues we see are people-related, and a lot of that is just basic poor practice.”

Everybody needs a blended IT workforce, commented Lawrence, but the question is what kind of blend will bring the “creativity and innovation” that Johnson spoke of. He also spoke up for diversity as a reflection of equity in public sector employment.

“I think that a lot of workforces do need to start representing the community we serve and that diversity of experience and of upbringing and in all its dimensions actually brings different thoughts and challenges us from the typical stereotype or unconscious bias we all have,” the Defence CIO opined.

“To be honest, it’s difficult, but I think to be successful in the future — whether it’s in the context I operate in today or any other context around the room — it’s the organisations that can overcome some of that unconscious bias and tap into the skills and capability that exist in society that will be the ones that succeed.

“And they will be the ones that take the strides that others won’t and that’s where I think we have to go.”

Security, data overload, and the internet of things

As data becomes more valuable, and the amount of it held by most organisations increases with the internet of things, security is always on the mind of technologists. Peter Lawrence pointed out cybersecurity is another issue that’s far from new — he sees managing the risk like trying to stay ahead of a giant snowball that won’t stop — but he agreed it would only get bigger as the internet of things grows.

“A lot of the issues we see are people-related,” said Lawrence. “And a lot of that is just basic poor practice, if I’m honest.”

The Defence CIO is of course a “strong advocate for cooperation and collaboration” in cybersecurity rather than organisations keeping things to themselves and trying to go it alone.

Johnson said she felt that the cybersecurity, and IT more broadly, were still not understood well enough at board level.

“This is a changing risk environment and as Peter said, it’s going to become more pervasive and more encompassing, so I think it is an issue for boards,” she said. I would also add, for government and public sector organisations as well.”

Leaving it all to executives with IT expertise is not good enough, “a sophisticated leadership understanding of all these things” is what’s required, Johnson suggested.

“Bill Gates once said anyone who does not understand IT is not competent to be a chief executive [and] I think we are actually getting to that level,” she said.

Lawrence also commented that “data and people are the life bloods of most organisations” in a sentiment that was echoed by the guest speaker who closed proceedings, Silicon Valley veteran Bill Coleman.

Coleman, the chief executive of global information management firm Veritas, went as far as to say that information and human resources would soon become the only important assets to worry about. Success in the new paradigm, according to Coleman, will depend on keeping data available and getting the necessary insights that lead to useful information at the same time as keeping it secure.

“[That transformation is] going to happen at different speeds but at the base of it is we have to understand that in the world we’re moving into, in many cases you don’t own your data centres and you might not own your applications,” he said. “All you will own is your data.”

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