From factory worker to service desk manager

When Christian Gingras is feeling the stress of managing service desk staff in the Ontario government, he thinks back 20 years to his first job in a factory.

“Every time I have a bad day, no matter how bad the day was, it’s 10,000 times better than when I was there,” he said. “I was basically an operator at a pool factory on the graveyard shift. That was a pretty boring job. I was in front of a machine, I waited for a little piece of plastic to pop out, inspected it, and made sure it was (okay), I put it on the side and waited for another one. That was pretty brutal. I really gets to you.”

So Gingras decided to go to school, got a job at IBM and later joined the Ontario Public Service. This week, Gingras is scheduled to move from his current position as a senior manager for Ontario’s Government Services department to head of IT service management at Ontario’s Health Services Cluster.

Along with three other OPS panelists, Gingras shared his experience to an audience of about 50 during a discussion at last month’s Showcase Ontario conference at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

The panelists, with a broad range of backgrounds and experience, offered advice on how to get in the public sector and how to develop your career and climb the ladder. Their career tips would come in handy to IT professionals in any organization, public or private.

For example, you should have a mentor for your job, said Kim Davison, head of the service management branch at the Children, Youth and Social Services Cluster (CYSSC).

“A lot of organizations do not have formal (mentoring) relationships but that does not mean they cannot exist,” she said. “It’s something a lot of us are able to do and we’re just waiting to be asked.” She once had a formal mentor who made himself available to look at work she was doing and give feedback during meetings, provided he was given a certain amount of notice.

“I’ve had very very informal type mentoring relationships largely because you’re in a work situation where you have an ongoing interaction with somebody,” she said.

Davison did not start with a tech background. In fact, she started her public service career 20 years ago working on policy for then-Premier David Peterson. After Peterson’s Liberals lost the 1990 election, she took a contract position at the Ministry of Attorney-General.

Later, when she returned from maternity leave from an executive assistant position, she saw three job notices for positions reporting to a chief information officer: one in finance, one in administration and one on IT. She surprised the CIO when she applied for the latter.

“She looked at me like I had three heads and asked why,” Davison said. “I said, ‘I think IT was one of those core competencies, like HR and finance, that was going to be critical for any leadership role.’ I didn’t bring technical skills to the job. I learned by asking a lot of questions.”

One panelist with a more technical background was Julian Appel, security architect with the Economics and Transportation Cluster (ETC). Three years ago, he worked in the private sector, usually on special projects.

“I never had a stable place or cubicle,” Appel said. “I had six-month or one-year contracts, but I saw a lot of technology. Shortly after the dot-com bust, I started in the direction of security and privacy.”

Now, part of his role is educating civil servants about keeping sensitive information secure.

“I have an appreciation for the difference between our Charter of Rights and the written constitution of some other countries,” he said, adding personal information does not belong to bureaucrats. “It belongs to the people of Ontario and we must make sure it is secure and that privacy is kept.”

Unlike some of his co-panelists, Appel did not focus on working his way up the hierarchy.

“I wanted to be always at the top of technology, the latest and greatest, not necessarily a manager,” he said.

And those who are ambitious don’t necessarily look for promotions.

“There’s a lot to be said about getting a breadth of experience before stepping up the ladder,” Davison said.

Gingras agreed, adding when he first joined OPS in 2004, there were only two layers of managers between him and the CIO, with only a few more layers between the CIO and the deputy minister.

“When I was at IBM, the number of layers from me to the president of IBM Canada, was 11,” he said. “In between him and the CEO of IBM (worldwide) there was another 11 layers. There was huge overhead.” Gingras started at IBM in 1996 on a help desk, eventually becoming team leader at the service desk.

He has worked several jobs in OPS and had seven interviews in the last 10 months.

He does three things to prepare for job interview. First, he shows the job description to colleagues and mentors, asking them to ask him questions as if they were the interviewer. He meditates before the interview, and if he’s required to make a presentation, he has his peers check it for mistakes and to ensure it gets his message across.

Gingras said interviewers “want to see what level you are thinking at.” For example, if they ask how you would solve a problem and you describe the program you would write, “you are thinking at the programmer level,” rather than a management level.

Rehearsals before the interview are important, said Harp Ahluwalia, manager of financial and information solutions at the Economics and Transportation Cluster.

“Think of the accomplishments that you’ve had before the interview,” Ahluwalia said. “Don’t go into the interview and try to freestyle. Spend some time and think about, ‘Okay, this is a project management position. I’ve led a team and we accomplished this.’” He added certifications count for something – to a degree.

“Relate those certifications to how they will benefit you on the job, but no one going to get a job on certificates alone,” Ahluwalia said.

Ahluwalia started preparing for his IT career at an early age. Along with some classmates, he helped write a video game program in Basic when he was in Grade 3.

“We took it to the public school fair and I was amazed at the talent there, because these video games that were at this fair were 150 times better than what we had,” he said. “We realized we had a lot of work to do so I got my Bachelor of Science in Computer Science.”

Though he started in the private sector, he got tired of working 80 to 90 hours a week.

“Work life balance is important and for me,” he said. “I was doing research and looking for places that offered that. The other thing I liked about OPS was it’s so broad and diverse, and there’s so many companies within this company. I don’t have to leave my job to get different experience.”

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