Q and A with Pete Shea

With more than 30 years experience in the IT industry, Pete Sheawas a natural choice as CIO for Newfoundland and Labrador when heassumed the role in the fall of 2004. He credits his work asregional director for xwave in Ireland and Newfoundland as helpingprepare him for the role he has today. His office has recentlyundergone a major transformation, and he discussed this as well ashis passion for computer programming, and teaching at MemorialUniversity, with Lisa Williams, senior writer with InterGovWorld.Excerpts from their conversation follow:

Q. Let’s start with your background. I know that you studiedmathematics, computer science and education at Memorial Universityin St. John’s, and that you were on faculty there as well. What wasthat like?

A. Yes, I actually stopped (teaching) a couple of years ago,because of pressures of work. When I moved to Ireland I had to giveit up as I obviously couldn’t commute from there…I was there atMemorial for 21 years and I really enjoyed it…

I started in the business back in the “Jurassic period,”{about30 years ago. And when I came out of Memorial, out of computerscience, I started as a programmer. Somebody once told me, and Idon’t know if it’s true, that Bill Gates still carries around acard that says “Bill Gates, Programmer.” I don’t know if with allthat money that you’d need to do that, but I guess it just speaksto the level of passion and interest some people have in it.

And if I could do it and make the money I make today, I thinkI’d still be in programming. As I rose out of programming and intoanalysis and design many years ago, I sort of lost the contact withprogramming…I loved it so much, and teaching programming atMemorial was a way that I could “feed my habit.”

Q. And is that an area that’s growing at Memorial, with respectto computer studies and IT? Is that something that students areshowing more of an interest in?

A. Its funny you should ask that because we’re in the throes ofa bit of a resource crunch here in the office with not onlyprogrammers, it’s really right across the whole organization,including systems analysis, and project management. My leadershipgroup was talking just the other day about what we could to do tostimulate some interest at the university or the college level hereto reinstitute some of the programs that frankly have been cut overthe years…

You’ve probably seen similar developments to what we’ve seenhere, which over the years have been like the dot-com bubble inthat we have an IT bubble where a number of years ago it was reallycool and sexy to go do IT, and a lot of people did it, and then allof a sudden we had a surfeit of those folks and then there was abacklash, and nobody did IT. And we had a couple years where peoplecame out and couldn’t find jobs, and then we had the crash in 2001in the whole industry. So a lot of people stopped doing IT, andconsequently what we have five years later is a situation wherevery few IT graduates are rolling off the assembly line atMemorial, and also at the colleges here.

So we’re seeing that we can’t get resources with eitherentry-level people or experienced resources to take on some of thework that we have. So it’s a real issue for us, and we’re notseeing as much interest in it now as we did a number of yearsago.

Q. You were the regional director for Newfoundland and Irelandfor xwave. How did that work prepare you for what you’re doing nowas CIO?

A. It was a tremendous experience, I really loved it. Before Imoved to Ireland I helped establish the office there, and my groupat xwave got the first piece of work in Ireland. Coincidentally Ihad been the project manager for a system at Memorial, besides thefact that I was teaching there, and I also was project manager forthe student registration system which was an online real-timeadjudication for registering students over the web, which in1992/1993, was pretty new at the time…and that was a greatexperience, we had all this experience with university registrationsystems and the business of how university runs…and we answered aRequest For Proposal (RFP) for a system in Dublin and we won thebid.

So for a couple of years I was commuting back and forth, workingwith the university sector in what they called the third levelinstitutes there, helping to sell things and install universitytype applications, and while doing that we were also trying tobroaden our base in Ireland. And when the opportunity came we setthe office up and I moved over so it was a great opportunity.

I was there for a little over a year, and I commuted forprobably four years before that, and it’s a horrible commute by theway. It sounds sexier than it is when you’re doing it, but you’regoing into work bleary eyed after a long flight. But theopportunity was fabulous and as part of that not only did we workwith the university sector but we were doing a lot of work with thegovernment in Ireland. That was by far the biggest customer we had,so a lot of the things that we were doing there helped propel meinto this particular job as well.

Q. Ireland seems to have a really booming IT industry. Did thathelp serve as a model for the work you’re doing now inNewfoundland?

A. The thing about Ireland, they were hit like everybodyworldwide in 2001 with the downturn, so it was a tough time…Irelandhas done remarkably well, they don’t call it the Celtic Tiger fornothing, and they’ve really capitalized on some very intelligentpublic policy initiatives to help spur the economy over there.Their IT economy, like everything, boomed, but of course when thebloom came off the rose they were hurt as well…but still havingsaid that we did good business and things were going very wellthere and I got to make a lot of good connections…

I think it did help prepare me for (the CIO office) I certainlyhad a lot of interesting assignments when I was there whichdovetailed very neatly with what I’m doing today in organizing theoffice. As well, we’ve undertaken a fairly dramatic reorganizationto deliver IT here.

Q. With the transformation that you’re doing right now in theCIO office, what are the ultimate goals and where are you at rightnow?

A. I started in the fall of 2004 with the CIO position, and,just a little bit of background history to set the stage for you,there was a Crown corporation established way back in 1969, thatwas responsible entirely for the delivery of IT services to thegovernment…it was really the government’s IT arm…and it went until1994 when government in it’s wisdom decided to outsource that…

It was a real shock to them to all of a sudden lose that andhave that outsource privatized…So that was 11 to 12 years ago, inthe first few years it was a little bit like shock, like beingplunged in the cold water, and then all of a sudden you had the 16individual departments that existed at the time that really didn’thave much co-ordination and focus, and had all of their IT strippedaway and given out to somebody else, and because there was nocentral focus or leadership they all sort of grew organically…andthe 16 departments were leaderless, they just decided on whateverstandards or process or procedures, whatever they wanted to do,whatever fit their own needs without any co-ordination…

Over time you really didn’t have anybody at the senior level whowas an advocate for IT and seeing IT as an investment and as anintegral part of the delivery of government programs and services.Nowadays all government systems have an IT system somewhere. Youdon’t deliver motor registration services now without a computersystem…every government department you could name has a greatdependency on computer systems, and yet nobody was really speakingat a senior level as the champion for all this, and IT was seenunfortunately for many years as an expense to be managed down…

So when the new premier came in, Premier Williams, he saw thatthis didn’t make a lot of sense at all, and he was a majorproponent of IT, and one of the major priorities was to hire a CIOand to give some focus, attention and strategy to the delivery ofIT services. That’s sort of how I came about.

Q. So was that the catalyst for this, Premier Williams’receptiveness to making IT a priority, and establishing the CIOposition for Newfoundland?

A. Absolutely. Nobody would give you any argument here on that.If it had not been for him the office (CIO) itself would not becreated and I think we would still be 16 very disembodiedentities…meandering about doing our own things in the way that madesense at the time…I got recruited to come in and do this; it was atremendous opportunity, but I absolutely have no doubt that itwould never have come my way if it hadn’t been for the support ofthe premier in driving this idea forward.