5 Lessons from New Technology Leaders – Paul Mason, CIO, Canada Mortgage Housing Corp.

Before any new job, comes the interview. But before Paul Mason became the CIO of the Canada Mortgage Housing Corp. (CMHC) , his meeting with CEO Evan Siddall hardly felt like an interview at all.

“It was probably the least interviewy type interview I’ve ever had. We got together, we started talking about how technology can affect and improve and influence your business. And his view on how technology should be leveraged was really very, very compatible with my thinking about technology. “So we actually ended up having this long conversation around how technology can improve a business, how technology should be governed, what type of leader needs to lead a technology organization.”

By the end of that long conversation, it was decided. Mason would be the CMHC’s first CIO. The hiring came at a time when CMHC was getting a higher national profile. The Liberal government announced a new National Housing Strategy, with a 10-year, $40 billion mandate. Since then, the government says that CMHC has helped 1 million Canadians find a place to call home.

Mason played a key part in executing on that vision, transforming the crown corporation’s IT department and creating a whole new approach to customer service. We interviewed Mason following his nomination to the CanadianCIO of the Year awards for 2018. He’s our featured guest on this episode of 5 Lessons from New Technology Leaders. We’re in our second season, exploring stories of our finalists. This season includes stories from some of Canada’s most recognized brands in the public and private sector.

Subscribe to “5 Lessons from New Technology Leaders” on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.

Here, we’ll recap the five takeaway lessons learned from Mason.

Lesson #1 – To be an effective leader, you have to be consistent and constantly beat the drum to motivate others.

In just two years on the job at CMHC Mason has tackled cloud migration, built new strategic partnerships, created proper governance, and implemented new strategic business solutions.

To accomplish this in a short time, Mason was a bit like the Energizer Bunny. He kept beating the drum, with a consistent message that change was necessary.

Gary Davenport, a judge of the CanadianCIO of the Year awards with the Information Technology Association of Canada, helped evaluated Mason’s nomination.

“What we learned from Paul is that CIOs need to stay really focused on their strategy and it’s all about being persistent and consistent,” he says.  “It’s obvious that Paul has been able to lead that charge and implemented a significant amount of change in a short time frame, including being the first Canadian public organization to fully transition to the cloud and at the same time to implement a fully functional backend insight analytics program.”

Coming into the CIO role in 2016, Mason recalls that the company had just embarked on a massive transformation project. The goal was to harness its data to make better decisions and be more efficient. As an executive that was leading the technology division, he could start to break down the silos preventing that from happening.

“my mandate was to come in and completely transform the technology environment but not just with a technology lens looking at how we can improve how the business operates through the application of technology,” Mason says. “My role as a CIO is to use technology to help enable the business, not just technology for technology’s sake.”

Lesson #2 – Don’t just hire outsourcers. Make strategic partners with vendors and consultants and collaborate with them to achieve success.

To start down his transformation path, Mason conducted a survey of CMHC employees to identify their challenges. Unfortunately, he heard back that technology was viewed as a big barrier to getting work done. Among the problems was the lack of ways to hold a video conference, no intranet resources, and an old Lotus Notes application made even exchanging messages a chore.

To modernize, Mason sought partners with experience in transformation projects. He hired business consultancy Accenture and Microsoft partner Avanade so he’d have access to people with the right skillsets. From there, he planned 45 technology projects to be completed over three years. As of September 2018, CMHC was about half-way through the roadmap.

Mason also created partnerships with SAP for its ERP platform, IBM for its analytics applications, and Microsoft for a range of productivity software from Outlook, Office 365, and Skype for Business.

It’s important to note that managing successful outsourcing relationships isn’t easy. According to our own CanadianCIO Census for 2018, about one-quarter of CIOs say that outsourcing relationships fell short of expectations. Compare that to cloud services, where only 12 per cent were disappointed.

Why is this the case? We asked Michael Hart, a managing partner at Toronto-based Merit Outsourcing Advisors. He says that too often, businesses see outsourcing relationships as a “set it and forget it” type of deal. Really, they need to focus on managing the transition and assign staff to act as project management resources. Providing business documentation, or even just a person that can explain why processes are done a certain way, is the key. Paul Mason went far beyond that simple step.

“When we first launched into this, we created in my team, a partner relationship management team within the CIO organization, something that we had never had before. That team’s mandate is multi-faceted,” Mason explains. “First, there’s an operational oversight type of activity to make sure the basics are there. I mean you still have to have the underpinnings of a solid contract so that we’re managing our service level agreements, measuring performance and so forth as well as managing all the contractual relationships, the relationship parts of the arrangement. So that’s kind of table stakes and something everyone would do.  But that team is also tasked with structuring the governance around this. And we do governance at multi-levels and it starts at the top of the house. So on roughly a bi-weekly basis, myself, our CEO Evan Siddall and the CEO of Accenture Canada, as well as their executive lead on our account, have a meeting.”

Jeff Gilchrist, the general manager of Avanade Canada, describes Mason as a great partner that was able to develop a “we” relationship instead of an “us and them” relationship. ”

“This has been critical to achieve the milestone after milestone that has occurred in the last 24 months,” Gilchrist writes. “He brings a pragmatic and realistic perspective such that all parties can achieve a win/win result.”

Lesson #3 – Don’t get bogged down managing an area that’s not core to your business. Assign housekeeping tasks to your partners and focus on your business mission while closely collaborating with all stakeholders.

Soon enough after partnering with Accenture, a number of its employees transitioned to new jobs with Accenture. There, they could continue the technical work they were doing as needed for CMHC, but also for other clients.

Mason focused his team on a different skill set, one based on governance. It established an enterprise architecture function that included a mature risk management approach.

“So we started off by really looking at all of our data across all of our business. Identifying data owners within the company and then data stewards as well whose roles it is to make sure that each of our data elements is defined and well-defined,” he said. “That there’s accountability for the quality of the data and that we have a process to constantly review that especially when we start to bring data into a single data source. Understanding what those data elements are, what they mean and that we have a common understanding is absolutely critical.”

There were four objectives to CMHC’s digital strategy.

  1. Innovate and transform.
  2. Simplify and streamline.
  3. Embrace agility and risk.
  4. Collaborate and engage.

Mason focused on these objectives by creating a transformation office. He let his partners take care of the heavy technical lift, keeping up to speed through the partner relationship team.

Lesson #4 – Don’t re-invent the wheel. Just take the ones already made and put them on your vehicle to get moving.

“Don’t try to reinvent the wheel” is a well-known idiom. It’s also Mason’s philosophy when it comes to enterprise architecture. The chances are good that someone else has already built the solutions your business needs, so why spend time developing them again?

“My view is that for most organizations, 80 per cent to 90 per cent of the technology you need is not unique to you and isn’t strategically differentiating. Whereas the 10 per cent to 20 per cent absolutely is and may need some custom development,” he says.

One example of that is CMHC’s adoption of the Accenture Insights Platform. It is the first organization in Canada to implement the platform, which services as a data lake, ingesting all of the organization’s data and delivering analytics on top of it. It’s also all stored in the cloud, with Canadian data residence well intact.

Mason shared an example of how CMHC is using the platform. “We want to make sure that we identify and preempt any potential fraudulent activity in the mortgage market. So by putting the various data that we have already collected into this platform, we’re then able to use the analytics to look at where the potential is for incidents of fraud.”

Another solution that it’s putting to work is Microsoft Dynamics 365. This customer relationship management tool is helping to ensure the organization doesn’t divide into silos again. Not only is it being used for employees, but it has a client-facing component as well.

We use the CRM platform to build a client front-end that’s web-based where proponents, where builders or municipalities or others can apply for programs through our website,” Mason says. “But it’s not just an application process. It’s actually an application evaluation platform built right in using Microsoft Dynamics so that as someone’s going through the application process, they can see how their application is being scored and rated so they know, pretty much in real time, whether their application’s going to meet the criteria to be considered for one of our programs.”

Lesson #5 – Succeed with a cloud migration by setting up a factory and moving one unit at a time.

Mason didn’t just move away from managing data centres internally, he changed CMHC’s whole approach to working by migrating to the cloud. It began moving to Azure in 2017 with pilot projects, moving over workloads that weren’t part of the production environment.

Avanade conducted a review of CMHC’s current 399 applications and recommended retiring 82 of them, as they weren’t well-used. Then it recommended replacing 257 of them with enterprise platforms hosted in the cloud. The remaining 40 could continue operating as-is.

After that was done, CMHC created a schedule and has migrated more than 80 applications to the cloud. “ I call it the cloud migration factory,” Mason says. “You know again, bringing in the external expertise from Accenture and Avanade was crucial to that because we did not have the expertise in-house to do that. But it’s been very successful for us and moved incredibly quickly.”

After four months of the migration, CMHC hit the pause button. It reviewed what was moved across and how those environments were configured. As a result, it discovered that it was too often buying more resources than required – a common mistake among new cloud customers. But thanks to its studious approach, CMHC scaled back those resources.

In an on-premises environment, you actually have to build out the capacity prior to needing it. The benefit obviously of the cloud is that you can get it on-demand. So we actually then tuned our environment back so that we were only using the capacity that we needed,” Mason says.

As 2018 comes to a close, Mason is introducing Microsoft Teams at CMHC.

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jacksonhttp://www.itbusiness.ca/
Former editorial director of IT World Canada. Current research director at Info-Tech

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