Q and A with Pete Shea

With more than 30 years experience in the IT industry, Pete Shea was a natural choice as CIO for Newfoundland and Labrador when he assumed the role in the fall of 2004. He credits his work as regional director for xwave in Ireland and Newfoundland as helping prepare him for the role he has today. His office has recently undergone a major transformation, and he discussed this as well as his passion for computer programming, and teaching at Memorial University, with Lisa Williams, senior writer with InterGovWorld. Excerpts from their conversation follow:

Q. Let’s start with your background. I know that you studied mathematics, computer science and education at Memorial University in St. John’s, and that you were on faculty there as well. What was that 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 give it up as I obviously couldn’t commute from there…I was there at Memorial for 21 years and I really enjoyed it…

I started in the business back in the “Jurassic period,” about 30 years ago. And when I came out of Memorial, out of computer science, I started as a programmer. Somebody once told me, and I don’t know if it’s true, that Bill Gates still carries around a card that says “Bill Gates – Programmer.” I don’t know if with all that money that you’d need to do that, but I guess it just speaks to 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 think I’d still be in programming. As I rose out of programming and into analysis and design many years ago, I sort of lost the contact with programming…I loved it so much, and teaching programming at Memorial was a way that I could “feed my habit.”

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

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

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

So we’re seeing that we can’t get resources with either entry-level people or experienced resources to take on some of the work that we have. So it’s a real issue for us, and we’re not seeing as much interest in it now as we did a number of years ago.

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

A. It was a tremendous experience, I really loved it. Before I moved to Ireland I helped establish the office there, and my group at xwave got the first piece of work in Ireland. Coincidentally I had been the project manager for a system at Memorial, besides the fact that I was teaching there, and I also was project manager for the student registration system which was an online real-time adjudication for registering students over the web, which in 1992/1993, was pretty new at the time…and that was a great experience, we had all this experience with university registration systems and the business of how university runs…and we answered a Request For Proposal (RFP) for a system in Dublin and we won the bid.

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

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

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

A. The thing about Ireland, they were hit like everybody worldwide in 2001 with the downturn, so it was a tough time…Ireland has done remarkably well, they don’t call it the Celtic Tiger for nothing, and they’ve really capitalized on some very intelligent public policy initiatives to help spur the economy over there. Their IT economy, like everything, boomed, but of course when the bloom came off the rose they were hurt as well…but still having said that we did good business and things were going very well there and I got to make a lot of good connections…

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

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

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, that was responsible entirely for the delivery of IT services to the government…it was really the government’s IT arm…and it went until 1994 when government in it’s wisdom decided to outsource that…

It was a real shock to them to all of a sudden lose that and have that outsource privatized…So that was 11 to 12 years ago, in the first few years it was a little bit like shock, like being plunged in the cold water, and then all of a sudden you had the 16 individual departments that existed at the time that really didn’t have much co-ordination and focus, and had all of their IT stripped away and given out to somebody else, and because there was no central focus or leadership they all sort of grew organically…and the 16 departments were leaderless, they just decided on whatever standards 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 who was an advocate for IT and seeing IT as an investment and as an integral part of the delivery of government programs and services. Nowadays all government systems have an IT system somewhere. You don’t deliver motor registration services now without a computer system…every government department you could name has a great dependency on computer systems, and yet nobody was really speaking at a senior level as the champion for all this, and IT was seen unfortunately for many years as an expense to be managed down…

So when the new premier came in, Premier Williams, he saw that this didn’t make a lot of sense at all, and he was a major proponent of IT, and one of the major priorities was to hire a CIO and to give some focus, attention and strategy to the delivery of IT 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 CIO position 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 be created and I think we would still be 16 very disembodied entities…meandering about doing our own things in the way that made sense at the time…I got recruited to come in and do this; it was a tremendous opportunity, but I absolutely have no doubt that it would never have come my way if it hadn’t been for the support of the premier in driving this idea forward. 065711

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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