Q&A: Howard C. Dickson

Howard C. Dickson, assistant deputy minister of information management, is leaving the Department of National Defence (DND) after nearly six years heading up IT for an organization that maintains an IT budget of nearly $1 billion. Dickson came to the job after holding several senior IT roles at public and private organizations, including CN Rail, and National Trust.

Dickson recently spoke with CIO Governments’ Review about his career, the changes he’s seen and what advice he might have for those who might be filling his shoes. Excerpts of the conversation follow:

Q. When did you arrive at DND, and what circumstances did you find there?

A. Once I joined in early 1998, it became clear to me that the organization somehow didn’t seem to have anyone clearly in charge of operations and development. So it took me much longer to establish the required organization because of all the formal procedures that are required within government to effect change.

At the same time there were a number of long-running projects we had to bring under some kind of control and, in so doing, we built ourselves a project management development practice. So now we provide probably some 30 to 40 projects on an ongoing basis in the IM/IT area. While I’m not going to attempt to tell you everything is perfect, we have an overwhelmingly large number of these projects under excellent control. When I read in the various academic and business press that 40 per cent of IT projects in the U.S. are in a state of not delivering value, I would think we’re certainly ahead of that.

Q. You have had a heavy business focus during your IT career. What are your thoughts on how well the two disciplines are working together today?

A. The great challenge now is that we have a capability for business and a capability of affecting society that is changing at a rate that I don’t think we can meaningfully keep up with using our fairly traditional approaches to running projects and procuring technology for military operations. So my sense of where we’re challenged is we’re still focused on keeping the networks up, the computers up, the changes stable, the projects on track. I don’t think we have enough time to lift our heads up and say: “How can we enable all these growing capabilities? How can we help the business make sense of that?”

I think we need to put more emphasis on separating ourselves from tactical and operational issues, so we can address strategic opportunities. One of the biggest reasons behind any form of alternate sourcing of information technology service, whether in government or industry, is one of focus. It will enable us to let all those people who want to stay with technology to do so, while those who want to drive this work on the business value will have the time and mandate to do that.

Q. With so many years under your belt, are you satisfied with how IT is done today? Has it lived up to its promise?

A. Absolutely. I just look at the banking scenario of the 1960s and 1970s, lining up to do transactions. I think we’ve made tremendous strides. But the irony is I don’t believe we ever had a specific project on a stand-alone basis that said: “This project – X – saved us this many dollars – Y.” I don’t think we ever knew that.

It would not have been affordable to provide the transaction power that we now have, so I suppose that what I see is that we have far better technology in place. But I don’t think we are yet comfortable with the idea that business cases evolve by applying technology to old ways of doing things, because we don’t yet have a new way of doing things. If you look at the business case for putting electronic banking in place, I don’t think we’d ever see the enormous volumes we’d be taking on, or the expansion of scope that would follow. Early ideas of replacing tellers with ATMs were overtaken.

Q. What project would you say has made you most proud so far?

A. In my previous role at National Trust, I was very pleased with the customer information system we put in place, and how straightforward that was to do, and the enthusiasm from team to put it in place. At DND, there’s two that stick in my mind.

One was when in January 1999 I was advised that I did not have a payroll system that was going to make it through year 2000. My mental model of 60,000 soldiers not getting a paycheque wasn’t very pleasant. So what I was able to do was get the very best project manager, and executive and user support. And I said: “Hey, we’re going to finish this in five or six months and be ready for 2000.” And we did it without any implementation issues or cost overruns. So I was quite pleased with that.

The other one I was pleased about was the Canadian Forces Supply Upgrade project. This project, I’m told, had its roots in the late 1980s, when someone wanted to upgrade a computer. When I joined in 1998, it seemed to be getting another month behind for every month I was in the organization. We worked with the vendor, and they said, “Here’s what you can do to improve the process,” and we significantly reduced the staffing on the project and took it away from being a formal, Crown project, and took an approach of maximizing delivery within currect funding. And we in fact suceeded in completing the project within its $300+ million budget. That was another one that gave me a lot of pleasure.

Q. What was it like jumping from the private to the public sector?

A. I think the biggest thing, which surprises everybody because you don’t really believe it until you come here, is that we have put ourselves in a position whereby to hire people or to procure things takes an awful long time in government. The reasons are excellent and very hard to argue with, but some of the procurement processes means that we have projects that will last several years. And you’ll see very low expectations of success once IT projects last that long. Getting around that procurement challenge – much better brains than I have tried, and I don’t have a silver bullet solution. It’s a major area of opportunity and one area I found very difficult. The second one obviously is recruitment, where it can take you eight or nine months to hire somebody, again because of the process and the need to demonstrate transparency and other things. Which again is a very good thing to do, but it can take a long time.

Q. Has your job changed since in terms of how you view security?

A. There’s a great concern for security. We operate separate from the Internet. There are connections, but they’re very tightly controlled – we use a special network for Internet access. We do that so if there are major problems, only that network gets affected. So certainly we’ve taken a very defensive posture. We’re very security focused. There’s two sides to that, though. One of those things is the spontaneous computing capability that you get out of the Internet – you don’t always get to learn if you have to go down the hall to use it.

Q. Some governments around the world are looking very seriously at open source computing. What are your thoughts on that?

A. From my perspective, I’d say the last thing I need is another OS in my organization. On the other hand, if we are going to have more flexible approaches to procurement, if we do want to entertain proposals from a range of vendors and change vendors, we’re going to have to move to some form of design based on open standards. If we want to move to the environment where we’re not just focused on one or two vendors, we’re going to have to move to something open. My sense is open source is going to play an important factor in that. I’m not certain it’s right, and I think they need thinking through. In our not-to-distant future we’re going to be considering designs besed on open standards, I believe.

Q. Any advice to anyone entering this level of management?

A. The biggest challenge will be to create enough time and space to get away from the traditional operational and development practices of IT. I think service provision should be moved out to an agency so they consume less management of labour. Second, we need to understand the various aspects of where business adds value to its clients. The more time we can spend in front and also be dealing with the ambiguity of dealing with all these great technologies, the better. I think eventually we’ll be able to come up with some groundbreaking ideas and implementations.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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