One Year at the Digital Academy
Well one year and a bit anyways. I officially passed my "Work Anniversary" on October 21st and as usual I have been too busy to write anything for the official day 😂.
This year has been one of the most transformative years of my life. If I were able to travel to the past and meet little naive me, I probably wouldn't be able to recognize myself. I have learned a lot and by a lot I mean a #$@% ton. While I have gained some pretty massive technical skills ( I am supposed to be a developer after all ) I have also grown emotionally and professionally in a pretty big way.
Full Disclaimer !
Anything read in this article should be viewed in the lens of my personal reflection and to be honest I am writing this more for myself as a reference point than anything else. Why not write a private entry you ask ? Well at the Digital Academy we teach working in the open! So in the spirit of the wonderful organization I work for I decided to share this all with you. Also apologies in advance for any grammatical or spelling mistakes. I tried my best.
This blog will be very long, so I don't expect you to read all of it. Below you will find the links to the key sections in case you want to only read the parts that interest you.
- About Me: Background of how I got to where I am
- The Overall Experience at the DA: A summary of my experience this year
- The Lessons I've Learned: Key transformative lessons I learned this year
- What I Hope to Achieve Next Year: Key items I hope to achieve, learn and grow in
- The End that is Only the Beginning: A summary of everything in totality.
To put things into perspective I thought I would share a little bit about myself and how I got to the Digital Academy. From a very young age I knew I wanted to make a dent in the world and while I have definitely not achieved that yet and still very far off I promised myself I would not do something or work anywhere that was not helping me achieve that goal.
The first thing I thought of was to be a doctor. If I could work everyday saving peoples lives that would undoubtedly make an impact on the world! Thus I set about on my quest. I got into the Biochemistry program at the University of Ottawa and as I progressed in my academic career I discovered two things.
- I really enjoyed learning about our systems at the molecular level and not the macro level
With these two newly learned passions, I figured out that I did not in fact want to become a doctor, I wanted to become a researcher! If I could advance the field of medical science that would undoubtedly make an impact on the world ! Are you starting to see a trend here 🤔 ?
Luckily for me uOttawa had just came out with a program called Translational and Molecular Medicine which was within the Faculty of Medicine. This program focuses on building the necessary knowledge and skills to be effective in the field of medical science and specifically Molecular Medicine. I eagerly applied and got accepted to this program and set about my ways being a "lab rat" as we call it and learning some pretty interesting wet lab skills. However, I gravitated towards computational biology and bioinformatics. If I could combine my love for programming and my love for the intricate molecular systems in our body, I could truly unleash my potential.
Unfortunately reality came crashing down. I have a true respect for medical science researchers. They have it tough, there is very limited funding available in this field and any funding that is available is highly competitive and sought after. At this time I had to table my fiscal reality. I would be overworked and paid very little for the next 10 years of my life. While this may seem hypocritical to my goal of "making a dent in the world" at the time my economical situation would have not allowed for me to pursue this path.
Excuse the white socks. Once again I have changed drastically 😂
Luckily for me once again, during the time I was in school, I had an awesome student job at Health Canada. I started this job during the summer of my second year, right before I was accepted into the molecular medicine program. My first job here was as a Business Analyst, I quickly combined my technical skills to help create a Learning Management System for inspectors that's still being used today. I was fortunate enough to have wonderful managers and mentors who saw potential in me and decided to keep me on as a part time student during the school semesters and full time during the summer. A new data team was created within the same unit during this time frame and because of my technical skills and interest I was assigned to be working with them. It was here that my eyes really opened to the drastic change that the government was undergoing. I quickly discovered there was a large need to change the fundamental way in which we operate. No longer was data analysis and technology a backroom operation. It was quickly becoming the core of the business. It was here that I discovered my latest mission.
If I could help drive the change to the fundamental way the government operates then undoubtedly that would make an impact on the world !
Thus I decided to make the public service my career. Specifically I would use my technical skills to develop solutions that radically change the way the business operates. I built some interesting things at Health Canada to say the least which may or may not have involved thousands of lines of VBA. Word was not meant to do the things that I made it do 😂. But, at the time that's all I had. Word, an oracle ODBC driver and read only access to a "complex" database of regulatory data. Regardless however, I was adamant on proving anything was possible. So, I graduated with a Bachelors of General Science and dedicated myself full time to this cause.
In the fall of 2018 I was lucky enough ( common theme here) to attend the TBS Open First Day at Invest Ottawa and my mind was blown.
YOU HAVE ACCESS TO PYTHON AND WORK WITH IT AS A CORE PART OF YOUR JOB?! HOW ?? YOU CAN DO WHAT WITH YOUR DATA? HOW IN THE FLYING #@$% DID YOU GET APPROVAL FOR THAT
I had to get in on this. I was introduced to Chris Allison and later that day Sean Kibbee ( who I have briefly met before this encounter ). They along a few others had just launched the Digital Academy at the Canada School of Public Service and they were looking to expand the technical team what would become the Digital Innovation Services. After speaking to my experiences I was offered a position within this new team. I was scared as at the time I had just graduated and was being bridged in at Health Canada. I did not want to risk losing a stable position but, I could not refuse the offer and I am glad I didn't! Fast forward a year later and we have accomplished great things but still have a ton more work to do.
The Overall Experience at the DA
If I can sum up my experience at the Digital Academy with one word it would be "epic". It is a place like no other in Government. You really have the freedom to pursue what you think is right with almost no barriers. It's truly a fundamental shift of the typical model you see. This has a large amount of benefit but also comes at a cost as I will discuss later.
At Health Canada I would rarely have the opportunity to interact with senior management and if I did I would first have to go through all the levels beforehand. I'm not saying this is good or bad but simply stating a fact. At the DA, on my first day, the VP ( ADM in gov speak) walked over to my desk and introduced himself ( I almost shit my pants ). I regularly get the chance to interact with my DG (Christopher Allison) and all the levels in between. Each model has it's drawbacks and benefits and as I have learned the best case scenario is something in between. I still am not used to this level of interaction with senior management a year on and if I'm being honest, find myself slightly awkward around them.
In terms of tech it's unprecedented, we have all the equipment and the tools we need to truly achieve what any start up or private enterprise can in terms of delivering good products and then some. We have access to all three major cloud platforms ( AWS, Azure, and Google Cloud ) along with the freedom to use whatever tools we find necessary favoring open source software, programming languages and frameworks such as Python, React and Postgres. This has really enabled us like no other and in fact the Digital Academy would probably not exists without it.
As for culture at the Digital Acadamy, once again as I probably said multiple times above, is very different from what you typically see in government and I mean really different. There is a huge risk appetite, you are encouraged to follow what you believe you need to do and is right. This was really essential during the first year of our existence as things needed to be done quickly to capitalize on the attention received. This is starting to change however, and rightly so. At our beginning we had maybe 10 employees across the whole organization, now we have 30-40. Things can't be achieved efficiently with people going in multiple directions, structure and processes are important as an organization starts to grow. This does not mean suffocating bureaucratic processes or adherance to things that are not working for us for the sake of a process. However, for example, checking in with the product owner to see if what you are doing makes sense and aligns with the work that needs to be done or needs to be shelved for a later date.
All in all it's been an extremely positive year. We achieved a lot and sometimes it's really difficult to lose sight of that as we realize more and more the mountains and oceans of work that lie ahead of us.
The Lessons I've Learned
This year has been truly transformative for me and I have learned so much in every aspect of my life. I would say I learned more this year than every other year of my life combined. So in order to not make this blog longer than it already is I will only describe the three most transformative things I learned.
Not everything should and will be perfect
This really is an understatement. I have a tendency to be stubborn and I mean really stubborn. I don't like doing things that don't make sense and I want to make sure everything I produce is the best it can be. Reality disappoints however as it often does. In a lot of cases, you really just need to get things out there and do things that don't make sense ( in my point of view).
For example earlier on in the busrides.ca product we had to support Internet Explorer ( this is still being debated today ). This really didn't make sense to me. Internet Explorer is as Microsoft says themselves is not to be considered a browser. It is a compatibility solution for enterprise clients with legacy applications (such as much of the government systems that rely on java applets) and should not be used as the main way people browse the web. It's not being updated to the latest web standards and so really puts a ceiling on what you can do and how you do it. It also costs everyone else who have access to a readily available modern alternative. IE support increases bundle size of a web app and makes it very difficult to support a modern responsive UI which means an especially high cost for mobile users. However, in some departments, this is the reality. Employees only have access to IE so it was important to support this legacy browser. However, this is quickly starting to change. Windows 10 will soon be the main OS for government devices which contains Edge by default. With this realization we were able to change the underlying platform to something modern and elegant like GhostCMS.
Another example is testing, I found it impossible to implement good coverage testing efficiently. Often during this year things needed to be delivered extremely quickly and TDD doesn't really lend itself to that. Yes I know there are other testing methodologies out there, but should I spend my time evaluating those or should I finish building an API that is desperately needed for tomorrows demo.
That was a lot of rambling, all to say, I've learned to go with the flow and do whats needed rather than taking it upon myself to try to do things that don't make sense in the current situation but do in the general larger picture.
Take care of yourself. There is always a tomorrow ( In most cases )
As I have said in the section above I am a headstrong . I have learned this is a very detrimental trait in the current environment I work in. The reason being is there is an endless amount of priorities and things to be done and achieved. In my point of view every "urgent" priority needs to be done and if it's not achieved this is a massive failure which is my fault. This has caused a huge amount of anxiety over the past year and I'd be lying if I didn't come home a lot of days and have a huge panic attack. Please be aware my managers have made it clear from the very get go that nothing is urgent and if you need space to complete things or refuse them, it's perfectly fine to do so. This was out of my own immaturity which caught up to me and I have learned a very valuable lesson.
Nothing is urgent that it warrants an insurmountable level of anxiety and stress. Things can be pushed back and the reason one is part of the team is so that we can support each other when needed. Yes there will be times when things are actually urgent and need be achieved, however this is rare and once again the whole team should come together in those situations.
I have taken massive strides this year to change my behavior on this. I work remotely twice a week most weeks and switched my schedule to a compressed work week. This has allowed me to work in the environments and hours which I can be more effective while also leaving me room to be human. I take every second Friday off and every second Thursday is a half day. I am also staring to get active again, exercise is extremely important even though I don't really like it that much if I'm being honest. I am taking on work that I can achieve in a reasonable time frame and pushing back when needed.
I do regress sometimes to my old habits, but I am able to recognize when this is the case and quickly correct course.
Learning is forever
I was really pushed out of my comfort zone this year ! Which is an awesome thing and I recommend and hope everyone has an opportunity to do so. I found that there was so much I didn't know technically or otherwise. At first this caused me to feel like an imposter ( you can read about this here ). I felt because I didn't have the knowledge or know how about certain things I was behind everyone else.
This is an extreme fallacy. There is an endless amount of information and know how to learn out there. Whats important is maintaining an open mindset. Our minds are one of the most powerful super computers in existence. Each individual has the ability to learn everything given an open mindset, time and the support to do so. You are not too young, too old, to inexperienced or over-experienced to learn. Learning is a continuous action and if you don't come out of the day with something that you didn't know yesterday for a consecutive amount of time, you are not in the right environment.
I am super fortunate ( like hit the lottery lucky ) that I have a super supportive team and family. I found what really helps is to talk to someone when I am experiencing the delusions of being an imposter. I have Sinan Baltacioglu to thank for this. He has been a saint and always made it a point to listen to my idiocy and reassure me even on the worst of his days when the world didn't seem to be running right. Thank you Sinan from the bottom of my heart. I don't think I'll be able to repay you.
What I Hope to Achieve Next Year
I have achieved a lot in most aspects of my life this year, but I still have a lot ahead of me technically, emotionally and professionally.
Perfect my current technical abilities and learn new things
I have learned a shit ton of technical skills this year particularly in the realm of web development. I have delved deep into cloud and full stack web development with React, Python, Postgres, Neo4j and GraphQL. But I still have much ahead of me and in this field of software development there is an endless amount of constant and quick change. I hope to keep perfecting my skills as it's truly my passion. I love being able to bring things to life. It really is an art and one that can never really truly be perfected which is beautiful in and of itself.
I am also really interested in native apps ( particularly IOS ) and this year hope to get the opportunity to expand my skills there. Mobile is the future and some of the most influential apps and tools out there are exclusive to mobile.
Cloud is also a really big area that I want to hit on. It's a particularly difficult space because not everything can be learned on your own. Somethings like Kubernetes is too costly for me to run personally if I am not doing something with it that's making revenue and that needs it ( you're looking mostly at enterprise level applications here ) . Particularly what I want to learn is cloud management. There is almost and infinite amount of services and ways you can do things in the cloud however, what should be done, how, when and why? This once again is difficult to grasp on your own because it takes hands on experience to get a hang of. While DevOps and cloud management is not a particular area of interest for me, it is a significant area of importance and I hope to keep building on my experience and knowledge in this domain.
Technical skills are not all that I need to learn and perfect. I have a bunch of soft and professional skills that I need to learn. Things like the HR process in the government, giving effective presentations, budgeting, managing and leading work and employees. This is not really an area I'm fond of, but if I want to achieve making a dent in the world then I need to move up and that won't happen unless I am experienced in these areas.
I hope to achieve a greater experience in this domain with the help of my managers and mentors who have been so supportive over the past year.
This is a really big barrier for me in my public service career. Unfortunately in my youth I did not have the opportunity to study french to a level where I could be bilingual. Well I already am bilingual but not in a way that counts ( just being salty 🧂).
I hope by this time next year I can be fluently bilingual so that I can progress in my career and also be able to be comfortable in Quebec ( although that will probably not happen given the current environment towards immigrants and minorities ). I am already taking steps to do this. I now study french on my personal time on Saturdays and will hopefully be able to participate in french training at the DA this year.
I do believe that bilingualism is extremely important in government. I also believe not enough is done for those that did not have a golden opportunity to be as such ( about 17% of Canadians are bilingual ) . However, there is still no excuse for me and resources can be found if you look hard enough.
The End that is Only the Beginning
To sum up everything in totality. I could not have asked for a better year. Yes there were things that could have been done way better both with me personally and as an organization but in the grand scheme of things we made strides we thought impossible. I could not thank the entire Digital Academy organization enough from the senior management to everyone in between for the support they have given me. I would not be where I am today without this support. That being said, I have a long way to go, but I am excited as to what the future holds both what I can achieve personally and as an organization.