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Use the tools that you need to do good work

We’ve previously blogged about the importance of automated testing, continuous integration, and some of our early technology platform choices. In order to adopt modern digital practices, it’s also important to have the tools – both devices and software – that make this possible.

At CDS, the bulk of our team uses MacBooks, which gives us access to a wide array of development and design tools. Some of our developers use non-Mac laptops with a variety of Linux operating systems installed on them. In a government IT environment where standardization is usually the primary concern, this is a bit unusual.

Using the best available tools for the job is a key part of creating and enabling a high-capacity digital team. Our new CEO Aaron Snow previously led 18F, one of the US government’s leading digital services organizations. People would often ask him why 18F bought MacBooks, and his answer was: because the team asked for them.

Since launching CDS, we’ve taken this same approach: we ask team members what tools they need to do their best work, and then we find a way to get them. Trusting team members to choose their own tools lets them optimize how they work.

What are the usual barriers?

We’ve worked closely with the contracting and IT staff in our parent department as we rolled out non-standard devices for our designers and developers. Contracting and purchasing requirements are often cited as a barrier to acquiring devices like MacBooks – but as it turns out, they’re available to purchase through the National Master Standing Offer lists. It can often be time-consuming to navigate these processes, but our departmental contracting colleagues in TBS Corporate Services were really helpful in making this happen.

Security considerations are the other frequent barrier to using non-standard devices. At the moment, our MacBooks are unclassified-only devices. But, as the Chief Information Officer Branch’s Cyber Security team points out, this isn’t a barrier to developing software designed for protected data. All of the source code we develop is open source and published publicly on GitHub. We operate our MacBooks on an external network (via Shared Services Canada’s LIAS and GC-WIFI services) and we continue to use standard departmental devices for any protected data. Our next goal is to work with our partners to assess and authorize our MacBooks to handle protected information.

Some departments are experimenting with remote desktop environments for their development teams, as a way to isolate development work from more sensitive corporate information. We’ve chosen to optimize for where our developers spend most of their time. Being able to do software development locally is important, especially when working on slow or intermittent network connections.

What are the benefits?

To quote our UK counterparts, being able to provide public servants with technology “at least as good as people have at home” is an important part of equipping all of us to become modern digital professionals. Competition is particularly fierce for software development and design talent. Developers and designers have a lot of job options, and making the Government of Canada an attractive place to work for digital professionals is a key part of CDS’s mandate. As government departments looking to build better digital services, we all need to be able to offer modern tools in order to successfully recruit talented staff.

The devices we’re using – both MacBooks and a variety of Linux-based laptops – let our developers access a rich world of development tools built on the Unix and Linux command lines. They support our ecosystem of continuous integration tools, which makes it easy to locally test software systems in environments that are identical to the cloud platforms where they will be deployed.

Apple computers are the device of choice for most designers, across a range of specializations from graphic design and illustration to interaction design and user research. Our design team uses Sketch extensively, alongside Adobe Creative Cloud and other interactive tools. The range of creative software available only for Macs – Sketch in particular – is one of the reasons why MacBooks are essential devices for our design team. Font handling, colour management profiles, and other system features designed for creative work also make a difference. By using MacBooks, we avoid forcing our designers to switch away from the devices they’re accustomed to using in design agencies and interaction design programs. This can’t be understated – to attract and hire design professionals, we need to make sure they have the creative tools they need.

Mainstreaming modern tools

We’re not the only team in the Canadian government to use MacBooks, Linux-based laptops, and other non-standard devices to do cutting-edge digital work. Other digital government teams around the world have embraced this approach as well – the UK National Cyber Security Centre published Bring Your Own Device guidance, which the UK Government Digital Service and a number of other departments have adopted.

Beyond our product teams, we’re also beginning to use MacBooks for our communications, policy, and internal operations staff as well, although these teams tend to use their standard departmental devices more often since their work can sometimes involve protected documents. We’re working with our colleagues in the Chief Information Officer Branch and TBS’ corporate IT division to open up access to the collaboration tools we use everyday on standard departmental devices as well.

Using non-standard devices – the tools that our staff choose to use – is an important part of our effort to create an effective enabling environment, where each person can be creative, productive, and do their best work. We’d love to hear about the approaches other departmental software and design teams are adopting to make this happen – get in touch!