Yikes. I’m in a meeting, answering questions from the Chief Information Officer (CIO) of the RCMP. The C-I-O. In my nearly 20-year public service career, this was unheard of. But here I am, a developer at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), co-locating at The Canadian Digital Service (CDS) to work on a public reporting tool for victims of cybercrime, advocating for change directly to the CIO. This would have been a foreign concept to me 14 months ago.
How did I get here? To tell my story is to talk about my attempt at a personal and professional journey from quasi-apathy to curious engagement.
While I don’t want to be labeled “mental health dude”, or to be viewed through that specific lens, the truth is that it’s inauthentic for me to tell this story otherwise.
na·dir: the lowest point in the fortunes of a person
Two years ago, after suffering an intense bout of depression, I found myself sitting in a psych ward, asking a lot of questions of myself.
I was 42. At mid-life, I had a breakdown. I needed to make positive changes. If not for me, then certainly for my 8 year old daughter. I started group therapy, I changed jobs, and I got out of a toxic relationship.
For most of my career, I’ve been a developer. But this has never been enough; something was missing. It took me a while to realize what: people and feeling part of something bigger than myself.
So I joined the RCMP. I couldn’t change the isolation of being a developer in the federal government, but I could change aspects of my work. I began putting my hand up more. I joined the occupational health and safety committee. I became a peer-to-peer advisor. I networked and volunteered. I asked to be included. I moved out of my comfort zone and realized that’s where growth happens.
As a result I was soon reassigned to the newly-formed National Cybercrime Coordination Unit. I rolled with it.
We are ready to redeem you
It turns out the RCMP partnered with these upstarts, hungry for change. My boss told me I’d be going to the “land of sticky-notes and macbooks”. Our new partners, CDS, threw around phrases like “users first,” “design research,” “product management,” and “service design.” This is government? I was intrigued.
I’d like to say from here it was all puppies and candy, but no, this was difficult work. I switched from developer to team lead and it was like starting a new job all over again x2. However, this time, I wasn’t part of the organization and I was facing a steep learning curve.
Thankfully, my teammates and the community at CDS made that learning curve scalable (see what I did there?). I felt welcomed. My questions were answered patiently. I began to understand what capacity building was and, before long, I’d become invested in doing it with my RCMP colleagues on my once-weekly visits ‘back home’. It was while facilitating these learning and capacity building sessions that I realized I was becoming drawn to product management.
I started saying “product” instead of “project”. I talked about user stories rather than business requirements. I became concerned with outcomes for users over project milestones or deliverables. I had learned the value of collaboration and more importantly, how to actively seek it out while decision-making. I eagerly participated in presentations to RCMP stakeholders during sprint reviews. I started working in the open and using social media to talk about the work. Without intending to do so, being on co-location with CDS had transformed me into a product manager.
If this was reality TV, here’s where I’d say, “I ain’t here to make friends”
Even with these positive changes, challenges persisted. My values were aligning with those of CDS. The things I was advocating for were not in line with the current culture of the RCMP. This caused me to disagree with my department frequently.
And even though I was spending almost all of my time at CDS, there would be subtle reminders that I was an outsider, like not having access to workplace slack channels, meetings happening that I was not privy to, or social events I knew nothing about.
While this is a natural institutional bias, it’s an awkward feeling to spend all your time working with a group of people, make friendships, and yet feel left out while simultaneously becoming estranged from ‘home’. This part of co-location has been more difficult for me to deal with than anything else.
I felt stuck in the middle. Should I stay at parent A’s tonight or should I stay at parent B’s? Am I going to have to tell one of them that I love them more than the other?
This disconnect was a helpful reminder that I had to slow my roll. I reminded my CDS team and myself to slow down. This is a significant change for departments: let’s walk alongside them, not run ahead of them.
I personally know the author of the next chapter
Group therapy gave me a wonderful gift of deeper empathy. I’ve tried to apply that to the CDS-RCMP partnership and as a result I’ve developed a greater understanding of the challenges that not only the RCMP face, but also most departments in general.
I came to product management via development. I have been told that this is a unique and desirable combination in the civic tech community. Consequently, I’m excited to announce that I’ll be taking a leave of absence from the RCMP to join the 2020 Code for Canada fellowship as a product manager. I regret that I won’t be there for the next chapter of the partnership but I can tell you, without CDS, and by extension the RCMP, I would not have the opportunity that is in front of me.
The culture of both organizations have left a permanent impact on me. More importantly however, the people I’ve met have impacted me in ways I can’t begin to articulate. I’m humbled, filled with gratitude, and ready to push the boundaries of my personal comfort further.