CIPS CONNECTIONSINTERVIEWS by STEPHEN IBARAKI, FCIPS, I.S.P., ITCP, MVP, DF/NPA, CNP
Peter Grant: Widely Respected, Top-Echelon IT Executive and Authority
This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Peter Grant, I.S.P., Deputy Director and CIO of the British Columbia Securities Commission, the independent provincial government agency responsible for regulating trading in securities within BC.
After graduating from the University of British Columbia with a BSc in Computer Science, Peter worked for a major forest products company, a subatomic nuclear research facility and a stock exchange or two before joining the BC Securities Commission four years ago.
Covering 21 years, Peter’s extensive background involves every rung of the IT career ladder: programmer, programmer/analyst, systems administrator, database administrator, technical consultant, group leader, project manager, manager of systems development, manager of information systems and now chief information officer.
In the early days of relational databases, Peter helped organize and was president of the Vancouver Oracle Users Group. For the past six years, Peter has been a Director of CIPS BC, the society responsible for administering the ISP designation in BC, and for the last two years, he has served as president of CIPS BC. He chairs the CIPS Council of Provinces which brings together all of the provinces that have protected the ISP title or are working to protect it. He also chairs the Canadian Securities Administrators' IT Committee, which is made up of the IT representatives from the major provincial securities regulators.
Q: Peter, with your extensive background and considerable successes, we are fortunate to have you do this interview. Moreover, with your tight schedule, we appreciate the time you are taking. Thank you!
A: You’re welcome. I think it’s important we try to share our experiences.
Q: Can you detail what triggered your interest in computing? What tips would you have for those preparing for a computing career and what personal/professional qualities make for success? How can students best prepare prior to entering college/university and while they are in their post-secondary computing studies—which resources, courses, extra-curricular activities would be of the most benefit?
A: I starting programming in 1976 on a Rockwell AIM 65 – my father knew to turn to a kid to do the programming for his office’s new computer. My first program processed the results from an HP mass-spectrometer which was analyzing hop oil. In 1977, I started to program our home Apple II computer. In 1979, our high school got its first computer and a couple of us tried to keep a couple of steps ahead of the math teachers who were trying to teach computer courses as they learned to do things.
I went to university intending to graduate in chemistry. I took computer science as my first year elective since I’d been programming in BASIC for four years. Even though I worked really hard in the honours section of chemistry, I barely earned a second class mark. Computer science was another story: I took less than a page of notes for the year and easily earned a first class. I met with the head of the chemistry department at the end of my first year and he strongly advised me to take computer science instead of chemistry – very sage advice, Dr Trotter!
Computer science was pretty crazy back then – standing room only for the first few weeks of lectures. I think there were 1,500 people in first year – about 45 graduated four years later.
The computing field is a wonderful key to almost any field you’re interested in. Computer systems are just about everywhere – they’re your ticket into most industries. Earning your keep once you’re there is a different story.
As for success, I think it’s drive, backed by talent and a love for what you do. It has very little to do with the specific technologies you know. Doing well means doing well. It’s not about boasting, but solving problems effectively (“you are what you do” as I like to say).
Before you begin? Take up programming at home, or take a course of some sort to make sure you have the right aptitude. Talk to a few people in the industry – try to picture yourself doing what they do. It’s a unique job that requires specific skills. The field isn’t for everyone, but lots of us wouldn’t want to do anything else.
Specific skills or languages are important, but they’re not your foundation. You’ll probably be using different tools and different languages in a few years. Ethics, theory, and management courses should be your foundation. Four year programs give you the time to build that foundation. Then, build experience on the foundation as soon as you can: co-op positions, volunteer opportunities, whatever it takes to demonstrate what you can do.
Q: In your extensive history of successes, which specific experiences provided the most important lessons and what are these lessons?
A: Big successes and big failures always give you stuff to learn. More importantly, they give you an opportunity for change – either because people want to repeat the success or they want to avoid the pain of the failure. Harnessing change, like harnessing the wind and currents, can take you anywhere. Calm weather means you’re not going anywhere quickly. Pilots have been really useful even if they prove what you didn’t want. Learn from them and approach things differently.
Planning is important. Planning doesn’t guarantee success, but not planning almost certainly stacks the odds against you.
In the end, I think it’s the team of individuals that makes the difference. It’s hard to beat a team of talented, dedicated professionals. That team needs management support, but if the team is credible, they’ll get the support. There are few great teams.
Q: You have been in a leadership role for many years. What are your top five leadership and top five management tips?
A: I’m glad you distinguished the two! Leadership and management are different. Successful organizations need both, of course – and each person will have their own mix of the two skill sets.
Q: Can you comment on your current position within the BC Securities Commission and what you want to accomplish?
A: I know a lot of people consider me to be ambitious. I have always wanted to make a difference. What has driven me up to now is a belief that I can influence things more and therefore make a bigger difference at more senior levels.
My first three years here at the Commission were as Manager, Information Systems. The goal in that role was to make the IT department credible to the rest of the organization. That meant introducing a project orientation to our work, creating a secure and reliable infrastructure, reducing costs, and aligning our efforts to the Commission’s overall goals.
As CIO, my focus has broadened to include records and document management, knowledge management, and a more general application of project management. And to applying technology a little differently. I want to be viewed as someone who can help identify ways that information systems or services can help others do their jobs better or that can help the organization achieve its goals.
Q: Can you share one anecdote or story that is humorous or surprising?
A: I quit my first job after less than a year – I just knew it wasn’t for me. I was young and didn’t have any commitments, so I didn’t mind not having another job to go to right away. Anyway, I ran into someone I had worked with a year or so earlier in the mall within a couple of days of quitting, and mentioned it to this person. A day or two later, this same fellow was phoned as a reference for someone who had applied for a position (and who had been selected after a set of interviews). My ex-colleague told the person doing the reference checks, “yeah, that guy’s okay, but I know someone better who is available.” Just over 24 hours later, I’d been interviewed, been offered the position, and had accepted the offer. I ended up working there for more than ten years (it was a great fit). I always tell people to consider their references carefully.
Q: Now choose three areas of interest to IT professionals and explain the challenges and solutions within these topic areas.
A: Area 1: Project management
This isn’t new, but it’s still key. As long as most (or even many) projects fail, it needs to be at the forefront. We have to continue to get better at executing projects. (Projects don’t just fail because of bad project managers. There are so many other factors: the team, the environment they happen within, sponsorship, and buy-in are a few.) Everyone needs to understand the basics of projects – what they are and what they aren’t. And they need to understand how projects are run in your company. Everyone also needs to have an incentive to be successful.
Area 2: Cost reduction
Containing costs is important. IT needs to be viewed as a worthwhile investment and not as a sunk cost. It’s much better if IT consciously tries to save money than to have cuts or caps applied from the CFO or someone else. I’ve found it helpful to classify costs in three areas that META defined: run the business, grow the business, transform the business.
Area 3: Business alignment
Making sure you and your department are working on the right things is really important – you can’t build credibility without that. IT governance goes a long way. Get the key decision makers in a room quarterly and have them agree on priorities based on your company’s strategic plans. Ultimately, once IT is engrained into the fabric of your company, there will be very few IT projects – instead IT will just be one of the partners getting strategic projects done. Once you’re at that point, there’s no longer talk about “alignment.”
Q: If you were doing this interview, what three questions would you ask of someone in your position and what would be your answers?
A: Q1: How do you plan on staying CIO for an extended period of time?
Q2: How much time do you spend planning?
Q3: When starting a new senior management position, how can you tell who the stars are?
Q: Peter, thank you for sharing with our audience, your considerable talents, and accumulated wisdom and experiences stemming from a wide and diverse background of accomplishments.
A: Thanks for your time. Learning from each other is the best way to avoid mistakes and to make better decisions every day.