Sean Boots

Technology, public services, and people. But mostly people.

Rule number one: Avoid vendor lock-in

If you’re working on IT or service delivery projects in public sector organizations, I have one very specific rule for you to follow: avoid vendor lock-in. To do that, you should own your data, own your front-end interfaces, own your software source code, and avoid long-term contracts. This post dives into why vendor lock-in is a problem, and how those strategies can help prevent it. Read more →

If you want enterprise services to be good, make them optional

Enterprise IT systems in government are often enforced as mandatory solutions that other teams and departments are required to use. In comparison, leading tech companies turn their internal systems into external products, to see if they are commercially viable. Making enterprise services optional creates feedback loops, generates adoption-rate data, and incentivizes continuous improvement. Read more →

A year’s worth of IBM ads

Beginning right around the time that Heather and I moved to Whitehorse, I noticed that almost all of the ads I saw on Twitter were from the same company. Anecdotally around 19 out of every 20 ads that I saw on Twitter were IBM ads, for more than a year. Below is a series of screenshots of these ads, collected between October 2019 and October 2020. Read more →

“Onerous levels of oversight”

Lee Berthiaume from the Canadian Press wrote a fascinating article last week, based on an internal Department of National Defence report on IT support. The report describes DND’s IT processes and systems as “out-of-date and poorly supported”, and blamed “onerous levels of oversight”. This is a persistent problem across federal government departments. Read more →

Is this blocked in my department: a year in review

Over the past year, departments have made a lot of progress in improving access to online collaboration tools and other services. But, there’s still a pretty dramatic gap between departments that are more restrictive, and departments that are more forward-looking. “Is this blocked in my department?” is a crowd-sourced effort to track that gap, and this post looks at how the website and the departments reflected on it have evolved over the course of 2020. Read more →

Tools that work

Cyd Harrell posted a great Twitter thread last week, resolving that “all government offices need fast broadband, fast wi-fi, productivity and collaboration software suites that play well with others, and the building blocks of modern website building and digital communication. Just like they need walls, a roof, and HVAC.” Public servants do critical, life-changing work with the most rudimentary tools. Equipping them with better tools is a big part of own public service mission. Read more →

“Government is actually a big tech company, they just don’t know it yet.”

A couple weeks ago, I was able to tune in to FWD50, an annual Canadian digital government conference. One of the themes from the first day onwards was this concept, that government institutions are tech companies without realizing it. Just like “every company is a software company”, public sector institutions need to think differently about how they work, and what leadership they have, in order to be successful today. Read more →

“Working in the open” firsts for COVID Alert

Working on COVID Alert has definitely been a career highlight, in a lot of unexpected ways. As of this week more than 4.8 million people have downloaded the app, and 2,600 people have used it to alert people close to them about their COVID exposure. For everyone that has worked on COVID Alert, it’s humbling and daunting to be part of something at this scale. COVID Alert also included some extra geeky “firsts” in the Canadian government that I was really thrilled to see, all related to working in the open. Read more →

Interfaces, data, and math

It’s often hard to have conversations about public policy and technology where people on both sides of the discussion understand each other. Computer software – the programming code that makes software programs and systems work – can seem impossibly complicated and intimidating to people outside the tech industry. This post gives an introduction to ideas like interfaces, data, and math. These categories can help make computer software simpler and easier to understand, and as a result, help public servants make better technology decisions. Read more →

“It’s more an approval of an approach” for the win

A few weeks ago, there was a great profile in Maclean’s of the person behind the CAFinUS Twitter account. CAFinUS is the official account for the Canadian Armed Forces working in the United States, and the account is run by Capt. Kirk Sullivan, based at the Canadian embassy in Washington DC. It’s worth a read, especially given how much of an anomaly the CAFinUS account is in comparison to practically any other Government of Canada social media account. Read more →

Public service tech tip: Paste without fonts and formatting

We’ve all been there, fellow public servants. You’re copying and pasting something, you hit “Paste”, and your Microsoft Word proceeds to turn the entire rest of your Word document into a bewildering mix of fonts and colours from whatever you just pasted. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to prevent this from happening, by changing the default paste settings in Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Word. Read more →

“Fake COTS” and the one-day rule

One of the long-held norms of government IT is the perceived benefit of “commercial, off the shelf” software solutions. In government environments, being able to buy ready-to-go software products to meet government IT needs is appealing. In many cases, though, extensive customization requirements means that COTS purchases don’t live up to their promise. They’re marketed as a car and they turn out to be boxes of car parts: lots of time-consuming assembly required. Here’s a rule of thumb to tell the difference between genuine and fake COTS. Read more →

Make things open source, it makes things better

The apps and services that underpin government programs should practically always be open source. Public trust in things like the EI system, filing taxes, or as a public servant, getting paid, would be higher if people could see the inner workings and understand that software is working as it should. Open source code reduces vendor lock-in, improves the quality and interoperability of software, and increases public trust. What’s not to love? Read more →

A busy couple months

Since the start of the year, one of my goals was to write a new blog post every few weeks. Although the blog here has been quiet, it turns out there’s been a lot going on over the past couple months! Getting back into a regular blogging routine is something I’m really looking forward to. Read more →

A short introduction to building digital services in the Canadian government

Building digital services and IT systems in a government environment is complicated. The federal government in particular has a lot of rules to navigate, and it’s easy for these to overwhelm people and siphon their time away from designing and building user-friendly software. This short guide was written for an audience that’s used to building digital products in the private sector, to better understand what’s new and different in a government context. Enjoy! Read more →

Listen, read, donate, give space

The past couple weeks have seen an outpouring of grief, protests, and calls for change following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. Floyd’s murder, by police, is not a one-off. For Black Americans – and Black Canadians – police violence and systemic racism is an everyday and ongoing problem. Learning how to recognize and confront racism in our own actions, our everyday lives, and in our work as public servants, is incredibly important. Read more →

Blockers versus enablers

As a public servant trying to get something approved up the hierarchy, the simplest definition of blockers versus enablers might be a “no” or “yes” at each level. In practice, however, the time it takes to receive these – and the quantity of approvals required – are bigger structural factors, regardless of how positive or supportive individual approvals are. This post dives into organizational blockers as a concept, with some potential strategies to mitigate them. Read more →

Why are there so few senior developers in government?

Delivering good services to the public, in the internet era, depends on designing and developing good software. Although there are about 17,000 IT professionals in the Canadian government (and an estimated 60,000 contractors and consultants), there are very few senior developers within the public service. Here are a few reasons why. Read more →

Crisis, bureaucracies, and change

It’s been two months and a bit since the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically adjusted life in Canada. Amid the social and economic upheaval that took place, government responses – public health activities, emergency benefit programs, and more – have played an essential role. The urgency and constraints of working in a crisis force us to reconsider assumptions and processes that are long-established, and they also remind us of why our work matters. Read more →