The Local Rally

January 24, 2010

If you’re not a Canadian, a little background to this will probably help you a bit (and even if you’re Canadian, maybe some of this will be a useful refresher). Please note IANACEOHAINPOTV*, so don’t pillory me for any minor inaccuracies in the following.

  • Canada has a parliamentary system of government, where Members of Parliament (MPs) are elected locally to represent the riding you live in.
  • The official Head of State is (at time of writing) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II – this being a hold-over from the time when The Dominion of Canada was a British colony, so even though we are now an independent nation (have been for some time), the Canadian Constitution (a relatively recent thing, in fact) still recognizes the Monarch of England as our head of state (as do 15 other sovereign countries in The Commonwealth of Nations). In practical terms, she has no say in the country’s affairs, except through the powers and duties which are exercised on her behalf by the viceregal representative to Canada, The Governor General (currently Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean).
  • The Government of Canada is (generally, although not necessarily) is formed by the political party holding the most seats in the House of Commons (er, that is to say having the most elected MPs sitting in Parliament). The leader of said party is (by convention) asked by the Governor General to become the Queen’s Prime Minister (PM) and lead the government. This is in contrast to the republican form of government, where the Head of State is elected directly (usually with the title “President”).
  • In contrast to the President of a republic, who is elected by receiving a clear majority** of the public’s votes in the election, the Government of Canada can be formed without a clear majority – that is, where the governing party does not have more than 50% of the seats, just more than any other single party***. That’s the situation we are currently in, with a minority government formed by the Conservative Party of Canada, led by The Right Honourable† Stephen Harper.
  • A minority government in the parliamentary system generally has to “play nice” with the other parties and make compromises in the legislation they bring forward, since they otherwise risk losing when it’s voted on by the House of Commons. Some legislation, budgets for example, are considered a matter of confidence that the government is capable of, well, governing. Losing the vote in that case results in the government falling, Parliament being dissolved and an election called.

OK, so what this is all leading up to is the subject of prorogation. Until Stephen Harper first asked the Governor General to prorogue Parliament in December 2008, most Canadians had never heard of the process before. His minority government was very likely going to fall on a confidence vote (since he wasn’t “playing nice” and instead was acting as if he had a majority) over a fiscal update. A coalition of the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party, with the support of the Bloc Québécois party, was prepared to defeat the fiscal update and form the government. Proroguing Parliament put a stop to this, as well as killing a number of pieces of unrelated legislation.

Ultimately, Parliament resumed after the period of prorogation ended, the Conservative Party managed to survive (through machinations I won’t go into here) and the government got on with business.

Which brings us to the second prorogation of the current session of Parliament, in December 2009.  This time, the precipitating factor appears to be Stephen Harper’s reluctance to have his government’s role in the Aghan detainee issue reported to the Canadian public by a House of Commons Special Committee investigating the matter.

According to a statement by Harper’s spokesman Dimitri Soudas, the purpose of the second prorogation was to allow the government to:

…consult with Canadians, stakeholders and businesses as it moves into the “next phase” of its economic action plan amid signs of economic recovery.

The comments on a recent Maclean’s on-line poll seem to suggest the public sentiment is that there are more pressing issues for the government and Parliament to deal with than that. And the results of the poll (as of writing this) would indicate that Canadians are clearly bothered by this abuse of power and the democratic process by the government.

By the way, for a humorous, satirical look at the procedural advantages The Government has over The Opposition in the Canadian Parliament, I recommend reading the Leacock Medal winning novel The Best Laid Plans by author (and much more) Terry Fallis.

There has also been widespread speculation that the timing of the second prorogation at the end of December was carefully orchestrated by Stephen Harper to coincide with the distractions of the holiday season, the announcement of the Canadian men’s Olympic hockey team lineup and the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics – a classic “bread and circuses” move.

There have been a number of public protests to the prorogation, using Social Media tools to organize them. There’s a Facebook group called Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament (CAPP) which has garnered over 200,000 members; as well there’s the No Prorogue! website – the latter is, in fact, the reason for this somewhat rambling post.

Rallies to protest the prorogation across Canada on Saturday January 23, 2010 were planned and coordinated through the No Prorogue! site, and I was able to attend part of the local rally in Guelph. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to stay to hear all the speeches (or, sadly, to partake of the perogies being served – the theme of the rally being “Perogies Not Proroguing”) – in addition to the rally organizers and local labour organization representatives, our local Liberal MP, Frank Valeriote, was there to speak to the crowd.

Here are a couple of photos I took of the rally organizer speaking and the assembled crowd (taken with my cellphone camera – they’re a bit grainy as it only has VGA resolution) – I estimated attendance at a roughly couple of hundred people:

Photo of rally organizer speaking at No Prorogue Rally in Guelph 2010-01-23

Photo of crowd gathered at No Prorogue Rally in Guelph 2010-01-23

The leader of the Liberal Party, Michael Ignatieff, has made it clear that Liberal MPs will be back on Parliament Hill and at work on January 25, 2010 (the date when Parliament was scheduled to resume sitting after the recess of the holidays) – unlike the Conservatives who will be, as put so succinctly by Canadian political satirist (also TV personality, comedian, author, blogger and a hell of a nice guy) Rick Mercer, taking “Days of Snow Days“.

Well, that’s already quite a bit more than I had originally intended on writing about my outing to the No Prorogue! rally, so I’m going to prorogue this post… 🙂

Let me know in the comments how you feel about PM Stephen Harper’s record of serial prorogation.

*I am not a constitutional expert or historian and I never played one on TV

**OK, so the system in the USA (The Electoral College) is a little more arcane and indirect than, say, France‘s system.

***There is, of course, the possibility, when there is no party with a majority, for two or more parties to form a coalition in order to become the government by pooling their seats to total more than the single party with greatest number of seats. This tends to make for “strange bedfellows” and often results in an unstable, short-lived government.

That’s the official form of address (for life) for all who serve as the Prime Minister of Canada, certainly not an assessment of character on my part.


Naked Transparency Meets Freakonomics

January 15, 2010

This post has been a little while in the writing (been busy with job search activities, as well as behind the scenes work on PodCamp Toronto 2010, where I’m on the organizing committee, looking after the finances) – last week I followed a link that I saw tweeted by Chris Brogan to a blog post written by Jon Udell titled Contextual clothing for naked transparency.  The blog post was in turn inspired by an interview with Lawrence Lessig that Udell heard on the CBC Radio show Spark*.  The host of Spark, Nora Young, was interviewing Lessig about his essay Against Transparency: The perils of openness in government in The New Republic.

The essence of Udell’s post was that “naked transparency” did not necessarily result in positive results, and he argues that context around the information revealed about people in the name of transparency is essential for providing the proper perspective.  Udell quotes from Lessig’s essay, where he argued that the lack of critical thought about what makes transparency work in a positive way will lead to very negative outcomes – inspiring only disgust and not the change and reform that those championing transparency hope so fervently for.

And that got me thinking about the basic tenet behind the book Freakonomics by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner, which is that the response to an incentive is not always the one desired by those putting the incentive into place to drive a certain behaviour.

Now Levitt and Dubner apply the methods and tools of economics – statistical analysis of the behaviour of a population in response to specific stimuli or incentives – to demonstrate their thesis, and like any “pop” version of a non-mainstream subject they have perhaps over-simplified and sensationalized some of their data and conclusions (for example, see the Wikipedia article on Freakonomics which has sections on “Reappraisals” and “Refutations”).

But even allowing for that, I think it’s evident that the results of incentives are often not those that were anticipated, and I think that “naked transparency” may well be one of those cases.

It will be interesting to follow the consequences to society as increasing requirements for transparency continue to be imposed, to track both the unanticipated ways in which people or organizations will find to circumvent those requirements as well as the unexpected negative impacts on those who faithfully comply but are caught out by lack of context.

If you know of any specific examples of where the “conventional wisdom” that maximum transparency is always a good thing has been turned on its head, I’d like to hear about it – leave me a comment with the details.  And I’d certainly also appreciate hearing about your thoughts on the hidden downside of naked transparency.

*I’ve mentioned Spark before and told you how awesome the show is (whether you listen to it on the radio, or the podcast as I do), but I have to apologize to Nora and the Spark crew for being a little behind in my listening – a computer meltdown last Fall threw my podcast listening completely out of whack, and I still haven’t got back on track even after nursing our PC back to health.

Working Outside The Box

January 3, 2010

As part of my current job search, I have been thinking about what potential employers think of my careers.  That’s not a typo, I really meant careers in the plural.  Just look at my CV and I’m sure you’ll agree that my working life has spanned more than a single area of experience, which is what I think is the principal element defining “a career”.

So I started out with a career in the aerospace industry, having graduated from the Engineering Science program at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering with a Bachelor’s degree in Applied Science (a.k.a. Engineering), having majored in Aerospace Engineering.  I had a good career, starting right out of school working in the aerodynamic design department at de Havilland Aircraft of Canada, where I worked on the development of the DHC-8 “DASH8” commuter airliner.  I still feel a great sense of accomplishment and pride when I see one flying overhead.  From there I went to MBB Helicopter Canada (now Eurocopter Canada) where I worked on the aerodynamic design and performance analysis of light-utility helicopters.  That, however, was an inauspicious time to be working in the helicopter manufacturing business, as the economy went through a downturn and helicopter sales, if you’ll pardon the expression, took a nose-dive.

As a result, I ended up – like a lot of people in the business – out of work.  Now during my career in the aircraft industry, I had gained a lot of experience with computers and programming – I had always been strong in that area from high school on through my university education, but to that natural aptitude I had added much practical experience.  So, looking at the state of the aircraft industry and foreseeing a long recovery period ahead, I decided to make a career change and sought out a position in software development.

I was fortunate, and found a position at Hostess Frito-Lay Canada (the company is now just called Frito-Lay Canada) as a Programmer/Analyst which used the skills with Cognos 4GL tools that I had acquired in developing custom Budget vs Actual reports for the Program Management Office at Eurocopter.

Following that, I moved to the pharmaceutical sector, but still in the IT field as a Senior Analyst in the IT department of what was then Pasteur Mérieux Connaught (it has since been through a number of changes, from Aventis Pasteur to the current Sanofi Pasteur).  I continued gaining experience in business systems analysis there while working on an SAP implementation.  After that successfully launched, I was elevated to the position of Project Manager and subsequently was selected to manage a global Documentum EDMS (Electronic Document Management System) implementation project, based at the company’s headquarters in France.

During the four years I worked on the project, I lived in France, so in addition to gaining experience in Project Management, I also learned about bridging cultures – both corporate and national – because the implementation team was spread over three countries: France, the USA and Canada.  Each site had its own corporate and local business and regulatory requirements to satisfy, and each nationality had its own culturally influenced point of view and way of communicating.  I suspect part of the reason I was selected over candidates from the French and US IT departments was the reputation Canadians have for being good intermediaries between diverse cultures – and I believe that I lived up to that stereotype.

After returning to Canada once the EDMS was in production, a reorganization of the IT departments in the North American sites left me looking for a new job.  And that ended up with me moving on to my third career, as the Manager of Customer Care and eBusiness at an engineered products manufacturing company, ASCO Valve Canada (a subsidiary of the US based ASCO Valve).  There, I was responsible for managing a group of Customer Service Representatives and Inside Sales Technicians.

That role also had me in frequent direct contact with the distributors the company sold to, as well as with colleagues at the parent company and other subsidiaries around the world where we sourced components and finished goods.  I think all my previous experience made me well suited to the role: strong analytical problem solving skills which I used in dealing with supply-chain problems to expedite order shipments; people skills developed working with individuals and teams having diverse levels of technical and business knowledge, as well as cultural and language differences; and experience with arranging the resources needed to achieve an objective.

A management-level reorganization resulted in my departure from the company, and I subsequently returned to a role in my second career of IT Project Management.  I joined a software company that had developed an enterprise-class Learning Management System (LMS), in the role of a Client Project Manager in the company’s Professional Services Organization.  That job again had me in frequent direct contact with clients, managing our internal resources and working with their Project Manager to schedule the implementation steps and the client resources that were needed to support it.

After being in that role for some time, I was asked if I would be interested in an internal transfer to fill an opening in the Product Development division – a Program Manager was required for one of the Product Teams.  That role was partly Project Management and partly personnel management – I had a team of Product Designers, Software Developers and Quality Assurance Analysts reporting to me.  I still had some direct client contact, which was not the case for the other Program Managers in Product Development – the team I was in charge of had done some custom work for one specific client, and I took on the role of managing the ongoing work being done for them.

That job ended recently, and I am now looking for a new one.  If you are looking to fill a position that my skills, strengths and experience would suit, let me know via the comments and I’ll get in contact so we can have a conversation about it.

But enough about my careers, at this point, I’d like to ask you about yours: whether you have had one linear career or multiple careers – closely related or wildly diverse – what has your experience been like?  Have you had opportunities to grow (both personally and professionally) and stay interested within one career, or did you find it necessary to change careers to continue growing personally/professionally and maintain a strong interest in what you were doing?  What upsides/downsides did your particular career path result in?

For me, I have been fortunate that whether the change in career was a deliberate choice (switching from aerodynamics engineering to IT) or serendipitous (having the right combination of skills and experience to manage a Customer Care group) I have had lots of opportunities to grow, both personally and professionally, and plenty of things to keep me interested. There have been downsides as well, in that starting fresh has sometimes meant coming into a role at a salary lower than what I might have been at by staying on a single career path.

Please tell me about your own experience in the comments to this post, I’d love to hear what you have to share with me.

Oh, and the reason for the post’s title – well, much has been said about “thinking outside the box” as a way to break out of past models of behaviour in order to make progress.  Since there has also been a lot of talk about multiple careers being the new norm, replacing the old one linear career model it seemed appropriate to paraphrase and say that many of us are now “working outside the box”.

Starting fresh

January 1, 2010

I recently had an e-mail conversation with Kneale Mann about my top 5 goals for 2010 – more about #1 in a bit, but the second on my list was to blog more regularly.  And in order to do that, I said I would need to work on achieving a better balance in my writing.

What I meant by that was, well, here’s what I said to Kneale in my e-mail:

I write well, but it takes me too long – I am by nature a perfectionist, and when combined with my great respect for language, it means I end up spending a lot of time reviewing, editing and rewriting until I feel every word in what I’ve written deserves to be there.

So the first step is writing this post today; the second will be to heed Voltaire’s aphorism Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien (“The best is the enemy of the good“) and not sweat each post so much.

What else did I have in my list of goals? Let’s see:

  • #3: Help the CSA (Community Shared Agriculture) farm program at the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph become even more successful.  K and I have been members of the CSA for a couple of seasons now and have really benefitted from the organic produce we received in our weekly share of the harvest.  In the Fall of 2009 we volunteered to be part of the CSA’s “Core Group” and I have also joined their BAC (Business Advisory Committee) to help with the financial side of the CSA.
  • #4: Expand my circle of on-line connections – I’ve benefitted enormously in the past 3-4 years from making connections on-line (many of which have led to face-to-face relationships).  That said, I will continue to be discriminating about who I connect with – I don’t need to “friend” everyone, just the right people: intelligent, socially committed and willing to act in order to make the world better.
  • #5: Write the next killer non-fiction book, using everything I’ve observed about people, corporations, governments, crowds and their behaviour to explain how we’ve managed to screw the world up so badly. And if I’m lucky, come up with some useful suggestions to alter that course before it all ends very, very badly for humanity.

As I said in my e-mail:

#5 is what they call a “stretch goal” (and it’s a BIG stretch, but hey, as they say “Go big or go home”).  The other 4 are emminently do-able, I think.  Not necessarily easy, but do-able.

So, #2 is underway (you’re reading this post, aren’t you?), #3 has been started and will continue (next BAC meeting is in several weeks) and #4 is happening all the time – if you’re not already one of my connections, you can start by leaving a comment here or by finding me elsewhere on the interwebs: I’m on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to name a few places we can connect.

Oh, and #1 goal for 2010? Well, this one wasn’t quite what Kneale had in mind when he asked for my goals, since he was looking for ones that were things that others could aspire to and this one is a very self-centred goal (although I’m sure that there are many out there with the same one right now):

  • #1: Find employment – whether this is a full-time position with a company, contract work or consulting. Gotta pay the bills.

If you want to connect about helping me achieve that one, I’d certainly be interested in hearing about opportunities that would suit my particular skills, strengths and experience.  If you want to know more about what I’ve done, you can see my Curriculum Vitae page (there’s a downloadable PDF version of my résumé availble there too).

There, done. And without sweating the details… too much, anyway.