A year at the CSPS Digital Academy

A photo of 6 colourful doughnuts; one is half eaten.
Doughnuts — it is not that simple

As 2019 came to a close, so did my one year journey with the Digital Academy. It seems like a perfect time for reflection on what I learned and accomplished during this year.

I joined the Academy passionate about its mandate to help upskill the Canadian Public Service; its small and nimble size with a flat organizational structure made it a perfect place to try new things.

The journey was in many ways what I’ve expected. Fast-paced, energizing, creative, liberating, and fluid. It was empowering and exhausting all at the same time, with the work sneakily seeping into my personal life, as is aptly pointed out by my colleague Rebecca Nava in her article about the challenges and opportunities of virtual work.

Photos of the first Digital Academy office and the new space at Bayview Yards, side by side.
From the start-up office to the Bayview Yards.

From a tiny start-up office crammed with computers,laptops, and people to a modern innovation hub at Bayview Yards — it’s been such phenomenal expansion and I feel that I’ve come out from this journey with the same amount of unparalleled professional and personal growth.

I was on a mission to do something impressive. I am pretty sure that’s what was on my mind. I wanted to stay there and make an impact. I was hungry to see the outcomes of my work in the Public Service.

I was new, I’ve pitched myself for the job, I had to prove that I could do it. Pressure was on. My ego and reputation were on the line. I was so grateful for the opportunity and excited to be involved.

My journey should have been smooth as butter, a piece of cake or a doughnut… . I was used to and comfortable with virtual work. I had the skills needed to do the job. I always took initiative, set direction and needed no oversight for my work. I was bound to succeed, right?

Experience #1 — Learning architecture (December — August)

Photo of a whiteboard with terms Practices and Skills and the many synonyms that come to mind for each.
December 2018 — first day of work; clarifying terminology

December 2018 came around joyfully, yet the beginning was rough. I was working on a mythical thing called the “learning architecture” while also trying to figure out how to fit this learning architecture into a relational database, or not (as it did not seem to work well). On my own. On the West coast, while most of the team was on the East and working on something completely different. I felt disconnected from the work others were doing, as my project was not well connected to theirs, and I had no idea if anyone knew or cared about what I was working on. There was so much happening, so fast, that I did not want to ‘bother” others with my challenges.

The flat structure also made it difficult to check in and ask questions, as at the time I was reporting to the Director, making me even more reluctant to ask for help, given their level of priorities and responsibilities.

I was working, producing, reading profusely outside of work hours to better understand relational and graph databases and content models and to figure out why I was struggling, while trying to balance the joys and invisible workloads of motherhood (an aspect that is often overlooked and beautifully described in my colleague Steph’s Reflections on Invisible Women).

Even though my key role and deliverables focused on the development of the learning architectures, it quickly became apparent that the scope of this project was much broader. In order to use the controlled terms from the learning architecture to tag content, we needed a database to store this information in. This quickly broadened the deliverable to include not just the conceptual work but also how to integrate it into systems and with what technology. This meant thinking about:

  • what type of database was the right fit
  • how to structure the database
  • what other attributes aside from the learning architecture would be part of this database
  • what is the content and business model of the Academy and how is this database going to support it
Content model for the Academy and a visual representation of the learning architecture.

Since I was not an expert on databases, while it interested me and I was eager to learn, there was a steep learning curve and not enough time for me to be able to learn and do at the same time to meet the timelines I was expected to deliver by. Between clarifying terms, cleaning up an existing relational database, learning how to effectively use Airtable, working on the learning architectures for 8 different topics, conducting and documenting research on topic maps and information discovery methods for the learning architecture, and thinking through a content model that could help inform a new structure for the database to support the Digital Academy learning delivery, I was pretty exhausted.

Airtable database with Skills and a learning architecture Google doc.

This went on for over a month when I finally realized that I was burning out even though I had just started working with the team. I had too much on my plate; I needed someone to sit down with me, understand what I was working on, help me prioritize by clarifying what the main priorities were.

Things got better after our entrepreneur in residence and Director helped me narrow down my work to 2 out of 5 priorities that I was working on. Personally, I learned that:

  • I should have reached out sooner.
  • I should have taken the time to stop and reflect on the work I was given, break it down into components and explore what was feasible and reasonable (granted this is sometimes difficult, when you are doing something completely new and unfamiliar).
  • I should have been less scared to say ‘no’ or that something was out of scope, despite my desire to impress. I realized that I would have benefited from regular touch points with my supervisor, so I could make sure my work was aligned with the vision and share any challenges I was facing. I was reminded that being virtual, you are extra vulnerable.

It also got me thinking about the role virtual employees play on distributed teams and how it is essential to understand the unique challenges such work brings. I started wondering about how virtual employees will best succeed when they are working on ‘indispensable’ parts of the project that are clearly integrated into immediate deliverables, so that they feel better integrated as part of the team and there is shared accountability and awareness of the work that is being done across the team’s geographic boundaries.

I also learned that I needed to find my tribe, like-minded people who were working on or interested in similar things. I wrote about what I do and looked for collaborators, I started a working group with people who were focusing on policy work, education and talent management and I met some wonderful people who helped me along the way; special thank you goes out to Thom Kearney for the many recurring meetings to help me through the weeds!

My work on the learning architecture continued into late August 2019 and it was still nowhere near completion, with Development, DevOps and Disruptive Technology topics still needing much development. Overall, this was by no means a solitary process and required lots of collaboration with subject matter experts. For the Data and Artificial Intelligence topics for example, I worked with professors from the Simon Fraser University’s Big Data program to better define and align the Practices and Skills that support this discipline. Without such partnerships and cross-industry research, it would be impossible to develop an early draft of structures that could be comprehensive and meaningful across sectors. To better situate the learning architecture, I also created an evergreen crosswalk of Digital competencies, practices and skills from a number of sources.

Experience # 2 — Design training — first iteration (January-May)

In January 2019, I got pulled into leading the Design training for Premium learning and had to slow down my work on the learning architecture due to the pressing timelines. This was an exciting new adventure into curriculum development, training design and delivery methods.

[Premium learning] is intended for practitioners and is all about deeper, experiential learning in data, AI and machine learning, design, and DevOps (development operations). This stream focuses on capacity building, addressing skill gaps and intensive learning. It includes a strong focus on mindsets: talking to users and understanding UX (user experience) and being agile. — Get in friends, we’re going to the CSPS Digital Academy

So January-February was spent ensuring that the Design stream training could take off at the end of February. This meant mobilizing experts from the Government of Canada to help design and deliver the training.

Cohort 1 training was our first attempt at delivering this type of specialized training to a selected group of learners from the Government of Canada. It looked something like this:

  • Feb-May
  • 10 weeks of training
  • In-person delivery in Ottawa
  • 1 full day of training with lab/self-directed learning time, speakers in the morning, and 3h of instructor-led training in the afternoon
  • 9+ instructors
  • 15 learners, each from a different GC Department or Agency
  • All resources posted to Github Design repository
  • A Slack channel for learners to discuss course materials and connect with other learners
  • Pre-post survey assessment for learners that helped assess their perceived level of knowledge across different design practices as well as to capture their expectations for the program
Information architecture course and Github landing pages.

In terms of rigour and commitment, it was meant to get close to what a 3 credit university course would demand in terms of hours of learning (generally, a university course would be equivalent to 45 hours of learning, 3 hours of instruction and 6 hours of study weekly for 15 weeks).

The scope of the learning included a range of topics, from inclusive design, to content design, to data visualization which were delivered according to the Cohort 1 Design Schedule.

I have to say, this was so much work! Finding instructors, getting commitment to develop materials, thinking about the broader learner experience and developing 2 sessions for the stream was a constant adventure. Moreover, since the objective of the course was not just to teach the subject matter, but also to share tools and new ways of working in the open and collaboratively with the broader community, we wanted to expose learners to technologies that they may find useful in their work.

To do this, I tried out an open source social annotation tool Hypothesis (thank you for introducing me to it, Alvaro Vargas) to engage learners in discussion around the self-directed learning materials. I also used Miro — a collaborative virtual whiteboard board to teach my 2 segments of the Design course on content design and information architecture to help learners experience how design work can happen virtually.

Information architecture module set up in Miro to facilitate virtual collaboration.

In addition to all of this, my colleague Chad Farquharson and I developed a 1h online self-paced Information architecture course with plenty of Government of Canada examples and context that anyone could access. It was meant to provide the basics for an otherwise complex topic and to allow me to deliver more workshop-style training during the instructor-led session.

I also contributed to one of the first articles on Design for Busrides.ca platform — “Design with users”.

In reflecting on this experience, let’s just say there were many successes (a variety of topics presented by different GC instructors, case studies and real application of design in GC context) and many areas to improve on (more training on tools, integration of learning with other streams, more practice, a clear learning path, centralized space for learning resources, less overlap between sessions, using tools that can be accessed from GC networks) in this first iteration of the specialized stream training.

While the objective of the specialized streams was to develop future practitioners, personally, I was hoping that learners will walk away with an understanding of the scope of their specific stream, how complex and multifaceted each specialized field is and that to become a practitioner, they will still have a lot to learn and explore on their own. To my joy, one of the learners left this comment in their post-assessment, which captures beautifully my hopes and dreams for the stream and establishes it as an overall success in my eyes:

The Design stream opened my eyes up to how much I didn’t know, where I thought that I had some expertise. I may have thought I was proficient at something coming into the course, and may have come out still thinking that I was still just proficient, but realizing that I wasn’t proficient at all coming in.

Experience # 3 — Digital Open Learning (May — September)

In May, as the first iteration of the Design stream was wrapping up, I got involved in the Digital Open Learning project that has been ongoing since the inception of the Academy.

To support the Canadian Public Service in being able to quickly adapt and shift roles in response to the rapid technological changes, the Academy needed to develop a solution that would meet learners in between Foundations and Premium learning; to create pathways to knowledge anywhere, anytime.

Whiteboard pyramid reads from top to bottom: Premium, Pathways, Foundations — curious, Foundations — awareness.
Someone on the team sketched this vision of what the Academy would be working towards in the near future.

Supported by the industry research on skill development for the future and the discoveries of the 2019 Canadian Digital Service and Dalhousie study — Building Digital Capacity: Report on the Training Needs Analysis across the Government of Canada, it was clear that there was a need and a gap to fill when it came to creating “innovative digital training repositories” as well as “a suite of digital training offerings and channels” where quality learning content could be curated and accessed.

On the team, we affectionately spoke of the possible platform as the Digital Open Learning solution, or DOL. There were many phases of DOL with many different talented product owners; there were also times without a product owner and with multiple ones.

In May, DOL was in a quiet phase. No one was talking about it, it seemed to be forgotten. So my colleague Isa and I decided to move it forward together. Since the learning architecture was meant to be the backbone of such a platform, helping curate content for learners, I felt that I had already spent lots of time thinking about it in and out and was very invested in its success.

We decided that we will try to have a prototype to test in a month or 2 and worked tirelessly through planning sessions and sprints.

Trello boards capturing the planning phases and sprints for Digital Open learning.

As usual, this was not as simple as developing a working prototype of an interactive system. We had many challenges and constraints. In May, we had no dedicated developer to help us create a prototype, so we had to think about what existing tools we can modify and use. The interface though was only a small part of the bigger piece that involved:

  • Determining the most basic features that would make this a useful minimal viable product
  • Deciding on the scope of content to curate
  • Transferring the learning architecture to the Airtable database
  • Collecting the content (thank you to Thom Kearney for his many contributions) and adding it to the database
  • Structuring, describing and tagging the content against the learning architecture (the most labour intensive part of all)

And the list goes on. At some point in the process, the talented Jordan joined the team and became a dedicated resource to help us with designing and coding the solution. There was a period where it was just Jordan and I, working on this deliverable. We would hold weekly meetings to iron out any new challenges and move forward.

We had a plan, we had a timeline, I was finalizing the capture of the 100 resources destined for curation.

Learning resources accumulating in the Airtable database and a bar graph representing how many and the types of resources we have for each specialized stream.

By the time the Digital Academy Open House rolled around in July, we have even moved from a wireframe to a mockup and we had a chance to do some guerrilla testing, where I was able to virtually observe and listen to feedback from different people via a robot while Jordan walked people through the prototype.

Digital Open Learning from a wireframe to a mockup.

We got great feedback and we encountered new challenges. We needed more time to develop and we moved our launch date further.

GANTT chart for Digital Open Learning sprints.
Sprint timeline for Digital Open Learning.

DOL product ownership changed hands a few times, even though I personally felt that, informally, I was it’s product owner for awhile. We kept on working on it and planning to test the prototype with a small group sometime in December. However late in August, I found out that I will be leading the second iteration of the Design stream and things changed quickly. I could no longer manage the DOL workload. I had to step aside.

Infographic representing the different elements that make up the Digital Open Learning and a view of a curated resource, tagged with Practices and Skills among other categories.

Jordan kept working diligently on the prototype, but soon the situation changed and the project had to be scaled back significantly.

Among the many challenges faced in trying to get DOL off the ground, such as making it accessible on Government networks and keeping up with private sector attempts at monetizing corporate and personalized learning, I soon realized that among the instability in product ownership for this deliverable, there were not enough dedicated human resources to continue this work and maintain the product.

After some time getting through the emotional attachment to all the work that went into it up to this point, I had to accept that this may not be the right time for it and I had to let it go and let it be.

Even though changes are common to all ways of working, they seem much more prevalent in and are the toughest part of working iteratively, in a startup mode, with limited resources, high ambitions and an agile mindset. Sometimes (and maybe often) you may have to stop what you’ve been working tirelessly on, no matter how amazing you think it could be; you may have to abandon it (for a number of reasons) and move on.

While such twists and turns may be viewed as defeat and may be difficult to accept at first, as they can be deeply disappointing, it is these types of pivots that could also help the Government avoid catastrophes like the Phoenix pay system. So instead of seeing this as a failure, it is worth considering how it may have prevented the development of unsustainable solutions.

Having said this, it was still the most challenging piece of learning and the time of tremendous growth for me in terms of reassessing what accomplishment means, what being part of the team means, and in learning to appreciate the complexities of working in the digital context that is so fluid and unexpected.

Experience # 4 — Design training- second iteration (September-December)

September was a back to school month for me, as a curriculum designer, Design stream lead and an instructor. With Cohort 2 training starting early in November, I had less than 2 months to put together the training. Moreover, this time, things changed considerably. We’ve expanded to include regional participants, doubled the number of learners and were offering a blended learning delivery. Personally, I also wanted to ensure that we integrate accessibility and inclusion from the start, whether it was in the topics we covered, the content we provided to students, through the instructors we selected and the delivery methods we chose.

When I said the first iteration was a lot of work, I had yet to see what a lot of work looked like in order to realize the Cohort 2 Design stream schedule:

  • Nov-Dec
  • 7 weeks of training
  • Virtual delivery with a few blended sessions available for both in-person participation in Ottawa as well as online
  • 4 hours of instructor-led training per week and a number of cross-stream topics
  • 10 instructors from 8 organizations representing Federal and Provincial governments, Ontario College of Art and Design and different parts of Canada
  • 31 learners from 19 organizations
  • Course design and virtual delivery support for instructors
  • Creation and maintenance of Moodle space with all the learning resources
  • Engagement with learners on Moodle and Slack
  • Review of weekly evaluations
  • Moderation of virtual sessions
  • Weekly office hours
Weeks 4–6 of Design stream content in Moodle learning management system.

To develop a program to teach a discipline as broad as design is challenging and my main objective was to bring together as many voices as possible from the different design communities to give a rich and complex understanding of what it means to design for the Government of Canada.

To include different points of view from the start, I co-developed the learning objectives with 5 inter-departmental contributors, many of whom also ended up acting as instructors or supporters for the stream in other ways. I also developed an accessible presentation template for instructors to support instructors in creating accessible presentations.

Trello board for co-developing learning objectives for Design stream Cohort 2.

Aside from moderating and guiding the whole program along, I’ve also developed and delivered the content design session accompanied by the content design heuristic checklist which served as a basis for the hands on portion of the 2 hour virtual session.

As part of practicing what the Academy preaches and working in the open, I also made an attempt to share perspectives on some important design discussions that were happening among students beyond the confines of the Design stream in an article Wireframes vs Mockups and Why you should Sketch with Words first — Design 101.

Just like the first time around, this instance of the Design stream had some strong points (virtual delivery, clear learning objectives) and some weaker ones (too much, too fast). What I found really encouraging was the following comment from a learner that truly represents a significant accomplishment of the training to me:

I like seeing how this work could be done virtually. I feel like this course doesn’t just teach ‘design’ it makes you think about how to approach work differently.

By delivering the training virtually and having to use virtual collaboration tools with people of different levels of technological comfort and competency, it really allowed us to show learners how design work can be done across different areas, Departments and even continents — a fundamentally important skill for the distributed workforce of the future.

People, partnerships and human relationships

A year later, I played so many roles at the Academy and it’s been an amazing journey.

Aside from all the incredible projects that I got to contribute to, I am most grateful for the personal connections that I’ve made. In the Manifesto for better government, Adrian Brown puts it perfectly:

The quality of human relationships matters a great deal. We assume positive intent and trust people, sharing power and supporting each other to make the best decisions.

While the Academy is filled with the most impressive mix of caring, humorous and brilliant people, I’ve been particularly inspired by the strong and remarkable women who I got to work with. I’ve watched them seemingly effortlessly juggle family, volunteer commitments, hobbies, kids, demanding workloads while being present 150% at work and supporting each other.

Yet the relationships I’ve built extend far beyond the Academy. In the process of looking for instructors for the 2 iterations of the Design stream, I’ve developed an incredible network in the Public Sector Design community and even made friends in the process — Alvaro Vargas, Julianna Rowsell, Beth Fox, Sophia Hoosein, Damien Middleditch among many others.

It also warms my heart to know that the partnership I’ve forged have not been only to the Academy’s benefit, as I had the pleasure to write recommendation letters to the OCAD U Masters program in Inclusive Design for two passionate individuals who I’ve met on this journey.

Interestingly, I also think my biggest success and contribution to the Academy has been one of partnerships and human relationships. My work here has been largely about mobilizing people around the Government of Canada as well as Provincial partners to work together to co-design what the future of learning might look like.

Journeys to come

My full-time adventure at the CSPS Digital Academy has come to an end, but the relationships, the connections, the partnerships are here to stay. I can see so many points of reference that will bring me back to support the Academy’s mission and vision.

Even though I am leaving, I hope to continue teaching and advising learners of the Academy on content design and will keep in touch to see if the learning architecture will get a different breath of life on Busrides.ca or if DOL will resurface in new glory.

December 2018 discovery session at the Digital Academy and my takeaway note : “How do we not leave people behind?”

While the decision to leave the Academy was difficult, I felt that the opportunity that came knocking would allow me to put into action a note I made for myself as a takeaway from the team discovery session we did at the Academy in December 2018, when I just joined the team. The workshop facilitator asked us to write down one thing we wanted to remember following the discovery session and I wrote “How do we not leave people behind?”.

This important point speaks to the speed of digital transformation and the complexity of skillsets that need to be acquired to keep up as well as the different levels of digital literacy of the Government employees. This question has been preoccupying me throughout my journey and I hope that in my new role, I will be able to better understand who my audience is made up of and how to best bring them along.

My next adventure is going back to my home base at the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) to develop Content Design Curriculum. It is about time to increase Government’s capacity in developing effective online content. While my work will primarily seek to support the CRA, I hope that the curriculum and training can be developed in a way that will benefit the Government of Canada more broadly. As always, I am looking for collaborators and like-minded individuals, so if you are a content enthusiasts interested in contributing to the learning needs analysis and the definition of skillsets that content designers at different levels may need, get in touch!

:: digital content specialist — passionate about open learning + inclusion + collaboration + systems + stewardship + learning design + reflective practice ::

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