Upgrading Toronto

How Rob Meikle leads nearly 800 technology workers to keep Canada’s most populous city’s technology thriving

Toronto is the most diverse metropolitan area in Canada. It’s also the most highly populated city in the country, and one of the most tech-savvy in the world. There are more than 140 languages and dialects spoken in Toronto, and over 30 percent of residents speak a language other than English or French at home.

The boom in tech jobs is transforming the city just as much as the multicultural population; it’s already been cited as a pioneer in wearable technology and the home of the first-ever Accessibility Innovation Showcase, where over fifty companies demonstrated innovations in technologies and assistive devices designed to benefit disabled people. Overseeing all that as the chief information officer of such a dynamic city could be overwhelming, but not for Rob Meikle, who takes a people-over-process approach to his work.

“Genuine care, concern, and passion for people is always at the forefront. I want to see people be successful and maximize their potential,” Meikle says. “But I’m the chief information officer; I can’t be all about people all the time. You have to have a balanced approach. I also always have my eye on operational excellence.”

When Meikle joined the City of Toronto almost three years ago, many didn’t know what to make of the new guy who stepped in with some seemingly unusual requests. One of the first things he did was restructure the IT department’s bi-weekly meetings so that every topic had to fit into one of four categories: customer service and partnership excellence, talent management, operational excellence, and financial management.

Strategic and steady wins the race.”

The thing about IT, the CIO says, is that it’s too focused on “the shiny things,” on staying cutting-edge, on the most urgent issues. Meikle argues that focusing solely on the urgent can be detrimental.

“‘Urgent’ versus ‘important’ is something I’ve asked my team to think about since day one,” he says. “Yes, the urgent must be addressed—we need things to run smoothly, but that’s not thinking in the long term. That’s not setting ourselves up for success. Only thinking of the urgent is shortsighted.”

When the demand for IT solutions is high—and it is in the fourth largest city in North America—prioritization needs to be key. Upon taking on the role of CIO, Meikle was faced with 160 projects that needed to be organized; it was his duty to figure out how all of the pieces fit together. The city of Toronto’s IT department had a lot going for it, but one thing it was lacking was a strong governance model around prioritization. The CIO set out to tackle that with the e-city strategic plan.

These 160 projects were addressed through twelve separate programs, which Meikle helped launch. He and his team spent a lot of time familiarizing themselves with the people these projects most impacted, attempting to understand their goals, challenges, and the end results they were hoping to achieve.

“It was a very strategic investment of resources that took away a lot of tension,” Meikle says. “You’re not always going to see tangible results right away, which can be hard for some, but it worked in the long run.”

Change management is hard in any organization. For Meikle and his team, it meant managing expectations and not always jumping at an employee’s request for new software. All departments frequently place requests for new software and hardware. Rather than purchasing and installing it, the CIO pushes for a dialogue about what the department is hoping to accomplish with the new technology. “What business outcomes are you trying to achieve?” is a common question.

“Sometimes [people want] quick solutions, plain and simple,” Meikle says. “But that’s not really providing value. The dialogue is important. It’s not always what the person wants, but I see this as an important opportunity to drive transformation and not just install the latest technology for the sake of it.”

The CIO has strived to create an environment where teamwork and open communication are valued. Meikle’s tech team, featuring over 800 people, is asked to do more with less. His response to that business maxim is to do less with less.

“When you’re trying to speed through 100 projects, what are the chances that each of those projects is going to be handled effectively? What are the chances that important things will fall through the cracks in favor of speed and agility?” Meikle asks. “I’d rather we funnel all of our time, energy, and resources into a few important projects at a time, executing them to the best of our ability, and then moving on to the next batch. Strategic and steady wins the race.”

In this case, the “race” is the well-being of the city of Toronto. IT is connected to every department of the city and every facet of citizen-facing services. Meikle’s department is a crucial component of the integrated service-delivery supply chain, and it impacts all of the city’s services.

“IT contributes to the quality of life for all of the people who live, work, and play in the city of Toronto,” he says. “I take that very seriously.”