Ex-Chief Information Officer Liz Mckeown Gives Her Take on Moving Up, Women in STEM, and Mommy Guilt

a-director general at Digital Academy, Canada School of Public Services
Ex-Cio at Shared services canada

In our very first Women in the Workplace interview, we spoke with Liz about her professional experience and learned about her perspective on what defines today’s woman in the workplace.

Date: August 25, 2021
Interviewer: Richa Bansal, Founder and CEO, Pinkcareers
Purvasha Patnaik, Editor, Pinkcareers

About Liz Mckeown

Liz Mckeown joined the Canada School of Public Services as faculty within the Digital Academy during the summer of 2019 after filling the role of Chief Information Officer at Shared Services Canada for three and a half years. The bulk of her 30+ years career has focused on building technical change and leadership acumen at all levels, specifically with a focus on delivering amazing solutions and services. Liz brings with her 12 years of government executive experience with a passion for service modernization, combined with building high-performing workforces and a passion for building women leaders.  
Thank you so much for speaking with us Liz. Let's start with learning about your background.

You graduated from Queen's University with a Bachelor of Education and a Bachelor’s in Computer Science and Mathematics. What motivated you to make a career in computer science? 

I knew I wanted to be a teacher in the public education system in Ontario, Canada. I also tried to be strategic as it was during a time when there were few jobs in the teaching field. In parallel, I knew I liked playing with computers and had a passion for mathematics, so I thought what better way to go about this than to be a triple minority: a female in Mathematics and Computer Science. That is how I chose computer science as my main teachable after my undergraduate, and it played out well. I had a lot of teaching career opportunities when I finished my Bachelor of Education; I loved it and never turned back.

What were the most important skills that you learned in your first job as a high school computer science teacher?

When I was a computer science teacher in the early 90s, it was such an emerging field. I had a lot of high school students who would stay up all night on different mediums programming and learning coding, and I realized that I would always have students who knew a lot more than me. I would never be the subject matter expert, and that is a lesson that stayed with me throughout my career. It is not necessary for me have the subject matter expertise of those that are deep in the trenches. It was a massive lesson of the importance of leveraging the skills around me and not assuming that I can/should also fill that role as a manager or as an executive.

How did you make the move from a high school teacher to a project manager to the Director of Client Portfolio Management at Public Works and Government Services Canada?

Change helped me to change. What I mean is that I was better at what I did by having lived diverse experiences. Shifting sideways, upwards, and sometimes downwards in my career would lead to better future opportunities. I could learn and grow no matter what I was doing. Changing a career step every 3-5 years was crucial to remain comfortable with change. If I stayed in the same role longer than 3-5 years, it was even harder to change after that. I also realized that I am challenged with familiarity. Working in the same environment for too long brings me anxiety and unrest, whereas for a lot of people that builds comfort. But like most people, I panic when I'm trying something new. I know I am not all that confident when dealing with a new role in which I have limited experience, but I also really driven by that adrenaline of doing something new and pushing my boundaries.

I'm also excellent at leveraging my network to learn and explore, and I love learning, so that helped me as well. Lastly, sometimes taking the easy path is the best path. I realized that early on in one of my new careers. Sometimes I looked for reasons why not to take that step, but sometimes it's best to take the easiest path. For example, when I moved to Ottawa over 20 years ago, working in the private sector, my husband and I were in the same organization. We recognized there was a risk associated with being in the same tech company during a tricky period in the tech industry, so I started looking for new opportunities. That took me into the government space, and never could I have imagined having a career in the public sector yet, here I am, 20 years later.

You worked in various IT roles with Public Works, Justice Canada, and Shared Services Canada. What were some of the challenges you had to overcome to make your mark in these roles?

This is a list that I reflect on more and more as I leverage my learnings in what I do and share with others. My number one challenge has been making sure my voice is heard. The reason for that is because I don't necessarily show up at the table in the same manner as many of my colleagues. This challenge is specific to being in a typically male-dominated space because I show up with a very different style. I'm a person who likes to sit at the table, absorb, watch, see what's going on, and then contribute with value, rather than necessarily contributing because I have something to say, right now. I'm more of a sit back and watch and analyze and contribute at the right point in time. Sometimes that was perceived as "Liz doesn't have anything to say, or Liz doesn't have anything to contribute to the conversation". I find that much more in IT practices or IT domains than in some other domains. I found I had to push myself to speak up at a point when I wasn't quite ready to speak up, just so that people would remember that I was at the table. This approach bought me time to determine a more analyzed response when I was ready.

What were some of the learnings you had as you moved up in your career ultimately to serve as the Chief Information and Department Security Officer at SSC?

I think it is about leveraging your network and growing your network. I heard about that all through my career, and I don't think I understood it until the last 10 years. Some folks wanted to help me learn, grow, and advance my career, and I could have and should have engaged them better. I also should have trusted my instincts more. I realize now as I'm older, that my instincts are very good. I read people very well, as well as environments and situations, and trusting them is a skill. If you've got this skill, then you need to leverage it. I also recognized, and this one also came later in my career, to distance myself from those that are damaging. There are folks out there that may appear are good supporters, but if they:

  • Don't make you feel good
  • Don't support your career
  • Don't take the measures that help you advance
  • Are actively damaging to your career

… step away from them. It doesn't mean that you have to suddenly leave the work experiences where you work with them. It means that you don't need to leverage them as part of your network. If your gut is telling you that this person is not being a good person, towards you or behind your back, don't include them in that network. Also, don't be afraid to clearly ask for references. You should be able to say: ‘I'm asking you to give me an awesome reference. If you're unable to do that, let me know.’

What is some advice you would give to your mentees so that they can continue to advance in their careers?

I mentor many people, and I love mentoring. I have learned so much from it, and I don't think I ever turn anyone down when they come forth and ask me to mentor. Sometimes it's people I've never met before, sometimes it's people that I've just had a quick interaction with, or sometimes it's people that are a part of my teams. My first word of advice is to find mentors, and to find lots of mentors and to rotate those mentors, and recognize that there's a lifespan with a mentor, one might last for a super long time, and some might only be well suited for this period of your life or this event. Switch them up and seek mentors to help you with situations in life or specific areas that you want to advance. You need to have a team of mentors, and they will rotate and change over time.

Now that you're a faculty at the Digital Academy at CSPS, how are you empowering more women to grow in STEM fields through your current work?

Leading by example in how I act, what I say, where I present, and how I engage. I can't overemphasize the importance of this. There are too many people, especially executives in the government, that are challenged to do the things that they talk about because of the amount of pressure that they're under. As leaders, we have the biggest impact when we demonstrate that we live and breathe by the values and the principles, and the skills that we think are the most important.

A big opportunity I've had at the school is to ensure inclusivity by design, as I've designed and delivered content at the school. Also, to help infuse that importance in other products being developed by others in school, and to have discussions in the classroom with participants around the importance of it.

Lastly, by developing and growing the right partnerships that showcase this priority, its value, and then how it can work. It's not necessarily about the numbers, right? It's not about necessarily having equity when it comes to the number of women or the number of visible minorities or employment equity groups in certain fields, but it's about delivering better services. Then, understanding how equity leads to delivering better services.

Over the years, I've had some opportunities where I've worked with groups that deliver coding workshops, for example, to young girls, and I ask them: Who do you think is designing all our applications? All the games, all the social applications? If you want games, and if you want applications that appeal to you, then we need to be coding. The stories behind that coding are by those that are doing it.

PepsiCo, ex CEO, Indra Nooyi once said, "The career clock and biological clock are in total conflict with each other, and the guilt can kill you". Have you struggled with mommy guilt when you were raising your daughter? What is your advice for young mothers who are trying to build their careers, while also juggling mommy guilt on the side?

I have had mommy guilt and I think that's normal. No matter how present and how amazing of a mother you are, you're always going to have guilt at some level. Mine was reduced when I learned how to outsource. I remember an event a long time ago when my daughter was quite young. She was in grade four and she wanted cupcakes for school on her birthday. I bought cupcakes rather than making them and I thought I was such a failure. And then I realized, hey, we met the outcome. She wanted cupcakes, she got cupcakes, who cares if I made them or not? I learned I could outsource some things and then be there for the moments where I needed to be.

I'm super fortunate that I married a man who recognized that my career was as equally important as his. We made a conscious decision as a family that my career would take precedence. For years, he was the one that the kids called in case of an emergency. I had a lot of guilt associated with that, however, I got used to it until a few years ago when we decided to shift and put the emphasis on his career; he was off to Germany for a while which was very hard. But in raising our children the way we had, we built very independent children. As they've grown older, they learned the importance of balancing parenting and career.

What are your views on work-life integration?

You take it to the level that works for you, I have always been the type of person where I like to work. I like to work a lot of hours no matter what I'm doing. But I'd like to have the choice as to how I'm going to work. I don't mind working in the evenings. For many years, I did work in the evenings, but I did it at the dinner table after dinner when my kids were doing their homework. We would all be together. Or I would choose to work on Sunday mornings when it's quiet in the house, and I could have time when I could focus on learning, for example. It's about making the choices yourself and deciding what your work-life integration is, but it must be a conscious choice as to how you balance it and how you make sure that you're placing emphasis where it belongs. That right emphasis is individual; in other words a unique decision for everybody as to when you want to focus on family, personal time, volunteering, and work.

What do you wish you knew when you were 30?

To be patient and to take the time to explore and enjoy life because there's lots of time for a career. I was one of those people that got through school as fast as possible, got right into my career. I never took the time to explore and travel and do those things. I wish I had because it's more difficult to go back and do that after the fact. I also would advise others to recognize that there are so many priorities in life; a career is just one of them. Having a good balance between family, friends, volunteering, and self-preservation makes you a better person. And lastly, wise (older) women, ROCK! We bring so much value to the table that I didn't see until the last five years. I am smarter and wiser than I was when I was in my 30s; I can't imagine how I managed it back then. Getting older has so many wonderful things associated with it, and we need to embrace all that it offers.

current job title
A-Director General, Digital Academy
current company
Canada School of Public Service
one person you want to have dinner with
Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft
Best career advice you received
Outsource as much of your personal life as you can... don’t belief that you can do it all.
Favorite book, podcast, or movie that made an impact on you
Radical Candor by Kim Scott (book)
favourite quote
Hope is not a strategy!

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