Jessie Adcock fuses passion and unparalleled skill to advance Vancouver’s tech-enabled future

"I’m always helping to figure out where the future is going.”

Eight months after Jessie Adcock was named Vancouver’s first chief digital officer (CDO), she was speaking with PR executive Bridgitte Anderson on an episode of Cambridge House Live. Anderson had one question: “What is it that you do as the city’s first chief digital officer?”

“I’ve been brought in specifically to champion the city’s digital objectives and goals that have been outlined in the digital strategy,” explained Adcock. “The digital strategy is a piece of work we created that essentially identifies nine priority initiatives within four pillars.”

Adcock continued to explain her role. She was periodically glancing down, like she was reading notes perhaps. Her sentences weren’t particularly refined. You might’ve thought she was nervous or lying. She wasn’t lying, of course. But in saying that she had been hired by the City of Vancouver to champion the digital strategy, she was certainly selling herself short. I think she knew it.

Imagine leaving private industry and stepping into one of the most high-profile public sector roles established in decades. Imagine being the first of your kind in Canada. Imagine you’re responsible for implementing a strategic plan that you had no involvement in developing. The pressure was on. Adcock had much more than championing on her plate.

We now know that in her conversation with Anderson, Adcock was being extremely modest. Not just because she’s since been promoted twice. (She is now the chief technology officer.) Not just because she now oversees a digital and IT organization of nearly 300 people. And not just because she’s spearheaded initiatives that have led to a transformation in how services are delivered that the city and citizens benefit from.

Adcock has fundamentally transformed the way the city does business—and in doing so, has helped legitimize the role of the CDO in Canada and around the world. As media consultant Mike Barrell said, speaking to Adcock on the digital maturation of cities, during a 2016 interview in Yinchuan, China, “It’s all become mainstream now.”

It’s become mainstream because of people like Adcock.

Now here’s the thing: Despite having already demonstrated her digital chops and business acumen in the banking industry, Adcock almost didn’t even apply for the opportunity at the city. “I wasn’t going to apply,” she told me. “I just didn’t think I would be the successful candidate. It’s really funny. But, it ended up working out and it’s been one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in my life.”

Adcock was born in Vancouver. “Homegrown, born and raised,” she explains. “One of the few.” She studied political science at Simon Fraser University. In 1998, she was teaching English in Taiwan before flying home for her sister’s wedding. “I was home for the Summer and I saw an index card on the job bulletin board at SFU.” She applied for that job and was hired soon after. The position was with Coquitlam-based Infosat, located just north of the Fraser River.

Adcock worked there for eight months before leaving to go work for the vendor of their billing system. Then from there, she jumped into the consulting and startup world, working with multiple clients, mostly on telecommunications, across the globe in places like Queensland, Cape Town, and Washington, D.C.

She came back to Vancouver in 2002 to work for a company called Navigata, based in North Vancouver. Then after two years there, another new adventure came calling.

8 Canada Square is a 656-foot-high skyscraper with 42 above-ground floors. When it opened in 2002, it housed around 8,000 workers. Designed by Sir Norman Foster, it has twin bronze lions protecting the main entrance. Their nicknames are Stephen and Stitt.

8 Canada Square is one of multiple buildings you can find at what’s called Canada Square, a complex named after Canada by real estate development firm Olympia and York, which was led by the late Paul Reichmann, a Toronto-based businessman.

Where do you think you can find Canada Square? If you guessed anywhere other than Canary Wharf in London, England, I’m sorry to say, but you’ll have to brush up on your trivia.

8 Canada Square actually has another name: HSBC Tower. It is the global headquarters for HSBC Group, the global multinational banking and financial services company.

You would be forgiven for not knowing this. But Adcock wouldn’t be. She periodically called the place home… err, office, while climbing the ranks and working in multiple roles at the international corporation.

While working at Navigata, Adcock learned that HSBC had built an ecommerce centre of excellence near Vancouver. “They were building global software solutions for deployment in the world’s local banks,” she explains. “What they were doing, primarily, was building internet banking. So, at the time, we were still more branch reliant and less online banking reliant, and the Vancouver team played a really big role in building out internet banking for all of these other countries.”

Adcock’s impact at the firm was immediate, and it didn’t go unnoticed. She moved up, and around, and the additional responsibilities came quick.

“I went from helping them build their first IBM portal WebSphere project in the world, which I managed the implementation of in France, to working, then, as part of the team that was part of a global relaunch of their HSBC Premier and HSBC Advance brands,” she says. “I worked on that team for three years, and from that team I was recruited into global marketing to lead digital strategy for their HSBC Premier and Advance brands. So, from that role, I went back into IT and then I was part of the team that led product and portfolio management for all of their digital channel systems, bringing digital business experience back into the IT product development life cycle.”

Here’s your whirlwind tour of her time at HSBC: Global Digital Programme Manager; Senior Manager, Business Systems, Product Management and Business Consulting; Senior Manager, Marketing, Digital Integration and Commercialization; and then Senior Manager, Global Portfolio Management, Digital Channel Systems.

In summary, she “had a chapter that was in telecommunications and ecommerce,” she says. “Then a chapter where we [HSBC] went and took branch banking into the new digital world, and then when the opportunity at the city came along to reinvent how government was, I just feel like it was a really nice next chapter for me.”

Except the chapter almost wasn’t written.

“It could be perception, but I just assumed that a guy would get [the chief digital officer] job,” Adcock shares. “I just didn’t think that a woman would get this job. I felt like I had already been in this situation several times where I was, by far, the most qualified or experienced. Then I would get some kind of bullshit reason why I didn’t get a position, you know.”

Luckily for you and me, not only was her heart leading her to the CDO role, but a close friend was providing the appropriate amount of encouragement too. “She was so encouraging and she was like, ‘No, do it, do it, do it,’” Adcock says about her friend nudging her to apply.

“I have to say that I’ve seen so much diversity at the city of Vancouver,” says Adcock. “The frequency with which I’m in a meeting room where the women outnumber the men is just… in the beginning I was shocked that that existed because I came from a different environment where it was one or two women in a room full of nine, ten men. Here, you can often see it differently, so I applaud the city for being an equal opportunity employer.”

Back in 2014, BCBusiness magazine asked her why a digital strategy is important? Adcock’s response was that, “Digital technology is transforming the way that we operate. The advent of technologies—the rate of information exchange—creates new expectations for businesses, and for engagement between businesses, citizens and government.” New capabilities lead to new assumptions about how things should actually work.

In discussing this topic, Adcock asked me, “Are you a resident of Vancouver?” I say, “Yeah, oh yeah, I live in the west end.”

“So, you’re a resident of Vancouver, you have expectations that you shouldn’t have to come to city hall to do everything. You want to be able to do everything you need to do online, right?”

“Yeah, absolutely.”

She goes into detail:

That feedback was coming to the city because at the time that the digital strategy was written, there was considerable opportunity for improvement. The CDO role, at the time, was really taking off globally as well, and so my hiring did a couple of things: One, it signaled how important the strategy was and, two, it really ushered in a different era of thinking in the city. So my job, primarily, for that first little while was focused on the citizen experience, focused on deployment of mobile and web capabilities, and focused on integrating our direct channels. By that, I mean our call centre, our web, and mobile. So, actually creating a commercially-minded channel business.

In that area, Adcock was very effective, so when the chief information officer (CIO) role became available, she was handed additional duties. “I got responsibility for oversight of all of our infrastructure,” she explains. “So, all of our servers and hardware and the phones and fiber infrastructure. Also cyber security, software development, enterprise architecture, all the IT stuff.”

Eventually, an even greater focus on technology transformation led the city to amalgamating the CDO and CIO roles into one chief technology officer (CTO) role.

We can’t talk about Adcock without surveying her academic background. At one point, her political science degree may have seemed irrelevant, but it’s certainly come in handy now. And not just because of her role in government, she says. “I suppose that BA has been tremendous in helping me negotiate the world of multinational corporations and technology and corporate politics,” she explains.

“I certainly think it opened my mind to a few things and my specialty has always been execution and delivery of strategies,” she continues. “So, you don’t deliver consistently unless you know how to, A, develop a strategy and, then, B, make it real, right. So, I think some of that probably came from papers I wrote in poli sci.”

Still, she allows that perhaps what led her to complete her MBA was some slight insecurity, even though when she completed it, she already had a wealth of experience. “I had an undergrad in political science and here I was in banking and technology,” she says.

How does the MBA factor into her work at the city?

I think a great thing about an MBA is that it teaches you a language that you can discuss strategy and operations around. It gives you a language on how to talk numbers. It gives you a framework for how to build strategies. It gives you some learning in terms of how to structure your operations. It gives you insights into organizational design. In my case I did a little bit of a specialty in technology management, so it gave a little bit of insight into the software development life-cycle and how to manage it and the relationship between business and technology. So, I certainly do think that there’s value. Does everybody need to do one? I mean, I don’t know, that’s a personal decision, right?

But for Adcock, the combination of a poli-sci degree and her MBA was simply dynamite. “I have always been interested in government and politics,” she says. “So when the opportunity with the city came up, it was an opportunity to merge a passion with a skill set.”

Adcock loves to read. “I make time for it every day,” she says. “It can be social feeds, or it could be aggregation of news somewhere on the internet. It could be the newspaper. It can be fiction or non-fiction. I read books, not Kindles, no e-readers.”

She tells me that she’s just read Ashley Vance’s biography of Elon Musk. I comment that I believe it’s very well researched. “Yeah and really gives you some food for thought for the future,” she responds.

“Mmm-hmmm,” I affirm.

“That’s one of the things I’ve always had in all my jobs,” she continues. “Whether it was the bank or in telecom or here, I’m always helping to figure out where the future is going.” She did it in banking, and now she’s applying her experiences to city building.

Yes, advances in technology have enabled a lot of her work. But we cannot discount the fact that driving a multicultural city’s innovation agenda forward requires the careful consideration and knowledge of someone who’s been around the world and can distill what she’s learned into insights to create products and services that work for diverse people and communities. It takes a special person to achieve this.

It’s now clear that when Adcock was asked in 2014, what, exactly, she did, her response should have been that she was about to do what few others had done. She should have said that although she’d been hired to champion the city’s digital strategy, she would, in fact, be fundamentally redefining how the organization that we call municipal government actually works. We would’ve had no reason to doubt her.

Photo credit: Barbara Jun