five minutes with Estonian CTO Kristo Vaher

By Mia Hunt on 07/03/2022 | Updated on 03/07/2022

The CTO tells GGF he’s finally ‘crunched’ after years as an automation engineer, why he thinks the civil service shouldn’t design or build citizen services, and his goal of making its redundant role

What attracted you to a career in public service?

I felt the desire to do something more for the people closest to me. In the private sector, the majority of my projects were business-to-business or business-to-consumer and did not affect the daily lives of my friends and family. I felt that in Estonia we are small enough that one person’s passion is enough to make an impact – so I took up the challenge. Not lightly, mind you, but I’m inspired by that choice to this day.

What have you accomplished in your career that you are most proud of?

About two years ago, I felt like I had “cracked”. As an engineer, my life has been spent abstracting real life into automated systems and building small, quality systems that are connected to a larger, interoperable whole. But I’ve always been interested in understanding how the big picture falls into place: how can technology help me and everyone else live “more” by automating all the boring routine tasks and what is the best way to do it? So, after years of work, two years ago that vision resulted in a concept document that is now the basis for building the next generation of digital government information systems. After cracking it, I’m still working on it and improving it, and it will be turned into a book, hopefully in a few years, with examples and use cases from the projects we’re currently running in Estonia.

What more do you want to accomplish before you retire?

My goal is to retire because my role is no longer needed. I strongly believe that when it comes to leadership and management, one of your main goals is to ensure that your team and the people who report to you are able to function towards the bigger vision without management. I believe that a healthy organization should be vision-driven with empowered teams executing that vision.

What is the best advice you have received in your professional life?

My father, a mechanical engineer, told me that it is easy to build complex systems but very difficult to build simple systems. This has in many ways been a mantra that I have followed as a solution architect as well. Just because something gets big doesn’t mean it has to be complex.

What don’t you like about working in government?

Bureaucracy – oh a living hell. I can understand why it exists and why it is needed, and a good bureaucracy does a lot of great things. But most bureaucracy is redundant and getting rid of it is a task in its own right.

How might the public service be different in 25 years?

I don’t think the public service itself should deliver services – or the public sector itself build those services – because it’s not the best either. Smart governments will do their best to ensure that the private sector sets up the required services and scales them up. The role of the public sector is to ensure that the principles and the quality live up to government expectations. I expect to see more of this in 25 years, because with a massive amount of digitization we will soon have little other choice.

Which official – past or present – ​​do you most admire and why?

Although there are a large number of public servants who have inspired or influenced me in one way or another during my almost four years of work as CTO, I cannot help mentioning Pia andrews [digital and client data workstream lead for Employment and Social Development Canada and an open government specialist]. We haven’t worked on the same projects together, or even in the same country, but she is the role model for public service leaders: someone with a passionate vision and the professional integrity and experience to support this vision, who is able to communicate and articulate it well. If we had more Pias around the world, we would have even better services, digital or otherwise.

Are there any projects or innovations in Estonia that could be useful to your peers abroad?

Estonia is currently working on reinventing how public services should be automated. People don’t want to use websites, fill out web forms, or send PDFs. People would like to talk to someone who can help them with any problem they have as if they were sitting at a table with them and talking. As such, we think Siri and Google Assistant are just baby steps. Today, we are not only working on an AI capable of understanding a citizen’s needs and redirecting them to the most appropriate place, but on an ecosystem of cooperating AIs from different fields – police, health, etc. These AIs would be able to cooperate in an automated way to solve the problem for the citizen from a single point of contact, whether it is a chat window on a website, an email or in a natural voice on the phone. We’re in the early proof-of-concept stage, but the first services have already launched and lessons on how to do it even better are already being learned.

What is your most valuable asset?

I don’t have a lot of physical possessions, but I love my board game collection. In many ways this reflects many of my professional, personal and educational interests. They say “tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are” – to me it’s the same when someone looks at my shelves at home.

What is your favorite book?

The Mythical Man-Month by Fred Brooks, hailing from the 70s. It’s a book full of interesting thoughts on software engineering and project management from a bygone era, but many principles and lessons learned still apply today. today (and are often forgotten today).

What was the first piece of music you bought?

It was a pirated Roxette Joyride album! I didn’t know it was pirated, but counterfeit copies were being sold at regular kiosks here in Estonia in the early 1990s.

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