Inside the Scottish Government’s Tech Transformation: Interview with Neill Smith [Exclusive]

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Explore the Scottish Government's technology journey and its vision for digital modernization in an exclusive interview with Neil Smith, Head of Infrastructure at the Agricultural Economy Directorate.

The Agricultural Economy Directorate stands as a pivotal division within the Scottish Government, operating essentially as an in-house software development firm.

Their primary function is to craft digital applications that enable farmers to apply for subsidies, with the directorate disbursing an impressive sum of approximately $1 billion. This translation to a more globally resonant currency underscores the substantial scale of their financial operations.

Managing a multifaceted team, the directorate oversees a diverse array of platforms, including a significant VMware infrastructure, alongside modern deployments in Kubernetes and AWS.

This blend of physical, virtual, cloud, and containerized environments is maintained by a skilled team of system administrators, database administrators across various database systems, and specialists in identity management spanning multiple products. The team’s expertise is further augmented by capabilities in automation and cybersecurity

This approach is emblematic of a broader shift within the public sector, where the adoption of cutting-edge technologies and a cultural transformation towards a more agile and collaborative environment are seen as essential to delivering value and service excellence to citizens.

I sat down with Neill Smith, Head of Infrastructure (ARE Directorate) for the Scottish Government, to learn more about technology’s role behind the scenes.


Scottish Government’s Cloud Migration

Q: What influenced the Scottish Government’s transition towards the cloud?

Neill Smith

A: I think governments interpret a cloud-first strategy as meaning everything goes in the cloud. And I was like: “That’s not what it means.”

Sometimes, you have to break that down into civil service talk and the phrases that will generally resonate. I always say you host your workloads based on the requirements. But I’ve spoken to numerous other government organizations throughout the whole UK, not just in Scotland.

In the private sector, they say, “I’m all in on AWS or Azure”, and I ask: “Why did you do that?” They’ll come up with some reasons why they’ve picked the technology. But now, they find themselves shoehorning their requirements into the technology. The reality is that AWS or Azure don’t do the best of everything.

I would rather begin the conversation by asking, what does my requirement dictate? 

The trick is to deliver this message into civil service speak. I use the phrase “cloud’s not prescriptive” — it’s like you or I in this room, going to the doctor, and he or she prescribing us the same medicine. Well, that’s nonsense, right? Because we’re unique and we’re different.

Now, the chances are that a large percentage of our workloads will be in the cloud. It shouldn’t be that it’s got to go there no matter what.

However, this brings its own challenges because if you’re saying you want to use multi-cloud, how are you managing that? Because it’s difficult enough to get skills. And now you need skills in two providers.

I believe that people and culture drive the change, and if you do it right, it’s awesome. If you do cloud bad, you can be in a bad place. 

The Citizen Expectation Shift: Why Governments Must Modernize

 Q: I spent a little time in Estonia earlier this year, and they’ve created a digital society with 98 percent of services completely online. Do you think it is important for governments to embrace modernization efforts and meet the rising expectations of their citizens?

A: I think it is, and I think everybody sees it now. It doesn’t matter if you’re buying a car or getting a credit card. The processes are so quick and easy now, right? So, I think when you’re providing digital services to the public sector, people expect that. It’s about being digitally smart so you can make efficiencies in terms of processes and cost.

It’s about making the end user happy. For us, if we can simplify something by filling in an online form instead of paper, citizens will be happier. But we could take it to a wider area where a lot of the government departments still aren’t joined up. We might be asking users to input data that we already have.

So, as part of maybe the future is actually enabling that data sharing piece where we already know all about you. But Estonia is really groundbreaking on that.  

The Cloud Skills Shortage Dilemma

Q:What have been the major challenges and opportunities on your cloud journey? 

A: The cloud skills shortage is a real challenge. I always use the phrase “clouds a beast”, and Kubernetes is a beast. These really are awesome platforms.

But they’re extremely difficult, complex, and evolving so quickly. So, there’s a reason why cloud engineers or Kubernetes engineers are in high demand and they get a high salary. In the beginning, I don’t think the Government fully realized the complexity of the apps.

I think many see the cloud as, “oh, it’s dead easy, right? We’ll just put it in the cloud, and everything works”. And it’s not like that simple.

Traditionally, you would have a network guy who looked after the network, a backup guy for backup, and a storage guy for storage, but now, if you’re a cloud engineer, they expect you to know all of that, and it evolves really quickly. It can be difficult to keep up.

Fundamentally, the challenges are retaining and recruiting people. But one thing that the Government’s great at is we have a great training budget — I think we should really sell that.

I always say that if we can attract people who have a genuine interest but don’t really have any real background or certification, we can create the right culture and the right environment, and they’re gonna fly.

However, we do need to acknowledge that although we can attract those people, there will be an attrition rate, but that’s okay, right? They might want to go to cool companies like VMware or Xtravirt. But, there might be people that stay. And the more people that stay, and the better people, the quicker we can change the culture and do cooler new tech.

Diversity of Thought in Tech

Q: Do you think the industry needs to encourage people from different backgrounds into tech to unlock the diversity of thought needed to solve complex tech problems?

A: You look around that room at some tech events where everyone is talking about artificial intelligence (AI) and the fears around bias. However, the majority of attendees are males. Then, you know, who are building the large language models (LLMs), and then that’s going to result in unintentional bias.

If you have more of an eclectic mix of people and a diverse team, the better you’ll have in terms of ideas because people come from different backgrounds, with different outlooks and you can really smash it.

Unfortunately, it’s still a challenge. You look around. It’s still, it’s male-dominated; it is improving, but it’s improving slowly.

Pushing Boundaries Without Breaking Rules

Q: Here at VMware Explore in Barcelona, Private AI seems to be dominating conversations. Is that something you will be taking away as well?

A: Yeah, it makes sense from a government point of view because there are a lot of court cases getting mentioned, such as stock photography provider Getty launching lawsuits in the US and the UK against Stability AI. Again, the Government’s quite slow to that, and I think it’s very much in its infancy, and obviously, at Bletchley Park and beyond, leaders are exploring regulation.

I’ve been described as a bit of a maverick in Government. I try to push the boundaries but not break the rules. I think we need to take a step back for the AI piece and wait until it gets a bit more mature.

There are possibly a few legal pitfalls that nobody wants to fall down into. I think it’ll be hugely embarrassing and reputational damage for a government to go down there.

I would still be keen for people to explore, but just as an internal kind of exploration.

The Scottish Government’s Tech-Driven Vision for a Greener Tomorrow

Q: What technologies excite you?

A: Sustainability is huge for the Scottish Government, and we are being really aggressive on that, which is good. Ever since we came out of Brexit, we were no longer tied to the European rules or agriculture. I’m sure the Scottish Government was the first in the UK to begin to change how we actually manage subsidies to the farmers. Whether it was the size of the crop or protecting a beetle bag, there are many schemes to encourage greener farming. 

I think agriculture, certainly in the UK and maybe the world, is the third biggest carbon emitter, and it’s close to transport. So, we want to use technology to be greener. There’s a lot of cool tech in agriculture, right? 

We’re currently working with a company called Planet Labs that takes a picture from the air every day. The satellites can go down to three or four centimeters, and combined with AI, we can detect boundary changes, crop type changes, and soil and carbon soil emissions. 

Technology like this is a real game changer because right now, we have a lot of people that’ll go around inspecting fields and making sure what’s being plotted has been correct. Although in its infancy, we are using the technology to our advantage to make it easier for farmers who are submitting claims.

If we can actually say, we already know, here are your boundaries, we know already what crop types are in it, we can tell you what your carbon emission is.

So we’re not asking them to submit all this again. Anything that can make it easier for the end users is only ever a good thing.

Modernizing Application Delivery: A Catalyst for Change

Q: Where do you go from here?

A: I think that we need to look to change how we deliver applications. I think that’ll really free us up to do some really cool stuff because I really want to showcase how the Scottish Government is not only doing something quite cool, but they’re doing it right. I envision a more digital government that delivers services quickly and on budget.

The Bottom Line

Neill Smith, Head of Infrastructure at the Agricultural Economy Directorate for the Scottish Government, has illuminated the transformative journey of integrating advanced technology within the public sector. The directorate’s strategic deployment of cloud services exemplifies a progressive shift towards digital modernization. 

By fostering a culture that prioritizes innovation and efficiency, they are empowers its teams to deliver exceptional service to citizens.

This commitment to technological advancement and cultural change reflects a broader movement within government entities to meet and exceed the digital expectations of the public, positioning the Scottish Government at the forefront of this global trend.

About Neill Smith

Neill Smith is a seasoned professional in the realms of Cloud, Virtualization, Linux, and Middleware. Currently serving as the Head of Infrastructure at The Scottish Government (ARE Directorate), he brings a wealth of expertise to the table. Neill is not only a visionary leader but also a hands-on technical specialist with a deep understanding of Cloud, Virtualization, and DevOps technologies.

As a testament to his knowledge and insights, Neill has graced the stages of renowned technical conferences such as AWS re:Invent, VMworld, and Gartner Infrastructure, Operations & Cloud Strategies. He is passionate about sharing his wisdom with audiences eager to grasp the intricacies of modern technology and its impact on Government and industry.


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Neil C. Hughes
Senior Technology Writer
Neil C. Hughes
Senior Technology Writer

Neil is a freelance tech journalist with 20 years of experience in IT. He’s the host of the popular Tech Talks Daily Podcast, picking up a LinkedIn Top Voice for his influential insights in tech. Apart from Techopedia, his work can be found on INC, TNW, TechHQ, and Cybernews. Neil's favorite things in life range from wandering the tech conference show floors from Arizona to Armenia to enjoying a 5-day digital detox at Glastonbury Festival and supporting Derby County.  He believes technology works best when it brings people together.