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Post-modern CTO

Vodafone NZ's Sandra Pickering employs 'ruthless prioritisation' to tackle redoubtable tasks.

"When I am hiring, I always think of not what they can do today. What is their potential? Everyone I hired in my direct team has the potential to do my job or be better than me."

So says Sandra Pickering, chief technology officer at Vodafone New Zealand, who always takes the long view -- whether it is around building a deeper leadership bench, deciding on technology investments, or assessing trends that will impact the business.

Her team consists of around 420 permanent staff. "I probably deal with in excess of 50 vendors and hundreds and hundreds of contractors," she says.

She explains there are two distinct parts of Vodafone's technology group. One is IT run by CIO David Moss (see sidebar "Ahead of the game" at the end of this story). The other part is run by chief networks officer Tony Baird.

She says her role, as the CTO, is across these two areas. "We need to bring all of that together from an investment strategy perspective," she says. The CTO sits on the executive team, and this is a model that Vodafone uses globally.

The acquisition of TelstraClear in 2012, and the merger of these two companies are top of mind for her and her team. "It is early days at the moment. The two companies are running as separate business units."

But this will change over the next 12 to 18 months. She says because Vodafone and TelstraClear are "complementary businesses", they did not find a lot of overlap. 

"There are a lot of things we can collaborate on and share, we are starting to work on opportunities with customers together. Overnight, we became a much more national company as opposed to being solely based in Auckland," she says.

The merger also has another upside for Pickering, who used to commute to Auckland every week but has now relocated to Wellington. 

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External customers

Pickering gets involved with Vodafone's sales and marketing teams working on "external customer engagement".

"As a technology department we make ourselves available to sales and marketing teams because we are a technology company," she says. 

She says this customer facing responsibility is probably more relevant to CIOs and CTOs of technology companies.

"That is probably the most enjoyable part of my job," she says. "When our customers are investing a lot of money in mobile tech solutions, they want to talk to people that use them and develop them and maintain them and support them. So that is why we get involved."

"The mobility path is going to be more and more relevant," she says, and this includes the public sector. Governments are advocating mobility online as they move more services into tablets and smartphones, she says, and enterprises want to know how this is going to impact the business.

With CIOs, however, the top query is around "the cost agenda".

"It is efficiency," she says. "How do we get more for our money? How do we use technology to make us more efficient? If we spend more on mobile technologies, how do we use that advantage to cut costs in other areas?

How do we use that advantage to cut costs in other areas? How do we become more productive?"

Pickering says she is not surprised by this because she has similar concerns. "As a CTO myself I am always challenged to reduce costs. Networks are growing, the systems are growing, and everyone wants things cheaper. Right? So a big part of our cost space as a telco is the technology running the environment, the systems, the enterprise computing and the network maintenance and support costs. They make up probably half of our cost base."

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Future outlook 

A major component of her job is "looking at the future" in areas like 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution). "How do we ensure our systems are relevant for our customers? What strategies are we employing to ensure we service the customers through all of our different channels?"

She says being a member of a global company helps -- she gets updated information on emerging trends in other parts of the globe, like Europe, where Vodafone has its headquarters. 

Every year, she attends Vodafone's leadership conference, usually a week-long event in Europe, where she meets with around 200 other executives. 

Pickering says she also has regular meetings with the other Vodafone CTOs through videoconferencing, as well as collaborating online. 

M-commerce is an area she is keeping track of, particularly on near field communications (NFC). 

"NFC is starting to make a reality of mobile wallets," she says. "There will be a time in the not too near distant future where people won't need to carry wallets or cards because the mobile wallet will be contained in the mobile device. It is very exciting."

Vodafone has teamed up with Telecom, 2degrees and Paymark (which runs the largest Eftpos switch in New Zealand) for a joint venture that will allow people to pay their bills or collect loyalty points using their mobile phone. Under the joint venture, a Trusted Service Manager (TSM) will provide the infrastructure to enable the use of NFC-enabled handsets as mobile wallets.

"With the cost of infrastructure, it doesn't make sense for everyone to build their own solution because there is no competitive advantage in the infrastructure that you need to run it. The advantage is in what do you package it up with, and how do you differentiate the service that you provide."

She points to the experience over 20 years ago when the four banks ASB, Westpac, Bank of New Zealand and ANZ formed Paymark (then known as ETSL) to set up the network that allows the processing of bank cards in point of sale terminals. She says this is the reason why anyone can use an Eftpos card in any bank or ATM or any shop in New Zealand "ahead of the world".

"That is what is going to happen with near field communications. I think that the industry needs to set standards and you want common standards, common operating systems and security and all those things," she says. "Customers don't want to say they are getting different security settings among carriers. They want to know that the industry is providing a common set of standards and practices like the ATM network we have got."

Coming into IT

Pickering has been working in technology jobs for the past 31 years. "My career has been one that has been built on experiences over a long period of time," she says.

Her first job right after completing sixth form was in an insurance company. "I started at the very bottom, worked as a trainee tape operator, and then basically worked up from there."

The same company trained her in programming, and this paved the way for other roles in her first 10 to 15 years of work. She got into the telco industry when she joined IBM in 1987 and worked on developing systems for Telecom.

IBM started selling the software it had developed across the globe which was how she got into management. "I was asked to lead the team to go to the UK. From there, basically, I was managing teams in the UK, NZ and the US to develop software and install it."

In 2003, she enrolled at the University of Otago and completed a post graduate diploma in business studies. "The practical things I learned on the job after all those years were a real bonus when it came to do the postgraduate work. It was great, I really enjoyed it."

Pickering is involved in two Vodafone initiatives to address the IT skills shortage -- the graduate programme and apprenticeship scheme. She has also set up Inspiring Women into Technology, speaking at forums encouraging more women to consider a career in IT.

"There is a big talent pool in our country that is not being utilised and potentially there won't be the types of jobs or the training that I got when I got into the industry. We need to train people," says Pickering. "The whole environment today where we want people already trained [and] have got the skills, we need to rethink that strategy. As big business, how do we bring young people and train them up and provide an environment where they can learn? And then we can create a much bigger talent pool for our industry."

She says the Vodafone graduate programme "slowed down" for a while for financial reasons. "We reinvigorated it two years ago because we decided diversity around age [is an issue]. The biggest users of technology are young people and they bring such a different viewpoint into our business. We decided to up the rate of young people that were entering our business."

But she says they went further to recruit from traditionally underrepresented sectors in the industry through the apprentice scheme. 

She says CEO Russell Stanners supported the programme and this year, the company has taken 10 young people on as apprentices who will be hired as permanent staff. "We have taken a punt and decided we are going to offer them full-time roles but basically mentor them for the first two years. They will get to experience all different parts of our business," says Pickering. "A lot of the schemes that are going at the moment are for six months or nine months, but there is no job at the end of it which for young people is really de-motivating."

She says participants will be required to undergo further education, either an NCEA level two or three or complete a certification in telecommunications in the first two years. After this period, they will decide which part of the business they will be working for permanently and they will continue to get mentoring. 

Pickering has been visiting high schools, talking to students aged 14 or 15 about considering a technology career. "The key to getting young people excited about the technology is giving them a lot of knowledge early enough when they are deciding what they want to do, before they make decisions if they are going to further education. What subjects do they want to think about in high school to set themselves up into technology careers?"

She says this is the reason why for the apprenticeship, Vodafone linked up with two iwi groups and Bright Sparks, which has programmes to get more young people to work into hi-tech industries. They also spoke to some government agencies for the programme which attracted over 250 applications for the 10 positions.

So what does she tell students who are preparing for a career in IT? 

"Considering the rate and pace in which technology is evolving, the best thing you can do is have the basics -- English, maths, sciences. The fundamentals have not changed since I was at school. It is not going to change in 10 years time."

Ruthless prioritisation

As to how she manages a busy schedule with the demands of a family, she says, "I ruthlessly prioritise.

"If I have got personal things on, I book it in my diary so I can do it whether that is going to a school meeting or watching my son play sport. The rest of it is pure prioritisation, you can't do everything."

Technology does enable the flexibility [and] it can be a trap," she adds. "You tend to be working more."

"Experience has shown me that working longer hours doesn't necessarily get better results either. You can work smarter, not longer.

"As an industry we are starting to change our attitude towards that, trusting that when people leave the office to go early for personal commitments, they can still get the job done. They have got access to technologies that will enable them to do that. At the end, performance has to be judged on outcomes." 

Sidebar: Ahead of the game

Vodafone CIO David Moss says the key to IT success is to drive efficiency, as cost is always going to be a problem in every industry. 

"I like to use the word efficiency, rather than cost reduction, because sometimes you can do stupid things when you're just trying to reduce costs. But if you're trying to drive efficiency, then you produce sustainable cost reduction and for me that is really important," says Moss, who stepped up to his current role in late 2012 from general manager of service transformation.

Moss says there are five "imperatives" to his current role, and these apply to every CIO.

Market leadership with speed is first on the list, and in the case of Vodafone, how to do so using technology. 

The second is to provide new initiatives to market. Vodafone has been a great innovator over the last 10 to 15 years, he says, citing Prepay Freebies as an example of a product resonating with the market.

The third ticket is better customer experience. Vodafone is committed to ensuring it adds differentiation in the customer experience, focusing on responding to customers effectively and providing great service, says Moss. 

The fourth area is what he classifies as "a higher level focus" for IT people. 

"There are various times when the business will go through what I call big changes where you're just not incrementally changing, but you need to do big change either to respond to the market place or different environmental conditions." 

The fifth is creating and building a sustainable, high performing team. "Because we work in such a complex environment, communication and trust and skill are things that really make the difference, and it is the people that we have in the teams that make the difference and enable you to do some fantastic things," says Moss.

"We will always be in the position where there are heaps of pressure and heaps of demands but we need to make sure that people are really enjoying themselves and being motivated and feeling empowered to do what they can do."

-- Sim Ahmed

More about: ANZ, Bank of New Zealand, ETSL, Gartner, IBM, NFC, Technology, TelstraClear, Vodafone, Westpac, Westpac
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