Linda Price, a group vice president at Gartner, says the image of information technology as a male domain will change — “fast”.
“As IT moves from strictly technology to a far more business focus; as it moves out of the back office through to the middle office and into the front office, it will actually be more attractive to women,” says Price, head of the analyst firm’s executive programmes in the Asia Pacific.
The “nexus of forces”, Gartner’s term for the confluence of top business technology trends of social media, big data, mobility and the cloud, is playing a big role in this shift.
“With the advent of those four forces, it does mean a lot of traditional IT that has attracted people to this career will now be outsourced and commoditised in the cloud,” she says. “This leaves the very creative aspect of IT for professionals now entering this domain.”
“I think we can get more women into IT because it is no longer about engineering and technology and writing code in some solo environment stuck away in a dungeon. It is about how we capture this potential that is provided by the nexus of forces.”
The nexus of forces is really reshaping the way we do business. “There is no industry that is going to escape it,” she says.
But if women are to capitalise on these opportunities, she says they have to learn something men do instinctively: “Overshoot the boundary.”
She likens this to a game of tennis. “Women instinctively try to play within the guidelines and the rules; a man will go out of bounds and if told ‘no’, you have done the wrong thing, they will think ‘good’, now I know where the boundaries are.
“They are less intimidated by being told to stay in line. Women need to adopt that.”
And she is confident this will happen. “With this generation, that will change.”
In the pages that follow, CIO talks to some of the women IT professionals who are already overshooting the boundary, and representing the diversity of IT organisations today.
Find your niche
Robyn Gillespie is the most senior IT person in New Zealand for Downer Group, and her role is a range of “strategic and technical and on occasion, operational as well.”
“We are responsible for the managing of existing vendors that we have in the mix,” including their outsourcing partner Gen-i,” says Gillespie, whose title is client services manager NZ, for the engineering and infrastructure firm.
She says the upsides dominate the challenges of being a female executive in an industry that is male dominated — both in Downer and IT.
“Being a woman in this role is an advantage because it is all about collaboration,” says Gillespie.
She works with the senior management team to drive business change through the innovative use of IT. She is also responsible for ensuring IT delivers against its performance and financial objectives and plays a key role in conducting strategic and operational planning for IT services.
“For me it is a about relationship, a lot about managing vendors, and managing developing teams,” she says on applying her core skills to her job.
“I have been running large IT outsourcing programmes for a few years,” says Gillespie, who moved to Downer after roles at Unisys and Gen-i. “For me it was just a few steps on the other side of the fence really.”
Her route to IT was via a graduate programme at the University of Canterbury where she completed a BA in psychology and marketing. From three options, she chose the graduate programme of Unisys, being one of seven chosen that year by the technology company from among hundreds of candidates.
She explains her choice. “Those were the early days of the IT industry, I thought it was going to be dynamic, an industry that has got lots of change. And it has lived up to it,” she says, with a laugh.
What followed was a “very intensive one year, loads and loads of training, of moving around our business until we found our niche”.
The experience, she says “has given me a broad base for my career because I can actually see things from different angles”.
She found her niche at the tail end of the programme. She put together a business case for the then Department of Social Welfare around the problems it was facing with benefits fraud. “We devised an IT solution to those business problems, worked with the department and implemented it.”
“That translation between business and IT,” helped launched her career.
So what would advice would she give to a young IT professional?
“Get as much experience as you can in those early years, to see a lot of aspects of how business is put together and how it works. The key thing is define the part of the business that you are really good at and grow that, find your niche.”
Getting a mentor is another. “I would really encourage them to speak to someone midway or in quite a senior role.”
Gillespie says she would like to see more businesses run a graduate programme, similar to the one that gave her the crucial break years ago.
“Let us invest in these graduates, let us really get serious about giving them a broad base of skills because over time, they are the people that are going to take this industry.”
A law degree became the ticket to Jennie Vickers’ foray into enterprise IT.
Vickers is head of Zeopard Law and runs a consultancy working with boards and executives on legal management, project management, and engaging through new technologies like social media. She is on the faculty of the executive education programmes at the University of Auckland’s Graduate School of Management.
Looking back, she realised her immediate family had a big influence in her current role.
Her father worked in the IT department at Plessey in the UK, way back in the late 1970s. She remembers that when her family attended a wedding, her dad brought home bags of punched out holes from the cards — to be used as confetti.
It was her sister, Maria Netley however, who pursued a computer science degree and is now head of electronic futures execution for EMEA, at the Royal Bank of Scotland.
When Vickers went to university, she had an interest in computers and the law but at that there was no course for this area. Her work at the UK law firm Slaughter and May, however, brought her straight into this intersection.
She has the first edition of the first textbook produced on the subject. Her interest, however, was always on the “business delivery angle”.
“It was all about what could computers to do make a difference to the business and then how do you manage the legal issues?”
Later on, she worked on intellectual property issues when she joined EMI Music.
She joined technology company Commshare and worked very closely with “a very aggressive sales team who were classic IT salesmen”.
“My job was to help them get their numbers without letting the company put itself out on a limb,” she says.
She describes her role then and now as “effectively the interface between the person who talks technical IT and the business people.”
Vickers moved to New Zealand in 1997, joining the commercial business legal team at Chapman Tripp. One of her first jobs was working on the float of Sky. She also worked with the people who invented and manufactured the satellite set top boxes. “So I was back in the technology world working with them and we were negotiating with Sky America.”
She remembers a particular meeting with Sky executives when she helped the salesperson explain what were the changes involved in the circuit diagram.
She says she again became the interface between the two groups. “It reminded me that there is such a similarity between the technical IT person and the technical lawyer, and one of the things both groups do really badly is communicating and expressing their technical expertise to business people and non-IT people.”
She says this gap is becoming more apparent again in the governance arena, where CIOs need to talk to boards about technology issues and social media.
This entails translating “very high technical information into business context in a business conversation.”
Now is the perfect time to see ICT as a career, says Vickers. She says a good background would be a combination of English, communications, writing and arts and even mathematics. With these, “You effectively develop all of your brain skills. If you have an all around functioning brain, you can do anything.”
Master of the game
Being mistaken for a ‘booth babe’ by a male attendee in a global gaming conference highlighted to Maru Nihoniho about the reality of underrepresentation of women in the technology sector.
This happened the first time she attended Electronic Expo or E3, a major conference for the gaming industry. She was there to pitch a prototype for a game when one of the attendees asked her whether she was a marketing person. She says he wanted to know whether she was one of the women who were hired to be the frontline staff in the booths.
“No, she replied, “I am actually the managing director.”
Nihoniho formed Metia Interactive (Metia is Maori for ‘go out there and do it’) more than four years ago. The company is currently licensed to develop for PlayStation Portable and PlayStation 3, the Xbox and Apple iPhone, and also works on “serious” games for the education and health sectors.
What drew her to this was an interest in computer games at a young age. She used to accompany her aunt to the takeaway shop to play in the game machines. “From a very young age, I was thinking how do they make these games? How do they make this so fun?’
“So when I combined my interest in games with my interest in the arts and technology it just seemed at that point in time that was what I was going to do. I will start a games production company.”
The problem was she had no training at all in games production, but she had management skills from her previous work in hospitality and retail.
She spent two years attending conferences, seminars and enrolled in a multimedia course to learn about games from both technical and creative sides. “It was a very steep learning curve,” she admits. “My strengths were management skills and being creative. I just really had to learn how to merge them together into an IT business and create computer games.”
“Initially I didn’t think there was such a big gap between male and female game players or developers until I got into the industry myself,” she says.
“As I attended conferences I noticed I was only one of very few women there.”
When you look at statistics, it is mainly women who buy games for their children, their husband or their boyfriend, she says. “Yet games aren’t targeted towards women themselves. Women do play games as much as men do. They may not be the same types of games, they may be games like Vigil or Farmville or even World of Warcraft, but they do play games.”
She says social networks and the development platform for the cloud could mean more women working in this area. She is confident as well in the growth prospects of the sector. “Games will be used much more in the near future as business tools because the platform is very engaging, very interactive. It is another platform to learn.”
She gives back to the sector by keeping her communication lines open.
“I have a policy that if somebody wants to talk to me about game development or how to get into the industry, they can just call me. I am free to meet, I have always done that.”
Technical to strategic
Amanda White, ICT manager at Marlborough Lines for over eight years, says she came into IT with a “really technical, from the ground up” background.
White grew up in Feilding, Palmerston North, and had done some computer related work at the Lynton Base. One of her early jobs included teaching computer literacy to prison inmates in Wellington.
From here she moved to the New Zealand Air Force as an IT technician and got promoted to IT assistant administrator.
Her elder brother was into IT, and both of them were into computers at a young age. He suggested that she do a course on information technology.
She found she enjoyed the subject and started to achieve industry certifications from vendors such as Microsoft. “That really was the key in getting my first job, having those Microsoft certifications.”
“When I am employing somebody I do look for industry certifications because I know they can do the work. Whereas, if you have got experience and industry certifications, that is a great combination.”
She says that even without work experience, a certification will be useful in getting your first help desk job.
White and another staff member comprise the whole IT team at Marlborough Lines, and they support 200 users. Until just over two years ago, she used to be the sole IT person, “I had to do everything pretty much, CIO all the way to help desk,” she says.
But after a discussion with management, another staff member was hired and they worked with contractors for IT operations. This allowed her more time to take a more strategic focus on her role, “looking at where the business wants to go, how IT can support and enable that to achieve goals”.
She is working on her masters of business administration at Massey University, and expects to graduate this year.
Her thesis is on the implications for small to medium enterprises moving to the public cloud.
She is zeroing in on the experiences of five companies in New Zealand from across industries and from there produce a table on the pros and cons of moving to a public cloud.
She says she hopes to help small business owners “focus on their core competency of whatever they are doing, and not IT.”
“Often, they just get a vendor’ point of view which is all positive,” she says. “I am trying to bring a really unbiased view so they will be making an informed decision without having that technical knowledge.”
Falling into IT
Runi Nielsen-Candido, business specialist on mobility and end user computing at VMware ANZ, says she “fell into technology” as her background is in human resources. She worked at a shipping company right after completing a diploma in business in her native Norway, and then she moved to an oil company. She put her hand up to help establish the latter’s company in Africa. When that deal fell through due to a military coup, a friend told her about an opening with IBM.
During a posting at IBM’s headquarters in New York, she met her husband and they moved to his native Australia to raise a family. She opted for voluntary redundancy at IBM when she was seven months pregnant with her twins, now aged 20. The package offered was “financially attractive” and allowed her to take time off for three years and took care of her three children.
When she went back to work, she helped build a software division for a company that was eventually acquired by Telstra in Australia. Working there for three years, she wanted a bit of a change, and moved to a business partner of Avaya.
Again, she met with some friends in the industry who told her about an opening at a “fairly new area” at VMware. The job involved working with IT departments of their customers on the company’s end user computing portfolio.
“Never let an opportunity pass by,” she says is a key career advice. “Do not be afraid of failing because we sometimes learn a bit more from failing.”
In her case it was turning down a three-year contract to work in London when she was with the shipping company. “I didn’t really realise what an opportunity they gave me,” she says. That experience prompted her to make sure she will never regret any decision she will make. “When I get an opportunity, I will not be fearful if it doesn’t work out.”
It takes a community
“The face of technology has changed for the better,” says Sonal Patel, senior national partner manager at VMware. “If you see the evolution for the past three or four years, technology has made it inviting to women to either look at a career.”
“International global companies have made the idea of IT more appealing for a woman to be part of,” she says, exemplified by the likes of CEOs Ginni Rometty at IBM.
She also points out other high profile women in ICT like the CTO of Cisco, Padmasree Warrior, who has been recognised as one of the most powerful women in business.
Another person she admires and whose life she tracks is Madeleine Albright, who was the US Secretary of State during the term of President Bill Clinton, and the first woman to hold that post in the US government. She says Albright is now mentoring other women leaders, and supportive of bringing more women into technology.
Patel has been working in IT since 1989. But as she progressed through the industry, she witnessed first hand the shortage of women talent as technology expands across the globe.
The seeds for Women of Purpose – which she founded and now heads at VMware - were planted when she was a panellist at a Women in Action Network organised by Cisco.
This Cisco programme has been running for more than 10 years, and she walked away from that event thinking that she can do it in VMware. What she found interesting in the Cisco event was that the audience was diverse, with both men and women. The panellists, however, were women executives from major Wall Street companies like Bank of America as well as technology companies.
She sees the rise of new technologies opening more venues for women to go into IT. The cloud, for instance, requires collaboration and is not a singular type of technology. “It is a parallel technology, and collaboration is something that women can do really, really well. There is natural fit for what are our core strengths and assets.”
She advocates “making a difference” even with a traditional job. It could be through joining a community. She says Women of Purpose was created to build such a community. “Once you are part of a community you expand your sphere of influence, you expand your sphere of network, you meet people that would never be in your normal path.”
Rhody Burton, manager, ANZ channels at VMware, has also been supporting the push for diverse IT teams. She is head of VMware’s Diversity Council for Australia and New Zealand for the past three years.
She says the first year was spent focusing on developing and retaining people within VMware. Today, the council organises forums for women IT professionals, and in schools to talk to younger female students about working in IT even before they choose their electives. “We just definitely want to start younger and try to attract those girls to make those choices to come into our industry.”
She finds it ironic that women are using technology more than ever before, but the number of women actually coming into the industry is declining.
“The younger generation quite often may not realise when they are using social media, they are using collaboration. When they are using all of these online tools, they are not necessarily relating that into the industry being a great place to work. They are just seeing the technology is in their fingertips and not necessarily making the connection.”
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