“Technology has been there through my life,” says Liz Coulter, director of IT services at the University of Auckland. Her father Alan Coulter, was director of the Prentice Computer Centre and then executive advisor to the ITS director at the University of Queensland (UQ). The elder Coulter also started the AusCert computer emergency response team. “I grew up on Moore’s law.”
Their careers also intersected. When Alan Coulter was an executive advisor at UQ, Liz Coulter was associate director, strategy and policy. Thus, Liz Coulter says one of the things she is proud of is organising the AusCert Conference in 2002. The annual conference started with 375 attendees and now has a regular attendance of 1200.
The elder Coulter retired in December 2009 at the age of 77, but still acts as her “support system”.
“He has seen things come and go,” says Coulter. So when she discusses an ICT issue with him, he will say, “Yeah, I have seen that before.”
When they were working at the University of Queensland, she says they had different views on the policy for Skype. “He gave me a different perspective on how you should look at things.”
Growing up, Liz Coulter had considered a different career path. She wanted to be a teacher, and had trained to be a ballerina, following in the footsteps of her mother.
She attended an all girls’ school that was very much involved in science and had a teacher who was “forward thinking”.
When she was at university, she worked in sales, selling Mac computers. She graduated with a bachelor degree in computer science and maths.
“My father convinced me to move to it, I now have the benefits of everything,” says Coulter, who spoke at a VMware Women in IT forum in Auckland last week.
“I am from generation X,” she says. “This is the first generation to grow up with information technology.” Thus In her presentation, she had a rundown of how computers were in 1967, the year she was born, a plethora of slides showing the young Bill Gates and Steve Jobs (“You can’t have a presentation in IT without these two.”) to brick size mobile phones and punch cards used by 80s era computers.
Like her contemporary ICT executives, Coulter went through a range of jobs on both the technology and customer focus sides of IT.
These jobs ranged from a being programmer in a software house, to working at insurance company Suncorp. At Suncorp, she project managed the first email system and was involved in setting up the company’s first help desk.
She went to the UK for her OE at a “bad time”, during the recession. A friend who worked as an executive assistant at London Health told her to apply for an opening as secretary.
When the IT support person left for a three-month leave, the company couldn’t get a person to replace him, so Coulter filled in. When the support person returned, she moved to a different section, but people were still phoning her for support. She decided it was time to move on.
Her next role was at the pharmaceutical manufacturer MSD where she says she was a ‘jack of all trades’, providing support for a variety of applications.
She had to return to Australia as her mother was sick, and went back to Suncorp. As a contractor, she was let go during a restructuring.
She says at that time she had “all these little bits and pieces” of ICT experience. “I was not focused on anything in particular.”
A friend advised her to take an MBA, which she also completed at the University of Queensland. “All the issues I was facing are similar to other people as well,” she says on the benefits of the degree. “It is just how we deal with them, there is a network of people you can talk and ask.”
She worked at the State Government’s strategy and service management service centre. She says the strategy service programme she developed is still being used today.
She then moved to the “big job” at the University of Queensland, where she was associate director, strategy and policy, information technology services for 12 years.
In her presentation, she shows some statistics from the Australian Computer Society on the gender imbalance in the sector. In 1984, she says, there were 13 women out of 300 in IT courses. In 2010, 24 percent of the ICT workforce in Australia are women but the higher percentage is in nontechnical roles. Women were also paid on average less than their male equivalents.
She says that of her team at the University of Auckland, around 26 percent of women, higher than the Australian figures, but it also mirrors the low numbers of women that are in technical areas. “We are looking at how we might improve on those statistics,” she says, explaining that she had shown Australian figures because she could not find similar statistics for New Zealand.
‘Women when they leave school think IT is all about technology,” she says. “They don’t realise there is service side of it and customer side of it that we can leverage from to make a great career for ourselves.
There are various levels of IT, she says. “There are soft skills that are in demand. I don’t think that message is going out to the girls who are coming out of schools and going to university.”
As for what worked for her ICT career, she says, it is “often taking up the opportunity, seeking what is there, going for it, looking at the advantages and how to embrace those opportunities to go forward.”
She says this was also how she decided on the move to New Zealand. “I wanted to work at the University of Auckland – it is one of the top universities in Australia and New Zealand. If I am going to work in New Zealand, I want a job there.”
She learned about the role during an IT conference where another IT director suggested she apply for the role. "I feel I am in a parallel universe,” she says on describing the similarities between the two universities. “Everyday, something different happens, it is never the same.”
One of her programmes is sending all IT staff to a customer service course. “They all volunteered,” she says, with a smile. “It is part of their performance management.”
She explains the importance of the course. “Customer service is not about the service desk and relationship management area. It is about end to end delivery, we are all responsible for customer service. They all have to work with the customer one way or another.”
She says it is also important to be a good listener and be an advocate for staff. “You need a good team,” she says. “You need to encourage people to come along with you and be a leader but they need believe in what you believe in as well.” Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm, she says. “You can have as much of those but you also need courage, leadership, teamwork.”
Mentoring is important. She says mentoring can come from work, but also from friends and family. It was a friend who advised her to do her MBA and to continue with her dream to come to Auckland. She also gets career advice from her brothers, who are senior executives and her sister, an operations manager.
“I like IT", she says, when asked what keeps her motivated. “Most of all, I like IT and education.”
“I like working in an education facility in a unit that is one of the best in the world. I like being part of research, providing IT to help change the world. They might discover a cure for cancer tomorrow.”
Divina Paredes (@divinap) is editor of CIO New Zealand.
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