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Trailblazer

Trailblazer

In Kosovo, Commander Corina Bruce coordinated the information requirements for the UN teams across the region. It is just one of the varied ICT leadership posts held by Bruce, a software engineer and guided weapons specialist, in her two decades with the New Zealand Defence Force.

Commander Corina Bruce has chalked up a number of firsts in a distinguished 20-year career in the military. She was the first female uniformed officer to go to sea in a warship; the first software engineer to transfer to a purely engineering role; and the first woman in the Navy to come back to work part-time in uniform after taking four years off to have children.

“I was bit of a trailblazer,” she says.

For Bruce, a recent highlight was skiing the mountains of Kosovo, where she has just spent seven months seconded to the United Nations’ mission.

When the 1984 Winter Olympics were held in then peaceful Sarajevo, the nearby mountains weren’t regarded as steep enough for the downhill racing, so the ski-fields at Kosovo were used. There were nine chair lifts built for the events. Today, she recalls, you would be lucky to find one functional chair lift in the war-torn area.

“Even then you have to make sure the wooden planks aren’t rotten. And there’s always the possibility of getting stuck because of power cuts through rationing. It’s an eye-opener of a post-war ski field.”

Bruce was posted to Kosovo in December 2006 as military liaison officer for the United Nations. It was more of a communications role rather than in her specialist IT area. She was working in the head office there coordinating information for seven teams in the region, synthesising that information and forwarding it to either the United Nations in New York or to the head of the mission.

“We also provided military advice and information to some of the non-government organisations operating in the theatre, and we liaised with the Nato forces,” she says.

“It wasn’t an IT job, but about an understanding of information management.”

The United Nations’ mission began there in 1999 and New Zealand has always contributed one person. Normally, there is a convention that military people volunteer for peace-keeping missions, but Bruce was offered the job by the chief of Navy.

There are 38 positions in the military liaison group, encompassing 26 countries. That in itself raised some interesting issues because not all of the members spoke English. Bruce says she made an effort to try to get out into the field and spend face-to-face time with the seven teams.

There are about 400 personnel in the United Nations Kosovo mission, supporting 16,000 Nato troops. The mission is downsizing in preparation for a Security Council ruling on final status. This was meant to happen for the past four years, but is expected to take place this year. The European Union will then take over responsibility for the area.

Bruce returned to New Zealand in June to take up her new role as commander, posting and training (technical) with the New Zealand Defence Force at Devonport.

Canterbury born, Bruce completed a BSc in computer science early in the 1980s at Canterbury University. She joined the Navy as branch list officer — a sub-lieutenant — in 1983. Being on the branch list meant she was a specialist, in her case employed as a software engineer.

Her early work was with the Directorate Naval Operational Data Systems (DNODS), which looked after any on-board operational systems, such as navigation and weaponry. It was predominantly an on-shore job, because software is definitely not changed at sea.

Back then, the Navy had four frigates and some patrol craft.

“My forte was guided weapons,” Bruce says. Control systems then were made up of embedded micro-processors, all written in assembler.

Bruce, who was based in Wellington, became a team leader, specialising in gunnery analysis.

The Navy was the first of the armed services to have a software engineering team. There was a political reason at that time to be based in Wellington, so the group, as Bruce puts it, wasn’t gobbled up by the administrative group.

Latterly, the move was made to Auckland. Bruce took four years out to have a family — two girls.

“The dawning of the digital age was a period of interesting growth for the Navy,” she says. “It gave us the chance to get into embedded systems, rather than analogue control systems. I learnt a lot.

“Our organisation was well established when we moved to Auckland. That got us closer to the ships. The systems we were then acquiring meant hardware and software were so much closer. It was very much more of a systems approach.”

When she returned to the Navy — part-time, three days a week — she spent a couple of years working again with weapons systems, because the staff she had previously trained had all left.

DNODS had become FOSSA – Fleet Operational Software Systems Authority, which she headed.

“We then amalgamated software engineering out from the branch list to the general list, as general engineering,” she says. “By then, I was doing less hands-on programming and more interaction with vendors, as the informed advisor between them and the Navy.”

Bruce had spent three years as a sub-lieutenant. She was promoted to lieutenant (a minimum eight years is spent at this rank), then to lieutenant commander.

When software engineering moved to the general list, it was decided that Bruce should learn more about general engineering.

For a period, she ran the weapons engineering school, with 20 staff and up to 120 students. The school teaches to the equivalent level of a trade certification.

Bruce, as a general engineer, worked as project officer in the fleet repair unit, doing ship maintenance, including the half-life refurbishment of the naval tanker. That meant learning about such things as steel plating for ships.

“I was then posted to Wellington in 2003 as DNIS (director of naval information systems).” That is the naval equivalent of a CIO. The same year she was promoted to full commander.

At the end of 2004, she moved to the CIS (communications and information systems) branch for the Defence Force, working under chief information officer Ron Hooton, and who is now chief executive of ProCare Health. “I was running the programs desk.”

CIS has an overview of all the armed services. It runs the overall networks and all the applications on top of those. The individual services have their own niche operations.

Next stop: Kosovo

Bruce’s next posting was to Kosovo where, incidentally, she was the only military female officer. “My general was very pleased as the United Nations has an equal opportunity policy.”

She says the United Nations knew it needed some niche IT tools, but had no specific budget for that. When the Kosovo mission was set up, it was quite flush with money, so the United Nations used some of that budget to create its first applications development cell — in Kosovo. Its Galaxy application, which manages all UN human resource records and is a portal for people to apply for UN jobs, was built by a Ukrainian IT team in Kosovo.

Bruce has usually worked at an operational level in what is a reasonably male-dominated environment. “It’s been no problem at all,” she says. “If you do your job, you’ve got their respect and support. Most of the people forget about gender issues.” The same applied when she was at sea, apart from some logistical issues such as toilet facilities.

“It’s kind of nice being the only girl,” she says.

She wasn’t the only female when she worked at CIS, which has predominantly civilian employees. “There was a higher number of women. I’m not used to that many females in the room.” Throughout her 20 years service, she says she hasn’t felt the need for a role model. “I’ve done it pretty much myself. However, with Defence there are great examples of leadership. There has also been a lot of variety. I’ve met some great people.” Kosovo wasn’t her only overseas venture. While she was in CIS, she did the multinational coordination for the five nations — New Zealand, Australia, the UK, the US and Canada. “I spent half my time living out of a suitcase.” The five nations is a coalition that exists mainly to develop interoperability and standards between its individual members’ military forces.

In her current role, she is competing for technical skills. “One of the hardest things in this job now is the global market for talent. Anyone with a technical skill set is in global demand. We tend to develop those skills internally.”

Bruce currently lives on the Devonport base, though she and her husband have a farm near Te Akau at the northern head of Raglan harbour. Her husband also runs a surf shop.

“We’re into water sports,” she says. “But my biggest passions are still skiing and snow boarding.”

Bruce turns 47 in April. She’s contracted till 2010, but her papers go to the extension board this month.

“When I took the four years off to have children, my husband and I referred to it as my retirement apprenticeship.” Subject to that extension, she has no plans to retire again in the near future.

© Fairfax Business Media

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Tags leadershipNZ DefenceCorina Brucewomen in technology

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