by Rebecca Merrett

5 women who’ve made it in IT

Mar 07, 201418 mins

Ahead of International Women’s Day, CIO Australia speaks to five women, who have made their mark in IT, about their career journey, their biggest achievements, and their advice for other women in the industry.

Susan Sly, CIO at AEMO; Vic ICT for Women board member; 2013 CIO of the Year award winner

How did you get to where you are today?

I worked in a public relations role at one stage and also in a human resource management role. I think the diversity of the roles I’ve had — the last 13 of which have been within the IT industry — have been a huge benefit to me in working in a CIO role now.

My foundation in IT was in the military, which gave me a great platform on which to build from the leadership perspective. The greatest reward in my career has been helping people overcome obstacles to realise potential.

When I was working with Defence, I was working with a team who did not necessarily have the best reputation. Their level of performance certainly was not among the highest nationally. My first couple of weeks with them included us having to manage some fairly severe IT outages and incidents that demonstrated we had some poor practices and poor technology in place.

Within six months, we ran a program where we had managers stepping up, we did some changes around our structure, and we engaged some vendors so that we were working with them, not against them. Within those six months, they went to being the top performing region in Australia and a number of the staff were actually head hunted by the national organisation to move into roles within it.

Have you ever found it difficult to keep going ahead in your career?

Certainly making the transition some 16 years ago to when I first became a parent was a bit of a difficult stage in my career. I was very fortunate to have worked for a great manager then who taught me how to actually manage a career successfully with work-life balance and making it sustainable.

A trend that we see, and it’s more prevalent in women, is that when people take career breaks they tend to return on a basis that they don’t have an entitlement to capability development. My view is we need to be making time for them to develop in their profession. We’ve got to really actively encourage people to focus on their own development, both technically and as managers/leaders. I think until we do that actively, rather than passively, we will still continue to struggle with diversity.

Why is it so important to encourage more women to pursue a career in IT, and what needs to change?

Our history is generally male dominated, our present is still male dominated. It is an industry that is meant to be providing services to every part of the community, in every part of business, and services that are client driven and intuitive to use. My firm belief is in order to do that you have to reflect diversity in your workforce, and we don’t at present.

If we had a great suite of diversity across the industry, we would be able to better target and develop the services we need to. So women need to be very conscious about having a place at the table. They also need to hook into good mentors in the industry.

Maggie Alexander, founder of FITT and MM Consulting Services; 2013 NSW ICT Woman of the Year award winner

How did you get to where you are today?

I started out as a teacher. I got an opportunity in 1980 to work on a big project at TAFE NSW, which was deploying computers into education and also into the administration of TAFE. This was a multi-million dollar project, and I helped develop the strategy for training people to use the computers. It gave me my start in IT.

After TAFE, I worked as chief development officer – information research for the Advanced Technology Centre at the NSW Department of Industrial Development and Decentralisation. We promoted the use of computerised technology to try to make the manufacturing sector a bit more competitive. That was a really great time for me because I was a computer industry advisor for the department.

One day when I was accompanying the Minister for Technology at a lunch, I met a chap who was working for Digital Equipment Corporation, him being the managing director. He asked me, “What’s a talented woman like you working for the government?” And he recruited me to go work for a computer company.

After my time at Digital Equipment Corporation, I went to work for Deloitte. I didn’t really like it that much. It was one of those career decisions where I said to myself ‘I don’t think I like this, but I like consulting’. So I set up my own consulting business, and that’s what the next period of my career was about. I left the corporate world as an employee, and became my own master of my destiny and started up my own consulting business 18 years ago.

My 23 years working on the management of FITT was a great achievement. Helping to start FITT up in 1989 was a bit of a turning point for me because I had focused completely on myself and my career up until that point in time. When I volunteered to help start up FITT, I started to think for the first time about other people, other women in the industry.

What do you enjoy most about working in IT?

I enjoy the diversity in my role. I have the ability to work across three dimensions – people, process and technology. As a change manager, I look not only at the change in technology but also the change in the people and process. That basically gives me good balance, because I’m not skewed totally towards the IT side, or even the process side, so I get the ability to look at the whole.

I’ve got to be able to manage the change, project, people, technology, and also the analysis of the problem within an organisation at a strategic and a technical level, look at the process and the process design. In my kind of consulting role, I have to be multi-skilled, and that gives me great opportunities and it gives me variety — I’m never bored.

Why is it so important to encourage more women to pursue a career in IT, and what needs to change?

If you look back on the industry when it first started up, 50 per cent of the working population in the IT industry were women. That dropped by the time I entered the industry in 1980 to 25 per cent. Nowadays, I think the industry is down to about 18 per cent.

This matters because women bring a range of skills to the workplace. The ICT industry is fast moving; technology drives change all the time. Without diversity in thinking and a diverse range of skills, we won’t be able to take advantage of the changes in technology.

The industry does provide a really great career for women because it is much more flexible than other industries. So you can work from home more. Most of the big companies now have got a good attitude towards work-life balance and flexibility. And FITT did play a part in that. We really did push work-life balance as an issue for women in the industry, and employers in the industry took notice and certainly have taken that up to ensure women have more flexible working conditions.

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Photo by Peter Harrison, Flickr, CC Licence

Pia Waugh, director of co-ordination and Gov 2.0, Department of Finance and Deregulation; 2013 Government 2.0 Innovator award winner

How did you get to where you are today?

As I got into Linux and open source, it opened up a whole different way I look at IT. I used to think tech was just what you use to do stuff, and then suddenly I realised it underpins society in a whole bunch of ways. It’s a technology that you use to find the opportunities available to you and the people that you can connect with, and the way that you live your life. So it became quite profound to me being involved in the open source community.

GovHack is one of the things I’m most proud of, as well as what I’ve been able to do for Linux Australia to get the open source momentum going. Those are things that I’ve done in my spare time, and this is where you get that strange nexus between work and play and how the two can blend with each other if you are really passionate about what you do.

I’m also really proud of developing the [Digital Culture] Public Sphere consultation when I was working for the minister, which is a way of governments being able to do public policy consultation online.

More recently, I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to do with open data in federal government. I have played a very significant part in getting back up and running, getting thousands of new data sets available, getting lots of agencies focused on this space. I’m very proud of what I’ve been able to for the open data and open government movement in Australia more broadly.

Have you ever found it difficult to keep going ahead in your career?

There have been a very small number of times where I’ve had a run in with someone who has seen my gender as an inhibitor, and I refused to let that one person ruin my career and what I enjoy.

I’ve always taken the approach that the best thing you can do is be the most awesome version of yourself. Don’t go into a career to try to address gender balance, go into it for your own reasons. What’s happening now is more and more women are going into IT because is it a fun and exciting career. A lot of people take the approach of ‘you should go into IT because we don’t have enough women’, which is not at all an enticing reason to do something.

Go out and volunteer for projects, and whenever you find someone who inspires you stay in touch with them. Create a network of people who inspire you, challenge you and help you to move up.

Most of all just do what you love, because when you love what you do, you tend to do it in a really amazing way. You tend to go above and beyond the 9 to 5 mentality.

Why is it so important to encourage more women to pursue a career in IT, and what needs to change?

Gender balance gives you balance in perspectives. If you have all men or all women, you tend to lose a diversity of perspectives which is important for making good products, for responding to the broader community and market needs, and for getting challenging ideas happening.

The industry needs to inform education a lot more about what it needs, because a lot of the degrees at university and a lot of the stuff that’s taught in schools is sometimes five, 10, even 20 years out of date. Looking at Web 2.0 tools is really vital. Getting kids involved in open source projects not only gives them skill development and the opportunity to learn from highly skilled developers out there in the world, but it also gives them the opportunity to create a portfolio.

The most compelling thing when going into a job is being able to show what you can do. In the IT sector, the best way that you can make a name for yourself is just by doing good stuff. So it’s about giving kids the opportunity and the encouragement to make stuff. Some of the hacking competitions are wonderful for that. We get lots of schools participating in GovHack now, and we have lots of different hacking competitions and game development competitions.

Everyone seems to be focusing on high school, but primary school is where we need to start. There’s a Steiner school in north-west Sydney that introduced technology at all levels, and they’ve had amazing results in getting a lot of girls engaged in technology to the point where most of their IT services are run by the students.

Rhody Burton, SAP head of Channels business for A/NZ; ARN Women in IT ‘Rising Star’ award winner

How did you get to where you are today?

I literally fell into IT. I was working in London in my very early 20s just temping and I happened to get asked what temp job I wanted next, one of them being in IT. The other was what was described as a toothpaste company which sounded incredibly boring, so I chose IT.

Back in the mid-1990s, my partner and I at the time were travelling around Europe in a kombi van. Literally the way we would communicate with people at home was to find a fancy hotel that we couldn’t afford to stay in, we would pay them a British pound, and we would use the fax machine to fax one letter back to my boyfriend’s Dad who would then ring everyone and read out this letter.

So suddenly I was working for this company that had the Internet, had email and I was just exposed to the possibility of where technology could take you. I just got hooked. From there it was just this love of technology and the dynamic people in the industry.

Have you ever found it difficult to keep going ahead in your career

Yeah, definitely. Very early on in my career, I found it difficult to have a voice, be heard and to put my hand up. Early on in my career I wondered if I was able to get ahead. But I was very fortunate to have some great mentors along the way.

If I think back to the most difficult time for me, it was probably during the period after having my kids. That period of coming back from maternity leave and then finding myself pregnant again — just seeing how the business at that stage reacted to that with regards to job security — was really, really challenging for me.

Building a network is just so incredibly important. I was at a ‘women in IT’ event a couple of years ago and for the first time heard about ‘imposter syndrome’, and it really resonated with me. I know I and a lot of other women in the industry sometimes wonder or wait for someone to tap us on the shoulder and say “hey, how did you get this job and what are you doing here?”

So I built a really strong network of amazing women across the industry who I have either worked with or met through organisations such as FITT. For me, it’s been one of the things that has enabled me to be honest with how I’m feeling and build up my confidence.

Also, make sure that you are consciously making decisions to make an effort and to reach out and help others because, in my experience, in turns around and comes back to you in absolute spades.

Why is it so important to encourage more women to pursue a career in IT, and what needs to change?

It is absolutely known that companies that have a diverse workforce actually return more profit to shareholders, as they have more innovative ideas. It’s not just about increasing the number of women in your organisation; there are some real business benefits to it.

I also think not just focusing on the tech roles is important. I’m not in a technical role. Girls don’t necessarily think about doing marketing, for example, in IT. They don’t necessarily make the linkages and think about IT as being a viable industry to work in.

At SAP, one of things I was incredibly excited about and have pushed out to my kid’s school is a Young ICT Explorers competition. It’s annual competition, and it starts in Year 3 and it goes all the way up to Year 12. It actually encourages the youth to apply various ICT technology to practical challenges.

It’s not just about what program you create or the technical aspect of it. The kids that win these awards need to think about how they would market it, articulate the sales pitch, and why this technology that they’ve created should win the competition. Some of the kids did language learning apps and sensor controlled robots. The talent is staggering.

I think the sad thing, from what I’ve observed, is in Years 3-6 the gender mix is pretty balanced. As we start to hit high school we see the percentage of girl participants start to decline, and by the time we get to Year 12 the numbers really don’t look that great. I know other tech companies do similar programs, but I think it’s about how we as an industry forge together and help promote what each other is doing more and tackle this issue because it’s an industry-wide issue.

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Yvette Adams, founder of The Creative Collective; 2013 ICT Woman of the Year award winner

How did you get to where you are today?

I didn’t go to university; I just worked for the New Zealand government straight out of school in a communications role. Then I went to the UK, London and worked in mainly PR/marketing and media roles.

I came to Australia in 2004, worked for a couple companies and started The Creative Collective. It became a fully cloud-based business. I started hiring people, and in 2011 we moved out of being a home based business into a commercial warehouse I bought. Today, we’re a team of five staff, 30 contractors and five trainers. I actually split the business in to two as of 1 January 2014, into services and training divisions.

I fell into IT and I kind of straddle in two industries because I have one foot in the creative industry and one foot firmly in IT.

What do you enjoy most about working in IT?

I love that I do have a life. I’m not one of these business owners who can never catch a break. A great incentive is that you can work from anywhere through online or cloud-based systems. That gives me a balanced lifestyle, and I think a lot of women who have growing families deserve and need that.

I also love that it’s always changing. I am one of those people who gets bored pretty easily, so because it’s ever-changing it suits me to a T.

Why is it so important to encourage more women to pursue a career in IT, and what needs to change?

Women are completely different creatures and we approach everything differently. I’m not particularly technical; I know a little bit of code but not a lot. But you can get people around you who do know and create amazing things. I would love to see more women understand that concept and put themselves out there and see what they might be able to create because they may have the ideas, they just need the people to help them do it.

Women are their own worst enemies. A lot of women need encouragement and they quite possibly won’t put themselves out there. Whether it’s female or male colleagues, family or friends, we need to encourage a supportive environment where we encourage women to stick their hand up and go for those roles and have a go. We’re more than capable, but like I said we are just our own worst enemies.

I think a lot of women are intimidated by IT. They think you have to be highly intelligent and that it’s highly technical, and perhaps they think it might be a bit boring. But it actually involves a lot of creativity, problem solving, multitasking.

Also, kids need to learn code and technology skills like they do maths and literacy. I never used algebra or calculus. I don’t know why I learnt them at school. It would have been useful for me to have learnt how to code. Some do argue that you do need algebra or calculus for certain careers. But I argue back that coding would give you more options than algebra or calculus would.

The views in this article are those of the individuals quoted, not necessarily the organisation to which they are affiliated.