A look back at last year's CIO50: #23 Fiona Rankin, University of Wollongong

Fiona Rankin
Fiona Rankin

CIO Australia is running its fifth annual CIO50 where we highlight the achievements of the top 50 senior technology and digital executives who are driving innovation and influencing change across their organisations.

2020 has been a very difficult year for organisations across Australia and around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has put enormous pressure on tech chiefs and their teams to deliver remote working solutions that provide business continuity during a crisis.

Nominate for the 2020 CIO50.

We are taking a look back at last year’s top 23. Today, we profile University of Wollongong's Fiona Rankin, who slotted in at number 23.

Read Fiona's story below.

The University of Wollongong (UOW) is undergoing a major digital transformation across multiple areas of the business.

An important pillar to this is the Health & Wellbeing Strategy (H&WS) that launched the Molecular Horizons Research Facility, which applies data-mining and machine-learning across massive data sets to deliver health analytics and molecular visualisation.

The facility is a ‘world-leading’ molecular life sciences research facility that employs a suite of advanced technology to help researcher solve the world’s biggest challenges including cancer cures and developing new forms of antibiotics.

The UOW IT team led by Fiona Rankin, director of information management and technology services (IMTS), worked closely with the research team to determine the best infrastructure to support two of Australia’s most powerful biological electron microscopes, the Titan Krios Cryogenic Electron Microscopy (Cryo-EM), which had been recently acquired.

Rankin’s team had a big challenge ahead as the sensitivity of the microscopes required extensive analysis of the physical site locations in relation to neighbouring buildings. This included the in-ground services of power and data to ensure electromagnetic interference would not be an issue, as these microscopes needed to be shielded from vibration and mounted on a base that rests in a concrete basin filled with a swimming pool of sand.

The best area was found; however, the site would only be ready in 2020 and the research team needed research work to start immediately.

“The information technology component needed to be flexible, adaptable, transportable, resilient and unquestionably reliable,” Rankin tells CIO Australia.

In 2017, the first CryoEM microscope, the Talos Arctica, was connected to the UOW network.

“This involved providing a high-speed connection to the microscopes and the associated storage and processing equipment, each requiring 10GB/s. Once an image was captured, its analyses required dedicated computation that could only be delivered by specialised High Performance Computing (HPC),” she says.

Another part of the process was to understand UOW data needs and those of all researchers in how data will be collected, shared, published and archived while ensuring its integrity and maintaining the necessary protection and security controls.

Real-time analysis was delivered through the onsite HPC while the ‘heavy lifting’ compute was done from the Monash Research Facility in Melbourne, while local SD-WAN was implemented to support the security and flexibility required.

Rankin has learned that good outcomes are a result of collective effort - she's someone who started out on a sheep station in isolated NSW and is now leading an exciting career in technology.

"Now, with over 25 years’ experience in technology services, I have become passionate about outcomes resulting from the strategic alignment between business and technology," she tells CIO Australia.

"Technology is all about people – whether this be the development or infrastructure teams involved in creating the product, or the consumer of the end solution."

To ensure that implementations happen on time and on budget Rankin has built strong relationships with not only the university's management, but also vendors and industry leaders.

"My objectives are to solidify strong partnerships with key business, academic, research and industry stakeholders," she says. "In establishing these partnerships, it's essential to have a common understanding of requirements, pain-points, motivation and risk tolerance and to ensure accurate, up-to-date information for making informed decisions. The strategy is to create ‘win-win’ scenarios for all involved."

Being the best leader possible.

Rankin says she's learned from both inspirational bosses, who thought about leadership, but also from the worst of them.

"My values compel me to treat others the way I want to be treated myself, and my strategy has been to encourage people to look outside themselves and their job functions and responsibilities. To do this, I need to understand my own strengths and weaknesses, and demonstrate integrity," she says.

Rankin also promotes a "flexible and fun" working environment to support productivity and creativity. That's achieved through the formation of multi-functional, agile teams where teams are structured taking under consideration personality types, skills, strengths and weaknesses.

It's also critical to ensure that the IT team’s contribution is recognised and they are treated as an equal partner with a share in the celebration of success.

Rankin also evaluates and measures the team regularly. Training, conferences and industry investment are offered to staff which are also encouraged to offer mentoring and teaching to disadvantaged groups.

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