Stepping forward

Women in top ICT roles share their views on workplace diversity.

Tanya Harris was head of human resources at the Reserve Bank of New Zealand in Wellington when she made a lateral career move.

"I knew it would be easy for me to work in human resources for the rest of my working career, but in some ways that sense of comfort and confidence and ease was something I wanted to really challenge," says Harris, who had worked in human resources at the Treasury for 10 years prior to the Reserve Bank.

Nearly three years ago, after giving the idea "a lot of thought", she applied for an opening at the bank -- as chief information officer and head of the knowledge services group.

Now, in hindsight, Harris says the melding of HR and ICT skills "works pretty well".

"It is about leadership, it is about good culture, it is about developing a really good team of people," she says. "The skills I have from my HR background in terms of developing a strong culture and looking at just providing great services to the bank -- they just happen to be IT."

Going into ICT via HR is not the standard CIO career path. She says what worked for her in taking on the CIO role was a combination of a number of things. "First of all, it is about having personal credibility with other people."

She is a member of the bank's senior management team. "Having that direct contact with my senior manager colleagues is so important," says Harris, who was the only woman in the senior management team for her first five-and-a-half years at the Bank.

As well she ticks off some of the imperatives an effective CIO must possess; "developing strong relationships with the business, understanding what the business requirements are, being prepared to take responsibility and deliver, providing good services that meet their requirements."

As CIO she needs to set the strategic direction for IT and information management at the bank, and these include the provision of core technology infrastructure, business analysis and applications, help desk and web support, information and records management, business continuity coordination and programme management services.

Building a strong service culture

As CIO she sees the need for her team to be customer focused and this is what she has set about developing with her team, which comprises one of the biggest groups in the bank. "We focus on being here and looking at [what] the key business drivers are. We get out there; talking to the departments we work with finding out what the business is doing and what they need in the future, and then design IT products and services that meet those needs and requirements.

"We want to be out there finding out and understanding what the business requires. Acting as advisers and developing those relationships so they come to us early on [and ask]; 'We have new business requirements, how can you help us'?

"There is a strong service culture we are creating here," she says. "We need to provide services to fit customer needs. It is no good for us creating an elegant IT product that end users can't use."

Harris cites two "points of difference" in her CIO role at the bank -- being in charge of the knowledge centre (library, research and information services) and the programme management office.

The knowledge centre function is not always under the CIO in other organisations, she explains. "I enjoy having that extra piece of responsibility. I am really interested in information management. That is what this is all about -- getting the right information to staff -- it is the sort of information management focus which I think a full CIO role should include."

While the programme management office is not necessarily a core role for many CIOs, she says this set-up works for her team because most of the projects in the bank have a technology focus. "I need to understand any project, any piece of technology when I want to put a business case," she says. "It is taking the technical piece out of the technology and understanding why it is good for the business and why we should spend that money."

Mentors and networks She found it a little overwhelming when she first took on the role. "There was so much I needed to learn, so I set good reporting structures for the department. I have a good sense of what we were doing and I read a lot. I have learned so much more in two-and-a-half years, which I never would have if I had stayed in HR."

Harris also sought advice from two mentors outside the bank who were experienced ICT professionals. She belongs to an informal network of women in ICT, whose members come from both public and private organisations, and from both the user and vendor communities. The group meets when someone needs to discuss an issue, with the understanding that the conversations are for background only.

"We trust each other so you can have free, open, honest conversations," says Harris. "That has been really useful. There are few women in this industry and so I think it is [important] just developing those professional relationships."

For the past four years, she says, the bank has been updating its core infrastructure. "My focus in the next year is the consolidation of that work, continuing to modernise, but also make the most of those technologies we have got and look at where we can be innovative with new technology. We are doing a lot of work around SharePoint at the moment and we are looking to open a small satellite office in Auckland, so we are looking at what technology we will need for that."

Her team is also doing a lot of work around web services and service-oriented architecture. Cloud computing is not on the priority list.

"We need to have an incredibly secure environment. So over time I think probably for some of the less sensitive information we would look at the cloud, but our very secure information would remain in-house."

Within the professional environments of ICT and in finance and economics, there is a high percentage of males. More women are coming through now due to the bank's graduate programme, where an equal number of women and men are recruited.

She has talked to some women graduates and they said they liked working there, "but occasionally, you look up and look across the whole department and you may just be one of a couple of women."

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Harris is confident this will change. "It is a time issue, it is not an organisational issue. We have got to make sure we are encouraging young women to be as interested in this profession, as much as guys are."

For her part, she says she is interested on presenting to students about having a career in ICT and to also become a mentor.

At the same time, Harris stresses it is important to set aside time for oneself outside work. "Otherwise, the job is 24x7," she says. "We run the payments system which is on behalf of the banking sector. We have got something like $40 billion going through that system every day. That tends to keep me quite focused and awake at night."

Harris is a keen scuba diver and travels throughout the Pacific for diving experiences. "It is a great way to forget about work," she says, having just returned from a scuba diving holiday in the Philippines. "Scuba diving is just gorgeous. I need to take that time out and have those breaks."n

Standout strategies Jackie Korhonen says some people are surprised the first time they meet her. "A lot of people are expecting someone with an Indian background," says Korhonen, the chief executive Australia and New Zealand for outsourcing company Infosys.

She says being someone "not what they immediately expect" works for Infosys, as the company would be seen as having staff of different backgrounds and "would get a fair go and a good career opportunity".

"People may not be aware that part of my role is to make people see that Infosys is a company that will welcome people from a very diverse set of backgrounds and cultures," says Korhonen, who joined the IT services company last year.

Korhonen highlights the issue of attracting talent, as she says this is one challenge CIOs in New Zealand and overseas will face once the market picks up and budgets are approved for "transformation initiatives".

This situation, she says, will lead enterprises to ask questions such as; "What programmes do I need in place in my company to attract women? Is there anything special I need to do so they will put up their hand to work in my organisation?"

For Korhonen, the diversity programme involves recruiting from half of the population, women, and people from various ethnic backgrounds and personal situations.

Korhonen says Infosys has just launched a scholarship with Monash University in Australia to sponsor indigenous students who are doing IT studies. The company will also provide them with work experience. She also talks to industry groups like Women in ICT in Victoria, and to students on having a career in ICT.

Korhonen, who has been working in ICT for some 25 years, is a suitable speaker for such forums. At the University of Sydney, where she completed a dual science and chemical engineering degree, she recalls being one of just a handful of females in class. After graduation she joined IBM.

She has worked in global sourcing for IBM across the Asia Pacific. From 1985 to 2008, she lived in Australia, Singapore and China working on "huge, multi-billion dollar mega-deals that carried significant risk". This stint gave her the best possible preparation for her current role, she says.

She recalls being involved in very large deal making opportunities. "They were called megadeals and they are very binary. You win big or you lose big," says Korhonen. "Those engagements last a year or more. They were very absorbing when you don't win. It is quite a setback for you at the time," she says.

"Personally it helps to become a bit more resilient. Over anyone's career there are good things and setbacks that happen. The people who have long lasting careers are the ones who can take those setbacks, learn from them, and keep going and not let them become absorbed by the disappointment."

This resiliency can be traced to her background as a professional tennis player in her teens. "Sport teaches good lessons that are relevant in other parts of your life," says Korhonen who competed in the European circuit.

Two strategies helped her rise through the ranks.

The first, she says, was to put in the hard yards into any role she took on, and second is she asked to work in a business area that the company has targeted for growth.

"You have to be committed to whatever role you have at the time. You have to be the sort person who will be prepared to accept setbacks and keep going."

Another insight she gives that worked for her as she forged a career in the ICT supplier and vendor side, is putting yourself into the strategic areas of the business, a new business area or one targeted for growth. "That is where the investment will come, where you will get noticed by the CEO and where they will put the business in the future."

"You have to position yourself at the forefront of where your company wants to go," says Korhonen. "This opportunity lies maybe in assignments overseas, in different cultures.

"The industry is increasingly becoming global and I think an individual's ability to work cross culturally and to be able to pick up ways of doing business in different countries, and understand some of the nuances of that culture, is an important skill."

Working in a global organisation is also useful as she has an international network of colleagues. They share what is happening in their marketplace and emerging trends. "They give me different perspectives on where the industry is going."

Those who are developing a career in ICT should expect a lot of changes, she says. "If anything, the rate of change is going to accelerate... Many of the jobs that will need to be done 10 years from now don't even exist today. Be prepared to keep updating your skills, be prepared for the industry to change around you very rapidly and be flexible."