‘They had hideous girly posters on the wall in the tea room’
- 13 August, 2018 16:02
Kim Wenn recalls her time as a young IT exec computerising manual processes at Australian Paper Manufacturers in Victoria in the 1980s.
“I used to go out to the paper mill in Maryvale and they had these hideous girly posters on the wall in the tea room. They had all of the Repco girly posters, it was hilarious.
“One of the guys that was involved in the program, he must have been a bit more new age than the others and he asked, ‘do they bother you?’ I said, ‘I don’t think they bother me as such but they are inappropriate. They were then taken down,” says Wenn.
On July 1, Wenn officially retired after spending 37 years in technology industry, the last 12 at Tabcorp as general manager, wagering systems and more recently, chief information officer. Her retirement from the gambling giant coincided with its merger with Tatts Group. Former Tatts CIO Mandy Ross stepped into the CIO role following Wenn’s departure.
“The merger with Tabcorp and Tatts meant we had two of everyone and I said to [Tabcorp CEO] David [Attenborough],’I’ll work with you to ensure a low risk handover.’ And he didn’t have to choose between [Mandy] and me and all that sort of ugly stuff.
“The merger was the catalyst and the timing was perfect because my husband had just retired and we were pretty keen to enjoy life a bit more. I’ve never had a gap year, my kids had gap years, doing all this lovely stuff and travelling around; I never did that so we are doing it now.”
Wenn began working in 1981 after finishing high school. Her first job was as a goods receivable clerk in Knoxfield, Victoria at manufacturing company Rosella Lipton. The company was acquired in 1988 by Unilever.
“I annoyed the IT manager so much in the first three months that he said, ‘ok, come and work for me.’
“I would walk through the factory at Rosella in Tatura and everybody would look at me like I had three heads. They never saw a female walk through the factory unless they were putting the onion powder in the vat and on the line,” she says.
Wenn had a real passion for manufacturing and worked during an era of technology-led automation across the sector. Technology was a family affair; her father had been chief information officer at The Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club.
“It’s all a bit odd that I ended up as CIO for Tabcorp. Dad had a big influence on me in terms of me getting into IT.
“Both of those jobs [APM and Rosella Lipton] were fun. I loved manufacturing and it was in the era of automation; you could see what you were doing, automating recipes to make tomato sauce, for instance. You could put in the orders and [the system] would spit out the ingredients whereas previously someone had taken months to calculate it,” Wenn says.
During those early days, Wenn attended school at night, completing a Bachelor of Computer Science at Monash University and then a Masters of Management and Technology at The University of Melbourne.
“I was a rare commodity in the computer science degree; I think I was one of about four girls. I’ve just retired from a male dominated industry and [looking back] I wasn’t ever bothered by it; I was lucky because I was pretty resilient,” Wenn says.
An early lesson
While at APM (now Amcor), Wenn was part of a team that rolled out IBM ‘green screen’ mainframes across the plant in a vintage digital transformation initiative that didn’t consider the cultural impact of computer automation. The tech team wrongly assumed that staff members were literate and could read the screen and enter the correct dimensions for paper weight. Computer literacy levels across the entire plant were so low that the program initially failed.
“There was no training and no recognition that literacy levels of people on the floor in the paper factory [was low]. We spent a couple of years on it, we never withdrew it, we just repositioned people into different roles if they couldn’t read [the screen]. There was a whole workforce strategy and replanning exercise that had to go with it,” Wenn says.
Wenn then found her wings, spending five years as a computer programmer at life insurance and pensions company Scottish Widows in Edinburgh during the early 1990s at a time when ‘tea ladies’ were still being employed to wheel the trolley around at 11:00am each working day.
Wenn came back to Australia where she was hired again by APM. It was at this time that she began climbing up the ranks, eventually ending in a different division as general manager, logistics at the company. Between 2000 and 2005, Wenn was vice president, research and development at Quest Software before joining Tabcorp, initially as GM, wagering systems before being elevated to CIO in May 2009.
Wenn is adamant that she has been lucky enough during her career to identify industries that were set to be transformed through technology; she saw ‘the art of the possible’ and wanted to be a part of it.
“It [her move to Tabcorp] had nothing to do with Dad or my knowledge of the industry. In 2000, it was the early days of the internet and a change in how consumers interacted with [gambling] products and I just thought it was going to be an industry that would go through a lot of transformation. It would be fun to be part of that whole change from men walking into a betting shop to women [betting] on their phones.”
Tabcorp is now one of Australia’s largest technology companies. Its core competency is technology, betting is simply how it makes money, she says.
Biggest career mistake
When pressed about her biggest mistake over the past 37 years, Wenn says persevering with an outsourcing arrangement at one stage had ended in disaster.
"My predecessor outsourced most of the IT function," she says. "You can't take a bunch of Indians in another country with a cultural difference and a language gap and get them to deliver your products. And betting is illegal in India. It was a total disaster and I spent years clawing it all back over here.
"Someone else had outsourced it and I spent a lot of time trying to make it work ... we should have gone faster and brought it back straight away. Outsourcing has a place depending on what you are doing, if it's routine stuff, I think it has a place."
Tech sector doing a ‘shit job’
Wenn doesn’t mince her words when asked about the tech sector’s ability to promote IT careers to young people, particularly women.
“I think it does a shit job to be honest. I think there is no sales and marketing engine. A lot of people still refer to technology as ICT which is just a barrier to entry.
“I think the whole integration of technology into schools comes up short … there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. There are pockets of great activity … being driven mainly by women but there’s no consolidated approach from the government or education [sector].
“We are our own worst enemies.”
She agrees that despite ongoing rhetoric, the government has lost its way when it comes to creating an ‘innovation nation.’ Investing in and supporting start-ups alone is not going to solve the problem, she says.
“They [kids] are going to grow up and find that the education system is lacking in terms of its support for technology.”
Last year while still at Tabcorp, Wenn conducted a survey with 1,000 female year 10 students and their parents. A key finding was that girls would only consider doing a STEM-related degree if their parents or someone else in the family such as an aunt was already involved in the sector.
“Even worse, those girls that didn’t have any direct contact [with people in IT] were actively discouraged by their parents. A young woman could be a user experience designer, project manager, business analyst or architect – anything in IT – and still have a family. The whole culture around technology and flexible working is just perfect but a lot of people don’t understand what they can do.”
Wenn believes that in the workforce of the future, there is barely going to be a role that doesn't involve technology.
"Marketing, it's all search engine optimisation and Google Analytics, it's not colouring in and posters that you print. Roles are changing and if we look at the workforce of the future, 70 per cent of the roles will be at least technology-based and we are not preparing the kids for it," she says.
"I think there's less than 25 per cent female participating in STEM degrees so how are we ever going to have a diverse workforce with that level of participation."
Her final message for female computer science graduates?
"Be brave, work hard and you can have an amazing career. You can raise a family and do anything that you want."
Follow Byron Connolly on Twitter: @ByronConnolly