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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