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Women in IT: Cathy Stephenson

08 Mar 12

According to Cathy Stephenson, the things she learned teaching fourth form maths on Friday afternoons still serve her well today, nearly twenty years later. 

"I’ve been involved in the industry since the eighties,” she tells IT Brief one afternoon over coffee. "I was teaching and got into the IT side of putting networks into schools and teaching computer studies.”

From there, she says, it was simply a case of following the path that beckoned. 

The executive general manager, group operations and information systems at The Trust Company, the parent company of Guardian Trust, has always been fascinated by technology.

"It just made sense to me. I’ve moved through IT working in schools – teaching and building networks. I enjoy the excitement of transformation.”

Apart from moving from the classroom to the corporate world, nothing much has changed. 

Charged with building an IT platform that is scalable and extendable, Stephenson is still fascinated and excited by what IT offers - especially in an industry like the Trustee industry which she admits is conservative and inclined to move slowly. 

"It’s going to be interesting because corporate traditionally can’t move fast – the bigger the corporate, the more entrenched it is. There is so much happening at the moment – how do you resist change and how do you control it within the corporate framework?”

Faced with a newly structured organisation, Stephenson and her team need to create a single delivery platform that will function across the group while delivering country appropriate systems.

"I have this great opportunity to lead the discussions and the thinking around this. It’s such an exciting place to play because there is so much opportunity.”

The task may seem daunting but Stephenson believes one of the great things about New Zealand, and New Zealand tech people in particular, is that they are adventurous.

"We look for things outside the square. We’ll have a go. Our competency is as good or better as those found overseas so we have people competing for exciting challenges at the moment.”

Stephenson firmly believes there is no such thing as an IT project.

"There are only business projects and if you don’t recognise that you will fail from the start.”

Even within her own organisation, Stephenson admits, the change is recent; prior to her role role, IT was not at the executive table 

"The space is changing though and companies are recognising they have to be delivering the whole picture. More and more organisations are finally combining operations and IT and everyone has to be able to deliver.”

The role of the IT executive, she says, is to look at these types of questions and make options available for businesses.

"The Trust business for example is all about relationships - so we [the IT team] need to clear the noise away and provide the tools that will allow people to do their job.”

While concepts such as the mobile workforce and BYOD are gaining popularity, they still present challenges to corporates faced with more mundane questions like how to control costs and risks. 

"We have to start by putting together a strategy paper and considering what our industry and workforce should look like before we can create and implement our vision for that mobile workforce. We have to try to forecast how the organisation will look in five years time so we can put solutions in place that will meet that need.”

Many corporates - her own organisation no exception - also need to look at cloud computing and virtualisation as well as the management demands that accompany it. 

"But we need to look beyond the servers square. We need to not be bound by the technology and instead ask ourselves what is key from a business perspective? Is it speed of delivery or is it functionality or is it the actual services?”

Equally as challenging, Stephenson says, is wrapping guidelines around social media, in particular as more and more people in senior management positions are people who operate in that space. 

"It’s a unique opportunity and part of the challenge is how to cater for these people given this is the way these people live.”

It is still a challenge for a woman to win an executive role within in the IT industry, Stephenson says. 

"There have been some really good strides made for women but not enough especially at senior management and board level."

Currently Stephenson mentors younger women within the industry in an informal manner but hopes eventually to ‘sit on a board or two and give something back’.

"It is really important for women to mentor other women in this space. The influence we have through being in a leadership role shouldn’t be ignored.”

With growing confidence and a solid storage bank of ideas and thoughts, Stephenson is not concerned about the future – either hers or that of her chosen industry. 

"Where you are at any stage of your life is a product of the paths you have taken and as long as you retain the lessons of the journey you are poised for the next challenge and that is what I find really exciting.”

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