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Market Insights

Women in IT

Information Technology has been perceived as a male-dominated profession for decades. Aquis Search’s Managing Director of the Technology and Digital Team, Amit Desai speaks with Carmen Casagranda, an executive leader and experienced CIO. She shares her stories and advice on developing a career in the field of IT, as a female in a male-dominated business function.

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Understand WHY you are building, not WHAT you are building.

Can you give us a summary of your career and background?

I have been fortunate to work in multiple regions including New Zealand, the UK, and now Asia which have provided me with different experiences and exposed me to varied values and cultures.

My first move into IT was with KPMG in New Zealand. Early in my career, I was put on a project as the lead BA and tester. By the end of the year-long project, I was determined to know everything there, which was to know about the end-to-end strategy and operational aspects of the business, IT and project management.  I leveraged my marketing education to learn how to create an amazing customer experience with technology by fundamentally understanding the development lifecycle, from requirements to development, testing, and ultimately pair programming with the teams. 

I left KPMG (New Zealand) and moved to the UK and joined a consulting company which was purchased by Experian. In 2003, the founder of the company set up a data centre that hosted all of the data for a lot of global banks and insurance companies.  This gave me an appreciation of the importance and value of customer and data-led insights to inform IT strategies, which I have kept to this day as part of my 7 P’s for digital transformation.
 
I joined a London market insurance company on the back of that experience and I have been in insurance ever since. My initial role covered a combination of managing large IT delivery projects and international delivery teams. As I gained more experience, the teams got bigger, the project budgets larger and the deliverables more tangible to the business.  

 

Rather than just being seen as an IT delivery function, I started to prove and bridge the importance of being one business, rather than the separated perception of IT and the business.  
 
In 2005 I joined Beazley Insurance to build a technology platform for insurance brokers.  This is where I learned about agile methodology.  I then joined Allianz as a programme manager.  I was tasked with developing and implementing a new underwriting platform with a budget of GBP15m which had a history of failed attempts.  Reporting into the Global COO, this was my first time being exposed to executive and international board-level management.  I was in my late 20s and managing multinational teams in the UK, France, Germany and the US.  This exposed me to a new level of managing, building high-performing teams and collaborating to bridge different cultural attitudes and learning to adapt my leadership style.  This was also my first implementation of agile, which I believe underpinned the successful delivery of the global underwriting platform, still in use today.
 
In 2010 we decided to move back to New Zealand and start a family. I joined Cigna to build an online straight-through-processing platform.  This was successfully achieved by my introduction of agile, design thinking and customer experience-led technology.  In 2011, I became the National IT Manager for Cigna New Zealand.
 
In 2014, I put forward a business case for IT to become its own function outside of Operations.  Following an intense 6 months of proving myself, I was successful in decoupling the IT function from Operations and was promoted to CIO of Cigna New Zealand. After a successful digital transformation and implementation of organisation-wide Scaled Agile, I came to Cigna’s international headquarters in Hong Kong and became the Asia-Pacific CIO.  I have continued to develop my skills and experience recently taking up a new role in developing emerging markets and building an Asia-wide strategy with another global insurance brand.

 

What were the most difficult moments you faced as a woman in IT?

I have been fortunate enough to not have faced explicit antagonism because of my gender. Early in my career I had the opportunity to manage over a hundred technology people.  Looking back, and what I’ve continued to learn and develop, is that my strength and foundation to success was about being me, the best leader I can be, without thinking about caste or gender.  This team was 99% male. When I come to work, my focus is about who I am, not about being female, it’s about being the best I can be.  The implicit antagonism, I have addressed with a mix of humour, polite ‘punch you backs’ and very occasionally, hard pointed conversations.

Was there a mentor or a coach that really helped you?

There have been many amazing people who have been gracious with their time in mentoring and acting as sounding boards throughout my career.  Early on I was able to learn from some really amazing female managers who I have looked up to and collaborated with.  The CEO of Cigna was very influential and helped me step up from being a middle manager to being an executive leader. 

What is more important: Proving that you are capable of doing the job or having a clear dialogue with your manager?

I think a combination. One of the reasons I am so passionate and believe so much in an agile approach is that I do not believe in a textbook recipe. For me, agile is about creating a clear vision of where you want to go and then breaking it down into bite-sized chunks and figuring out how to maneuver and deliver on that. Doing things, a little and often, is where you get that - proving that you can do things, communicating this well both upwards and downwards, celebrating success, taking on board lessons learned and creating a continuous feedback loop is what creates an evolving path to success.

Has gender diversity in IT improved in the last 10 years?

I do not think it has changed much, unfortunately. There is a lower proportion of women in the IT industry at this point in time than in the 1980’s.  I believe it comes back to schooling and the perceived idea that IT is about coding. However, when you start looking at the whole end-to-end journey in your organisation, how technology is used and how it is fundamental to the experience your customer has, IT becomes all about the elements of design, usability and omnichannel digital distribution channels – ultimately the more creative aspects of technology that would appeal more to females. But I do not see schools encouraging that or positioning it to appeal in this way. IT is still positioned as being about software development. 

How can corporates drive diversity and inclusion?

I am a firm believer in graduate programmes and investing in talent upfront. When I started doing digital transformation and agile I discovered that you get three things with any individual: attitude, aptitude and experience. 

Traditionally most roles are filled based on experience, based on an individual’s credentials.  Aptitude is about the ability to learn something new.  Attitude is about whether you are willing, whether you are open.  

Attitude, in my experience, is the foundation.  Aptitude is critical in this digital age.  Experience is important but doing things the way they have always been done will not change the way things need to be.

For example, in the context of gender, if you're bringing in a female that's interested in technology, they might want to be a business analyst but they've got the attitude and aptitude to learn something different.  There is an opportunity to shape them to have a broader set of skills. Recognising those qualities and investing in talent is what's going to start change, enabling those people to become advocates and tell their positive story of change to others.
 

How do you navigate your way around managing the personal with the professional?

Try to think through what it is you want. Be clear on this and communicate it effectively.  You have to be flexible and find that balance - that give and take - and not be afraid. My family, friends, and sport are critical components to balancing the personal with the professional.  On a personal level, authenticity and integrity have helped me progress quickly through my career.

What advice would you give a female with aspirations of a career in IT?

Think big, deliver small, especially in technology. Understand why you are building, not what you are building. If you do not understand the WHY you will be missing the opportunity to create something great; something that helps customers, organisations, people and yourself.  A chance to truly feel like you are making a difference.  That is the gift you own.

Interview with Carmen Casagranda, by Aquis Search. July 2021