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Playing to her strengths

  • donnal

In the traditionally male-dominated world of software development, Donnal McCallum’s career has gone from strength to strength. We spoke to her about her senior technology roles and what benefits she believes women can bring to the industry.

Donnal says she’s always been interested in computers and technology, but it wasn’t until a manager suggested she study Computing and Information Technology that things really fell into place.

“After high school I got a job as a PA, but I knew I wanted more - to study something, to get ahead. I was quite ambitious! When my manager suggested I get into computing, it was a real ‘aha!’ moment for me. I reflected back on my life, and it all made sense. I was the kid who hooked up the neighbours’ Sky box, connected their sound systems. When we got a family computer for Christmas, my brother spent the summer playing computer games and I spent the summer coding one!”

After ordering prospectuses from a number of tertiary education providers, Donnal decided to enrol in Unitec’s Bachelor of Computing Systems and started her degree in 1999.

“I chose Unitec because I liked the sound of the papers on offer. I hadn’t realised there were so many aspects of technology and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to get into, so I liked the fact that the subject choice was so varied. In your first year you basically do a foundation paper in everything, which gives you a good understanding of possible career paths and which may be of interest.”                               

Donnal says that as a mature student she appreciated Unitec’s small class sizes and the accessibility of the lecturers.

“Having worked for a few years I was out of the habit of learning, so the small class sizes really helped. The lecturers were always available and, because they actually worked in the industry, they could share real, up-to-date experiences and knowledge.

“It wasn’t long before I realised software development was the path for me, and after completing a project management paper I thought ‘this is it’. I knew then that I wanted to be a leader in technology: to work with people, not just behind the computer. I decided to really apply myself - I wanted to go as far as I could.”

And it seems she’s done just that.

At Unitec Donnal received a Study Abroad Scholarship, spending 6 months studying in Sweden, and since studying she’s gone on to work in the UK, Australia and New Zealand in a number of senior project management, technology, operations and coaching roles. She’s delivered some sizeable pieces of work - including building an entirely new technology team at BBC Worldwide; leading multiple large technology projects at Telecom (now called Spark); managing the network build team at Australia’s nbn (with eight direct reports and over 200 indirect reports); and developing and selling in a prioritisation framework for all strategic projects across the Commonwealth Bank Group.

Today, Donnal is ASB’s Strategic Programme lead, tasked with driving the bank’s business wide transformation programmes.

“I’ve worked on some big projects at ASB so far, including designing the company’s future operating model, which saw the business move from being quite siloed to working in customer-outcome aligned tribes. Having cross-functional teams working towards the same goals, with the customer in mind, drives much better results. I also led ASB’s technology transformation, which drove efficiencies through simplification of our operating model, and I’ve now moved across to work on another ASB wide programme.”

Making her mark in a male-dominated industry

Donnal was one of only four or five women in the Unitec programme by the time she reached her final year, and the only female in her programming classes. It was an imbalance she found hard to understand.

“I’ve done a lot of research into computer science, and in the 40s and 50s software development was actually seen as a ‘women’s career’ - women were encouraged to get into it because they were diligent and could analyse and work through problems. It wasn’t until the 70s, that the balance tipped towards men. All of a sudden computers became a household item and boys started becoming more interested.”

But, as someone who has spent her entire career working in technology, Donnal says she’s never felt at a disadvantage.

“Personally, I believe it’s an advantage being a woman in technology, because there’s not many of us. I’ve never felt threatened being surrounded by men, in fact I’ve seen it as an opportunity. I think women bring something different to the table when it comes to technology - more empathy, people skills. That’s a generic statement but I think to some extent it’s true.

“Things do seem to be changing, but the gender imbalance certainly still exists. I think it comes down to a lack of role models - it’s hard to imagine yourself in a position if you don’t see anyone like you succeeding. That’s why, in my roles, I’ve always been involved in mentoring women to grow future leaders. It’s something I’m very passionate about.”

When asked how she’s successfully progressed so far in her career, Donnal says it’s about surrounding yourself with the right people, and bringing them on the transformation journey with you.

“My skills are really in transformational change. I have a strong background in technology and understand how different businesses operate, but I’m not a banker! I know about organisational design and what delivers great outcomes. Some people feel they need to be well-rounded and focus on building up their weaknesses, but I think you should play to your strengths and then surround yourself with people who compliment you.

“At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that you don’t finish learning when you leave your education. That’s just the start. If you can try to be just a little bit better each day, to learn something new and adapt your approach based on feedback, the sky’s the limit.”

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