The key to getting on in IT, says Jennifer Allerton, CIO of Roche's pharma division, is to grab opportunities by the scruff of the neck. "You have to be prepared to take risks and not worry too much about them," she says. "You will make mistakes, but you will always learn from things if you just have a go."
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And when it comes to taking risks, Allerton is willing to walk the walk. She took a top IT job with Unilever in Brazil, even though she couldn't speak Portuguese. She signed up to work for a snack food maker in Milan, without knowing Italian. She went to Japan. That's right: couldn't speak a word.
Now she heads Roche's 2,500 informatics staff from German-speaking Basel. Along the way, Allerton has picked up French, German, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. Not forgetting, of course, her native English.
But linguistic prowess is not the point of this story. Younger IT professionals - and those who've already climbed a few rungs up the ladder - can learn from Allerton's buccaneering approach to building her own career.
Allerton admits that in the early stages of her working life - she started as a trainee programmer for an insurance company in Toronto back in 1973 - she had to go looking for those opportunities. But as she has built a track record, so the opportunities have come looking for her.
But wherever the opportunities come from - and whatever they may be - she is firm on one point. "A key principle that has outlined my career is that I absolutely need to be learning," she says. "People say that at CIO level - which is where I am now - you have to relearn all of your knowledge every three years. Personally, I agree with that. I think you have to stay open to new developments and if you do, those opportunities will arise."
Looking back, Allerton sees three key transitions in her career. They are the kind that most IT workers who want to move up will pass through, so it's important to know how to handle each.
"The first transition was when I became a team leader," she says. This was early in her time with Unilever. "It's important because you move from just being one of the folk to being responsible for other people. So it's your first management role.
"In that role, you manage through technical capability. I could handle the role at Unilever because I knew more about Cobol programming and how things worked than the people working for me. So they respect you for your technical knowledge and they come to you for that.
"It's fine for a time - but then you get promoted to a point where you've got so many people working for you that you can't possibly have a better technical knowledge of everything they're working on."
And that is when you have to prepare for the second transition. In her case, Allerton reckons it was when she became CIO for Unilever in Brazil.
"After this transition, I was a manager rather than just a technical leader," she says. "When you reach that stage, you have to be able to trust your instincts because you have to make decisions when you don't know all the answers, and that's quite a scary thing to do."
But the third transition is probably the scariest of all. Allerton believes that happened to her when she became CIO at BOC, the international industrial gases company which has since become part of the German Linde Group.
"The third transition is about becoming a leader and that is when you have to be able to set a vision and take people with you," Allerton says. "It's not just doing all the things you got used to as a manager: technical skills, performance management, work allocation, project initiation and so on. It's about setting a direction and appealing to the emotions of people to get them engaged, involved and committed to what you want to do."
She has a clear view of the "absolutely fundamental" difference between management and leadership. "If you are a manager, people work with you because they have to. If you are leader, people work with you because they want to. That makes a huge difference to the level of energy and input people will give. You certainly need good managers - but in IT, as in anything else, leadership is essential. Management without leadership will not work."
Likewise - another lesson from Allerton's career - IT does not work without business understanding. "For me, the role is always about the application of technology to the business," she says. "It is not just about choosing the coolest, latest technology."
This was the reason that, when Allerton seized her latest opportunity with Roche in 2002, she refused to be hurried into big decisions about the future of the IT function.
"When I came here, everybody immediately came to me and said they needed a decision on this, or more budget on that, or more headcount for something else," she recalls. "I said I needed to take my first 100 days learning about the business. I travelled a lot and visited our top 10 sites around the world to talk to people. I spent time with sales reps, looked at manufacturing plants and made a real effort to see, hear and feel the business.
"When you're the new kid on the block, you're allowed to ask stupid questions. But what I always find is that there's no such thing as a stupid question. Often you're in the same room with people who've been in the business for years but don't know the answer. They're really glad you asked because they didn't have the courage to do so."
Propelling an IT career forward by seizing opportunities as and when they arise may sound a great idea, but is it possible without making a genuine attempt to increase your knowledge and skills? In the earlier stages of her career, Allerton attended courses at London Business School and Harvard Business School, where she believes the case study approach to teaching is especially valuable.
But for IT staffers, she sees education as being only one of "three Es". The other two are experience and exposure. Experience comes from doing different kinds of jobs exposure from taking up opportunities to work in other countries and discover different cultures. With IT becoming one of the most global of professions, those computer professionals who can convincingly turn themselves into citizens of the world - like Allerton - will do their careers no harm at all.
A defining moment in Allerton's career was the move to Brazil. She says: "I was given more seniority - with a larger budget and more people working for me - than I'd ever have had in Britain. If I had taken the conservative option of staying in the UK, my career would certainly have progressed much more slowly.
"By taking the decision to go to Brazil - and the risks involved in taking on a much larger role - I was able to cram a huge amount of experience into a very short time span. I think any time that you live and work abroad, you get a massive impetus in understanding and exposure. I certainly couldn't run a global organisation, as I do today, without having lived in different cultures, learning different languages and getting accelerated experience."
The clear message here is when opportunity knocks, answer it.
1972 Graduated in mathematics from Imperial College, London.
1973 MSc in physics from University of Manitoba, Canada.
1973 First job as trainee programmer with Manufacturers' Life Assurance (now part of Canada Life) in Toronto.
1976 Hired as analyst/programmer by Unilever in London.
1978 Promoted to IT team leader role at Unilever.
1981 Moved to Unilever Brazil as business systems manager for application development in personal products division.
1984 Promoted to CIO Unilever, Brazil.
1987 Moved back to UK to head IT for Unilever's Asia Pacific region.
1989 Became director of IT and human resources for snack food company Unichips in Milan.
1991 Joined the business networks operation of Cable & Wireless in the UK as director of business solutions.
1994 Appointed CIO for BOC.
1998 Joined internet startup ServiceNet, an ASP formed as joint venture between Accenture and GTE, in US as chief operating officer.
1999 Back in UK, appointed technical director of Barclaycard.
2002 Headhunted as CIO of Roche pharma division to work from Switzerland.
• Jennifer Allerton works from Basel in Switzerland and reports to Roche pharma division CEO Bill Burns.
• The informatics function employs 2,500 people around the world with main sites in Switzerland, the US, the UK, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, China, Australia, Mexico, Brazil, Russia, Turkey, Poland and Canada.
• The informatics function "faces out" to three different areas of the business: sales and marketing clinical development and licensing and manufacturing, HR and finance. A separate group manages infrastructure services across all business areas and shared services. Allerton has direct reports for each of these areas. She also has direct reports dealing with strategy, architecture, human resources and communications.
• In 2003, Roche established a captive development centre in Poland. Allerton has a direct report responsible for the shared development platform.