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Breaking the glass ceiling in IT

The CIO of Malaysia’s Prince Court Medical Centre has broken the glass ceiling for women in technology in a 20-year career that has progressed from selling IT products to setting up her own IT consulting firm

Despite being good in maths and science at school, a career in science and technology had never crossed Rani Nathwani’s mind.

In fact, the CIO of Malaysia’s Prince Court Medical Centre (PCMC) had set her sights on a career in journalism or social work – until it was time for university.

“I knew I had to get a degree, but what do I apply for?” she recalls. Deciding that she wanted to pursue her love for chemistry, Nathwani decided to take up chemical engineering.

“But chemical engineering has nothing to do with chemistry, really. It’s a lot about process flows and thermodynamics instead,” says Nathwani.

Still, Nathwani stuck to her guns, graduating in 1987 with a degree in chemical engineering. Then came a global recession that saw her classmates take on contract work, earning four times less than what she was making from giving private tuition as a university student.

“It didn’t make sense for me to become an engineer, until a year and a half later, when I realised I wasn’t developing or growing in my career,” she says.

It was at that time that IBM opened up positions again after a three-year hiatus. “I looked at the ad and thought: Great company to work for – let’s apply,” she reminisces.

Her IBM sales job turned out to be the beginning of a lifelong career in which she has put on different hats as a technology supplier, a user and even an entrepreneur.

CIO in training

For many young graduates like Nathwani then, IBM was a good training ground. But she soon realised she was driven by getting things done, and not by sales quotas. After working in sales for a year, she moved on to a role in pre-sales engineering support.

Four years later, Nathwani was invited to join Subang Jaya Medical Centre (SJMC), an IBM customer that she had been supporting with IBM Unix hardware. She was only 30 years old then, and facing her first job as head of IT.

“I had a fantastic boss, Elaine Cheong, and it was because of her that I developed a passion for healthcare,” she says, adding that Cheong had urged her to spend time in different departments to learn more about the organisation.

Nathwani also learnt a valuable lesson in accountability and transparency from Cheong. “I did not get punished for mistakes; instead I got her support, guidance and advice on what else I could do to mitigate issues,” says Nathwani.

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These lessons helped to put her in good stead, as her career progressed to bigger roles and heavier responsibilities.

After nearly four years with SJMC, Nathwani joined Selayang Hospital and cut her teeth implementing a digitisation project that turned Selayang into Malaysia’s first paperless hospital.

“That was my foothold, and my career was going up in healthcare IT. SJMC was already a feather in my cap, because it is recognised as a leading private hospital,” says Nathwani.

After Selayang, she co-founded a company with two other people to offer consultancy services to the Malaysian government. The firm drew up the blueprint for IT implementations across all government hospitals.

“We were a small shop. The three of us had all the skills, but we did not have the funds or the connections, and it was our first time setting up a business,” says Nathwani.

“I like to think I have broken the glass ceiling as a healthcare CIO”
Rani Nathwani, Prince Court Medical Centre, Malaysia

After that experience, she went on to roll out smaller IT projects for private hospitals. She eventually became an independent consultant for eight years, and counts Sunway Medical Centre as one of her clients.

One of Nathwani’s biggest achievements was to help Sunway replace its billing systems. “Together, we went through the process of identifying requirements, mapping out workflows, getting the system and implementing it,” she says.

“We went live in May 2003, and within seven months, collections and cash flow improved immensely, to the point where the hospital no longer needed to borrow funds from the parent company to pay salaries. In fact, the hospital was able to pay salaries as well as contractual bonuses from its own cash flow.”

After healthcare IT consulting, Nathwani joined PCMC in 2012 as director of information and communications technology.

Being at the top now, she says breaking the glass ceiling can still be difficult for women today. Her view is that one’s family – and not a job – will look after him or her, admitting that it can be a tough call to decide what to focus on.

Her advice for aspirants who want to juggle a career and a family, however, is this: “I think each of us has to decide on what is more important in life. And that will drive us.”

She adds with a quiet pride: “I like to think I have broken the glass ceiling as a healthcare CIO.”

Tough boss

Nathwani, who is known to be a very tough boss to work for, oversees a team of 12. She takes pride in mentoring and equipping her staff with the skills they need to thrive in their careers.

She also sets high standards, even if others in her organisation may be operating at a lower level.

“One of my managers asked me to lower my standards, but I’m not going to because this is what’s expected outside,” she says.

“One of my managers asked me to lower my standards, but I’m not going to because this is what’s expected outside”

Rani Nathwani, PCMC

Throughout her career, Nathwani has never once felt gender bias. She sits on the male-dominated Pikom CIO Chapter (PCC), which she says has a lot of respect for the women IT leaders in its executive committee. Pikom is Malaysia’s national infocomm technology association.

Nathwani’s approach towards entrenched thinking about jobs that are more suited to one gender than another is to make the best of one’s abilities.

“Men have their strengths and women have theirs too. Men are a lot better at the bigger picture than women are. We are genetically made up to be a lot more detail-oriented. We have to learn to leverage that, and our soft skills, to get ahead,” she says.

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