Women in IT: From small beer to D-Day and beyond

Once mistaken for her assistant's secretary, Ann Budge has risen above the unwitting prejudices, while always retaining the human...

Once mistaken for her assistant's secretary, Ann Budge has risen above the unwitting prejudices, while always retaining the human touch. Fiona Harvey reports.

It's a good job Ann Budge has a sense of humour. "When I went into a meeting, they really did think I was there to take the minutes. I was often taken as a secretary, and they assumed my male colleague was the boss when in fact I was his boss. It didn't bother me, really - I thought it was funny," she says.

Corporate IT has changed a great deal in the three decades since Budge began her career, but her stories can still draw a cringe of recognition. Looking back over more than 30 years in the business, which has seen her reach the top ranks of corporate IT and set up an award-winning consultancy, she finds some of the old problems as prevalent as ever - though much of the sexism has gone the way of punch cards.

"I had to be on call all the time, and it was not uncommon for me to be pulled from my bed several times a week," Budge notes. Many IT managers today would find the experience wearily familiar. "Problems always seem to happen at 3am and somebody has to fix them."

At least flexible working has made life easier for engineers. Budge says: "I was a single parent and in those days it was very difficult to make flexible arrangements. Luckily I had a very supportive family. I had to get my family to look after childcare for me, as there wasn't much choice." Today, she notes, IT departments put more emphasis on shift coverage, external maintenance agreements and planned downtime, so that engineers' working lives can be more orderly.

With Internet technology, IT departments can ease some of the problems by conducting a few of the essential, "3am tasks" from home. But the main difference is attitude. "Back then, people didn't care about your home life. I take a great deal of care as an employer to ensure my staff have whatever flexibility they need, and I think that's becoming much more the attitude."

Budge started as a programmer in the IT department of Scottish & Newcastle brewery in 1970. She got into the job, she says, "by accident". The brewery recruited 12 graduates from all disciplines, and though as a psychology graduate she had not envisaged a career in computers, a chance encounter with a technologist persuaded her to join.

Programmers today would scarcely recognise the scene, she says: they wrote with a sharpened pencil on coding pads, then sent them to the punch room to be converted into punch cards. Budge rose to become a manager - the first woman to take such a post at Scottish &Newcastle - and later went on to co-found an IT consulting company of her own: Newell & Budge.

Anyone who thought the introduction of the euro was a pain should have seen decimalisation, Budge jokes. "It was a massive programme change. It affected so much."

The payroll systems, invoicing, accounting, every aspect of the business's finances had to be overhauled, while users were constantly complaining they could not understand the new system, and blaming the IT department. That will ring a bell with most IT managers today. Surely, though, the lessons learned from decimalisation helped IT with managing changes like Y2K compliance and the euro?

Budge is diplomatic. "I think we did learn some lessons, yes. I think we learned quite a bit about how to deal with users in managing big programmes of change."

Ultimately, IT departments have to remember that explaining new systems to users can be more of a problem than twiddling the technology. It is not a case of "the user is always right" - just that the user has a right to be told what is going on, she says.

Fundamental changes like decimalisation had a profound effect on IT in other ways: they helped to bring the function out from the backroom and into the limelight. Budge has seen IT workers move from being stuck in a dusty back room with no contact with the rest of the business to take a central strategic role. "Everyone is aware of IT, and companies think a lot more about what technology can do for them, instead of seeing it passively. IT has become much more in-your-face."

People entering the industry in recent years may be unaware of how far IT has come in corporate terms, in a relatively short time, says Budge. Only gradually in the 1980s, and even into the 1990s have we seen IT directors emerge. Previously, the IT department was often formally headed by the finance chief, and seats on the company board were unheard of.

The resentment of IT in many quarters should also not be forgotten, Budge advises: people attacked computerisation at first, fearful that it would rob them of their jobs.

"People don't know what it was like, because so few IT projects today involve replacing paper systems with computers," she says. It took years to show people that computerisation could relieve some of the tedium of clerical jobs where most functions were performed manually, thereby giving workers a better quality of life in general. Though, as Budge admits, "Sometimes, computers were doing people out of a job."

Along with the experience of decimalisation, this has helped form her central vision of a good IT director's primary job: to keep people at the forefront of IT, whether that is user-centred design for systems, or explaining changes to users. "I think my psychology degree made me more aware than most people of how much IT is about people."

Too often, managers developing systems forget the user angle, she says. "You have to discuss developments and proposals with the people who will be sitting in front of them."

Her other hobby-horse is testing. "I do go on about it a lot, but that's because it's so important," she says. For instance, if you are expecting five million users to log on to your Web site, you don't know who they are. They may have a huge range of different skills. "How do you test for that?" asks Budge. "However you do it, if it's your business, you have to get it right."

The key is to devise a series of controls and processes relating to the objectives of the project, and that involves a broad selection of users at every stage. It sounds simple, but a common mistake is to skimp on the testing stages when the project is running behind. Never do it, says Budge, and particularly not when systems are being newly integrated.

Budge's experience as a woman in IT is also a reminder of how far the workplace has come. When she was made a manager, she became eligible to use the management dining room. "That was fine, but the nearest ladies' loo was across the car park." At the senior managers' gym, there were no changing facilities for women. Budge laughs, "You tell people this now and they can't believe it. It is good really, it shows how much we have changed IT."

Budge's sense of humour has clearly helped to keep her on track, and continues to do so.

CV: Ann Budge, chief executive, Newell & Budge
Graduated with a degree in psychology from Strathclyde University in 1970. and joined Scottish & Newcastle brewery as a programmer. She went on to become the first woman to reach the senior grade at Scottish & Newcastle in 1979
1981 Headhunted by F International (now FI Group). Alison Newell, working for the London-based company at the time, was keen for her to set up a Scottish division
1986 the two women set up Newell & Budge, a consultancy covering everything from applications development/management, business intelligence, testing, to managed resourcing and technical managed services. It was awarded the Deloitte & Touche Technology Fast50 award in 2000 and 2001 as well as the Penta Capita award for 15 years of consistent growth

Newell & Budge
  • Newell & Budge employs 300 technical staff of whom more than 40% are wome

  • Over 40% of the technical managers are women

  • Four out of six executive directors are women

  • Budge was recently been appointed to the Scottish Welfare to Work Task Force (which advises the Scottish Executive on measures designed to cut the number of long-term unemployed).

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