From Straw to Gold and Back to Straw

BOSTON (05/15/2000) - At the recent annual meeting of the Association of Women in Computing (AWC, www.awc-hq.org) in Orlando, attendees discussed how women can leverage the visibility and status many achieved as year 2000 project managers. Although women make up about 20 percent of the IT workforce, best estimates indicate they handled 30 percent to 40 percent of Y2k projects. Ask a group like the AWC why that's so and you get a sea of knowing grins.

Early in the days when Y2k was considered a Cobol project, it was seen as a detail-oriented, dead-end job that would blow a career off its trajectory with no opportunity for advancement. The team would be made up of old-skills washouts. There would be no visibility, little intellectual challenge and no contact with the business.

It looked like a guaranteed lose/lose situation: If the project were to succeed, it would be perceived as easy. If it were to fail, the manager would be blamed.

In corporate parlance: women's work.

As the clock ticked, that initial view turned around. Executives recognized Y2k as the most difficult, most comprehensive, highest-visibility project in history. Many a lowly project manager suddenly found herself reporting to the board of directors.

Poetic justice, I call it. But this odyssey isn't over yet.

The fate of these business heroes is still unclear. AWC conference participants heard that, despite the success of Y2k projects, many Y2k managers are struggling to find a decent lateral move in the company. And many are getting no help whatsoever from the executives whose necks they saved.

And the Y2k effort itself has been forgotten. It seems that, rather than take advantage of the golden opportunity to leverage the benefits of Y2k work, many companies want to put it - and anyone involved in it - out of sight and out of mind.

So you've got Y2k managers who spent years learning about every division and department in their companies, who have a better global view and know more about the ins and outs of business processes than anyone else knows, who are poised to leverage their knowledge in enterprise resource planning implementations, supply-chain initiatives and global e-commerce - and whose companies just want them to disappear into the woodwork.

What a waste! And because women were overrepresented among Y2k managers, they're disproportionately hurt by this backlash.

Imagine how refreshing it was when one woman, Jose-Marie Griffiths (jmgriff@umich.edu), CIO at the University of Michigan, showed the group how a woman's touch can change the Y2k aftermath.

She talked about her appreciation of how her Y2k staff had "spun straw into gold," turning this lose/lose project into a win for the university. And she talked about how she as Y2k director had turned it into a win for herself and her people.

Griffiths won't allow the university to put Y2k behind it. She's projecting her view - a holistic woman's view - of the process by broadcasting her conviction that Y2k delivered a new, clear and comprehensive understanding of systems across the organization that was never possible before. She's a vocal, visible advocate for continually updating and building on that view, using that knowledge to develop new strategies and helping her business partners do the same.

Women are known for valuing relationships, and Griffiths won't allow the university to forget what her Y2k people did. She kept their contribution before the entire population throughout the project, and when it was over, she published a full-page letter in the campus newspaper, describing the team's success in detail and listing the names of more than 100 people who contributed to the effort.

Women are great at bringing the theoretical right down to the kitchen table, and Griffiths refused to let anyone imagine that Y2k was hype. She brought its importance home to students, administrators and faculty when she published an article in the paper listing more than 60 student-related snafus - no course listings, no tuition calculations, no financial aid, no class lists - that would have occurred as the January term began if her Y2k team had not succeeded.

And most important, women are nurturing. Griffiths won't allow her Y2k people to recede into the background. She's encouraging them to use their comprehensive expertise to become involved in other organizationwide projects.

Griffiths' analogy is apt. If ever there was a project where straw was spun into gold, it was Y2k. But for many of the spinners - women and men alike - the reward has been more straw. Still, they spun it once and they can spin it again by following Griffiths' lead and refusing to go anywhere but up. "You've escaped the dungeon of compartmentalization," Griffiths tells her Y2k people.

"Don't go back!"

Kathleen Melymuka is a Computerworld feature writer. Contact her at kathleen_melymuka@computerworld.com.

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