From cutting code to managing projects

Linda Zeelie, one of the world’s ’25 influential project managers’, on her career
  • Liz Tay (Computerworld)
  • 18 December, 2006 15:28

In her 21 years of experience in the IT industry, Adelaide-based EDS client delivery executive Linda Zeelie has come a long way from her roots as a junior programmer. Amongst other industry accolades, Zeelie was recently named one of the world's "25 influential project managers" by international project management magazine, PM Network.

Liz Tay speaks with Zeelie about her love for IT and her experiences as a woman in the male-dominated industry.

How did you first get started in the IT industry, and how did you end up at EDS?

I started my IT career in South Africa, and I migrated to Australia about nine years ago. My first job in IT was straight out of school, in the [South African Department of] Defence IT section. [I] didn't go to University first; I did a three month training course then went straight into my first job as a programmer.

I stayed there for probably about 13 years, and worked my way up; so junior programmer, programmer, senior programmer, then I went up through the systems analysis and design route -- so I became an architect of business applications, and then I went into project management.

So I worked my way up through IT, but to be honest, I haven't coded a program in close to a decade for sure.

What first sparked your interest in the industry?

My great aunt was an industrial psychologist, and she did a lot of psychometric testing when I was a kid. She always said, 'You'd be good for this new computer thing', and that's always just stuck in my head.

So going up through high school, I always just thought 'I'd be good at this computer thing', so that's the direction I chose and nothing else really sparked my interest more than the computer thing, and that's the way I went.

What aspects of technology interest you most?

That's a difficult question, because there are a lot of roles in IT, and I think that's half the problem - people think IT equals computers, technology, you know, geeky stuff. But things I like best would be the systems analysis and design for applications and project management. Those are the things that really excite me and that I really enjoy.

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Why do you think there is a shortage of women in the Australian IT industry?

I think IT is perceived as a technology industry. It's perceived as something that needs you to be interested in network diagrams and you know, all the technology-type stuff. And I think a lot of our training courses and university courses encourage that as well, whereas to be honest, IT to me is a whole industry on its own, where it's got soft skills, you can do HR [Human Resources], you can do finances, analysis, design, testing, configuration management, project management, there's just a whole myriad of roles in IT where you don't have to code a program at all.

But people don't see it that way. They [think] you must be sitting in front of a computer programming all day [to be in the IT industry].

I've worked in a couple of places around the world, and I was actually shocked at how low the percentage of females in the Australian industry is. I always saw myself as a person in the IT industry; I never thought of myself as a 'woman', until I moved to Australia, because here there are so few. You kind of stick out a little.

I've actually been involved in a number of programs through the Australian Computer Society and Uni SA [the University of South Australia] to encourage girls in the industry, and as part of that, I've actually stopped to think of what's different about Australia that girls aren't interested in IT, and I think it's just a perception that IT is technical.

My daughter is in high school and I said to her, 'Do you want to go into IT?', and she said 'Oh no, I don't like computers'. But she wants to be a project manager, and I'm like 'Well, you could be a project manager in IT', and she goes 'Oh, can I?' And she's got a mother working in the industry, so obviously the perception is really strong.

What has being a woman in IT been like for you?

As I said before, I never really thought of myself as a 'woman' in IT - I was just a 'person' in IT. There are a number of instances where I'm very often the only woman in the room, so it is becoming a little bit more obvious to me about being a woman in IT.

The more successful you are and the higher up you go, the tougher it does get, because it is a man's world. I haven't really seen that as a barrier before, it's just something you need to learn to live with and get on with.

But the disadvantages are there, and the advantages for women aren't quite there, so the benefit ratio doesn't quite add up, and so I understand why a lot of women do not want to go into the industry.

What's the hardest part of being a woman in IT?

The networks. A successful senior business person has very good networks, and as I've said, the networks [in IT] are all very male-oriented, and so networking is very hard and knowing the right people is difficult.

Probably [the next hardest part] after that would be the work-life balance, because as a woman, I've got two kids, and so those are challenges that often my male colleagues don't have to deal with as directly as I do.

Trying not to let my job take over my life is a challenge, because it easily could.

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How do you keep your job, side projects and life in check?

I like to be involved in industry associations, [such as] the computer society, management institute, organisation for quality -- a whole list, because I like to give back. I like to be part of my community, and I believe that we've been given a lot of opportunities and its our responsibility to give back to the community.

This year I've done some project management training in Vanuatu for some of the local church leaders there because they run large projects without any formal education let alone training, and I found that very rewarding, because to me, if you just worked and gave nothing back, that's not living.

Everyone gets the same 24 hours, so the challenge is what you do with the 24 hours. There's a lot you can fit in if you choose to do it. Unfortunately there's a lot of things that I've had to sacrifice as a result of that. It doesn't all fit into the 24 hours and that's the downside. So you've just got to understand what it is you're choosing not to do.

Have you got any professional role models?

Professionally, no. It's very hard to say that, but no. I've got a lot of role models in the male environment that I really respect, but I can't model my life on them because they have different challenges than I've got - I'm trying to juggle children and husband and life.

Certainly in Australia, where our major capital cities are fairly isolated, in Adelaide, to have a woman role model would be hard to find.

I do [think that it is important to have a role model]. In my personal life, I model my life on a number of people, and it's important, I think, to think 'Hang on, that's the kind of life I'd like to live, that's the kind of values I'd like to emulate'. So without role models it's more hit and miss.

There are a couple of ladies groups in IT that have a number of mentorship programs running, and I take my hat off to these ladies for putting the amount of time they do into trying to line up mentors for women coming into the IT industry. I think they do a great job. But as you get more senior, it's funny, I've got to a level where now I don't think I have one [a role model]. It's very sad.

Does EDS have any programs in place that are particularly targeted at supporting female employees?

We're faced with the same problems that other companies are faced with. When we go out to hire people, the girls aren't coming in from high school into the graduate programs, they're not coming out as [IT] graduates, therefore they're not available to be hired, which just makes the problem worse.

There are a number of benefits that the organisation has, and being a large organisation has benefits as well. It varies from things like daycare in some of our offices, through to being able to work from home, through to other benefits that most organisations would give women.

How do you think companies or education providers could make IT more palatable to women?

I've actually talked to a lot of them [education providers], and they are trying their best to encourage women into IT; I've been involved in a number of programs to try and raise women's awareness of the industry as a whole.

To be honest, education providers possibly could be looking at putting programs in place that are less technically oriented, perhaps focussing on some of the non-technical IT roles that are out there.

But in reality, they are really just responding to what businesses are asking for, so to me, the real change has to come from the organisations. I don't think the IT industry perceives its low percentage of women as a problem, and until they do, and actually actively address it as an industry, I don't believe that education providers or schools or industry associations are going to have a huge impact on changing the perception of IT with women.

First of all, the IT industry and management, which at the moment is predominantly male, need to recognise that it's a problem. They're losing out on a fair percentage on talent and skills out there in not having women apply for work in their industry. I believe women bring different skills and balance to a workplace, and so if there's less of us, we bring less of those skills and balance.