When the company hired a senior programmer from the UK, in order to pay her the salary she expected, AGC had to code her as a man in its payroll system.
There has been a marked improvement in the lot of working women over the intervening years – but Barnett, the chief information officer of AMP, remains one of just a handful of female CIOs in large enterprise in Australia.
On average about one in six IT professionals in Australia is female. AMP’s got a healthier ratio; “About 40-45 per cent are women,” says Barnett, though she admits that; “When we do the grad intakes it’s always a bit of a struggle to get the right balance. I guess when get into a lot of the infrastructure areas and telco areas, the closer you get to engineering women are even thinner on the ground. But I think things are turning and changing a bit.”
According to Barnett; “I think IT roles in the corporate sector are incredibly interesting – you are at the intersection of business and it gives you the best of both roles. I’ve never been particularly tempted to have a purely business role because I think it’s the impact of technology and how that’s changing business that’s so incredibly interesting. Now more than ever the opportunities are there.
“I am a very strong believer in diversity from the gender and demographic perspectives. At its best diversity is a catalyst for innovation and at a minimum it is an insurance policy against “group think”.”
Barnett herself almost stumbled into an IT career. Having failed at attempts to be accepted as an air hostess, a nuclear medicine technician and a travel agent, she decided to hit the phone books.
“I’d been looking in the papers and been seeing roles called data processing, and didn’t really know what they were. But because they were new I was interested. I was trying everything from the papers but ended up resorting to the phone book. I started with A and got as far as AGC, and met a guy called Bill Barrett.”
Barnett told him she was interested in data processing, but he started her off in an administrative role in the company’s note and debenture registry. “Whenever there was overtime going I would put up my hand and do different people’s roles. Although they didn’t have their ownIT systems - most people just processed their general ledger in a bureau - they were getting positioned to do their own IT development and set up an IT department.”
She was offered the position as the firm’s first trainee programmer, was handed a box of video tapes and told to go and teach herself Cobol.
“I do have a logical, analytical mind and was very good at maths – the things we used to look at back then were those sorts of skills, I took to it well.”
At school though she hadn’t been given the same sort of encouragement. “Gender discrimination was also rife. I remember the economics master counseling me not to take economics because women aren’t logical. I took great pleasure accepting the economics award from him at graduation.”
Barnett grew up in Cronulla in the fifties and sixties, attending Cronulla High where she spent lunchtimes and sports periods sunbathing on Wanda Beach.
“It was a fairly wild time back then with few boundaries, and permissive parenting being the order of the day.”
Cronulla is the setting for the classic Australian teen novelPuberty Blues, a dramatization of which is currently being serialised on television. Says Barnett: “I caught half of an episode – totally cringeworthy - back in the panel van driving out to Kurnell – all those memories. It was an interesting time to grow up – in contrast to what had gone before (there was) the absolute freedom and wildness, my parents and most of my friends’ fell in the permissive parenting bucket.”
The product of a nuclear family with one younger brother, Barnett’s experience of parenthood has been quite different as she has been a single parent since her daughter turned two. So how challenging has it been raising a daughter single-handedly and running one of the nation’s largest IT shops?
“If nothing else it taught me good time management. Also I’m good at deciding what really matters and being quite ruthless about not letting people waste my time.
“I think like most working mothers, looking back on the early days, I had my share of guilt. But looking at her now I realise most of that was a waste – you really don’t have to be the perfect parent for it to work out alright – focus on the important things, knowing they are loved, their self-esteem and their values.”
For a few years she acknowledges however that outside of her work, her daughter and housework, there was very little time for anything else.
Today Barnett’s daughter is studying for her Masters. She still lives with her mother, but also with her new husband. Barnett seems comfortable at the prospect of living with her son-in law, and is clearly delighted that she’s the one teaching him to cook.
Her role at AMP broadly divides into three she says. Running the IT systems and infrastructure that supports the business (including overseeing a massive integration programme following AMP’s purchase of AXA which has been a priority over the last 18 months); executing change in line with business strategy; and taking on an innovation role – what Barnett refers to as “bringing the outside in”, exploring how technology is disrupting business models and what the AMP needs to do in order to survive and prosper.
Prior to taking on the CIO role in 2004, Barnett was already being groomed as a senior executive at AMP and in 2001 was part of a corporate talent programme, and asked to work on a project to make AMP more innovative.
“We studied a number of other companies and did a trip and came up with what we thought a proposal for the senior management at AMP. At the time the ceo (then, Paul Batchelor) decided not to proceed but having spent a year studying innovative companies and culture I became an absolute convert and believer and decided I didn’t need the rest of the organisation. So we started off and looked at how we could capture ideas, and ended up with the first in-house developed crowd-sourced idea catcher system. Now we use a platform across the AMP, which has ended up going across the whole organisation.”
That platform, Idea Frontier has also been used to run executive sponsored challenges. The most recent AMP CEO challenge attracted 384 ideas, with ten being selected and sponsored through to implementation.
Barnett is also the sponsor of the company’s biannual ideas festival called Amplify, and its lite version, Samplify, which brings new ideas and speakers to the organisation on a more regular basis.
“More broadly than that I think where we are is at a bit of a vortex in relation to how technology is affecting different industries; different models different timeframes, but certainly. There’s the Deloitte report – Short fuse, Big bang. That divided business into how long people have got to reinvent their business model.”
For the record that report notes that the financial sector will be one of the first to be disrupted by technology change – the classic short fuse, big bang.
Barnett sees her role as providing the infrastructure and smarts to support that level of change. “More than ever how you leverage IT assets capable of supporting a changing model is near the top of the agenda.”
Right now the organisation is exploring cloud computing, desktop virtualisation and is about to roll out a collaborative platform on a private cloud being provided by CSC and using Microsoft SharePoint.
Barnett has also just completed the blueprint of a new digital strategy for the AMP, expected to roll out in 2013, although the fine detail will be dictated by the business strategy which is still being finalised.
As to the exact trajectory of the digital strategy Barnett remains quite opaque.
“We exist to solve business problems, it doesn’t mean we have to build them or even buy them any more. We recently developed a series of iPad apps – we ended up using developers in Dubai.
“In terms of IT I think there are two different paths, one more evolutionary one revolutionary – which one depends on further business strategy planning which is still going on.”