Provident Financial IT director on climbing obstacles

Penny Jones didn't choose IT as a career -- it chose her. She stumbled upon her first IT job, working for retailer Littlewoods when she was 19, almost by accident. Having spent three years since leaving school in undemanding admin roles, she took the position in operations because it was better paid and looked like a promising opportunity.

It was a good call. Twenty-six years later and Jones, now director of IT at Provident Financial, was earlier this year shortlisted for the Blackberry Women & Technology awards in the Best Use of Technology by a Woman within the Corporate Sector category. She has had a varied career, working in public and private sectors, for corporates and SMEs in almost every function, including operations, software development and program management.

At school, Jones's careers adviser had suggested she find work as an air stewardess, nurse or secretary. The first two didn't appeal, and so her first jobs were secretarial. She had no interest in IT at that point. "My exposure to technology at that stage had been one computer in the maths club at school, and everyone drew Snoopies and that was it. I knew nothing about computers," she says.

When the opportunity arose to work for Littlewoods in a systems administrator role, she seized it with both hands. IT was regarded as a very specialist area and was largely the preserve of men. "There was a drip feed of women, but very much in the lower echelons of technology," she says. "Back then we still wore white coats and were considered scientific people, so there were no female role models at all."

She discovered a natural aptitude for the work and four years later moved to Berkshire County Council, where she was responsible for computerizing HR systems. At that stage, in the late 1980s, there were no commercial systems available, so she had to design a bespoke system. She describes the period as the "very beginnings of technology as a business enabler".

There was a lot of resistance among staff to the idea of holding personal data electronically, she says: "We were trying to persuade guys who'd been at the council man and boy that they really wanted to put their information into this system because it was going to help them with their career. It was a tough call."

Nonetheless, the project gave her the opportunity to exercise her people skills as well as develop her technological expertise. She believes this combination of skills has contributed to her success. "I've managed to maintain this hybrid approach to technology throughout my career. I was never purely a technician. I always had a very strong people strand within my career path," she says.

From Berkshire, she went to the MoD as a contract IT manager, and then to British Aerospace to run the company's training department, where she was lucky enough to have a manager who acted as a mentor, encouraging her to stretch herself and advising her on new opportunities. During her five years in the organization, the IT function was outsourced to CSC, giving her the opportunity to work as a consultant in a variety of areas: business process re-engineering, service delivery, problem-solving and carrying out due diligence activities for mergers. It was, she says, a "fantastic experience".

In 1996, Jones became head of IT at Huttons International, a ships chandlers. Working for a small company was, she says, a very different experience: "I'd gone from large corporates and the defense environment, these large behemoths of organizations, to very small companies where it was an inordinate challenge because they have very different constraints financially. I've managed huge budgets in my time, but the most challenging one was a £50,000 [US$92,027] one, because you've really go to be creative within that kind of boundary."

When she joined Huttons, the company was undergoing a management buyout and had a deficit of £250,000. Her proudest achievement, she says, was taking the firm, within a year, to £250,000 in profit by implementing a business intelligence system that enabled it to carry out much more efficient stock control.

"They were just stocking without needing to do so. A much stronger business intelligence system enabled them to make the right purchasing decisions for the volume throughput, so it made a substantial difference," she says.

Influential roles

Other SME jobs followed and the experience served her well. "They're a lot quicker to market, so you see an awful lot more change a lot faster. Quite often there's a sole decision maker, so they will take your advice as a shadow director and go with it. There's a lot more influence and ability to change and transform businesses at that level, but there are also some quite serious constraints because some of the things you could do that would really help are just a bridge too far financially," she says.

In 2002, Jones headed back to the corporate sector as group program services director for bus and rail operator First Group. As deputy to the CIO, she was responsible for the change portfolio, which included First Group's acquisition of Laidlaw International, the firm behind the iconic Greyhound bus service. In January this year, she took up her post as IT director at Provident.

The industry has changed enormously since her time at Littlewoods in the early 1980s. "When I started out, the IT people were in metaphorical ivory towers -- they were technological whizz-bangs," she explains. "Now there is more of a requirement for IT directors and CIOs to speak business. They need to understand the business agenda, they need to be able to convert the technological agenda into business parlance, and they have to have a good understanding of general business management, which has historically never been part of their repertoire."

This need to understand business requirements is an area where many IT chiefs fail to deliver, Jones contends. "You've got fantastic technocrats in IT who know everything there is to know about technology, but when it comes to having a board-level discussion, they really can't understand why some of those guys aren't interested in the WAN speed," she says.

Another kind of CIO -- the business -visionary who knows little about the technology -- is also common, she says, but there are very few CIOs who have both a good understanding of the technology and the business. That said, she does not downplay the value of an intimate knowledge of technology. Her own strength, she believes, comes from her very wide experience in a number of different roles. "I've worked in operations, in development, in testing, in project management and in delivery of services," she says.

"I've done every job in the IT function at some time, which gives me a massive grounding for the seniority [stage] I'm at now. It means that if there's ever a problem and someone says, 'You won't understand this, it's terribly technical,' I'll say, 'Explain it to me' because I'll probably grasp it fairly quickly. That gives you credibility you probably couldn't get any other way."

Dearth of youth

Jones is concerned that the number of young people wanting to enter the industry is falling off. She believes that, because of the rigorous testing regime, schools are teaching to a particular standard, and are less interested in stretching the high-achieving children. This is particularly true in ICT, she says, because teachers often aren't equipped to teach the subject properly. "If you've got somebody who happens to be a maths teacher who's lumbered with the technology initiative, then by default they're likely to put a maths slant on that. That won't set alight a lot of children who aren't maths-orientated."

Children are being turned away from a career that has the potential to be hugely interesting, she says. "It's a fascinating field. It's the lever and enabler for organizations in the future -- how can you not be interested in that? Without technology in companies these days, how many of them would function?"

Another concern is the fact that the outsourcing trend is reducing the number of entry-level positions in the IT industry. "What we're going to see in IT is an aging workforce, because our entry-level positions don't exist -- they're either offshored or outsourced to third parties," Jones warns. As a result, she says, the contemporary IT workforce is dominated by people in their 30s and 40s. At Provident, she is addressing the problem by helping to create trainee roles for 16 and 17-year-old school-leavers rather than graduates.

At the same time, she is worried that women are still under-represented in IT, though she feels that the situation is beginning to change: "I look back across the IT departments I've worked in recently, and there seems to be a more even spread of women than there ever has been. There are women in management positions and team-leader posts, and they're starting to get head-of-function roles. There are fewer of us but there's a greater spread of us."

Women are still finding it hard to rise to the highest positions, however. "Women are almost dropping out: they get to a head-of-function level, and they're not making the step up to IT director. They seem to be falling away in their 40s."

The IT industry itself is changing rapidly, and Jones believes there are exciting developments ahead, particularly for the consumer. The most interesting new technologies, she thinks, are biometrics and electronic purchasing. "They're going to bring opportunities for firms that work one-on-one with individual customers. The likes of Barclays are working on the e-money initiative with Oyster card. The mobile phone explosion means that the way to get someone's attention is not through a mailshot -- it's through an SMS text. If we could take some of those things and align them into the business environment that would give us a major opportunity."

Jones is looking forward to making her mark at Provident, a financial services company that offers small short-term unsecured loans. It's a market that Jones says is often misunderstood by the media and lumped in unfairly with loan sharks. She believes the firm offers plenty of opportunities to use IT to transform the business.

"Provident has an enormous field force of 11,000 agents, who have relationships on doorsteps. There's a huge opportunity for comprehensive business intelligence and putting the customer at the heart of the lifecycle. For me, the challenge is taking the IT department to a world-class business-centric delivery model."

This story, "Provident Financial IT director on climbing obstacles" was originally published by CIO.

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