CIO of Origin Energy, Kelly Ferguson, had a dream to be a “technologist” right from the beginning, explaining she tinkered with computers during her impressionable childhood years while her siblings preferred to play on the family farm in the US.
“For me, there have been two key themes that have followed my career: a focus on technology and a focus on people. I’m pretty lucky. I have followed my dream. I always wanted to be a technologist. While the rest of my brothers and sisters played away on the farm, I managed to convince my father in the late 80’s to buy an Apple IIe computer. And then I promptly took it apart.
“I laid out all of the pieces in the most OCD manner you can imagine on my teal carpet and I learned about how that computer worked. I was about nine years old. I remember the look on my father’s face when he opened the bedroom door and saw the $1000 computer in pieces. It was not a good look. I did have to convince him to buy me a soldering iron in order to get it all back together.”
Speaking to a crowd of more than 500 at the FITT International Women’s Day Luncheon in Sydney, Ferguson gave a candid personal account of her journey as a women in IT, while touching on the theme of how to be ‘Bold for Change’ and ‘‘Celebrate the Digital Frontier.’
“The truth is, I am not special. I am sure there are far more people qualified to talk about both of those topics than I am. But I am scrappy and I have worked my buns off to scramble up the top of the corporate ladder - and I am clinging on for dear life.”
Ferguson, the former CIO of NineMSN, credits her father’s pivotal words and encouragement as strong foundations for her success and main reasons for her dogged determination.
“My father is incredibly strong willed, a lawyer by trade, running a farm, whose voice my entire life has been ringing in my ears, saying, ‘Hussle up Kell,’ which means you need to move about ten times faster than you are moving. He was like the original 10 Xer. Let me tell you, though, that voice ringing in my ear was something that I needed.”
She said the fatherly influence has shaped her work mentality and enabled her to never give up and push herself to the limits.
“I have slept under my desk. I have gone two weeks without washing my hair. I have rocked a baby in a Maclaren rocker with my foot, while I stirred dinner with my elbows, typed an email with my left hand and talked to a CEO on the phone about a $10 million deal - and I am not making that up. I have actually been there.”
She admits the journey in IT has been tough. “It hasn't always been easy. I've signed up for things that I had absolutely no idea how to do. I've won and delivered products and I have failed. I am pretty lucky that I have had an incredibly interesting career.”
She noted how she has often been the only woman in a vast number of scenarios. “I've sat in more meetings and in more teams than you can possibly imagine where I was the only girl, or the youngest, or the only one that had some crazy idea that nobody wanted to listen to. I have persevered and kept that ‘Hussle up Kell’ in the back of my head.”
Speaking about her accomplishments, she said she’s been lucky to have found a niche in order to cultivate success.
“I've been very lucky to have found a niche that I am good at. And through it all, I’ve managed to keep that little ‘technologist’ and slightly rebellious girl alive and kicking within me,” she said, explaining she has worked at Microsoft in the technology team (mostly writing algorithms in Excel), at Philips Healthcare, as CIO of Mi9, the digital arm of Channel Nine, and currently the CIO of Origin Energy.
She said it’s important to be bold for change and credits key influencers in her life including mentors and family members that have helped shape her professional persona. “They have allowed me to remain true to myself and my beliefs. To keep the crazy tech girl running hard inside me, but allows me to climb up that corporate ladder.”
As an example, she credits Raechel Gavin, HR director at Quantium, as a pivotal influencer.
“Raechel taught me about feedback. I give feedback generously and I ask for it like crazy. What I learned from Raechel was how valuable feedback really was. How understanding from people exactly what they need from you, allows you to give them exactly what they need. Without feedback, I’d never be successful. The men and women in my life who have openly shared with me how I could be harder, stronger, faster, sometimes less, talk quieter, talk slower, those people have helped bring out the very best in what I have to give.”
Surprisingly, she also credited her younger sister’s “irritating” habit of saying, ‘know what you want, get what you want,’ as words to live by in her professional career.
“Through times of adversity, the big challenges that have laid before me, keeping my eye on the prize, and being focused with a clear sense of purpose has been a backbone of my success. ‘Know what you want, get what you want’ has kept me focused, helped me ask people for what I needed and ultimately seen me deliver.”
Eyeing industry challenges and opportunities, she said the road to digital transformation (“which is changing the way that we work, the way we think, and the way we interact with one another”) is a worthy pursuit and one that requires a focus on preserving human interaction, particularly with the advent of voice interfaces and voice enabled content entering workplaces and homes.
“As I look forward to this digital frontier, I am optimistic that sharing stories like I have will remind us to leverage digital in a way that keeps us even more connected to one another. With the rise in popular or unpopular opinion, we need to be able to talk to each other, share with one another and, most importantly, continue to learn from each other,” she said.