Speech by Fiona Balfour (1975) to the PLC OCA Christmas Lunch 2016


The following is the transcript of Fiona's speech at the OCA Christmas Lunch 2016.

I am delighted to be here today with you all in the ‘Betty Caldwell’ Hall – as Betty Caldwell –was Anne Gifford’s mother and Anne was my best friend at PLC.  Betty was a wonderful best friend’s mother and my favourite Betty story has to be the time she turned up to a parent-teacher interview at Scotch College and insisted on calling the famous Mr Bond,  “Mr Chesty”, throughout the entire parent-teacher interview.

I am not alone in my PLC contemporaries in having a non-linear career in a new field. There are a significant number of girls from PLC who have done just this - carved their way into new and interesting fields of work.  As I have grown and matured – so too has my industry.  Unusually, both my grandmother’s and my mother worked.  I am the fifth generation of female graduates in my family and my daughter will soon be the sixth. Like many of us in this room, self-belief, determination and being brought up truly believing that I could do anything I wanted to were key characteristics in my home life. Attending PLC in the Joan Montgomery era only made this condition far worse.  

I left PLC thinking that I would join that most honourable of professions and be a teacher.  So, I studied an Honours Arts Degree in Renaissance History at Monash University; there are several history teachers – Miss Tindale and Mrs Knight come top of the list -  I remember who can accept accountability for that decision. It was huge fun and outstanding training for reading fast, writing well, learning how to develop and influence ideas, test concepts and above all – debate, defend, argue and manage ambiguity.  

My so-called technology career commenced in 1980 – I was originally planning more university – I got a graduate role with State Archives.  I thought this was a great role and decided to accept it and put Uni on hold.  But at the end of the year, I headed to Sydney – to do a post graduate diploma in information management at UNSW.  Now this turned out to be a really timely piece of education and it gave me lots of fundamental programming, data management and project management skills.  I returned to Melbourne and took up my first big promotion joining the Ministry of Education and Training as their Information Manager. 

All of us say to our children today – “you will do a series of jobs which have not even been thought of as yet” – and for me, that has been the case. This was the first of many jobs that my parents would struggle to explain to their friends – and my brother and sister would just laugh at the progressive job titles.  I hope you can see by now – some of this career journey was an accident!

Prior to the 1980s, technology was all in the back room.  Mainframes were owned by only a handful of Australian companies; they were very expensive to buy, house, maintain and run and the people who used and ran these complex and temperamental devices were very technical.  Most of them had backgrounds in engineering. 

The miracle was getting the systems to keep running – it was a very physical process and the maintenance of the systems was preeminent in everyone’s mind.  Most of these pre-1980 business applications were relatively simple – they were large transaction processing machines and few of them were online real-time – except in airlines.  Businesses who could not afford their own computer (because why would you possibly want more than one of these) – usually bought time from a bureau.  We would call this a ‘cloud service offering’ today.

But disruptive technology started emerging from almost everywhere by the early 1980s.  Unlike today – almost all of it was driven by rapid and dramatic changes to the size and cost of production of hardware and the expansion of business requirements as a cadre of people emerged from university, entered the workforce and began to develop business solutions.  This world was largely invisible to consumers.

But real change was happening.  New computers – the so-called mid-range devices and microprocessors were beginning to emerge.  When PCs themselves started arriving in businesses en masse it was like an invasion.  The rapid product evolution was amazing – new chips every 6 months – each one twice as fast and half the cost of the one before.  Organisations tried to introduce standards – “we only use IBM” was a common catch phrase – but it meant an expensive outcome.

Suddenly a whole new series of jobs began to emerge.  You see, it was not only just the mini-computers, Unix boxes and PCs, but with them came printers, WANS, LANS, applications, end user computing capability, communication protocols and security.  Once they were connected to each other, virus protection emerged as a new problem waiting to be solved.  Security, cyber protection and identity management would increasingly dominate IT professional’s concerns.  All this expensive complexity had to be planned and business cases and commercial relationships had to be managed.  And software solutions which were bountiful had to be selected, installed, integrated, tested and implemented and then the users had to be trained and change managed in the business.  Once there was lots of this stuff everywhere, people had to think ahead – and strategic planners and architects emerged to help plan and manage these investments.  None of these roles had existed before 1985 and weren’t well defined until 1995.  There were barely enough people qualified for these roles.

Overall, it was a very exciting time to work in technology.  There were new business solutions almost every week – from personal productivity solutions – through to finance applications and HR systems and there were new suppliers everywhere.  In large companies, major investments in significant automation were underway.  These systems are now affectionately known as legacy systems. 

Today – sorting through all of this would fall into the laps of solution architects, business analysts and project managers – but we hadn’t been invented yet.  So these roles ended up with people who were bright and agile and prepared to work on projects where political navigation was tough and results uncertain.  Most of the people who did this work largely did not understand the personal career risks that were involved. I clearly fell into this category.  Being able to cope with ambiguity – and invent and create solutions and processes as you went along and think your way creatively through the maze of decisions and problem solving was essential.  Resiliency and determination were also useful.  No one knew how to do this – so in my case clear, thorough, PLC thinking won the day.

There was extensive project management training available – most of this was on the job and usually involved Americans being shipped in to run very intensive in house courses over several months.  The provenance of project management as a discipline was initially the D-Day landings and then NASA evolved those planning processes for the moonshots.  By the 1980s, the IT sector had grabbed these processes and packaged them for project leadership but they had some way to go before the so called ‘agile’ processes of today emerged.  Good project managers took short cuts and learnt from their mistakes.  

So having got into the IT industry by accident and running a series of large scale projects successfully, I suddenly found myself in senior management.  At the insistence of my boss, I started an MBA which was a crash course in executive training and it allowed me to rapidly find opportunities in an industry which was beginning to find its feet.  Like most IT professionals of the time – I moved to Sydney and went consulting to accelerate my experience.  This took me to a series of Qantas owned businesses and I was soon spending time out at the Jetbase, smelling the Kero.  I went native and joined as one of only three senior executive females and the only one not in HR.  Inconveniently, I was also of child bearing age!  

In those days, Qantas was an international airline only and was getting ready to float, buy the domestic carrier Australian Airlines and have British Airways enter the register as a corner stone investor.  I was part of the change team and it was my role to get the Financial Systems ready to be an ASX listed company.  This was no small undertaking and involved deploying the first fully integrated set of online financial ledgers in Australia. Thank goodness I has listened to Mrs Brewer and Mrs Candy in Maths. 

In the late 1980s, the scale of technology investment by airlines was astonishing. Qantas had over 2,800 working in technology – this was when the airline only had 20,000 employees in total.  Qantas was the largest investor in technology in Australia outside the Government sector until the Banks decided that computer systems were actually quite useful – so for many years, the CIO at Qantas was the largest IT job in Australia.

By the early 1990s, most parts of the airline were automated with mainframe transaction based systems.  When BA acquired 30% of Qantas, sorting out which technology would be used was not a small question.  I was running the strategic planning and architecture function at that time – and negotiating with my BA colleagues how we would collectively spend the $1b per annum on technology was my focus.  My role was rapidly evolving from a project manager to someone who managed the investment processes, decision making and the inevitable politics of the outcomes.

Developing and running the strategy and architecture during the acquisition of TN and part ownership by BA was heavy weight political work.  But from this work emerged the oneworld strategy.  Its implementation was developed around a simple principle - if five airlines could each find and manage their key customers and keep them loyal within the group, we would each build our economic wealth.  The solution was ultimately to sell our IP to a European company called Amadeus and get them to run common systems for us.  The $1b deal we negotiated in 2000 was a market shaping transaction and today over 180 airlines use this QF/BA IP. 

The most exciting change was the emergence of the internet. One day, one of my team members came and asked for some funding for a secret project.  He was exploring this internet thing.  He postulated that if we could sell and ticket online that we could turn the tables on the travel agents.  Qantas IT was one of the first airlines to develop eticket and we already knew that customers preferred eticket to paper. Could we take this to the next step?  The challenges were significant – but mostly internal.  It took many attempts from the technology team to get the prototype working.  Many airline people did not want this to happen. Fares people had to be convinced to sell from 4 buckets and not 26; commercial people had to reduce commissions to travel agents; customers had to be confident to use QF.com.  In the end, bonus FF points were used as incentives and fees were imposed for using the call centres and these incentives were the levers that worked. It had taken dozens of attempts to get it right but very soon, the web site became the largest sales channel for the airline.

When I left the airline to join Telstra, I had experienced running IT, Property, Procurement, HR services and financial services, had spent 6 years on Executive Committee and had over 3,000 staff and $4 b in costs under management.  In my years with the airline, I commuted variously to DFW, Bangkok and London for projects; I had worked in Sydney on London time during the oneworld implementation; I had discovered a great deal about changing legacy systems into modern web enabled applications –and eventually I learnt how to be a competent executive and a good boss at the same time. It is these skills that I now use in my current roles as an ASX Director.

I learnt the need to look after all my people and grow into a good leader – this took time and effort.  Establishing a constructive style – setting the rules for my part of the organisation – sticking to them myself and giving people permission to call me were part of the process.  Let your people know that achievement in the right way is the only way to lead – make working for you a good experience for both women and men.  A workplace which is tough on women is usually tough on the deeply analytical, shy, lovely men as well.  You need both these groups to build successful teams.

I learnt to always act openly, transparently, honestly and with integrity.  Being successful is always the result of many elements and the way that you achieve success is as important as the success itself.  There are a hundred different ways this works – right from acknowledging the input from others to successful business outcomes and owning the accountability when things do not work out so happily on the other.

Children best fulfil themselves when the home and the school each reinforce the other and share the same values.  Successful people – so they say- typically exhibit grit, self-belief and do not believe that there are any real barriers to do anything they want to do – or is this actually the other way around – that is people who are taught and brought up to be determined with high self-belief and low belief in barriers become successful?   I always like to think it the latter because I do think it does explain why there are so many girls who have had nonlinear successful careers from our generation at PLC.  We learnt these values in a trusting, empowered environment and it was drilled into us at home and at school.  I warmly remember with great affection the example set by Monty and her staff; their work ethic, their values, their integrity and their determination and I hope that I have reflected that to my people throughout my career.  

It has been a privilege to return today – thank you for the opportunity to share my journey with you.