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Taking Maxwell to the IT

Taking Maxwell to the IT

A lifetime spent working in information technology has left Mary Ann Maxwell with a deep insight into what works and what doesn't when it comes to meeting the information expectations of corporations

A lifetime spent working in information technology has left Mary Ann Maxwell with a deep insight into what works and what doesn't when it comes to meeting the information expectations of corporations.

On a glittering winter's morning, Sydney Symphony's IT department learned what it really needed was not necessarily more technology or skills - or even money - but an annual report.

Besides providing technology services, the department needed to run itself in exactly the way that any business operates: working with a customer focus, managing a portfolio of products and services, optimising its price and enhancing its delivery. Then the department needed to do some "self examination" and create an annual report, setting out what it had achieved, at what cost, and identifying what it planned to achieve in the future.

It is, according to Mary Ann Maxwell, the seminal lesson for CIOs: that they are running a business, and need to act like they are. Maxwell, now 56 and with 30-plus years in IT under her belt, had volunteered to act as a coach to Sydney Symphony's IT group and believes that from the smallest to the tallest, IT groups need to learn that fundamental lesson.

A career CIO since before the term entered the lexicon, Maxwell's last CIO role was at Westpac, which she joined in January 2000 and left this month to join Meta Group locally as the vice president of executive directions. "I was a terrible programmer, a pretty good analyst and a damn good manager," is how Maxwell describes her route into the CIO role.

Maxwell had spent "the summer before The Summer Of Love" on the Californian hippie trail after quitting an English Literature course at Santa Clara University. As her summer of love drifted into autumn, or rather fall, a newly-separated Maxwell realised that she and her young daughter needed more than love to live on. With the support of parents-cum-babysitters, Maxwell returned to university, majoring in accounting while working at Pacific Telephone & Telegraph as a programmer/analyst. By 1977 she was the data processing manager.

After 31 years in the US, working for a number of corporations including Countrywide Credit Industries, Zenith Insurance, Health Net and Maxicare Health Plans (in the CIO role or similar position for the past 18 years), a chance meeting at a sporting event led to Maxwell learning of the Westpac opportunity. Three days before Christmas 1999, Maxwell came to Sydney for a meeting with Westpac chief David Morgan. "I asked him what his one- to two-year objectives were," she says. "After all, I was only going to be there for four years. He said he wanted to see the value from the CRM investments the bank had made. And he wanted a serious, objective evaluation of outsourcing."

By January 2000 Maxwell was installed as CIO. What she says she found was an IT group, which had been leaderless for a while, directionless for a little longer, and not highly respected within the bank.

After determining that outsourcing did indeed make sense for the bank, Maxwell and her team set about negotiating contracts, ultimately with IBM GSA and Telstra. Conducting that transition became Maxwell's first-year priority and as part of that managing the people aspects was critical. "The people thing is where I have the most skills; but it [Westpac] was a different culture. I don't think the IT people were used to a CIO who regularly came and talked to them," she says. "Over the first nine months I met four times with the entire group, and each month with the management group. They were hard meetings to have, to figure out what had to be done, to negotiate."

It was a turbulent period but Maxwell did oversee Westpac's move to outsourcing in a single year, enduring stoushes with the unions along the way (see "High Anxiety", CIO March 2001). Her second year at the bank was given over to "restructuring, reorganising and re-energising the remainder of the IT operation".

In 2002 the politics and personalities within Westpac shifted and Maxwell's husband died suddenly and unexpectedly. With these events as a backdrop and mindful of the fact that she had a four-year contract with the bank expiring in January 2004, Maxwell moved into the role of chief technology officer, and ultimately to special projects. She is now embarking on a new career: coach and mentor to other IT executives.

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