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 UK 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".
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