‘Back in My Day’ is an Information Age series profiling some of our older ACS members and Information Age readers speaking about their early days in IT.
This week, we speak with Ann Moffatt, aged 83 years, from Queensland.
How did you get started in the tech sector?
It was in 1958 and I saw a notice for a computer programmer with a maths degree at Kodak – I didn’t have a maths degree but I applied and got accepted to do one.
I got offered the job in April 1959. I started working for them and went to a training course in Ferranti. Kodak had four programmers in those days, called the operational research unit. There I was trying to automate the production process of the film.
I loved it from day one. It was like doing puzzles. I’ve loved everything I’ve done in my life.
Where did you go after Kodak?
I stayed there until I was going to have a baby in 1965. We decided I’d be a stay-at-home mum. Somebody had read in a newspaper about a woman starting a company giving work to computer programmers who wanted to work while they had a baby – called Freelance Programmers. When I joined there were 11 people – when I left eight years later I was technical director in charge of 400 people who were working from home.
What came next?
We had just introduced a labour exchange register for people at a high level, and a Minister had come to cut the ribbon. I was the only woman there, and somebody asked for someone to demonstrate it. No man could do it so I said yes. I put in all the data that I wanted – a very high salary, all school holidays off, all sorts of amazing things. When we finished, the man who was in charge said ‘you were having fun weren’t you? We’ve got 3,000 jobs in this but we’ve got no people’.
So, they left my data in it and I got a phone call from a company that was quite happy to pay that high salary and give me the school holidays off, so I joined them.
The technology was great but the company just didn’t understand what it had to sell.
I moved into a computer consultancy, which was part of BP Petroleum. I worked on a strategic review for the steel industry.
In 1973, people came from Australia and said they were looking for someone with database experience. I was offered a job in Australia, and they asked me to the Ritz for lunch to persuade me and asked if they were offering enough money. But I had no idea what that money was in Australia. They sent me another offer letter doubling the salary.
The company was CSO, which was 80 percent owned by AMP, the biggest company in Australia by far in those days.
I started to look at the way they were doing databases - the problem was that any time there was a new release of the operating system on the computers AMP had used to build it, they had to retrofit the system to the new operating system. The operating system was always changing. It was a total mess. The net result of it was it was cancelled when they had spent $92 million on it.
Did you stay at AMP after that?
I stayed at AMP for eight years, and I was the only woman executive at AMP. I ended up as the futurist in charge of knowing what was going to happen with computing. We had a strategist looking at the next five years and I was looking at five years to 25 years. That took me to universities all around the world and the backrooms of IBM. It was really great.
At Christmas a headhunter took me to lunch – he said he knew what my salary was and he could get me twice that.
That was at the stock exchange. In 1987, the stock exchange was different in every state with different listing rules, legal rules and computer systems. My job was to bring all the disparate systems together to make them work as one exchange, and to do a strategic review to re-equip the stock exchange to the year 2000.
What was it like working at the stock exchange?
I was very proud that our system in Australia was one of the only ones in the world that stayed up after the ‘87 crash. All the others around the world went down, but ours stayed up. That was thanks to a strict discipline of testing.
After the crash, they didn’t really need their new computer system and I was told I was redundant because they weren’t moving ahead with the new computer system. That hurt – I thought I’d never get a job on that salary again.
My daughter worked on a cotton farm, so I went to work there. I scrubbed and peeled potatoes and felt very sad for myself.
I got back to Sydney and found out that The Australian had told the whole story of the stock exchange fiasco. There was a picture on the front page saying I was one of the people who had suffered from what they had done. I had 12 job offerings all waiting, saying they’d either pay me more or to name my price.
I chose a systems services company – they only had two women executives. We had a very chauvinist manager.
A job came up at the Institute of Information Technology at NSW University. At the time any company that imported hardware or software had to research, develop or manufacture something in Australia proportionate to that value. IBM in those days had the biggest share of computers and the biggest aggregation under the offset scheme. They decided to put all the training into the University of NSW and I was the head of that.
When IBM hit a sticky patch in the beginning of the 90s they decided to take everything that was outsourced back in house, so the Institute was closed down.
We asked the university to take the training off them, and we set up a company with about $2 million a year revenue from stuff we’d already been doing. The company went from strength to strength, it ran for seven years and then I retired.
What advice do you have for those getting started in the IT sector?
Just go for it, and if you don’t like it, get out and do something else.
I have had the most fun. There have been days of tremendous stress, I’ve worked 48 hours on the trot but it’s all been fun. Every day there’s been something new to learn, something new happening in the company. You have to keep up to date with what is happening.
There’s always a problem to solve, always something going wrong or something new people want computing to do. You have to stretch yourself to conceptualise. It’s such an exciting place.
What do you think needs to be done to improve gender diversity in the tech sector?
The thing that concerns me is we don’t have enough women in the industry. If we don’t have enough women, we women will get what the men want us to get.
Women ask excellent questions and listen – if you watch a man go to a client to get requirements, it’s quite a different conversation.
The women listen and take things in and ask questions. Women make excellent programmers.
I just wish more women would feel like they have a place in the industry. I really do think that by now women should be able to see themselves in this career.
Unless women see other women getting up the ladder they won’t think there’s a career.