The polyglot CIO

The polyglot CIO

PwC CIO Rebecca Thomas majored in Chinese and information sciences at university. She mines this divergent background in the fast-paced digital era.

Creativity has always been a big part of IT... Business analysts look at creating better processes and user experiences; developers create using code as their clay to reimagine what is possible

Rebecca Thomas, PwC

Rebecca Thomas came out of university with an unusual conjoined degree - information sciences and Chinese.

As to how this came to be, she says when she enrolled at the University of Auckland, the queue was long for her original choice, accounting. This was before online registration, she explains.

“It was a hot day,” relates Thomas, now chief information officer at PwC New Zealand, “and the line for a new course, information sciences, was shorter.”

She then pivots and admits this was not the whole story.

“I have always been a computer nerd,” she says.

Thomas grew up in Te Puke, known as the Kiwifruit capital of New Zealand, in the Bay of Plenty.

Her first job, in the early 80s, was making boxes for the fruits. She saved enough money to buy a computer, a SEGA SC-3000. “I taught myself to code on my little computer.”

So how did she major in Chinese?

Thomas spent a year in Thailand as an exchange student in the Maha Sarakham Province. “Nobody spoke English,” she explains. “It was learn or die.”

She learned the language in six weeks. When she returned from Thailand, she had a few days to go and get ready for university.

You could come out of a database design lecture, and then go and study Confucius...It was a beautiful balance

Rebecca Thomas, PwC

“I was there on the wrong day. I didn’t have the right piece of paper,” she says.

She wanted to study Thai, but learned no classes were offered for the language. The university, however, was offering classes in Mandarin.

Thomas enrolled in Mandarin, knowing that the language is being used by a large population and will come in handy one day. Her second mistake, she discloses, was assuming the two Asian languages would be similar.

A few weeks into the course, she realised there was probably only a handful of words, one of them chá/chā for tea, that have the same meaning in both Mandarin and Thai.

She now sees the upsides of studying Chinese alongside IT. “They link really well together.”

“You could come out of a database design lecture, and then go and study Confucius,” she says. “It was a beautiful balance.”

Today, she mines this combination of technology and arts skills as she and her team lead through PwC’s focus to drive ICT innovation across the organisation.

The multi-year programme includes the rollout of hardware and software solutions that will allow PwC staff to become more mobile, increase productivity, and improve collaboration.

“Being mobile first and cloud first means we are fit for the future,” she says, on the focus of her team.

This new way of working is now fully in place at the new PwC Centre on Wellington’s waterfront.

PwC swapped its office on The Terrace for the open plan space. Staff have no permanent desks and work in different areas of the building depending on their assignments.

Thomas shares that PwC in Auckland will follow suit with a similar layout when it moves to its new office in Britomart.

In the next two years, PwC will be replacing all core systems, both covering global and local systems.

PwC in New Zealand has gone live on the full Google suite since July this year. She explains PwC and Google globally have a joint business relationship.

Later this year, PwC New Zealand will launch a document management system, which will put both client and firm documents in a safe, secure environment. “There will be no more searching shared drives,” she says.

Rebecca Thomas at the PwC building in Wellington's waterfront
Rebecca Thomas at the PwC building in Wellington's waterfront

I never think of IT without change and process because that is how I started

Before the year end, PwC will deploy Workday, as part of a global rollout. Upcoming rollouts include Salesforce for their CRM and sales platform, and a cloud-based financial system.

Thomas leads a team of 40 to 50 people, depending on the projects they are working on. She says her team has a mix of project managers, business analysts, testers, and change managers.

“Our nature of work is changing, we don’t build it (systems) from scratch,” she explains. “We are cloud first. I need people who are going to look after these apps.”

She taps her technology peers across the globe for their experiences in their respective rollouts.

“You are not an organisation doing it on your own,” she states.

Thomas has an expanded role in the technology programme.

She is chair of the Asia Pacific CIO forum for PwC, where she works with at least 20 CIOs. The meetings are held across the region.

“That’s a really lovely aspect of my work,” she says. “When you are a small territory holding a chair role, you can be very facilitative.”

Smiling, she adds that, “I even get to practice my Thai and Mandarin.”

For the Google rollout, Thomas explains PwC New Zealand collaborated with their office global team support in Malaysia.

A lot of the hard work is done, she says, referring to the Google rollout in other parts of the world, “but we have to make it locally.”

“It is like a fine oil painting,” she explains. “There are lots of brush strokes towards the enablement [of the technology].”

She cites that Google and the new technologies have changed the way people worked in their offices. “This has been a real enabler around collaboration, flexibility and mobility.”

She also made sure the staff had a choice of the technology tools they will use. People can choose whether to get an iPhone or an Android phone. In the end, over 30 per cent of the users chose the latter.

She says while giving this choice meant more work during the deployment, she saw it as risk mitigation. If there will be an issue with one system, they would be ready to switch to the other system.

This, she says, is the art of diversity. “You have to give people choice.”

Thomas reports to Mark Russell, technology and transformation lead partner at PwC.

She shares that their goal is to transform the way they work at PwC.

“I see myself as a bee in this organisation, where we are accelerating technology enablement and the products we deliver to clients.

“My role is to pollinate all the different communities and really help them,” she adds. “It is in the client edge where the real innovation and value will happen.”

“I have been in IT for a long time and I can think back of the time when we tried to centralise IT. Those times are gone.”

She further explains that, “I am an internal CIO. We are breaking down those barriers.”

Being inclusive comes naturally to many computer professionals. We were often not the 'cool' kids, so we know what exclusion feels like. This often makes us good at inclusion

Rebecca Thomas, PwC NZ

In the early part of her career, she worked on the modernisation of Customs. She came out of it with a good appreciation of the elements of a business transformation project.

“It was a really good start for me,” she discloses. “Today, I never think of IT without change and process because that is how I started.

“I was fascinated by the use of small things as great change levers.”

She remembers how one of the executives she worked with pointed out that the Customs staff are the first that people see when they come to New Zealand.

Thus, even the way they designed the uniforms were considered.

“It was all underpinned by technology,” she says, but she was also impressed by the concurrent focus on trying to create a better user experience for the customers, in this case, the travellers.

She recalls a personal experience in the Navy, where she stayed for two years.

At that time, women have not been in the Navy long enough to have shoes designed for them. “We would go tramping, and the shoes did not come small enough for my feet. I had bad blisters.”

“That is why you always have to talk about user experience in a change environment.”

Thomas brings this lesson to PwC’s shift to Google apps and other technologies, where they tried to bring excitement to the staff about the change, and making the technology so simple to use.

She joined PwC as business portfolio manager, coming from Tonkin & Taylor.

When she was with Tonkin & Taylor, Thomas worked with senior management on projects ranging “across all elements of people, process and technology”.

Before this, she was executive manager - solution delivery at Suncorp-Vero in New Zealand, reporting to the CIO. Her team was also responsible for the development and deployment of a lean programme in the banking, insurance and financial services firm.

Her other roles include being a consultant for Shell Global Solutions and WINZ. She honed her consultancy skills with Accenture, which she joined after leaving the Royal New Zealand Navy.

Lifelong lessons from coding club

She smiles when told she is one of the few women CIOs in New Zealand.

“I never really thought of it,” she says, but then adds, there was definitely a pattern she observed throughout her career.

“When I went to the computer coding club, I was the only girl there. This was in the 80s. It did not worry me.”

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When she went into the Navy, she says, “I never thought that you will be treated differently.”

As to what worked for her, she says she stuck to her leadership style of being “kind, creative and inclusive”.

Being mobile first and cloud first means we are fit for the future

“At PwC, that style was what they were looking for,” she adds.

“Perhaps, in earlier times, the benefits of kindness, creativity and inclusion in leadership were not as realised, but that has changed. It makes it a great time to be leading people in a way that I can really enjoy.”

“Being inclusive comes naturally to many computer professionals,” she says. “We were often not the 'cool' kids, so we know what exclusion feels like. This often makes us good at inclusion.”

“Creativity has always been a big part of IT, contrary to what some people may assume,” she points out.

“I always recommend it as a very creative career. Business analysts look at creating better processes and user experiences, and developers create using code as their clay to reimagine what is possible.”

“My advice to young people today on a career in ICT is that it is a great career path,” she says, “one that allows you to constantly learn, to travel, to work in teams, to be creative. And, once you get started, to have great job security and mobility to try new things.”

Thus, when a student in media design school recently asked her whether he will be able to get a job, she replied: “Absolutely.”

“You can do the design for virtual reality applications.”

“Your skill set is transferable,” she says. “No one can tell you what is coming.”

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Tags soft skillscommunicationciscoconsultingagilecareerworkplacePwCconsultancywomen in technologybusiness intellligenceconsultancy skillsABWsparkleadershipRebecca Thomas

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