The next Alamo

The next Alamo

When US-based document management integrator MDY acquired local reseller Educom Business Solutions in June last year, Becky McGaw was asked to head up the company's Australian operations.

Hailing from Alamogordo, New Mexico a sleepy little town 86 miles north of the Mexican border, McGaw started off a long way from the fast-paced and ever-changing world of IT. She began her career studying languages with the hope of a Foreign Service deployment.

"I did the Foreign Service exam in the US but at the time they weren't taking any women. So I got very angry and went back to my placement officer at my university and said ‘I've wasted my time, get me a real job'. Within two weeks, they had me working at South Western Bell telephone company as an accounting unit supervisor. But the thing was, I didn't know anything about accounting," McGaw said.

But McGaw didn't have to wait long. Shortly after, South Western Bell rolled out a number of early-generation mainframes and McGaw was one of the few chosen to "go figure these things out".

Despite the fact there were no computer science degrees to speak of back in the 70s, McGaw was unphased by the challenge of pouring over manuals and systematically teaching herself programming.

"That's how I got into IT," McGaw said. "No one told us this was going to be difficult. To this day, I attribute my understanding of IT to the simple belief that none of it is really hard."

From there she went into the management of systems development for South Western Bell in St Louis. "It was an unknown at the time whether people who had worked in the field office at the telephone company could actually program. There was a certain arrogance about it all that indicated women were new to management for one, and further, if you were from the field you were probably a little dull. So it was a grand experiment," reflects McGaw.

McGaw began programming the hard way, in assembly language. "Cobal we viewed as the lazy man's code because it was so easy. We were fairly arrogant in that we were assembly language programmers and so we did it the hard way. And it wasn't until recent times that a lot of us have come around to thinking ‘gosh' that was really dumb of us."

Meanwhile, nearby McDonald Douglas had lost the contract for space shuttle software development to Rockwell in California. The result was a number of top programmers were looking for a job, and McGaw was there to welcome them with open arms.

"I went to work with the fellas who programmed the original space shuttle, and they were now programming all the business processes for South Western Bell. These guys were rocket scientists - no kidding!," McGaw said. "So I learned programming from the best programmers on the planet."

When the Bell System was privatised in 1983, McGaw was hand picked along with 10 other colleagues (all of which were male) by AT&T, in conjunction with the Federal Communications Commission, to form a brand new company called the National Exchange Carrier Association.

"I was like a kid in a candy store because here I had my very own IT organisation. I could decide what methods to use, what systems to use, what databases to use, all based on the best practice of the time. That was an experience I will probably never have again - having to start a company from scratch," McGaw said.

From there, in 1996, McGaw was approached by a large law firm in New Jersey which wanted a technologist to bring them out of the dark ages and become a technology-savvy firm.

"Here were people who couldn't even spell PC, that kind of thing, but really wanted to become leaders in technology," recalls McGaw. "That had more to do with organisational change management than with systems implementation, which has now become my true love. It's helping people understand that systems are never the solution - it's the way people use them, embrace them, and have the systems work for them."

Implementing technology "in the courtroom" for 65-year-old attorneys and then watching them effectively use it to win cases was one of the highlights of her career. "It really helped me validate the work I was doing with that firm at the time," said McGaw.

"One of the biggest difficulties I faced was when the law firm I was with went through the World Trade Center bombing. That was a very difficult experience for the firm, and one from which a lot of the people who worked at the World Trade Center never really recovered," she said.

"But because we had sound disaster recovery, I think we were the only firm in the building who didn't miss a beat business wise, even though it took a huge toll on the individuals," she added.

From heading up the IT department at the law firm, McGaw eventually found a home in the Australian channel.

"Coming to Australia was a real challenge for me because I was used to being the customer, not the service provider. MDY was my integrator in the States, and when they decided to purchase this systems integration firm here, they asked me to come down and run it, not because I knew how to run a systems integration firm, but because I would bring the customer perspective," McGaw said.

"Here in Australia it was really interesting to find I could come to a foreign country without knowing much at all about the culture in terms of the business climate and the business processes, and to keep [MDY] going well has been very rewarding for me personally," she said.

McGaw notes Australian companies are a lot more cautious in their acquisition of technology, with a lot less "throw away" than the US.

"Business processes are taken a lot more seriously here, which is a very good thing. I think you have a soundness to business here, whereas in the US you get a little more fly by night," claims McGaw. "I find a refreshing attitude towards technology and its deployment here. It may be frustrating in that sales cycles are longer, but in truth I think there's a better result to the system implementation."

McGaw is looking forward to continuing championing organisational change management consultation in addition to systems integration with MDY. "That is really where we will differentiate ourselves and can be excellent in the marketplace today and that's where I'd like to see us grow," McGaw said.

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