Rebecca Thomas came out of university with an unusual conjoined degree - information sciences and Chinese.
As to how this came to be, she said when she enrolled at the University of Auckland, the queue was long for her original choice, accounting. This was before online registration, she explained.
“It was a hot day,” related Thomas, now chief information officer at PwC New Zealand, “and the line for a new course, information sciences, was shorter.”
She then pivoted and admitted this was not the whole story; “I have always been a computer nerd."
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 explained. “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.
“I was there on the wrong day," she said. "I didn’t have the right piece of paper."
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 disclosed, 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," she said. “You could come out of a database design lecture, and then go and study Confucius. It was a beautiful balance."
New way of working
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 said, 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 shared 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 explained 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 added.
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 said 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 explained. “We are cloud first. I need people who are going to look after these apps.”
She tapped her technology peers across the globe for their experiences in their respective rollouts; “you are not an organisation doing it on your own."
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 added. “When you are a small territory holding a chair role, you can be very facilitative. I even get to practice my Thai and Mandarin."
For the Google rollout, Thomas explained that 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 explained. “There are lots of brush strokes towards the enablement [of the technology]."
She cited 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.
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