In our exclusive interview with Datacom MD Australia Alex Coates, she talks about why we need to bust the myth that you need to be technical to pursue a career in tech. As someone who studied German at university, she is proof of that.
It was a sliding doors moment that Datacom MD Australia Alex Coates vividly recalls.
In her early twenties, she was offered a graduate role at the British confectionery company Cadbury and another role at Fujitsu in the tech sector.
She laughingly says she chose the role ‘that was better for my waistline.’
Her decision to pursue a career in the tech sector paid off. Now, Alex runs Australia’s largest homegrown technology company with a staff of 7,000 and she was the first female director when she first joined the company in 2011.
Career in Tech
Yet, as she points out, she studied a generic degree and mastered in German which proves you don’t need to be a coder or hugely technical to enjoy a successful career in technology.
“I joined Datacom as the youngest and only female director of the company,” says Alex from Datacom’s Melbourne office. “I’ve been running Australia for two and a half years through a period where we’ve been fortunate to have a period of real success and growth. We’ve seen revenue uplift with grown between 15 to 20 per cent from new contracts we’ve won and from building our capabilities to meet our customers’ needs.”
Being at the helm of such a huge company has its challenges especially given the breadth of offerings Datacom has from data centres, cybersecurity to enterprise software products.
“Digital transformations is one of those big challenges and opportunities that needs to be met and we need to set up new capabilities in platform dynamics to accelerate digital transformation,” says Alex, who says customers expect agility more than ever.
Along with ensuring the customer model works effectively, Alex says it’s important to focus on both attracting and retaining staff and this is particularly challenging with the current skills shortage in the tech industry.
It’s also why she puts a lot of focus on speaking at schools, universities and TAFE to encourage more people to pursue a career in tech and she has a particular interest in addressing the gender gap for women in tech putting support behind women in tech organisations such as Adelaide-based Her Tech Path.
“Ultimately, we won’t solve the problem without role models, and we need to showcase that this is a great industry to be part of,” she explains. “We need to bust the myth that you have to be technical by showcasing the amazing things women, who are not technical, are doing in the tech industry. You don’t need to be technical to grow a career in tech.”
Alex says the Datacom business in Australia has a 23 per cent female representation which has to be said is typical of the wider industry, and it’s something she is keen to address.
Women in tech
So how do we fix it?
“I work on the premise that men have to perform to belong and women have to belong to perform,” explains Alex. “Working with that premise, you need to create an environment of belonging for females to feel like they work in a place where they are going to thrive. For me, it is about creating a connection about the work that they do and the impact that they create because that gives them purpose.”
It’s also what works for her.
“For me, when I wake up in the morning, I am energised about creating impact for an Australian citizen,” she says. “I’m not necessarily super energised about the tech I’m going to touch during the day.”
Creating purpose beyond tech
To encourage more people to pursue careers in the tech sector, Alex says: “We’ve just launched skills programmes, and stand by the promise of being a flexible workplace. We also do mentoring and we are a very values based company which is important to people.
Nowadays, Alex says flexible working is non negotiable and she says she not only stands by that but she also role models it.
To ensure she spends quality family time with her husband and two young daughters, she has a rule that she always picks up her daughters from school on Friday afternoons and never travels that day unless it is ‘mission critical’.
“People don’t get surprised when I pick up my kids on a Friday afternoon,” she adds. “If someone calls me then, one of my kids will pick up the phone and say ‘it’s my time with mummy now.'”
Being a working mum, Alex says it is important to set boundaries and for everyone in the business to respect those boundaries. Recently, Alex said she had a diary clash with her daughter’s swimming carnival and a meeting with her Board. So she spoke to her Board about the clash and they happily changed the date to accommodate her attending her daughter’s school event.
It’s all part of the juggling act of being able to run a big tech organisation and still be present when it comes to devoting time to her family. And, importantly, it’s an example of Alex role modelling the fact that Datacom offers flexible working hours and it’s something she values and benefits from, along with her staff.