Helen Vorrath

Dear younger self

So you’ve decided to become an IT professional when you grow up? Good choice! You’ve already discovered the satisfaction of getting a program to work – that will continue to excite you for the rest of your life. You’ll also find that debugging the things that don’t work is equally rewarding.

What you don’t yet know is how much more exciting it is when a whole new system goes live, and all the parts function together as planned. Even better and more important is when the users of the system tell you how great it is. By the way, if that’s not happening, you need to try harder. The first priority for a system is that it is fit for purpose, does the job, but the second is that it is easy to learn and use. If it isn’t, it will suffer from misuse or disuse. When you’re designing or building systems, step into the users’ shoes, understand how they work now and why. If you can see that IT can make their job easier and more effective if the existing processes change, be prepared to sell your ideas for improvement, because everyone is resistant to change, some more than others. Design flexibly: anticipate the way that needs may change in the future.

Helen (on right) at Alcoa on International Women’s Day mid 1970s

I know you’ve thought about other professions from time to time. One of the great things about IT is that it is a service industry. It has now invaded every other industry and profession, from health to hospitality, from finance to film production, from manufacturing to the law. This means you can combine an interest in IT with any other industry or profession, or you can work in a lot of other industries and occupations, constantly learning about the way they operate. For me that has ranged from making aluminium products through to managing mobile phone billing, from selling wine and beer to controlling water and sewage, from selling shoes to superannuation.

Whatever route you take, you’ll be learning constantly anyway. The world of IT is like the world Alice found behind the looking-glass: you have to run very fast every now and then just to stay in the same place. The things I’m doing daily as an ageing IT person you would find almost unimaginable. In 50 plus years I’ve used dozens of computers, learnt dozens of languages, systems, methodologies… Just as the building industry has changed from hand-crafting doors and windows to assembling pre-built modules, so my time these days is spent linking apps, plugins, extensions together to build the systems I need, providing immense functionality quickly and cheaply. And it all happens in this amazing thing called “the cloud”, which means I can work on my projects from anywhere in the world, including on a yacht in Tasmania.

Hey look, now we have PCs – in the 1980s

As IT invades our world, the social impact is increasing, opening up new areas to work in, and giving you the opportunity to really make a difference. IT can give greater access to information, or to misinformation. Big data can be used to make life better or worse. The industry needs people who are passionate about using IT to make life better, while protecting human rights.

IT is breaking down barriers of distance, of access to services. But if IT is going to support communities in need, there is work to be done in building digital literacy. I know you have a hankering to teach, and you’ll find plenty of opportunity in explaining, training, mentoring. Helping older people to come to grips with technology is an on-going source of satisfaction for me.

Here are the lessons I’ve learned:

  • Be agile – keep learning
  • Small is beautiful – the bigger the project, the bigger the team, the greater the chance of failure
  • Build and implement systems incrementally if you can so that change is gradual
  • Women make really good team leaders and project managers
  • “Imagination is greater than Knowledge” (Albert Einstein)

Good luck!
Your older self

Postscript: This piece was written for Ada Lovelace Day in 2020, to inspire young women to go into IT.

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