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Women in Tech Interview: IFS Africa MD Emma Murray

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Women are infinitely more capable than they think they are, and when they are pushed out of their comfort zones is when they become the most productive and the most creative.

That's one of the key takeaways from a recent Connecting Africa interview with Emma Murray, the managing director and country manager for the Africa market unit at IFS.

"Generally, you're the person who thinks you're the worst. There is nobody else in the room who's sitting with that same thought in their mind. It's you who is stopping yourself from doing what you should be doing," she said.

Murray spoke to Connecting Africa about her more than 20 year career in the IT industry and how we can inspire more young girls to take science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses by giving them more female role models in the industry to look up to.

Paula Gilbert (PG): Tell me a bit about your career and what led you to take up this role at IFS?

Emma Murray (EM) : I started primarily in a technical role, so I qualified doing programming and got into that, and rapidly realized that I preferred people to monitors. So, I moved more into a sales and customer-facing kind of role, and that just evolved over time.

I don't know if it was because I was having more fun that more opportunities came my way and as a result, success breeds success. Before long, you land up managing accounts, then managing people who are managing accounts and it kind of snowballs. But it's always been fun.

That was quite a while before I got to Software AG, at which point, I thought, I've always been part of a bigger brand. And I've always been part of a bigger team. What do I know? This was a fairly big moment, it was my 20th year in my career. And I thought: what can I do?

So I left it all behind I started my own business, in an industry I'd never sold into before, being retail. I found a solution that had never been sold in Africa, and that worked very well and I landed up building a company for a software vendor called GK Software, which became the global point-of-sale OEM for SAP.

Then when I had done that for five years, I thought well, time to go back into corporate. So I joined Microsoft, I was there for a couple of years, and had some amazing opportunities, some amazing growth.

But I think truth be told, I like to be somewhere between a Lone Ranger and a large corporate, there's a happy medium in between, and so that's what's brought me to IFS.

It's an executive team I know well, many of us were at Software AG together. There's just a good chemistry, a good relationship and trust that is extended over success in the past. So when they called and offered me something it was too good to miss.

PG: So obviously, you've been in the IT industry for a long time. What changes have you noticed when it comes to gender equality in the space?

EM: That there's a more conscious effort to include more women. Whereas in the past, if you got ten applicants and the best one wins, if there's only one woman and nine guys, then statistically, you have a one in ten chance.

Whereas now there is more of a conscious looking for women applicants before you even start screening through all the candidates or questions of why aren't there enough, go back to the drawing board and find me more. Those are the statements that you hear more of now. I think it's more the conscious move to actually finding the inclusion element. So that's probably the biggest change.

I think another one is formal mentoring within organizations where you're actually finding a conscious pairing of women mentoring women, as opposed to just finding a leader that will mentor you, whether that's male or female.

PG: Do you find mentorship has been something useful to you throughout your career? And do you actively try and mentor younger woman?

EM: So, from a female mentorship perspective, for me personally, no, I didn't get that. Back then, I think if I was looking for female leaders, it might have been really slim pickings.

But I was very fortunate in that the leaders that I did have were amazing people. So I think so much of the skill that you learn is, in fact, just being authentic and learning to bring the best you to the job.

So, while I may not have gotten all the memos around some of the things I should and shouldn't be doing. I don't think I was too adversely impacted.

But I do find, in my career, a lot more requests for sponsoring people or mentoring them, and helping them and giving them the how-tos and the how-not-tos and so I've picked it up more as a sponsor as opposed to a recipient, as a mentor not a mentee.

PG: We speak about this stuff a lot, but do you think mentorship is really happening enough, or do you think it's still a bit of a surface value thing?

EM: If I don't feel comfortable with you, I'm not going to lay my soul bare and say to you, honestly, what would you give me as building blocks?

I think so many people try and set it up, and it's almost like dating, if the chemistry isn't there, if you don't hit it off, if you're not getting that connection, then it's a waste of time. I think that's one of the things that goes wrong.

I think when it's right it's amazing but it is my perception that women are made to believe that they need it more than they do.

PG: I like this quote that I found from you, that you said, you have a strong belief that people are infinitely more capable than they think they are. So why do you believe that?

EM: I've seen it so many times when people will really believe they can't do something. It happens repeatedly, many times each year, where you either have a sales team or a person or a situation, and they say "no, we're not even trying, this thing cannot be done." So you challenge them, and then despite all the odds, despite everybody saying to them they must be barking mad, they pull it off. And the looks on their faces, it's almost like this shell-shocked disbelief, but there is learning and growth. There is learning about the strength of your own convictions that comes through in that.

I think it even translates into sport, where you only get your personal best when you push yourself harder than you thought you could. I think it's exactly the same in the career environment.

If you're outside of your comfort zone, if you're feeling just that little bit that you are in over your head, I think you are probably in the right space. That's when I believe people are their most productive and their most creative.

PG: Why do we find that this lack of self-belief is often worse in women? Why do so many women still have this imposter complex do you think?

EM: I've actually been giving it quite a lot of thought lately, and it is exactly that, it's the imposter syndrome. It's the fact that girls are taught to be so much more self-critical. I think it has its origins way back in childhoods where girls are given pictures of perfect girls to look at and it starts with thinking I'm just not good enough. You get given a picture of perfection and you immediately compare and say I'm not perfect here, here and here.

I think that's the mindset that so many women are brought up with. To me it's always a challenge to get people to think outside of that and to realize what you are capable of and to ask more of yourself.

Generally, you're the person who thinks you're the worst. There is nobody else in the room who's sitting with that same thought in their mind. It's you who is stopping yourself from doing what you should be doing.

PG: So what would be your advice to young girls who want to get into the IT or the tech industry, in terms of getting past these kind of barriers?

EM: I think a lot of the barriers aren't really there. People will say, well clearly there's a barrier because there are so few women. But if there's so few applicants there are going to be so few women, you can't have a 50% representation if there aren't 50% candidates coming into the role in the female category.

I think it's important for them to have a clear idea of what role models look like – it's very hard to get attracted to an industry or attracted and excited by prospects, if you don't see what's possible, by having other role models that have done stuff that you aspire to do.

I think probably the most important is finding the passion in it. You know, it's an industry that is immensely rewarding for people that put in the time and the effort.

My personal experience is that it's not a sexist, male-exclusive boys club thing. They are nice human beings that are very welcoming. When you're in the room or you are part of the team, you have to be a team player, pitch up and have the ready hands, be at the frontline – and the opportunities will come.

PG: So if we go back in time, for you as a young South African girl, what were your aspirations and how did those change over time?

EM: It actually changed hugely. So when I was little, veterinary science was always the thing I wanted to do. I even went as far as having an after-school job at an emergency vet's practice. But I got way too emotionally invested in the little souls that were there, very sick ones and I got a little too upset. The vet at the time was very sweet to me and he said: make a lot of money and be very successful, and own lots of pets and love them, but don't do this job, it will break you. So, I changed my mind from there.

I was brought up by a single mum, who always taught me that you are self-dependent and you're financially independent. Where you land up and who you land up with is all well and good but you have to carry your own satchel.

So for me, initially when I studied it was going to be BCom HDip Tax, once I realized I couldn't do veterinary science. Actually, it was my mum who said maybe do this little IT course on the side as well. That's when I fell in love, well and truly, and you could have dangled anything you liked in front of me after that. I wasn't interested. This was the thing that I wanted to do.

But I actually got frustrated at university; they weren't teaching enough tech and they were teaching way too much other stuff. So I ended up pulling out of my BCom and I went to Van Zyl and Pritchard and did my COBOL programming there.

Then I went straight into hardcore techie stuff – programming, network configurations, network administration, all of that, and then started going more and more into sales, and the tertiary education caught up along the way.

PG: The education side has changed a lot over the years, now that we have a lot more IT courses available and we are seeing coding introduced into schools. What's your view on that?

EM: I think it's fantastic. My own daughter, from about five she had these really cool little visual programming apps on the iPad and it's just amazing to watch the logic that develops out of it. Even if you decide you don't want to do programming itself, or go into tech, being able to understand how it works is important.

It's becoming so much more embedded in everything we do. You know, your car is a computer, your phone is a computer, everything is a computer, you need to understand the iterative logic that exists within it in order to be able to coexist with it.

I guess it's no different from understanding biology of how the human body works, or how an ecosystem works. You may not want to do it all day, every day, but it's a reality of the world you live in and the more you understand it, the easier it is.

PG: In South Africa, when it comes to opportunities for women do you notice things that are different compared to international markets, or are we on to the same level?

EM: Speaking to a lot of my colleagues, it seems that South Africa is less stereotyped about women than in many other parts of the world. There are certain other southern hemisphere areas where it is significantly more difficult for women to get ahead in this particular industry. So from that perspective, I think we've caught up a lot of ground very quickly.

I think ten or 15 years ago we were well behind the curve of what was happening in Europe and the US. Certainly, those areas promulgated law, to bring more women into leadership roles. But I think just on basis of natural credibility people have had the opportunity to raise up into roles, and I think we're seeing it ahead of our peers, which is fantastic.

PG: You mentioned your kids: so how do you balance your home life and work or is balance just an illusion?

EM: No, not at all. I think balance is a very important part. I think this particular industry left to its own devices would have you at your desktop, 19 hours a day, seven days a week, if it could. So you do need to institute boundaries, and certainly working from home has made that even more real.

For me, I think it is a conscious thing, you've got to prioritize it. If you truly care about family enough then it will be a priority. Then for me it's about communication and it's about negotiation, and making sure that there may be swings, but there should also be round-abouts. So if it's going to be an intense couple of weeks at work, then we are going to take a day or two off afterwards and go and spend some quality time together.

Or just have that special something where it's not negotiable. So if you make a commitment that you are going to go and watch a match after school, then whatever you do, don't miss it. Because that's then where the whole psychological contract falls apart.

But certainly for me, and in terms of the family, they are hugely supportive and very understanding.

With travel, a smartphone is wonderful, with facetiming, or WhatsApp video calls, I think that's helped hugely as well. Because even if you are far away, you can be quite close as well.

PG: Can you share some of your inspirations over the years?

EM: I mentioned my mom earlier, she really was somebody who set the mindset right, and for me, in terms of how I recruit, I do so based on attitude and mindset. Skills and knowledge can be taught, but the mindset cannot. I believe my mom beat the right mindset into me from a young enough age, metaphorically of course.

She was definitely a big role model. She was the only female executive in any organization in her industry in South Africa, when she was in the corporate world. She was in the trucking business and she was the only female director. She was on the Imperial board of their trucking environment, but she was the only female across all of their competitors. So maybe that's why I don't really notice the male thing so much because it was never really there in my mindset.

Early on in my career, there was a CFO of an organization back in the EDS Africa days, who did a lot for making me believe in myself. He said, if you think something is right for you, if you think it's something you want to do, why would you not pursue it? What possible reason do you have for holding back? So that really challenged my thinking.

There have not been that many women mentors; certainly in the earlier parts of my career most of those mentors were predominantly male. But again, I think that's more of a statistical reality as opposed to anything else.

I did a lot of learning at Microsoft and I got some really good mentorship and life lessons as well. Their diversity and inclusion policies and the degree to which they do it means you get to interact with cultures and beliefs and systems so far from what we regard in our little South African secular world as normal, and that was actually very liberating. Also just being put into different situations that transform your thinking a lot.

It's not only about the actual career steps, it's about development of yourself, whether it's from a skills perspective, from a leadership perspective, or from an awareness perspective. I think those have all been equally as informing to me to get me to where I am today.

PG: What do you think the IT industry needs to do now to be able to empower more women?

EM: So, the first is obviously getting lots more girls doing STEM. You find in your privileged environments, there is a lot of STEM or STEAM – you are even now finding the inclusion of arts because that gives you the ability to be more inventive and I guess in the AI realm, creativity is vital.

But, in your less fortunate environments, girls really seem to battle a lot with math and sciences and the lack of role models there. They think, why should I be doing it? My mom doesn't, my gran doesn't, nobody else has done it. I don't know what a career in that would look like.

So for me, it's showcasing more around why girls should be interested in them, and how do you take it forward from a young girl into a career? So it's about creating the path between that hard to learn thing at school, to what it can bring for you. If we can get that right then we will get so many girls actually putting their hands up saying, I want to do that, and then we're winning.

*Top image is of Emma Murray, MD and country manager of IFS (Africa). Source: IFS

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— Paula Gilbert, Editor, Connecting Africa

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