Rhody Burton doesn’t mix her words when she starts talking about women working in IT and how to battle confidence and self-esteem issues. “With impostor syndrome, you are waiting for someone to tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘what are you doing here? How did you get this job? Someone more capable is going to come in and take over.’ I definitely, throughout my career, deal with impostor syndrome,” she said, also explaining how wearing the “power suit” was one way to conform.
“I thought that was the uniform in order to be successful. The people who I saw as successful wore business suits so I started emulating that,” she said, but things changed once she got involved with running the diversity council at VMware.
“It was at that point that I recognised here I am, getting dressed every day to look like the man and to have my power suits and the cufflinks and all of the rest of it and, in fact, what is valuable about me is that I am not like them. And it was this ‘ah ha’ moment telling me to be authentic. The realisation gave me permission to be me.”
Manly-born and raised Burton - who has close to 20 years experience in the channel, having worked at Seagate Software, Business Objects, Crystal Decisions, VMware A/NZ and SAP Australia and is also a WIICTA 2012 Rising Star winner - credits her single mum’s hard-working nature and dedication to family for her strong work ethic.
“At one stage, mum had three jobs to provide for my sister and me. But we never knew it. I never looked back at that time and thought we are poor, we don’t have the money. I honestly believe that my work ethic and the fact that we have to work the hours we have to work, and we have to juggle motherhood within those hours, everything that goes along with that, that was normal to me.
“I got home from school and my mum wasn’t there. She was at her second job, trying to earn enough money so that I didn’t know she was struggling to pay for school shoes. I am so incredibly close with my mum. She would definitely be my inspiration for that work ethic side of things.”
Burton never saw her gender as a hindrance in terms of career development. If anything, she said she has been incredibly lucky with the managers and leaders that she’s been exposed to, and the sponsors and mentors she’s met along the way.
“I have never found that being a female has hindered my career at all. I’ve been a little bit oblivious to it and it wasn’t until I started running the diversity council that I realised a number of things. One of which is just how many women don’t get that opportunity, so I want to give back and help them,” she said.
“I’m so passionate about supporting things like women in IT and I’m also incredibly passionate about trying to encourage youth, male or female, to choose our industry to work in. I just naturally had people looking out for me throughout my career and so I have to give back.”
So how did Burton get into IT? Was it something she always envisioned? “Absolutely not,” she said, explaining she wanted to be a lawyer or a writer, but “never in IT”.
“This is probably something people may not realise: I actually left school in Year 10. I left school early primarily because I wanted to earn money. I was very driven to earn money. A lot of my friends were older than me. They had left school, they started getting jobs. A few of them were temping and I remember thinking they were earning a lot of money and I wanted that. So I made Mum put me through secretarial school and I went out and I started temping.”
At 18, she left for the UK with a friend and immersed herself in the world of temping, during which she landed a role at an IT company, dubbed The Point Group.
“It was in the channel funnily enough. We were the middle man for the hardware vendors and software vendors. I was hired to be the office administrator for Angus Panton. He was this amazing guy, an entrepreneurial person who needed help. He started to realise that I pick things up easily. He was so slammed with managing this business that he started giving me more and more things to do. I left school early, didn’t have any experience in IT whatsoever and within the first six months I had two clients.”
When Burton, after three years in the UK, returned to Australia, she began temping again, and given her positive experience in the channel was adamant she wanted to work in IT. “There were lots of great jobs in advertising that other women wanted. But I said I would hold out for one in IT, so just give me short term assignments. If you spoke to mum or my family or friends, they will tell you I’m quite determined. I had decided IT was the industry for me and I couldn’t be swayed.” She got her foot in the door at Seagate Software as partner relations and the rest is history.
But perhaps one of Burton’s biggest life lessons was an incident that happened in childhood, which she credits for helping her foster her relationship building skills and developing a sense of courage.
“When I was 11, quite a life changing thing happened to me. I fell off a cliff at Freshwater Beach. It was the first time I had really been hit with a big challenge. It was about three-and-a-half metres down and I landed on rock so I was in hospital for ages. I had a lot of time off school. I know I had gone from being at this little public school where everybody knew everybody to suddenly having the first three to six months out in Year 6. It was really a big deal,” she said.
“I broke both of my wrists, my jaw in two places. I shattered my kneecap. I was on the news and in the papers. When you were 11 that was kind of cool. I do remember coming back to school that year and there were new kids who had come in. I was almost like the new kid for the first time. I remember having to build relationships.”
Certainly, this ability to build relationships has landed her in good stead. It has also given her momentum to take on new positions at a number of different technology companies.
Career jolts along the way
From channel and inside sales manager, channel manager, channel sales director, acting channel director, Cloud and channels manager, senior partner business manager, and now director of global business partners, Burton has amassed a breadth of experience.
She said one of her biggest hurdles was moving from VMware to SAP. “It was a big, big culture shock. Being a channel person, I don’t think I quite appreciated just what a mature channel organisation VMware is. And I had always worked for fast growing companies that are in a good space. The culture is very much, ‘Yes, let’s do this. Wow, that’s a great idea. Let’s try that.’ And so I had come out of these environments of enjoying what I do and passionate about what I do. I happened to be very lucky to work for companies on this growth trajectory,” she said.
“Suddenly, I was working for this successful, established 40-year-old organisation that is very process driven and the answer isn’t always ‘yes’ because it is running a much bigger business and everyone has a great idea. I loved my time at SAP. It is full of really really talented people.”
It also prepared Burton for her current position at IBM. “It was the best preparation for coming into IBM. And now I’m at an 104-year-old company. I have gone from those young ones to older ones. I learned so much in those two years at SAP. It prepared me for being a better leader and better at stakeholder management.”
But she is thankful her path has led her to IBM, a journey that has already activated the change agent in her.
“IBM has transformed itself many times over the years; in fact, we are one of the longest standing companies in this industry,” she said. “This is an opportunity for me to be part of something really special. This is an opportunity for me to be part of a change and a transformation and a point in time for this company that is really taking us into that new era.”
She said IBM is well placed to take the transformative journey given the company’s breadth of solutions and capabilities. “What a great opportunity to come in and help be part of that core team that educates everyone on what it is that IBM is today. We are a new IBM. We are not a software, hardware and services company anymore. We are a cognitive solution company where the platform is Cloud and we go to market by industry. That is what IBM is today and I want to be part of the team of people that is helping not only our customers see that and even get them to do things in a new way, but the channel,” she said.
Burton is passionate about helping current partners become more sticky, build managed services, add differentiators into what they do, as well as attract new partners. “I would love the message in the marketplace to be: ‘wow, I didn’t know IBM did that. I need to go and talk to them.’ My vision is we are going to have more and more partners wanting to come and talk to us about including IBM in what they do.”
My vision for the role and the team is I want to be recognised as the vendor of choice, not only for the traditional IT channel. There are a lot of traditional IT organisations trying to transform themselves and I want to be able to let them know just the breadth of not only solutions, but people within my organisation who can help them on that journey and that trajectory. I am also really interested in, ‘What are the new channels of tomorrow? What does the new partner look like?’