Sharyn Clarkson, Assistant Secretary, Department of Finance, Australia

Women in GovTech Special Report 2015.

Tell us about your background. How did you get to where you are now? My whole career has been accidental. I studied Anthropology and I planned to do my PhD, do some field work overseas in a remote community, publish research and maybe in the future work as a museum curator. But in 1998, I started as a policy graduate in the social security sector for the Commonwealth Government in Australia. Within months of arriving, I was building information hubs online for my work mates. From there I worked in community policy, building capacity in disadvantaged communities, finding innovative ways to bring communities together using ICT. I spent some time outside of public sector as an eBusiness consultant and then returned to create and manage one of the 18 topic-based portals for government. 2003, I went home to New Zealand to live and work on a farm but accidentally ended up leading a huge digital transformation for Inland Revenue. That’s where I learnt the most about leading people and about delivering big enterprise products. 56 projects; numerous end to end digital services; implementing a service design approach to the website and the services. There were some great innovations, like opening up the mainframe records to customers and building a capacity that allowed us to create and reuse code to rapidly build calculators and services with heavy business and numeric logic behind them. It was immensely challenging, we did a lot of things where there was no set of instructions at that point in time. We had to make digital accepted internally and we had to tackle the hard stuff like identity and authorisation online. I stayed in Inland Revenue implementing the digital programme into business as usual, running day to day digital operations and adding libraries, information, archiving and knowledge management. Later I moved around the New Zealand public sector, doing fun things like writing national strategies and some not-so-fun things like guiding a team though a redundancy ensuring they all got their great jobs elsewhere. I came back to the Australian Government 4 years ago to lead the team that provides the whole of government websites and platforms. That’s been fun – turning full stack agile – and cranking up the innovation capacity which resulted in govCMS. I’ve just returned to this role after spending 7 months on secondment to Prime Minister & Cabinet setting up the new Digital Transformation Office. Why did you decide to join the public sector? My friends at uni talked me into sitting the public service exam. They said: “nobody ever gets in from our uni but you get an assessment you can put in your resume.” I really didn’t know much at all about public service, what it did and how it worked at the time. I did get a position against the odds. I accepted it because doing uni as a single parent was tough, my credit card had $600 on it and I thought it would do for a year or two to pay off the card and get some cash together. 17 years later.... What is the best thing you have experienced in your career? For me, it’s when you have a team that is really fun to be around, motivated and great at what they do. There’s energy in the place. I’ve been in a few teams like that and it always comes back to the people you work with. What is the toughest challenge that you have had to face and overcome in your career? Not belonging. I dropped out of school very young without any qualifications, drifted a fair bit and became a teen parent. No one around me had an education or went to university. A career meant part time supermarket shelf stacking and not being on welfare. So parachuting into government felt like landing on another planet. It also created a constant anxiety that any moment people would realise I wasn’t good enough to be here. I was an interloper in some very nice but very proper middle class world. Over time I realised that being a bit different helped me come up with ideas or to approach problems from a slightly different perspective. And that this difference was a key reason I was creating things that were new and successful. The more I made changes that improved something, the more addicted I became to being in public service. 2015, the public service is very different; there’s lots of people from similar backgrounds to me and lot of diversity in general which is a good thing. What advice do you have for other women looking to succeed in GovTech? [blockquote]"Don't pick mentors only on position or seniority"[/blockquote] Networks and mentors are invaluable. Those connections can get you a foot in the door to start a career. And once you’re underway, having experienced people to turn to for advice is gold. Don’t pick mentors only on position or seniority. Pick people you genuinely like and respect. Work hard to keep your networks intact as you get busier. Watch good leaders in your organisation and take mental notes on what you like about working for them. If you end up in management remember those mental notes. And finally, how do you like to unwind after a long week at the office? Spend time with family. Watch rugby union (All Blacks). Work is busy; I spend a lot of time talking to people. When I get home I spend time in the garden to unwind.