Tech careers in the US - challenges, pitfalls and opportunities
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New Zealanders are being tapped to work on — and lead — some of the hottest, innovative business technology projects across the globe. But what kind of leadership skills should IT managers gather here, before heading overseas?
In the case of Michelle Wilkie, who completed a master’s degree in marine sciences at the University of Auckland, the path to becoming a software developer at the US headquarters of SAS wasn’t obvious.
“Originally I thought I would have ended up being a marine biologist or physiotherapist,” says Wilkie, who also majored in biology and statistics as an undergraduate. She applied for two jobs; one as a pharmacologist, the other with business intelligence software company SAS.
Wilkie had been working as a pharmacologist for six months when she received an offer to join the SAS support team in Australia. She packed her bags and 14 years later, she is still with SAS – as a software developer for OnDemand Solutions at the company headquarters in Cary, North Carolina.
At SAS Australia, she stayed for three years, working in technical support. She says the team was a general purpose support organisation so there was no chance to specialise.
During her last year in Sydney, her boss went on maternity leave and she became a team leader. When her boss returned, she had to decide whether to be in management or become “an expert in something”. Wilkie chose the latter, which meant she had to move overseas, this time to the SAS headquarters in Europe based in Germany. She held a technical support role there for four years, and became an expert on business intelligence.
She also met her husband in Germany and six years ago they moved to the US SAS headquarters in North Carolina. They now have a five year old son.
Wilkie has worked on the fraud framework solutions at SAS and provides consulting and infrastructure services for healthcare, auto insurance and other areas to help identify fraud. She says one of her biggest success stories is with Los Angeles County. An area where the city authority had applied SAS analytics was in welfare assistance programme for childcare.
Qualified residents get money based on the number of children needing services and the distance they have to travel for these. The analytics was able to detect fraud patterns for people who were claiming assistance for these services when they had no children, or based on distances that were improbable, like living in an area that was 20 hours driving distance away from the services.
Wilkie says she mines the skills honed in her natural sciences background for her current role. She says not many people combine biology and statistics as majors. But in her case, this background proved useful at SAS.
“Biology is experimental design. Statistics helped a lot because you have to do the right experiment and understand the results,” she says. Her master’s degree helped her as she had to write a thesis, build the data, collate her thoughts, articulate them and stand up to defend the thesis. These skills apply to business in general, she says.
At the OnDemand Solutions Lab, she works with customers to help them use software in innovative ways, to address business problems. The work provides a “nice balance” in using her skills. “You get to develop software, code it for end users but also do the consulting side of it.”
Think outside the box
For young New Zealanders who are considering a career in information technology, she advises: “Make sure you have a broad range of skills. Be proactive, you want to be out there thinking of new ideas.”
“Thinking outside the box is probably the biggest thing,” she says. “The job you ultimately land in may have nothing to do with what you have studied. But you learn lessons from there.”
“Just be open-minded,” she says.