25 years ago today at the fresh age of 17, I started my first office job. I was lucky to land a job at Westpac – beginning my non-linear career in strategy, design, and tech… with a few startups in there too. A quarter of a century of learning… of designing, building, delivering, and leading strategic change. Now seems like a good time to reflect on the journey so far… but 25 years is a while, so I’ll break it into a few posts.
A day after I left school in November 1992, I started work at Moores Valley Nursery. I wanted to be a landscaper. I grew up as a bricklayer working with my dad, I’d done a little landscape design, and I wanted to do horticulture to bring it all together. To me it was a natural progression. I worked there for six months before making the major career pivot from the trades to an office job.
May 1993-February 1995: Westpac NZ Wellington Item Processing Centre (IPC)
My best mate had been working at Westpac and had just been promoted. He put my name forward to his boss to take his place. I had a couple of interviews and was successful in landing the glamorous role of Office Assistant C at Westpac in the Wellington Item Processing Centre (IPC) on a salary of $17,010. I started on 24 May 1993.
I mostly looked after traces for customers – in the days when that meant visually scanning through tens of thousands of lines of transactions on computer paper to find the right transaction. No computers. An acute attention to detail, a powerful memory, and a desire to deliver a great experience for the branch staff and their customers meant I was surprisingly good at it.
While doing this I naturally started to look at ways we could improve our processes. I would talk to my colleagues and customers to understand their workflow, what they needed, and how they felt about things. I then started redesigning a bunch of the processes. This was all unofficial but luckily it was received well. My senior manager, Michelle Myers was a great boss and always supported me.
In 1994, while I was working at Westpac IPC, I founded Gangster Snowboards with a mate Brett Foster. My first startup – not that we called it a startup back then. Within a year of kicking off my corporate life, I’d begun my startup life in parallel. But that’s a whole other thread to the story that I’ll tell another time.
February 1995-November 1996: Westpac NZ Transaction Services
The team that ran the 14 processing centres around the country worked upstairs. They saw what I’d done and seconded me into the team to help make improvements in the other centres. In February 1995 I officially stepped into the world of projects, as Project Analyst/Process & Procedures Analyst. Other than getting into Westpac with no qualifications or experience, this set the tone for the rest of my career.
The team was called Transaction Services and was very unique. We were a small self-contained team covering strategy, innovation, sales, product, HR, policy, process, and tech – kind of like a startup. My senior manager (Tony Coulston, who I sat next to for a while before he went back to his corner office) chaired the NZ clearing house for interbank payments and settlement, and another of my colleagues Jeff Mascarenhas chaired the NZ Bankers’ Association. As a 19-year-old, I was lucky enough to learn about the inner workings of the industry directly from these guys. An education money couldn’t buy.
I was involved in developing many products that were market firsts – like same day cash settlement for large supermarket chains, and transaction banking deals that allowed utilities and smaller financial services companies to piggy back on our banking license – effectively becoming another branch. I got exposure to the earliest versions of online banking, when it was just for businesses – and before the web was mainstream.
I also helped design, build, and test innovative industry first tech like the image processing of international cheques, which meant our customers could receive their foreign funds weeks earlier than before. I designed bank stationery that was both MICR and OCR compliant – so there was a time in the mid-90s when all Westpac NZ customers were using a deposit slip I’d designed. I was in an environment where design and innovation was everywhere, but where we also operationalised and supported it – not just the tech, but the people and processes. This was incredibly formative for me.
If it wasn’t for Andrew Herriot who was part of the team, I would never have got this opportunity and experience – and I wouldn’t be doing what I do today. He was the one who noticed what I was doing in the IPC, saw I was hungry to learn, and found a way for me to make the move. Once I was in the team he always looked out for me, and taught me a lot – especially about tech. I’m so grateful for what he did for me… and I’ve tried to play that role for others as my career has progressed.
November 1996-June 1998: Westpac NZ User Acceptance Testing (UAT)
The final role in this era of my Westpac career (I returned 10 years later) came about because Westpac bought TrustBank, which was made up of eight regional banks. A huge, complex merger of nine banks. The approach to the merger was a new brand (WestpacTrust), and a new org structure for the whole company. Everyone had to reapply for their jobs – or for a new role in the structure. This created a lot of upheaval and uncertainty for most, but for me it was a massive opportunity. I was invited to apply for a couple of roles that had just been created. I landed my preference as the first team member of the newly created user acceptance testing (UAT) function in November 1996, working for Leonie Williams who was asked to lead it.
UAT as a team, a practice, and the infrastructure didn’t exist – we needed to create it to be able to test all the change for the merger, and Y2K was also looming. I’d already been doing some work with Leonie and she wanted me in her team. She was a powerhouse in the industry and never shied away from a battle. She took me on as her right hand man. She handled the politics and growing the team, and I looked after building the UAT environment.
We had a lot to do in a short time. I had only started using a computer 18 months earlier. Now I needed to work with system owners from all over the bank to build the mainframe, midrange, LAN, local servers, and terminals for our UAT environment – with copies of Production data, security rules, application code, and the new releases that needed to be tested. We also had to establish all of the service management processes and end of day batch runs for UAT. Because I was fresh to all of this, I didn’t know how to cheat or take shortcuts… which you shouldn’t when it comes to UAT. Our UAT environment was a thing of beauty. An environment that reflected Production so well you could trust it.
We successfully tested all of the releases over many change windows, both for the merger and Y2K. By June 1998 we had matured into a large team and a stable operation. The challenge of building something new had gone. I’m a builder not a farmer… it was time to take on a new challenge, which I found at AMP.