Seeing the Big Picture, Absorbing the Details in the Service of Helping Others
To read Pat Short’s resume as an IT business analyst for the past 20 years is to walk through a short list of prominent Canadian and U.S. businesses and public service organizations: Business Objects, Ltd., Northwestel, Bank of Nova Scotia, Bell Canada, BMW Financial Services Canada, Providence Health Care, Vancouver Coastal Health, BC Gas, and Boston Pizza International, among others. Having the ability to consult in fields ranging from telecoms and financial services to provincial and state governments, from utilities and health care to software development and the restaurant industry is suggestive of a person with sharp analytic skills and the ability to adapt flexibly to different organizations and their needs. One surmises that Pat’s success is also due to a more elusive quality, one that centres on understanding the complexities of workplace processes and how they can be improved to benefit the people who employ them. For Pat, understanding a business and making it work for people has been a lifelong passion. “I don’t stop learning because I’m always confronted with something I don’t get, and I want to get it. I know I have an aptitude for this kind of work and I love the people side of this. In fact, I love to help others. It’s something I really, really enjoy.”
Pat had a classical education in high school, taking Latin, German, English, French, physics, math, and chemistry. When she asked herself what she liked to do (and hence, what she would study in university), she found “that when I was doing math problems in general, time would fly.” Capitalizing on these strengths, she studied civil engineering at Queen’s University in Kingston, ON, graduating with a B.Sc. in 1976.
Pat’s first post-graduate job was as an engineer for Bell Canada. There she worked for five years as a supervisor for a budget forecasting and tracking team, a design team engineer, and a manager of an engineering design group, which was responsible for 13 separate exchanges in the outside cable network. This was an interesting job for Pat, who was at the time the only female engineer at Bell Canada’s Ontario West division.
There followed a time of many changes for Pat. Married by this point, her husband completed his MBA in Ontario and then they moved to Vancouver, where they added two children to their family. Her husband’s job then had the family relocate back to Ontario. By that time Pat was ready to return to school to learn more about what makes organizations work, so she applied to and was accepted at York University, where she would study on a part-time basis for her MBA for the next six years. It was in the MBA program that Pat gained experience working in small group settings. “I couldn’t have made it through as successfully as I did had I not developed relationships with my classmates. If you don’t do that, first of all, you’re alone; it’s very isolating. And secondly, you don’t have the benefit of all of those other brains!” These experiences were so intriguing they formed the basis for her passion for working with small groups in business settings.
Near the end of her MBA studies, Pat worked as a market research analyst at BMW Financial Services in nearby Whitby, Ontario, where her love of market research and customer support first developed. At BMW, Pat collected market research data on existing car leasing programs in Canada, surveyed Canadian BMW dealers and customers, analyzed the data and helped BMW launch a successful Canada-wide leasing program. Following a successful stint at BMW, Pat made a lateral move into senior product management at the Bank of Nova Scotia, where she managed the Commercial Financial Automotive Finance Product portfolio, at the time worth $1.2 billion. “This was an interesting job with a multi-step process built into it,” she observes. “At the time (1995-97), the big banks all had big mainframe systems. If you wanted to understand everything about one of your customers you would have to check a variety of systems.” Her job, with this set of constraints, was to adapt a piece of in-house software developed for another of the bank’s departments for use with the bank’s automotive financing customers. To do this Pat figured out how the existing software worked, tweaked it for use with bank automotive customers, made a case for the change with management, and trained account managers in its implementation.
“And once I did the job with Bank of Nova Scotia I thought, ‘there’s so much I don’t know about technology and about the software and I really need to understand this.” Moving again with her family to Vancouver in 1997, her children now teenagers, Pat learned from a friend about the BCS program (then called the ARC program, or Alternative Routes to Computing). At the time, the program was a joint venture between UBC’s computer science department and Simon Fraser University, and then as now the program offered a second undergraduate degree for those wishing to learn more about computer science.
Seeing that the ARC program offered a terrific method for understanding the IT world, Pat enrolled, was accepted into the program, and began in September 1998. From the beginning it was a whirlwind experience. “We were very fortunate that we had some really great TAs who were assigned to us. Not only did we have this group of TAs for every course that we took, we were able to rely on one another. It was a pressure cooker. It was hard and frustrating at times because there was so much work but because we formed a bond very quickly, we’d get together and work on our assignments and help one another.”
Capitalizing on the co-op program, Pat signed on with Providence Health Care, one of the largest faith-based health care organizations in Canada. At that time staff had no reliable centralized method for tracking hardware and software, and instead used a variety of individual spreadsheets and Word documents, making coordination and information retrieval tricky. In addition, with Y2K issues looming, staff needed a standardized way to access information such as licensing agreements. Pat first interviewed all of the end users to discover what they needed, then designed an application in Microsoft Access to reliably coordinate and store the information and documented the work so that users new to the system would be able to use it in the future. The tremendous thing about the project was that she was able to construct the application with the tools she’d picked up in just two semesters in the ARC program.
Pat continued her studies by taking, among other courses, Visual Basic, database design, and software engineering. Of these, she found the software engineering and database design courses particularly useful and pertinent. With the former, as Pat notes, “you do your requirements and go through the entire software development life cycle and you get to actually develop a piece of software from start to finish and do it properly. You learn with all the right methodologies. I learned some incredible things from the software engineering course.” The database design class taught her not just how to think about databases but about the businesses they support. “With database design, the key thing…is that your data model is a model of the business. If you understand how to model the data, you can represent the business…and that is so critical when you’re doing an analysis of the business. It is important to understand what information they need and how it is structured.”
Just prior to and following her graduation from the ARC program in April 2001, Pat used her software engineering and database design skills to maintain a Customer Information System for Utilities system for Sierra Systems Group, for whom she then consulted for a number of years. In 2007 she moved for a year to California to assist officials in Riverside County, California, whose antiquated property tax system needed overhauling. “Before they could do that,” remembers Pat, “they had to understand all their processes, what they did, what systems they had and how these systems interacted, what information was gathered and transformed. They did not have it all documented. Information was ‘everywhere and nowhere.’ I had to figure out…the current or “as is” processes, the inputs, the outputs, the people processes, [I had to ask] ‘who does what and what information do they gather and what reports do they generate?’”
Once these “as is” processes are documented, users are interviewed to gain an understanding of what’s working, what’s not working, and what improvements to the systems can be envisioned. “Then,” notes Pat, “you build your data model, you create your specifications based on all of that information that you’ve gathered, and then you follow the software development life cycle process.” This job was a massive undertaking, involving the analysis and documentation of 89 user interfaces, three data interfaces, 19 reports, and 52 batch processes. Amazingly enough, Pat’s team’s work was only a portion of a much larger project in which the “to be” processes were ultimately implemented.
Since that first job, Pat has consulted with a number of organizations to help them move from often-not-so-stellar “as is” conditions to more efficient “to be” conditions, working in diverse sections of the economy with everyone from front-line employees to senior management. In all of that time, some 11 years now, one of her stand-out top memories is of working with Northwestel in Whitehorse, Yukon Territories. Despite arriving at her assignment in an ice fog in January (“It was minus 46 degrees! I had to wear a scarf wrapped around my face!”), Pat enjoyed the consulting job immensely. Pat needed to understand Northwestel’s sales and marketing management system. After interviewing employees and researching their then-current methods, she presented her results to the group’s top salespeople. A few minutes into her presentation, one of the salesmen erupted with happiness, exclaiming that Pat’s model was a perfect representation of the sales group’s work, that “this is exactly what we do!” Seeing in her presentation an excellent visual document of the sales force’s current work, he was also delighted that the sales force now would have a useful tool for training new hires. Pat saw this job as a great illustration of helping the end user. Making the business work more effectively is, for her, a way of “going back to the people side of things. You’ve done something really meaningful for them and it brings a lot of satisfaction.”
In the years since she's graduated, Pat has seen time and again that the ARC program has made a difference in her life, enriching her career and opening numerous professional doors. To help give back to the program, she regularly serves as a mentor in the UBC computer science department’s Tri-Mentoring program. As she counsels up-coming computer science majors today she’s taking a lateral step in her own career in two ways. First, she’s self-employed and currently subcontracting with KnowledgeTech, a local IT consulting company, where she’s developing expertise in Microsoft Dynamics CRM (Customer Relationship Management) software, a commercial off-the-shelf software program. Helping technologists and business users learn to implement Dynamics CRM software, she recently assisted KnowledgeTech with an in-house CRM implementation project, including delivery of high-level training to introduce senior partners to the functionality of the program.
Second, having worked hard as a consultant for years, she’s also trying to bring more balance into the elusive “work/life” equation. With her children grown, Pat has the flexibility to accept shorter-term assignments of three to six months and then take a few months off, a strategy that has allowed her to reconnect with friends, bike, ski, read, and undertake personal writing projects. Seeking a greater balance in her own life has allowed her to reflect on her career, giving her a perspective that she can share with students.
For one, on a practical level she notes that it’s important for new graduates to develop in-house business experience, learning new skills and confidence in their first job settings. Even more crucial is that they develop a flexible skill set that can be taken from job to job, an essential strategy in unpredictable job markets where layoffs are the norm rather than the exception. Keeping skills up-to-date and continually strengthening a skill set allows an employee to weather employment downturns by working as a consultant, something she and her husband have done throughout their careers.
Second, having breadth helps one weather job cycle changes, but having depth in a subject area that one particularly likes offers a more focused skill set to potential employers. In other words, Pat adds with a laugh, “while the breadth gives you flexibility, having depth keeps you from becoming a jack-of-all-trades but master of none!”
Third, she notes that having flashes of brilliance in one’s work is fine and good, but a willingness to get into a job and work hard is the real indicator of whether one will be successful or not. About herself, for example, Pat says, “I work hard. I enjoy life. I’m an achiever because I’m quite disciplined and willing to put the work in,” and she goes on to say that one doesn’t have to be “a Rhodes scholar” to excel.
And finally, an equally important notion is that one needn’t necessarily be passionate from the start about a particular career option. “It’s okay to go through life and take what comes,” she says. “You don’t have to plan it all out from the very beginning. I think [we are] evolving all of the time. That’s what makes life exciting, when you open up to the opportunities. And if you get into something and you think, ‘well, I don’t want to be here,’ you can change your mind and you can change your course. You don’t have to be on a straight trajectory. We have choices. What I’ve learned is that you’ve got to listen to your instincts and your heart. If you’re forcing yourself to do something that you’re not really in tune with, then you’re never going to really be happy. But if your heart is in it, you’re going to do well.”