Interview with a STEM Trail Blazer

Season #1

TLDR: Scroll down to the Recap to read the summarized career advice from a woman who was a pioneer in engineering and IT.

Susan: Good morning from beautiful Epona Dressage Center outside of Carmona, Spain, where I have spent the week with some amazing women.

This morning I'm speaking with Wendy McLeod. I was struck by Wendy's career history because she was in the forefront and cutting edge of women in engineering and in IT.

So how did you move into IT? First, let me say one thing about that. Data indicates that, unlike today, there were many women who got into IT in the seventies and eighties. How did you make that transition and what was that like?

Wendy: It was in the late eighties and I graduated from university in 1981. Then I went to work in engineering - you have to apprentice for two years and then you become a professional engineer in Canada.

I apprenticed for two years, and then I was a civil engineer out in Alberta and after three or four years I was starting to get antsy and I didn't really know why.

Then in the 80s they brought out a new wood code. I looked at the old wood code, which was from 1918.  And I thought, "It took them 70 years to figure out that wood is actually as strong as we've been using!?"

Then I looked around and I thought, what innovations have there been in the last five years?  Oh, there was a new concrete additive that made the concrete set faster. And I realized, there's not enough change for me. There's not enough change.

They had just brought out desktop computers like the IBM PC personal desktop computer that really caught on and I thought, well, that's kind of neat. So I started to program that and I got into it more and more. And I was able to actually turn it into an IT job because when I was at university I would take computer subjects to bring my marks up.  

Susan: Let's fast forward to the end of your career because it's fascinating to me.  You progressed dynamically at HSBC and had a tremendous scope of responsibility HSBC.

Wendy: HSBC is very proud of their talent and they work very hard to to promote their talent. At least they did when, when I was there. I actually was in charge of operations, which is the operational work, not the computing work. I was responsible for South America, Central America, and North America.

I was definitely stepping outside my comfort zone to do that.

Of course I wanted to automate everything.

Susan:  Did you get a chance to automate?

Wendy:  Yes, I did, but you kind of have to clean up the processes first.  And that is a huge job in South America, because those banks were acquired more recently and processes were not standardized at all, so it would be pointless trying to computerize. It was quite a contrast from North America.

Susan: And you had how many people?

Wendy: I had 5,000 who rolled up to me, but in HSBC you also had two bosses. So you had an in country boss and you had a regional or a global boss who was trying to promote consistency. Which is hard for newly acquired countries.

I found Brazil particularly fascinating because they had been sort of isolated for so many years with their dictatorships and had invented everything themselves within their own country. They had their own satellite system and they really hadn't been exposed that much, even though it was 15, 20 years on, to connecting with the world, but they're very connecty type people.

They like to, they like to connect.  And I found it fascinating that they had, they were so close to having that isolated setup where you have to just rely on yourselves.  Something to be said about that, but yeah, not functional in a global, global institution.  Yeah.

Susan: So you made a comment to me when I first met you that gave me pause in a very positive way. Can you remember and restate it?

Wendy: Yeah, Susan was asking me what I missed most about that job.

Susan: Because you've, you retired right at COVID.

Wendy: I retired right at COVID. What I enjoyed most about that job, which gave me a global reach, is the fact that they identify talent in all their countries. I could change talented people's lives. I really enjoyed it because I was in charge of manual operations, and the world over, those are the people that were never able to afford university, but generally tend to be quite smart.

They're smart but their career is limited because they've never gone to university, they've never gotten a degree, so therefore they never qualified for work outside their country.

Susan: It's interesting that at the level that HSBC would move them around. How did you reach from your position down through your organization to create that talent development culture?

Wendy: Well, I happened to be in a very high performing team, which was the most high performing team I have ever dealt with and it was a global team. One of the things a high performing team does is identify talent and grow talent.

So the global team would meet four times a year and big on the agenda was always a review of the talent pool. You know that there's types of bosses that will try to hang on to talented people. Well, nobody on this team would do that. And they would be like, "Oh, she's ready to have an international assignment."
or "She's grown enough that she can't learn any more in China. And she needs to grow by going somewhere else and experiencing a different culture."

And like I said, most of these people had no university degree. And HSBC was enlightened enough to be able to say instead of coming in as a a trained so and so like a professional engineer or a skill that they needed, HSBC was large enough to back them and say, I would like to replace this person. So you would bring someone in from another country,  you would be able to bring people from India to Mexico City or China to Vancouver.

Susan: You said that your talent pool was mostly folks who hadn't gone to university. Were you able to export talent?

Wendy: Yes.

Susan: Okay, talk about that, because that must have been relying a lot on your credibility.

Wendy: As well as the bank's philosophy. If I hired someone talented, I would tell them, "Alright, you can work for me for two years, but what do you want to do after that? Let me know, because you're clearly capable of more."

So it was lovely to be on a team where everybody was like-minded - that doesn't happen often.

There were certainly a lot of very talented women in their forties who had never gone to university simply because their family couldn't afford it or it just was something that no one in their family had been to university. But they were very talented, they were extremely good at their jobs, and they understood transactions - letters of credit or loans or fancy types of banking transactions.

Susan: They knew the business of business, which is a big thing that I talk about being important.

Wendy: During their 40s, their children had grown up and it was a time for them to have a chance to test themselves abroad so that they would know how good or how bad they were on an international scale.

And they deserved the chance. Some of them moved and never came back. They're like, "I've got my wings and now I can fly." And they did.

Susan: I talk about creating a career that soars. You really enabled that for them. Literally, they flew away and never came back.

Let's Recap

A quick summary of career lessons from my interview with Wendy:

  • Be curious and seek change
  • Take risks
  • Create opportunities. 
  • Say yes to opportunities that come your way.
  • Discover what's meaningful to you. For her, it was improving operations and developing people.
  • Avoid age-ism. I loved Wendy's emphasis on the 40 year old women who soared.

Catch you next time.

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Podcast produced and original theme music by Megan Tuck