She has spent more than three decades working in an industry she still loves – and Sue Chard has her maths teacher to thank for that.
Now Whitireia Community Polytechnic’s head of IT programmes, her start in computing stemmed from an enlightened maths teacher in her high school who decided to introduce computer programming into the curriculum.
‘‘Back in the 1970s it was punch-card sort of stuff. I enjoyed it and I realised I was good at it when my programmes ran; I couldn’t see why others were having trouble,’’ she says.
With no inkling of a career path after high school, Chard decided to follow her newfound passion, walked straight into a job as a trainee programmer for a government department and never looked back.
These days she leads the Whitireia team that develops and delivers IT programmes for more than 300 students keen to get into the industry or progress their career.
The mother of four is responsible for all courses on the IT academic tree, from the entry level, level 2 national certificate in computing, to the diploma and postgraduate diploma in information technology through to the bachelor and master of information technology (MIT).
‘‘All of the programmes are aimed at providing skills for our students to enter the IT industry or step up within the industry, and it’s nice to know we’re providing skills that enable them to get really well-paying, enjoyable jobs.’’
Most recently, Sue led the development of the MIT, one of the four master’s programmes for the justlaunched Wellington ICT Grad School, a joint venture between Whitireia, WelTec and Victoria University that aims to deliver industry-ready graduates into the sector.
‘‘These programmes, in particular MIT, are designed to staircase people higher within IT, rather than entry into IT, and they are all designed to meet the needs of industry going into the future.’’
Chard’s IT career blossomed after she spent the first few months of her first job as a programmer at what was then the government’s Pipitea Computer Centre.
‘‘It was unusual to be in IT back then, and IT itself was in its infancy – computers were mainframes and they cost an arm and a leg at that time.’’
Over the next 11 years she worked her way up the ladder and developed many software programs for government departments, including Inland Revenue, Housing Corp (now Housing New Zealand) and Social Welfare (now Work and Income).
Though she left her last role as a senior systems analyst to have her family, she also realised that any further promotions would require an academic qualification.
So, as if raising four children wasn’t hard enough, Chard decided to take on extramural studies as well – first, an undergraduate degree in IT at Massey University, followed by a master’s at Victoria University and then a PhD in educational technology through Curtin University in Perth.
Her return to the workforce teaching programming at certificate and diploma level part-time at Whitireia marks the beginning of a long tenure there.
Twenty-four years later, Sue is still hands-on, teaching postgraduate diploma students and supervising master’s students.
Having been head of IT since 2009, she spends much of her time in meetings with her 20-strong team of lecturers and technicians, meetings with the ICT Grad School executive committee, assessing students, meeting students who are struggling with their studies, or students who want to plan their pathway.
‘‘What I love most is watching students grow.
‘‘I see students start off on our starter course, go onto the certificate programme and even higher, and then they get good jobs in the IT industry.
‘‘I’ve also seen students come into the postgraduate diploma, get an internship while studying and carry on with that employer in fulltime work.’’
To ensure her department is at the forefront of technology, she and her team are constantly doing research to keep ahead of the game.
‘‘We have to be aware of what’s coming out, we need to know where research is going and make decisions about where we might go next with our programmes.
‘‘We get that information from our industry partners, our industry advisers, the projects we do in collaboration with industry and the internships with students who bring back their experiences.
‘‘The fact that technology is constantly changing keeps me interested, I definitely don’t get bored,’’ she says.
With almost a quarter century at Whitireia, Chard has a strong grasp of change in IT education.
‘‘Essentially, during that time we’ve gradually increased the level of qualifications.
‘‘There was no degree programme back then, the tools have changed and even the methodology has changed.
‘‘The level of qualification that people need to get into the workforce is completely different – a level 6 diploma would have easily got you into a good development job back then, a level 5 diploma got quite a number of people into the workforce, but now you need a degree at least, and preferably industry experience as well,’’ she says.
‘‘That’s why we undertake projects with industry partners and offer internships through the Summer of Tech programme, because that experience actually often leads straight into the workforce which is beneficial to the student and the employer.’’
When it comes to the diversity of ethnicities in IT, Chard is proud that Whitireia boasts a number of Polynesian, Maori and women students and graduates these days.
‘‘We even have a reasonably high proportion of staff in our IT department who are women, so as a group we provide good role models and a supportive environment for our students.’’
As one of those staffers, Chard hopes she can inspire women into this maledominated field.
‘‘Careers in IT were unusual when I started out fresh from school, and it still is for women. I think a lot of it comes down to a lack of confidence either in self-belief or in mathematics.’’
She hopes the new high school curriculum computer science subjects will help address that issue by exposing students to the problem solving and creativity of developing software.
For the more mature students, Chard encourages them to give it a go, not shy away.
‘‘If you haven’t tried it, you don’t know if you can do it – I discovered IT was something I could do, and I enjoyed doing it at high school.
‘‘Through Whitireia, I’ve seen students with some quite big obstacles to overcome who give it a go.
‘‘Developing these IT programmes and helping people into jobs and down successful career paths is ultimately what it’s all about, and to see them hang in there and get there in the end is extremely satisfying.’’