The world is changing at speed, and the question isn't whether emerging technologies will change the way we live and work but how. What are the tech trends shaping the future of business and IT? How will tech and business leaders need to adapt? What's the future of women in tech? In search of answers to some of today's most pressing technological questions, we caught up with the world-leading CIOs, Cat Rüst and Dax Grant.
The headline speakers of our latest Fireside Chat series and world experts on emerging technologies and diversity in tech, Cat Rüst and Dax Grant:
- Reveal how emerging tech will change and advance the industry.
- Explore the barriers and opportunities for women and diverse people in tech.
- Share industry insights and knowledge.
But first, a brief introduction to our guest speakers.
Career Journeys and Professional Highlights
Cat Rüst is a start-up tech director, advisor, business growth and scale-up enabler and turnaround specialist with over 30 years of experience in the tech industry.
Born and raised in Hong Kong and educated in the UK, Rüst started off her career as a management trainee with ICI but soon decided she needed "something a bit more adventurous." So she studied process engineering before going to China to build factories, amusement parks and warehouses in five different cities and set up one of the top five internet consultancies in Hong Kong. Running a company of 200 people within the first year was "the baptism of fire" for Rüst. After a while, she left to have her first child and establish her own company.
Since then, she has had three more children and set up seven more companies, ranging from a developer network of 30,000 developers to a SaaS platform that manages up to 500 mobile applications at a time. She has also served as the Global Bank Head of Technology at Standard Chartered Bank and Asia Head of Innovative Technologies at UBS. Today, Cat Rüst describes herself as a digital nomad, "trying a different type of life, living out of suitcases", and is a passionate advocate of the diversity of thought, representation and opportunity in tech.
A CEO, COO, CIO (Global 100 List), Entrepreneur (100 Successful Women in Business), Portfolio NED and Philanthropist, Dax Grant is recognised for digitising businesses and catalysing turnarounds through technology and bold leadership.
Originally from Bosnia, Grant was raised and educated in the UK. From not speaking a word of English when she started school to walking alongside Stephen Hawking at Cambridge University and leading global teams in digital transformation, change and innovation, her life and career journey is both fascinating and inspiring.
Grant began her career with IBM's financial services and finance systems, where she learned a lot about technology. As she gained experience, she realised the key to unlocking value through technology is to truly understand your customer and put them at the heart of everything you do. She then joined Barclays, where she worked as a cashier and branch manager before taking on executive positions at international organisations like Santander, Visa, and HSBC. Today Grant helps businesses worldwide achieve top-quartile performance, societal impact, and staff advocacy, "impacting the world in a positive way for shareholders, regulators and society through purpose beyond profit values." Her accomplishments are recognised by the Forbes Technology Council.
Emerging Tech Insights & Industry Trends
Blockchain, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, robotics, machine learning, automation and data analytics, cryptocurrency, VR, gene-editing, and nanotechnology are some foundational technologies that are expected to transform how we do and experience things in the future.
We can already see the impact of these emerging technologies. These days, technological advancements are happening almost exponentially, forcing organisations to accelerate their transformation journey. Businesses now have access to significantly powerful technology for a quite affordable investment, but so do their competitors. Essentially, this means that, in order to remain competitive and relevant in an increasingly digitalised world, you cannot afford not to get involved and adopt it sooner than later.
However, as the saying goes, "great power comes great responsibility". When you have access to these powerful tools and technologies, deploying the right tools at the right time in the right places becomes almost mandatory. And as technology advances, it demands greater responsibility and a higher level of sanity.
How will emerging tech change the industry and the way we work?
"The world is under enormous change. There's no question there. Every industry is experiencing this, from supply chain to climate sustainability, to you name it – something is going on. So everyone has to change," says Cat Rüst. Consequently, organisations across sectors will have more requirements to fulfil and a bigger burden of regulations to carry.
To cope with all these new obligations, many companies will think they need to hire more people, Rüst believes. But at what cost? "I think there is a point at which it's not sustainable for any of these companies to actually be hiring all those people just to be able to manage. They'll implode under the weight of all this extra headcount. So I think there's no choice but to automate a lot."
In today's economy, "if you aren't nimble or agile enough, you just cannot compete", supports Rüst. "We (in the banking industry) have been lucky so far in terms of the regulations holding various things back, but certain industries don't have the same amount, and they're often the ones their lunch is eaten. But, as more and more weight goes on the regulated industries with all these extra capabilities, we have no choice but to use more and more technology."
As cyberspace continually evolves, new algos will come into that space, says Dax Grant. Therefore, "staying up to date and remaining market leading in that space is going to be absolutely key. And that does not just apply in the financial services industry. In this connected world we live in today, everybody needs to be aware of the new trends, from organisations to employees."
"Looking at the more innovative side of things, there's also a lot happening," Grant continues. "There's certainly more in terms of how we look at new technologies. If I look at the next-generation conversations when I'm in schools, we're talking about a different way of accessing tech. The new generation doesn't actually want to touch anything to move money. So, it should all be 3D and pulled holographically to you by Alexa. Clearly, all those things take time, but they're definitely there."
What tech trends will have the greatest impact on the industry and society?
Regarding emerging tech, Rüst claims to be "a big believer in blockchain." She supports that an enormous opportunity exists both from a crypto and a blockchain perspective. "I think that we'll see much more of that. AI automation and causal inference are also going to be a requirement, and we're going to see more and more of that on the supply chain side too. People just can't cope with the amount of work that needs to be done to create the quality of product needed. Doing it all manually is just no longer doable."
Grant agrees with Rüst, particularly regarding the trends around digital transformation and distributed ledger technology. However, she also has another important point to add. "A lot is happening in the environment, absolutely. But if you really dig under the technology trends, analytics is absolutely key. I see more capability in creating those analytics that drive into the real insights and linking that to the automation side of things. It's really important to look at what's being automated, but also redefine the business model where it's necessary."
Today, there's also a lot of big talk about the metaverse – and a lot of wariness about the risks this evolving concept brings. "Technology trends are great," says Grant, "however, we all like human connection in life. So it's important to keep the metaverse in its place and make sure technology really serves us. Technologists and industry leaders need to make sure that our day-to-day life is more than technology – it should blend into the background of a seamless life experience."
What are the biggest challenges when implementing digital transformation and how to overcome them?
When implementing a major digital transformation project, there are things you've got to do and sort out before you even start, supports Rüst. "Number one is that you need to have the right level of seniority to support it. Without that, it doesn't matter how hard you work; you will fail. Suppose you have people at the very top evangelising and supporting the project even if they don't understand it. In that case, they can clear the way for the people behind them to join, who will be actually driving it." In her opinion, it's not individuals who are driving transformation, "you've really got to believe that it's a culture of transformation."
The second thing Rüst points out as equally important is a shift of business mindset. "What is often problematic in larger enterprises is the resourcing and the budgeting capabilities. Many companies are used to the waterfall and cascade method of building projects. But the idea of transforming is to create a more agile mindset." For start-ups, that agility is just business as normal, but bigger companies often lack that constant iteration, Rüst believes. "When your budget is a 15-month plan and every hour of a resource is budgeted, you have no time for iterations or brainstorming, and you lose all that creativity needed for a successful transformation. Changing the mindset will enable you to make these kinds of pivots and changes, and also have a little breathing space to try things and make mistakes. But that's not an easy balance to keep."
For Grant, maintaining this balance between creativity and staying in line with your business model is all about having a clear purpose behind your digital transformation. "The digitisation process often creates pockets of activity that are not necessarily linked to the organisation's purpose, and you might find yourself confused about where to invest time, budget, and resources. By having a clear purpose, there is still scope for growth in those areas, but it is done strategically, and that energy and passion can be harnessed throughout the organisation," says Grant.
The third thing Rüst mentions is diversity, but not "the male-female kind of diversity. I mean really thought diversity – different backgrounds and experiences- to create a better product. Bringing different people (entrepreneurs, academics, investors and your clients) into some of these discussions just to create different thought patterns is how you're actually going to drive transformation."
Likewise, for Grant, diversity of thought is key when wanting to implement a major change, and "it should start from the boardroom table." Blending the people in the organisation with different perspectives is essential not only from a digitisation perspective but also in terms of growing human capital. "People grow from that sort of conversation, and that's not something that can be captured in a development plan. Just the nature of being around people and learning from each other in an immersive way is hugely enhancing one's career," says Grant.
"If you've got the board backing, a purpose-centred approach, that diversity of thought, and you're revisiting your leadership style every once and again to ensure a cohesive nature across the enterprise and the teams", you're already one step closer to digital transformation success, according to Grant.
Diversity & Gender Equality in Tech
When it comes to change and innovation, the tech industry has always been one step ahead. However, in terms of gender diversity, the sector seems to be falling behind. From education to employment and leadership, being a woman in IT comes with great challenges, including pay gaps, lack of representation, workplace gender bias, and unequal growth opportunities – to name a few. As of 2022:
- Women hold just 26.7% of IT-related jobs.
- Only 3% of women say a career in tech was their first choice.
- Just 38% of women with a computer science degree actually end up working in their field.
- Today, women hold less than 20% of all leadership positions in tech – only 19% of women hold tech senior vice president roles, and less than 15% of female IT professionals make it to CEOs.
- Only 15% of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are female.
- About 50% of women leave their tech jobs by the age of 35.
However, women aren't the only underrepresented group in the sector. While employment opportunities in the tech are increasingly growing, seven out of ten business leaders report a lack of diversity in their tech workforce in terms of gender, race, religion, age, disability, ethnicity, sexual orientation and education. In fact:
- BAME representatives make up just 15% of the tech workforce.
- Less than 5% of senior leaders in UK tech are from ethnic minority groups.
- Only 9% of all IT specialists have a disability.
- The average IT professional is 38 years old, compared to 43 years old for non-IT workers.
- Almost a third of young LGBTQ+ people avoided careers in STEM subjects due to fears of discrimination.
What has been your experience of working in tech as a woman?
Dax Grant says she entered the field with a focus on technology and a very simple mindset. "When I got into technology, I almost wasn't aware whether I had lots of men, women or neurodiversity around me. But as I got more involved, I got the opportunity to learn about it just like anyone else. There are lots of different views on diversity. Having stepped into many executive positions, I know there's a big talk about imposter syndrome and equality imbalance. But I think a lot of that is through unconscious bias rather than anything else, and it's very subtle most of the time. With my name, for example, some people immediately assume it's a male's name. That's okay to some degree, but I know each person would feel different."
Having always wanted to take the "paths less travelled" in life, Cat Rüst did not understand what all the fuss was about being a woman at the beginning of her career. However, she soon realised the importance of having a helping hand along the way when she went on to face both "weird and difficult situations", often including sexist remarks and underestimation. "I've worked in the chemical industry and construction. You'll definitely get underestimated if you're a woman in these sectors. And I remember when working for Sony Ericsson, having to set up the top 25 developers in 22 different countries. I would travel with the CTO and meet the head of each country, and people would think I was the event organiser, which was quite entertaining until they saw me sitting at the table with them."
Apart from entertaining and sometimes irritating, Rüst also finds being underestimated very useful. "When you're not considered for things you should be considered for, you can completely blow it out of the park. But I have also seen many colleagues not sitting at the table. Not having the bravery to pull up the chair and actually put it at the table. I think that's because we're taught from a young age to be quieter, sit back, and not be impolite. But once you get over that and realise being impolite is often required, then it's much easier."
With the concept of 'inherently sexist technology' filling recent headlines, what's the future look like for women in tech?
The examples of sexism are extraordinary, says Rüst. "From women liking the room warmer than men, but offices being programmed to men's temperature, to the pockets in your trousers, and the seatbelt in a car, where women get much more hurt by the seatbelt than men do because it's designed to a male test dummy. Or what Google did, I think. When they were looking for what an ideal developer looks like, they kept rejecting men because – of course – the dataset they were using was existing developers, which were predominantly male."
"If you think about it, it makes perfect sense only to get male developers if we look at our current skill and data set," continues Rüst. "As we move forward, it is becoming increasingly important to ensure the technology sector is adequately represented, not just across gender, but also across age, neurodiversity, and so on.
Having a diverse community within your organisation also means having a team representing your customer base. And that is key for your success, supports Grant. "But having a diverse team in itself is only step one. It's also about the awareness of that team in terms of how it serves different customer segments. So, it's really important at the stages of recruitment to investigate the depth of thought process within who you recruit into your team. This way, you will ensure you've got a diverse team and the quality of thought processes and empathy on the development side of technology, products and services. Because if you empathise with the customer and client view, you are really stepping into where they're coming from and therefore anything you create or evolve in your organisation is aligned with that is more naturally going to meet their needs."
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What are the biggest barriers for women in the tech field, and how can we support female tech professionals at different stages of their careers and lives, particularly when balancing caring responsibilities?
Grant believes that there are a lot of things culturally that can be improved to break the barriers and achieve gender equality and neurodiversity balance. "There are still a lot of subtle cultural cues, and it's really important to get underneath that to break out these barriers. We need to encourage more women and change how we set ourselves up in society and what we teach our children, both in schools and as parents. In essence, we are coding into them a certain way of being. And so, females will naturally gravitate one way more than another because they haven't been exposed to different things."
"Most 8 to 12-year-old girls want to be a teacher," continues Grant. "That's because they've been exposed to a lot of teachers, but if they are exposed to lots of technology and other things, they can make different choices. We should tackle that at a leadership level to make technology more open. I do a lot of work not only for women in technology but also for social mobility and respect for different backgrounds. I believe that everybody should have an equal opportunity and chance to follow their dreams. That's really important, and societally we definitely need to shift the dial on that."
Rüst also argues that it is extremely important for women to be exposed to different choices from a very young age. "I'm on the technology advisory committee for the Women's foundation, and when looking at what age we had to get to girls before they were streamed out, it was in that sort of 12 to 14 age. So, trying to get to them young enough is actually essential."
There is some support for women, acknowledges Rüst, but the "societal impacts" are still too significant. "In Switzerland, for example, the kids often go home for lunch at a lot of the schools. And typically, the woman has to get home to feed them. So, of course, that affects your family dynamic and makes it much more difficult for women to have a work-life compared to their male counterparts. Whereas in Asia, we have enormous support in terms of help, and that levels the playing field much more for men and women."
What should companies do to hire, develop, promote and retain more women in their tech departments?
"Number one is culture," says Dax Grant, "not just for women, but for everyone. Everybody loves working in a really good, healthy culture. Being kind, considerate and respectful, saying "please and thank you", might sound a bit old-fashioned, all of those things do make a difference and cannot be underestimated."
For Grant, the support frameworks of organisations are of equal importance. "It's not only about the culture itself. It's about how alert the leadership team are to nurturing that culture. Whether they provide equal parental leave, for instance, or support to an elderly parent. Having that level of balance across men and women in terms of how that support works also says something about the organisation's ethics and how they're set up. The next generation is very clear on their ethics and will move to ethics as a competitive advantage for the organisations they want to work with. Any organisation can deliver a product and service with a bit of time and effort, but actually what you stand for in the marketplace really is what differentiates you."
Bringing the human factor into the equation is key to achieving equal balance in a business, believes Rüst. "Not that long ago, you almost had to hide the fact that you were a parent. It's only recently that people have begun to bring the human to work and speak more openly about their children, depression, death, and things like that." But if you give your employees more flexibility in managing their lives and acknowledge that they have other things to be concerned about apart from their work, it only makes them more loyal, says Rüst. "Supporting people in times where they need makes them incredibly loyal. As the saying goes, 'if you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.' They'll go that extra mile for you for being human."
The other thing is providing women with role models. "When you cannot see a person above you that you would like to emulate, a person who has kids who have managed to have a balanced life, it's very difficult to keep people. The organisation has to decide what kind of culture they have and see if they actually have people embodying that within the organisation that people can look up to," says Rüst.
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Final Words & Career Advice
What are the skills and qualities that make a great leader in technology?
For Dax Grant, having great soft skills is really important. "To be a great leader in technology, your soft skills have to be as good as your technical skills. There are so many technologists that have cracked the code and can code for the world. But it's really important to balance that out with soft skills and be externally focused, so that you can understand what customers think and how they're feeling. Then, when you code and create something, you're going to be much more impactful in terms of the actual marketplace."
"Soft skills are absolutely crucial," agrees Cat Rüst. "Often you have to step in because somebody's not realising quite how aggressive they're being or that they're using jargon. I think that's the other thing. There is a gap between the business side and the technology side, and any good tech leader has to be able to sit in between the two and translate in both directions. Developers often end up hating management, and management ends up hating developers. And you end up in this explosive situation. So it's a case of how you make that seamless, and the two understand each other's perspectives and get them both involved in the discussions on how to move things forward."
What most interests/excites you about your job?
"I love businesses and how they work. I'm very centred on purpose and like to make sure that businesses I work within are also purpose-led. I'm clearly a huge fan of technology, too. I have spent years in that space, but it's more about how does that business work? How are we going to grow it and reshape it for the next stage? Where does it sit with the market position? And therefore, how do you bring the technology operation and business conversations together underneath that? So that side of things really does excite me, customers at heart," says Grant.
"If you've got this purpose-driven mentality, you can make almost anything interesting," agrees Rüst. "You can become passionate about whatever it is that you're working on if you also have the right people. It's funny to me when I hear a lot of people say, oh, this organisation can't do that. I don't believe that. I think in any organisation, you have people who can be made to be passionate about an idea if they believe they have autonomy and they're able actually to make decisions and be responsible for certain things. It's amazing what you can give to people and what they can achieve if you just empower them. Even boring projects can become fantastic if you've got the right people on them. And that's what gets me excited – working with great people."
What one piece of advice/message would you give to other women aspiring to a career in tech like yours?
"Believe in yourself, even when nobody else does. Where you get that energy and personal comfort from is really key. There are tough days, and there are awesome days, but if you're central heating from within, there's nothing you can't overcome. That's the first piece of advice I would give, and I'd couple that with knowing who you are. I'd often say to my folks, know who you are, and when you do, dig down another level and find out who you really are," says Grant.
For Rüst, "learning how to grow a bit of a thick skin" is crucial when aspiring to a career in tech. "If you're actually doing a good job, you should be learning by making mistakes as you go. And you have to be able to take feedback. Some people get incredibly defensive about criticism. But, as long as it's constructed, this is how you get better. How could I be better? How could I have done a better job? Those kinds of questions you should be asking all the time. Because you're never going to do it perfectly – you can always improve on what you've just done. I agree with Dax's advice on learning who you are, but also digging into how to constantly improve."
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