You don't need to be a computer scientist

From quiet Essex girl to Oracle's first female director, Jackie Stephens has already fulfilled her ambition to overachieve, writes
Jackie Stephens, one of the most senior women in British information technology, has none of the steely accoutrements of so many businesswomen - the executive court shoes, the executive bob, the executive skirt-on- the-knee, the executive aloofness. What she does have is an iron will.

Head down throughout her years at a girls' grammar school in Essex, she was determined to study economics and trekked across to the local comprehensive for classes. She was the first from her school to get into Cambridge, the first non-computer scientist to act as a consultant for Oracle Financials and now, at 31, the first female director on the main board of Oracle Corporation UK.

"I didn't have this end in mind, but I have always wanted to overachieve and succeed," says Ms Stephens. "As long as I can remember I have done my best at everything, although I'm not especially competitive."

Only a conscious decision not to miss out on punting down the river, and the social spin-offs of her boyfriend's presidency of the Cambridge Boat Club, prevented her getting a First. Still, she never missed a lecture, so it is appropriate that her appointment is as director of Oracle Education, the branch that tries to push information technology training into a higher position in business budgets, and into the personal finances of the 30,000 freelance analyst/programmers in the market.

A recent survey co-commissioned by Oracle found that training has low priority in the huge amounts IT departments spend. Ms Stephens, however, likes a challenge. She has just run a marathon in New York in under five hours. Her entry into Oracle, as an accountant in a job always done by computer scientists, was characterised by the same streak of single-mindedness: "I sold myself on the basis that they didn't need computer scientists; they needed accountants. My first job was to design a system and I couldn't. There was shock-horror from my peers and my manager, but I said you didn't need to know how to design it, you needed to know how to work with it in an office environment."

Ms Stephens's steady upward progress has taken her from a trainee accountancy post at Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council to a director's parking space for her black Japanese sports car at the Oracle offices in Bracknell. Although she is both young and female, her progress has not been hampered by prejudice. This may be surprising in the male-dominated world of IT, but the only bigotry she encountered in her career, she says, was in local government at Dudley, where her peers thought her southern accent and Cambridge degree were bound to give her airs and graces.

Half-way through her training for the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, she decamped to Gloucestershire County Council, set on being a finance officer in some sort of educational establishment. Not long afterwards she was installed as finance officer at Oxford Brooks University, managing 25 people, when her head was turned. Oracle came in to install a new computer system. The university was the company's biggest site for new software and Ms Stephens found herself working closely with the team.

"I had never worked with computers before but it came quite naturally. I was intimidated by what was inside the box, but not by the applications. I am not interested in how a chip is made. I am extremely interested in how the output can be used to help business. I saw that with a computer you could do things that would take an awful lot of time to do manually, and you could do things you just couldn't do before and make people's jobs much more interesting."

The attitude of the Oracle team, Ms Stephens says, differed radically from that which prevailed then in the public sector. They were motivated, enthusiastic and interested. But a no-poaching agreement between Oracle and its customers prevented her from applying for a job with them until she had worked elsewhere. A short but disappointing spell with the National Rivers Authority gave her the opportunity to contact Oracle, and she became a staff consultant for the software she had used. It involved a pounds 1,000 drop in salary and a much bigger drop in status, but after five years she was in charge of 200 people.

When the Oracle Education directorship came up, Ms Stephens went for it. "It was a dream ticket and that was why I fought so hard to get it. I had some opposition, yes, but I had a real passion for the job, which is always something I look for in people. I had some ideas and I prepared hard for it, and I sold myself just like I would make a sale to a customer."

"Very pleasant, but definitely businesslike" is how a business acquaintance describes the new director, whose true steel will possibly emerge later. Where will she be in five years' time? Maybe not still getting up at 4.45am, running for an hour, then doing a 12-hour day ... but most likely precisely where she wants to be.