Information technology veteran Christine Louw, who is currently the GE Transportation Sub-Saharan Africa IT Programme Manager, oversees the IT for GE Transportation in Nigeria, Kenya, Angola, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa, where she is based. The IT scope for these countries is significant in size, but thankfully, Christine has an integrated team in each of the countries to help with implementation on the ground.
Christine has a formidable 31 years of experience in the IT field and is fortunate to have done ground-breaking work in several instances to shatter the glass ceiling in a predominantly male-dominated field. When she enrolled to study at the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) in 1978, she wanted to be a chartered accountant, but the second year of her degree proved to be an interesting time as the campus was restructuring the science degrees to include IT and commerce, and she was in one of the first classes where this change was implemented.
This introduced a whole new world of possibilities for students as WITS was at a point where the institution realised that commerce, IT and computer science had a huge role to play in the future. Christine said she felt very privileged to have been a part of this historic change at WITS.
Christine graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce degree in Information Systems. At the time, she was a qualified programmer, specialising in Common Business Oriented Language (Cobol), the second-oldest high-level programming language popularly used to create business applications that run on large computer networks. This gave Christine a very good foundation to start with, particularly during the first few years of her career.
Due to the political climate in South Africa at the time, there were challenges that businesses experienced in buying software from other countries. Christine had started working at an IT company where they were developing their own Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software and again, she was part of another ground-breaking experience as a professional and as a woman in the tech industry. As a programmer, she found herself being deeply involved in writing ERP software and some of those ERP fundamentals are still being used by some IT companies today.
“This is where I learned how important it is to have a good mentor to learn from early in your career because this is how you build a good foundation and grow in the technology field,” said Christine, who also felt that a great deal of what contributed to her career development was being in the right place at the right time and choosing a company that offered possibilities to learn.
“If you can build a good foundation, particularly in the tech field, it will take you far.” Christine still uses the skills she learnt early in her career and continues to rely on the knowledge she learnt when she started. “When you have a good base, it makes it easier to understand the underlying principles.”
“One thing I always looked for when I was job-searching was a job that allowed me to be flexible, to attend my children’s school activities and to share important moments in their lives. I would advise women to choose a company that is going somewhere because you will learn and grow there.” Having five children to nurture proved to be challenging for Christine, but she was fortunate to find good people to look after her children while she was blazing a trail in the IT space.
When talking about mentorship, Christine said that she started with her children. “Charity begins at home, so I have always done my best to empower my children. I encouraged them to save money and pursue their passion. I have also put more emphasis on my two daughters due to the challenges women face in male-dominated environments.”
During her time at GE, Christine was fortunate to be part of the RISE Leadership Programme in 2015. “GE provides several opportunities for training and it helps for one to take full advantage of them due to the fact that the organisation is hugely diverse.”
When asked about her thoughts on encouraging women in STEM roles, Christine responded with an affirmative “Why not? It is the right thing to do, so, why shouldn’t we? The one challenge of being in a STEM career as a woman is that you will often find that you are the only woman in meetings.” Christine overcame this by finding the common element and engaging the room on that level to break the ice. She sees being the only woman in a room as an opportunity to bring value and a different dimension to the business at hand. “Women do bring in different perspectives and have a lot of value to add.”