S2C Storytelling with change agent and author Nina Du Thaler
Nina Du Thaler is passionate about raising children’s awareness and engagement on the important topic of online safety – and she’s taking a “break from corporate life” to do so.
What started as a hobby in 2014 is now her focus – creating fictional and fun books for children (with the first book series focusing on cyber safety), and all under the banner of Bright Zebra (www.brightzebra.com).
Indeed, she’s opening up a new chapter in life – after more than 20 year in IT where she found success delivering transformational change programs, program/project management, and strategic and operational management across a number of sectors.
Certainly, she was knee-deep in the IT world, working in various tech roles in both the private and public sectors including CIO of Allconnex Water; CIO of Queensland Urban Utilities; and Group Executive of Digital and Transactional Services for UnitingCare Queensland – to name a few.
Today, she’s taking a leap into the creative writing world to pursue her dream, but said she still wants to build a portfolio of roles (including board appointments, interim c-level gigs, executive coaching) – all while giving Bright Zebra a prominent place in this portfolio.
S2C caught up with Du Thaler to discuss how she jumped into the IT world, her passions, and some of her leadership lessons.
S2C: What was your first job?
My absolute first job was in a Chinese restaurant washing dishes (by hand). My first IT job was with the Queensland Institute of Medical Research as a systems administrator.
S2C: Did you always envision a career in IT? How did you get into the industry?
No, throughout high school I wanted to get into architecture and studied art, geometric drawing and perspective. I didn’t study computing at high school. I missed out on getting a university spot in architecture based on a quota, so after a lot of soul searching and a summer of dismay decided to start a computing degree.
S2C: You’ve held many job titles (including CIO and group executive digital and technology) across both the private and public sectors. What are some of your biggest milestones and greatest accomplishments?
Biggest milestone – getting my first CIO job (by title) at Allconnex Water. All of a sudden it was all on me – build the team, build the environment, influence the board, be part of the executive team. It was a greenfields environment and I loved every minute.
Big accomplishments – so many, but when I think of what makes them big, it’s about the vision you create and promote, and how you get the team on board. I think it all comes down to people.
S2C: You left your role at UnitingCare Queensland in 2020 to focus on Bright Zebra. Can you explain the mission of Bright Zebra and what inspired you to start the business?
Bright Zebra was founded in 2014 and has been a long term hobby. Its primary purpose is to raise children’s awareness and engagement in important topics through fictional and fun books for children with the first book series focusing on cyber safety. Having produced five books in the series, with two more to go, I wanted to dedicate some time to Bright Zebra while I take a break from corporate life.
I still want to build a portfolio of roles (board appointments, interim c-level gigs, executive coaching), and Bright Zebra will always have a prominent place in this portfolio.
S2C: What motivates you to educate kids about technology? Have you always been inspired to do so?
I realised that the ‘experts’ in the industry can make IT difficult, using buzz words like ‘cloud’, ‘virtual’ and ‘firewall’. This challenged me to make IT more accessible – both for my fellow company executives and for my daughter who was 10 (double digits!) at the time.
I made an interesting observation that I can sometimes provide incomplete or ambiguous answers as a professional, but it does not work in a kid’s world. Children are more straightforward – they understand or they don’t; they question and analyse without boundaries. If they don’t understand, it is generally due to a lack of clear explanation.
Additionally, as a mother, I’ve experienced first-hand the positive and negative impacts that technology can have on children’s daily lives. It’s pervasive and they use it easily and without hesitation, but they are not always aware of potential consequences and we’ve not equipped our children to have the skills to deal with these challenges.
Therefore, Bright Zebra was something that grew out of a need for my daughter and became a passion (and a creative release).
S2C: You’re on a mission to increase awareness of cyber safety through fun children’s stories. Is Elle your main character and how does she get her message across?
The books in the first series are all told through Elle’s perspective (named after my daughter). But she is surrounded by other characters, each with their own personality. She personally experiences the impacts of the online world (both good and bad) as they emerge across her group of friends. This allows the books to focus on the behaviours and signs that are witnessed by the children, and getting the readers to learn from the experiences of Elle and her friends rather than telling readers what they should and shouldn’t do. I believe this is a far more powerful and engaging way for the readers to learn.
S2C: Looking back over your career, what challenges/hurdles have you faced?
I find challenges and hurdles are what actually inspire me. I love to solve a problem or to transform an organisation.
One big challenge was when it was decided to close down Allconnex Water, a political decision. It was my first CIO gig and I had built an excellent team and convinced these people of my vision, but then it was not to be. It took me a while to get over this one; the broken promises I had made and the feeling of grief and anxiety.
S2C: What are some of your biggest lessons learned?
Don’t take things personally – I am still working on it. I am passionate about what I do and that means it’s personal for me.
S2C: What are your top priorities over the next 12 months at Bright Zebra?
Complete the Diary of Elle: Cyber-safety can be fun! Series – that means writing the final two books in the series. I want to grow the brand to get this important message out there, generate more sales, and start working on the next series of books – you’ll have to wait to find out the topic.
S2C: What are your top attributes for being a successful leader?
Adaptability; authenticity; vision; giving people opportunities; and stretching and challenging people in a way that helps them grow.
S2C: What are some of the key factors in your background that have influenced your approach to management/leadership today?
I was born in the UK and moved a couple of different places in the world as a child (Malawi, Solomon Islands). This has left me with a great thirst for people and in understanding their differences. I think this has also cemented in me a desire to continually improve and change, be part of change and help others adapt and change.
S2C: As the Board Member and Adjunct Industry Fellow, School of ICT, at Griffith University, what’s your main function? Vision in this role?
The Industry Advisory Board’s main role is to guide and support the management of the School of ICT to produce great learning outcomes for the students and produce great graduates for the industry. My vision for the school is that they continue to evolve the education and learning outcomes to meet the needs of industry, continue to be recognised for producing top quality graduates and that they form solid industry partnerships.
S2C: What’s your leadership style? How would you describe yourself?
Strategic – able to see the whole picture.
Adaptable – I love change and adapt quickly.
Pragmatic, problem solver.
Accessible – I love walking the floor and talking to people.
Able to have a good laugh at situations and myself.
S2C: How has the role of the CIO changed since your early years?
I think in the early years the CIO role was the head of technology, had to resolve technical issues and was not regarded as an enterprise leader. These days, I believe the CIO is one of the few roles in an organisation that understands the whole organisation. These days, the role is much more influencing and selling a vision, but also working across other areas of the business to resolve issues. It is also about selling the opportunities that IT and digital delivery models can bring to an organisation.
S2C: What worries you – or encourages you – about the state of the ICT industry?
Worries me – online safety for children – thus the books. Also, that IT is often not seen as an integral part of the business – often it is seen as a transactional and operational service delivery department. I see it as a real strategic value contributor.
Encourages me – the wealth of knowledge within the industry and the contribution that IT can make to resolving any problem and being an integral part of the business.
S2C: What’s your favourite book or author?
Oh! The places you’ll go by Dr Seuss – it has great career advice within!
S2C: What do you do outside of work? What’s on your bucket list?
Outside of work – travel, travel, travel – but not at the moment, I’m grounded! I have crossed a few of my bucket list travel destinations off the list including: Great Wall of China – I did a 10 day walk in 2018 to raise money for QIMR (where I first worked); Taj Mahal; Vietnam; and Varanasi, India.
But I still have a long list. I like to get out of the tourist areas and off the beaten track.
S2C: You’ve been a role model and speaker about women’s issues. What’s it like being a female leader? Did you have to adopt a particular style?
I have always tried to just be myself, find my own style. My main objective is to ensure that aspiring leaders get the support they need to develop and be challenged to enable that development. I believe being a good leader and displaying good leadership should be gender agnostic anyway.
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