The woman your daughter should meet

Computer science engineer Nesrin Saab takes us on an enlightening journey from geeky fun in a UNSW computer lab to motherhood to making her mark in a man’s world.

High-flyer Nesrin Saab is the kind of role model you really want your teenage daughter to meet.

As an alumna from UNSW Computer Science Engineering who now works in the financial services industry, she has spent most of her career in a male dominated world but has recognised every roadblock, not just as a personal challenge to overcome, but as a way to keep chipping away at the glass ceiling for every woman following in her footsteps.

Nesrin Saab, UNSW Computer Science Engineering Alumna.

Computer science engineering was a bit of an odd choice for the girl who dreamt of being a pharmacist, but when her HSC results put paid to that idea, computer science engineering jumped out as something new, something with interesting career options and, importantly, something that not many females had done before.

“The ratio of females to males was very low when I got there and, if you know me quite well, you’ll know that I like to challenge myself on things that haven’t been done before!” she explains. In talking about her studies, Saab waxes lyrical on the friendships she made and the exquisite enjoyment of studying at a really transformational time in computing where search engines were the new thing and Google had only just come out.

“We had so much freedom and were as geeky as it gets in the computer labs: programming, writing games, hacking into things, challenging ourselves, it was so much fun!” she says.

Everything went relatively smoothly after Saab graduated with her honours degree. She joined the AMP Graduate Program and got stuck into a big program of work for the next four years, helping roll out a new financial system based on Oracle PeopleSoft. From there she joined a start-up consulting firm until she got pregnant with her first son. It wasn’t until she tried to find work again, when her son was a year old, that she began to run into problems.

“It took me a good six months to find a job after that, and the general feedback I got was: ‘You’ve been out of the workforce for too long. Your skills are out of date, we’re really sorry,’” Saab says. “I was devastated. It made me realise how hard it is for females to progress in this world, especially after they’ve had children. The glass ceiling exists no matter how good you are.”

In Saab’s case the old adage: “It’s not what you know, but who you know,” came into play and through an old AMP colleague she eventually got a lucky break at St. George Bank as an infrastructure specialist doing another big Oracle PeopleSoft project.

We had so much freedom and were as geeky as it gets in the computer labs: programming, writing games, hacking into things, challenging ourselves, it was so much fun!

Nesrin Saab, UNSW Computer Science Engineer and Westpac Employee of the Year 2015.

“Not being able to find work was very frustrating, but at the same time it made me more determined to prove myself when I next got the opportunity. At St George, it took me less than three months to get back up to speed, and by the time I left to have my twins a couple of years later, I was managing the whole project!”

The job search story was different the next time around and Saab accepted a part-time Business Project Manager role at Westpac when her twins were six months old, moving into a full-time role when they turned one. Her career trajectory since has been stratospheric and today, 12 years after she joined the bank, she runs the Business Lending Portfolio with over 100 people on her team and about 30 direct reports.

“My role is to make sure everything delivers on time, on budget, and that we are as agile as possible in delivery,” she says, and it’s clear she does an exceptional job. In 2015, in her proudest moment to date, Saab won Westpac Employee of the Year - out of 40,000 employees -  for the exceptional work she did transforming a failing $18 million project.

“When I volunteered for the project, people told me I was crazy and that it was destined to fail, but within three months the whole thing had transformed. We exceeded the business case expectations and the bankers were going, ‘Wow, this is something that we’ve never seen before – it’s amazing!’”

For all the residual gender equity issues that are still holding women back, Saab strongly believes that there has never been a better time to be a woman in the financial services industry. As if to prove it, she is setting up a Women in Business Banking group at Westpac to coach and mentor women to have better career options.

“I’m really excited about this initiative. From my personal experience, teams that have an equal representation of males and females are better balanced. Men have great passion and drive, but can sometimes rush into decision-making, whereas women are less reactive, we tend to calm things down which results in better outcomes.”

With so many innovations currently playing out across the sector, Saab is excited to be part of an industry that directly impacts everyone’s lives. “The one thing that excited me the most when I first started working here was Internet Banking, I absolutely loved that,” she says. “Now Payments and Business Lending are becoming such a huge space and the possibilities are just amazing.”

Five minutes with Nesrin on balancing work and family

How old are your children now?

My eldest is 13 and my twins are eight.

You have a high pressure job and a young family. What do you do to make your life easier?

I delegate! I have a wonderful support network of family and I’m lucky to have a great partner too. If anyone offers to help with anything, I always say yes! I employ a cleaner at home and make sure I have the right support at work. If you have the right colleagues around you, you’ll be able to leave work at five o’clock, or at two if you need to pick your kids up from school. I also use the work from home arrangements whenever I can.

Do you believe in the term ‘super-mum’?

You can’t possibly all do everything on your own and if you try you’ll fail. I don’t think you can ever achieve perfection, but you can work out what your priorities are. If your priority tonight is to go home and be with your kids, don’t worry about doing the washing. The house doesn’t have to be always in a perfect condition, it can be in okay condition, so just things like that are good.  

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