‘Challenging norms moves us forward’

Debbie Vavangas is IBM’s Digital Strategy and iX Lead for the UK and Ireland and a firm believer in the need to create an environment that encourages people to challenge received ideas and norms.

Debbie Vavangas


Debbie Vavangas’ office at IBM is a riot of colour and pink sequined cushions. There are photos, mainly of her family, hanging on a kind of washing line behind her desk. On one wall is a big picture crayoned by her son.

The office is very much in keeping with Debbie’s approach to work. For her it is important that people are able to be themselves at work and do not feel the need to conform, not in what they have in their offices, what they wear and particularly not in what they think.

Debbie, IBM’s Digital Strategy and iX Lead for the UK and Ireland,  is a firm believer that established views need to be challenged and that that is the way for companies to progress.

From Pharmacology to programming

Her career path has not been conventional either. She did a degree in Pharmacology and Biochemistry, but knew when she left university that she didn’t want to pursue a career in them. She didn’t, however, know what she did want to pursue a career in.  “I was utterly lost,” she recalls.

So she applied to several companies’ graduate programmes and took a job at IBM. “I remember sitting on my first day in a windowless room in Manchester with around 20 people with the induction manager. It felt like he was talking at us. The internet was just becoming a thing and I had done no IT at school. I was surrounded by people who had done computer science degrees. I wondered what I was doing. Had I made a huge mistake,” she says.

After a few weeks she was put on a job as a project management officer. Debbie was outraged. “I thought I have not gone through university to do spreadsheets. I thought if I have to do IT I had better learn IT,” she says. Java was very trendy at the time and all the computer science people wanted to do that. Debbie reckoned she could not compete with them so she opted instead to teach herself Cobol, an old programming language.

She then got a job as a developer on a big project for Scottish and Southern Energy [SSE]. There Debbie took every opportunity to learn new things and to stand out, from organising the Christmas dinner to writing the team’s newsletter. “It gave me better visibility,” she says. Soon she was climbing the career ladder. She started as a junior developer at SSE and within a relatively short time rose to become an overall delivery manager. “I found my sweet spot,” she says.

Over the following decade, Debbie was involved in increasingly complicated project and delivery roles, including large programmes with many moving parts and several partners. She believes her skills at managing clients, her ability to understand what they want to do on an individual and corporate level, to build high-performing teams and to get people behind a particular vision are what have helped her to progress.

Digital transformation

Nearly 10 years ago, Debbie gave birth to her son and returned to a complex programme for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. She says it felt like she was working for five or six companies. When her daughter was born in 2013 she joined IBM’s BP account. At the time IBM was looking after their backend IT system. Debbie needed to build a new relationship in a different space. She read a lot about digital transformation and set to work building a strong relationship with the head of digital marketing for Castrol.

That led to an invitation to pitch for work in the digital area which many believed IBM was unlikely to win given others had been working in that space for many years.  “I channelled my inner quirk,” says Debbie. The team won.

Two and a half years later the number of IBM employees working for BP has grown from nine to over 250 and the digital team has developed many new products. Debbie is clearly proud of what she and IBM have achieved. “We have become known within BP as a partner in their digital transformation work,” she says.

The following year Debbie switched sector and worked successfully with Audi. At the beginning of 2018 her broad range of experience and her drive to make things happen resulted in her being asked to lead digital strategy and iX in the UK and Ireland.

Her new role means she has had to learn an enormous amount very quickly. “I have had to learn to run a business within IBM,” she says. As a business leader, she is determined not to conform to any corporate stereotypes. “I purposefully push the non-conformist agenda all the time. I want to challenge people’s assumptions, the idea that if you don’t turn up in a suit and heels you don’t know your stuff,” says Debbie.

She adds that she also has no intention of behaving like a man just because she is in a senior position. She is keen that people are authentic and true to themselves at work and admits she cries if she is upset and unashamedly high fives if things go well.

A vortex of change

Her new job is about helping IBM’s clients to be ready for an uncertain future in a world that is changing very fast due to consumer demand, emerging technology and new policy initiatives. “We are facing a vortex of change,” she says. “In the past products sold themselves. Now it is all about the experience. It is more human and personalised. In my view it is about ecosystems of experience that enhance our lives.” She mentions as examples utilities potentially coming under one single interface and the decline of car ownership, meaning the automobile industry will be more about the journey experience than the way a car looks.

Debbie says she believes that companies who adopt a wait and see approach to this vortex of change could struggle.  “They need to stop and think about where they want to sit and link these technical implications to their business strategy. Those with legacy IT will need to rework it. It is about ensuring you have the building blocks and the big ideas to make the changes you need,” she says.

That includes having the right talent on board with the right skills. That doesn’t just mean technological skills. In a world of machines who can do the dull, repetitive tasks, says Debbie, the things that make us human will be more valued. That includes people skills such as understanding human behaviour and an ability to communicate on different levels.

To attract that talent means being flexible and open, she states, but it also means creating an inclusive environment where people can be themselves and where diversity of thought is encouraged.

She says IBM is very flexible and that this is vital in a world where the modern family does not fit traditional stereotypes.  She shares custody of her son – her daughter died when she was just four as a result of a complex seizure disorder – and her new partner has a young child.  She is able to leave work early or work from home on the days she has him. She then works late in the evenings to catch up. Weekends are reserved for family and for herself.

Debbie is a big believer in self care. “I think it is really important to nurture and reward yourself, to sleep, to do what makes you happy,” she says.  “It is vital to cut yourself some slack, to forgive yourself and to be your whole self in everything that you do.”

It’s an approach which permeates her style of management and her office. It is also one which clearly delivers.

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