Irish-born Roisin Parkes is a former waitress (albeit a sacked one admittedly), a runway model, a computer science student, a Java developer, a software engineer, a CTO, and technology leader.

In fact, Parkes – the former Gumtree CTO – has worn so many hats in multiple tech leadership roles that she’s been able to broaden her perspective and shift from being ‘purely technical’ into a more customer focused and strategic thinker. 

Certainly, this experience will stand her in good stead as she embarks on her next adventure – building a team and a product from scratch as the newly appointed Director of Engineering for Google, a role she starts this week. And it’s quite a gig – she joins influential Australian leader, Anil Sabharwal, who’s on a mission to start a new global division from the very shores of Australia. 

Stories Ink caught up with Parkes to discuss her journey into IT, her life and adventures in both Ireland and Australia, and what her new gig at Google is sure to entail. 

Growing up, what did you want to be?

Funnily enough, I’ve had access to computers from a very young age, as my Dad was an engineer and used to bring computers home for us to try out. But I didn’t consider it as a career choice until I was much older. In fact, when I was young all I wanted to be was an ice skater. Unfortunately there wasn’t an ice skating rink within a couple of hundred kilometres of my home, so I had to contend with ballet dancing. I briefly considered physiotherapy, but actually selected a pure science degree after school. While I was at university studying physics, we had a programming module. It was then that I realised I could do that as a career, so I switched universities and did a B.Sc. in Computer Systems and haven’t looked back since.

What were some of your first and most memorable jobs?

My first job was a very brief stint as a waitress in a hotel bar in my hometown of Limerick in Ireland. I was serving a couple of middle aged American tourists when I accidentally dropped a tray of Guinness into the woman’s lap. Her husband thought it was hilarious and gave me a very large tip. The bar owner didn’t see the funny side so I was sacked. I think I had lasted all of about two weeks. 

Probably the most unusual job I’ve had was as a runway model for The Hilary Thompson Modelling Agency in Limerick for about three years. I spent many evenings after school/university and weekends traveling the country doing fashion shows. I was a tall, skinny, extremely shy and awkward teenager, but modelling helped me gain some confidence and (more importantly) a thick skin. I eventually quit when my workload at university got too intense to be able to do both. It was a lot of hard work for not a lot of money. I think it’s one of the toughest industries to work in.

During my university years – while studying Computer Systems at the University of Limerick – I did a nine-month job placement in Year 2. I was selected to work at a local business with a small IT department. I was incredibly lucky to end up working with a couple of leaders, who went out of their way to give me the best possible experience. I was responsible for a small application that would need to be installed directly on our customers’ computers. My job was to visit customers, find out requirements, design a solution, build a solution, test it, package it for distribution, take it back out to customers on disk, install it, train them on how to use it and gather any feedback on changes. It was a fantastic exposure for me on the full software development lifecycle. 

The experience helped me get my first job after graduation at IONA Technologies, a hugely successful software startup in Ireland. It was where I first learned Java, and also where I first learned about agile development methodologies and automated software testing. They were a cutting edge company and way ahead of their time.

How did your journey lead you from Ireland to Australia? 

I got a taste for travel when I worked at IONA as I visited different businesses all over the world, in the US, Europe, even New Zealand. I had never been to Australia and always wanted to visit, so my friend and I decided to take a trip to South East Asia, Australia and then South America. Needless to say, we never made it to South America once we landed in Sydney; we absolutely loved it. There was huge demand for Java developers here at the time so I had a job within days of arriving. I did contract work and then would travel around Australia for a few months, then contract again, then travel again for a while. It was amazing. 

I met my husband and got married in Sydney, then decided to travel back to Ireland after I had been here for four years. We thought we’d stay between two and four years back in Ireland, but ended up staying 11 years. It was always our intention to move back to Sydney; it just took us longer than expected. We had two kids in Ireland, they were 5 and 7 when we moved back to Australia in 2015. 

You recently wrapped up at Gumtree. How did your path take you into that pivotal role? 

After working as a software engineer in several companies I got my first role in technical leadership at a company called Salmat in Sydney. It was a great environment and I was supported well in that role. 

I worked in tech leadership roles for many years before joining Dun & Bradstreet (D&B) in Dublin as a senior technical leader. D&B was a 180-year old business that had set up a new development centre in Dublin. It was fast paced, scrappy, chaotic, intense, and with all of that came great opportunities. I realised we had a gap on the product side, so I persuaded the leadership team to let me set up a product team in Dublin. I also was strategy lead for a large project to develop an ambitious three-year plan for the Dublin team. During my six years, I broadened my experience and perspective from being purely technical to being more customer focused and strategic. I think that helped me hugely when I moved back to Sydney and was looking for more strategic roles. 

eBay reached out to me about the CTO role at Gumtree, and I realised that I could take a lot of my learnings at D&B and apply them at Gumtree and really make a positive impact. 

What’s your next move? 

As it happens, I’ve just started my next adventure with Google as Director of Engineering, working closely with Anil Sabharwal, considered one of the world’s most influential leaders, and who’s built or run three of Google’s biggest products. It’s a very exciting new project at Google where I get to build a team and a product from scratch. Watch this space!

What’s the term leadership mean to you – and what type of leader are you?

A leader sets a vision and goal for their team and then inspires and motivates them to achieve that goal. I try to create an inclusive environment where everybody can thrive; an environment where the whole is more than the sum of their parts. As a leader that means I need to lead with empathy, vulnerability and authenticity. I set clear expectations and trust my team to get the job done, coaching along the way. 

As a female role model, and champion of diversity, what advice or lessons learned can you offer? 

I’ve been lucky enough to have had some amazing mentors and sponsors over the course of my career, both formally and informally. I truly believe this has helped me succeed in my career, especially where I’ve had people speak up on my behalf to select me for projects, roles, opportunities, promotions, and awards. 

For women currently in tech or thinking about a career in tech, I would look for mentors and sponsors (of any gender) who can support you along the way. For leaders in tech, please sponsor a woman in tech or someone from an underrepresented group. Unfortunately, 56% of women leave the tech industry at mid-point in their career – according to statistics from ncwit.org – and they leave because they’re feeling stuck or unsupported in their roles. Having a sponsor really changes that. In fact, a woman is 85% more likely to stay in the industry if she’s had a sponsor. I believe it’s the single most powerful thing that a leader can do to improve representation in the industry. 

What are your top priorities for the next 12 months? 

Priority No. 1 is to build an awesome, inclusive, diverse, high performing team at Google. Number 2 is to get fit enough to run the Sydney city to surf later this year. Number 3 is to ensure my whole family is fully vaccinated so that we can travel back to Ireland to see my family as soon as the borders are reopened.

Looking back on your career, is there anything you’d change?

I’ve definitely made plenty of mistakes along the way, but I’ve also learned a lot from those mistakes. I think on balance I’m exactly where I’d want to be in my career at this stage in my life, so I’m pretty happy with the career choices that I’ve made. I do think it would’ve been interesting to do a PhD, maybe in AI or cyber security at some point. I still have time. 

What do you do outside the world of technology? 

I love the outdoors, which is one of the reasons I enjoy living in Australia so much. I like walking in the bush or on the beach alone or with friends. We take the kids camping as often as we can, sometimes with large groups of friends and their kids, which is fantastic fun. Our next trip is in October (COVID dependent of course) and we’re going with 23 other families. We recently spent a couple of weeks in Byron and it was fantastic to take sunset walks on the beach with the dog and explore in the hinterland with the kids. It was magic.

When the weather is not so conducive to outdoor activities, I love to binge watch TV shows like New Amsterdam or The Blacklist. 

Do you know of a worthy ‘Close-Up’ contender? Get in touch with Jennifer at jennifer@storiesink.com.au to get the story captured.