Q&A Jul 10, 2022

The Future of Business is Driven by Data, Digital Solutions: A Q&A with Sarah James

Our Principal and Market Sector Lead for ANZ, Sarah James, discusses the power of digital solutions and her pursuit of an inclusive culture and sustainable living.

Q&A with Sarah James Jacobs Principal and Market Sector Lead, Australia & New Zealand

We're living in the era of digital disruption and need bold digital and technology leadership now more than ever before. Leading this change demands knowledge, imagination, new thinking, an appetite to reinvent and the courage to challenge conventions.

In this series, we're celebrating our team of digital and technology experts and visionaries, spearheading the development and delivery of our technology-forward solutions for smarter working and better living in the Asia Pacific and the Middle East.

For this feature, we caught up with Sarah James, our principal and market sector lead for the Australia-New Zealand (ANZ) region to understand the role of data solutions in navigating digital transformation, its importance in Jacobs' new strategy and why organizations should strive to become more inclusive.

Let's get to know Sarah:

Tell us a bit about your career background and role at Jacobs.

I have over 21 years' worth of experience, and my career spans three areas: engineering, technology and executive leadership. I have visually summarized my career highlights in this Mural to make this more attractive to the readers.

I started working in the IT field in 1997 before university and then worked for engineering firms through university. My career began by supporting IT globally and remotely for a company that supplied parts for BMW, Jaguar, Airbus, Mini and Land Rover all the way around the world.

I joined Halcrow as an intern and traveled around the world in 2002. I went to Plymouth University, worked with the dean to invest in creating a year in the industry for students, and did my Master's in Geographic Information Systems in 2003 at the University of New South Wales. I worked for Halcrow (which then became CH2M HILL and eventually Jacobs) throughout university and beyond for six years, moved to Mouchel (now WSP Global Inc.), and worked for them for six years.

I am a Royal Geographic Society Chartered Geographer and also sponsored for Business Analysis Skills by the Australian Computer Society. I won an award from the British Computer Society for Innovation in Project Management and became a certified PRINCE® Project Manager and an International Project Manager. I have also been creating startups since 2009, some successful and some not so much.

I emigrated to Australia in 2011, where I met my now partner. I joined CSC (now DXC) and worked for many, many clients over the years around the world. I also had a short client-side stint with BHP and got tapped on the shoulder to work for one of the Big 4 financial services companies.

What led me to Jacobs? I began writing my book "Are You Ready To Change The World – Technology Leadership for the future" in 2016 and eventually published it in 2021. An old mentor who worked for Jacobs read it and introduced me to the new digitally-enabled Jacobs.

I am a sum of my many parts. I am a mum, a wife, an immigrant, a startup business owner, an engineer, a technologist, a geographer, an author and a farmer.

My role at Jacobs is as a Principal in Digital Solutions. I have grown the Data and Digital Advisory team in the ANZ region from 10 to 23 in 11 months and challenged clients to look from secondments to project work. I have also been instrumental in implementing our Neurodiverse Internship Program, supporting the Women in Technology Western Australia (WITWA) Diversity and Inclusion program, and considering how we hire differently.

I see my role to inspire our teams, to be a courageous leader who makes the impossible possible. To challenge the accepted and look after our clients and #OurJacobs people while wholeheartedly ensuring that we encourage diversity in everything we do.

As Walt Disney says, "It's kind of fun to do the impossible."

Data solutions is one of the growth accelerators in Jacobs' new strategy. How is Jacobs adding digital capabilities, products and tools to serve clients navigating digital transformation? 

In every solution we propose to our customers, we add a dash of digital. This is how we grow. In every discussion with our colleagues and clients, we think about what would help our clients and how can past data or future data make a difference.

Our digital solutions push the boundaries of what is possible by helping our clients look into the future. We are always considering what is coming next to stay ahead of the curve and bring new and innovative digital solutions to the market. We are aware of new and emerging technologies and not be afraid to learn, research and have a go. Look at our next three years of growth with our accelerators for Data Solutions!

We will need to look at leveraging our long-standing relationships with our clients to enhance our robust business portfolio. It will enable us to take advantage of influential trends with data and other new areas of business like the environment, new energy and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) to move the company forward into 2025 – and beyond boldly. Thinking beyond what we currently do for our clients encourages them to think differently and encourages them also to do the impossible. Those I have worked with know I enjoy working on challenges today that reinvent tomorrow.

Jacobs' new strategy is based on an extensive evaluation of global trends, capabilities, and markets to understand our largest opportunities, projected spend, and growth rates. This resulted in the identification of three growth accelerators: Climate Response, Consulting & Advisory and Data Solutions. I have been lucky enough to work across all three in my career. From flood mapping to coastal erosion, from hydrogen plants to predicting the cities of our future, it's fantastic to see us grow sustainably and use data and digital to do so.

These growth accelerators cut across the entire business and open opportunities for significant high-value growth with our existing and new clients. They can be pivotal in changing how we work together and how we can deliver for our clients.

As part of this new strategy, we also announced a plan to form a new business unit - Divergent Solutions. It is great to see an organization taking Data Solutions as a growth accelerator. With many organizations thinking about becoming a data-centric organization, a targeted approach to this is a great idea. Data can often help organizations understand their past to predict or invent their future. Divergent Solutions will help to develop and deliver innovative, next-generation cloud, cyber, data and digital technologies.

Embracing digital disruption and innovation can be hard work, requiring resilience and an openness to change. At Jacobs, we have specialists who can help to unleash the momentum needed to drive data-enabled solutions across the organization. Leveraging the strength of our existing business creates focus and agility to deliver the bold outcomes we want to create for our clients.

Our Jacobs' new three-year strategy is bold, and I look forward to being part of this journey, supporting PlanBeyond 2.0 and focusing on industries like solar, wind and energy, hydrogen, sustainability and future emerging market focuses.

“Our digital solutions push the boundaries of what is possible by helping our clients look into the future. We are always considering what is coming next to stay ahead of the curve and bring new and innovative digital solutions to the market.”

Sarah James

Sarah James

Jacobs Principal and Market Sector Lead, Australia & New Zealand

Relentless change and the continuous emergence of new technologies force businesses to rapidly adopt digital transformation. How do digital and data advisory services help accelerate digital adoption and achieve competitive differentiation? 

Our Digital and Data Advisory services help our clients think more precisely about what is best for their organization. Sometimes customers can be constrained to a certain way of thinking, a delivery method, data usage or methodology to arrive at solutions. They cannot see that there is or may be another path forward. This is where our team comes in to enable them to look at the current and future state, understand the vision and roadmap, and strategize where they could be or help them understand where they would like to go.

We can use the data from the past to understand the future, capturing information that has never been sensed through the Internet of Things (IoT), condition-based monitoring or traditional data sources blended with new. By understanding the data running through an organization, you can understand how they behave, where improvements are possible, and optimizations can be made.

We also use predictive methods and Artificial Intelligence (AI) modeling to understand scenarios or what-if analysis to imagine what could happen in the future. This is where the power of digital strategy and data working together can make a clear difference.

Competitive differentiation and our accelerators are essential for working with some of the most innovative companies globally and locally here in Australia. From our key mining clients becoming more sustainable and renewable to leveraging digital and data solutions, our clients want to change how they work. Our long-standing 20-year relationship with our government clients is because we make a difference and encourage our clients to challenge today to reinvent tomorrow.

At Jacobs, there is an unparalleled focus on inclusion and diversity. As a neuro-diverse inclusivity leader, Women In Technology advocate and author, what can organizations do to become more inclusive? 

We must challenge our own thinking and seek to understand.

We must always think about everyone when we design. Designing for everyone and everybody will make a difference and help us step in the right direction. Avoid putting people in boxes using your assumptions or biases, and seek to understand how they want to be treated. Share stories and experiences to have a shared understanding of culture and backgrounds. We must build and design with inclusivity and our environment in mind.

Diversity ensures that all our teams can leverage the diversity of thought, culture, gender, backgrounds and many other elements. Diverse groups may create challenges as not everyone will always agree on a way forward, but diverse teams are proven to deliver more and have a higher standard and results. Google and NASA have undertaken many studies into this. I highly recommend reading "Work Rules!" by Laszlo Bock, "How Google Works" by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg, also "Hit Refresh: A Memoir by Microsoft's CEO" by Satya Nadella, and finally, one of my favorites, "How NASA Builds Teams" by Charlie Pellerin.

(Follow me on Goodreads).

Diversity is one thing, but inclusion ensures that all those voices are listened to and respected as part of the team, not silenced or brushed away. Everyone has a voice that must always be considered. I try to think has everyone voiced their viewpoint. Who hasn't spoken, and why haven't they?

Another way to look at it is to step forward when someone asks for help or when there is silence in a room and help others who do not speak up and are not as forthright or as transparent as yourself. Everyone needs help now and again. Helping others who are different from yourself is the right thing to do.

"Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek"-Barack Obama.

You have worked across the world-monitoring volcanoes in Hawaii, analyzing traffic data in Sydney, petrol stations in Romania, flood mapping in the U.K., and mining data for optimization in Perth. What are you most proud of looking back on your career so far?

This is a tricky question as I have worked on many unique projects and won awards for my work.

I am proud of being a working mum, a startup owner and the primary breadwinner. My husband gave up work to focus on our farm/startup last July, and we took the risk that I would be the only one working so my husband could do the school bus run (yes, I will pick up and drop off when I get the chance from meetings). Jacobs is fantastic as it allows me the flexibility to do so. I just must give myself permission to step away.

My mum had to give up her job in the 1970s in Finance to get married and have children. You couldn't do both during those days, and she had to retrain from typewriter to computing when she was away from the workforce.

Seeing my girls understand they can be whoever they want makes me proud. To motivate other young women and girls to go into technology, engineering or a STEAM field makes me proud. When a young person relates to my journey, I see I have inspired them to become someone, making me happy. This is why I mentor at Coderdojo and speak at events to encourage the next generation to come through. If not now, then when?

Looking back over my career, I must admit most challenging things are often the most rewarding. It's challenging to speak from the heart and be authentically autistic in a world that thinks differently from me. To stand up and speak, to encourage and inspire the next generation to do more than we have done before. Seeing my girls and the children at Coderdojo learn Python from age seven, to know that they can do anything they want in this world, to open their eyes to what they can achieve. There is no limit - only the limits society and themselves place on their minds. Because my children know that their mummy works with engineers and technologists, I am #SeeHerBeHer, which makes me very proud.

As a fellow old colleague/mentor and friend who recently joined Jacobs said, "Sarah, you have well and truly smashed that glass ceiling," and for that, I am very proud.

You co-founded Jacaranda Hill Farm, an award-winning, off-grid, self-sustaining farm in Western Australia that uses technology, renewable resources and services. What made you pursue this, and what lessons have you learned from running a sustainable, off-grid farm?

What made us pursue this? At the time, we had two girls who were one and a few months old, so everyone thought we were insane (except for my dad). We had just finished building three units in a traditional manner, which was about fitting as many houses as possible on the site without leaving many trees. This did not sit well with us. We wanted to do something different – to build and explore the opportunity of being self-sufficient from the land and seeing if we could be off-grid. Perhaps I had seen too much and wanted to ensure that sustainable living was possible. I wanted to ensure that the rural environment was accessible to everyone, especially young people.

The will to succeed in this endeavor came from having an inventive, creative and thinking mindset. It came from studying environment and geography at university. It also came from wanting to make a difference, realizing we wouldn't do it unless we did something dramatic, and the need to be rural and work as a team to live our dream.

"Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people." - Eleanor Roosevelt.

The lessons we learn are daily. I learn from my career, from our startup, and the ideas infiltrate each other. Whilst there are way too many lessons to mention, I did have a think, and here are the results on my Mural board.

I think more people should have a career or vocation and pursue a hobby in their spare time. Sometimes the hobby can grow into something which allows creative thinking, and the spare energy is positively utilized for the good of our planet.

People would be surprised to know that …

I am also a trained florist who was invited to compete at the Chelsea Flower Show, and I also participated at the Malvern Flower Show, where we won gold. I also made all my flower arrangements for our wedding while heavily pregnant. I gave birth with a broken ankle in three places (that’s a whole other story). I am also a natural introvert (I work hard to motivate myself to socialize).

What would we most likely find you doing if you weren't working?

Walking, swimming, watching Marvel movies and TV series (Ms. Marvel and Agent Carter are currently in our house), or reading. I cherish spending time with my children or outside on the farm.

What advice would you give to young professionals?

Challenge respectfully. Believe in yourself. Find a good mentor, build a network and remember that trusting relationships last a lifetime. Finally, give to the next generation as others have provided to you.

From a digital perspective, never stop learning and realize that every project has the opportunity for you to learn about digital. Remember also that you can learn as much from a recent graduate as you can from someone with a career of experience. It’s all about learning from everyone and your collective experiences.

What do you enjoy most about being part of #OurJacobs?

The diversity in our people, the diversity of thought, the sketches, the ideas, the kindness, the hugs. I know I can be in the office and receive a hug from one of our exceptional leaders because they know I need it (they know I am a safe person who is open to the hug), which is lovely.

At Jacobs, I am inspired every day to do something new and something I have never done before. It is encouraged. If I am not learning or doing something new, questions are asked as to what is next? Jacobs is a place where I can be my true self, I can accomplish more, and I am encouraged to be the best version of myself. We play to people's strengths, and we lead with kindness in our hearts.

This culture of caring was evident recently when we faced a loss in our family. Being overseas made it extremely difficult. I had a stream of support, messages of respect, phone calls, and support from my work colleagues who cared about me, my family, my health and my well-being. At Jacobs, we care, our teams care, we look after our people, and they are family. With most of my family overseas, that means a lot to me.

About the interviewee

Sarah James

Sarah James is a dynamic and energetic author, innovator, and Principal at Jacobs. Sarah has over 20 years of delivery excellence and experience in Analytics, AI, IoT, Spatial and Data and their use within technology and engineering.

Sarah is also the co-founder of Jacaranda Hill Farm – an off-grid, sustainable farm in the Darling Ranges using IoT innovations to be Western Australia's  first tech-focused permaculture farm open to visitors and campers.

Sarah is a TEDx speaker and a passionate advocate for Autism. Sarah is on the Curtin University AASQA program board and a mentor at a Neurodivergent Coderdojo club. She is also the author of "Are you ready to change the world? - Technology leadership for the future." A book that inspires people to be more, do more and make a difference.

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