Katische Vinning, CIO of Defence Housing Australia headshot Katische Vinning looks pretty chipper given I’m chatting to her at 7pm on a school night. Maybe it was the glass of red wine I spied on the edge of her video screen (Reader, I had one too) but, truth be told, she is well accustomed to working late.

As Chief Information Officer (CIO) of Defence Housing Australia (DHA), she oversees a budget of AU$65 million. In addition, she is studying for an MBA (more of that below), has two young children and is a frequent and active participant in industry forums as well. No wonder she’s no stranger to logging on in the evening. Katische, though, is not one to complain. I’ve had the privilege of working with her for a couple of years now, and she always makes time for you. Busy, yes. But welcoming and thoughtful too. So, what’s her secret?

Maybe her positivity is rooted in her eclectic career background. From hotel management to manufacturing, recruitment to local government, hers is no ordinary CV. Such experiences have perhaps given her the confidence and knowledge that whatever the demand, whatever the deadline, she possesses the wherewithal to successfully navigate the terrain ahead. Well, at least that’s what I thought.

It transpires that not going to university straight out of school has always been something of a bugbear for Katische, one that has impacted confidence in her own abilities.

“Even though others didn’t doubt that I had what I needed to succeed, I always felt internally that I wasn’t qualified because I didn’t have that piece of paper behind me. And that’s what led to me doing an MBA – which was a really big commitment at the same time as running a major tech programme, but it was just really important for me personally. The MBA was really more a personal validation that in fact that I do know what I am doing and I do have the ability to make good decisions.”

So, where did she start making such career decisions? To answer that we must set our compass for north. 
Up and running
Client Conversation: Staying Safe as Houses - up and running icon Having opted against university, while in Queensland, the young Katische started her career in hotel management. Sure, the hours were long and the challenges testing but it had its advantages. “At that time in my life I could think of nothing better than to live on one of the tropical islands on the Great Barrier Reef and that was my entry point from school,” she recalls.

And so she worked on the Sunshine Coast, across multiple properties, before she and her husband moved to Melbourne where she had been transferred to the Grand Hyatt. But it was at that point that she started to think longer term and realised that she didn’t want to stay in the hotel business forever. After a stint in the recruitment industry she then moved into the manufacturing sector – it was a role she relished.

“I really loved that job because I got to see a whole new way of working,” she explains. “I think that was where I found one of my ‘superpowers’, which is understanding what problems staff may face and developing solutions to address these.

“For example, we had an issue where head office implemented a process requiring lots of documentation but a lot of the manufacturing staff had left school aged 13 or 14.  So we augmented processes to include visual checklists, maps and so on – it completely shifted the culture in the factoring and delivered a mutually beneficial outcome including empowering staff to seek out other opportunities for improvements.”

From there she moved to Canberra – “my husband was offered a job there which was a great opportunity for him so of course I tagged along” – and where she worked in recruitment again before a stint with Thales, where she focused on bid and tender management. “I then fell pregnant with my daughter and decided that travelling back and forth to Sydney once a week was not what I wanted my season as a new mum to look like,” she explains.

When she was ready to return to work, a few phone calls with former colleagues – including the then Managing Director of DHA – saw her installed at the agency and within a few months she was running its innovation programme and working with the CIO building delivery frameworks and strategies. After a short stint working for Canberra’s local government, she returned to DHA before being promoted to the role of CIO in June 2019.
“At times when I’ve doubted my own abilities because I don’t have that traditional technical background, I really do think that a people centred approach set me apart from other leaders in the CIO space” Katische Vinning, CIO of Defence Housing Australia
People person
Client Conversation: Staying Safe as Houses - good to talk icon Established in 1988, DHA is tasked with providing housing and related services to serving men and women and their families.

“Our housing products and services extends past the defence member,” points out Katische. “It’s about that individual moving their family to a new location with no family network and he or she might be shipped off to another country for several months, leaving their family in a new location. Moving house is stressful – imagine doing that every couple of years! It’s one of the biggest stresses you can have so whatever DHA can do to make it less stressful we should do it.”

DHA has grown to become one of the largest residential property and tenancy managers in Australia, with 18,577 properties under management, worth approximately AU$10 billion. To provision properties DHA has also managed major residential land developments, with more than AU$1 billion committed to projects in most state capital cities.

Clearly then, the reach of DHA is extensive. It occupies a critical role in Australia’s Defence infrastructure, but when she first started work there, Katische was basically flying solo from the get go.

“To start with I was bit of a one woman band, working directly to the managing director,” she recalls. “I didn’t have a team. I had built a relationship with the CIO but again with no staff. It was about this time that I realised that I was really passionate about people and building teams. I realised I needed be surrounded by a team, that I love working with people.”

“At times when I’ve doubted my own abilities because I don’t have that traditional technical background, I really do think that a people centred approach set me apart from other leaders in the CIO space,” she says.

“I have invested heavily in the last couple of years around the organisational structure, embedding culture within the Technology group and bringing in really solid change management.  I actively lobbied for this to be in my remit because it is so important to what I was doing. I really invest in my people and I hope that if you asked them they would say that ‘Katische is an authentic leader who genuinely cares for us’.

She goes on to say that against an evolving backdrop which includes ‘the great resignation’ and a huge tech skills shortage, championing a people focused employee value proposition couldn’t be more important. “I’ve found that my point of difference is looking after the whole person,” she reiterates. “I love that I have a mechanism to provide flexibility in ways of working and fantastic development opportunities to my staff that we would not have if we were just focused on keeping the lights on.”
“At the executive level I need to make sure I’m having the right conversations at the right time at the leadership table. This is about thinking strategically, looking for opportunities to leverage and planting seeds for things I know I’m going to have to raise two or three months down the line” Katische Vinning, CIO of Defence Housing Australia
It's good to talk
Client Conversation: Staying Safe as Houses - people person icon As CIO, Katische juggles no end of weighty responsibilities. She’s got a seat at the organisation’s leadership table, contributes to all DHA strategic decisions and heads up a team of 85 strategic and operational staff. Communication, then, is vital – good thing it’s one of her biggest assets as she pivots from one assignment to another, including the not insignificant task of crafting and implementing a new IT strategy – a four-year programme poised to transform DHA’s entire IT landscape.

“This is something I’ve been thinking about very carefully over the past several months,” she says. “I’ve invested heavily in creating consistent messaging, building capability, reshaping teams, including moving people on to roles and environments they are better suited to (which a lot of people don’t like doing but I’ve found to be essential), transparency, authenticity, and hopefully building a reputation so that great people in the market want to come and work for you.”

But now, though, she needs to adjust her approach. While she used to wander the office and know everything about the kids of every colleague, she just can’t do that anymore. “Implementing a hybrid work environment and embedding many new functions has required shift in how I engage with and support the team. I need to still be authentic with the team but also be ready to able to take them to the next level,” she explains.

“I also deal with staff on the frontline – I need them to be confident that I know what they need – and at the executive level I need to make sure I’m having the right conversations at the right time at the leadership table. This is about thinking strategically, looking for opportunities to leverage and planting seeds for things I know I’m going to have to raise two or three months down the line.”
Cyber house rules
Of course, cyber forms a key part of her day-to-day operations – it’s fast become an essential component of any organisation’s IT programmes. At DHA, though, being part of Australia’s Defence portfolio automatically makes it a high-profile cyber-target for its adversaries.

For Katische and her colleagues, it’s been a steep learning curve. “We didn’t even have a cyber-programme three years ago,” she points out. “And now it’s huge, a really massive piece of work to uplift the capability.” As part of her role, Katische has frequent conversations with DHA’s audit and risk committee, which provides independent advice to managing director and Board, and through it, the government.

“It’s a journey I’ve been taking them on,” she says. “Years ago the discussion was ‘what if?’ this happened but now it is about ‘when this happens’ what are we going to do. Previously in DHA there was a fear about having discussions like that but I need to – I’m very transparent and I have to have that kind of open discussion. There’s no doubt, though, that we will never be ‘done’ on cyber. Things are moving very quickly.”

As a result, Katische and her colleagues have been focusing on their response and recover aspects, a programme of activity where our two teams have had the chance to join forces. “We have some fantastic work with BAE Systems which is going to be kicking off soon on these areas,” she says.

“BAE Systems has also delivered some great work around cyber awareness and we are building that up to expand it across the business. But it also comes down to focusing on cyber culture and how we can build a resilient DHA holistically – not just technical controls but all aspects of cyber hygiene, ensuring our staff think about what they do when they’re working from home and so on. We’re dealing with things we’ve never had to consider before.”
“I honestly believe the next generation of female leaders will be analytical, problem solvers and strong stakeholder managers – and so we need to highlight that these skills are really valued – it’s not just about the tech” Katische Vinning, CIO of Defence Housing Australia
Sending the elevator back down
You’d think that all this is more than enough to keep Katische busy – and you’d be right – but she also finds time to be a huge advocate of supporting women in business and identifying the next generation of female leaders.

“This is deeply important to me,” she agrees. “It’s about how can I use my position and influence to encourage that next generation of girls to take that step, how I can build levels of mentoring across the generations to support that uplift. I honestly believe the next generation of female leaders will be analytical, problem solvers and strong stakeholder managers – and so we need to highlight that these skills are really valued – it’s not just about the tech.”

Looking ahead, Katische is very much focused on big deliverables and championing what the next generation looks like. “I joke that if I ever left DHA I’m not sure what I would do because I think the one thing I’m really good at now is identifying super smart people and convincing them to work for me,” she concludes.

Now that’s actually the sign of a really good leader – and there’s certainly no shortage of people jostling to work with her. Myself included.

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About the author

Annette Costello is Head of Consulting, Australia, International Government at BAE Systems Digital Intelligence


Further reading
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  • Life on the consultancy course. How did someone who hated computers and knew nothing about cybersecurity when she left school end up as a senior leader at BAE Systems Digital Intelligence? Annette Costello explains…

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  • Client Conversation: Delivering Defence’s Digital Awakening . Six months into his role as Director of Information and CIO of the British Army, it’s fair to say that Major General John Collyer has a lot on his plate. Here, he tells Mivy James about the reality of life at the tip of the military’s digital and data spear – and what he has planned for the future  

  • Client Conversation:  Turning Information into  Intelligence . Professor Emma Barrett is on a mission to bridge the divide between academia and law enforcement. She tells Victoria Knight how she is getting on and explains why the digital compass is increasingly pointed North West

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