Q&A with Gaya Gounder, Chief Information Officer (CIO) at Camden Council
With a population growth rate of 4.4% per annum, Camden – located in Sydney’s South West, is one of the fastest growing LGAs in the country. For Camden Council’s CIO Gaya Gounder and her 30-strong team, that means having a pinpoint focus on continuous improvement to ensure the council’s IT and digital infrastructure is robust, secure, and well-positioned to service the needs of this rapidly growing community.
We recently caught up with Gaya to chat through her remarkable career journey, what she finds most rewarding about her current role, and why she believes that once you’ve experienced an IT role in local government, you won’t want to work anywhere else!
Q. Are you able to explain your educational and career background, and what led you to a career at council?
A. I arrived from India 20 years ago as a student to do my Master’s Degree in IT at Monash University It was a broad-based course and I had no industry experience, so I wasn’t sure what area I wanted to go into. Towards the end of the course, I completed four units in Business Intelligence and discovered that’s where my passion was – in data.
I graduated with a Master’s Degree in IT, specialising in Business Intelligence and I soon landed contract positions within the banking industry, working for the likes of ANZ and Westpac.
When you’re straight out of university you tend fall into roles like Test Analyst or Data Verification Analyst, and they’re usually 12–18-month contracts. I did that for a couple of years, but I felt it wasn’t the right fit for me or making the most of my studies. I realised I needed to get back to basics and learn how a business operates and how I can be useful.
So, despite it being a step-down, I chose to apply for a permanent entry level helpdesk/support role for Mitre10. I have shared this story with my staff several times and they now realise, I do really know what level one support looks like and what it takes to be on the front line!
I did that role for six months or so before my then manager recognised my potential and offered me the role of Business Analyst. In that role I thrived on working to understand what the business was trying to achieve, and how the systems could work towards that objective. Over my time with Mitre10 I implemented many of their internal systems, including streamlining how their various stores ordered goods from the main warehouse.
By this time, I was married and just had my first baby and was on maternity leave. My husband was offered a role within the banking sector in Queensland and we thought ‘why not’ – let’s explore a little bit!
We were based in Yeppoon by the coast, and the only employers in that part of Australia that required IT skills were the mines, port authorities or Council. So, that’s how I started my career at Council in Queensland – at Rockhampton Regional Council as their Corporate Systems Officer.
Q. Did the skills you’d gained in the private sector transfer to a local government environment?
A. Yes, definitely. I found myself translating those business analysis skills that I had learnt previously. Working to understand what Council is trying to do, what the business units want, and then bringing in my technical knowledge to develop or implement systems to support this.
My husband was then moved 100kms south to Gladstone, and I moved into a Senior Corporate Systems role at Gladstone Regional Council. Interestingly, both Councils were going through amalgamations at the time I was there. I gained immense experience out of those changing environments and working through complex projects.
Q. Did you always know you wanted to be in a leadership role?
A. I’ve always had a real growth mindset which for me means growing my technical knowledge and interpersonal skills through my experience! I was at Gladstone in 2011 and my team leader had set a retirement date of 2020 – so I knew that there wasn’t going to be an option to progress there for some years. Yet, I was craving some leadership experience. That’s when I saw that a position of Corporate Systems Team Leader and Database Administrator had opened up at Hawkesbury City Council which I applied for and was successful!
I told my husband that this time we’re moving because of me and so we moved to NSW in 2012. In this role I was looking after a small team but I was also able to bring my Database Analysis & Administration skills to the job which I’d gained over time.
I was at Hawkesbury for four years, but I knew I wanted to broaden my horizons a little more into leading projects and digital transformation space. So, I found an opportunity at Sydney Olympic Park Authority. It was a project-based Digital Infrastructure Manager role responsible for amalgamating their eight customer-facing websites into one. I knew it was short term, but I took the risk because I really wanted to experience managing a project of that scale.
Once that project finished, I took on Manager Information, Innovation and Planning role at NSW Government’s Office of Sport. I was in that management role for nearly four years, gaining a lot of leadership experience, and becoming certified as an Enterprise Architect – fully trained in the TOGAF framework.
When I saw the position of CIO become available at Camden City Council, I realised that I missed working for local government. I just knew I had to go for it!
Q. What was it about working in local government that you had missed?
A. It’s just so rewarding to see the work you do being used in the community. People might think that what IT does within a council doesn’t impact the community, but the reality is that we support our internal staff so that they’re able to service the community. If the wider team doesn’t have the systems and tools, then they’re not able to do their job effectively. And if we don’t create the right digital customer experience our community’s expectations aren’t being met either.
It’s about creating the IT and digital backbone for the council to serve the community well. I find that really satisfying, knowing that what I do actually impacts people’s lives.
Q. What is the main focus of your role right now?
A. When I joined in 2020 during the pandemic, it was timely for me to have a good look at Camden’s IT strategy to understand where we were heading with our systems. With my Enterprise Architecture background, I was able to apply those TOGAF principles; analyse our current state, where do we want to be heading how can our IT systems support that and how do we get there.
Camden is one of Australia’s fastest growing LGAs and we needed a strategy that would support this growth. We developed our Digital Innovation Strategy and an associated five-year roadmap. We’re currently in year three of that roadmap and busy delivering initiatives set out in that roadmap.
Right now, I am focused on ensuring we protect and secure our community’s information. I’m looking at our Cyber Resilience Strategy and implementing our Cyber Security Action Plan to not only bring in the technical controls to ensure everything is locked and secure, but also changing the culture and employee awareness on security. Everyone right from our Executives at the top now understand that cyber-attacks are a real and constant threat and that we need to always be prepared with a tried and tested response plan.
Q. What does a successful day look like for you?
A. Having a collaborative experience where we have made a difference in someone’s way of working, where we’ve solved a problem by coming up with a solution that makes their lives easier. Cherry on top is when the solution has impacted our end customer or the community directly.
We have introduced ‘Business Technology Partners’ and we pretty much have Account Managers in our branch that look after the different departments. We want to make sure that our internal staff (our customers) feel that they are being heard and seeing how we can solve their problems. It’s a people-oriented way of working, rather than systems-orientated.
Q. What would you say to someone considering an IT career in local government?
A. I really believe that once you have a taste of working in local government, you would not want to work anywhere else. There are so many benefits – firstly you get the flexibility, everyone is so supportive and understand that you do have a life outside of work. One of the benefits that is not emphasised much in comparison to renumeration is that we encourage flexible working arrangements.
You also get the reward of making a difference, which is so satisfying. The other thing you get here is the opportunity to multi-skill, you’re not pigeon-holed here into being a Developer, or a Programmer, or a Technical Support person. If you’re entering the industry, you’re going to get a taste of everything with local government. When we have projects, we pull everyone in.
Local government also provides fantastic IT traineeship opportunities for school leavers. Presently, I have three trainees currently on my team; a cyber security trainee, an information technology trainee, and information management trainee. There are also cadetship programmes if you’re coming straight out of university as well. I’ve not seen these opportunities anywhere else!
There’s also so much room and support for growth. I have people in my team who started as trainees and have now grown into team leader roles. I also have staff who have transitioned from a systems-based role to a project-based role which gives them the experience of being a project manager – adding value to their skill set, which is great for them and us.
That’s the beauty of local government. We want to keep our staff, so we offer them more learning and development opportunities. That growth mindset is all about continuous learning, for my team and for myself!
Whether you’re a school leaver excited about a career in IT, a university graduate looking for exposure across all aspects of IT and Digital Infrastructure, or you’re an experienced IT professional wanting to make an impact in the community – why not check out the IT opportunities available right now in councils across Australia. If you like the idea of working for Camden Council, see what other roles are currently available.