As part of a series of stories profiling people of influence from around Beca, we asked Stephen Witherden, Product Strategy Manager for Digital, to tell us about his career journey and life outside of work.  

How did growing up in South Africa shape you?

I remember distinctly I was 14 years old in 1994 when they had the referendum about apartheid, and so effectively I came of age as the country came of age. I realised that a whole bunch of assumptions that were baked into the world around me were false. It makes me thoughtful of the biases that I have today and how those things are shaping my perspective on the future. For example, I think one of our big biases today is the transgender issue, and gender issues in general.

Tell us about your experience of moving to New Zealand at age 18.

I knew nothing about New Zealand apart from the fact that there was a place called Auckland. When we arrived, pretty much the entirety of our belongings were just the clothes on our backs. I decided I was a New Zealander after the first few months because the people of New Zealand were so generous to us. We got given a fridge, a TV – stuff that we just didn't have when we turned up. And there were no bars on the windows, which was unsettling at first. I fell in love with New Zealand pretty soon after I arrived.  

You've lived in quite a few different places (Durban, Pietermaritzburg, Auckland, Dallas, Melbourne). Where do you think of as home now?  

That's a really difficult question. I've actually said to my friends I wish Auckland and Melbourne were the same place. I live in Melbourne, but for me Aotearoa New Zealand is where my family is, literally and figuratively, and every time I come back to Beca’s Auckland office it feels like coming back to family.  

What was school like for you?  

I'm an introvert, but at school I sang and performed in plays and that forced me out into the limelight. One of the tricks that I still use today when I'm public speaking is to treat it as a form of acting. If you take on a persona it's not quite as scary.   I was an avid reader. I was the kid in the front of the class with my nose in a book pretty much the whole time.

I moved schools late in my high school career. Because I moved partway through the semester, they put me in the so-called ‘mixed ability’ class. I learned so much from the people in that class. I learned that different ways of thinking are good, and that being around people that are the same as you is actually not so good. They helped me with bullying, because they were all my friends and they would stick up for me. And I would help them with their homework.

I realised that there's a lot of confirmation bias that goes on, and the way in which we make presumptions about people changes the way we treat them, which changes the outcomes.  

How did you decide what to study at university?

I'm very curious about the world. As a child, I assumed that adults knew everything. And then when I became a teenager I became disillusioned with adults and I thought they all just made everything up. As I graduated high school, I said to my father: “I'm studying Operations Research. I'm going to learn all the science and maths required to make the world right, to make the right decisions.” And he said to me: “Don't just do the sciencey stuff Stephen, do a little bit of business as well,” and so on the basis of his advice I did a double major in Information Systems and Operations Research.

I'm really glad I did that. The way I see my role at Beca at the moment is helping people make better decisions – be that our customers, making decisions around their asset porfolio, or be that the specialists in our organisation helping our clients make better decisions by applying their expertise.

What might your alternative career path have been?

An alternative career path (that would perhaps be less edifying for me) would be being in the back office somewhere writing lots of code, being a computer scientist and solving interesting technical problems but being unable to bring those problems to people who need those solutions. I think at heart I'm an academic, and I would love to be in a lab with a bunch of students just exploring a technically detailed idea. My career for the last 18 years has been focused on bringing some of that opportunity for research and development into Beca. We've become more and more focused on innovation over that time, and that's pretty exciting to me.

What are your interests outside of work?

I really enjoy entertaining. I also love to write. I have a blog and I write long-winded LinkedIn posts. I also believe software is a creative pursuit, in much the same way as writing a story is.

What’s your view on a person’s legacy?  

My view of legacy is, it’s not the money you've made, the buildings that you've designed or the real smart thing you discovered or created. The legacy you leave behind is not your works, it is the way in which people change their behaviour by virtue of interacting with you. It's the impact you have on people that has the longest lasting impact on the world.

About the Author
Stephen Witherden

Technical Director - Software Engineering

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