'My first job? Sausage making - perhaps that's why I'm a vegetarian' - 15 Questions with Asda CIO Anna Barsby

John Leonard
clock • 6 min read

Anna Barsby on what makes her laugh, her favourite place in the world, and the best business advice she ever received ...

Anna Barsby is CIO at Asda, which she joined in November after setting up the management consultancy Tessiant. Prior to that she was CTO at another supermarket, Morrisons, and before that CIO at Halfords. She has just launched Asda's campaign to distribute 7,000 Dell laptops to children whose education has badly affected by the pandemic.

And as if all that weren't enough, Anna has bravely volunteered to be the first IT leader profiled in our new series 15 Questions.

What job did you want to do as a child?

When I was 5 all I wanted to be was a ballerina, but by the age of 12 I realised it wasn't going to happen and I became a bit of a tomboy, joining the Air Training Corps and wanting to join the RAF. By 16 I hit my arty / history phase so wanted to be an archaeologist or painting restorer! This phase has never really left me and have recently picked up sketching and painting again.

What sort of school child were you?

I was a bit of a swot if I'm honest. I was quite competitive on the sports field as well as in the classroom.

What was your first ever job?

I worked in my dad's butcher shop from an early age making sausages and cleaning up which is probably why I've been a vegetarian for over 30 years now. My first proper job was working on the steam powered carousel at Bressingham Steam Museum in Norfolk for £2.01 an hour, with additional responsibilities of dressing up as Rupert the Bear at Christmas…definitely one of my favourite jobs of all time.

How would you describe your current work to a 5-year-old kid?

Thankfully 5-year-olds are good at technology nowadays so its probably an easier conversation, but I would say I help businesses to do things better, often leading teams of very clever people who help keep all sorts of tech working, like at Fortnum & Mason and Asda recently, my clever teams keep the tills running so everyone can go shopping.

How, why and when did you get into technology?

It's an odd one as I did an Art History degree and art / historic architecture are still my passions. When I graduated my mum saw a job advert in the Guardian (a physical newspaper pre online!) for around 30 grads to join the Royal Commission on Historic Monuments of England (RCHME) to help type in all the Listed Buildings data into a new database. Sounds hilarious today that this had to be done manually! I was then lucky enough to manage the new database at English Heritage and found it was the IT and Project Management side that I really enjoyed and it suited my skills, so it all went from there, I feel that I've managed bigger and bigger change programmes ever since.

Who is your biggest inspiration when it comes to work or business?

Definitely my mum as she had a career and brought us up at the same time, also nowadays any single parents who have managed a career and parenting, as I have had to do this for many years and it was very challenging, although extremely rewarding too.

What achievement makes you most proud?

I'll choose three as I'm not good at following process! Firstly, it has to be bringing up my wonderful children, for many years as a single parent, whilst also enjoying a great career. The second has to be topping the CIO 100 list in my first CIO role at Halfords, most importantly as I was the first woman to do so, although it's also frustrating that there haven't been any other women yet. It was a testament to the fantastic team at Halfords and I'm still in touch with many of them who have gone on to even more successful careers. Finally, it is setting up our new consultancy Tessiant last year, I feel so proud to be starting this business, with brilliant people and fantastic clients, it's so rewarding.

What's the best life and work advice you've ever been given?

Be authentic, role model being a parent, don't be afraid to leave early to do the school run, or pop out to sports day and don't apologise for it! It is all our jobs to challenge our ability to work flexibly and show it can be done, it's time for the dinosaurs to move aside - Covid has certainly moved this topic on but there are still a few old school folk out there who don't get it!

What was the first band you ever saw?

Voice of the Beehive with my brother in Cambridge, it was amazing!

What is your favourite book / film?

I have so many favourite books, I always have two books on the go, one on Kindle and one on audible. I do love real books but had to give up when my bookshelves got overwhelmed and I flew to Australia, so having a kindle instead of packing several books was practical. I love Anna Karenina, A Gentleman in Moscow, many of Kazuo Ishiguro's books too, with Sherlock Holmes another favourite.

If you could speak to your teenage self, what advice would you give her?

Wow that's a hard one! I'd probably say what I say to my teenagers, make sure you choose to study and work on what you love and with people you respect, you are a long time working and it's so important you know what you enjoy and why. Spending time with positive people is good for the soul.

What makes you laugh?

My children always make me laugh, they are brilliant and make my life so special. My dad used to make me laugh and I think they have got his sense of humour, as well as my brother. It also makes me laugh how different my best friend is from me - it's why it has worked since university and I couldn't cope without her.

If you could solve one major problem, what would it be?

Poverty for children has to be the one for me, I feel so lucky to have been able to bring my children up with choices for the future, every child deserves that chance.

Think of your favourite place. Where are you thinking of?

Wandering the backstreets of Venice with my fiancé, stumbling on a beautiful church filled with Titian paintings, and then finding a bar for a Campari.

What traits do you most like and dislike in others?

I really value drive, openness and warmth, I have little patience with negativity, game playing and cold fish!

Is there an IT leader you'd like to see profiled in 15 Questions? Drop us a line  - we can always ask!

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