Few organisations have been as obsessively portrayed in book and film as MI6, and official acknowledgement of its existence was only made in 1994. Have you ever thought about a career with the intelligence services? Brian Runciman MBCS discussed the options with a senior MI6 technical specialist.

Can you give our members an overview of what your organisation does, in general terms?

MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) are responsible for working secretly overseas developing foreign contacts and gathering intelligence that helps protect the national security of the UK whilst making the nation both safer and more prosperous.

We work across the globe to counter terrorism, resolve international conflict and prevent the spread of nuclear and other non-conventional weapons. In a nutshell, we, working closely with our partner agencies, GCHQ and MI5, are here to protect the UK’s people, economy and interests from those that wish us harm.

The perception of your role may be more person-oriented than other organisations, so can you tell us what role IT plays in your work?

MI6 works primarily through people - our great staff and the people we speak to. Hence, soft skills, emotional intelligence and the ability to work with others and build effective and enduring relationships will always be at the heart of what we do. People-oriented skills are something that we seek across all of our recruitment campaigns; IT is no exception.

Technology is behind everything we do and IT plays an ever-increasing role in all aspects of our work, both from the perspective of an opportunity, and a threat. It is key to each and every part of the intelligence lifecycle, from developing technology for our operatives in the field, to supporting our core information systems, ensuring that we have robust and secure networks in place to deliver our intelligence.

What sort of skills do you look for in your technology teams?

We look for specific technology skills and qualifications like any other employer, and advertise roles that would be entirely recognisable to existing IT professionals and graduates. We also seek individuals with the same formal qualifications and accreditations (e.g. ITIL, Prince2, ISEB, CCNA).

We offer wide-ranging and diverse IT careers with extensive opportunities to develop and move to different parts of the organisation. An IT career in MI6 can be very varied. We recruit at both the graduate and experienced ends of the market, recognising the need to both ‘hit the ground running’ as well as ensuring a longer term strategy to grow the skills we need inside our organisation.

Bearing in mind the so-called ‘skills-gap’, do you have any particular needs at the moment?

Throughout the year we will be advertising jointly with MI5 and GCHQ for a wide range of roles including IT support analysts, software specialists/engineers, global infrastructure engineers, testers and business analysts and IT application project managers. Earlier this year we were looking for project managers, in-service managers and software development managers. MI5 are also recruiting for roles in the computer network operations and cyber security fields.

Across all three intelligence agencies (MI5, MI6 and GCHQ) we are also recruiting for what’s known as the British Intelligence Higher Apprenticeship scheme, which allows students to gain a unique insight into a world that you won’t find on any university course, such as cyber threats, terrorism, espionage and organised crime, all leading to a foundation degree.

As you can see our needs are as wide and varied as any other organisation, with roles including skills from across SFIA (Skills Framework for the Information Age).

Are there differences in the ‘soft skills’ you look for in employees, perhaps things such as heightened awareness of social engineering threats and the like?

As mentioned above, we are a human intelligence agency, so soft skills are really important to us. Because of the nature of our work and the need for secrecy, we do seek evidence in our candidates of a wider awareness of the security context in which they would need to operate and the threats and challenges this could present.

What changes in the educational pipeline would help get the people you need - i.e. are there enough computational thinkers, are security courses turning out people with the skills you need and so on?

Intelligence is increasingly a team affair. The way that students learn about science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects has been something that the intelligence agencies, and in particular, GCHQ, have been engaged with for some time now.

I think making science and the study of technology more interesting is key to getting more students to think about it as a career option.

The intelligence agencies encourage and support initiatives like the Cyber Security Challenge UK, the running of mathematics and cyber summer schools and the ground-breaking CyberFirst scheme, which is designed to identify and support talented youngsters throughout their education.

These ideas, which are led by GCHQ, will hopefully bear fruit in helping to get the people the agencies need.

What are the differences in the way you work compared with, say, a commercial organisation, or other government departments?

We are similar to other organisations in many ways, and very different in others. Ultimately, what drives us and the people who work for us is our unique ‘mission’. Working for MI6 presents a unique mix of the familiar and the extraordinary.

We are the same in that we need to tackle all the issues that other organisations struggle with e.g. increasing service management overheads, legacy system maintenance as well as an ever-increasing demand for greater innovation and agility in both the technology we introduce into the organisation, and the way in which we deliver it.

Where we differ would include the security context in which we need to operate, and the way that we use technology in unexpected and unconventional ways in order to fulfil our mission.

Using technology in ‘unexpected and unconventional ways’ - tell us more!

To find out more about that... you’ll have to join us!

Can you tell us how you go about recruiting? Again - any differences in the way you work compared with a commercial organisation or other government departments?

We seek the very best candidates for MI6, and we use a combination of recruitment methods, but our primary way of reaching out to potential recruits is our website. We may also contact individuals directly if we feel they could have the skill sets we are looking for.

We have an extensive and rigorous assessment process which includes a number of components designed to determine suitability for our roles in terms of breadth and depth of knowledge as well as the soft skills that we consider to be essential in our organisation.

The key differences in our recruitment process is perhaps the time it takes for a candidate to join. From initial online application to starting with us, we advise candidates to allow six months, as the security clearance process can take some time to complete. Although the process takes a long time, it is a small price to pay for the deep and rewarding careers we offer.

What sort of difficulties do your technology staff face on a day-to-day basis?

We face many of the same difficulties IT professionals face in any organisation: competing priorities, shifting requirements and a constant drive to be innovative and creative in the technology decisions we make as an organisation. Perhaps one distinct difference is that the very nature of our mission means that we need to balance our focus very carefully in response to world events, often at very short notice.

What does the organisation feel about its fictional portrayal - does it do a disservice to your work? 

The glamour and danger of the world of James Bond makes great cinema, but probably frightens a lot of people off the idea of a career in intelligence. Obviously the films don’t represent the real world, and we suspect that Bond wouldn’t pass our recruitment process!

We pride ourselves on being a values driven organisation and everything we do is underpinned by our ethics and a strong moral compass. We place an emphasis on our officers having strong emotional intelligence, and working well with each other in teams.

We do have a heavy reliance on technology, and actually have a busy Q section, so there is plenty of scope for talented IT professionals of every type to put their creative skills to use in the service of their country.

How has the role of your technology teams changed as the type of threats the UK faces have changed? For example, Cold War intelligence needs as opposed to the changing threats of terrorist activity?

The way that technology has evolved over the last 20 years means that it has increasingly become ubiquitous in all walks of life, and has had a profound impact on the way we work in MI6. The days when there were very few technology issues to consider are long gone. The new worlds of big data, cyber and security present extensive threats (and opportunities) that we need to be able to face  - and our IT staff are key to meeting this challenge.

BCS has a code of conduct for individual members, and encourages the taking of personal responsibility for ethical dilemmas - what is your approach to this complex area?

Values and ethics are at the heart of our organisation and we test candidate integrity as part of our recruitment process. We couldn’t do our jobs properly unless our ethics were of a sufficiently high standard so that people who work for us, and partners we deal with, could have confidence in the way we operate and the values we hold dear.

Just because an organisation works in secret it doesn’t mean that its moral compass is awry or that it is getting away with things. You cannot protect the values that we take for granted in the UK by undermining them elsewhere and MI6 is no exception.

MI6 is a values-based organisation. As our chief ‘C’ said recently, our values are British values such as personal integrity, a strong ethical core and an inherent respect for the law and we know that if we undermine them, even in the name of defending them, we have failed.

Ethics are of fundamental importance. MI6 has an ethical framework linking directly to the different aspects of our work, often undertaken in demanding situations and environments, and so a strong ethical core is one of the first things we look for in our staff.

How do you deal with those who don’t share your values?

Sometimes we have to work with partners who don’t adhere to the same legal and ethical codes as us. That can be a challenge but we are clear from the outset, any co-operation must be done in accordance with our laws and our values.

If you were asked for the ‘selling points’ of a career in MI6, what sort of points would that include?

There are so many, it’s hard to know where to begin! I would firstly say that a career in MI6 provides a really strong sense of purpose. Our goals and strategy are clear to everyone working in the organisation, and regardless of whether you are in a frontline or a back-office role; you really feel that you are contributing to keeping the UK safe.

It’s very interesting, very supportive and as a member of a close-knit team you’ll build friendships which will last a lifetime. We offer a rich and varied IT career, and (depending on aptitude) provide the internal and external training to enable you to move across roles in a way that would be inconceivable in other organisations. With the addition of possible overseas travel, as well as flexible and family-friendly policies, we offer a deeply rewarding and fulfilling career.

What is your view of diversity?

There is no such thing as a standard MI6 officer, so we welcome applications from anyone who thinks they have what it takes to fill the roles we advertise. I would like to reiterate that we are a diverse organisation and are interested in recruiting talent in whatever form it comes.

For instance, earlier last year we moved into the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index top 100 for the first time and many of our staff also have a family or caring responsibilities and benefit from our flexible working policy. We also have a thriving BAME community within MI6 which we are keen to expand.

What variety of religions and ethnic backgrounds do you have in the service?

We have a wide variety of religious and ethnic groups in MI6 as it is important that we reflect the nation we seek to serve. That means recruiting people from all the UK’s communities regardless of ethnic or social background. As we have said before there really is no such thing as a standard MI6 officer and I can only echo what ‘C’ said recently when he referred to the fact that MI6 values difference and we are made stronger for it.

How do your roles differ to those offered by GCHQ and MI5?

Whilst each of our organisations has their own unique purpose and objectives, there are many similarities in the skills we seek. The work of gathering intelligence and the work of recruiting staff is often a team sport amongst GCHQ, MI5 and MI6. We have recently launched a new collective brand called Careers in British Intelligence (https://www.careersinbritishintelligence.co.uk/) which aims to introduce each of our organisations and to explain the vast range of roles available.

We hope to make intelligence a new employment sector that candidates will consider alongside the traditional ones such as finance, insurance and consulting.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about applying?

I would say go ahead and apply! What’s holding you back? Many potential candidates seem to think that we cannot possibly be interested in them as a potential employee. This is simply not true. Others have a perception of our roles being very different to any role they have had in any other organisation. Again, not true. Whilst we are a complex mix of the familiar and the extraordinary, much of the ‘extraordinary’ is taught and developed internally.

I would urge anyone thinking about applying to look at our role descriptions and decide if you think you have the skills and experience described in the profile. If you decide to apply I would recommend that you invest effort in producing a really good application. If you are selected through to the assessment centre, be mindful of both your hard and soft skills, be open and honest, and most importantly of all, be yourself.

For more information why not visit our careers website on: https://www.sis.gov.uk/explore-careers.html