The Atomic Weapons Establishment was founded in 1952 to make the UK’s warheads for the nation’s strategic nuclear deterrent. Talking to Tony Mather, Chief Information Officer and Executive Director for Security at AWE, Johanna Hamilton AMBCS discovers more about their work, recruitment and ethics.

Born out of the cold war, AWE’s main role was, and still is to design, manufacture and maintain the UK's nuclear warheads. The organisation also contributes to the UK's counter-terrorism and nuclear threat reduction activities and offers scientists a world leading organisation in which to practise world-class science.

Is there anything that makes your team special given your product?

I think I've got a great team, I'm very fortunate. We number around 320, which varies depending on the projects we undertake. We do operate in a very challenging security environment, not surprising given the nature of our work, so ours is a combination of relatively straightforward business-related projects, cyber and development.

It may sound strange, because we do make an extraordinary product, but much of what we do is done in the same way as many businesses. We’ve been able to adopt Office365 at our official layer, Fusion for our finances and Workday for our human capital management. We use online training systems to make sure that our people are trained and competent in the areas they need to work.

How do your colleagues find working in such a high-security environment?

We talk to our people and try and help them in terms of how they manage that information. It’s about balance. We say ‘don’t make it too prominent’, in terms of sharing where you work, but equally, we want to attract the talent that we need and drive our diversity and inclusion agenda, going forward.

We’re living in a world where people project their presence more broadly, especially through social media, and we have to be smart about that. We did an awful lot of education saying, ‘Do you realise how much of your life is already out there?’ You can't avoid some things being online, but you can manage it and learn how to stay safe in a digital world.

So, I think it is about that education and it's always about then people making the right choices. It helps that our people are proud of what we do and understand the need for heightened security awareness.

How do you manage security?

Threats don't necessarily follow straight lines. They can be digital or physical. So, we made the decision to pull together the physical, the people, and the cyber elements of security under one role that sits under me. That’s something that we're already starting to see the benefits of, of pulling that together and I suspect it may be a model that other organisations will adopt as they go forward.

How has AWE coped with lockdown and working from home?

Some of the information that we work with has a high classification, which means that we need to protect it on our systems and in terms of how we run our manufacturing process. This needs to be accessed on site.

There is, though, a significant amount of lower classified working - say, people accessing training, or for the normal day-to-day operations of the finance team - they can still work effectively in a remote way. We moved 3,500 people off site and on to work from home during the lockdown, but we obviously still had people who had to work on site because they're in frontline manufacturing. They had to work in secure areas, so we really dropped the density of people on site to make it safer for everyone.

What does the post-COVID working model look like?

We did a survey during lockdown to learn from people, how are you finding it? What's working? Where do you need more support? And the feedback was, ‘Technology? No, it's fine, it's working, it's really good.’ The biggest call out for support was about wellbeing. So, we’ve done an awful lot of investing in line manager awareness and working with people on their wellbeing and making sure they're keeping fit, mentally well and all the rest of it, so that's where we've put a lot of our focus.

How do you recruit new talent?

I've been in IT for over 30 years and a lot of it has stayed the same in that time. You put an advert out and people apply for it. We're technically in the M4 corridor so we're competing against the blue chips such as Vodafone and Pepsi, both for existing recruitment and graduates.

In recent years, we’re also looking at the role that apprenticeships play and starting to look at how they can be part of AWE, in the cyber team and the delivery team. We've seen some excellent, motivated talent coming through that we can get established, qualified, and experienced. And yes, some people will leave, but apprentices as well as graduates are a key component of our talent pipeline.

In some cases, we’ve attracted Year in Industry students and been so impressed by their attitude, their skills and their work ethic that we have offered them a future job. We are also keen to attract career changers - those who are looking for a new challenge in their midlife.

Is changing the way you recruit changing diversity and inclusivity within AWE?

We're definitely set on a journey and working very hard to make sure that our culture is inclusive. This is reflected in our recruitment messaging and in the actual process. We've done some work on anonymised CVs to counteract potential bias and our D&I training also looks at this. So, we're looking at ways in which we can strip out any unconscious bias and make sure we attract talent where-ever it comes from. It’s a cliché but true that the more diverse an organisation, the more it can achieve - talent doesn’t have a standard form.

How do you promote a programme of continued professional development?

That’s really important to us - especially as we have over 2,000 scientists and engineers who naturally adopt a culture of continual professional development. We want our people to continue to grow. We want to make sure that people have a number of choices in terms of the career routes they can choose. I really wouldn't want someone to come in at a level and think that there’s only a linear route up.

We've just said goodbye to our Chief Technology Officer, who had done just over 50 years’ service with us. His journey was a great example of an apprentice who worked his way up to being CTO. There should be opportunity to do that in every company. I think that story underpins what we're trying to do.

What is your biggest career achievement?

I think it's learning. One of the things I'm most proud of, is what my team has achieved through our Project Ozone, which put in place our official platform and new way of working including Office365, Workday etc. It’s been transformational - and like anything transformational, it's less about the technology it's more about the people. How we work together and interact more broadly with the whole organisation.

We've proven that we can do that big change, that big transformation and we can do it successfully. So, that's the piece I'm probably most proud of in terms of the way that my team supported AWE, which is a fantastic organisation, on a journey that has put it into a different place.

The feedback we've got from people - some of those being rejoiners - they have come in and said: ‘Oh my goodness, this is completely different to how it was when I left and I couldn't have believed we would ever have got there and yet we have.’ And that's a testament to AWE as a company and the teams that work with it.

How important is BCS in achieving your vision for the future?

Transformation and the ongoing pace of change is one of the things that attracted me to the IT industry. It’s fast. It’s unrelenting. You either move forward or you’re left behind. That’s why we need to work with BCS to make sure that we are in lockstep in terms of where the industry is going.

We use the phrase in our world of ‘suitably qualified and experienced people’ - SQEP. I think the work that BCS does, the formality around some of those things really help give us the confidence that we've got the right quality people, they've got the right experience and it's the right people doing the right jobs.

My view is you don't reinvent the wheel. Where you can, you should draw on established good practice. That's why it's great to have those libraries of the standards and to have that framework on which to build in the future. BCS helps us see the direction, see the changes that are coming while drawing on the experience from other sectors. That’s the only way we, as an organisation, can make sure our people are getting the right type and level of development.

Find out more

Develop your talent with BCS
Reach your team’s potential by developing their skills and knowledge, and mapping progression in line with industry standards.