Several years ago, my son asked me what questions he should be asking of his career's advisor. There then ensued a long conversation, which can be summarised as neither of his parents actually having had a career plan. In the fast paced world of IT, does that matter? Is it good enough just to be opportunistic and take risks? After 24 years in the world of work, I'm not sure of the answer, but to date it has been rewarding.
From an early age, my preference was for mathematical puzzles and construction toys. Those were the days before home computing. By the mid 80s, my most prized possession was a ZX81, which I still have! At school, there were BBC Computers, but the academically strongest students were encouraged to pursue 'traditional' science subjects, rather than computing. Nevertheless, I was sufficiently persistent to be allowed to take a computing qualification as an addition to a set of 'proper' A-Levels.
At university, while studying Mathematics, I encountered Fortran 77, the first of a number of programming languages that I have used over the years (LISP, Ada, Smalltalk, Java, Perl and Python to name a few). Then a vacation studentship at the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment (part of the scientific civil service) introduced me to the world of computer science research. After a summer engrossed in the language ELLA, I was hooked, and I successfully applied for a position in the scientific civil service.
As a research scientist, I worked with an amazing collection of people on topics ranging from formal methods, computer modelling, information visualisation and information security. I took the opportunity to combine this with studying for a DPhil in Computer Science at University of York. I was also a member of the NATO network of experts investigating the issue of visualisation of massive military datasets (in the days before big data).
As my career moved on, I gained project management skills and learnt the skills of sub-contractor management, while still retaining a technical career anchor. As the broader civil service has changed and adapted to the challenges of the 21st century, so the technical specialists within it have also changed and adapted. Personally, I have moved from hands-on technical research to more leadership and consultancy roles.
I have led and managed research programmes addressing military needs in the area of cyber and information systems. I have acted in a liaison role between the science and technology community and the defence procurement organisation (DE&S), specifically its Information Systems and Services arm. I have even been deployed alongside UK forces in Afghanistan as a Science Advisor, reaching back into the wider science and technology base in Dstl.
Looking back, could I have ever envisioned that I would have such a varied career? No! Have all my career choices always worked out as I expected? No! But I have learnt valuable skills at every stage. I now use my experiences in the mentoring of others, so maybe not having a plan has some benefits. So, if I was asked to give career advice now, I would offer the following: follow your passion, and opportunities will appear. Take risks, because being challenged and operating outside your comfort zone can be really rewarding. Go on, just do it!
Sue graduated from Durham University with a BSc in Mathematics, joining the Defence Research Agency in 1991. She spent the early part of her career working in the information sciences area across a broad spectrum of topics including system modelling, information management and information security. She was active in a NATO expert group focusing upon Visualisation in Massive Military datasets; and gained a DPhil in Computer Science, specialising in uncertainty modelling and analysis.
Sue joined Dstl in 2002, where she undertook a number of roles, including Team Leader of the Information Assurance team; UK National Leader for Information Management for the key MOD international research collaboration forum, and technical leadership of information security related projects.
Since 2005, Sue has undertaken leadership roles within Dstl and wider MOD, drawing upon a broad based understanding of information sciences and their application to Defence. These have included Programme Leader roles in information systems and cyber; and embedded advisor roles, within MOD DE&S Information Systems and Services; and as deployed Science Advisor with UK troops in Afghanistan. From Jan 2014 to Mar 2015, Sue was the Chief Technologist for Information Management department.
She is now a Principal Scientist in the Cyber and Information Systems Division, undertaking a technical consulting role in support of defence information systems. She is a Chartered Fellow of the Institute of Mathematics and a Fellow of the BCS.