Balancing civilian and military life

For the last 20 years I’ve had had two careers. Throughout various parts of my life they’ve taken different priorities. And sometimes each has wanted a little more than the other will allow. But for the vast majority of the time they’ve existed side by side and owed a lot more to each other than they’ll know.

In my military career I have spent the last two years as one of the Directing Staff at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom teaching the next generation of Army Reserve officers about critical thinking, military doctrine and strategic planning. Prior to that I spent my time commanding G Company 7th Battalion The Rifles; over 100 infantry soldiers whom I had the pleasure of taking to Kenya and Estonia, as well as getting used to how Warrior Armoured Fighting Vehicles worked when it came time to take on that challenge. And in my ‘wet behind the ears’ young officer stage I was a Platoon Commander with The London Regiment – now part of the Household Division – who mobilised me for tours of Iraq and Bosnia. Both experiences in my mid-20s have certainly shaped the way I approach problems.

Chris Sykes

In my civilian career, I’ve spent 20 years working in (predominantly) digital transformation; or IT enabled business change as it used to be called! I started my career at Lloyds Bank where we were trying to develop a very early version of online banking for corporate customers. Let’s just say that dial up modems and physical security keys make for a different experience than being able to pick up my phone and log into my bank account with a finger print.

Between then and now I’ve worked for a range of public sector clients including from trying to close London Underground ticket offices, to delivering the digital solutions which enabled hundreds of millions of pounds to be given in grants for energy saving home improvements, and a whole host more, until, most recently, I’ve found myself as the Head of Transformation at Methods. I manage a team of strategists, delivery managers and analysts; and working with some of the brightest and most dedicated people I’ve met (there are definitely many days where imposter syndrome is my normal state of being!)

But it’s worth mentioning that very first job at Lloyds Bank because it started as a temping role, which I was given because I’d spent my student days training at an Officer Training Corps and knew how to present myself, and because the interviewer’s father had been in the Royal Navy and thought the Forces were a good thing. So even from the very start of my civilian career there’s been a relationship back to the military.

Throughout my civilian career being an Army officer has been important to me. It’s given me a focus point and challenged me both mentally and physically. Working as an independent contractor for much of my time, it gave me a sense of teamwork and gave me a group of friends and colleagues who shared my values. And it’s definitely helped my clients. The ability to analyse a problem, to deal with ambiguity, to develop a plan and present that back to a team is taught to you from the beginning of training. Add into that mix experienced soldiers making sure that the pressure during each stage is turned up to max and you have a choice to get better or fail. A client making apologetic last minute changes to user needs or system requirements is definitely not going to phase you after that. Although nothing prepares you for your mother’s ire after you had to hang up on her in the middle of an operational tour (“sorry, mum, gotta go, the indirect fire siren’s just gone off”)!

 

Contributing to digital and IT transformation

So, for many years the civilian world was able to draw on my military skills in analysis, planning, presentation and then delivering projects even while the situation kept changing. But more recently, I’ve been able to give back to the military. Defence is looking increasingly at how it can draw on the skills of its Reservists to maintain and create capabilities that it doesn’t otherwise have or is looking for external expertise in. Through a series of fortunate and random conversations (which started in a lunch queue at the Defence Academy) I managed – through the power of LinkedIn – to track down Major General Tom Copinger-Symes, Director Military Digitisation and Rich Crowther, Head of Defence Digital Service (DDS), who both work within Defence Digital. Defence is looking to accelerate its digital transformation and this was an area where Reservists can definitely help and perhaps guide. After a few conversations, Rich dropped me a line when the COVID-19 lockdown kicked in. The upshot was that DDS were tasked with understanding how Defence could operate differently in the future to enable remote working and collaboration more easily.

Between us we pulled together a team of Reservists with experience across all three Services and User Researchers from Methods and Capita Consulting lent on a pro bono basis. We ran a ‘discovery’ exercise reporting back into a panel of three 2*s within Defence Digital on a weekly basis. Over four weeks we interviewed around 50 people, ran focus groups, and surveyed a further 200 from the whole of Defence. In our final two weeks we pulled all of the interviews, quotes and data together, identified what problems people were facing and came up with recommendations. The way we approached the problem – use of a short sharp discovery, led by user research and followed by recommendations based upon that evidence – is common across the digital and technology industry but is relatively new to Defence. The ‘discovery’ process acknowledges the 80:20 rule and recognises that there will be gaps in understanding; the key is to never stop the research but be ready to adapt your ideas as new facts and priorities present themselves.

To give you a taste of our findings, here are three common themes identified in our research:

  • Access to corporate digital tools
    The MOD’s main IT system (called MODNET) was predicated more heavily than other Government departments on users working at desktops in an office. The move to remote working has been dramatic, but whilst a lot more people are now able to work remotely than several months ago, a lack of ready access to laptops or collaborative tools has been a struggle for many.
  • Information overload
    Defnet (the intranet). Defence Connect (the extranet). Team SharePoint sites. You name it, there’s all the information you could want. But without access to MODNET, a lot of it is inaccessible.
  • Collaboration
    Defence users often need to work with third parties, such as suppliers, other Government departments, or allies. Yet our solutions are designed to keep information locked in, and the ability to work collaboratively – whether on a video call, screen share or working on a shared document – is limited. Some good steps have been taken to improve this area in recent months, but there is still a way to go.

There were other findings and user needs identified but those are some of the ‘big ticket’ items. We’ve made a number of recommendations based on the findings in the discovery that range from some straightforward actions to some proposals to tackle some of the bigger problem areas through an ‘alpha’ (the next step in digital service design). We were pleased to see that some of the recommendations made were already in train by Defence Digital. The Discovery report is in the final stages of review with the sponsors and will be published shortly on both MODNET and Defence Gateway.

I’m now additionally supporting Brigadier Marc Overton, a fellow Reservist, who has pulled together a team of Reservist digital and technology SMEs, to help with the Army’s digital transformation.

So, after 20 years where the Army helped me get my first job.  I hope that my civilian skills are now even more valuable in return to Defence.

 

Originally posted on the Defence Digital blog on GOV.UK