Europe, Interviews

Mivy James – Head of Consulting at BAE Systems

Supporting Digital Transformation Journeys and Women in Tech – Firstly the industry needs to admit there is a problem and not just shrug its shoulders with a dismissed “well.. women don’t want to go into engineering”. That’s clearly a symptom rather than the cause.

Mivy James has been an IT professional for 25 years. Having started her career as an analyst / programmer she is now Head of Consulting at BAE Systems were she is responsible for around 200 technical consultants. Her current areas of interest include supporting government departments on their digital transformation journeys and adoption of agile ways of working. She is also a passionate advocate for STEM careers and is the founder of her organisation’s gender balance network. 

In a nutshell, tell us a bit about your job, and what role technology plays in it?

I’m the head of consulting for part of a large technical services company. I advise government departments and large change programmes on their technology strategies. My current focus is on digital transformation and ensuring organisations are setting themselves up for the future which doesn’t just focus on technology – it also requires the right culture and particularly needs modern leadership and decision making.

Where did your professional journey start and how did you get to where you are now?

I did computer science & maths at university and worked as a coder during the long vacations. After graduating I got my first job as an analyst / programmer. I moved to be lead programmer and started doing more systems analysis and design. This evolved over time until I realised I was spending all my time doing design and architecture and hadn’t cut code for a while. The systems and projects I did architecture for became larger and more complex and I moved from design-for-coders to design-for-strategic-direction. Wanting to understand the business elements more led me into enterprise architecture.

I had to apply for my Head of Consulting role and be interviewed for it – that was in 2014. 2014 was a busy year for me as I had my son that year as well. I returned to work in 2015 and now work 4-days a week, my son recently started school. 

What is the greatest transformation in technology you’ve witnessed in your career?

The underlying theory remains largely the same – what’s changed it what the art of the possible is. The biggest change is really the pace of change, along with the speed and volume of data. In my first projects we worried enormously about filing up the disks too quickly so had to employ smart coding techniques to make best use of disk space and processing power. Even coders writing for smart phones don’t need to worry about those things any more.

The uptake of technology in the consumer space is amazing. To put this into perspective my current Samsung smart phone works up to 727 GFLOPS whereas one of the super computers I was in awe of in my early career (the IBM DeepBlue which famously beat world chess champion in 1997) operated at 11.38 GFLOPS. I daren’t even look up the operating speed of my first personal computer : a Sinclair ZX81.

When you think about ‘women’ and ‘technology’ what comes to your mind first?

There are so many women who have been pioneers in technology over the years whom I greatly admire. Some of them have had their achievements overlooked and that needs to be rectified. There were more female coders in the 1980s than there are today which just confirms there’s an whole untapped talent pipeline the industry needs to urgently harness.

We always hear there are not enough women working in Tech. What needs to happen to change that? Using your own words, why do we need women focused groups in the tech community?

Firstly the industry needs to admit there is a problem and not just shrug its shoulders with a dismissed “well.. women don’t want to go into engineering”. That’s clearly a symptom rather than the cause. So if I could be in charge of everything for at least a while I would:

1 – admit there is a problem in the industry and take responsibility for it

2 – urgently focus on a more diverse set of senior hires for a while. Very few senior roles in the tech industry are actually occupied by acting technologists – I doubt many have computer science degrees so the homogeny in the pipeline cannot be blamed for the lack of diversity in senior roles.  DO NOT STOP AT “ONE AND DONE”.

3 – do not run any initiatives that try to “fix” women to be more like men

4 – listen to women as to what the issues and concerns are, women-focussed and gender balance networks.

5 – don’t create undue burden on the few senior women there already are e.g. by expecting only senior women to mentor junior women. Fixing the gender imbalance in tech is not a problem for the few women that are already in influential roles to solve – it’s everyone’s responsibility.

Fixing the gender imbalance in tech is not a problem for the few women that are already in influential roles to solve – it’s everyone’s responsibility.

Women focussed groups as vital. I founded my organisation’s gender balance network and the early feedback was that many attendees often thought the things they were experiencing (being underestimated, getting interrupted etc) where unique to them and reflection of their own failings, by speaking with others like them they found it was a pattern which really boosted their own confidence.

I find it hugely inspiring to attend women focused tech forums as all to often I am the only women in the room – it makes such a refreshing change to be reminded there are thousands of other women like me out there – it’s really energising.

What skills do you need for a career in tech (aside from the actual tech skills)?

It really varies by specific role. As a consultant I have to be able to communicate well and listen to and read others. I lead others which requires empathy. Decision making is key to my role as well.

What and who were the influencers of who you are today?

I got into this field thanks to the encouragement of both of my parents. Family legend is that my dad made a bet with my mum when I was a pre-schooler that I’d work in tech but they agreed not to tell me until a few years’ into my career so it wasn’t influenced unduly either way. My dad, a systems engineer, spotted a curtained engineering curiosity and aptitude. My mum was adamant that both my sister and I would not be constrained or limited by gender stereotypes in the same way that her generation was. (Her grammar school didn’t even teach girls physics!)

I’ve had some great mentors and sponsors throughout my career. They may not have been consciously doing that but now that I find myself supporting the career development of others I’ve reflected on those who have helped me. Going back to one of my earlier points, those mentors and sponsors have usually been male so let’s not get stuck in this gender-segregated mentoring rut that we seem to be heading down.

Going back to one of my earlier points, those mentors and sponsors have usually been male so let’s not get stuck in this gender-segregated mentoring rut that we seem to be heading down.

Whilst I was in the sixth form my mother attended a women-in-business event and waxed lyrical afterwards about a remarkable woman who had set up her own IT company which employed mainly women. This woman gave a very inspiring talk at the event and has remained one of my all-time inspirational role models since – Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley. She continues to inspire today.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your 14-year-old self?

That is such a very long time ago it’s hard to remember! And I doubt very much I listened to the advice of others, it’s not something I’m very good at now. I do remember it’s an age where I suddenly became aware that I wouldn’t be a child forever and the adult world and responsibilities seemed quite daunting. It turns out I craved the independence of being an adult and thrive on making my own choices.

I’d want to mainly tell myself that those who say “School days are the best days of your life” are telling a big fat lie and it’s quite sad if they’re not enjoying their adult lives as much. School days, particularly at 14, are awkward days and that’s OK as things get less awkward. One day you’ll be comfortable with everything you are and that’s something to look forward to.

Mivy James has been an IT professional for 25 years. Having started her career as an analyst / programmer she is now Head of Consulting at BAE Systems were she is responsible for around 200 technical consultants. Her current areas of interest include supporting government departments on their digital transformation journeys and adoption of agile ways of working. She is also a passionate advocate for STEM careers and is the founder of her organisation’s gender balance network. 

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