Mivy James, BAE Systems digital transformation director
In her journey from computer programmer to digital transformation director for Europe’s largest defence contractor, BAE Systems, Mivy James has spent a lot of time reconciling her faith in technology with her faith in people.
In between sips of tea besides the speaker’s stage in the bowls of Manchester Central – a disused railway station-turned-events venue that is home to this year’s DTX Manchester – James reveals that she got into computer science so that she didn’t have to deal with people.
“And now I find myself dealing with people all the time,” she reflects.
“I was drawn to coding because it’s a very elegant discipline and you can track your progress and there’s certainty – things will either work or not work – whereas with people you think that they’ve changed – but they haven’t – people are much more variable to deal with,” she adds.
And yet James – a self-confessed “gnarly coder” who found her route into tech aged nine by programming games into her ZX Spectrum – appears to be exactly the kind of personable, problem-solving tech leader a government department head might rely on to translate their vision into a set of practical steps towards transformation.
James’s work has spanned a range of clients across UK government on everything from cutting edge technology research to the strategic design of multi-billion-pound programmes.
However, because most of her current projects involve governance, her focus these days is almost exclusively people rather than technical solutions.
She acknowledges: “I’ve become a bit of a meta technologist in terms of helping people work better and getting used to the technology and more agile ways of working.”
One recent project, for instance, involved working with a CTO and their enterprise architecture (EA) team, which was starting to feel disconnected after the software teams adopted a more agile work process.
“Because of the devolved decision making that comes with more agile ways of working, the EA team were worried that they were no longer relevant.
“I did some work with them on how they can change what they do and to engage with the software teams so that the EAs could stay relevant.”
According to James, it turned out that the software teams needed the EAs more than ever, but just in a different way.
“They needed them not to disappear and come back with a technology roadmap and then present a finished master some months later; but instead to share work-in-progress and to get that feedback. It’s a more open-source approach to developing those big things. Once this was realised the dynamic changed,” she says.
Agile vs waterfall
Does much friction exist between long-time engineer staffers and software teams when it comes to agile ways of working? Are all the iterations, the sprints and the testing involved at odds with the more traditional, linear approach to project management taken in high-trust sectors of government?
“It’s not just in our organisation but across the board there’s a culture clash between what we call the ‘DevOps kids’ and other types of software engineers – even before you even get into any kind of physical engineering mindsets,” she observes.
Walking the talk, James says she likes the iterative nature of agile, because it acknowledges that the end of a tech project isn’t when the system goes live.
“You don’t have these big watershed moments – where you don’t know it’s going to work until you get there. To be able to do little and often and figure it out as you go along, making smaller adjustments to get that return on investment.”
However, James also acknowledges that this isn’t always possible in mission critical or safety critical environments.
“When there are serious consequences with testing you can’t just put it in the wild and see what happens, you need to have rigour in place. There needs to be a different testing cycle with checks and balances. That can cause tension and there needs to be empathy on both sides,” she says.
Another common issue that digital transformation projects raise, she says, is the term itself: “Nobody really knows what they mean by digital transformation. It means different things to different people,” she notes.
“To some it means automation, others are more interested in efficiency or moving away from legacy platforms or accelerating their cloud journey. But they all get labelled under this kind of single umbrella of ‘digital transformation’ making it both helpful and unhelpful to have a single term.”
Consequently, one of James’s first tasks is to gain an understanding from different stakeholders about what they want, before coming up with a shared vision everyone agrees on as well agreeing on a set of clearly defined markers of success.
So how does James define digital transformation?
“A digitally transformed organisation has a set of characteristics: They are agile; They have a simple vision that everyone can get behind, but they are able to pivot if required while not constantly changing it. They are data-driven, but they also understand the value of data. Governing your data and nurturing it and loving it – and really being genuine about being data-driven.”
Data is another subject James appears passionate about. “Most people now understand the value of data, but it’s still unloved. Government departments will talk about cloud, talk about AI like it is some kind of magic – but without good data governance neither of these things can be realised.”
James believes that many organisations claim to be data-driven and demand data reporting – but then end up making decisions that are actually driven by instinct.
“Being instinct-driven is fine, but don’t have a cottage industry around data that you are not going to use, because whoever is putting those dashboards together – their time can be freed up doing something else,” she says.
James was at DTX Manchester for two panel sessions – one on tech leadership and another on diversity in tech. She’s particularly keen to encourage women to follow careers in IT and is proud to claim that BAE’s Manchester office has a 50:50 gender split.
A far cry, she recalls, from her time as young software engineer, when she was often the only woman in the room. During DTX she told delegates how difficult it could be to stay true to yourself when you are made to feel ‘other’.
“I look back at my early years with regret because I spent a lot of time trying to blend in as the only woman in an all-male team. My colleagues would say ‘You are like one of the lads’ and that seeped into the back of my brain, and it affected the way I dressed and behaved – which is an exhausting way to be when you can’t be yourself at work.”
The needle on women IT workers hasn’t moved in over 20 years and stubbornly remains at around 20%. For BAE’s part it has onboarded several specialist organisations to recruit from, including Code First Girls, Mindweaver, which specialises in building diverse digital teams, and Tech Returners.
According to numerous studies, half of women in tech leave their roles before they turn 35. James adds that the reasons for this exodus are often complex.
“One of my frustrations is the explanation that ‘women have babies’. But that’s lazy thinking because I’m a mother and I didn’t leave. But if you get a woman coder and she’s in such a minority in her working environment, that chips away and by the time they’ve spent 10 years in the industry they just’ had enough,” she says.
James adds that ‘benevolent sexism’ is also partly to blame – women moving out of tech roles and into ‘softer’ comms/marketing/sales-based roles because their people and communication skills are often better – which detracts from developing technical skills.
She feels that the tech industry needs to “try something disruptive” to change the gender balance. I wonder whether tying diversity targets to annual bonuses would work. Money talks, right?
“I’m in two minds about that,” she responds. ”If you have quotas that can build resentment. People don’t think that the person has been selected on merits, they are there to tick a box.
“But my counter to that is how many people previously got that job because their face fits? But the advantage of having quotas is that you can disrupt the status quo and create the drive for change. So maybe quotas should exist, but for a limited amount of shelf life, to accelerate that change.”
Supportive role models also help. James says that her father, Ken, who sadly passed away a few days after this interview, played a pivotal role in her chosen career path.
Back in the days when James was busy programming games into the ZX Spectrum she recalls how she was set a maths homework task that involved working out the internal angle of a shape.
“So I wrote a little program to work out how many sides the shape had so that it would tell me what the angle was – which I copied out into my homework book.
“What I didn’t know was that my dad printed out the code – on some very thin paper – the sort that they used in fax machines – and stuck it in my maths book.
“The teacher later called me out in front of the class and I was petrified that I was going to get told off for cheating – but I was awarded a book token for innovation. After that I was hooked on technology and the power that it has to solve problems.”
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