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Podcast with Brigadier Sara Sharkey (Head Application Services and DevOps at Defence Digital)

Wavell Room
Podcast with Brigadier Sara Sharkey (Head Application Services and DevOps at Defence Digital)

On 25 September 2020, the Wavell Room interviewed Brigadier Sara Sharkey (Head Application Services and DevOps at Defence Digital) who talked to us about her role heading up the Accelerated Development Cell during Op RESCRIPT, innovation, leadership and being an advocate for women in STEM.

Introduction: Brigadier Sara Sharkey Commissioned in the British Army in 1991 and has served in a broad spectrum of command, communications and training roles in the UK, overseas and on Operations in Bosnia and Iraq.  She commanded 10 Signal Regiment, with a diversified capability set. Brigadier Sara Sharkey was responsible for the Army’s Software House from 2013-2017. She is now Head Application Services and DevOps at Defence Digital within UK Strategic Command. Additionally, Brigadier Sara Sharkey is also the Army advocate for Women in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics or STEM.

Billie: [00:00:00] Brigadier welcome to the Wavell Room. Can you tell me about your role, what it involves and what the main joys and frustrations are that come with it?

[00:00:08] Brigadier Sharkey: [00:00:08] Yes. Thank you. So I think one of the obvious frustrations is nobody really understands my job title. So having a job title that says Applications Services and DevOps is either incomprehensible to many or, not very clear to others. Effectively, what I have responsibility for is our cloud hosting and cloud infrastructure and other platform services that allow users and customers across Defence to access hosting the services, application development services and that DevOps capability that allows us to build our own software and our own services. So I’m responsible for a number of products programmes within that portfolio. I clearly don’t have the whole of Defence in that because there are other teams that exist.  But within my portfolio of about 120 million pound portfolio of projects includes the ubiquitous cloud service called MODCloud and the delivery of that. And with the intent the cloud becomes consumable in Defence in the same way the electricity and water is. But I’m also responsible for some C4ISR applications, medical applications, identity directories, and a bunch of other stuff as well.

[00:01:20]Billie: [00:01:20] During Op RESCRIPT, the military’s assistance to the UK’ s effort to tackle COVID-19 in the UK. Can you tell me about what you and your team have been doing?   I’m particularly interested in the Accelerated Development Cell. What is it? How does it work? What  challenges have you had with it and what is the effect?

[00:01:39] Brigadier Sharkey: [00:01:39] So at Defence Digital, we have an operational headquarters who is constantly pivoted if you like to that sort of fast reaction, supporting operations and exercises across the globe. As Op RESCRIPT kicked off and the COVID response there was two challenges to Defence Digital one was to pivot to remote working, and we have a workforce that very much practices  their MODNET from the desktop in the office, and we needed to pivot to allowing people to be able to work from home, which meant, you know, significantly scaling out laptops and so lots more catalogue type items coming along. And that was well covered off within our ops headquarters. But because this was an operation being run at Official Sensitive within the home base, there was a huge demand for other types of applications and software services, everything from medical applications to manage bedding down facilities through to applications support initiatives with, with SPO in running the operation. You know, SJCC with something called the MACA tracker, for example, applications and services that didn’t traditionally have a, an obvious delivery agent. So we set up a small team called the Accelerated Delivery Cell to provide a very clear focal point for that demand to come into and to be delivered from and it started off with three of us and ended up with a sort of virtual multi team of over 40. Critically, I then left my main job for a while because I quickly realised I couldn’t manage both jobs and home schooling, at the same time. And, was able to sort of focus on and double down using Agile and Kanban, actually on Teams, to sort of really quickly push through requirements into new services, not unlike many UOR sales have done in the past where we’ve had operations that have needed new capabilities being delivered at pace.

[00:03:27] The slight nuance here was that we were working very closely with the existing delivery teams to bring forward roadmaps, to accelerate the capability that was already there, but also to make sure we were landing those services and capability into future roadmaps, where we saw there as ongoing utility, not just for sort of a COVID new normal, but also more generically.

[00:03:48] A good example was a requirement for a secure mobile chat. So think secure WhatsApp. And we were able to bring forward the innovation so work the innovation team has been doing and so very quickly provide, you know, over sort of a few thousand accounts or so the capability on to phones. That allowed the Commandos, for example, to, to conduct the business they needed to do in support of COVID.

[00:04:12] And we’ve now nested that into an option with PJHQ, very keen to take that forward. So we were trying to do much more of an end to end landing capability as we went forward. I was very lucky in the fact that my current team, team. I’ve got a really good team with some very strong deputies in there.

[00:04:29] And so my walking away for three months meant that that team could continue to pivot because it needed to pivot in its own way to remote working, you know, being an agile team, we were used to having, you know, hundreds of people in one room doing a massive planning increment event. And we had to move that all online.

[00:04:49] The team were you know that great team, which is one of the biggest joys of my current role actually, is the team that I work for or, yeah I do work for them, cause they’re, I consider myself a servant leader. And so I feel like I work for them to help them deliver their outputs and them being such a great team enabled me to step away.

[00:05:05] Sometimes wonder what you’re for, don’t you, as a leader when you can step away successfully. But I think that’s just symptomatic of, you know, being able to set them in the right intent. And get them moving. So the ADC over the three months, delivered 13 new services, I think, to a tune of about four and a half million pounds, the critical thing was two things that under wrote the success of that; one was purpose, unifying purpose can’t be underrated in any, any walk of life it’s clearly, you know, quite strong in our military tradition that unifying purpose. But also, if you look at, people such as the, with the likes of Dan Pink, who talk about how motivating, how, how you motivate people. Purpose is absolutely fundamental. So that unifying purpose around a common goal was key.

[00:05:49] The other thing that was really key was money. So I was given a delegation, directly from DRes, which allowed us to have the flexibility to fund those projects without potentially some of the normal processes being in place.

[00:06:03] Billie: [00:06:03] And is the, Is the Accelerated Development Cell still up and working?

[00:06:07]Brigadier Sharkey: [00:06:07] No as the work ramped down, we ramped the team down and we got to the point where we were able to pass off a lot of the themes into the existing delivery teams. So one area in particular, we reinforced. So one of the team actually ended up creating a new role in the organisation around, around collaboration and communications. And she picked up a number of those themes as an enduring  thread. So rather than, we didn’t so much as just turn it all off and walk away, what we did was embedded those things back and, as we’re now moving into sort of the second wave, if you like and worrying about what might happen over the winter you know, we we’re oven ready, I think is a term. We don’t expect to have to set the ADC up again, but what we have done and is put in place the contacts within the delivery teams who know they’re on the hook for this sort of activity. But if it needed to be set up, you know, the team’s like still there, a number of people that were in the team are still around. And so we could, we could pick it up at pace, but I don’t expect to have the same kind of demand this time as we had last time, because it’s more of the same, I guess.

[00:07:15] Billie: [00:07:15] And was the Accelerated Development Cell, was that template already in place should there be a response of this type required or did the situation demand that you come up with this concept?

[00:07:30] Brigadier Sharkey: [00:07:30] So the wider op force under AVM Moore,  the COVID response team, that construct had already been planned, it was obviously added COVID to it, but that, that ability for the ops team to pivot to war fighting mode, if you like was already planned. The ADC was an additional construct that was set up, and it was very much cause that software layer. Defence Digital, or ISS as we were, have a primary focus traditionally on the network layer and focus on the UADs, the desktops, the corporate type IT and not so much  on app dev because a lot of application development happens out in the TLBs. So Defence Business Services for example are responsible for HR commercial and finance applications.  The Army has a large set of applications itself so a lot of that app dev layer,  so we didn’t have a, a corporate app dev team if you like for the enterprise. And so when demand was coming from the Centre, so for example, COVID reporting apps, there wasn’t a clear team that would lead on that.

[00:08:28] So basically it was setting up to meet the orthogonal demand that needed a quick response.

[00:08:34]Billie: [00:08:34] What are the lessons learnt through Op RESCRIPT for you and your organisation? And what do you think should become business as usual?

[00:08:42]Brigadier Sharkey: [00:08:42] We’ve been really thorough actually around lessons and capturing them and working them through.

[00:08:47] So the lessons are ones I think we’ve learned before or are kind of really known knowns. So it’s all about people at the end of the day. So with the ADC in particular, I was very lucky in that we asked for volunteers and so we had a really positive workforce come into that team who had volunteered to be in that team.

[00:09:07] But also those that volunteered had great knowledge of the organisation and how it worked. So you know, we had military officers who were able to work really closely with SJCC in order to really understand the requirements. Often they had personal relationships with industry individuals in there.

[00:09:24] We had real SMEs from within the cyber world. So from the, you know, how we make sure we can really safely release these capabilities into live service who were, you know, very, very committed and, and on the front foot with us. So it’s about people having the right skills, right experience and the right sort of motivation. That was really key. I think I’ve talked about, you know, the lessons of unity of purpose, and actually being able to follow the money. And in terms of learning them, we are currently in a, in a reset and a transformation within Defence Digital. And, we’re able to use some of those lessons to, to look at how we look at our  organisational design over the next, you know, next few months bringing through those lessons.

[00:10:08] So for example, I was contacted just yesterday to ask how our lessons about how we corralled industry. Let me just go back and explain that. So industry were fantastic during COVID we had lots and lots of offers of support and help and capabilities that they thought might help us move to either remote working or, or meet some of the demands signals.

[00:10:29]It was a little bit overwhelming cause there were, I think, 80 or 90 offers all coming in within a couple of weeks to all sorts of different parts of the organisation. So what we did was set up a funnel  so they could come to a single mailbox and be triaged and dealt with so that they always got a response.

[00:10:44] We were able to turn some off, put some in the waiting room and action others and communicate throughout. So I was contacted just yesterday to ask, under the EWITIA (Enabling Warfare in the Information Age) strategy, which is the, you know, the wider Defence Digital strategy by enabling warfare in the information age is what lessons did we learn and could be pulled through from how we, how we dealt with industry in that much more sort of single pane of glass way, if you like, in terms of being able to match that supply and that demand and those offers.

[00:11:13] Billie: [00:11:13] Innovation is a buzzword in Defence. It feels like it takes strategic shock to see noticeable innovation. Do you agree? Why do you think that is? Or if you don’t agree, why does it just seem like that?

[00:11:26] Brigadier Sharkey: [00:11:26] I’ve always had an issue with innovation as a concept, and I’ve always had an issue with, a lot of the stuff that happens in DSTL.

[00:11:34]Not, not, not more broadly, but certainly in, in this IT software space  And that’s for two reasons, one, I find in Defence innovation is, is, is absolutely critical by the way, we have to do innovation. But unless you have got the escalator or the runway for that innovation to drop out onto and be brought through into life there’s a thing called the Valley of Death or the Trench of Doom, I’ve heard it called, where great innovation just can’t get taken forward. Because there’s not a business sponsor or  there’s not the funding. And we often, I think, decide to use innovation as a way to try and get stuff done. And then we can, we’ve put an awful lot of resources and effort into that innovation and, and then we can’t pull it through.

[00:12:15] And there’s, you know, there’s, there’s lots of examples of really great innovation, great ideas, great capability that could have been game changing, but has not been able to be pulled through. It’s interesting when you look at some, some of the global companies particularly those that are, you know, very much in this IT software space, for example the Goggle and Amazon web services  of the world. They don’t have separate innovation teams. They see innovation as being everybody’s business and they enable their own teams to have space and time to innovate and to fail fast and all those good things. So certainly within my current team, as we are running a set of sprint activities we include an innovation sprint, which, so if individuals come across something they want to have a look at or that they think might add  value they know they have time in a three month cycle to put a bit of effort into that innovation and to see whether it might be something we can pull out through. The other side of that coin is in technology in particularly in information technology the, the Moore’s law is just getting tighter and tighter and tighter in terms of how quickly technology changes.

[00:13:19] And so if we are looking at a, you know, a timeline where we’re going to go from innovation through an approval process, into live service, you know, by then normally the innovation, the technology has changed again or something better on the market place or something different on the marketplace. And so trying to keep up with that with a sort of research programme that happens for a couple of years or separate innovation teams for me, it just ends up being a bit fractured.

[00:13:42] And so what we have to do is start to see these innovations through to live as a continuum and we need to start treating software less like buying a tank or buying a plane and allowing value streams to be pulling in innovation, pulling in great ideas, just pulling in off the shelf technology that can add a difference now.

[00:14:03] And so it’s going to need, a culture change and a process change in how we, how we deliver IT in the future. There’s a huge amount of work going on on this at the moment, both with  acquisition  transformation programme, but also within Defence Digital as to how we actually deliver outcomes on the transformation programme.

[00:14:19] Billie: [00:14:19] That is really, really interesting to see how, you’re really dealing with innovation, within your role.  Turning now to leadership, you’ve commanded at many levels, including unit level, and now lead a team largely made up of civilians and contractors.  What’s your approach to leadership. You talked, I think about, servant leadership. What have you learnt from others before you? What has impressed you and what have you sought to emulate? And what have you rejected?

[00:14:47] Brigadier Sharkey: [00:14:47] I’ve been doing a bit of thinking about this recently, because I’m lucky enough to be on the defence strategic leadership programme.

[00:14:53] And I actually gave a little talk recently about leadership labels, throughout our careers, we’ve all been exposed to different leadership labels. So when you arrive at Sandhurst, you get your little red book, called ‘Serve to Lead’ and that’s all about your selfless commitment to serve and our raison d’etre as officers to lead. So that’s, you know, some leadership from the outset. And then as you go through your career, you come across transformational leaders and transactional leaders and all these different labels and  you have you know, you go through various bits of education, which talks about leadership styles.

[00:15:22] You have psychometric tests to tell you’re a four letter word, in a good way, probably, which tries to label your leadership style and, and starts to make you think about how you do leadership differently, or you also clearly have people you work for who you recognise great leadership in and people you work for, who you recognise some leadership traits that you perhaps learn from equally because you don’t aspire to, to lead that way.

[00:15:48] And I think most of us, actually probably are different leaders in different circumstances. So it depends very much on the circumstances as to what the leadership style and often who you are dealing with. And when you’re in uniform, dealing with people in uniform. You’re perhaps  more, homogeneous.

[00:16:07] And, you know, you can use one leadership style more often than not. In a civilian workplace you know, there’s much more diversity in that workforce and my team at the moment I’m quite uniquely lucky in defence as I’ve got some, my average age is probably hovering under 30, for a civil servant team, which is quite young, we actually have apprentices in our team, which is really refreshing.

[00:16:28]What motivates them is quite different to what motivates some of my more senior team. If, for example, they’re all horrified at the thought of getting a three-star commendation, because that would mean they have to put a suit on, they’ have  to go and buy a suit, and you know, they wear, they wear flip flops and shorts to work.

[00:16:44] So it’s interesting to see how differently they’re motivated. So, in sort of recent years, you know the philosophy around servant leadership is becoming more and more prevalent, particularly in it’s coming out in the software world and the DevOps world. And it’s really about, as a leader, your job is to provide, to create, to create great teams that are empowered to deliver their own outcomes, rather than being co-dependent on lots of milestones or, or wider programmatics, because that where you can work at pace and that team takes responsibility for their outcomes.

[00:17:17]And in order to empower that you become a servant leader, which is you are, they will come to you if they have issues and then you can work through the issues for them. And, but also you provide the strategy and intent. It doesn’t mean that you don’t lead in the traditional sense still. It still doesn’t mean you don’t set the culture because culture is so important.

[00:17:35] And we, we all know that code comes a lot of the time from the top down. But it’s very much around  you’re there to make your teams effective. And, I always remark that this brings me straight back to Sandhurst and that whole concept of mission command. Where with mission command you give your, your subordinates, whatever grade or whatever level, whether that’s a squadron commander and  team, or it’s a section, a fire team,  and you give them the resources they need and you give them the intent and you let them deliver within that wider plan.

[00:18:03] And so servant leadership and that mission command and so therefore maybe serve to lead maybe are just the same thing. And I think what I’ve learned is actually labels don’t matter. And there has to be some authenticity there and you have to just be, oh I hesitate to use the word mindful so, cause it feels a bit overused at the moment, but you have to be aware I think of how your leadership style is impacting on individuals in individual circumstances.

[00:18:29]Billie: [00:18:29] You’ve been long listed in the 2020 most influential women in UK tech, you’re an advocate for women in STEM, an area that traditionally struggles to attract women. Is it important to you to be a role model for women in the military and STEM? And if so, why?

[00:18:46] Brigadier Sharkey: [00:18:46] I think if you asked that question of most female officers, I think the initial reaction is I don’t want to be put on a…as a role model. I don’t want to be put on a pedestal in any way because we want to be considered as equals. And I think that’s a very common reaction. There’s a real fear of positive discrimination, but I do think it is fundamentally important and it’s not, I think the role model is probably the word that’s the issue.

[00:19:13] I think. It’s more about being able to see the sort of person and sort of role you could do in the future. So what you can aspire to, because somebody else is already doing it. And I think that’s where that part of the role model is that it’s important to be visible, so that, you know, women coming through the Army. And in my case, women just in STEM more generally in industry can see senior females doing successfully being successful, both in the military and in, and in engineering type roles. And it’s about that visibility so that it doesn’t become, it doesn’t even cross girls’ minds that they can’t do things. It’s not even, it’s not even an issue.

[00:19:56] And I always love, I always relate to the story where children were told that they were going to have a visit from a doctor, an astronaut and a firefighter. And they were asked to draw pictures before these sorts of august people came to visit them in their classroom and they all drew pictures of men in those roles.

[00:20:14] And obviously, what walked through the door with three women in those roles. And I think it’s about getting the point where half the kids are drawing women and half the kids are drawing men because it’s just normal. It’s just, what’s expected. And that aspiration that you can be what you want to be, and you can do what you, what you aspire to be is no longer a blocker.

[00:20:34] So again, I think it’s, it’s critically important. I think that the terminology role model is, is wrong. And I think it makes us feel a bit uncomfortable. I’ve got, two, two girls, who are you know 8 and about to be 10 as I am told on a daily basis. And, you know, I’m really, quite hard over on, you know, being really adamant that they can do whatever they want to do and they can be whatever they want to be.

[00:20:59] And, you know, if I find, if I get anybody telling them otherwise or suggesting that they should be more like a girl or, or that’s for boys, then, I get a bit fierce, because I think they should have that open openness and that opportunity.

[00:21:14] Billie: [00:21:14] Brigadier, thank you so much for taking the time today to talk to us. It’s been really interesting hearing about your professional experience and leading innovation through the pandemic, hearing your perspective on leadership and how you advocate for women in STEM as well.

[00:21:28] Thank you very much.

[00:21:30]Brigadier Sharkey: [00:21:30] Great!


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