Inspirational Woman: Mivy James | Head of Consulting, National Security & Defence / Enterprise Architect, BAE Systems

Mivy James

Mivy James has been an IT professional for over 20 years.

She is the Head of Consulting for National Security and Defence and Deputy Head of Global Consulting for BAE Systems Applied Intelligence. Mivy advises government clients on large technical transformation programmes and also has responsibility for over 150 consultants within NS and Defence.

Prior to joining BAe systems Applied Intelligence in 2005 she worked for several international systems integrators and corporations.

Mivy started her career as an analyst / programmer after completing a degree in Computer Science and Maths and soon moved into technical leadership and system design.
Mivy is passionate about technology and particularly keen to encourage women to follow careers in the IT profession. She is the founder of our gender balance network at BAE Systems striving to support and encourage more women to have careers in this field.

Outside of work Mivy’s time is largely consumed by entertaining her three year old son.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I’m the Head of Consulting for National Security & Defence at BAE Systems and an Enterprise Architect. As Head of Consulting I’m responsible for about 150 consultants, all based in the UK. I do technical consulting myself as well as having leadership responsibilities.

I started my career as an analyst / programmer having graduated in Computer Science & Maths, over time my responsibilities changed to focus on system architecture / design and leadership eventually leaving coding behind (which I do miss). The systems have become larger-scale and more strategic over the years and I now often provide technical and systems engineering assurance rather than producing the design myself.

I’ve been at BAE Systems for over 12 years having worked for a number of different systems integrators prior to that, including doing a couple of overseas projects in The Netherlands and Switzerland.

A couple of years ago I founded our gender balance network as I wanted to be part of the drive for change to increase the number of women in tech.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I always knew that technology was my calling so I never considered another field, apart from the occasional day dreaming of becoming a professional athlete. In the early part of my career my main concern was ensuring that I was familiar with the most current programming languages and environments, I certainly never expected to have people management as a large portion of my job and didn’t even know what consulting entailed. So I can’t say that I have ever made rigid long term plans but instead have a set of characteristics that I need my work to fulfil such as being challenged, keeping my technical knowledge current, having the opportunity to continuously learn and feeling useful. I am certain that I will always want to continue solving complex problems where technology is part of the solution.

Every few years I take stock of where I am and how I feel about my role, and work out what changes to make given the opportunities that I’m aware of in both my own organisation and wider industry, along with the aspects of my role that I want to do more and less of. I like to always feel that I’m challenged and have developed my skills.

Have you faced any challenges along the way? How did you deal with them?

A couple of times I have realised that I am in a role that is a poor fit for me. It can then be really hard to work out how to get back on track, especially as this situation can be damaging to one’s confidence. There’s a pattern which means that it takes me a while to notice, then I go through a phase of feeling worried that I’ve plateau’d or got out of touch before making a conscious effort to realign myself with where I need to be.

Interestingly, I then find myself more confident than before as the things I’ve learnt (the hard way) during poorly fitting roles have developed my skills. For example, I once tried my hand as a project manager and very much felt I’d lost my way technically, worrying that I would struggle to get a role as a senior architect again. I didn’t struggle and in reality those project management and line management skills meant my leadership ability improved enormously and that the role had been a valuable learning experience.

There’s an additional challenge that women in technology face which can drive some specific behaviours. There’s such a stereotype of what someone in tech looks like and those that don’t fit it can have their technical capability underestimated. It’s rather draining to know that often when first meeting people they will be surprised at the extent of one’s technical skills and / or be patronising. I am always conscious that I need to work harder than my male peers to demonstrate my credentials early on and often still be met with some scepticism.

I am also very aware that I am an ambassador for all women in tech and therefore put myself under enormous pressure not to let everyone else down, if I make a mistake or present myself badly then I am reinforcing the gender stereotype. For example, when I first started work a male colleague observed that I was much better than ‘Jane’ – the other female programmer he had worked with recently. The only thing that Jane and I had in common was our gender. I started coding when I was 9 and did computer science at university whereas she had only just begun her training. It seemed odd to me that the comparison was made but it was an early lesson in how one woman is expected to represent all.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you ever had a mentor or do you mentor anyone?

Mentoring is essential to everyone’s career development. It can be ad-hoc for a specific development point or an ongoing relationship with a role model.

At BAE Systems we have a formal career management structure in addition to line management. I also look for advice from a few mentors when I need specific advice. I provide both regular career development advice and ad-hoc mentoring to people inside and outside of my organisation. I aim to get people to consider growth opportunities both within and outside of their current role, making them aware of opportunities they may not have otherwise known about such as speaking at conferences / leadership meetings or contributing to white papers. I work out people’s strengths and listen to their aspirations and look to tie these up with things that need to be done across the organisation. I am a big supporter of helping people develop their own networks and build their personal brand, something I think is particularly important for women in a male dominated industry.

I also often get consulted on potential gender specific issues and coach people on how to best deal with them.

Getting better (and perhaps cheekier) at seeking out mentoring for my own development is one of my key goals for myself in 2018. I am getting more comfortable with developing my own personal brand i.e. taking a bit of my own advice.

If you could change one thing for women in the workplace, what would it be?

There are lots of initiatives to encourage more girls into STEM careers as well as women in leadership development programmes. All of these are very important but they won’t succeed without widespread #HeForShe in today’s workplaces. My belief is that although we’ve come a long way there is still much to do to overcome unconscious bias before we can achieve true gender equality. We’re certainly a long way from having a level playing field since men and women’s achievements are typically measured differently. I could answer at length but instead I really recommend “The Delusion of Gender” by Cordelia Fine, which explains how deeply embedded neurosexism is. My dream is to achieve a true meritocracy, where every person’s capability is valued without unconscious bias.

How would you encourage girls or women into STEM and careers in technology?

The most important thing is for society to stop telling girls what they can and can’t do and what they are or aren’t interested in. It’s so frustrating to hear sweeping generalisations about what motivates girls. Boys’ and girls’ brains aren’t so biologically different that girls are hardwired to like all things pink and have an aversion to maths. There is absolutely no proven scientific research to back these things up – these opinions are simply down to sexist thinking even though very few people will admit it. I have had difficult conversations with people who don’t realise that gender stereotyping *is* sexism, let alone appreciate how limiting it is for everyone regardless of their sex.

Secondly, girls need to be able to see role models both in real life and fiction. This has to start from when they’re babies: books aimed at tots that only depict women as carers and firefighters as always male are dated and unhelpful. The snag is that by asking women in STEM to put themselves out there as role models we’re asking them to pay a “woman tax”: undertaking an additional responsibility that we don’t ask of their male peers. This is important activity and needs to be valued by employers. Women need to receive recognition for taking on these responsibilities otherwise such role models risk having slower career progression, rendering their efforts counter-productive.

Finally, tech traditionally has an image problem that isn’t helped by mainstream media. If a child draws a picture of someone working in tech it’s very likely to be a bespectacled, bearded white man. In reality the tech industry is very cool and there are more an more jobs that have technology at the heart of the skills needed. It’s the responsibility of those of us in the industry to present ourselves as role models to mitigate and change this stereotype. For example, I enjoy very technical work and yet I do get to communicate with clients most days: there’s a common misconception that all technologists never leave darkened rooms to interact with the outside world let alone wear a killer pair of shoes.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

Every time I solve a new problem or learn something new I get a great sense of achievement. The wonderful thing about working in technology is that things never stay still and there’s always something new to learn. The more concern I have when I start tackling the problem (for example, thinking this is the one I won’t be able to do), the greater the satisfaction I get by solving it.

I have worked on small-scale yet very complex systems and thoroughly enjoyed the sheer geekery of them, to mind-boggling large enterprise-scale systems. The more complicated the better for me, for example working on the technical aspects of a multi-billion pound business case.

Recently I have overcome nerves around public speaking, having agreed to speak on panels at industry events in front of hundreds of people. A few years ago I would have really shied away from doing anything like that so it’s a personal achievement that I’m proud of.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

My immediate challenge is to ensure that I continue to progress my career without leaving the technical aspects I enjoy behind me. The more senior I get the less hands-on I have become, this isn’t intentional. My personal brand is very technology focussed and I want it to remain that way.

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