Ben Holloway, Head of Data and Navy Application at The Royal Navy
“Let’s face it, the Navy is the original portfolio career – you change job every two years, and it doesn’t matter what badge you wear; your opportunities are limited only by your imagination.”

Ben Holloway, resplendent in a pink shirt, may be embracing greater sartorial freedom, but his love affair with all things naval shows no sign of abating. Yes, he is no longer a serving officer – after nearly two decades he completed his service a few months ago – but no matter. Spend even a few minutes in his company and it’s clear that the Navy continues to shape his every working moment. His passion is palpable, unmistakable.

That’s a good thing too, given the scale and importance his new job.

“I run the Navy Software House,” he explains. “That means I am responsible for development and implementation of software of varying levels of complexity across the Royal Navy, alongside ownership of the data governance and management challenge that we need to make progress on.”

And make progress he must, given the current geopolitical situation, not to mention last year’s Integrated Review which set out plans to construct an expanded Navy, one tasked with a greater global role underpinned by increased cutting edge weaponry and technology. While Holloway is not about to flinch from the challenge, there’s no doubt he will be relying on the skills and knowledge built up during his extensive career in uniform.
 
 
Testing the waters
When asked about these experiences, Holloway is keen to play it all down. No time for dramatisation here, he is self-deprecation personified.

“A bit of time in Afghanistan, a bit of time in submarines, a bit of time in Cyprus, a bit of time with Commando Aviation, and some headquarters and policy jobs in between,” he says. “I then headed up the navy’s inaugural and flagship data integration project – Kraken – developing it as a science project and then scaling it out as an enterprise programme.”

A little digging, though, and it transpires it almost never happened in the first place. “It was a bit of an accident, really,” he admits. “After my A-level exams I had an offer to go to university, but I didn’t really feel I was in the right frame of mind to make the most of it. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I took a year out to work in the sailing industry – my other passion in life!”

Upon returning home, still unsure of what he wanted to do, he “kind of fell into” the local careers office and was confronted by three separate areas beseeching new applicants to join the different branches of the UK’s armed forces.

“I saw the Royal Air Force on the right, the Army on the left and the Navy straight ahead,” he recalls. “I liked the ocean, I had an affinity for the sea, and so if I had a career in the services it was always going to be naval. I was 19 and just wanted to give it a go. I kept telling myself that I’d see how far I’d get and then 19 years later I was stepping out of my uniform.”

Admittedly, his options were shaped by certain restrictions – “my level of academic qualification and my eyesight helped make the choice for me” – but, sensing excitement, he opted for submarine service, at least initially.

“One of the reasons I wanted to join the Navy was to have some adventures and that sounded like quite the adventure. Generally speaking, though, I tried to ensure that I had a mix of having an office job and then having an adventure. So office job, submarine, office job, Afghanistan, and so on. I was doing things that a lot of other people don’t get to do – that’s the value of a career in the Navy, right?”
 
“I tried to ensure that I had a mix of having an office job and then having an adventure. So office job, submarine, office job, Afghanistan, and so on. I was doing things that a lot of other people don’t get to do – that’s the value of a career in the Navy, right?” Ben Holloway, Head of Data and Navy Application at The Royal Navy
Moving on, moving up
Client Conversation: Between Data and the Deep Blue Sea - Moving on up icon Given this rich tapestry of experiences, it seems pertinent to enquire as to whether it was a huge emotional wrench when the moment came to finally leave naval service. Actually, and to my slight surprise, Holloway has no doubt that the timing was right. “There were a couple of poignant moments but generally speaking I was ready for it,” he says firmly. “It was a clear choice and that was the path I wanted to go down.”

Interestingly, he goes on to say that he thought that he could offer more back to the Navy by not actually wearing a uniform. Asked why this is the case, he says that in the armed forces so much hinges on rank, and that can sometimes be frustrating. “You walk into a room and the bigger your badge the more valuable your opinion is – regardless of the level of insight,” he says.

“The people who are promoted are obviously very, very good, but the area I wanted to specialise – digital – doesn’t have a uniform career path. It’s always going to be an area where the Ministry of Defence (MoD) will need to bring expertise in from industry. There is a medium to strike, though. When we want to deploy technologists closer and closer to the frontline – such as data scientists providing an analytical output to a decision – they will probably need to be in uniform, to a certain extent. How we deliver that, as a Navy, is up for debate.”

Certainly, one area he pinpoints as ripe for reform is how the Navy attracts its personnel. Traditionally, this is done from the ground upwards – new recruits start at the bottom of the ladder and work their way up. But what about those who have already progressed in their career and possess skills and insight which would be hugely valuable to the Navy? Or those who have left to garner new experiences in industry and might consider returning?

“The Navy of the future should be able to recognise these individuals,” he says. “It also needs to have the mechanism to bring back those who leave. I’ve got friends who have left and gone out to do innovation director and chief executive type roles, and the Navy would love them to return. But it needs to have the flexibility to bring them back in at a certain level to make it attractive enough for them.”
 
“When we want to deploy technologists closer and closer to the frontline – such as data scientists providing an analytical output to a decision – they will probably need to be in uniform, to a certain extent. How we deliver that, as a Navy, is up for debate” Ben Holloway, Head of Data and Navy Application at The Royal Navy
Embracing technology
Client Conversation: Between Data and the Deep Blue Sea - Embracing Technology icon It’s useful to remember the context in which Holloway and his colleagues are operating. After all, few doubt the Royal Navy’s importance to the United Kingdom. From protecting maritime trade to peacekeeping, providing humanitarian aid to supporting international partnerships, today’s Navy strengthens the defence of the realm in ways large and small.

But any discussion about the Navy has to acknowledge the importance of new digital capabilities. Technology can now enable ships to fulfil multiple roles, from a station for intelligence agencies to a floating embassy to a launch pad for drones. The new Type 32 frigate could even act as a platform for high-end autonomous vessels, staffed by only a few personnel.

The Navy’s digital transformation journey is fuelled by its strategy to become fully digital by 2023. Objectives include improved sharing of data and intelligence at speed; enhanced availability and sustainability of physical and technical infrastructure; improved ability to collaborate with partner organisations and allies; and reduced inefficiencies and improved capabilities for business and operational support. And these are just a few – there are plenty more.

So, where does Holloway fit in? Splitting his time between the Ministry of Defence main building in London and Royal Navy headquarters in Portsmouth, he is leading the Navy’s software and application development and data management organisation. And although now a civil servant, he is very much within the Navy’s orbit – and is proud to be so.

“I fundamentally believe in the Navy, believe in what it is trying to achieve,” he says. “And I can see how applying digital and technology – which isn’t necessarily the same thing – could yield a better outcome. The speed of change is one of the most interesting factors: technology will never move this slowly again; it is only going to move quicker. But in our world, we design a ship, go out to competition, award a contract, build a ship that comes into service 20 years later, and we keep it for 50 years. Unless we change the way we do this, and allow ourselves to evolve as technology evolves, then we will be left behind.”

The good news is that he believes the Defence community has a growing awareness of the art of the possible – much of it is rooted in everyday life experience. “People can be entertained on demand and do their shopping on their mobile phone that will probably arrive home before they get home that evening, he says. “The younger generations coming in have grown up with this level of technology in their personal lives and they will demand the same thing from the Navy.”
 
“My focus is about turning the organisation into a productionised and efficient machine. It is about tangible delivery and complete transparency. I want to be able to just have a gentle hand on the tiller, as opposed to the constant panic that you often have at a start-up” Ben Holloway, Head of Data and Navy Application at The Royal Navy
Building business change
Client Conversation: Between Data and the Deep Blue Sea - Building Business Change icon So, where is he focusing on? What is he prioritising? Holloway is keen to stress, however, that whatever he does, there will always be more to do. “Digital is probably never ‘done’,” he says. “Such is the speed of technological change, there will always be another thing.

“But for me personally, I come into Data and Navy Applications, which has grown out of Programme Nelson, which was a start-up really. There have been a whole load of lessons learnt along the way, but my focus is about turning the organisation into a productionised and efficient machine. It is about tangible delivery and complete transparency. I want to be able to just have a gentle hand on the tiller, as opposed to the constant panic that you often have at a start-up.”

A good example of such lessons, he says, is knowing how to respond when an idea or suggestion for change is thwarted. “You have to accept that every time you challenge something you might not always get an agreement,” he says.

“Take Agile. We use this methodology to develop software and digital products to help solve the real world problems the Navy faces. It’s a recognised way of doing things and no one even questions that. But historically we haven’t always recognised that Agile needs to exist alongside other workplace process like commercial models, security and accreditation, that are all rigid in their approach and absolutely immovable.  This is often for very good reasons but sometimes it’s because ‘that’s how we’ve always done it’ and those are the things that need robust challenge.”

And how does Holloway lead such challenges? It all comes down to evidence, not emotion. “The first stage is flagging it,” he says. “What you really need to do is draw a line and in the sand and track how long that issue takes. Then you can go back to the blocker and highlight the problem. But at the same time, I have to be selective about what to take on too. I’m interested in taking on challenges for the Navy that are feasible, solvable and scalable.”

Certainly, there are no shortage of challenges out there – not only relating to how the Navy can best deploy technology, but also those rooted in the sheer unpredictability of geopolitics. With the kaleidoscope shaken, there is no doubt that getting the right capability in the hands of the warfighter when they need it is of paramount importance.

Holloway, though, is crystal clear on his task ahead. “It’s my job to create value every day for the Navy writ large,” he concludes, determinedly. “That’s what Data and Navy Applications is focused on – both at scale and at pace.”

It’s full steam ahead.
 
 

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About the author

Sandy Boxall is Director of Defence Digitalisation at BAE Systems Digital Intelligence

sandy.boxall@baesystems.com


 

 


Further reading


  • The Transformer For a variety of reasons, digital transformation continues to be a step too far for many organisations. Here, Sandy Boxall says that they can be done, pointing to the success of the Royal Navy’s NELSON programme to illustrate his point

  • Client Conversation: A life  on the ocean wave . Captain Jules Lowe’s 30-year naval career has been packed full of maritime missions large and small. He tells Sandy Boxall about his experiences and why creating the navy of the future takes far more than just horizon scanning – it’s also about doing things differently at every level

  • Making waves: Steering  the Royal Navy into a  digital future . Military service may run in the family but Jim Briscoe is not your average naval commander. He tells Sandy Boxall about life at the helm of NELSON, the Royal Navy’s flagship digital transformation programme

  • The NavyX Factor . Within a few years of arriving in the UK, Hungarian-born Orsolya Patterson was leading a new division of the Royal Navy. She shares her experience and lessons along the way

  • Client Conversation:  Setting sail for  gender equality – Navy style . The Royal Navy’s Captain Steve Prest tells Mivy James why everybody deserves an equal opportunity to thrive and maximise their potential

  • Creating the Navy of the future . The Royal Navy is in the midst of a concerted effort to exploit and deploy advanced data analytics and Artificial Intelligence. Hannah Green explains why it’s full speed ahead