Caroline Bellamy may be coming to me via video call but no matter. Her effervescence is palpable, more than enough to light up not only my laptop screen but also yet another dreary day in lockdown.
It’s not just her passion which comes through loud and clear, though. It’s also her sheer expertise, all gleaned from three decades spent pushing data boundaries for multiple blue-chip companies in sectors as varied as consultancy, retail, utilities and telecommunications, both in the UK and around the world.
This deep reservoir of knowledge – one gets the impression that what she doesn’t know about data isn’t worth knowing – is now being put to use in the UK’s public sector through her role as Chief Data Officer at the Ministry of Defence (MoD). It’s her first job in the public sector, her first job in Defence and her first job where she had to start work by staying home. Not easy – but it’s not gotten her down.
“I love what I do,” she says, smiling broadly. “I absolutely love it. And I think that’s really important when you’re trying to drive an agenda that is different and difficult. You have to be humble – to listen and talk in equal measure. I am learning an immense amount and I’m in an organisation where I have the opportunity to make a real difference and it is so very exciting.”
That’s not to stay that kicking off a new job in the middle of a pandemic is straightforward, however. Anything but.
Up and running – kind of
Caroline started work in May last year. Ordinarily she would have arrived at MoD Main Building in Whitehall, newly-laminated pass in hand and primed for her induction. Not this time. Instead, like virtually everyone else who has started a new job recently, she found herself at home and logging on remotely, hoping that her new IT would work ok.
It was a humble beginning and she freely admits that it was far from ideal. “Starting work at a completely new organisation while in lockdown did mean that joining was compromised,” she concedes.
“I had to call on all my energy of trying to come to life through a screen. The first few months were mostly in listening mode – you can’t come in and bombard people with what you think all the answers are. What I would suggest is that Covid turned this into a six month period in order go through that learning curve. It was really challenging to learn about a complex organisation and mission via your laptop screen.”
She goes on to say that working remotely has also removed that vital human interaction which takes place almost naturally in the office, such as some gentle chit-chat as people wait for everyone to arrive for a meeting, for example, or catching up in a corridor afterwards. “Turning your camera on at the beginning of a call to say hello, and then turning it on at the end to say goodbye, are really important things and a way of remembering there is a human being on the other end of the line.”
However, working remotely hasn’t all been bad news. She also says that the pandemic has helped catalyse a change in approach towards a more modern way of working across the organisation, one more akin to how the corporate world operates.
“In functional and business terms, dare I say it appeared quite London-centric and all very traditional,” she says. “It wasn’t operating as a highly flexible modern corporate enterprise. For me, in a strange way, the pandemic forced it to be more interoperable. It meant that they couldn’t rely on being in the same location as somebody and this is actually usually not the norm – in a global organisation you’re hardly ever all on the same site.
“I found this really interesting coming in, and as a new arrival and as a new part of Defence Digital, a new role in MoD, in a bizarre way it’s almost been an opportunity to start with a different style, and try to fit mine into a very established functional construct. So it’s actually been an advantage not having to dovetail into the usual operational site routine.”
Perhaps it’s appropriate that Caroline now finds herself in the heart of the MoD establishment as it transpires that she is not the first person in her family to pursue a career in Defence.
“My father was in the RAF during the Second World War and growing up I wanted to be a fighter pilot,” she reveals. “That didn’t come to fruition but it was one of my childhood dreams. What I realised quite quickly was that I am not an academic or textbook person – I’m big picture and I’ve learned to play to my strengths during my career, particularly being alive and alert to new opportunities.”
This was certainly the case after finishing up her studies when, unlike many of her fellow Cardiff University economics graduates, she didn’t follow the well-trodden route to London and a position with a large corporate organisation or consulting firm.
Instead, she soon pivoted to a role with Dunnhumby Associates, a small consultancy which had only just been set up – “I think I was something like the eighth employee” – and which has now gone on to be a global customer data science company. “So through serendipity I was really lucky to be there at the genesis of the data industry, where data became a profession and something that has to be consciously thought about – and I loved it.”
Her four year stint at Dunnhumby kicked off a career which has given her an eclectic tour of different sectors across the private sector, all of which saw her driving the data agenda across different functions and localities – one of her most recent roles was with Vodafone Germany, where she was Director of Business Intelligence, Central Analytics and Big Data.
“We needed to drive data as a strategic asset and what I have had to do is unpack that. It is a strategic asset and we do want to leverage it but the key thing is what is it for?”
Caroline Bellamy, Chief Data Officer at UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD)
But happy as she was in the private sector, there remained what she describes as “a little bit of an itch” about where she could most make a positive impact. Then a headhunter called about whether she had come across MoD CIO Charlie Forte and his efforts to drive a new digital, data and transformational agenda in Defence and the die was cast.
From plans to priorities
Covid’s impact has always reminded me of that famous Mike Tyson quote – “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” – but Caroline is keen to stress that coming into the MoD the brief was really open, pandemic or no pandemic.
“We needed to drive data as a strategic asset and what I have had to do is unpack that,” she explains. “It is a strategic asset and we do want to leverage it but the key thing is what is it for? What are the priorities? What are the things we have got to put right or change? Do we have the skills to do that? So it’s been about unpacking that simple statement and making it relevant. It’s my job to translate and my job to make what I need to do relevant. I’m not going to bend in the wind like a willow, I’m a firm professional in what I do but it has to be relevant to the organisation.”
She goes on to say that her approach has been underpinned by identifying open doors to help demonstrate credibility and thereby persuading colleagues to come with her on this journey. “Trying to tackle everything at once won’t get you anywhere,” she reflects. “For me, it’s about laying out a stall, having a simple approach, being human, being understandable and making incremental progress by empowering colleagues, and then working very hard at embedding them into the organisation.”
“Trying to tackle everything at once won’t get you anywhere. For me, it’s about laying out a stall, having a simple approach, being human, being understandable and making incremental progress by empowering colleagues, and then working very hard at embedding them into the organisation”
Caroline Bellamy, Chief Data Officer at UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD)
Her approach has come up against different ways of working amongst her military and civilian colleagues. While those in the military are Agile by design and by nature, she says that those working in the enterprise itself are less inclined to operate in that manner.
“You can’t assume you can run the business exactly the same way you’d run military – they are different beasts,” she points out – we need to be one connected enterprise of course. “It’s about changing behaviour and culture, not only about changing rules and protocols. And it’s also about being respectful – it’s ok that these two things are different – you probably want a touch of each of them but they are specialist skills and I think that’s important to respect – it’s not one size fits all, I genuinely don’t believe that.”
Putting down data roots
Caroline’s enthusiasm for making data a strategic asset is a constant theme of our conversation and it’s clear that she feels that it works well as a North Star for her colleagues across Defence. But equally, there is much to do in terms of identifying the smaller objectives through which this overriding objective will be accomplished.
“There are things you want to pursue which are all about the corporate big beast – how you manage your finances, supplier logistics, HR and so on,” she says. “But we will also have micro-climate opportunities and it’s about having the agility to deploy the right technology for the right job – it’s not about using a hammer to crack a nut.”
This more nuanced approach portends tremendous opportunities, she adds. “We don’t want mega boxes of data – the joy of data over the last 10 or fifteen years is that we have moved into an inter-operable world deploying new applications and capabilities to use data which is relevant to the action that you are pursuing at the edge. We’ve learned how to make the right tool work for the right job and this gives us a broad canvas of opportunity which is really exciting, all built on common enterprise digital capabilities.”
However, she is also keen to stress that this sort of change won’t happen overnight – when it comes to making data more mainstream it’s going to take time.
“There is an onus on the data profession to make what we do not dull – what’s really important with data and is part of the cultural change is that everyone wants the outcome; we know it’s important and we know it’s about curating that asset”
Caroline Bellamy, Chief Data Officer at UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD)
“Data is quite late to the party,” she admits. “People like the world ‘digital’ as they ‘get’ that they have to deploy some software or hardware, but data doesn’t have that same resonance as they think it involves something dull like data governance or management. This means there is an onus on the data profession to make what we do not dull – what’s really important with data and is part of the cultural change is that everyone wants the outcome; we know it’s important and we know it’s about curating that asset.”
Caroline is happy to point out that she believes that the door to cultural change is firmly open and that the next challenge is to make it relevant and win more hearts and minds.
“Data is an enabler, people want to exploit it and hopefully they get excited by these new capabilities,” she says. “It’s not about being a threat round the boardroom table – I’m not trying to take the glory of the marketer or be a new revenue stream; it’s about helping the leaders of an organisation to do more, faster and better and, in the corporate world, cheaper. These three mantras were always drivers during my time in industry and it’s something I want to bring to Defence.”
So, how is she going to do this? Is it about new training programmes and generating new skills? “We have an exciting opportunity to adapt, retrain and take on new skills and this isn’t specific to Defence – the whole of HMG and industry is adapting to new ways of working,” she says. “But at the same time we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater – there are a lot of inherent skills. Algorithms based only on current information will miss a lot of knowledge by not understanding what got you here – and so any organisation has to retain memory, knowledge and skill.”
Caroline is unphased by her move to Defence. On the contrary, her energy appears undimmed and she positively sparkles at the myriad of opportunities to make a difference that lay before her. Take data standards, for example.
“I’m coming in to pave the way and ensure that data is at the party,” she explains. “I’ve inherited over 200 standards, many of which have been written over the last 10 to 20 years, whereas some have been literally written as we speak because we’re moving into spaces we’ve never before occupied. All this means that data is not something for Christmas – we need to invest in it in an enduring way. We now have to keep making using and leveraging data easy. Let’s not make it difficult.”
And then there’s the importance of diversity and inclusion. “There is a tremendous opportunity to bring people into the data industry. It’s a young industry, it’s open and flexible but we know we have a massive under-representation of females for example. We need to be clearer that it’s actually about helping decision makers and analysis, as well as being very open and very inclusive. It motivates me massively to be part of a growing sector.”
This smorgasbord of priorities might cause some to flinch at the sheer workload ahead but Caroline is not about to slow down. For her, leadership is not just about what you do, it’s about how you do it
– your culture, behaviour and engagement style. “It’s about the way you work and that’s one of my biggest learnings as a leader – how you drive forward, how you partner and how you collaborate in order to get the best out of people.”
All evidence suggests she’s already made quite the impact – it will be fascinating to see what comes next.
About the author
Mivy James is Digital Transformation Director at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence
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