Rear Admiral Nick Washer Headshot If you think your job is stressful, try Nick Washer’s on for size.
As director of operations at UK Defence organisation, Defence Digital, the Rear Admiral is responsible for the live services of Defence’s digital and information technology to more than 280,000 end users across the military and business frontline – a 24/7 task where failure is not an option. Talk about high stakes.
Washer, though, is loving life at the epicentre of the UK’s defence apparatus.
“I pinch myself on a daily basis,” he says. “I’m really lucky in terms of working in an organisation, Defence Digital, which is whole force. We have military, civil servants, contractors, industry partners but we all bring something different to the party. And our ability to improve the outcomes to the end user is about utilising that whole force approach.”

Delivering the ‘digital backbone’

Digital Backbone icon Defence Digital, which was only formed in 2019, can call upon an annual budget of over £2 billion and a team of around 2,400 personnel. Their tasks vary from leading on defensive cyber strategy to supporting global military operations, improving innovation to integrating strategy and performance management. Washer, however, is keen to stress that it’s also about getting the basics right.
“Keeping the lights on – that’s the foundation on which I build my house,” he says. But with 30 years of naval experience behind him, he is also looking to drive forward operational service improvements to help deliver the “digital backbone” – the overarching objective underpinning the UK’s digital strategy for Defence.
Asking him to describe this in a nutshell, however, prompts the first – and only – pause in our conversation.
“I would say it’s about creating the coherent means for which all of our services, frontline commands, our top budget holders and our end users are able to consume state of the art technological capabilities,” he says, eventually, before continuing. “We are growing from where we are with legacy to an evergreen digital backbone that has data at the heart of our business and which can be moved around securely.”
“We are growing from where we are with legacy to an evergreen digital backbone that has data at the heart of our business and which can be moved around securely.” Rear Admiral Nick Washer, Director Operations at Defence Digital
“We’re moving away from a network centric way of working to a data centric way of working in the longer term. This means our services are not going to be network services, they’re going to be data services that allow us to consume the analytics of what the data is offering us and the access to the data will be via a personal identification. We’re not there yet – but that’s where we want to get to. And I know that was nowhere near a nutshell!”

Up and running

Up and running icon Washer has only been in his role for under six months but he has a 30-year career in the Royal Navy to call upon. His assignments have included command, leadership and staff roles at sea and ashore, and have included the Gulf War, September 11, disaster relief in the Caribbean, not to mention a stint as defence attaché for Portugal in Cape Verde.
His previous role saw him serve as Chief Information Officer at the UK Permanent Joint Headquarters in Northwood, London, from where joint and multinational military operations are led on behalf of the Ministry of Defence. It was a position which prepared him well for his current responsibilities.
“Effectively I was the prime customer from the joint operations perspective to Defence Digital – so now I’ve changed the sides of the desk and taken on a whole heap more,” he explains. “What was missing from my portfolio, though, was that IT specialist perspective. I was a consumer and an exploiter but I didn’t necessarily understand the lexicon. So I also spent about four months with industry partners across the piece and also working with IT specialists across government who have been on a similar journey as Defence Digital is on now.”
Asked how industry can help with what he is trying to achieve, Washer makes the eloquent point that it comes down to the “shared equity” of delivering success. “I saw there was awareness within industry partners that there needs to be a much closer symbiosis of shared equity and shared success, rather than a confrontational relationship between industry and customer,” he observes.
“There needs to be a much closer symbiosis of shared equity and shared success, rather than a confrontational relationship between industry and customer” Rear Admiral Nick Washer, Director Operations at Defence Digital
“The bottom line is that there is just one shared reputation for us all to deliver IT services and networks for operational consumption to an end user community. We are all judged on our last video conference or telephone call – and this reputation is across the board. So there is definitely a shared equity of success in our line of work.”

Calling the service desk

Calling the service desk icon Looming large in Washer’s in-tray this year is a project is the radical overhaul of Defence Digital’s service desk model for its 280,000 end users.
“We are going to transition out of single point of contact for our service desk and this will be the most visible thing that I do,” he says. “I need to deliver a service desk that does at least what the current one does and has the right 21st century tooling and capacity to allow us to be agile – this is how I would characterise it.”
This change won’t be a flick of the switch, however, nor a wholescale Agile approach, more an incremental delivery – which is sensible as Agile doesn’t necessarily lend itself to everything.

“It’s going to be a controlled graceful transition between the current supplier and a new supplier with different tooling and different orchestration but much more consistency,” he explains.
“We will take ownership and responsibility for a lot of our services through that and we’ll do a lot of the docking in of the Managed Service Providers into that service desk. I think, from my perspective, it feels quite coordinated. It’s not Agile but it’s not static either – it’s a nuance between the two. It’s not a 20th century model – it’s 21st – but the transition itself is not ground-breaking SecDevOps but it might be once we’ve actually got it in situ.”
Service desk reforms aside, what else is changing? What are the other priorities for Washer and his team? Again, he returns to the overarching priority of the digital backbone.
“We are in a position where the Integrated Review settlement has effectively put us in a place where we are starting to deliver its journey, which effectively will bring coherence over a heap of legacy equipment services that we find ourselves with at the moment,” he explains. “And so we are trying to move from a very broad front to a narrower frontage over time – some of the services that we use are a necessity of the business that we do and therefore there has to be some resilience on some fairly old equipment.”
He goes on to say that a key priority will be juggling between easing out – while still using – the older technology, rationalising IT services to make them more efficient and deploying the newer, state of the art kit which is coming down the digital pipeline. “We can’t afford to not have a means of communication, even if our primary means of high resolution and high data and high bandwidth is not available to us.
“So we have to ensure that we have a raft of options. But my delivery colleagues are about offering better, faster and more efficient solutions. Part of that is transitioning from a mindset of networks to a mindset of data. And my organisation will shift from being network centric to being data centric – the emphasis will be on the movement of the data and how we consume and secure it, and move it up and down the stack.”

People power

People power icon A recurring theme of our conversation is Washer’s emphasis on the strength of his team and the importance of cross-collaboration across different specialisms. This is particularly pertinent given Defence Digital – from its senior leadership on down – is a mix of civilians and uniformed personnel, including people from industry who don’t necessarily have a Defence background. It’s certainly a different dynamic to the Royal Navy but, nonetheless, Washer says he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The senior leadership team of which I am part is richly diverse and I’m very pleased and proud to be part of it,” he says. “We have some incredible people and in every conversation with them I learn something I didn’t know about the job that we do and what we strive towards.” He goes on to say that people are the most powerful fuel for driving change, more important than any technology or methodology.
“People have always been my highest priority – you can have the very best kit in the world but if your people are not on your side and working for you they won’t deliver you the best outcomes,” he says. “By contrast, you can have really bad kit and good outcomes as your people will pull it out of the bag for you. People are the most important thing in each and everything we do.”
“You can have the very best kit in the world but if your people are not on your side and working for you they won’t deliver you the best outcomes” Rear Admiral Nick Washer, Director Operations at Defence Digital
And from where did he learn about how to treat and lead people? It wasn’t from a life coach or leadership pundit, nor the pages of a textbook or manual from academia, but someone far closer to home.
“My Grandmother was a management guru without even realising,” he reveals. “What she taught me as a kid is exactly how I’ve done my business all these years. You treat people as you’d want to be treated – it sounds like a hackneyed phrase but you have to live your values; if you’re approachable you’ll get much more out of people if you’re real and authentic. Actions speak louder than words.”
They do indeed – and it will be fascinating to see how Washer’s current and future actions will shape and influence UK Defence. His will no doubt be an indelible mark for years to come.

About the author
Mivy James is Digital Transformation Director at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence

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Further reading:

  • Bringing data to the party. Caroline Bellamy is on a mission to transform how the UK Ministry of Defence uses data. She tells Mivy James about her 30-year career in industry and why data holds the key to smarter and faster decision-making across Defence
  • The art of delivering digital projects in Defence. Major General Richard Spencer has got quite the portfolio. He takes time out from overseeing a multi-billion pound programme of digital delivery across Defence to tell Mivy James all about experiences
  • Helping innovation take flight. Group Captain Blythe Crawford is on a mission to do aviation differently. He tells Mivy James about his experiences of leveraging technology and innovation to drive forward change in Defence
  • Unshackling technology in Defence. Technology is very often seen as the be all and end all in Defence, says Paul Spedding. But actually, digital advances are one thing, achieving true advantage is quite another
  • The benefits of User-Centred Design in Defence. Helena Bishop explores how placing users at the heart of applications, products and services can strengthen Defence in ways large and small

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