Every so often you meet someone you’d like to work with and go for a drink with. Sara Sharkey is just such a person.
Our discussion, which took place after she had moved on from her senior role at the UK’s Defence Digital but before she took up a new consulting career, was peppered with enough interesting vignettes and reflections to fill several Client Conversations. But aside from the rich subject matter expertise which exudes from her every pore, what I took from our get-together was very much a sense of a woman in something of a state of flux.
Now perhaps that’s an obvious thing to say. After all, anyone poised to start a new career is at a crossroads. But more than that, I also got the feeling that even though she may no longer don military garb, she will always remain a soldier at heart. Even via video call, her dedication towards her brothers and sisters in uniform was palpable, lighting up a dull Thursday afternoon akin to a firework display.
And so, too, were her mixed feelings about moving on.
Having ascended to senior heights – far too few women, alas, make it to Brigadier rank – her enthusiasm for her new life in the private sector is balanced by her obvious pride in her military achievements.
“As I leave, I am the most senior technical woman leader in the army,” she reflects. “I would have loved to have been the Army CIO but that wasn’t the track I was on. But look, I didn’t plan to do 30 years – I’d planned to do three. The Army has given me a hugely fulfilling career where I’ve felt I’ve been able to make a difference and have an impact. It’s always given me great challenges, great opportunities, great friends for life and enough addresses to fill an address book ten times over.”
Time, then, to dig a little deeper into her three decades of service. How did a trained research chemist end up having such a stellar military career?
They say timing is everything. Well, for the young Sara Sharkey, the fickle finger of fate seemed to be hard at work on the morning she strolled into her university careers office. As a soon to be graduate she was seeking “something a bit more dynamic” than the laboratory career her chemistry degree seemed to portend.
It transpired that a colonel would be visiting in the next couple of days and after some further meetings and discussions, a career in uniform was soon beckoning. She’s never regretted it.
“One of the things I’ve been really lucky to do over the last few years has been to interview Officer Cadets for admission to the Royal Corps of Signals,” she says. “I’ve been blown away by the quality – they seem far more focused and career minded than I remember being at their age – but I’ve always told them that it’s a great career and it remains a great career. The resilience, the self-learning, the opportunity to do something completely different, but also the fact there is an exceptional culture of family and strong ethical values which are instilled in you.”
There’s little doubt that Sharkey’s has been a diverse and impactful military career. Since being commissioned in 1991, she served across a range of command, communications and training roles. Underpinned by her expertise in electronic warfare and software development, she commanded 10 Signal Regiment before taking on responsibility for the Army’s Software House, where she deployed Agile methodologies to transform the delivery of business intelligence applications and services.
Her final role was a four year stint heading up application services and DevOps at Defence Digital. It was here, working within UK Strategic Command, that she spearheaded efforts to deliver unified cloud hosting services to Defence, in-service delivery of key command and control applications and the delivery of new application services for medical, education, identity, and air and maritime platforms. And in between all that she also found time to be the Army’s advocate for Women in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).
A passion for technology
Sharkey’s technical prowess looms large across her three decades in uniform but she is keen to stress that she’s always seen herself as a techie. “I did A-Levels in maths, physics and chemistry, a degree in chemistry, as well as a master’s in defence technology, majoring in guided weapons and communications,” she points out.
She goes on to say that although many officers can be generalists, there are increasing numbers of technologists in the senior ranks – a trend she wholeheartedly welcomes. “Quite often generalists are seen as good leaders and engineers are the slightly geeky ones but I think that I, along with lots of people like me, have proven that you can be an engineer and an effective leader,” she says.
And in any case, as far as Sharkey’s concerned, technical knowledge is more than just a nice to have – it’s absolutely fundamental. “You’ve got to understand the technology and engineering principles behind the capability you’re delivering to be really good at it,” she says. “It’s about understanding the context of what you’re delivering. You can’t lead teams of people working on software if you have no idea what an Application Programming Interface is, for example.”
“Quite often generalists are seen as good leaders and engineers are the slightly geeky ones but I think that I, along with lots of people like me, have proven that you can be an engineer and an effective leader”
Brigadier Sara Sharkey, Former British Army Officer
That said, she admits that it’s not always been straightforward. Unlike many of her peers, she wasn’t able to point to a tank or a plane as tangible evidence of her workload and priorities, which meant that clear communication has been critical.
“When we talk about creating code and pushing it to a fighting platform it kind of blows people’s minds,” she says. “My view is that we’re kind of falling into two camps – some are drinking the Kool-Aid and wanting things like space cloud computing right now, and some are way more risk averse and want everything to be tested time and time again.”
Crucial to striking a balance between the two approaches, she believes, has been a mastery of her brief. “The last eight years leading software and cloud have meant that I’ve had to constantly read journals and papers,” she says.
“I’ll always remember about three years ago I was sat with a logistics team talking about future families’ accommodation. It was a three hour meeting and I understood every word and concept. But most of my current meetings see me sitting there with a furrowed brow, concentrating hugely and trying to make sure I understand it. You can’t bluff this stuff, you’ve got to be current, technical and professional in what you do.”
The innovation game
Speaking as an outsider, in my conversations across the military I have noticed a huge amount of enthusiasm for technology and a willingness to learn, both of which bodes well for a digital future. However, there are tensions too, such as ongoing funding challenges and the constant pressure to be ‘innovative’.
The latter can feel quite jaded as new ideas don’t always progress through to scale and just because something is new, that doesn’t necessarily make it better than the existing technology. Sharkey agrees that such challenges make it harder to achieve the best outcomes.
“I think the most obvious pressure is funding versus aspiration – there is still a significant gap between what we want to do and what we can afford to do,” she admits. “We really need to sort out our funding approaches, particularly in the risk balance sense. We tend to treat small spend in the same way we treat very large spend.”
“We really need to sort out our funding approaches, particularly in the risk balance sense. We tend to treat small spend in the same way we treat very large spend”
Brigadier Sara Sharkey, Former British Army Officer
And as for innovation, its mere mention is cue for Sharkey to vent her deep frustrations about how it is used across Defence – often, she believes, to the detriment of effective delivery. While keen to stress that it is “absolutely vital”, without a business sponsor or funding steam, innovations just won’t get scaled into full deployment. With no runway for it to land on and be brought to life, it will instead fall back into what she describes as the “trench of doom”. What’s needed, she believes, is a culture change and a process change.
“I quite often joke that I loathe innovation,” she says. “The process of software design is often so much quicker than a research programme so the whole piece around innovation needs to change. This has started to happen – the medical service delivered by Defence Digital, for example, is aligned very closely to J-HubMed and they have innovation and programme teams which sit alongside each other. This means that when a great innovation happens they can make a decision about where to prioritise their funding.
“But it all comes back to money doesn’t it? It’s easy to get funding for a pilot as it has a very clear end point. It’s much harder to get money for a service or capability that needs multi-year funding. If we had standing product teams that were able to bring in innovation and have the same team tasked with bringing it into live we would be in a much better place. It’s a bit of a hobby horse of mine this one!”
It is also often hard for non-technical people to appreciate the sheer complexity of scaling a new innovation and so during her time at Defence Digital, Sharkey sought to close the gap between the idea and scaling. “If you build the hosting platform which can support the application this means that the innovation already has an ecosystem to land into,” she says. “And once you have that enterprise service, you can then build on it rather than replicate.”
A question of diversity
It would be remiss not to discuss diversity with the army’s STEM advocate and, perhaps unsurprisingly, our chat brims with examples of the army’s approach to achieving a better gender balance across all its ranks.
They range from the good – “I’m really encouraged by some of the amazing women coming through and we’re far more flexible now. Maternity leave, for example, is one of the best in the world” – to the bad – “there is still a pervasive assumption that officers and soldiers have a wife at home who will look after the kids. Many women have to leave or move to full time reserve service so they can juggle family commitments”.
And then there’s the really bad. “I was told when I was a full colonel that I’d reached my ceiling and that was it, there were no female brigadiers at that time” she recalls.
“Now that didn’t turn out to be the case but that’s partly because the technical digital side started to become really important and my skill set suddenly became interesting. But the Army is really just a reflection of society. If you went to a building site, warehouse or even a tech company you’d come across the same perceived wisdoms that some people still have when they’ve been in the same organisation for over 20 years.”
Next stop industry
Now, though, she is very much focused on her impending new consulting role. Asked what she is nervous about, she instead highlights the positives. “I’m really looking forward to those eye raising moments of clarity – ‘oh that’s how it works’ – and having perhaps just a little more freedom than I’ve been used to,” she says.
“I’m also looking forward to being ‘Sara Sharkey’. I can still use ‘Brigadier’ if I want to but I’ll use it judiciously – it certainly won’t be on a business card. I’ve also not been used to working for a profit. I don’t want the bottom line to be driving behaviours that are uncomfortable when set against the values and standards that I’m accustomed to.”
One trait she is keen to continue is her focus on empowering the teams she leads. Interestingly, a friend of a friend of mine had told me that Sharkey, when serving as his colonel, had been the best commanding officer he had ever worked for and there is no reason to doubt that this won’t continue in the private sector.
“When you’re leaving the Army, you start to reflect on the transferrable skills you have,” she says. “I think one of my strengths has been has been leading teams in a way that is very much about empowerment. We don’t employ people to tell them what to do, we employ them for their capabilities and capacity.”
One thing’s for sure, while the sense that she has unfinished business with the military was palpable, as befits someone who has long scanned the technological horizon, she is now very much focused on the future.
With the page turned, it will be fascinating to see how the next chapters in her story develop.
About the author
Mivy James is Digital Transformation Director at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence
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