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Women in Data: BAE Systems’ CDO on why diversity in data matters

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Women in Data: BAE Systems’ CDO on why diversity in data matters

Working with wild gorillas and rescue gibbons isn’t the traditional route into a career in data and technology. But for Johanna Hutchinson, chief data officer (CDO) at BAE Systems, it made perfect sense.

Until the age of 30, Hutchinson worked as a primatologist. Whether monitoring gorillas in Central *******, living in tents for months at a time in the Brazilian rainforest, or looking after rescue gibbons in Thailand, hers was an extremely active career that did not involve a traditional workplace.

Hutchinson’s upbringing was centred around the outdoors and a love of animals. Initially, she wanted to be a vet and volunteered at the local veterinary clinic, but the requisite A in chemistry did not seem realistic.

Instead, she got involved in science via a different route, studying biology and psychology at university. This background was the enabler to transitioning from academia and wildlife to her current career in data, originally working for the Office of National Statistics, then in healthcare and now in her current role in the defence sector.

“The reason I was able to transfer from those roles into a statistician, originally in government and then through into data, is that inherent understanding of hypothesis testing and being quantitative in the analysis that I did as a scientist,” says Hutchinson. “The essence of good scientific training is hypothesis testing and asking questions. This is where my interest in data comes from.”

Understanding data value

Working in data requires a different type of skillset than working in technology. It’s about understanding the value that data has for the owner, being able to interrogate it, and bringing that insight to life with narrative, Hutchinson notes.

“There’s an awful lot of data in our organisations, but there is no value to it unless it’s giving us insights and information that helps us to run the business, gain insights or help make decisions.”

Decision-making was a crucial element of Hutchinson’s data role during the Covid pandemic, firstly as head of analysis – Covid-19 at the Department of Health and Social Care, and then as director of data and data science for the ***’s Test and Trace programme, working under Dido Harding. To make policy decisions or change policy in response to a changing situation in the country, governments were reliant on data.

“There’s an awful lot of data in our organisations, but there is no value to it unless it’s giving us insights and information that helps us to run the business, gain insights or make decisions”

Johanna Hutchinson, BAE Systems

“But that data and decision-making could exist in multiple different departments,” says Hutchinson. “For example, putting the policy in place for people to stay at home. How did you know if they stayed at home? You’d have to monitor the traffic, the flow into supermarkets, the number of children in school. These are data that come from different sources and compiling those together to understand the success of the policy and the impact on the prevalence of the ******** was incredibly complex.”

Whatever the industry, the current challenge for data and technology is interoperability, according to Hutchinson, who believes her new home in the defence sector will be the first to tackle this task.

“Think about the complexity of bringing large data together – many of the systems are running artificial intelligence [AI] or analytical models, pinging things through, and data will come into systems at different times under different scheduling, and that all has to be synthesised into a mechanism that enables a human to make a decision.”

She continues: “These aren’t just challenges in defence, but defence and space are often where the cutting-edge technology and decisions come through that enable the rest of the world to take that leap.”

Data skills in demand

With so many organisations recognising data as an asset, and the nuanced approach required to get optimum value from it, there is now a huge skills shortage in data.

The latest roles in software engineering, data engineering and AI modelling all require quantitative skills that can be used to explain a concept or business problem or help drive efficiency in a business. This is where it’s vital to attract more women into the industry, to help diversify the input.

“As soon as you start to drive the value from data into a business, you’ve got a skills shortage, you’ve got a gap,” says Hutchinson.

“Therefore, you’re looking at blended teams, you’re looking at bringing people from different backgrounds together. We only have to think about AI models and the constant topic of bias in those to recognise that blended teams of people from different backgrounds and different perspectives help us to create models that have less bias.”

Building more gender-balanced data teams is not always easy, however. While there might be plenty of women coming through as junior data analysts, at certain points in their careers they disappear.

“What we don’t see is that rise of really talented female people into some of the higher-level senior management and leadership [roles],” says Hutchinson.

“In many of my jobs, I was mentored and line managed by men who understood the challenges I would face and helped to open doors. I spend a lot of time mentoring and supporting women to come into this community. The role you have to play as a senior leader is incredibly important to encourage people through and help people see the opportunity.”

This is particularly needed in countries like the ***, where it takes two salaries to support a family. Rather than women quitting the industry or staying in more junior roles when their children are young, Hutchinson advises them to take opportunities for promotion.

“The cost of those trainers is going to increase substantially over the next few years. My 15-year-old is in size 10 shoes now, and they are not cheap,” she quips.

The pandemic has proved a leveller for women, thanks to the resulting increase in working from home, which has given many women in technology and data jobs the flexibility to spend more time at their computer engaging with work rather than travelling or having to leave early to take care of parental duties when needed.

Bleeding-edge technology

As CDO at BAE Systems, Hutchinson is working at the bleeding edge of the sector, watching the developments of its technology partners to see what that enables the business to do next. The signal from Nato to all countries is around interoperability, developing the ability to bring together data from multiple sources in real time to actively make intelligent decisions. AI has an important role to play here, especially the new

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“What it enables us to do is take the insight and present it in a way that the vast majority can articulate. If I showed you a complex graph, most people would say, ‘we don’t like the big graphs’. But if we are using Copilot, for example, and interrogating a library of documentation to find a particular answer and being able to pull that out in a word sentence, that’s accessible, that’s easy. That can save organisations such as BAE Systems a huge amount of time,” Hutchinson explains.

More importantly and pressingly, new uses of data and technology could help solve BAE Systems’ current customer project backlog, worth a whopping £70bn. This includes exploring how the business could use AI and GenAI tools on the shop floor as part of the

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, for robotics, or to show designs visually and in 3D.

BAE Systems has been phenomenally successful. The challenge to our organisation is not its success or its ********, it is its ability to be able to adapt to those increasing demands, those contracts we have, plus new markets that are coming on board, such as space, that are hugely data heavy, and be able to work in different ways and harness the power of digital and data to support our workforce to do their excellent work in their particular domains and areas without any hindrance,” says Hutchinson. 

All this will lead to a shift in the use of digital and data tools and skills at BAE Systems and organisations like it. Hutchinson expects to see more embedded AI and analytical tools within systems, which will enable faster processing of data in the manufacturing world and offer insights into the build maintenance of its platforms at a greater pace.

As a consequence, there will be a need for employees to change and upskill. Hutchinson doesn’t see this as a negative, but rather the “natural progression of bringing in new tools and people using them in different ways, which you’ll see in many of the manufacturing workforces”.

Investing in future skills

Aware of the talent shortage, BAE Systems is also taking steps to ensure an available pipeline of engineers and data specialists. In Barrow, where it builds submarines, the company is expanding housing and facilities, as well as building a university campus to ensure it can deliver on contracts.

“We do an awful lot already to train the skills like welding that we need on-site and to take people through their qualifications, from school leavers through to advanced skills. We’re also investing in higher education capabilities, which means people who live in the local area don’t have to do day-release travel to Lancaster or central Lancashire or Manchester.”

Last year, BAE Systems launched its Global Digital Academy, aimed at expanding recognition, understanding and development of digital and data skills across the workforce.

The company also has a “large and active change programme” that is reskilling current staff in the areas BAE knows will be critical in future.

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#Women #Data #BAE #Systems #CDO #diversity #data #matters

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