July 26, 2022

What It's Really Like to Work within the UK Intelligence Services

Throughout University, I thought that I wanted to work in finance. My parents always told me that I should work hard and work in business for stable employment with a good income. I grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when the media was filled with wealthy stockbrokers in double-breasted suits, driving Porsches and Ferraris. It was the epitome of a cool and stylish lifestyle.

So, I actively pursued the relevant degree, work experience and networking opportunities before landing that job with the suit, tie, and the commute. However, after a year of perpetual cold calling clients, targets, and extreme competitiveness, it just didn’t feel a good fit for me. I wanted more than that and wanted a feeling of excitement on a Sunday night - rather than the dread of the forthcoming working week.

I wanted a career with an international dimension where I could actively contribute to something worthwhile, rather than just making wealthy people wealthier. I wanted a sense of purpose. I’d always been interested in international politics. The opportunity to contribute to shaping Britain’s foreign and domestic policy prompted me into looking at government careers - specifically within the community. The attractiveness of the work, the ability to directly contribute my knowledge, and the rewarding nature of the work sparked me into applying. The secrecy and ‘working in the shadows’ nature also felt exciting. It was important and crucial work.

Despite my keenness, I had many preconceptions about government and wasn’t confident of success in my application. I am first generation Black British from African working-class parents who moved to the UK from a former colony in the 1970s. I had studied hard and earned good qualifications throughout my education. However, I didn’t go to Oxbridge or a Red Brick University, which (in my perception) traditionally churned out the next cohort of Fast Stream Civil Servants.

There is a definite connection between race and social mobility, and this seeded some of the false truths floating in my mind. At that time, I didn’t have connections in that community – where historically my perception was that a smile, a wink and the right tie/handshake would almost guarantee an interview for any recent politics graduate whose father knew someone in government. In my mind, the only Black people in government were cleaners and kitchen staff. I didn’t own a pinstripe suit or a briefcase. Why would they want me? What could I possibly offer as a recruit?

When I applied all that time ago, I never saw another Black candidate during the recruitment process. This played into my negative preconceptions. I remember that self-doubting voice in my head, but I kept pushing on because I knew that I wanted it. I’d prepped for this more than any other job interview or assessment centre. My head was popping with detail on foreign issues prevalent in the world at that point in time (to show my deep interest and passion for international politics). I was ready to share every detail of why I really wanted this career and impress the assessors. I confidently put forward my views during the group sessions. I worked diligently with focus during the individual sessions. I answered the questions as fully as I could during the panel interviews. Always focussing on the end goal. I wanted to show the assessors that I was a positive and intelligent individual who could offer a lot professionally and personally.

Fast-forward several years. After a successful, challenging, and lengthy recruitment process, here I am as an officer with over 15 years’ experience in this field. I am a respected senior analyst within what I would say is the best intelligence community in the world. I have worked across several fascinating and critical areas - from analysing and countering the threat of global terrorism, to enabling British economic wellbeing and prosperity. I have responsibility for ensuring that our customers receive vital information to enable them to make the right decisions at the right time. I am responsible for developing junior colleagues into world leading analysts. I utilise every tool within the  

UK’s analytical arsenal and assist to develop new capabilities. I have grown professionally through work-funded further education, growing my job specific knowledge and skills. I have learnt a complex language that I’d never even have considered learning before. I have also been fortunate to travel to several corners of the world as part of my work.

Importantly though, I have the pleasure of working with some of the most interesting and skilled people from a huge variety of backgrounds, qualifications, and interests. Whether that be casually chatting with a director in the coffee queue; garnering advice and operational perspectives from officers with 30+ years’ experience; or even briefing brand new entrants. The people form the inclusive culture of the community.

My initial preconceptions regarding the community were not accurate nor (unfortunately) wholly inaccurate. In truth, the community is not as diverse as it should be in representing society. It is clear that people of Black heritage need to be better represented in government and industry – especially at the senior levels. However, within the community, we are enthusiastically trying to change this rather than just talking about race and diversity without action or direction to address the issue.

We have internal affinity groups who work with senior leaders to influence policy and drive change in the UK Intelligence services and dedicated training courses to raise awareness and increase inclusivity. We are also organising events like these to reach out to audiences who may not previously have considered a career here.

It is a slow process, but things are changing. Although, I still hear friends from Black backgrounds wrongly describing careers within government with the preconceptions that I had. It’s disappointing that this frequently occurs. It genuinely dissuades candidates from applying, reinforcing the negative and incorrect perception of not belonging, or that they would be unsuccessful anyway so not to bother. This is a missed opportunity for both the organisation and the individual themselves.

My advice to those who have negative preconceptions or who are unsure but still intrigued by the prospect of this type of career is to:

(a) Gather your own information on the agencies from authoritative sources (i.e. our websites and outreach events) and as much about the job role;

(b) Do not self-censor yourself – you do not need to be from a specific socio-economic, academic (dependent on job role) or ethnic background;

(c) Focus on yourself rather than on the types of people who you think might be applying;

(d) Keep an eye on what’s happening in the world – have an interest and opinion about what is happening overseas and why we (the UK government) may be interested.

Limited diversity in government does not mean that people from Black backgrounds do not belong or should not be here. It is the complete opposite. We offer a variety of skills and opinions necessary for our mission to succeed. We offer cultural interpretations that cannot be taught. Even diverse experiences foster innovative thinking in problem solving. Inherent diversity also enables the organisation to truly operate globally. We are bright and educated individuals that drive operational invention and new ways of thinking. We too want to make a difference by undertaking important work and succeeding.

We offer cultural interpretations that cannot be taught. Even diverse experiences foster innovative thinking in problem solving. Inherent diversity also enables the organisation to truly operate globally.

I genuinely never knew how much I had to offer until I landed here, and I’m sure you feel the same. I am a Black man, who is taking this amazing opportunity (which is available to all of us) to make a mark on this earth by thinking hard, working hard, encouraging others, and never giving up. I am a Black man who didn’t listen to the negative voices telling me no. I am an Intelligence Officer. I belong in the UK Intelligence service and so do you.