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My software engineering career at GCHQ

Some days, Alex feels like the GCHQ office is pretty normal. Until, that is, something exciting happens and then it feels like they're in a film.
Job title: 
Software engineer

2014–2017 Completed a degree in English at a Russell Group university.

2017 Applied to GCHQ.

2018 Started at GCHQ.

I've used my tech knowledge to help protect children online.

I did an English degree at university, as I thought I’d stick to what I’d been good at in school. It wasn’t until I saw a GCHQ stand at a university careers fair that I had a real ‘that’s what I want to do with my life’ moment. I applied to a GCHQ training scheme designed for people without STEM degrees but who had a passion for technology.

Living GCHQ’s values

The recruitment process included online tests, a phone interview and an assessment centre. I’d never thought before about how you could apply for jobs with the security services in the same way as you’d apply for jobs elsewhere; it felt amazingly normal, although it was a bit weird not telling people that I’d applied.

My advice for the recruitment process is to look at GCHQ’s core values. One of them is teamwork and, in my interview, I talked about working with a big team behind a bar at university; even though the two jobs appeared worlds apart, the skills were transferable. Integrity and innovation are also core values.

So, it would be great if you could demonstrate ways that you’ve improved how you do your own work or challenged existing processes to make things better. Especially for those wanting to work in tech, showing that you’ve got a desire to learn new things and, ideally, a proven track record of having done so is important.

Feeling like I’m in a film

I had to undergo a lot of security checks before I started. Working at GCHQ, right alongside MI5 and MI6, you learn a lot of highly classified information and the organisation needs to know it can trust you to keep that information safe.

I expected GCHQ to be a lot like what you see on TV: big screens with maps on them, people hurrying back and forth. In a lot of ways, it is exactly like that and sometimes I do have to remind myself that this is my real job, not something in a film. Because of how closely we work with MI5, MI6 and the wider government, things move at a rapid pace, so there’s always something exciting going on.

But then in a lot of ways it’s just like a regular office – sometimes the photocopier doesn’t work and I have to time my lunch break right to avoid queues in the canteen. Flexible working patterns mean that I can choose my own working hours to avoid the rush hour traffic (or have a lie in), while some of my colleagues use it to manage their childcare.

Protecting the public

Everyone at GCHQ is helping to keep the people of the UK safe and I’m proud to play my part in that. While my main job title is ‘software engineer’, that’s only part of what I get involved in and I move teams a lot.

Currently, I’m working on a few projects that contribute to GCHQ’s core mission, using a wide range of technologies and agile processes. I recently led a small team that worked with other government departments on new laws to help protect children using the internet. I used my knowledge of technology to ensure that proposed measures were secure, effective and safe. Most of what happens at GCHQ the general public don’t know about and I’ve had to get used to not talking about my workday, but actually it’s become a great way to switch off.

GCHQ thrives from being a culture where people learn from one another and it has really struck me how people at higher grades will always make time to hear what you have to say. On a personal level, everyone I’ve worked with has been keen to help me learn new things. GCHQ’s focus on learning on the job (alongside more formal training, both classroom and virtual) has really worked for me.

Celebrating diversity

My advice to all new starters is to take the opportunities given to you. That could be helping out with a new project or with running a diversity event. It’s a good way to make friends and professional contacts. I’ve ended up doing a lot of stuff that I never would have anticipated and most of that has come – at least partly – from having a network of people I can draw on. Being asked ‘Can I have your help with something?’ always seems to lead to something interesting. One thing it led to was becoming a diversity champion within GCHQ and it’s definitely been a highlight of my job.

I share GCHQ’s belief that people are the best version of themselves if they can bring their whole selves to work. We all take diversity and inclusion really seriously and I’m proud of how we celebrate all of the different ways in which we are unique.

This content first appeared in the UK 300, a product developed and created by the editors at TARGETjobs.