News Article

"I love knowing I'm doing something good for the world"

Last Updated: 23 Jun 2018
As part of International Women in Engineering Day, Rachel gives an insight into her career at GCHQ so far.

News article - 23 June 2018

One of our technologists recently spoke to some visiting students about her life at GCHQ.

My name is Rachel and I have worked at GCHQ for three years. I sadly can't tell you what I do beyond the mysterious title of "Technical Cyber Analyst", but I love it. It's exciting and I never know what I will be doing when I get into work because the world is constantly changing. Also on the plus side, I never have homework! Before I got a full time job with GCHQ I participated in their Higher Apprenticeship scheme.

For my GCSE's I took triple Science, Business, and Geography, and from there I took Physics, Maths, Chemistry, and Business in my A Levels, dropping Chemistry in the second year. Now that probably all sounds a little daunting, but I know of people that didn't do those, and they are some of the people who are on the front lines protecting the UK from a Cyber Attack. We need people from all backgrounds, with all different kinds of skill sets to join GCHQ and help to keep the UK safe. One day, if you want to of course, that could be you.

During my GCSEs and A levels I didn't really think about where I wanted to be in the future, I wasn't sure about which university I wanted to go to, let alone if I wanted to go at all. It's expected of you now, an obvious step in the game of life. On behalf of the many people who went through GCHQ's Higher Apprenticeship scheme - I can tell you that is not the case. 

I found out about the GCHQ Apprenticeship when my school did the world's shortest talk on apprenticeships. They put it in as a kind of joke, as in "There's an apprenticeship if you want to be a spy", because everyone, including myself, thinks of spies as this James Bond film cliché. Almost an unobtainable worlds-coolest-job. My school probably did not think anyone would take that one innocuous slide seriously. But I did. I went home that night and looked it up, and frankly harassed them with emails until it became available.

I'm twenty-one, I found out about the apprenticeship scheme when I was seventeen, and shortly submitted my application. I was applying straight from my A Levels which meant I had to wait for my grades, and then go through the vetting process.  I received my acceptance letter a few months before my nineteenth birthday, and joined the Higher Apprenticeship Scheme that September.

So what does GCHQ do? GCHQ's main mission is to help keep the UK safe. We do that in a number of ways; defending UK, and UK affiliated business from cyber-attacks. We help identify the origin of those attacks, where we can, through the National Cyber Security Centre or NCSC. Working with MI5, MI6 and law enforcement we support efforts to counter terrorist groups, working to stop the bad guys before people get hurt. We manage threats from hostile states, reduce threats from serious and organised crime, and support our troops overseas. 

Out of those the one you've probably heard most about is our work against terrorism. Sadly, actual or attempted terror attacks overseas or in the UK are becoming commonplace in the media most days. When an attack breaks on the news you can feel it throughout GCHQ. The whole of the building is filled with these deeply passionate people, who above everything else, care.

GCHQ is the descendant of the Government Code and Cypher School, set up just after the First World War to study cypher communications of foreign powers. Technology was far removed from where it is now,  but it was cutting edge at the time. During the inter war years and the Second World War, analysts used dials and paper tape to conduct their work, and relied on their aptitude and each other to get one up on our enemies. Even though technology has changed a lot over the decades, we still use our aptitude and each other to conduct our work. 

When it comes to modern day computing people often think about one person coding away at their computer, sat in a dark room, in a hoody, subjecting themselves to solitary confinement. Computing at GCHQ is the exact opposite, with many different people sharing their ideas as part of a huge patchwork of collaboration, which results in the creation of tools and tradecraft that are truly ground-breaking. 

It doesn't even have to be in your job description; in GCHQ we're allowed innovation time to make anything we want to supplement our work. We have flexible working time, meaning we can work hours that suit us. All of this encourages creativity in the people that work here, which means happier staff, and a more fulfilling job. It's also important for us to have a diverse workforce, and we have a large amount of people here who are dyslexic or on the autistic spectrum, which is quite unusual for a government organisation. Neurodiversity is imperative to the mission, and without people thinking differently to a problem, we wouldn't be able to do the incredible work we do here each and every day. This means we go out of the way to recruit people from all walks of life.

There are three huge reasons why I love working at GCHQ. One is I'm a natural techy. Ever since I was a kid I was always on the computer with my parents, in the days where dial-up Internet was a thing and I had to sit on a parent's lap to get to the mouse and keyboard. I designed my first desktop computer when I was fourteen, and rebuilt it just a few years ago. I started learning how to code using Scratch on Raspberry Pi's, tiny credit card sized computers. They are pretty cheap and easy to set up, so it's never too early to start thinking about Christmas. Being a techy also means I'm a huge nerd/geek, something I got bullied for in school. I was never particularly sporty, and showing an interest in something besides tag meant you were weird. In work I now have people who get excited with me for upcoming conventions and game releases. If you feel you don't fit in now, don't worry because things do get better. The most important step is to talk about it. People mature beyond that behaviour so you should never be scared about being yourself.

The second reason is that I enjoy solving puzzles, which is ultimately what I do daily. In school I was always taking apart pieces of equipment to figure out how they worked, or asking my chemistry teacher to do certain practicals, just to physically see how elements reacted around each other. Reagent practicals often come up for chemical analysis; these experiments provide different results depending on the chemicals present. This proves to me it's not about what you look like, what race or gender you are or even what grades you get, but what you're made of that counts. A good GCHQ-er is curious, driven, and adaptable. You have to think outside the box and approach problems from a different direction or perspective to get around difficult puzzles. In my role it is often putting yourself in other people's shoes and deliberating about what they are doing and why, which is also a tip for empathising in everyday life.

The last reason, but to me the most important as to why I work at GCHQ and not just some other tech firm, is my moral compass. I love knowing I'm doing something good for the world. You may have read a few things in the news that GCHQ has helped with, and not even know it because we didn't put our name on it. Often the case when working here. There's always that huge swell of pride working at GCHQ and the sister agencies. At the end of the day your job is part of who you are. Being part of GCHQ makes me feel like I am doing something good for the world, giving back to the people I care about and protecting them (also protecting people I've never met and probably never will). You spend most of your life in work, and ultimately it is up to you what you end up doing. I wanted to join the Army at one point, but I am so squeamish that it just wasn't realistic, but because of all the factors I've mentioned - my love of tech, my inquisitive nature, and finally the my moral compass, GCHQ is a better fit. 

Working at GCHQ is an opportunity for you, no matter who you are.