Helen DavisHelen has worked within IT transformational change programmes across the public sector for over 20 years. 

Previously she has worked at HRMC, held a number of positions across the NHS and joined West Midlands Police initially in 2009 where she carried out a number of business and technology transformation consultancy roles. Helen returned to West Midlands Police as a permanent member of staff in 2016 and became the Director of IT and Digital in June 2017.  Helen is currently leading West Midland Police through the IT elements of a challenging programme of large scale transformational change which is digital by design, and sees the Force introducing cutting-edge technology across a number of core business areas including a Big Data Platform with advanced Data Analytics. Helen has 136 staff within her department and she is also a member of the National Police IT Council.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

At University I studied Business Management, with a major focus on IT. I knew from my studies that I wanted a career in technology but not as a developer or a technician. Instead, I was interested in how technology partnered with the business process and how it could improve how organisations operate. During my final year I started to look for organisations where I could focus on technology change and implementation and that’s what led me to HMRC. At the time HMRC were starting their journey into on-line filing of tax returns, and it was that opportunity to be involved in those sorts of ground breaking changes that attracted me. After leaving university, I joined HMRC as a graduate trainee where I spent the first ten years of my career. From there I decided to become an Independent Consultant, specialising in the transformation of legacy IT departments. One of my clients was West Midlands Police and in 2014 I was tasked with remodelling its IT department. It was a challenge but one I relished. I became hooked to the incredible results we were achieving and the genuine, positive impact they were having on policing. So when the Head of Technology role became vacant, it felt like a no brainer to apply.

One of the biggest challenges I face in my role is ensuring that we’re using the right technology to best serve our area. The West Midlands is the second largest police force in the UK and one of the most diverse communities, serving 2.8 million people. Most recently, we’ve rolled out The Data Driven Insights Project. At the heart of this programme is a data hub consolidating information from siloed systems and allowing for fast data insights and positive interventions. With an easy-to-use search function, we now have a single source of truth for all police data, which can be securely accessed by 6,000 concurrent users, in real-time, across desktop and mobile. It has already been used to inform over 1.5M inquiries and the police on the street can now access vital information, for example about a location or car registration, at the touch of a button.

We built the platform with Cloudera and Accenture and I’m proud to say it’s a first in the UK. Another stand out part of the project is the data science techniques that are used to automate across the entire data flow, in conjunction with graph technologies, which can identify matches, patterns, and associations. This helps inform decision making and provides confidence in the data being presented. West Midlands Police is also the first police force in the UK to hire its own data scientists, data engineers, and visualisation specialists, to develop this capability in house. We understood that while data brings great opportunity, it also brings a greater responsibility in terms of how we’re using these analytics. Our independent data ethics committee was created, with the Police and Crime Commissioner, with this in mind, and is another first in UK policing.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

No! I always felt that I should have a ‘plan’ but I never really got round to it! I applied for the HMRC graduate training scheme because I was excited about the way they were starting to use technology to transform the way they did business and the way the public interacted with them and that’s sort of been the pattern to my career. As a consultant, I worked with clients who wanted to solve business problems with technology and then I was introduced to West Midlands Police.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

When I joined HMRC my female boss told me on my first day that I would need to be “more male than the men” if I wanted to succeed. Whilst my natural instinct was to do as my boss told me, I soon came to realise that I didn’t know how to be anything but me, and that ‘me’ was more than up to the job. Instead I focused on staying true to myself and most importantly, doing my job well.

At HMRC I started out as a technical business analyst working on the on-line version (1st edition) of the Self-Assessment Tax Return. Following promotions and a number of other assignments I worked as a technical requirements manager on New Tax Credits (NTC) and my final role, following further promotion, was to the Technical Requirements Authority for the NTC system, focussing on payments.

Working in a male dominated industry can be challenging, for example, people are often taken aback when they realise that a female is heading up the force’s IT department. Similarly, a difficulty women face across industries is being told they are too assertive or bossy. In my case I gained the reputation of being “a bit of a dragon” which is something my male counterparts would never be labelled as.

However, as you move through life you become more comfortable in challenging these perceptions.  During my time at HMRC I overcame being in a minority through sheer determination and continuously working hard to climb the ranks. Even though I wasn’t considered a typical candidate for the job, hard work doesn’t go unnoticed. The most important factor in overcoming this challenging environment, where I was an outlier, was by not conforming. Subsequently, I ended up having a ten year long, successful, career with the HMRC.

This experience also makes me extremely grateful to work for West Midlands Police, an organisation that celebrates diversity and where I am judged based on my results, not my gender.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

My role at West Midlands Police is my greatest challenge and has been my greatest reward because the hard work required to achieve true transformation is paying off and the results are visible both internally and externally. The transformation of the IT function is by far my most rewarding career achievement to date and seeing officers on the streets with mobile devices, which they never had before, accessing information, which they never had before, is a true reward.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?   

As I mentioned earlier, when I first started out, it felt like there was this constant pressure to conform and be ‘one of the boys’. Ironically, a major factor in achieving my success has been by doing the exact opposite. Importantly, it wasn’t my feminist beliefs that prevented me from conforming to being “more male than the men”, I didn’t conform simply because I didn’t know how to. All I knew how to do was to be me. For a number of years I did assume that my successes and promotions were based on luck, not ability. However, now with the benefit of hindsight, I know it was my hardwork and determination that got me to where I am today.  Therefore, my advice, and the thing that has helped me to achieve success, is always believe in yourself and stay true to who you are.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?  

My top tip for someone trying to excel in a technology-based career is to embrace your individuality. There’s no one else in the world like you, and it’s this individuality that you can bring to the table and help you succeed.

It is very easy, especially when you first start out in this industry, to think that you should conform to being a stereotype, which within IT/Tech is most commonly attributed to either being male, or if a woman – timid and compliant in character. Although a complete cliche, it may seem like the easy option to take, in order to ‘fit in’. However, I don’t believe this is the solution.

Equally, embracing the unknown and seizing opportunities is something I encourage everyone to do. When I made the switch from working for HMRC to being self employed, leaving behind the stability of my job was scary. However, by taking the plunge so many new doors opened and I ended up working for an organisation that embodies all values I stand for. My career has progressed and work has become more rewarding.

I also believe that thinking outside the box is a crucial, but often forgotten, mindset to hold. For example, at the West Midlands Police, my team has implemented the Data Driven Insight project. By being innovative and stepping away from  technical systems the force had used for years, we found a new far more efficient way to run digital strategy.

Since implementing this new project, with Cloudera at its core, we have been able to create some great benefits like integrating complex data sources into a single highly scalable search platform. Having the idea, and the courage, to move that program forward has transformed how West Midlands Police operates and I am really proud of what we have achieved. Being creative, hard working and believing in yourself can create true (tech) transformation. Sometimes, not following the crowd is what will make you stand out and be a true asset in the long run.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

By simply holding the roles you have and working across the tech industry as women, you are making a difference! Yes, things should be easy and there shouldn’t be any discrimination, but the reality is there is, and, we have to deal with it in the best way we can. I see challenging inappropriate behaviour as a big part of my responsibility as a senior leader.

I have over 25 years experience working within the tech industry, but to this day I still see many related organisations, and a large number of suppliers, lacking diversity and inclusivity. Just recently, we had a supplier on site to fix a critical issue and when I walked into the office and asked for an update, I was met with the response that they’re only permitted to give a formal update to the boss. After explaining that I was in fact “the boss”, you can imagine the look on his face. He said “oh sorry, I thought you’d be a man”. Situations like this have to be confronted in order for change to happen. Sexisim is also not always easy to challenge, but you can educate people by highlighting why their actions are inappropriate. A few seconds of self-reflection can change an attitude. For every female out there, don’t change who you are, instead you should strive to educate those who discriminate against you. As Anne Frank once said “how wonderful is it that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” I truly believe change will continue to come, we just need to be the driving force to make it happen.

What do you think companies can do to support the progress of the careers of women working in technology? 

I realise how fortunate I am to work in a truly diverse and inclusive organisation that proactively supports female progression. The values of The West Midlands Police include: “I want to work in a diverse team” and “I am courageous and fair”. However, I am painfully aware that isn’t the case for all organisations in the technology sector.

I believe the best way companies can support the progression of its female employees is by putting a plan in place. For example, every department in the West Midlands Police has a diversity and inclusion plan. Similarly every individual has personal objectives, so that the force can improve our service, based on a better understanding of the progressive, beautiful, complex and diverse communities we serve. This not only helps the career progression for women, but also the likes of minority groups and others that have been historically overlooked.

West Midlands Police also has a dedicated D&I team that sets the standard for the force. The team challenges all senior leaders and ensures that plans are active, meaningful and living documents which I think really helps.  This team also coordinates a number of events for example officers visit community groups to talk about policing and the force and to encourage people from those minorities to apply for roles.  I’ve also worked with various girls in STEM initiatives as well as attending university and schools careers day to showcase the great opportunities the force offers.

There are currently 17% of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

I am acutely aware that there is a need to do more to encourage women into these predominantly male orientated jobs. For example, I’m fortunate enough to have a wide number of different cultures represented within the IT department at West Midlands, but I only have one female team manager out of a total of eight, and my IT Senior Leadership team is currently all males. While practicing what I preach doesn’t always come easily, I’m always actively looking for ways to attract more female applicants to the senior IT roles, but I know that there must be more I can do and that will continue to be my personal challenge.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

I was recently featured on the Cloudera Influential Women in Data Webinar. The premise of these webinars are fantastic — to celebrate the influential women behind the data strategies of some of the UK’s most influential organisations. As the first speaker in the series, I highly recommend all women working in the industry to attend. It is an opportunity to not only see the challenges women in similar positions have faced but also hear tips and advice they have used to overcome these hurdles. Likewise, it is also the chance to see innovative ways cloud is being applied in the workplace – combining two great themes, diversity and tech innovation under one roof.

Conferencing and Networking is always a great opportunity to share learning and to discuss issues; you can pretty much guarantee that issues you’re facing have been faced by others.  This sort of sharing and open discussion is invaluable.

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