Sophie Harker featured

Inspirational Woman: Sophie Harker | Senior Aerospace Engineer, BAE Systems

Sophie Harker
Photo: Harry Parvin

Sophie visited the Kennedy Space Centre at age 16, this is where she fell in love with the idea of becoming an astronaut but didn’t know how to get there.

It was only when she met astronaut Dr Helen Sharman, the first British person in space, that she realised becoming an engineer was her way to get to space.

Sophie now works at BAE Systems and has worked on spaceplanes and hypersonic aircrafts which travel faster than five times the speed of sound. Sophie has also worked on determining the most efficient flight path for a spaceplane to fly into orbit, and has investigated to utilise the technology to fly faster than ever before.

Sophie is a part of This is Engineering Day, a day created by the Royal Academy of Engineering to celebrate the world-shaping engineering that exists all around us but often go unnoticed, as well as the engineers who make this possible. As part of This is Engineering Day, the Royal Academy of Engineering has announced plans to create a new virtual museum named The Museum of Engineering Innovation, which can be accessed through QR Codes dotted around the country as well as by visiting Google Arts and Culture. To view the first collection of exhibits, which include Jonnie Peacock’s running blade, visit #BeTheDifference

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

I was inspired into engineering by Dr Helen Sharman, who I met whilst studying for my Masters Degree in Mathematics at the University of Nottingham. She encouraged me to look at engineering as an option for me to live out my ultimate dream of becoming an astronaut. I completed an internship in Software Engineering at BAE Systems between my third and fourth years and then joined BAE Systems on the graduate scheme, completing four placements in various areas of engineering. For my final placement I was seconded to Reaction Engines and worked on spaceplane development and trajectory optimisation. This lead to my ‘exit’ role after the graduate scheme where I worked on performance aerodynamics for fast jets, hypersonic air vehicles and spaceplanes, and led company strategy investigations in the hypersonic and space domains.

Now, I am currently a Senior Aerospace Engineer working on developing technologies for future Flight Control Systems as part of Team Tempest. Team Tempest is a joint project between industry and the UK government to develop technologies that will become part of a future fast jet to be used by the military when some of their existing aircraft are retired. Flight Control Systems are a really integral part of that as they are essentially the central nervous system of the aircraft, brain included, and as such are crucial to enable flight and perform all the in air and on ground manoeuvres that are required.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I actually didn’t! This is something that I’ve long debated doing, but have often found myself going for opportunities that have arisen and being flexible enough to stray from the seemingly straight forward career path. I always have an end goal in sight, and view of what my next step would be, however my main focus is to be flexible with my career and follow what excites me and that I’m interested in.

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

My biggest technical challenge was moving from mathematics into engineering, and having to learn about aerospace as it was all new to me when I joined BAE Systems. I have really got myself involved in it however and it was worth the extra research I needed to do. There have been other challenges along the way, particularly being a young woman in aerospace, however it hasn’t deterred me and I instead use the success I have had in my career to inspire those who would never have considered engineering or aerospace as they didn’t see themselves in it.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I’ve had some amazing career highs over the last 6 years, and do not take any for granted. I’d say the most life changing achievement was receiving the IET’s Young woman Engineer of the Year award in 2018. My life after that was a whirlwind and I have been so fortunate to be involved in so many fantastic events and meeting incredible people, from inspirational engineers at the tops of the fields to young children across the country who have big dreams for their future.

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

I really believe that my passion for sharing what I do and what I’m working on has been a key contributor to any success I have had. I think it’s so important to not only share within industry in order to propel projects forward, but it’s also important to share with the public. Inspiring the general public is something close to my heart and as a by-product of doing this I’ve learnt how to communicate seemingly complex things to be understood by various audiences, which has been invaluable to my professional development.

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

Figure out how to explain what is so exciting about your technology/project and how to communicate that to different audiences. That messaging is key to showing that not only are you passionate about it, but also that you have the skill to bring it to investors and/or potential customers. It’s also critical when working with cross-disciplinary teams and ensuring everyone is working towards and is motivated by the same goal.

My other piece of advice is to say yes to opportunities even when you can’t see where they will lead – taking a chance can really put your career on an exponential trajectory.

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

I think the barriers are less conscious now, and more to do with unconscious biases that we all hold. To work through this, for me, it was a case of feeling brave enough to embrace who I am as a whole, with both my stereotypical feminine and masculine traits. From this, I use the strengths I have that others may not to leave a mark in the workplace and wider industry.

I also address any unconscious biases I have myself and make sure that I’m not projecting that onto others, particularly other women. I want to make sure that I am always supportive of other women in their careers and choices.

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

I think unconscious bias training is really important for everyone, including women, and that there is a culture of calling out bias or inappropriate behaviour. I also think it’s important that not all cases are treated as disciplinary action and that instead provide education on why it was inappropriate and what to do/not to do in the future. We need to bring everyone along on the journey, for all biases that may prevent individuals from career progression.

There is currently only 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 would like the image of a stereotypical engineer/STEM professional to disappear completely. Although it is starting to improve, many young people and their influences (like their parents/guardians, teachers, etc) still hold the stereotypical view of men in oily overalls with a spanner, or mad male scientists. If I could replace that image in their minds with a beautifully diverse group of individuals who work on different things with different interests and passions… that would go a long way in helping increase the number of women in tech. It’s something the ‘This is Engineering’ campaign from the Royal Academy of Engineering is trying to do – show the varied people that work in STEM and change the public perception.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech

I would recommend joining and getting really involved in a professional institution, such as the RAEng, IET or RAeS. These institutions provide career support and opportunities to network with individuals in different and similar fields across the world, providing connections that could prove invaluable in your career.

WeAreTechWomen has a back catalogue of thousands of Inspirational Woman interviews, including Professor Sue Black OBE, Debbie Forster MBE, Jacqueline de Rojas CBE, Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE and many more. You can read about all our amazing women here

Mivy James featured

WeAreTechWomen talks to Mivy James, BAE about the impact of COVID-19

Mivy JamesCoronavirus has turned our lives upside down but that’s not all, says Mivy James. It’s also highlighted the plight of the digitally excluded, as well the systemic changes which should be made permanent, not temporary.

The last time I wrote a blog I was in the (relative) peace and quiet of our open plan office. Today, I’m writing this at home on my kitchen table, grabbing a few precious moments of peace and quiet while my five year old is busying himself with Lego. Quite the contrast but I’m hardly alone in adapting to a new reality.

There’s no doubt that the Covid-19 global health emergency is uprooting how we all used to live and work. From our daily routines to our shopping habits, our socialising to our travel plans, life – as we knew it – has changed, and almost certainly for some time to come.

But while we’re all going to be living with the consequences of the virus for the foreseeable future, one immediate outcome is how it’s shone a light on the fundamental societal importance of technology. We’ve been talking about digital transformation for a while but, as a result of the virus, it’s taken on a whole new meaning and urgency – along with associated cultural implications.

Rising to the corporate challenge

Firstly, there’s the obvious immediate increase in remote working and finding new ways to collaborate without relying on face to face interactions. Many corporate IT networks are on their knees trying to cope with the additional demands and have reduced or blocked network hungry streaming services. Although this had led to enterprising ways of working around corporate IT, the perennial issue of cyber security is never far away.

The crisis has also tested our ability to rapidly disseminate urgent information, such as how the British government sent SMS messages to every citizen via mobile network providers. And there are also abundant (and uplifting) examples of corporate agility around the world. Luxury goods conglomerate LVMH is producing hand sanitiser at its Dior and Givenchy perfume plants, while Spanish-owned Zara has pledged to produce surgical masks and Sweden’s H&M Group said it would be rearranging its supply chain to produce protective equipment. And closer to home I was proud to see that BAE Systems is part of the consortium, Ventilator Challenge UK, which is working on an order of 10,000 ventilators from the UK Government.

While saluting the ability of these firms to rapidly retrain employees and switch production lines – I wonder whether they had designed this flexibility in from the outset – data scientists are also making remarkable strides. Thanks to their efforts, data science is being redirected into predictive analytics, modelling of contagion and immunity scenarios – all of which are helping inform decision making.

It’s a team game

But it’s not just about the ability of machines and technology to change direction. The crisis has also made crystal clear the importance of highly responsive decision making across all levels of leadership. With the situation evolving so rapidly, organisations simply cannot afford to wait for the board to filter decisions through many hierarchical layers.

We’re also seeing examples of organisations displaying previously unseen levels of empathy and support for their employees and suppliers. Unfortunately, there have been examples of less impressive social responsibility. Those organisations seen to be *not* behaving well will be remembered after the crisis has passed – by consumers and prospective employees alike.

We’re all now highly conscious of the wellbeing and personal circumstances of others. Up until now most of us leave our home and personal lives behind when we step through the door of the office. Now we don’t have that separation. I can’t help feeling I’m connecting with my colleagues in a different way to before – even if it’s just a glimpse into their family lives and homes.

Here at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence, we’re proud of how quickly we moved to keep our employees safe and the level of trust we have in our teams whilst they work from home. Certainly their working hours are changing, taking into account things like home-schooling and the need to support friends and relations. Personally, I now tend to start work at lunchtime and work late – it’s not like I’ve got any social events or fitness classes on in the evening!

So, what’s next?

Firstly, my hope is that these cultural changes aren’t just temporary and have a longer term benefit to society – a potential silver lining to the current crisis, along with the potential healing that our precious planet is undergoing whilst we all live quieter lives with reduced consumerism and travel.

And secondly, we need to take urgent heed of those who don’t have access to the technology many of us are so reliant on. I can’t imagine how hard this experience would be without the internet but as of last March, more than 5 million Britons were in this position.

Let us hope that when we emerge from the pandemic, along with elevating doctors and health care workers to their rightful pantheon in society, we can redouble our efforts towards making digital technology available to *everyone*.

This is no time to leave anyone behind.