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Luke Parker, Senior Technical Officer/Geospatial Intelligence Officer, National Centre for Geospatial Intelligence

What has been your career path to date?


My career within the Army began when I was awarded an Army scholarship at the age of 16 that provided support through to the completion of my Bachelor’s degree at the University of Leeds. After which I attended the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and was commissioned into the Corps of Royal Engineers.


My career as an Engineer officer started as a Royal Engineer Search Advisor (RESA) commanding a team responsible for locating explosive ordnance and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), serving in Norway, Jordan and the Middle East. It was during this time that I began to see the importance of data in the recognition of patterns to improve the probability of finding explosive devices. My fascination with spatial data led me to apply for an MSc in Geospatial Intelligence at the University of Cranfield.


After completing the MSc, I was assigned as a leader of geospatial intelligence (Geoint) teams within the National Centre for Geospatial Intelligence (NCGI). However, with the outbreak of COVID-19, I was quickly seconded into the newly formed Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) heading up several teams of data experts in the fight against COVID. At present, I am on a two-year exchange within the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), working within their Mapping and Charting Establishment (MCE).

What made you choose data as your career focus?


My early experience at 101 (City of London) Engineer Regiment (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) exposed me to the importance of spatial data; a large amount of the training to become a Royal Engineer Search Advisor (RESA) is collating disparate datasets to make a threat assessment.


As I moved from the RESA role into more senior positions I was offered the opportunity to conduct a funded MSc in Geospatial Intelligence (Geoint). The MSc in Geoint is one of many offered by the Army and best fitted my analytical mindset. From starting to study Geoint I knew that this was a large part of my future career path.


How aware were you of data as a career opportunity during your education or early work experience? Does this need to be heightened?


The University of Leeds School of Geography had a fantastic faculty who were passionate about educating students about career opportunities. My biggest inspiration came from Dr Steve Carver who delivered geographic information systems (GIS), spatial analysis and environmental modelling. However, before this, I was almost unaware of career opportunities in data. I would like to see more emphasis on careers in data fields early in secondary education, especially in areas of deprivation where student’s at-home support networks may not be aware of what is out there.

What are your key areas of focus for data and analytics in 2022?


The Geoint community is heavily focused on establishing the power of spatial data “as a service” to support decision-makers across Defence. Creating and disseminating web mapping services was the most important contribution the Defence Geoint community made to support the COVID-19 response.


A personal priority for me is to improve the baseline data literacy across Defence. Data isn’t just the resource of data professionals anymore; in a modern military every member should be confident with the basics of data and data analysis.


Tell us about any ambitions you have in terms of becoming a data leader.


Defence has made it clear that future warfare will be enabled at every level by a digital backbone into which all sensors, effectors and deciders will be plugged. I believe that the digital backbone is as much about people as it is the data and technology which underpins it. To that extent, there is opportunity and necessity for strong data leaders to play a more influential role within Defence’s future.


Being a pure data leader within Defence is difficult, especially within the single services e.g., Army, Navy, RAF. Our current career management framework often results in personnel moving jobs every two-to-five years and there is a clear emphasis on creating generalist experience for most personnel; this may translate to a new role not related to the experience gained in the previous one. However, I am optimistic that new talent management initiatives such as the Army’s Project CASTLE will better identify and nurture the growth of individuals with data KSE throughout their careers. For this reason, I have every ambition to obtain a senior role within Defence in a data-related field; CIO would be nice.

What key skills or attributes do you consider will be essential your success in this role?


First and foremost, people skills (EQ) and culture creation. The military is working hard after the results of some tough inquiries to improve our culture collectively to make a more inclusive work environment. We still have a way to go, but I feel data leaders with a developed EQ who can self-regulate, motivate, and empathetically lead their team is the bedrock of getting this right. I believe that having a technical pedigree as a data leader is vital, it allows me to understand new and emerging concepts more quickly within data. However, less and less of my workload is inherently technical and instead is more people-centric. Therefore, overall success within my teams is more closely tied to me creating both the culture and conditions for my team to achieve.


My final one, which is entwined with EQ is being able to react to failure quickly and properly. I often see throwaway statements in leadership seminars like “fail fast” which I don’t find too useful. Projects can fail at any stage for myriad reasons, it is not practical to compartmentalise the risk of failure to the early project stages. I have witnessed project failure first-hand, but knowing how to deal with that is paramount. As a data leader, my role is to ensure the team and I positively learn from failure and share those lessons with our colleagues to improve future projects collectively.


How did you develop – and continue to develop – your current skills or attributes?


As an Army officer, my leadership development began at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (RMAS), a world-renowned 44-week course that teaches attendees how to lead soldiers; the RMAS motto is “Serve to Lead”. RMAS has served as a strong foundation from which to develop a more personal leadership style which has been shaped by experience and subsequent command and leadership courses. The greatest continual development of my leadership skills is the people within my teams. The Corps of Royal Engineers are home to some of the brightest and adaptable people within the Army, and to lead them you must continue to grow and adapt your leadership style – they are not shy in letting you know if you are getting it wrong.


My technical skills on the other hand were initially developed on my MSc in Geospatial Intelligence at the University of Cranfield. Where the Army truly excels in my opinion is the ability to conduct continuous professional development (CPD). Technical skills in data aren’t always taught on the job, but there are so many funded pathways to improve yourself if you want to do that; importantly this removes some barriers to learning. Funded higher education is one of the ways I have benefitted, but I have also developed myself in more technical fields such as coding and engineering through the Defence Innovation (JHub), Defence Digital, Standing Learning Credits (SLCs), University Short Courses, and The Institute of Royal Engineers (InstRE). I don’t think I can recall any subject I have wanted to learn not being supported by some facet of the Army.


Over the past two years, I have been a digital nomad, working within Defence, government and most recently supporting the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). As much as there is an emphasis on an individual to develop themselves, I have found by diversifying the organisations and teams I have worked with my leadership and technical skills a been significantly improved for the better.

How do you keep pace or stay in touch with your peer group? Do you see it as important to have an active professional network?


I believe it is vitally important to maintain several networks simultaneously, these may be peer groups, professional, sport or just fun. It is hard to remain an active member and engage with them all, but the effort is worth it. My most used network is the group of Army officers that I commissioned into the Royal Engineers with back in 2013; we have a WhatsApp group that is used daily, we have all pursued different specialities within the Army and as a collective, we hold a wealth of accessible experience.


More recently, I became the youngest Fellow of the Institute of Royal Engineers (InstRE) in its 146-year history, this is a professional network rather than a peer network, and most of the Fellows are more senior to me in rank. The Institute aims to advance the art and science of military engineering. The network distributes knowledge through an online knowledge centre, through online events and Fellows’ meetups. Although the most junior member, I have been encouraged to contribute often and have been welcomed into the fold enthusiastically. I think the Institute benefits as much from having me a part of it as I benefit from the experience of those senior to me, as cognitive diversity – of which youth counts – is the key to a successful network.

Luke Parker
has been included in:
  • Future Leaders 2022 (EMEA)