Women in Digital: Helen Wall

Helen Wall, Head of National Transformation, International & Research Group, Government Digital Service (GDS) reveals her career path to date, the best advice she’s ever been given, and the greatest tech-based challenges we face today.

Posted 1 November 2021 by Christine Horton

Did you enjoy school?

I did. I went to a grammar school in Birmingham in the 90s and the friends I made there are still my best friends now. We have a pretty impressive alumni from my immediate year groups including MPs, MDs of big companies, acclaimed writers, campaigners and a surprising amount of us ended up in Whitehall. Before anyone talked about things like “mind sets”, the teaching staff would tell us that as long as we worked hard we would succeed and I think that has held us all strong.

What qualifications do you have?

I have an undergraduate degree in Political Science and History, and a couple of Cambridge University diplomas I did whilst on the Mountbatten Internship in New York, but I also have a thing for online learning. I really enjoy the new short courses provided by collaborations of universities and businesses on everything from behaviour change to sustainability.

Has your career path been a smooth transition, a rocky road or a combination of both?

It’s felt rocky but when I look back it makes sense. I took a leap from communications and campaigns leaving the Number 10 Downing Street Campaigns team to join Government Digital Service and the world of digital transformation. It was a steep learning curve, but I also found I brought lots to the table with a knack of translating complex digital concepts into digestible chunks for senior teams and organisations.

What is the best career advice you can give to others?

Worry less about the ladder and focus more on what you enjoy working on. I’ve found that when I’ve sought validation from a promotion it’s never been as satisfying as when I’ve been knee deep with a great team delivering a gnarly programme. I particularly enjoy building brilliant multidisciplinary teams and that feeds my confidence in what I do and gives me pleasure and pride in the knowledge that my work and my team’s are having an impact.

If you had to pick one mentor, that had the biggest influence on you, who would it be?

I have to cheat and mention two women, who gave me the gift of their time, patience and wisdom. Stephanie Ayres, who coached me through public consultancy days at APCO UK working in the world of defence and aerospace. She showed me the power to walk into any situation and own my value. Then Tiffany St James, who was my line manager at Directgov, and has since been voted one of the top 25 women who have shaped the British digital industry. She gave me permission to always, always, ask a lot of questions.

From where do you draw inspiration?

I’ve been working with smaller regional organisations for the last three years and I am constantly bowled over by the innovation, collaboration and leaps of faith that small budgets, lean teams and tightly crossed fingers can produce. It reminds me that it’s the people not the power that enable change.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced to date?

A couple of years ago I was asked to lead a transformation change programme where the delivery and operations teams had not been engaged. It was a very humbling experience and taught me not just how hard it is for leadership to enable change but how scary and difficult it can be for the teams going through it. I learnt a lot of valuable lessons the hard way.

What qualities do you feel makes a good leader?

The leaders I’ve thrived with have been visible, accessible and responsive. If I feel I have a champion who will fight my corner, lets me reach out to them when I need, and who consults with me on decisions then it inspires me to focus and builds my sense of worth within a team. One of my favourite leaders would WhatsApp me, “Hey, I’m meeting so and so… anything you need? anything you want me to mention”. He saw his role as enabling mine and in turn I did some great work for him. I try to follow this example and focus on what I can do to clear the way for teams to deliver.

From a work viewpoint what has the last 12 months been like?

12 months ago was perhaps some of the most intense where I was running a super varied portfolio of teams for a diverse range of regional and central government stakeholders. Coming into the new version of business as usual has given us the time to check in on each other about ways of working and what new priorities look like. Some things have changed but demand for service improvement and a desire for collaboration remains at the top of most public sector bodies wish list.

What would you say are the biggest tech-based challenges we face today?

Investment for digital is likely to be squeezed across the whole public sector in this post Covid world. That’s going to build technical debt and compound problems building digital capability. There is already some great work to recruit digital roles outside of London and GDS is playing a strong role in ensuring digital in government is representative of the UK, but I think that there will need to be stronger, more open and transparent public/private partnerships to help push us to evergreen solutions.

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