Women in Digital: Olivia Neal

Olivia Neal, director of Microsoft’s Public Sector Center of Expertise, talks about her career to date, moving countries and how working in the UK Civil Service has prepared her for her new role

Posted 7 March 2022 by Christine Horton

Did you enjoy school?

Almost always, yes. I grew up in the countryside and went to a tiny village primary school with just 40 pupils. We then moved house, and I started at a large secondary school, with 1800 people – where I didn’t know anyone. I was always quite outgoing, but that transition taught me how to make friends in a large, new environment.

I love to read and learn, and it won’t surprise any who knows me to learn that I was Head Girl (or ‘Principal Student’ as we called it) at my Secondary School.

I had some fantastic and committed teachers, and I am lucky to have parents who cared about education and supported me – but overall the school I went to struggled. The year I did my GCSEs only one third of students got 5 A-Cs.

What qualifications do you have?

When I was choosing A-level subjects I was told that 50 percent of jobs required a degree, but not in a specific subject. I had no idea what careers were out there, so I chose subjects I love. I studied English Literature, Philosophy and History at A-level; and read International History and Politics at the University of Leeds.

I joined the UK Civil Service Fast Stream straight from university and have been learning on the job all the time since then.

And it’s not technically a qualification, but I’m proud that while I worked for the Government of Canada, I passed the French exams that are required for Executive positions there. I spent two years doing intensive daily French lessons from 7am to 9am. The language support I was given was fantastic and I’m very grateful for it, especially as I now live in Quebec, which is a unilingual (French-only) province in Canada.

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

I’m someone who enjoys new experiences, and so I’ve made a number of moves in my career, but it has always felt like I’ve been following a common thread.

When I look at potential new roles, I look at two elements: 1. subject matter 2. team or organisation. Every time I take a new role I look for the opportunity to keep one of those things the same, and do something different with the other, so that I’m building on knowledge I’ve got, and learning something new.

The opportunities the UK Civil Service Fast Stream gave me were foundational in how I work and lead now. For example, at the age of 22 I was managing tax offices for HMRC in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. Most of the offices were being closed down and I had to make these announcements, and then support and lead staff whose lives would be changing dramatically. Many of these people had been working at the same desk longer than I’d been alive. It’s the hardest job I’ve done, and the one I’ve learned the most from.

Working in the Government Digital Service was a pivotal time for me, and where I found an area of work which I could see making people’s lives easier, and dealings with Government better. I will always feel privileged to have been in an organisation that was relentlessly committed to improving services for people, and I learned from world experts in tech, design, user research and content who were there.

As part of my role I started taking on more international engagements, supporting other countries who wanted to replicate the UK’s work. I met some Canadians at one of these events, and six months later had arranged a secondment to Ottawa. I spent three years in the Government of Canada, and fell in love with the area. Wanting to stay in Canada, but recognising that I’d never worked in the private sector and wanting to broaden my experience, I joined Microsoft’s Worldwide Public Sector team – where I am today.

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

Take the opportunities which scare you. That’s how you get out of your comfort zone, learn new things and grow.

Build your network and maintain it. You can’t force relationships, but if you value the people you work with then you’ll find the people you can rely on long term, and who can rely on you.

Your career is long. Try new things. It’s ok if they don’t work out, but maybe they will, and you’ll head in a new and more satisfying direction.

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

There are a series of people who’ve had faith in me, or pushed me to do new things, who I’m very grateful for. It’s impossible to pick one.

One thing which has really helped me, in a couple of difficult career moments, has been having a professional coach. I was connected with a wonderful coach who was experienced, empathetic and challenging in the best way, and the UK Civil Service supported me to work with her. Taking an hour or more to talk solely about myself felt almost unbearably uncomfortable at first, but it really helped me know more about myself and make the right decisions for me.

From where do you draw inspiration?

One of the things which I love most about working in and with the public sector is that there are always people out there trying to solve the same problems, and there’s so much to learn. I run a podcast called Public Sector Future where leaders from around the world are sharing their stories of digital transformation – and I feel so lucky that talking to them is part of my job!

What is the biggest challenge you have faced to date?

I’ve made two big moves in my career – one was geographical, when I moved to Canada to work for the Government of Canada; and the other was leaving government to work in the private sector for Microsoft.

The biggest challenge with both of these has been building up a network from scratch – finding the people I can count on as allies, people I can call with questions. Building those relationships is something I try to consciously do, and it’s been particularly important (and challenging) during COVID where there’s been no conversations on the sidelines of meetings or impromptu coffees.

What qualities do you feel makes a good leader?

Clarity, vision, having your team’s back.

From a work viewpoint what has the last 12-24 months been like?

Full of opportunity. Microsoft have been fantastic in trusting me to move forward a project I’m passionate about with the Public Sector Center of Expertise.

But honestly, sometimes working remotely through the pandemic has been lonely. There comes a point where I think we all miss getting energy from others. I work with very smart and lovely global colleagues, and I’ve never yet met any of them in person. I’m desperate to be able to do that.

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

I believe the biggest challenges are in our understanding and use of technology, rather than in the tech itself. There’s a real danger that I’ve seen frequently that in the public sector there’s much more focus given to the risk of change, and not enough to the risk of status quo. We’ve seen some dramatic shifts in culture and understanding over the pandemic, and we need to make sure we don’t slip back from that.

Give us a fact about you that most other people wouldn’t know.

I’m embracing all the Canadian activities – skating, cross country skiing, snowshoeing. When we couldn’t leave the province during lockdown my husband and I did a five-day canoe camping trip with no mobile signal and where we saw no one else for the entire time.