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Interview

Amanda Price

Business Development Director for Space & Security at Serco Defence


What is your role at Serco, and what do you do on a day-to-day basis?

I'm the Business Development Director for our space business. So on a day-to-day basis, I'm looking for space opportunities that we might be interested in. It sometimes involves preparing bids for opportunities that are put out on Government websites, but more typically, it's shaping propositions. That means thinking about needs in the market and talking to other space companies regarding forming alliances (how we can work together) and talking to various customers around what's going on in their world and what they're thinking. We also think about what the National Space strategy should look like when it's published, and what part we could play in it. 

I also head up the Serco global space community, so I spend quite a lot of time talking to my counterparts in Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, the States, Canada and, more recently, Australia, around space activity in their nations and how we can leverage each other's capability better. I spend a lot of time writing up reference material for bids, explaining what we do in the UK for bids in the US, and I sit on 'Black Hat' reviews, which are effectively technical reviews of propositions and bids that other parts of Serco are working on.

Who do your customers tend to be? Is your work geared more towards agency projects or the military?

In the UK, most of what we're doing in space is military related. That includes space situational awareness at RAF Fylingdales and SATCOM on the Skynet contract, as well as some telecommand work for the US Space Force. But in Europe, virtually everything we do is for ESA, mostly around the Copernicus mission, and we fly a number of the Sentinel satellites. But we also manage all the Copernicus Earth observation data for ESA with around 200,000 registered users, and we work with universities and government departments to try and help them figure out how they can use the observation data for applications that they develop – to realise economic return for their companies and their member state economies. I really like that mixture of the military and civil space worlds and we try to share best practice between them. That can be a bit difficult, because it's relatively straightforward to send some of our defence related space experts to our European space centres, but we can't do it the other way around because of security clearances. However, we are looking at career paths or career maps in terms of common training for our satellite controllers. 

We’re also working on how to use Earth observation application data, which we do all the time from a civil perspective, for the military. And how to share space situational awareness data from the military, with civil spacecraft operators and vice versa. It’s important to remember that space is inherently dual-use, so we all have to work together to figure out across the two sectors how to work more collaboratively.

You originally worked in the defence sector before moving into the space sector - which transferable skills helped you get your current job?

My background is in engineering - I'm a Fellow of the IET - so I've been in and around engineering and science my entire career. Funnily enough, one of my jobs quite early on when I was in my late 20s, when I worked for QinetiQ, was rocket-related. The Defence Minister at the time decided that the rocket ranges in the Outer Hebrides were going to stop being a military range, and ownership would transfer to QinetiQ who would be responsible for trials and evaluation activities for things like air to air missile firing and testing. I was only about three or four years out of university, I suppose, and I got the tap on the shoulder one Thursday to say that there were only 20 working days left before QinetiQ acquired the ranges and could I please lead the acquisition project. So I got sent to the Outer Hebrides to figure out how to do the acquisition, in terms of what that meant for people, technology, building infrastructure and all sorts. So to a degree, my background already was rocket launch because of that experience. From there, I went on to have leadership responsibility for all the UK test and evaluation ranges. That covered responsibility for everything from submarine testing, to small arms and air-to-air missile firing. Many of those skills were directly transferable into the space sector. 

About four years ago, Serco decided that they wanted a Business Development person for Space and advertised the role. Business Development wasn’t something I had done before, and I hadn't been in the core space sector either, although I had all the other core behavioural and experience aspects they were looking for. So the classic female “imposter syndrome” kicked in and I wasn’t going to apply, but I had a really good mentor at the time who told me to look at my skills and my background and convinced me I had all the core competencies to do this - as well as the right personality. So I applied and I got the job, and I absolutely love it. Many core skills are transferable between sectors and if you are interested in the subject area and willing to learn, you can pick it up pretty quickly.

Space is such a fascinating sector. About a month after I started this role I attended the National Space Conference in Manchester, which I hadn't been to before. And that blew my mind. I sat in ‘Pitch to Primes’ presentations about things like asteroid mining, in-orbit servicing and debris removal with harpoons, and I thought, is this stuff for real?! That really sparked my interest, which has only grown after more and more research, thinking around the market and talking to people - everyone in space has been so helpful. I think that is because it is such a groundbreaking sector, people are really happy to talk and are passionate about what they do. There’s so much networking activity that goes on, with things like Space Happy Hour, with people sharing ideas and thoughts about what they're working on and what the art of the possible is. I really like that.

What would you say is the best thing about working in the space sector?

I think it's the passion and energy. You saw it in spades at the NSSC 2021 (National Student Space Conference): that feeling of wanting to get stuff done, wanting to push the boundaries. I also really like the blend of civil and military, even though there’s a definite tension about what space is for and how to sustain it for everyone. Between the military and civil sectors you've got everyone, from people interested in the stars and looking out into deep space to the more immediately practical applications like satcom. The other thing that blew my mind was how little the general population understands how important space is to our daily lives. Everyone thinks of it as this vast nothingness, but it's like the M25 at rush hour and impacts virtually every critical national infrastructure we use on a daily basis.

What has your experience of being a female engineer in the space sector been like? What do you think has to change in the future?

When I studied engineering, only 10% of the students were female. Sadly, it’s now still 10%. And that's despite a huge amount of effort by the engineering institutions to try and attract more women into STEM careers. I think part of the problem is that we don't prime the pump early enough. Virtually every single female engineer I know went to an All Girls school, so for me, that whole interest in STEM needs to start at primary school level, not just at the secondary school level. 

In terms of what it's like working in a male dominated industry: generally speaking, people are really lovely with you, and most of my male colleagues were almost paternalistic, especially early in my career. They're keen to nurture you and look after you. But equally, it can be imposing sometimes. I'm nearly always the only woman in the room in a meeting. Particularly now that I'm at senior level, I will walk into a senior Defence meeting and there'll be 30 people or so in the meeting and I will often be the only woman. Sometimes it can feel intimidating and you have to remind yourself that you deserve to be there and that you equally have something valuable to add to the meeting. It’s a confidence thing sometimes.  Do you open the door a crack and slink in and sit on the chair at the back of the room? Or do you throw open the door and march up to the conference table? Yes, it does take a certain character, but it's not a difficult place to be and it is starting to change.

I'd say the emphasis for every organisation around the world at the moment is on diversity & inclusivity and gender equality issues. In fact, just recently I've launched a Women in Space network in Serco and we hold Lunch and Learn sessions for anyone interested in the sector. I’ve also been asked to be a co-mentor with a member of our Executive Management Team. I can provide him with insights into the lived experience of being in a minority group in our sector and ideas for how we improve that, and he can give some mentoring about how I develop my career and move up to the next level. We are only just starting on that journey but I’m looking forward to it.

What would your advice be to young girls who are thinking of a career in the space sector? 

A key thing would be to find a buddy, reach out for a mentor - someone that you can bounce ideas off and have a chat with. Having a mentor, a friendly face, can really help. Having a senior mentor or even better a sponsor also helps as they can make introductions for you and flag up opportunities you might not be aware of.  Don’t be shy to ask someone senior to be your mentor - most people are really flattered to be asked and like to give something back to the industry that has given them a successful career. I’d also say join a women in the workplace network like Women in Aerospace or Women in Defence. Most of them hold regular networking events and talks and they are a great way to share experiences, build your network and expand your knowledge of the sector. 

Research shows that to get on in your career there are three key factors for success. One is your personal performance, basically how good you are at doing your day-to-day job. One is your personal brand, in terms of how you come across to others. And the third one is visibility. The surprising thing is that your performance only contributes 10%, your personal brand is worth 30%, and your visibility is 60%. Now that's something that everybody should think about, but for women in particular, we tend not to put ourselves forward for opportunities as much as men, we don't talk much about our successes or we tend not to have senior female leaders in the room sponsoring us for opportunities so we lose out on the visibility part. We tend to focus on performance, always worrying about having to be better than our male peers, to be seen to keep up. So part of career success is just being aware of that and putting yourself out there a bit more. And that's why I really like the UKSEDS community because you can see that enthusiasm and engagement from everybody involved.

What piece of advice would you give your younger self?

Network more - it goes back to that visibility piece. My husband was forever asking why I wasn't applying for the 'Most Influential Women Under 30'  with the IET, volunteering more, and getting involved with things like UKSEDS etc. But I was shy and like many women, my inner ‘imposter syndrome’  (yes, it really is a thing – google it) sometimes held me back and I’d question if I was worthy to be nominated for an award. And I really wish I'd been more forward leaning earlier. Who knows where that would have led? There is a regular saying that “You have to see it, to want to be it” – and we all have a responsibility to help showcase STEM roles and how awesome they are.

What would you say to somebody who's close to finishing school and thinking about their future career: how would you encourage them to go and work in the space sector?

I think Space is a growth sector at the moment, and it's becoming more and more important to society. It’s a varied and exciting sector, with lots of different things going on. And space projects are important to society, which is great in terms of vocational value and satisfaction. And then there are the international aspects of it. If you want to travel or you want to be able to meet people from other cultures and different areas, then space is a really good career for doing that. 

I chose to study engineering originally because when I was at school, it was the 1980’s and there were well over 4 million people unemployed in the UK. My dad told me that engineers were like undertakers – there would always be work for them to do. And he was right!

Do you see the international cooperation aspect of space activities continuing in the future? Or do you think individual nations are going to want to work alone more frequently?

I think it's going to be both, to be honest. I think there is definitely a soft power aspect to space, that notion of flying the flag or the amazing “we put a human being on the moon” type of national pride aspect is definitely still out there. Having said that, by its very nature space is international, as it isn’t “owned” by any one nation and it will require international collaboration to keep it sustainable for all of us.

I think there's some really interesting activity going to happen in the next few years around norms and behaviours in space - space treaties, policies and legislation. I think it's going to be fascinating to watch, and very necessary. And unfortunately I suspect some geopolitics is going to play out through that over the next few years too.

What is also interesting is the role of nations vs commercial corporations in Space. Commercial entities will carry out their space related activity wherever is most economically advantageous for them to do so. Nations are very aware of that in setting up their business environments and regulations, to try and attract inward investment. Space skills will also follow where the work goes. The new space race is as much about jobs and inward investment as it is about national prestige.

Where do you see the future of the space sector taking us? Which developments are you most excited about?

For me it's the art of the possible: the Earth is optimised and perfect for human beings to live on, and arguably humankind has spent decades damaging it from an environmental perspective, particularly with regards to manufacturing. But space is the perfect place for manufacturing - it’s practically a clean room. Do I think it'll happen in my lifetime? Probably not. But then again, iPads have only been around for 10 years and look at how they’ve revolutionised the world. So that ability to manufacture stuff, and mine stuff out in space is enormously exciting, but it's also worrying. Because if you think about what we've done to our planet, I hate to think that in the rush to move activity into space, we don’t think about the sustainability of space and other worlds as well. 

I also think that the Internet of Things, enabled by space data and space broadband, is going to revolutionise the world as well. Even with Earth observation, when you look at what you can do with some of that - it's exciting, but scary: the thought that somebody can be watching me sunbathe in the garden and tell if I’ve watered my lawn during a hosepipe ban via a spacelink is rather difficult from a civil liberties point of view. But equally, the ability to monitor our weather systems and the health of the planet has already improved food productivity; aided disaster response planning and helped us understand better the causational relationships between different aspects of our environment. There's some really exciting stuff going on. 

At the beginning of activities in space, it was very much driven by military activities in space which then led to science and exploration following. Do you see that changing now with the advent of more commercial companies doing business in space? Or do you still think that the military is going to be driving the sector forwards?

I think it'll be civil-driven. We're already seeing it: space used to be the purview of national state actors, but is now being led by billionaires, a bit like the railways were back in the Victorian age. The analogy that always springs to mind is Captain Cook. He went out exploring new worlds, mapping as he went to see what was there, and how natural resources could be used as he discovered these new worlds. He was a Royal Navy captain, but he had botanists on board and all sorts of other subject matter experts. So although the exploration mission was military-driven, it was also thinking about what the economic prosperity benefit for the nation could be. I think space is very much like that at the moment. Space exploration and usage is inherently dual use.

Different nations are taking different approaches. If you look at something like military SATCOM: at the moment, we have dedicated SATCOM satellites but you could choose to buy public broadband off a multitude of commercial operators, or put military payload on a civil satellite. But the danger then is that the civil satellites become a target. And would a commercial operator who spent billions designing, building and launching a network really want to become a target because they've got some military traffic on it? There are some interesting approaches, and China and its space sector are very much about both the military and civil aspects. It's driven by civil aspects and economic benefit but with a military presence there - it's creating a military benefit by having a strong civil space sector. I hope that we're going to see that thinking about space from both a military and civil perspective here in the UK with the two entities working together, and I think we already are. We've got Air Vice-Marshal Harv Smyth and Air Vice Marshal Paul Godfrey from Space Directorate in MoD and Space Command, but we've also got a matching UK Space Agency and a Space Directorate in BEIS. So it's like a four legged stool: they're going to have to work together to best effect because otherwise everyone's looking for their share of the same resources in terms of people and budget. I think you're going to see a sort of "buy one get one free" type of approach, where military uses civil  assets much more often and vice versa.

What’s your space-related career highlight?

The most recent one that springs to mind was the Space Schools week Serco recently sponsored and organised for three schools in Kent, We brought together speakers from UK Space Command, BEIS/UKSA, and UKSEDS – with amazing teaching from the National Space Centre and even had Tim Peake join us for a guest lecture. Seeing the kids (and their parents!) get excited, passionate and enthusiastic about the subject was a really great thing to be part of and we are looking to do more of them next year. Wish I’d seen the demonstration of thermodynamics laws explained at Uni with a syringe, a marshmallow and some warm water. It would have saved me three months of angst!

Author

Thomas Woelker-Darley

Thomas is a graduate of the University of Bath (MEng in Mechanical Engineering).

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