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Intelligence Agency Engineering

Published on: 10 Feb 2020

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Writing code isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when you think of spies, is it? Technologists in UK intelligence are often stereotyped as geeks. People who spend their days hacking into computer systems.

“The reality couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Matt, who looks after Software Engineers at MI5. “Our engineers come from all walks of life and that’s our strength. It means we always approach problems differently and get the best solutions.”

At MI5, we need people as unique as the challenges we face. “Some of my colleagues know exactly how to engineer a system that’ll scale to meet the demands of our users. Others are brilliant at building relationships with our customers. And some are great coaches. We need all these people to be the best we can. We all share one thing – the desire to keep the UK safe, which means we get the best from everyone.

We want to give you an insight into a rewarding engineering career in the UK intelligence community. Because of the sensitivity of our work, we can’t host open days, or go into much detail. But what we can tell you about is what it’s like to work with us and the brilliant opportunities we have.

Who are we?

We are the UK intelligence community. There are three intelligence agencies – GCHQ, MI5, and SIS (otherwise known as MI6). We work together to protect the UK against a huge range of threats.

Technology underpins everything we do. Our missions are so unique that we often can’t buy solutions ‘off-the-shelf’. We have to build software from scratch, and we rely on talented people to do just that.

The variety of work means we can offer a huge range of challenges and opportunities. You could work on data processing and analysis products, or information systems that support investigations. Or you might look at how to bring new innovations into our missions, build platforms or support developer tooling. All of which helps to support and deliver our operational outcomes.

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What does a usual day look like?

Most of the teams work incredibly flexibly, so people will filter in during the morning. There will usually be a stand-up before everyone gets down to their work.

Day-to-day, engineers spend most of their time sat with their teams working on their product backlog. Throughout the day, there may be other meetings, such as intelligence updates. And you’ll spend a lot of time working with customers, helping to refine requirements, demonstrating new functionalities or getting feedback.

It’s a really friendly atmosphere. Everyone gets together for lunch, and a lot of people use the on-site gym. We want everyone to feel involved, so there are always interesting talks from other parts of the organisation. We also encourage a lot of development - you can have meetings with managers, mentors or teams you might want to shadow.

What's in it for me?

We offer you the chance to either specialise in an area or gain some broader experience. There’s lots of variety. Each organisation (MI5, GCHQ and SIS) offer a diverse range of portfolio software products, and you can move between teams to gain different experience. There are even secondment opportunities, where you can work across London, Manchester and Cheltenham. 

We also offer a brilliant work-life balance. And those who come from the commercial world really value this. We offer compressed hours, part time working and job sharing. Laura, a Software Engineer supporting data analysts ‘couldn’t go back to a life without flexi-time’. She says: “Being able to work around my other commitments - and take time in lieu - means I can use my annual leave allowance for holidays. Sometimes I need to stay late to support a major incident, but that rarely happens.”

Development is also a huge part of what we offer. Between the UK intelligence community, we run various development programmes such as internships, apprenticeships and graduate careers. But it doesn’t stop there.

We also provide support for further professional and personal learning - whether that’s through accreditation, online learning, classroom training or conferences. Everyone has got access to those opportunities.  

Laura adds: “You can make your career almost whatever you want it to be. If you want to push yourself to grow, there’s plenty of people who will support you with that.”

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Myth Busting

I can’t tell anyone about my experience, so it’ll affect my future career

Our work is sensitive, but it won’t impact your future career options. We have internal teams to help you construct your CV and describe the work you’ve done. We’ve seen many engineers continue into very successful careers after leaving the intelligence community.

It’s not possible to work from home

Depending on the team, there might be opportunities to work from home. But we usually need engineers to be in the office. The plus is that when you leave the office behind, you also leave your work behind. So, your free time is entirely yours.

Until I join, you can’t tell me anything about the job I’m applying for

A lot of the detail is sensitive, so we can’t tell you everything until you’ve been inducted. But that doesn’t mean we can’t say anything at all. We’ll work with you throughout the recruitment process to give you as much information as we can.

I won’t have time for my family

We’re hugely committed to providing a great work-life balance. You can’t take your work home with you, and we have many flexible working policies. We’re very understanding of family life, so we’ll always try to work with you on any specific needs.

You only take people from the UK’s top universities

Not at all. If you have the passion for engineering and the skills, we’re interested in you. The only way we can do our work is by having people from different backgrounds, with different perspectives. There’s no one ‘type’ of person who works for us. 

It’s dangerous

We do operate in some high-threat areas, but our engineering roles are not classed as dangerous.

Our number one priority is safety. So, we provide detailed training and advice for all of our staff, and lots of support.

If you’re interested in solving technical challenges and have a passion for keeping the country safe, the UK intelligence community is for you. No matter if you’re an apprentice or experienced engineer, we’re interested in your potential.

Find out more about our roles by visiting our careers pages