’10-Minute Chat’ is a series of interviews talking with extraordinary ‘normal’ people navigating interesting careers, living remarkable lives and following their passions.
M is a dazzling young woman working in intelligence. Her job is to scrutinise and assist in the operational apprehension of individual crooks as well as international crime gangs.
She cut her investigative teeth within the police force for 3 years and is the closest person to a real-life spy that I’ll ever know about.
We met for coffee a few months ago to chat about her career so far and what working in British intelligence is like. Obviously, her name has been changed and she could only be vague with details for security reasons (so cool).
Initially, M didn’t even think about breaking into the world of intelligence and like most people, found herself Googling ‘interesting jobs’ in a bid to find work after finishing up at uni (she studied history).
*There’s a pause while she swallows a mouthful of teacake*
‘ It was my mum who saw a job with the police, and I thought this sounds really cool. I went for an interview, got that, smashed that, and then spent a few years there. ’
M went in as an Intelligence Researcher for the police. But the opportunity to develop her career within this role was limited. The next rung on that ladder was Intelligence Analyst – a highly covetable and often rare role within her industry, as the skills that are taught are so valuable. She decided that the only way she was going to move forward in her career was switching organisations.
M starts from the beginning and goes through what type of person you need to be to work in intelligence.
‘ You’ll have to look at lots of information and be able to pick out really key points about someone to determine what kind of person they are and why they might commit the types of crimes they commit. You need understand trends in their behaviour or in the pieces of data in front of you…You have to keep looking at small details as though they are going to be a clue to something bigger and thinking about details in two ways. It’s quite a skill and it’s taken me a long while to learn.
When I first started, I’d do a task, hand the results in, do another task, hand the results in and then do another task. People would say ‘But what does that tell you? What does it show you? What recommendations can you make from that?’ And I’d be like ‘Oh. I don’t know.’ So you have to train yourself to think ‘Why is this, this? ’
‘So is it like profiling?’ I asked, picturing the dozens of American crime shows I’ve binged on over the years.
‘ No. That kind of training is only specifically for profilers. In my role, you can’t say for definite, anything about anyone but you can give recommendations to give other officers a steer on where to go. As an intelligence officer, you can give them [Editor’s note: as in people on the frontline of fighting crime] an idea on who someone is and the best way to go about preventing them from committing a crime.’
Surprisingly, M paints a picture of how heavily female-dominated the intelligence industry is. She gesticulates wildly, reckoning it’s because women are naturally inquisitive and have the inclination to want to find out everything about someone, like insta-stalking an ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend for example. [Editors note: 100% both sexes do this- maybe girls are more honest about it?]
‘ If you’re a snooper (like me) you’ll be absorbed looking in and at other people’s lives… I love looking into people’s lives. Being given one little bit of detail and then at the end of a day or two I’ve built up a whole picture of someone’s life. That’s really interesting.
In my old job in our office, it was probably 85% women. In my job now, it’s a much smaller office, there’s two men there and six or seven women. The same kind of percentage. ‘
On the reverse, the operational side of crime-fighting is predominantly male she said. I go for a well-trodden question, ‘What about sexism? Have you experienced it within this world?’
‘ I haven’t come across any. Anyone who comes into my office doesn’t automatically go to the men to ask a question. They might do a bit more at the moment as the men that are there have been there longer and know more.
But I don’t think it’s a question of I’m not being asked because I’m a woman. If you’re used to working in a more female environment that intelligence kind of has, you wouldn’t think twice about going to a woman to ask a question. The issue is more your capability in helping the investigation or not. I’m sure there’s been some but I haven’t come across any. ‘
And as for role models in her industry M looks up to the head of her organisation.
‘ I’ve not met her personally but I’ve seen her talk. She’s really good at commanding a room and seeming like she really cares about what she’s doing. She’s passionate and she’s driven to implement the changes she’s put forward.
She’s a good talker. She comes across as confident. But not like a woman trying too hard to be taken seriously, she’s taken seriously because you respect her. She’s friendly and is approachable. That’s the kind of person I’d want to be if I was in a position of responsibility. ‘
M lights up talking me through her day to day tasks and that the changing nature of her work is always interesting. Her hands are animated again explaining that one minute she could be working on a sexual assault, the next it could be a burglary or drugs; she claims she rarely has a dull day with not much to do.
‘ I work a standard 8-4, but due to the dynamic nature of the work, I am expected to be flexible.
I might go in at 8am and expect to be leaving at 4pm but then they need me and I’ll be staying until 2am the following morning.
You do get paid overtime for it which helps, as it can be pretty tiring at the end of the day, concentrating for long periods of time.
Your well being is monitored though so you don’t end up overdoing it. If you’re struggling they’ll tell you to stop or ask if are you ok to do an overnight and it’s fine if you’re not, you don’t have to. ‘
I enquire what a ‘good day’ and a ‘bad day’ looks like for her. She replies that they are actually one of the same – the worst days are the most exciting and leave her feeling fulfilled having helped defuse a potentially dangerous situation.
‘ It can get really hectic. You could have a firearms incident for example. It gets very high pressure. Potentially, you’re helping to save someone’s life which is going to have bad consequences if it goes wrong. Those kinds of days (which doesn’t happen very often) get intense and even though it’s not solely down to you, your effort does make a huge difference. That’s quite a full on day. ‘
‘And what about mistakes, have you made any?’ I pry, realising as soon as I’ve asked, that even if she had ballsed-up she wouldn’t tell me anyway. M is completely honest though.
‘ Not any like big mistakes. I don’t really make that many mistakes! Haha. I obviously get little things wrong occasionally but I can’t think of anything I’ve done where I’ve thought oh my god, you shouldn’t have done that, that’s caused a problem.
…The pressure and consequences of making a mistake are huge compared to your ‘normal office job’. You’re dealing with safety and people’s lives, you don’t want to have a big slip up because of the big consequences, it can be a little bit stressful. ’
Good to know the nation’s security is in safe hands.
And what if M wasn’t doing what she was doing. What if she could swap jobs with anyone in the world.
‘ In the world? ’
In the world
‘ I’d be a professional tennis player. I’d be Serena Williams. I’ve always really enjoyed tennis and I’d love to up my game and have the confidence that they have to do what they do. I don’t feel like I’d ever had that enough confidence to push myself to do something like that. ‘
I push for her to expand on what she means by not having enough confidence. As battling baddies, every day takes having a lot of confidence in your abilities from where I’m sitting.
‘ Because if you’re going to be on the world stage you have to develop a really thick skin and ignore everyone making their comments and opinions about you all the time and I’d read all those awful comments that people say ‘Oh she’s not doing very well at the moment’ ‘Oh she’s looking a bit fat’ I wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning reading those. ‘
Shaking my fist here at you Daily Mail comments section.
From what she’s told me so far, it appears the love of her job is a massive motivator. This kind of priority shift is something that is more likely to be found within the millennial generation. I put this thought to her and she comes back with a conflicted answer that she wouldn’t completely sacrifice happiness for a job. However, she explains that if it came down to it between a job that she loved but didn’t pay very much and a job that was OK but paid more, she would pick the latter to feel more financially secure.
‘ If I had a partner and wasn’t on my own, then maybe I would think differently as they would be there with a level of support. As a single woman living in Surrey, I feel like you have to make concessions. But perhaps for a lot of people, it’s not as important. ‘
My fascination with her job leads me to ask what the impact of doing what she does has her on her mental health. From my narrow perspective, being a civilian who is living in almost blissful ignorance is being exposed to the darker side of humanity a hard place to come back from every day for the people in M’s position.
‘ When I first started I was a little paranoid as you are exposed to a new world of crime – especially things like burglaries that are quite prevalent. But after a while, you become more realistic about it and it just kind of just went away. I think if you worked on something like child exploitation the chances of mental taxation would be far greater but you just have to make sure you look after your health.
…You don’t really see anything too horrific too often. It definitely makes me feel more aware but in a way, it also makes me feel better. ’
Looking back at her younger self M talks about her first job at a local sports shop where crippling shyness almost got her fired. She’s regularly made comments in this interview about her lack of confidence but realises how far she’s actually come.
‘ I just couldn’t speak to any of the customers. I felt so out of my comfort zone. I had never been trained to speak to people on a professional level.
I wasn’t a blagger. Management then got me on the phone for a spell talking to customers and that helped massively. I suppose it’s kind of the same from when I started my police job. I’ve improved since then and I’ll go on to improve at this job. ‘
‘And if you could give your 18 year-old-self career advice now, what would you say to her?’ I ask.
‘ Be more confident in interviews. In the police when interviewing people for jobs, I was amazed at how many people undersell themselves. So I would say be more ballsy to achieve what you want. I think being more assertive and confident is not a bad thing. If you think there’s a better way to do something then say it. One of my problems is I’m too scared of confrontation to make myself noticed.
I know myself quite well and I’m never going to be a top, top, top achiever. I just have too much anxiety think about things too much and worry about things too much that I could never lead something or get to the high positions of the women I’ve admired.’
But M says her confidence and anxiety is something she’s constantly working on. Her tips include giving herself regular pep talks, reminding herself that she is smart, capable and successful at a lot of things.
‘ … Plus my lavender oil helps a lot! ’
You go girl.
Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.