I recently attended a luncheon in the Private Dining room at the Guildhall organised by the City Livery Club of which I am a member. The format of the meeting was different from the usual after lunch speaker. Instead it is called Face to Face and the speaker is interviewed by a senior member of the club, on this occasion the Junior Vice President Alderman Emma Edhem.
Sally Walker spent 25 years in the national security community, 16 years of which were in the senior civil service in various crisis management and military support roles. A civilian graduate of the Higher Command and Staff Course at Shrivenham, her final job in government was to design and deliver the National Cyber Force, as Director Cyber for GCHQ and in full partnership with the Ministry of Defence. She also had joint responsibility for the National Offensive Cyber Programme, led many aspects of the UK’s partnership with US Cyber Command, and was GCHQ’s diversity champion for over a decade.
She was the first female director of GCHQ, the UK’s intelligence agency, where she created and headed up the National Cyber Force. She was one of very few women working at the spy agency when she joined in the 1990s, so she also became GCHQ’s diversity champion and currently delivers women in leadership programmes for a range of FTSE 100 clients.
In her role as ‘Director Cyber’, she led teams supporting military operations in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan and was in charge of cyber security operations for the London 2012 Olympic Games. Her final years in the job were spent masterminding the creation of the National Cyber Force, which Boris Johnson said last year would transform the UK’s cyber capabilities to disrupt adversaries and keep the UK safe.
She is a founding member of Human Digital Thinking, and also board advisor and non-executive director at workforce technology platform WithYouWithMe
, a social impact firm which helps armed forces veterans and their partners find meaningful work in the cyber field after they leave the military.
When she joined GCHQ you didn’t even talk about the fact you worked there, much less who you worked for. I asked her about this as my mother’s sister, Aunt Sheila, when scarcely out of school, was recruited during the War to work at Bletchley Park. None of us knew anything about this until when we attended her funeral we were shown a letter she had received from Gordon Brown when he was Prime Minister thanking her for her service. I asked Sally why this had to be secret. I understood that Sheila would not be able to talk about what she was doing but why could she not even say where she had worked when the War was over. Sally thought it a good question and told me that Sheila must have come from a good family. I told her that she did go on to marry a vicar at which everyone laughed.
Sally told us that when she joined the civil service in the mid-90s her bosses were straight (otherwise you couldn’t hold a security clearance), and almost exclusively white, middle class, middle income, highly educated and usually introverted. There were no married women in the senior management structure. Her male bosses were very surprised when she married and then had children and they clearly expected her to stand down but she held firm and went on to take very senior roles. There was no maternity policy at that level. She said that keeping secrets from her family 'came at a cost'.
Sally signed the official secrets act upon starting her work with GCHQ and, as such, cannot easily explain what she did for a living. She says the most straightforward answer is that she was responsible for developing “the national tools and instruments that will enable us to fight the next war effectively”. A big part of that was finding the right people. “It was encouraging talent and finding those people who don’t know how good they are and giving them safe boundaries to operate in,” she said. ‘My sons didn’t know anything about what I did.’
She said: “The job is a huge responsibility. That community work tirelessly 24/7 to keep us safe and take a huge burden and responsibility on their shoulders and they’re a tight-knit community for good reason, because they can’t share those burdens and responsibilities with their friends and families.”
She also said she is proud that after her tenure in the role, the agency is much more diverse and representative of the community it aims to protect.
While it was clear that she could not answer all our questions she was quite direct on occasion. For example, Emma asked her where the next war would take place. She immediately said “Taiwan.”