Stephen Southern, Senior Technical Architect, shares his career journey through his different roles at DWP, highlighting the importance of the data in transforming services.
I joined DWP way back in the hot summer of 2003; Beyoncé and Jay-Z were top of the charts with ‘Crazy in Love’ and Pirates of the Caribbean was the must-see movie at the cinema. Back then we were still receiving data on tapes quarterly and it took 3 whole months to load, process and publish.
Improving how we use data in DWP Digital
In the 17 years since then, I’ve held many interesting roles in DWP always looking to improve our ways of working with data.
In my previous role, I supported the Data Science function within the DWP Data and Analytics directorate. Data is at the heart of every digital service at DWP and the primary role of this function is to collect data from the many systems across the organisation. The data is then transformed, cleansed and loaded into a central Data Warehouse from where it’s used to deliver reports, analysis and statistics to DWP, other government departments and also to the public.
I recently moved into the Health and Working Age directorate, where I work in digital delivery of the Health Transformation Programme. DWP supports over 2 million disabled people who apply for health-related benefits every year. This programme is transforming that service, putting claimants at the heart and seeking to offer the best possible experience.
For the first time, I’ve been given the opportunity to build a data solution that will directly influence, inform and enhance a customer facing service through intelligent use of data, and make a positive impact on citizens.
What we’re working to deliver
My team in the Health programme is made up of expert data engineers, data analysts and data scientists. This is a domain-aligned team working close to the source. It’s what we might define as a ‘full-stack data team’.
My role as a technical architect is to enable the team by designing and delivering a source-aligned modern data platform. Using the latest industry-leading Microsoft Azure cloud data technologies, this platform will allow us to easily handle any velocity, volume and variety of data. This will enable us to deliver domain-oriented data solutions direct to the Health programme.
We provide rapid reporting so teams can quickly identify how their development changes are impacting their service. We also apply data science to improve services through the development and introduction of embedded analytics.
There will of course always be the need for enterprise level reporting, where additional non-health data is required. To serve this requirement, our platform will relay health domain data forward to the existing central Data and Analytics service where it will be augmented for cross-cutting reporting and analysis.
We’re building the health node on the DWP Data Mesh, but that is just the technical side of the story. There is also the human side and in some cases that can be harder, as people tend to react differently to change – computers don’t seem to mind.
A culture shift for data in DWP
By introducing this solution in the health programme, we’re initiating a massive culture shift from the way we’ve worked with data for many years in DWP.
This was easy in Data and Analytics, where everyone is passionate about data and talking data is welcome and expected. But in my new team things are a little different. There’s an understanding that data is important, however not everyone understands why or sees the link on how it can make a difference to their own work and more importantly to our customers.
Communicating our vision
In addition to architecting the technical solution, a big part of my role is to communicate it to my colleagues, making it simple to understand and demonstrating where my work and value fits into the function’s wider vision.
In normal times, this wouldn’t be too hard a task. I’d put together a presentation, invite people into one of our conference rooms to share it and explain what the team and myself are doing and answer any questions. I’d possibly also take the presentation to other hubs and teams to spread the message wider. However, we’re not in normal times! Opportunities to get together in person are becoming a distant memory, so like everyone I’ve had to adapt.
I’ve made good use of the communication technologies available to me, using Teams, Skype and Slack to get to know people. I’ve even managed to build a diverse network of colleagues across my new team, despite social distancing.
I’ve also been able to use these technologies and other collaboration tools such as Miro to share, demonstrate, get feedback and support with my work.
Working virtually, I’ve still been able to broaden my own understanding, critically in health domain specific technology and architecture, but also in the product and delivery areas. These functions were emerging in Data and Analytics but are very much mature and established in Health, with a small army of delivery and product experts on-hand.
Data and product thinking convergence is something we always worked towards in the Data and Analytics data science team and now in the Health programme it’s the foundation of all the work we deliver.
Adapting to the new ways of working
I’ll end by saying these are strange times we’re all living through, but DWP Digital’s open community spirit has made the transition to this new way of working very easy.
There are people that I’m working with on a daily basis and have built a close working relationship over past few months. I know about their partners, children and even pets and they ask me about how my family are doing – but these are colleagues I’ve yet to meet face-to-face. It’s going to be an amazing team night out when this is all over.
If you’re looking to begin your career in Data, then take a look at DWP Digital Careers site and see what opportunities we have available.
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