Syranno Baines

Digital and Communications Officer

Part of UK in Jamaica

4th March 2013 British High Commission, Kingston, Jamaica

Women in the Foreign Office: Heather Cowley

In the lead up to International Women’s Day, we are featuring the stories of women who work with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Meet Heather Cowley – she’s a Rapid Deployment Team and Cryptographic Support Officer who provides invaluable technical expertise to keep our FCO IT systems secure and enable our diplomats to keep in touch across the world.

The Rapid Deployment Team have been to the region 10 times in 10 years, most recently: St Lucia, November 2010; Chile, February 2010; Haiti, January 2010 and Cuba, September 2008.

Heather Cowley
Heather Cowley

The ability to set up mobile satellite communications in a field isn’t something that springs to mind immediately as a skill required for diplomats, but it is something I find myself talking to people about a lot. And my ‘day’ job can sometimes mean these conversations take place in the middle of the night, which isn’t always great for my sleep patterns, but I wouldn’t trade it.

As part of my job, I provide technical support for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Rapid Deployment Teams.

These are teams of diplomats with particular skills who are deployed to consular crises at short notice. They can end up anywhere in the world and we are never sure what equipment they’ll have access to – they have ended up in a field by the airport in Haiti in tents, or working from an embassy, hotel or airport.

I make sure they have the equipment needed to do their job, packed up and ready to go at any time. This involves mobile satellite kits and phones, secure laptops and a range of other items so they have the ability to set up office anywhere they need to.

The teams in the field need to be able to set up kit themselves and while it is designed to be easy, conditions don’t always make it that way. Each team has a Technical Support Officer, TSO, who is in charge of ensuring the kit and the operational aspect of the deployment run as smoothly as possible.

I have a great team for this role and I pride myself that we are adaptable and resilient. I provide 24/7 technical support for this officer when a technical fix is needed – this can be stressful for the team as time is often crucial and conditions basic.

I often find myself needing to provide a technical fix on the run or coming up with ideas on work-rounds – this has included following the Costa Concordia sinking last year, during which we had a team deployed to help 37 British people stranded when the ship ran aground.

I had to help the TSO get the communications up and running to help the team on the ground to get every British National home safely.

When I left school at 18, I always had an interest in engineering and wanted to find a job which challenged me and gave me the opportunity to travel the world. I joined FCO Services – which provides support to FCO and Partners across Government around the world – as a technical apprentice in 2003, completing my apprenticeship in 2006.

Since then, I have been involved in technical cabling installations and IT networking, as well as my current role.

The other part of my job includes cryptography – which involves ensuring that the FCO’s IT and communications systems are kept secure. I configure and maintain all the cryptographic equipment for the FCO, FCO Services and partners across Government. I’m lucky enough that my job has taken me to interesting places like Madrid, Kigali and Tel Aviv – but it is often a flying visit.

I have to say I’m still in a minority as a female technician in this area, but I hope that I can inspire more women to join and make a career within the FCO and wider government.

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