Intelligence sector careers – advice for knowledge-workers

Below is career advice for teenagers considering “knowledge work” in the intelligence sector. That includes intelligence-led policing, commercial intelligence, defence & security, political, and especially environmental intelligence. It’s office-based work.

We’re talking about knowledge workers, not the executive and field roles. And we’re definitely not talking about spies. Although watching for spies is something everyone in the sector learns – even when your job is to protect the environment.

Also included below is advice relating to the future of work, technology and mental well-being. They were created for short videos I made for Chipkoo Junior (, a service to help kids learn to thrive in the digital world. I’ve modified them slightly here, for the intelligence sector.

Stock photo, representing someone with a career in the intelligence sector
Your office may look very different to this … [Adobe stock photo]

The intelligence sector careers include environmental intelligence

The intelligence sector covers a broad spectrum of areas, and its expanding. We’ll be seeing very rapid growth in environmental intelligence. Saving the planet needs accurate intelligence about where the damage is occurring, who is breaking legal agreements, and how it can be improved.

Are there spies in environmental intelligence? Certainly. There are industries with much to loose, there are criminals set on exploiting subsidies, there are governments competing with each other, and there are vociferous deniers grabbing at information that they can distort.

Knowledge-based roles

Here’s a simple view of the knowledge-based roles that exist in the intelligence sector:

  • Collection specialists, who use the highly sophisticated systems that process raw intelligence.
  • Data analysts and Artificial Intelligence experts, who build the “machines” for searching for clues among the ginormous amounts of data. This needs an understanding of data, and the underlying “models”, as well as programming.
  • Researchers, who use specialised tools to trawl through the vast amounts of raw intelligence to find the truths that matter. It’s safe office work for people with an enquiring and sharp mind.
  • Analysts, who use the many “truths” from the researchers to explain how it fits together. They make cautious “estimates” of why things happened, or what could happen next. It suits people who want to see how it all fits together.
  • Liaison and coordination, to work on the myriad of different contacts in other organisations. It’s methodical, sensitive work.

Obviously there are management roles, and there are also others that aren’t knowledge-based, even though they are essential at collecting and protecting knowledge.

The morality of careers in the intelligence work

Is it bad to work in the intelligence sector?

  • Police work protects the public against crime.
  • Security work protects us against terrorism and attack.
  • Defence work involves helping peacekeepers, and when violent conflicts occur, making sure they finish rapidly because the main victims are the public.
  • Political intelligence is making your country stronger, in a competitive world.
  • Commercial intelligence is about being more competitive.
  • Environmental intelligence is about finding the cheats who threaten the planet.

Does intelligence work have morality questions?

Yes, in state sponsored intelligence, there are questions about hidden agendas and duty of care, which may be slowly improving. But the obsessive secrecy is inherent to the highly competitive nature of intelligence work.

The future of work

Jobs in the intelligence sector will change over the next decades. They are subject to the same challenges as other knowledge-based and tech jobs.

Advice: be prepared for change. What happened in previous generations can be very different to what happens in yours. People used to have a “job for life”, or perhaps a short intensive career that was followed by a quiet second career. Now a period in intelligence research or analysis may be just part of your career journey. Hopefully it’s a stimulating and useful part.

In the broader context of the fourth industrial revolution, environmental change and political upheaval there will be continual changes.

Advice: build your soft skills as well as hard skills. Hard skills are taught in classrooms. “I’m a technology project manager, she is an accountant, he is a doctor.” At work we build experience at using our hard skills in many different contexts. We become experts. But if a skill is repeatable then machines can learn to do it. If your job becomes repetitive, start retraining now ready for your next change.

The good news is that machines are terrible with soft skills. They can’t cope with new situations, human individuality and complex organisations, and they can’t think creatively or provide empathy. Sometimes they pretend, but it’s shallow.

Soft skills include things like research, problem solving and analysis, written and oral communications, performing skills, leadership, team working, social skills, organisation, creativity and ethical responsibility.

More good news: you can transfer these soft skills from one area to another. And the better you get at the soft skills, the more you outshine the machines.

Career advice for technologists in the intelligence sector

I’m from an Information Technology (IT) background.

It’s not the intelligence sector.

But lots of what I’ve seen and done overlaps.

Intelligence analysis and intelligence research are knowledge-based skills. There are also roles for technologists. Some are the IT roles of building and maintaining databases and intelligence search tools, some involve the nuts and bolts of IT infrastructure and security, and some focus on machine learning – artificial intelligence. Machine learning is critical. The amount of intelligence is so large, it’s like finding a lost diamond on a sandy beach.

Careers in technology can be mentally stimulating, they can help you develop skills, and the results help people and society. However the tech industries have three pitfalls. I’ve fallen into all three of these “pits” over my career. Hopefully you can avoid that.

Beware of the narrow specialisation

The first pitfall is that tech sector jobs often become very narrow. When there’s a new job, we look for people with specific skills, and experience in our own narrow area, and working in the same way that we do. And for people in the intelligence sector, they also need security clearance. If the person doesn’t fit we could adjust a little, especially for people at the start of their careers, but generally we’d prefer to wait for the right person than recruit someone who who never fits in.

This is hard when you’re trying to get started. It’s one of the reasons for choosing your intended specialisation early, and using every opportunity to practice it in as many ways as possible. You need to demonstrate experience as well as qualifications.

Beware of major change coming

The second pitfall is the shifting nature of our jobs. It comes from automation and changes in the way we work. Much of that comes from the increasing complexity of getting different technologies to work together. The consequence is that jobs that are good now, may become redundant in ten or fifteen years.

Many people find their careers falter because they didn’t prepare for that.

The trick is to see the downturn coming, and shift your job. So study and take online courses in other areas, grab at any opportunity to practice, and … maybe even take a step back in salary and status in order to start an exciting new phase of your career.

Beware of falling foul of the politics

Technology companies and organisations can have great products and lousy management. In the intelligence sector, the pressures can become extreme because of the life and death decisions that are being made. And some of the organisations are old, and only capable of changing in limited ways.

You need the right attitude. That’s part of mental wellbeing, below.

Mental well-being at work for intelligence sector careers

Let’s get this straight. Mental well-being has always been important at work, especially in the intelligence sector, but now it’s becoming even harder. We’re not just thinking about the problems at work that can drive people to illness and ruin their careers. We’re in an age when there will be increasing trauma from environmental disasters and political upheaval. That pain creeps into the workplace, as we saw at the start of the Covid-19 lockdowns.

So “well-being” is not an optional extra. It’s about survival and our continual fight against inner demons.

Think of mental well-being like your physical fitness. We have parts of our mental state that are good, and periods when everything seems to be getting better and better. But there are also times when we struggle, and it seems to be getting worse and worse.

It can be difficult at work – sometimes very difficult. We find ourselves becoming defensive, neurotic, depressed, and abusive. And for people with existing mental conditions, they can get worse.

What to do?

At work, you’ll hit relentless pressure that goes on for month after month. It’s different to school an uni, and this time you suspect that it could continue forever. … Yet people survive it. How? … By pacing themselves, and using their spare time to relax, be with friends and family, and stay physically fit.

And then there’s the “politics” at work. Some organisations are inspired. But there are also many that are bad. Perhaps you aspire promotion to get away from it? The politics gets worse with each level. You have to learn to handle it or a find a new job.

Starting early

Working in the intelligence sector plays with people’s minds, and the relentless pressure and burst of adrenalin make it more challenging.

People adapt to this in different ways. Some change their characters, which can be traumatic to their families. Some hide, keeping to the skills and jobs in which they feel comfortable. And some, develop an inner strength from philosophy or their religion. As you develop, you’ll find which works best for you.

The lesson for students who are still contemplating their careers? Your mental wellbeing is as important as your education and health. Start working on it now, in parallel with your studies. You need to be strong when you enter the intelligence sector. And you need “mental health” to be part of your life, … for ever.

Finally – should you follow a career in the intelligence sector?

The choice is yours. There’s good you can do, there’s mental stimulus, and if you choose the right area the teamwork is amazing. But there are also downsides, and times when you’ll question the morality. For research analysis, I explored this in Intelligence research specialist jobs – 14 tips for survival.

I’ve explored some of the moral questions within Intelligence work needs a “duty of care” to the public and Obsessive secrecy in intelligence agencies – the dangers. Much more about ethics can be found in “Principled Spying”, a book length dialogue between a leading academic sociologist and a previous director of GCHQ, published by Oxford University Press ( ).

If you want to read books on intelligence methods and analysis, try searches such as:

  • intelligence analysis books
  • intelligence research books

With or or or your favourite search engine.

For some interesting articles from RUSI (the Royal United Services Institute) use, search on “intelligence” and ignore the articles that are primarily about artificial intelligence.

If you’re considering which university course to take, there are courses on intelligence studies from many universities. (My first encounter was with students from King’s College when they came to attend geopolitical talks in the IISS, where I was working at the time.)

You should think carefully about why you’re planning on studying the broad field of intelligence rather than specialising in a field that could be used within intelligence. Yes, intelligence analysis skills can be taught effectively. But for intelligence research, the sector needs tight skills and people who can bring in different perspectives, related skills, and suitable languages. For technologists, it’s highly specific. For intelligence officers, it can form part of their training, but there’s also critical skills that can’t be taught in this context.

And you need to become strong on your team-working skills, mental agility and other soft skills.

Whatever you choose, pick something about which you feel passionately, for whatever reason. And in that distant point when you life moves on, you should be able to look back with pride.