Dr Leslie Seebeck is a former Australian Public Servant with experience across the sectors of Technology, Defence and Industry. She has been a successful team leader in some of Australia’s most important institutions. Until 2020, she lectured in cyber security at the Australian National University. Recently she has been writing and lecturing on topics such as cyber security and the new AUKUS program.
Her depth of knowledge on the complex and wicked problems that Australia is facing is eye-opening, and her ideas drew me into that other world of the echelons of the Australian Public Service. She is also warm, friendly and engaging.
I spoke with her at her ‘work-from-home’ office space in Canberra, where we talked about building a career in the Public Service, Defence matters high on the media radar: cyber security and AUKUS, and where to look for future career opportunities.
Q: Your career spans many facets of the public service: finance, data and digital information sharing and security. What were the most important factors that helped you achieve success?
A: I keep telling people starting off, don’t try and emulate what I did. I was a bit all over the place. Now that’s given me great breath, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to following a particular passion or path. I joined the public service as a policy officer inside Defence. Then you try to get to know the environment, however a lot of how you progress is quite opportunistic.
It’s easy to fall prey to saying “Am I qualified for it?”. I’ve not necessarily been qualified for the stuff I’ve done, and that’s been great because that really challenges you. So, being a CIO for example, I’ve got enough of a technical background of being able to ask the right questions, but I haven’t come up through that stream where you go into an ICT degree and work your way up.
My advice is to be open to opportunities. Second is to develop confidence in yourself, and to find good people to work both for and with. If you can find someone who’s really good to work for, it doesn’t necessarily matter what job you’re doing – you’ll learn in that role and you’ll get value out of that.
My advice is to be open opportunities. Second is to develop confidence in yourself, and to find good people to work for…
The last bit is to make sure that what you do aligns with your values. You need to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and say, “Yes, I’ve done the best I can possibly do, or it aligns with making the world a better place”.
Q: What are some of the more transformational projects you’ve been involved in, and what have you learned from them?
A: If I go back, I would say working in Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C), because that really teaches you to be very precise about making clarity of arguments. You’re writing for the most senior decision-makers inside of government and PM&C, and you’re getting across the breadth of governments.
Working with the Department of Finance taught me to ask questions, and again, the joy of working with a really good team, and being able to build that team. I had some fabulous people to work with and that really started my thinking about how to be a steward for such a public institution.
If you’re an SES [Senior Executive Services] officer, you should be always thinking about being that steward and making it a better place, and that it’s not just about you at all.
Being at the BOM (Bureau of Meteorology) was a blast because you get to play with technology from the digital, to the cloud and data, to supercomputers. It was a ball. Again, I worked with a fabulous team, and the mission was really good. So those are some good examples.
….. you should be always thinking about being that steward and making it place a better place, and that it’s not just about you at all.
Q: You’ve taught cyber security at ANU and headed the Cyber Institute. Cyber is typically a word that prefixes things that are threats like cyber security, cyber crime and bullying. However, the term can mean anything related to the internet and communication via machines. How should we be thinking about cyber in this and future environmental landscapes?
A: Ninety per cent of what we see with cyber is around the human-side, and not around the technology per se. It’s about how humans use the technology; how they design, build, fund, and operate technology, and how it’s used against people.
Now, at times, it can be quite useful to define cyber more narrowly, and that’s where I’ll start using terms like cyber security.
….. saying we’re going to have a goal, for example, of “The most cyber safe nation the world” implies that this is possible. It’s never going to be possible.
The flip side is that trying to solve these problems is like trying to boil the ocean, so the key is that the process is constantly evolving and shifting. It is a process, not an end goal. Saying that we’re going to have a goal, for example, of “the most cyber safe nation the world” implies that this is possible. It’s never going to be possible.
Q: You’ve said we need better partnerships between governments, the private sector, individuals and institutions. How has Australia achieved this in the past and what else could we be doing?
A: We get by. I recommend reading The Lucky Country. A lot of it is dated, but there’s a lot that is so spot-on. Let me start with, “How can government do things better?”. One thing about governments is that they are very comfortable talking to things that look like themselves.
You can go back to sociology to look at this, from people like Charles Tilly, who made the point about Europe with the famous saying: “War makes the State and the State makes War”; and Cornel West’s failures in figures and quotas.
Governments will do things like that. They’re most comfortable talking to things they recognise as other governments. In this way, they’re more comfortable talking to large corporations, but struggle with small to medium-sized businesses, because large corporations are inherently bureaucratic.
I could tell you a story from the BOM, for example, where we used to have community observers. They’ve been replaced by automatic weather stations ….
Secondly, the overriding imperative to efficiency has stripped away a lot of that connective tissue that we used to have. I could tell you a story from the BOM, for example, where we used to have community observers. They’ve been replaced by automatic weather stations, which are great because even though community observers can be very good and very reliable, automatic weather stations just will tick over and do weather on an hour without fail, generally. They don’t get drunk, or get sick etc. So, it’s an efficiency measure – they’re cheaper to run than the number of community observers.
Q: You spoke about digital and connective tissue, does that mean people?
A: Yes, it means people, institutions, and systems. Human relationships have lots of multiple touch points. What digital systems do is collapse everything into a one-to-one relationship — just the translation of data. So you need to build that richness back up.
Q: More recently, you’ve been speaking on the impacts of the AUKUS agreement on Australia’s innovation and capacity building. How will AUKUS impact the Australian economy and what are some of the pitfalls?
A: I would like to think that AUKUS offers a lot of possibility. I am really worried that it will not deliver. So let’s put that into two pillars.
Pillar one is the submarines.
Whether you agree with nuclear submarines or not – I do personally – $368 billion is a lot of money to spend on a new submarine, not yet constructed, in a time that may arrive outside the window that we’re going to really need it. It may play out, it may not, but let’s put that aside. That’s a lot of money we could be investing in other things.
Pillar two is new emerging technologies. I do worry that there is a lot of ‘magic-fairy-dust’ thinking, that if we only we can just buy the right thing, it will our solve problems.
I see no [funding] number for pillar two — the development of capability in Australia. So there is risk, but also the opportunity for huge potential.
Q: You’ve written that for tech innovation in the technology sector to occur, there is urgent need for action supporting a competitive, civilian market. What kind of tangible steps could empower this?
A: I think the existing structures, institutions, and the headspace of people here is probably not the right mix. We need something new and that comes from the civilian side, which will be a mix of different industries.
I don’t think it exists in the university system in the way it’s currently structured. The university system needs to be overhauled.
You can’t point to an Australian company and say “That’s our Phillips.” We are miners, we dig stuff out of the ground…
When I worked for PM&C, and Paul Keating was Prime Minister, and he kept saying “Where is our Phillips?”. Phillips is the Dutch conglomerate, the company that generates innovation. It’s gone from being just into lighting, to being into healthcare, and all sorts of things. You can’t point to an Australian company and say “That’s our Phillips.” We are miners, we dig stuff out of the ground, we are financial institutions and other extractive industries, so just throwing money at defence is not going to do it.
Q: What is one takeaway for anyone considering embarking on a career in nuclear science, quantum computing, cybersecurity or AI?
A: Look, the world is your oyster if you can just do those things, the opportunities are immense. I think it was Kevin Kelly who talked about the fourth industrial revolution. I think we could see a fourth explosion, or whatever it is. I don’t know how many times we have seen this uplift in knowledge, however ICT, digital systems and general purpose technology underpins many things and is undergoing an evolutionary process.
STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) is really important. If I did another degree, I’d do Maths. One thing you don’t get taught is that Maths is not just powerful, it’s creative.
I have both science and humanities in my education. STEM will tell you the ‘what’ and ‘how’ — really important tools — while humanities will tell you the ‘why.
If we want to have a healthy society and the a healthy future, we need both.
STEM will tell you the ‘what’ and ‘how’ – really important tools — while humanities will tell you the ‘why’.
The other thing I would say too is, find things to do with your hands and do things – practice and build – because knowledge is not just in your brain. It is contained within your whole being and the more you do things with your hands and more confident you’ll become. There’s couple of books out there, “Smart People Should Build Things” is an example.
Photos by Jenna Gray