Penny Endersby – The Winds Of Change
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye
Photography by Nick Hook
The Cray XC40 supercomputer at the Met Office in Exeter makes fifteen-thousand-trillion calculations per second. The official term, apparently, is fifteen ‘petaflops’. This is the equivalent, so their new CEO Penny Endersby told me when I met her recently, to every human brain in the world processing two-million calculations per second. A truly staggering statistic.
I had the pleasure of meeting Penny when I visited the stunning Met Office building in Exeter, having secured a precious one-hour slot in her demanding schedule. Having landed the CEO role at the very end of 2018, it was an honour and a real eye-opener to spend some time with Penny so soon into her role. I was intrigued to hear her recall her impressive and fruitful career journey which she has traversed over the last three decades and I left our conversation feeling that she is about as close to a human supercomputer as I have met in my life thus far. You’ll see why as you read on, I’m certain.
Born in South London, much of Penny’s early years were spent near Harrow in North London and, from an early age, she was fascinated with the ‘How?’ and ‘Why?’ behind things. With an inquisitive nature and a capacity for sharp-focus, she enjoyed her school career, showing a propensity and skill for the sciences. And, so, there was birthed within her the determination to use science somehow in her future career.
She was fortunate to receive a WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) scholarship in sixth form, giving her the opportunity to study at the GEC Hirst Research Centre, then based in Wembley. She then went on to study Physics at Cambridge University, where she was sponsored through her studies by British Gas. Penny, at this point in her story, paused and, with a slightly wistful look in her eye, recalled how she met her now husband on that university course, by the old Gas Works at Bromley by Bow.
After a short stint working for British Gas, researching fuel cells, she joined the Ministry of Defence (MOD), working for what is now called the Defence, Science & Technology Laboratory (DSTL). Effectively, the DSTL is the MOD’s science and technology organisation and Penny joined as a scientist and researcher, cutting her teeth as an Armour Scientist, designing lighter, faster and stronger armour for tanks and people. A key part of this role was carrying our explosives tests and firing trials – testing whether the armour that she had helped to create was up to scratch or not. For the first decade in the MOD, Penny described how she,
“enjoyed being a cool scientist and not giving a second thought to management or operational aspects of the organisation.”
Penny went on to talk about the next step in her career journey, describing it as a “Pauline conversion” (referring to the redemptive Biblical account of a murderous persecutor of Christians called Saul who had a miraculous conversion experience and changed his name to Paul, becoming a hero of the Christian faith and writing much of the New Testament). Penny took on her first management role, running her first team, and realised that she absolutely loved looking at the organisational, as well as scientific side of the MOD. This led to an impressively fast rise through the ranks, running teams, then groups, then departments and finally divisions within DSTL. She led the Physics Dept for a few years, before changing tack in 2012 and running the Cyber & Information Systems Division, representing a change in her core discipline, from Physics to Information Science. Her final position within DSTL, before her appointment as new CEO of the Met Office, was that of Chief Technical Officer – essentially the most senior technical brain within the MOD, with oversight over a vast range of projects, departments and personnel.
At this point in our conversation, Penny noticed that she was still wearing her security pass around her neck and, after years of habitual reinforcement, took it off due to the fact that she was being photographed. Whilst this type of restriction isn’t enforced at the Met Office, it seems that you can take the girl out of the MOD, but you can’t take the MOD out of the girl! It was during this aside that I noticed Penny’s lanyard which her security pass was attached to.
Her bright rainbow lanyard had the web address of a LGBTQ+ support website adorned on it and, naturally, I asked her to expand on her choice of accessory. In a beautifully unscripted and self-revealing moment, Penny expanded on the importance of embracing and encouraging diversity in the way that she manages organisations. She commented,
“People always expect me to be championing the cause of women in science. Of course, I absolutely do that, but I am mindful and passionate about equality of all varieties in working life. For example, Exeter has a relative lack of racial diversity compared to somewhere like London – something that I would like to play a part in changing. Also, for years now, I have committed to wearing ‘Straight Ally’ badges, to show all of my colleagues and staff that I am a ‘safe space’ when it comes to the complex issue of sexuality in the workplace. After starting to wear the badge, I had close colleagues of mine who I had worked with for fifteen years take me to one side and tell me about their same-sex relationships which they had previously felt unable to share openly about in the office. This revelation has led me to attach my new Met Office pass to a rainbow lanyard – again, showing that I am ‘a safe space’ for members of staff who identify as LGBTQ+.”
“To be candid, we are an organisation that is built upon the talent, skill and innovative thinking of our staff. Clearly communicating the value that we place on diversity means that we stand the highest possible chance of engaging with the most excellent and innovative talent out there – unencumbered by the limitations of prejudice.”
In conversation, it became obvious that, whilst many of Penny’s experiences and previous roles had prepared her well for her new role, that it was also different in many ways to anything she had done before. She explained,
“A lot has changed really. In my previous role, I was responsible for 500 people and £100m turnover. Now, at the Met Office, I am responsible for around 1800 people and over £200m turnover. Also, I was an Executive and Director before, but having the top job is very different indeed! I liken this first CEO position of mine to having my first child – there was nothing that anyone could have told me which would have adequately prepared me for the role. That said, I’ve been fortunate to have fantastic support and advice from colleagues who have walked the road before me.”
When I questioned Penny further on what it is like knowing that, as the CEO, ‘the buck stops with her’, she commented,
“Every time that I had looked at people in the jobs ‘above me’, they had always seemed quite lonely, mainly because I couldn’t see the peer group around them. When I applied for this role, I was convinced that it would be a very lonely professional existence, carrying much of the burden of the role alone. I couldn’t have been more wrong! Not only have all of the staff here been incredibly supportive and welcoming, but many other CEOs in partner organisations have reached out to show support and give advice at appropriate times. It’s a sign of how supportive the Civil Service can be and I’ve been really touched by the thoughtfulness and support of many of my peers.”
Penny described the rigorous, multi-step process that she had navigated before securing the role of CEO late last year. She remarked,
“Amongst all of the pressure and the many steps and processes that I had to go through, I remember coming to this building for the first time and sitting in ‘The Street’ [the vast atrium-like walkway that runs through the middle of the Met Office premises]. I sat and listened to the conversations going on around me and felt instantly at home amongst the mixture of scientific and corporate personnel. The environment felt very familiar and I felt that it wouldn’t be a big adjustment to join this team.”
When she first took on her post, Penny spent the first few weeks internally, adjusting, learning, meeting key personnel and gauging for herself how the land lay within the organisation. Since then, she has spent the early parts of this year making a concerted effort to ‘get out’ and experience what working life is like for as many of her staff as possible, including travelling to all corners of the UK. Also, with strong international and global connections and responsibilities, Penny has already spent time with peers and senior leadership teams from the French and German equivalents of the Met Office and the World Meteorological Organisation.
One of the challenges of an organisation as large as the Met Office is to help people outside of the organisation to understand exactly what it is they do. So, I asked an intentionally simplistic question of Penny and asked her to explain the basic functions and goals of the Met Office. She expertly replied,
“Well, to put it simply, we operate at the forefront of weather and climate science, for the purposes of protection, prosperity and wellbeing. To slightly expand on that, we cover forecasting and prediction, all the way from ‘now-casting’ (i.e very short-term) all the way through to daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal, annual, decadal and long-term climate predictions. We work both governmentally and commercially – locally and globally. And, through programmes such as Newton or WISER, we help developing nations to improve their weather forecasting abilities and responses to climate change.”
And what a journey the Met Office have been on, particularly with the rapidly escalating backdrop of climate change and global warming which their research is set against. Penny added,
“Our Hadley Centre was opened in 1990 by the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. This was a very forward-thinking institution at the time, asking questions like, “Is the climate changing?”, “If so, are humans involved?” and “If so, what can we do about it?”. Of course, now we know that the answer to the first two questions is ‘Yes!’ and we are focusing our efforts and research on trying to answer the third question as accurately and quickly as possible. When it comes to climate change, our role is to perform the very best scientific research that we can. It has become a hugely political issue and we stay out of the politics completely. Our role is simply to provide the very best information and research to the decision makers within government and our partner organisations, allowing them to make the best-educated decisions possible.”
When I pressed Penny on the nature and size of the data that they produce, she responded,
“I thought that I dealt with ‘Big Data’ when I was in the MOD. However, I’ve never seen bigger data than what we work with every day here at the Met Office. In recent years, we have attracted some of the biggest industry players to our organisation, as they can see that the work we are doing is, in many ways, a paradigm for what the future could look like. Data is fast becoming one of the driving forces in our economy and society and we are very proud of what we bring as a force multiplier for the tech sector in Exeter. It is a vital part of our mission, to increase knowledge and competence around Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) in Exeter, Devon and further afield. Weather is a brilliant subject matter to base that work around, as everyone can relate to weather and experience it. Outreach Science is a key part of what we do here at the Met Office.”
When I asked Penny to share some of the things that she has learned throughout her career with me, she paused and then said,
“We employ 1800 excellent people here at the Met Office. I have learned over the years that, when leading excellent people who know more about what they are researching than I do, that my job isn’t to know more than them, but rather to glean from them key bits of information which they might not even realise are key. To join dots from their findings that they might not have even realised needed joining. My job isn’t to be the cleverest person in the organisation. There is no human brain that can outsmart 1800 of the finest minds in our field. So, I simply have to look at, listen to, and understand the amazing research that is being done around me every day.”
With her youngest child finishing his final year of school back in Wiltshire where Penny lived previously, she is looking forward to her husband joining her in Exeter later this year and, in summary, she commented,
“I can’t quite believe that I’ve landed such an amazing role, in such a beautiful part of the country. My husband and I are still pinching ourselves and I can’t wait for him to join me down here permanently so that we can start enjoying the area properly. My ideal day outside of work is to put a flask of coffee and a sandwich in my backpack and go walking in a nature reserve to recharge my batteries and gather my thoughts. I also jog very slowly but very faithfully! Even the most intractable of problems seem to work themselves out when you’re puffing up a hill slowly! I am also a classically trained musician and a keen singer in a chamber choir. There is something about singing that causes your mind and body to reset and relax.”
With Penny Endersby at the helm, the Met Office has a decisive, compassionate and outstanding new leader. With a laser-sharp mind, a warm heart and an unshakeable dedication to scientific progress, they are sure to continue their trajectory as one of the major players in the success story of Exeter, Devon, England and beyond under her tenure.