A recent visit to the museum at Bletchley Park made for an exceptional day out. The historical importance of the site, and of the ground breaking code breaking that went on there during World War Two still has the ability to take your breath away, both in its’ ambition and its’ importance.
The Bletchley Park Trust has worked hard to transform the buildings into an authentic experience, and it is striking just how many of the displays and artefacts housed there are relevant to our working lives today. The birthplace of Information Technology in the 1940’s that brought the invention of general computing machines, brought code-breaking, cryptography and information science together has stories to tell that resonate in today’s insecure and interconnected digital world.
The working conditions were basic, but the commitment and results from the teams that were posted there helped to shorten the conflict. We owe them a great debt of gratitude and there is plenty to learn from the ways in which they worked that can guide us in our work activities.
- Know your field.The work at Bletchley was based on previous work, and carried on the tradition of inquiry and code breaking started in the first war. The expertise that was needed quickly was built upon the foundations of this work, and included many of the leaders that had been involved in the work for many years.
- Diversity: Teams were recruited from across the UK and overseas to staff the units and were a mixture of backgrounds, formal education and previous experience. Although the times dictated that recruitment was not necessarily what we would term ‘equal opportunity’, over half of the staff were female and people were recruited and placed according to their ability to perform, sometimes using novel recruitment methods like candidates being able to fill in crossword puzzles posted in the newspaper.
- Multi Disciplinary: Although the hard science of cryptography is difficult mathematical work that can take years to master, recruits were from differing backgrounds, philosophers, linguists, engineers, administrators, despatch riders, forces personnel and support staff were involved, not only to supply the information needed for the decoding effort but to ensure the running of the machines, output and communications externally were handled correctly. The insights of the mixed discipline team helped to approach the problem from different viewpoints.
- Talent Management: Although it is easier to focus on the brilliance of famous mathematicians like Alan Turing , a pioneer in the fields of computer theory and Artificial Intelligence , his was by no means the only contribution and he was supported by an intelligent supervisor in Alastair Denniston , who ensured that the project was supported and that the decrypted information was securely communicated and passed to the commanders. Denniston was a brilliant scientist himself, but was also adept in the art of managing both those above and below him in the chain of command.
- Human Factors: Code breaking work was inadvertently helped by the laziness of some of the German Enigma machine operators who would forget to reset their machines daily, or who would use the communications channels for test messages that assisted the code breakers. Human factors can cut both ways, either adding innovation and care, or negatively by neglect, ensure you foster a workplace that looks after the small stuff before it becomes a problem.
- Cut Complexity: When faced with the seemingly insurmountable task of decoding thousands of tasks the teams would work on only a single aspect of the whole process, and gain knowledge of only that domain. This meant that the operators could recognise patterns in the messages that led to several breakthroughs that cut the complexity of the tasks that the machines would need to deal with. With familiarity this domain knowledge proved invaluable in decoding the business process behind the messages.
- Brave Actions: The capture of Enigma short code books at the end of 1942 from U-559 through the bravery of naval personnel gave the Bletchley teams the information they needed to read messages and break the naval Enigma encryption. That this was possible without the sailors knowing how important the documents were handling at the time is a commitment that is hard for us to comprehend.
- Persistence: The work of the personnel at Bletchley was carried out during the background of war that impacted everyone. The technology that was being used was developing quickly, on both sides, and there were many approaches that did not, or could never work to decrypt the messages. Despite the setbacks the project was deemed so important it was kept running, and the persistence of the approach, lateral thinking and dedication finally paid off.
If you are able to, you should make time to visit Bletchley Park, it is a peaceful and poignant reminder of the days that gave rise to modern computing, and its huts and corridors still contain the echoes of the insecurity and uncertainty of the war, overcome by the bravery, diligence, persistence and brilliance of those who worked there.