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Appealing to Intelligence

During October 2013, some of the most skilled mathematicians, code breakers, ethical hackers and problem solvers in the UK spent hours attempting to break a series of mathematical codes hidden online for a chance to win a prize, and ultimately a job at GCHQ, one of the UK’s three intelligence agencies. Jane Jones, GCHQ’s Head of Resourcing, looks at the organisation’s innovative approach to recruitment and explains why it is now casting its net beyond technical and language graduates…

The ‘Can You Find It’ challenge puts traditional code breaking into

today’s high tech environment…


The ‘Can You Find It?’ competition, which was run on behalf of GCHQ by TMP Worldwide, has seen a phenomenal uptake of interest since its launch in September, with over 400,000 visits to the competition site. So far only around 1% of visitors have been able to crack the complex codes to unlock the final answer, with the youngest person only 13 years old and the oldest aged 75. The average length of time spent solving the puzzle was 168 hours and the first person to crack it did so within 22 hours.

he complex codes have been created by a GCHQ team of top mathematicians who set a high bar for recruiting

curious, tenacious and creative individuals who can help support the Government’s Cyber Security agenda. It is aimed especially at those who have the intellectual ability but not necessarily the practical experience usually required by job recruiters. The brain teaser consists of 29 blocks of five letters which have to be deciphered into five answers.

The challenge is incredibly relevant to the work of GCHQ. Many people will be aware of GCHQ’s code breaking history with computer pioneer Alan Turing who, during World War II, helped lead the efforts at Bletchley Park to provide vital intelligence for the Allies by deciphering the messages encrypted by the German Enigma machine. The ‘Can You Find It’ challenge puts traditional code breaking into today’s high tech environment, demonstrating the type of work GCHQ is engaged in. It integrates with all aspects of digital, social and marketing media, utilising forums, blogs, Twitter and

niche websites, as well as other more traditional media to spread the word. It’s important that we test people’s skills and aptitude as the jobs we are offering are vital to protecting national security. By doing these tests, applicants are proving that they have the skills required to combat the online threats confronting us in the 21st century.

Our latest challenge follows the award winning ‘Can You Crack It’ campaign which ran in 2011. While successful, we were also aware that there are lessons to learn from our first challenge. ‘Can You Find It’ includes a competition and prize element, to ensure that even if people didn’t think they would be eligible for a job at GCHQ, they still had a reason to engage with the code breaking – and it would encourage them to share it with their friends. We also realised the value of the positive publicity that the first code challenge had created and therefore broadcast the organisation’s involvement with ‘Can You Find It’ from day one, rather than advertising anonymously. This time we were prepared for the global media interest that the challenge created.

At GCHQ we believe that you will never make a significant difference to anything if you just do what everyone else does. This is why our ‘Can You’ challenges have been so successful. They really are the perfect platform for showcasing GCHQ’s work, the type of people we are looking to attract, and enhancing our employer brand in the process. GCHQ is constantly evolving and in recruitment we need to reflect that. You can never stand still.

After years of focusing on largely technical and language graduates in the organisation, we are now broadening our horizons and focusing on aptitude and ability, rather than just degree subject, for our new graduate schemes. We’ll be looking for graduates from any discipline to join us so even if people haven’t studied for a technical degree, it won’t preclude them from embarking on an analytical or technical career with us. This is an exciting time for GCHQ − we are looking at different ways to break new ground in our recruitment models, and our code breaking challenges are a very important part of that. n | Graduate Recruiter 13

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