Working at Improbable: what we talk about when we talk about ‘defence’


Sean Fanning, Head of Defence Talent

Our defence division doubled in size last year and we’re aiming to double again this year. We’re looking for all kinds of people with all kinds of skills to fill all kinds of roles. You can check out the current openings over at our opportunities page.

From the outside (and even from inside Improbable) our defence division can seem a bit... mysterious. So in order to get some answers to the most frequently asked questions, I spoke to half a dozen people working here to find out what they do, why they joined us and – most importantly – why they’re still here.

Why does a games company have a defence division?

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt during my seven years at Improbable, it’s the value of questioning your assumptions. So to get a fresh take on this question of how a company that set out to take video games to the next level came to be working in the defence space, I called Libby, our VP of Operations, who joined us six months ago.

“You only have to glance at a newspaper to see the variety and severity of the threats we all face” she said. “Cyber warfare goes on all the time. Disinformation threatens our political stability and social cohesion. The pandemic’s stopping our children from going to school and damaging our economy. Then of course there’s climate change, not to mention the possibility of conventional conflict.

“I think that it’s more important than ever to equip those looking to preserve our democracy with the tools they need to do so. And we’re perfectly placed to create some of those tools.”

What kind of technology does the defence division make?

Are we talking unmanned aerial vehicles, autonomous weapons and hypersonics?

The short answer is ‘no’. Although we do aim to help the UK and US militaries operate more effectively, we do not and we will not build weapons. But the longer answer is more interesting.

The current industrial revolution – the fourth – is in many respects no different to the first three.

“The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanize production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Now a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third [...] characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.”

Klaus Schwab, The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond

This fourth revolution is powered by the combination and recombination of a vast array of innovations in fields like cloud computing and distributed systems, AI, the Internet of Things, and machine learning. Improbable combines these innovations to enable two kinds of virtual world: multiplayer games and synthetic environments.

What’s a synthetic environment?

A synthetic environment is essentially a tool that lets you experiment in a virtual world before you take action in the real one. It’s a simulation – a little like a highly realistic digital twin of the world around you.

Using a synthetic environment, you can recreate real-world scenarios and then plan, train and rehearse different ways of addressing them. The synthetic environment can represent the physical world and it can also help you to understand the interplay of abstract social, demographic, political and economic systems.

How does the defence division fit together?

Regardless of whether they’re designing a policy, planning a joint forces operation or training to put these policies and plans into effect, there are two basic questions that our users need to answer. ‘What’s going on here?’ and ‘What am I going to do about it?’.

Our research and modelling teams help answer the ‘What’s going on here?’ question. They develop models that describe how the world works, bringing together multiple disciplines, including AI and Machine Learning, statistics, behavioural and cognitive modelling, genetic algorithms, evolutionary computing and neuroscience.

These teams work closely with the product team (and our users) to figure out the different ways that all these models could fit together to create a fit-for-purpose synthetic environment that can be adapted and updated to for a specific use case.

The engineering team works with the researchers, modellers and product designers to help users answer the second kind of question, ‘What am I going to do about it?’. They integrate, optimise and run the relevant models in order to create a highly realistic simulation of the world – the synthetic environment.

The commercial team works with our users and technology partners to make sure that everything runs smoothly. With backgrounds in the military and more traditional defence contractors, they negotiate contracts, navigate complex procurement processes, and ensure that users can access the most useful and reliable third-party technologies and content via our platform.

Finally, there’s the operations team. With responsibilities covering everything from security and strategy to market analysis, finance and communications, they keep the division working efficiently and effectively towards a common goal.

Why would I want to work in Improbable’s defence division?

1. You’ll get to tackle some of the toughest technical challenges out there

Like the games technology division, the defence division is developing technologies for which there’s no precedent. They spend their days looking for solutions to problems that have never even been encountered before.

I asked Nikita, one of our software engineers, how that felt. “Nobody would look at what we’ve got planned and think ‘Oh, that sounds straightforward’” she said. After a moment’s reflection, she continued. “In fact, they probably wouldn’t even think it sounds do-able.”

Tommy, another engineer, told me something similar. “It’s difficult, isn’t it? It’s not like you’ll find solutions to these problems on Stack Overflow. But then if it was easy it wouldn’t be so rewarding.”

Tommy Yardley, Software Engineer

The other thing about breaking new ground is that the work changes all the time. Rory, a research scientist, said that the opportunity to keep learning new things was one of the main reasons he’s still at Improbable after five years. “We’re growing so fast. We’re moving so fast. It doesn’t feel like I’ve had this job for five years – it feels like I’ve had five different jobs.”

2. You’ll get to work alongside some of the smartest but most humble people in the business

If that sounds the opposite of humble, let me explain! You might expect that this level of ambition – this belief in being able to do what others can’t – would go hand in hand with arrogance. But what struck me in all the conversations I had across the division is how the opposite is true. We have four core values at Improbable, but Relentless Humility is the one that everyone kept coming back to.

Perhaps the best definition of humility I’ve found is this one: ‘Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself – it’s thinking of yourself less.’ The distinction makes more and more sense the longer you spend here.

Something Tommy said summed it up well. “You’re surrounded by smart, capable people. Some of them have decades of experience at places like Cisco, GCHQ and BAE Systems. But what’s amazing to me is how open they are to supporting you. How generous they are with their time and advice.”

Rory said something similar. Nobody here has all the answers and nobody’s expected to have them, he told me.

“Even really senior people ask so-called ‘stupid questions’ all the time. I’ve worked in places that are full of egos. You know, those people who want to give the impression that they know all there is to know, and make others feel small or stupid. They say things like ‘I’m not here to teach you this’ or ‘How come you don’t know that?’. And it only takes a few people like that and the whole culture of open curiosity closes up. People who are afraid to ask the stupid questions are also afraid to propose the weird solutions. And we want the weird solutions.”

Rory Greig, Senior Research Scientist

3. You’ll get the chance to work closely with the end user

None of this should imply that the defence division is wild, move-fast-and-break-things kind of outfit. Much (if not most) of the work is traditional, methodical, rigorous software development. The difference is that there’s a refreshing amount of autonomy.

Rory said, “If you have a great idea, you can just go ahead and look into it. If you think you can do something, just get going. If it works, it works.”

Tommy echoed the point. “If we started micromanaging people we’d probably fall to pieces or just grind to a halt. We trust each other to do our jobs”, Tommy told me, “and our customers trust us, too.”

The opportunity to work closely with the customer is something Nikita highlighted. She came to Improbable almost straight after graduating, and I asked if this had made it difficult to make an impression on senior leaders in organisations like the Ministry of Defence.

“I don’t feel that they treat me differently. I think customers trust us partly because we’re a little different but mostly because they know us,” she said.

Nikita Hukerikar, Software Engineer

“I think I’d been here less than six months when I was asked to present a tech demo to some fairly senior evaluators. My manager said, ‘Well, you did a lot of the work. You should do the demo.’”

4. Whatever business you’re in, this isn’t Business As Usual

Naomi’s only been on the commercial team for a few weeks, but she’s spent more than a decade in the industry. When we spoke, she made it clear that things were different at Improbable.

“The first thing I noticed is that there isn’t the rigid, pyramid-shaped hierarchy that you find elsewhere. I think that’s because of Improbable’s history in games and software development. We need to be able to move fast and change course even faster. I don’t have to go through two layers of management to reach a decision maker – the CEO’s right there on Slack.”

“The second thing I’ve noticed is the lack of tradition. There’s no This is How Things are Done. We all know what we’re trying to do, and we’re free to find new and better ways to do it.”

Naomi Hulme, Commercial Manager

5. You’ll get to make a difference to some of the most complex and urgent issues that society faces

The last thing Naomi said stuck with me. “I remember the exact moment during the interview process when I realised that I’d fit right in. The people I was meeting weren’t just here for a change of scene. And they weren’t just talking about changing how the industry works. They were hoping to make a real difference. D’you know what I mean? That kind of enthusiasm – that kind of commitment – is really infectious.”

Libby, the VP of Operations, said something similar just a few days previously. “Anyone who has ever worked in a mission-led business and drunk that brand of Kool Aid will know how strong the pull is. Mission makes you go further, do more, strive for better. Mission gets you through the long days, the challenges and the set-backs. Mission is what makes the difference.”

Libby Penn, VP Operations

We're very happy to have been identified as one of the top four large games businesses to work in the UK by, based on information provided by Improbable and responses from our employees to an anonymous questionnaire.

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