Q&A with Nina Barakzai, Head of Data Protection & Privacy.
“The best things about my role is the thrill of getting folks across the line with their activities while building in creative privacy options which place us ahead of the curve”
Name: Nina Barakzai
Title: Head of Data Protection & Privacy
What was your career journey before starting here, and what do you think most set you up for success? My career journey was in ethics and corporate governance, with strong focus on all matters to do with building professional conduct in companies to help them shine in an ethical way. The event which most set me up for success was asking a speaker at a course a challenging question – he spotted my curiosity and suggested I join a professional conduct working group, so I could channel my curiosity. I have been grateful ever since, as he helped me crystallise what I love about working in large organisations, how I could build my experience and use it to add value. He prompted me to qualify in finance, then law and has been a mentor ever since, guiding me through my marketing diploma, Chartered Arbitrator status and accredited mediator status. Although he has now retired from the Research Advisory Board on which I sit, he still challenges me, prompting me to think outside the box.
How did you identify that you wanted to become Head of Data Protection & Privacy, and then what did you do to develop and prepare yourself? I haven't ever wanted to be a Head Counsel or Director of Legal. I have always wanted to have an opportunity to share my ideas and my curiosity with others so that, as a team, we come up with a great way of doing things. This wish to share ideas is what has driven me to continually seek out ways of solving things with others. It prompted me to join think tanks like the DCMS Legal Deposit Advisory Board (LDAP), the Ministry of Justice's Legal Services Consultative Panel (LSCP) and the UK representative on IFAC's International Ethics Standards Board which sets professional conduct obligations for accountants worldwide. I was with people who were experts in their fields and I was the panel member from industry. In the case of LDAP, I had no idea, when working as a student in the summer holidays in the British Library, or when I started working full time at Reuters and Associated Newspapers, that I would eventually use that experience to contribute to how the UK might develop its strategy to build a national reference collection of information for future generations in a digital context.
What I did to prepare myself for all of my roles was to make sure everything I did was part of a constant learning process. It was often exciting just to learn something new and see if I could use that knowledge in a different way. That is certainly how I approached the work with the Legal Services Consultative Panel, where my task was to assess applications from organisations wishing to become Alternative Business Structures. One of the most interesting applications was the one submitted by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales to provide wills and probate services. As an accountant and lawyer, I was uniquely placed to be able to comment on each professional area of expertise when contributing to the Panel's advice for the Secretary of State.
What did you want to be when you were little? I wanted to be an industrialist so I could earn lots of money and pay for miners in South America to send their families to school so they could break the poverty cycle of only being able to do one job, mining, which gave them a very low life expectancy and meant their families were always in debt.
What are the best things about being Head of Data Protection & Privacy? The thrill of getting folks across the line with their activities while building in creative privacy options which place us ahead of the curve compared to other similar businesses. The excitement is in knowing the company gives us, as a Privacy team, the freedom to design solutions at every stage, without losing the professional and technical rigour of advising in the context of commercial challenges which the business faces every day.
What are worst things about being Head of Data Protection & Privacy and how do you deal with those challenges? There is a constant volume of "noise" from all areas of the business which can take out all the headspace I need to come up with creative options.
What was the last book you read? It was actually a white paper on artificial intelligence – I’m really curious to see how machine learning e.g. IBM's Watson, incorporates privacy into its models.
How do you maintain a good work/life balance? I focus on each minute and ask myself the question "what can I hear and do I enjoy what I hear". If I don't enjoy it, maybe I’m not listening hard enough or maybe I’ve tuned into the wrong thing and should refocus.
What advice would you give people who are looking to progress their careers within our Legal team? What are the most important skills to build? Try hard to think about what you can do yourself to find an answer, before assuming either that you already know the answer, or that someone else can give you the answer. That way, you’ll own the question and the answer, gain a measured approach and build professional resilience along the way.
What do you think it means to have a 'positive (growth) mind-set' and how do you cultivate one? I find it helps me if I try to avoid making judgements on what is or is not valuable, attractive or interesting, because I then stay open to learning more about something. I cultivate my positive mind set by listening to others talk about their stuff. As I get more information, I can see why it might be interesting to them and where and why I might also find something interesting to think about in their stuff.
What would people be most surprised to know about you? I hate being competitive with other people, but am happy to compete with myself to get better.