Career interview with Terry Pattar

In this interview, Terry shares valuable advice for early career and seasoned practitioners by reflecting on his career and experience in the intelligence and OSINT field.

Find out more about Terry's work at Atreides.

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Connect with Terry on LinkedIn.

Terry, where do you work now and what exactly is it that you do?

I am the Director of Customer Solutions at Atreides. My focus is on improving intelligence capabilities of organisations and analyst teams, which aligns exactly with the focus of Atreides, where we are developing solutions to make intelligence easier. 

The challenge of how to use the vast array of available information without getting overloaded or missing anything important is only increasing for every type of organisation. I use my experience in producing OSINT and in leading analyst teams, as well as training OSINT practitioners, to help clients make sense of the mass of information and derive insights to support decision-making. The platform we’ve created at Atreides is specifically designed to help intelligence teams manage requirements and resources, while also applying complex datasets to address their requirements. 

Can you tell us more about the industry that you are working in?

The core of what we’re doing at Atreides is providing software-as-a-service (SaaS) for intelligence teams. This also extends to providing intelligence support and capability development, including Operational Intelligence training, to a wide range of organisations, both in government and the private sector. It’s hard to define within a single ‘industry’! It’s a combination of software, consulting, and training. 

Every client is different, and I aim to understand their unique requirements and develop solutions that will help them improve how they create and use intelligence. Working with government clients has its own specific challenges, particularly navigating their often-complex procurement processes. Sometimes clients aren’t fully aware of the ‘art of the possible’ with OSINT and they don’t always realise what they can ask for in terms of OSINT support. I think this situation is improving though, particularly with the wide range of case studies that everyone in the OSINT community is producing and sharing.

What skills, knowledge, and background are required to work in your industry?

I tend to think of OSINT as a specialised form of knowledge work, so skills relevant to general knowledge work, i.e. any form of research and analysis, will be relevant. This includes the ability to gather and analyse information, evaluate sources, discern insights, and communicate the findings, addressing the ‘so what?’ question for the audience. The fundamentals remain the same and I’ve found that analysts can make a lot of gains by learning how to use the basic tools of their trade – search engines and MS Office (or equivalents). That might seem boring, but don’t underestimate how important those tools are!

What makes OSINT a little different is that we’re usually aiming to obfuscate our online research for reasons of security. To that end, it helps anyone wanting to enter the OSINT field to develop an understanding of how online information is structured and to adopt appropriate information security measures.  

In your view, what are the top skills/attributes to have for becoming successful in your area?

The most important attributes are to be curious, diligent, and to have a good eye for detail. I used to tell myself that I wasn’t a details person, but once I realised how important the details are, I changed my mindset and that has been vital to all the OSINT work I’ve created. 

In addition, most OSINT or intelligence work is done in small teams, so team-working and collaboration skills are hugely important. And the intelligence is useless if it’s not communicated effectively, which places a premium on writing and briefing skills. 

One attribute / skill that has become more important for me through my career has been management, both of teams and of projects / requirements. Sometimes it seems like managers are going out of fashion, but having good team managers in an intelligence organisation can be the difference between success and failure.

Where and how did you land your first job?

I started my career in government service shortly after 9/11. Back then, I wanted to know what was happening in the world and it seemed like I wasn’t going to find out by reading the news (the Tora Bora caves story is a case in point). 

By the time I switched to a private sector OSINT role in 2008, the proliferation of publicly available information, e.g. social media, made it seem like the world was far more ‘knowable,’ without needing classified information. 

I would go further and say that many analysts working in government find it so hard (even today!) to go online that working in those departments can be more of a hindrance than a help in trying to access all of the available information.

Looking back at how you started and where you are today, what advice do you have for someone who wants to pursue a similar career or even transition to the field you are working in?

I learned a huge amount from starting my career in the public sector, not least because I worked with some amazing colleagues. The training I went through and the experience I gained then has stood me in good stead throughout my career. It’s also helped me to understand the needs of the many government clients I’ve worked with over the years. 

When it comes to OSINT, there are many more resources available now than even a few years ago, so I imagine it could be overwhelming for anyone who is starting out now. It’s worth beginning with some of the many OSINT twitter accounts and YouTube channels to get an idea of what is possible. 

To anyone who wants to transition into OSINT, it’s also worth thinking about which areas you want to apply your skills to, as there’s a wide range of sectors where OSINT skills are relevant. Corporate security, investigations, cyber threat intelligence, to name but a few. Similar skills, but different problem-sets. If you’re tackling a problem that you find interesting it will make a huge difference to how much you enjoy your work.

If you were to hire people in your team, what would you look for? 

People who are curious, adaptable, and have an analytical mindset, with strong critical thinking skills. By the latter, I mean people who can identify the factual details and then consider the ‘how’, ‘why’, ‘so what’, and ‘what next’ questions, while also evaluating the sources, information, and their own assumptions. 

I also look for people who bring a different perspective to me, to challenge my thinking. None of us has a monopoly on the right answers and in OSINT we’re often dealing with situations where there isn’t a right answer. That means we need team members who approach problems from a variety of angles to produce more rounded analysis.

It's a bit of a cliche but being a good team player is something I look for – the ability to collaborate with others requires a good level of empathy and is vital. OSINT is definitely a team sport!

Looking at your career, is there anything you would do differently today if you had the chance to travel back in time?

So many things I don’t know where to start! Making mistakes is part of the journey and I’ve always tried to acknowledge mine and learn from them. I was helped by having some very forgiving colleagues early on. 

There are three things I will mention that could be helpful to others. First, I wish I’d kept up skills that I spent a lot of time learning, especially my language skills, which I didn’t use for most of my career, but have become increasingly important. Likewise with more technical skills – I first learned HTML and web design 20 years ago, but it’s been many years since I created a website!

The second thing is relevant to anyone who delivers OSINT or intelligence training. I would have tried harder to resist client demands to deliver certain types of training without first doing a thorough training needs analysis. This gets overlooked and then you find yourself in a room with a group that has no need for the training you’ve been hired to deliver! 

Third, I would have found work life a lot easier if I’d learned to say no earlier in my career. It’s difficult, especially if the work is particularly interesting, to push back and say you’re overloaded and can’t take on another assignment, but there’s only so long you can go without getting enough sleep before you hit burnout. 

Where and how do you develop yourself professionally?

I’ve always found it useful to look outside of the OSINT field to learn lessons from elsewhere and think about how to apply them to my own work. For example, learning tips from the fields of graphic design and marketing has helped me to improve the quality of briefings and written reports that I’ve delivered.

I think it’s also important to have something to focus on outside of your immediate work. Spending time each week on a hobby or other activity helps give a sense of perspective to professional life that has helped me to improve my performance. 

Are there any websites, books, podcasts, or anything else that you would recommend for professional development (does not have to be OSINT related)?

There’s so many. I listen to a lot of podcasts. The daily FT News Briefing is a really concise round-up of the key global news stories. As my work is focused on intelligence, national security and defence issues, I listen to several related podcasts, e.g. The Convergence – the US Army Mad Scientist podcast, From the Green Notebook, the Centre for Army Leadership podcast, Intelligence Matters, and the Business of Intelligence.

There’s a lot of useful OSINT resources and I follow several organisations and experts on platforms like Linkedin, Twitter, and YouTube, but it’s worth mentioning that you have to be careful with some of the advice that’s available. Always keep in mind the legal and ethical implications of gathering information online.

[End of interview - note this interview has not been edited]