(The French Ministry of the Armed Forces requires officers who are not normally in the public eye to be referred to by first-name only for security reasons).
Delphine is not only a colonel in the French DGA (see glossary), she's an engineer, a doctor in robotics and has been the director of advanced studies for land systems for the past year. “What motivates me is trying to build things,” she says, adding firmly that in career choices "you just have to dare and please yourself."
I managed to talk to her for an hour towards the end of a busy day for her at the Eurosatory land and air-land show held last week near Paris where I'd seen her, microphone in hand, explaining some of the land systems under her responsibility to official delegates and visitors.
This slight, freckled woman with laughing blue eyes, concedes that some men were a little surprised to find a woman at the head of the collaborative combat segment of Scorpion, the major French army modernisation programme, when she was its programme manager from 2013 to 2017. But she says she's "suffered from very few constraints, thanks to the open-minded education I received from my parents.” With two daughters of her own, though, she's very aware that childrens' books, toy catalogues, advertising, and so on, still today tend to push children "towards gender-specific games and activities that don't help girls develop much of an interest in technology. There's still a lot to do to overcome these gender barriers."
Her own interest in technology developed slowly. A "fairly good all-rounder but with a preference for maths" at school, she prepared successfully for the competitive entrance exam for the École Polytechnique (see glossary) where, in the entrance class of 1995 there were about 50 other girls. They made up less than 15% of the student body. But, she remarks, “I didn't feel that we were treated any differently from the boys.”
As part of their studies, the students had to undergo military training. Délphine did hers at an air base. Her eyes light up at the memory of her flight in a Mirage 2000. She admits with a laugh that she felt sick during the last five minutes of the flight but that the experience of flying in a fighter jet was definitely worth it nonetheless!
It was at the air base that her interest in technology awoke, so she opted for the computer class “where I was the only girl amongst 70 students. The other girls had mainly opted for chemistry and biology but I was interested in a project to treat images so that forms could be automatically recognised.” With this speciality she had two choices when she graduated: the medical world or the military one. “But it seemed to me that there were more opportunities in the military for image treatment so I went for that.” She remembers the astonishment of her parents, both teachers, “when they first saw me in uniform. They were a bit surprised that I'd chosen the defence sector but understood that the DGA offered varied career opportunities.”
During her post-graduate studies at the ENSTA general engineering university she had to undertake an internship. She did hers at the DGA's technical centre in Arcueil “which is where I discovered robotics.” This really caught her imagination, so in 1999 she began a Master's degree in aritificial intelligence and form recognition. This was followed by a doctoral thesis on Simultaneous Localisation and Mapping (SLAM) “which is the technology at the heart of automatic vehicles,” she explains.
But during all this time she still “didn't really understand what an engineer's job actually consisted of,” she shrugs ruefully. “I wondered what they did all day in the office!” Now she knows! She says that she could never have foreseen when she was still at school how her career has developed "because each step was based on a discovery of a speciality or sector I'd made at the previous step."
She met her husband at ENSTA and thinks that to have an interesting career, it is “important to have an understanding spouse. He's been very supportive,” she smiles.