The US Government’s Call for Tech Talent

tlc0090The government has been crying out, at least from the top, for more software development talent to come work for them. Specifically, I’ve heard quotes about talking to “entrepreneurs, moviemakers, organizations, tech leaders” that come from Facebook and Google. They have brought in people for short bursts even from companies who donate that employee’s time and have had several high profile developers even join full time. The President himself even came and gave to give a keynote interview of sorts at the technology focused SXSWi. They mention solving big problems and how much of a positive impact is possible. But how do they plan to attract snag the software developer talent? Saying you want something isn’t worth much unless you also figure out how to get it.

When I think about government genius I think about Los Alamos, the military contractors or NASA. There was a time that the smartest America had to offer fought to get government positions. If you wanted to work on the bleeding edge of technology the government was one of the best funded research groups in the world. The tools and technology needed by STEM folks was exceedingly expensive and the government had all the gadgets. There was no private enterprise going to space or building the first atomic weapons. Getting into those positions meant everything. Similarly, a lot of programmers wanted to go work for IBM or Microsoft at the beginning. Again because they had all the toys. But things have changed since then and the talent they are seeking to attract isn’t interested in anything the government has to offer. If we need supercomputing power, we can spin up an Amazon EC2 server. No need for system admins, electricity, time, installation or work orders. If we need to communicate, collaborate there is nothing the government is the gatekeeper for. The work benefits the government offers aren’t worth as much as the once were. They aren’t giving the other benefits the companies they mention do. I’m not just thinking about the free lunches but the freedoms around work hours. Government hours remain extremely structured. They are on equal playing ground as Google, Facebook and everyone else they mention. Equal playing ground, offering not just less but what I imagine to be antithesis of the ideal environment for “entrepreneurs, moviemakers, organizations, tech leaders” and programmers. EMOTP /ɪmˈhoʊtɛp/

EMOTP get things done. They find solutions to immediate problems and execute. Perhaps they find a way to automate a repetitive task by writing a quick script. They don’t have to ask for permission, or get it cleared through anyone or even use a particular language. As a result, they can act quickly to solve any problems that might come up. I can’t imagine any successful EMOTP not being able to think on their feet and act quickly to overcome some obstacle. Several of them even go back into startups again and again because the freedom to get things done is lost as the group size increases. There is nothing about government that is small, nimble or has the freedom to act independently.

Modern development is possible by the collaboration of programmers and open source technologies. The key being open and free. The online communities that build the programs on which the companies from which the government seeks its talents are given away freely. But I imagine that blogging as a government official would be restrictive. You aren’t your own person at that point but held to your position as paid for the by the tax payers of America. But you can’t similarly demand the source code for tax paid products. Voting has been mentioned recently, where do I download that source code? How about the police speed guns or red light camera systems? Why is public funded research kept behind paywalls? EMOTPs don’t agree with that kind of double standard.

Every EMOTP that is discussed as being part of that successful crowd from which the government seeks to pull its talent took great risk to get into their positions. EMOTP is all about risk. Disruption requires risk. Uber is doing great having taken risks in circumventing laws around taxi services and succeeded. A recent healthcare startup is tanking after being valued highly but failed because of the risks around the industry they wanted to disrupt.  Taking risks in government just doesn’t happen. Every action is approved by committee before being started and even then it doesn’t work out often.

Government is slow. Five years went by for the FBI Virtual Case File to end without releasing any product. They must have learned something and six years later Sentinel was released. One product in eleven years! Every company they list has much shorter product release cycles. I guess I don’t think the government needs to collect any EMOTPs at all. They should either outsource those projects to the American public or train a set of people that fit into their mold to become EMOTPs. How about the recent healthcare site debacle? Only after someone offered to work for a fraction of their pay at Google did it get sorted out.

They aren’t paying competitive rates. When it comes down to adjusted wages they aren’t offering as much as the other EMOTP hubs of America. Washington DC is damn expensive to live in and they need to open up remote work. It isn’t really even “remote” if you stay in the United States since the government is everywhere right? Open up more remote work positions and lay off the dress code requirements (I hear they did this). There is a long list of possible perks job seekers are looking for, flexible hours, remote work, purpose and transparency. I think you could argue that a government job provides purpose but unless you’re in the right position the bureaucracy will beat the EMOTP spirit right out of you.

There are plenty of reasons to not go working for the government. Their one-time monopoly on the technologies that were going to make the future possible has long since been lost. They don’t have a carrot that big to attract EMOTPs and being a public crusader don’t last long in the days and weeks that go by like a blur without releasing a product. They need to get specific, what are the big problems they seem to think only EMOTPs can solve? I think they need to continue outsourcing their technology work because they won’t get this talent they want. Or perhaps the other solution, which is to train their existing staff to do the job.

Finding balance between progress and preserves

I love the natural world. I find it easy to say but hard to define. I moved out to the 2222 and 620 or Four Points area about 13 years ago. I’ve moved away twice but always returned and have spent about 10 years here now. I’ve watched the stretch of 2222 between 360 and 620 change over those years. The opening of Concordia University, the opening and closing of a super Walmart and the dramatic decapitation of a hill at Jester for an apartment complex. The new office complex past Jester and the even newer Indeed office building. The expansion of McNeil to include 2 apartment complexes, 2 schools and an enormous church. The 3M research facility has been the unchanged landmark of the area, thank you 3M. I lived in 3 apartments down this road, 2 of them completely new construction, 1 on 620 and in each case I wanted to have that green tree view.

Seeing the future and deciding not to act

During that time, I saw the land get cleared and the traffic increase. Each time I thought about the loss of nature but I never stopped to think any longer. That changed one Sunday morning while I walked my dog. A fence had gone up on the border of my apartment complex property and as I looked out into the trees I noticed the little bands of color around them. It slowly dawned on me that those little bands described the fate of this little forest. I listened to the birds sing, felt the warm sun and the air smelt fresh. The land which the apartment complex swore wouldn’t get developed would be leveled for something. I put it out of my mind after an emotional moment and decided I wouldn’t stay in the area too much longer.

I took the first picture just because I thought it was beautiful never thinking about the second picture.

Too late to save the present but not too late to change the future

However, I found myself speechless this weekend when I saw this. I know I imagined it before but the reality was so jarring to me. Little by little the area was developed but seeing this change happen seemed to be a tipping point for me. I decided I must make time to get involved in some kind of nature volunteer work if I want to know I’ve done something. I struggled with that thought for a while though. Why did I just now want to do something about it? It was too late, the plans had been approved several years back and I obviously hadn’t bothered then or in the interim time to learn about what would happen. I decided I have to be okay with that. The idea that there is a tipping point between a thought and the will to perform the action. Armchair activist is a very accurate term, armchair anything in fact. But I decided that I wouldn’t turn away or chastise someone deciding it was time to act so I shouldn’t do it to myself. We want to place the world into buckets which are entirely separate. This bucket here agrees with me, that bucket doesn’t and there is no possibility of an overlap. I think the truth is in a Venn diagram, several in fact, overlapping countless times creating a gradient rainbow of colors.

Fear of hypocrisy, but people can change their minds

I decide to help push back on progress and save the preserves. I thought of all the animal homes that were demolished. I saw more birds than usual around the perimeter trees that day making chirps in protest, not knowing what happened or why. The residents of my apartment complex complained as well. But the damage was done. Environmentalists or nature conservationists might seem insane as they fight over every inch of land. But for every inch or acre that gets developed that natural land is lost forever. They have to fight tooth and nail because the greed of humanity has to be kept in check. If we don’t fight to conserve our natural landscape those people without this connection to the world at large will pave it down. Each concession of land brings another request to rezone some of the preserve. Each developer just needs that one acre for their project but it grows and grows. When I say developer in the context of this post I mean land developer and not the software developer kind I usually write about.

Satellite images of the development around 2222 and 620 between 2001 and 2015

So when I hear about developers or friends of developers lobbying to remove preserve lands because of their high value I will bark about it. There is a push to change the status of the Golden-cheeked Warbler with the ultimate goal of developing these preserves. They will see big profits if they achieve those goals but won’t think of the loss, the irrevocable loss, of those endangered Texas birds like the Golden-cheeked Warbler or the Black-capped Vireo.

Photo of Golden-cheeked Warbler by me.

Not paving over nature but becoming part of it

At the same time, I know the land I live on was the same land that once was home to similar animals. I want to be in the middle of that nature and I’m going to live in that Venn diagram I mentioned before. I hate to see the land over developed but I want to live there. So there is a balance I believe that can be achieved. There doesn’t need to be one apartment complex built up to the property line of another. The housing developments don’t need to level the land before they build but they do it anyway because it is cheaper. They don’t need to build the houses within arms reach of each other leaving no room for trees. We have a wonderful amount of land in Texas and can afford to spread out just a bit more to leave more habitats for those who we displace to live where we do. Responsible clearing of land would ensure that the trees and animals would be respected before cutting them down. Relocating nests and families’ costs money and takes time. Don’t put our time over their lives.

Taking action, a first step or just learning more

Are you living around Austin, TX? You could volunteer for Wildlife Rescue in Austin for just 6 hours a week and rehabilitate animals. That is where I’ll be going to volunteer first. Maybe you’d like to try helping to take care of exhibits, cleaning or educating the public by volunteering at the Austin Nature & Science Center near Zilker Park. I’ll never forget my time there dusting, cleaning displays and helping children experience the live insect exhibit!

I am going to be birding and contributing to the Travis Audubon Society because I especially love birds. I do try to take photos of birds and get lucky from time to time you can see some of my album of select bird photos on Flickr. If you’re into birds as well you can find your local Audubon chapter and volunteer that way. There are a wide variety of volunteer opportunities with Texas Parks & Wildlife across the entire state. No matter where you live in the United States you can find something near you to volunteer your time to on

If you need more reasons or want to learn more from your home there are still things you can do. Watch the The National Parks documentary by Ken Burns. It is amazing that we have these parks today. They were almost lost several times and once lost they would never have been recovered like the flooding of Hetch Hetchy Valley. You can also watch the Sagebrush Sea by PBS which focuses on the amazing Greater Sage-Grouse whose habitat is being eroded by development.

Greater sage-grouse photo by Jeannie Stafford/USFWS.

Creating and Taking Ownership of Your Personal Brand

Photo by Jeff Stvan

“Iron Sky” by Jeff Stvan

In the beginning

When I began programming it was a solitary pursuit. I didn’t connect with any other hobbyist or professional programmers for several years until my first real job. At that same time I bought this domain without an idea of what I was going to do with it. I remember the desire to claim a space online, and to create a personal presence. This wasn’t my first domain, and I regret not continuing the pay for my registration of older domains. I remember someone I didn’t know well coming up to me in high school and asking why my site wasn’t live anymore. At that point I realized I could have an effect on someone without ever knowing them; simply by publishing my own presence online. My personal brand uses my own name: Barrett Sonntag.

Our modern development space is an open book

During this time Linux was fighting for enterprise respect while being created by countless programmers from all across the globe for the love of creation. I watched this open source software movement being vilified and fought. Any developer today can look around, look at GitHub, and see just how much benefit open source software has brought to our chosen profession. Everything in GitHub is tracked, and everything has a unique name on it. That unique name links to a page which lists all of their contributions, which languages they use, and which projects they contribute too. With just a little searching you can create a complete picture of a programmers activity online. Even the lack of activity is knowledge that asks questions. I can’t share the code for private projects, but by contributing publicly I can share a bit of my experience and passion. Your accountability in code is easily viewable so think carefully about cursing in your comments.

My turning point to making the Barrett Sonntag brand

In 2007 I made a conscious decision to own my personal brand, that is Barrett Sonntag. Some coworkers and I started searching ourselves online. Those with common names didn’t appear at all, but since I am blessed with a fairly unique name some content came up. Some stuff I forgot about, but was proud of. My good friend Ronald Figueroa bought his own domain not too long after that conversation. At the same time I saw a possible future where someone else would come into the Internet with my name, and I wouldn’t be able to recoup ownership of my name. I had a head start and I took it. I took ownership of the Barrett Sonntag brand, and that extends beyond my personal reach. It is my creation, it is what I have chosen to publish and relate to myself. I have gone to the source where my employers, my clients, and my customers go searching for truth to create my personal brand. Search engine optimization for the self!

The information super highway

Thousands of people are intentionally doing the same thing right now. There are personal blogs of developers, designers, project managers, or hire me sites, that are purpose built. These personal brands are extremely valuable, increasing your future potential earnings, discoverability or providing an edge in getting your next job. The Internet is how we discover the world outside our personal network. Even when I get a personal recommendation for something I turn right around and enter that into the search engines of the Internet to get a feel for the general consensus. The idea that I did Internet research on potential clients and employees was novel at the time in my personal network, but is common place today. At the same time over these last few years we’ve had more people join the Internet as consumers. They only created content on social networks, and learned hard lessons about the permanence of the Internet. The pictures you post, the words you say have an unknown lifespan, and that idea is hard to understand. So we have these personal brands being created right now whose value does extend beyond the person who is creating them. The creation of your own personal brand is a way to take control of reality in relation to yourself. You have an opportunity to be selective about the picture of you that someone else builds in their mind when they search for you online. You can highlight your achievements, point out your contributions, and wax poetic about something related to your brand.

The risks of connecting the virtual and physical

The creation of your online presence, your personal brand, or your history on the Internet can also be a security measure. Defamation of character as I understand it is a matter between two entities. Someone has stated false claims on my brand, or another person whose name matches my personal brand does something newsworthy, creates a lot of noise unrelated to what I have created. The more effort placed into my brand the more robust I believe it might be in that event, and no I haven’t had to test that yet. There has also been many instances of unorganized but large amounts of individuals acting aggressively. They will tweet, post to blogging platforms, share on social networks. I don’t know if there is a defense of that to be honest. There is a large amount of risk taken in creating your own personal brand connecting an online presence with your physical presence. The risk is not only to yourself but to those near to you whether you’re in the right or not. A statement can be taken out of context, an opinion you gave, and comments you made in the past can haunt you if it is connected to your personal brand in a negative way. Your personal social media pages that are public or private can be connected to you. Private social networks can be made public in the blink of an eye by accident or on purpose. Those photos you thought were cool or comments you made in college might not reflect who you are now, and can hurt your personal brand.

A personal brand is free to create, but I can only imagine how much PR disaster relief can cost. It doesn’t even have to be done with the intent of creating a formal brand. You can create, with some effort, the picture you want, and the reality you want. Don’t be fooled though, there is not enough potential value to risk lying. I only publish the truth as I know it at that moment, it’s a lot easier to be consistent, I am always able to change my opinion based on new information, and there is no web of lies. Nothing goes away in the information age, there is no secret that can be kept once it gets uploaded, and if you lie it will eventually come back around. Even offline sleuths can uncover public records that are then uploaded and spread. There isn’t a defense strong enough to suppress the truth once it hits the Internet.

Another consideration to keep in mind when you strike out to create a personal brand is hacking. A stale site that isn’t up-to-date is a prime target for hackers. They don’t make any noise when they infect your sites and are very difficult to get rid of. I’ve had more than one time of my own dealing with security vulnerabilities so keep your brand active and the problems if they arise won’t go unnoticed.

A natural progression to personal brand creation

This personal brand, Barrett Sonntag, is something I never imagined when I started programming. I never considered that I would work with other people on enormous code bases that were created by our predecessors. You’re probably already on your way to creating a personal brand of your own. Open source software has won the day, programmers have put themselves out their, and connected themselves with their code. You can trace contributions, bugs, comments, successes, and mistakes back to the person that created them. The connections may be created innocently at first, perhaps as leverage in an interview, but soon build into a map or history of your footprints across the net. To make this personal brand and directly connect it to yourself takes courage. It is to become vulnerable, and is a commendable step for people with less supportive environments. You are spreading your arms wide and saying here I am, this is my mark. I want to show you what I am proud of, what I think makes me valuable, how I act, and how I think. Many people have become social through these personal brands only in the way today’s Internet understands social interaction. It never requires any physical presence to create a brand with a social appearance. The stereotype of a basement dweller can be one of your most prolific sources of information and have an extremely valuable personal brand.

Be the authority on your personal brand

Why do we take the risk in curating a personal brand? Because there is no other option to create opportunity besides a true network of people who know you. That true strongly linked network will have a short reach, and has the chicken and the egg problem. You can create a larger weaker linked network that has a long reach in your spare time. These personal brands persist beyond social networks that rise and fall, and so long as you maintain them they will be the single source of information on you and your curated personal brand. Your guest posts to other blogging platforms could vanish overnight, or the platform might decide that they want to kill a feature that you’ve invested time in. The longer you own your personal brand’s domain name the more value it has. So take a look at your own footprints across the sites you use, and objectively see if you’re creating a brand you’d be proud of. Then take ownership of your personal brand and stake your claim for your online presence.