The US Government’s Call for Tech Talent

By | March 14, 2016

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.

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