May 29, 2019

Recruiting Silicon Valley engineers for Uncle Sam

Illustration: Axios Visuals

The effort to bring tech talent into the federal government may have started with the Obama administration, but the same United States Digital Service that came in to rescue Healthcare.gov is still at work today trying to modernize other areas of the federal government.

Why it matters: The government has lots of old code running on mainframe computers and is looking for help moving systems to modern, cloud-based infrastructure.

"We’re still here," says Matt Cutts, the former Google engineer who now leads the United States Digital Service. "We’re still working on things that matter and we’re hiring."

  • Cutts is in the Bay Area for this week's Code For America Summit, looking to find as many recruits as possible — and perhaps even his own successor.

The other coast: While not everyone in Silicon Valley wants to leave their jobs to work under President Trump, Cutts said that lots of tech folks see the potential impact they can have, regardless of who is in the White House.

  • In his recruiting pitch, Cutts doesn't play up the politics of D.C. Instead, he makes the case there is no place a single engineer or product manager can make as big an impact as working for Uncle Sam.

Flashback: After Trump's 2016 victory, some participants in Obama-era gov-tech initiatives quit. Others, like Cutts, decided public service still made sense for them.

  • While Trump remains a factor for some recruiting targets, Cutts said a more common reason for Silicon Valley talent to say "no" is the move to Washington.
  • "And yes, you do have to pass a drug test," he said.

Yes, but: You don't have to stay that long. The USDS hires people for as little as 3 months, with just under 2 years being the average tour of duty.

Details: There are currently 180 people at USDS, but Cutts said there is room for as many qualified people as he can find. Cutts himself signed up for a three-month tour and has now been with USDS for 3 years, rising to the role of director.

  • For some who join, working in government can provide their next startup idea. Cutts points to the example of Google veteran Jitendra Vaidya, who helped the Department of Veteran Affairs move data to the cloud as part of a stint with USDS and then returned to the Bay Area and launched PlanetScale, a venture-backed enterprise startup
  • A handful of others, he said, have moved into full-time government work, including Clare Martorana, the CIO of the Office of Personnel Management. Her deputy at OPM also came from USDS.

The bigger picture: Cutts said that many of those who join do so because they are attracted to the notion of working on bigger, more impactful projects. For example:

  • The recent overhaul of VA.gov, which makes it easier for veterans to connect with the services they need. The overall puts the 20 most-used services front and center.
  • In another case, Cutts said the USDS helped an agency avoid wasting $100 million on hardware spending by relying on the cloud to manage peak traffic.

The bottom line: In many cases, he said, the barrier to government modernization isn't legislation or bureaucratic entrenchment, but a lack of technical talent.

"There are projects involving people’s lives and hundreds of millions of dollars at risk of not being delivered for lack of one UI researcher, a few engineers or one good product manager."
USDS director Matt Cutts

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