calling all engineers: uncle sam needs you

This post originally appeared on October 21, 2014

a year ago today, i began one of the most interesting stints of my career: i became part of the technology surge team brought in from the private sector to fix my time in washington was an eye-opener because i saw firsthand the endemic problems that undermine the government’s IT efforts, and i also saw what we need to do to overcome those problems.

time magazine did a great job describing the problems and how we tried to solve them in an article called Obama’s Trauma Team. one big mistake the government made was a mistake the private sector never makes: the government opened the website to everyone at once. people in the tech industry know to launch to an expanding population of users over time. when you start small with your launch, you can see the system under strain, fix it, and then scale it.

led in significant part by Mikey Dickerson, then a google site-reliability engineer, the team applied standard silicon valley rigor, behavior, and approaches to the salvaging effort. together with engineers from the contractors hired to build the site, we fixed by the administration’s deadline.

the Obama administration is now applying what it learned from all of us to its other challenges. in august it announced the U.S. Digital Services Playbook. consisting of 13 “plays” — each with a series of checklists and key questions — the playbook helps government agencies apply the tech industry’s best practices for product development.

the administration also launched the U.S. digital service, a small team of industry experts who will work with the agencies to improve how the government does IT. (the idea is similar to the UK’s Government Digital Service, which has transformed that country’s IT efforts.) Mikey Dickerson is now both administrator of the digital service team and deputy federal cio.

In addition, the administration has launched 18F, an internal consultancy that Federal agencies can hire to develop and deliver state-of-the-art digital services, and a new Veterans Affairs Digital Service team to help improve services for our nation’s heroes.

this is our industry’s chance to help federal IT become easier for people to use. citizens deserve technology services from the government that actually work. there are so many ways we can use the skills that we’ve honed in silicon valley to make a difference in our nation’s capital. is the one project we’ve all heard about, but it’s far from unique. the new open payments website, for instance, is supposed to “to help consumers understand the financial relationships between the health care industry, and physicians and teaching hospitals.” unfortunately, it’s so obtuse that even professional health care journalists can’t figure out how to use it. according to the new york times, if it “were a consumer product, it would be returned to the manufacturer for a full refund.”

i say that this kind of performance is unacceptable today. and yet the government continues to hire expensive contractors who have shown that they’re great at meeting complicated regulations but don’t have a clue about solving real-world problems.

now, with the new U.S. Digital Service team, 18F, and the VA Digital Service, our industry has a real opportunity to help modernize government IT, make federal websites easier for citizens to use and more effective in solving their problems, and put everyone’s tax dollars to good use. It looks like things are beginning to change.

here’s where you come in.

the U.S. Digital Service, 18F, and VA Digital Service are looking for a few good people who:

a: will join these teams full time

b: are willing to leave the valley for a year or two to work in public service

c: can find other tech experts to fill either of those first two capacities

earlier this month i hosted Todd Park, tech advisor to the White House based in the Valley, at the kleiner perkins offices in menlo park to introduce him to potential recruits for the government’s new digital service teams. we had a great turnout, but we still need more.

consider this a call to action.

i encourage you to reach out to Todd and Jennifer Anastasoff at [email protected] to learn how you can help the government deliver a better digital experience to all Americans. maybe you’ll just want to cycle in for a year or two; maybe you can suggest someone for the team. either way, this is a chance to make a real difference in the life of our country. isn’t that why we got into technology in the first place?