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Federal CTO’s New Mission: Raise the Government’s Tech IQ

CTO Megan Smith shares a laugh with a middle school student from Newark, N.J. and Code.org Founder Hadi Partovi, center, after teaching U.S. President Barack Obama how to code at the White House.

CTO Megan Smith shares a laugh with a middle school student from Newark, N.J. and Code.org Founder Hadi Partovi, center, after teaching U.S. President Barack Obama how to code at the White House. // Paul Morigi/AP

Federal Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith is on a mission to raise the tech IQ -- or TQ -- in government.

That’s the term Smith, a former Google executive who in August became the nation’s top technologist, uses to describe the potent mix of technical skill, design-centric thinking and penchant for innovation that has all too often been ignored or misunderstood in the halls of government.

"Ideas always start with a little crystal, a small team ... So, how do we as government get better at seeing those and then helping stand those up?" Smith said Tuesday during the State of the Net conference in Washington, D.C.

Smith touted the Obama administration’s all-of the-above approach to refreshing its tech workforce: from tapping Silicon Valley alumni to work on short-term projects to empowering and retraining existing federal techies.

You might’ve heard of the U.S. Digital Service, the federal fix-it team created in the wake of HealthCare.gov to help revamp agency’s digital offerings. Or 18F, the digital-design skunkworks housed in the General Services Administration.

Both have enticed top talent to work for the government at a time when federal recruiting and hiring in much of the rest of the government appears strained, if not broken.

A USDS collaboration with the Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, netted former Ellen Ratajak, one of the first engineers hired at Amazon, to lead engineering on the project.  

Smith said the mission of revamping federal digital services has helped attract top-notch talent such as Ratajak.

"What's your second act after Amazon as an engineer?” Smith said. “You've built everything. I mean, this woman's code has been delivering the boxes to your house with a smile for 15 years-plus. So, what's her second act? Our veterans ... How do we make their services as great as the ones that she and others led before?"

The administration is also filling gaps in the tech workforce thanks to a team of “digital reserves.” Essentially, private sector coders and engineers from Facebook, Google, Microsoft and others can rotate in to work on digital projects in government on short-term assignments -- projects as fleeting as helping write open-source code on a spare weekend, Smith said.

Digital bootcamps also help whip into shape existing government coders and engineers.

When the Digital Service team began its collaboration with VA, planners discovered that out of some 13,000 developers at the agency, only three knew JavaScript, Smith said.

“I mean, how unfair is that, for that team to not be trained at those elite things?” she told reporters after her speech. “So, [we’re] leveraging these code bootcamps so that the talent inside the government can be at the same talent level as colleagues in the commercial markets and actually flow between."

The goal is not to have government build all digital services in-house, but to make sure technologists have a seat at the table when project decisions get made.

“We should have our amazing off-the-shelf products … We should have things that we contract for,” Smith said.

But she added: “There needs to be a person in the room who speaks that language. You don't want to go a meeting in a foreign language and rely on the other side's interpreter."

The need for technologists in government was never more visibly highlighted than with the disastrous launch of HealthCare.gov in the fall of 2013.

"We are the country that created Amazon, you know, Jeff Bezos and his team,” Smith said in her public remarks. “We're the country that created Facebook and Twitter and created the Internet. Why shouldn't the websites and the mobile services and the way that we do customer service with the American people from the government -- why shouldn't it be that good?”

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