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Wearing Shorts at the Pentagon: Inside DOD’s Digital Service Team

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A top Google executive who joined the U.S. Digital Service gave internet users on Tuesday a look into his job: bridging the technological gap between Silicon Valley and Washington. 

Matt Cutts, head of Google's web spam team and pioneer of Google's family SafeSearch filter, took leave from the company in June to join the Pentagon branch of USDS. 

USDS, a problem-solving team known for recruiting from commercial giants including Amazon and Oracle, celebrated its second year this week. The group was founded by members of an emergency tech squad, parachuted in to the federal government to repair HealthCare.gov's botched rollout. Now, it has satellite versions in many major federal entities including the departments of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs.

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Despite much hype, USDS has garnered criticism from lawmakers after a watchdog report suggested members don't always communicate with agency chief information officers, and that they don't regularly document how they select projects, which are supposed to be the federal government's most pressing IT problems.

Cutts answered a few user-submitted inquiries on question-and-answer site Quora about his work in the federal government. Here are a few takeaways: 

1. Tech professionals still wear shorts to work, even if they’re embedded in the Pentagon.

Federal employees wary of USDS and 18F, the General Services Administration’s digital consultancy that also recruits from the private sector, suggested the influx of young talent might cause a culture clash between career employees and Silicon Valley hotshots. In one answer, Cutts describes this dichotomy: “We’re physically located in the Pentagon, which is pretty wild for someone used to wearing shorts and a T-shirt to work. I still wear shorts and a T-shirt most days.”

The Pentagon’s digital service team is about 15 to 16 people, including engineers, designers, project managers and “bureaucracy hackers,” Cutts wrote. He described himself as an “individual contributor,” who originally joined as a software engineer. 

2. Idealism might be enough to get techies to join government. 

Federal executives have worried that low government salaries might deter tech talent — especially millennials from joining the public sector instead of higher-paying, hipper private-sector tech jobs. Asked why he joined the Pentagon’s Digital Service, Cutts answered:

“I’m fundamentally an idealist, and the idea of trying to help appealed to me. A bunch of people that I respect and like were also doing it. My former team at Google was doing well. And I was at a place in my life where I could spend several months in D.C. The final nudge came at a conference earlier this year when I had dinner with Haley Van Dyck, an early member of the USDS. After talking to her, the question became: Why wouldn’t you do this?”

Later, he added, “For tech folks, government now represents a third option besides industry and academia.”

3. Some USDS work involves weeks-long research deep-dives into specific topics, called “discovery sprints.”

In one such sprint Cutts participated in, he traveled to Afghanistan to understand what specific problems employees faced there. In another, he examined the process by which government and military hire and provide clearances especially in the aftermath of the recent hack exposing personal information from more than 20 million people who underwent government background checks.

“Parts of that system and process are now being improved and parts are being replaced,” Cutts wrote. “The Defense Digital Service has been observing that process, and I’ve been helping around the edges with some of that."

4. Trendy technology doesn’t figure prominently in Digital Service work. Asked what role A.I. plays in his job, Cutts wrote:

“The DDS is focused on things that we can do in the next few months. Artificial intelligence might affect a lot of topics in the coming years, but honestly there’s just so many basic, fundamental things that need work right now. Making sure that veterans can more easily apply for their benefits, for example. In the USDS, people are working on making it easier to renew or replace a green card. “

In a later question, Cutts listed a few concepts he thought could most improve government, including bug-bounty programs, vulnerability disclosure policies, running citizen-facing services in the cloud, DevOps and agile methodology, user-centered design and open source software.

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