NGA Launches Bold Recruitment Plan to Hire Silicon Valley's Best

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The intel agency is hacking hiring rules to fill three new digital teams in its quest for data dominance.

Attention Silicon Valley, Boston, Austin and other tech hubs across the country: One of the 17 U.S. intelligence agencies wants your best and brightest tech talent, and it’s making a game-changing strategic play to get them.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, responsible for gathering and disseminating geospatial data for national security, disaster response and combat support, is setting up shop in San Francisco with the intent to hire hundreds of data scientists, architects, stewards, engineers, coders, designers and other STEM-laden talent.

The agency opened Outpost Silicon Valley, a new office in San Francisco, where it plans to host three brand new data teams. The agency’s new Chief Data Scientist Andy Brooks will be responsible for filling out NGA’s brand new Data Corps, one of three initiatives the agency unveiled to Nextgov as part of its broader strategy to bring best practices and talent from the tech industry to the intelligence community.

Speaking at a Nextgov event in Los Angeles Wednesday, Brooks said NGA’s intent is to hire dozens of data scientists and analysts through the Data Corps to augment NGA’s existing talent “to solve the big data problems within the agency.” Those problems, Brooks said, are the kind that end up in presidential daily briefings or save lives during disasters or military conflicts.

NGA’s Data-Enabled Workforce strategy also creates two additional hiring initiatives: a Developer Corps and an Explorer Program. Through the Developer Corps, NGA intends to hire several hundred full-time software engineers, developers and coders for its own in-house software development team, according to Associate Director for Capabilities Anthony Vinci, who supplied the vision for NGA’s bold new tech strategy.

While the Data and Developer corps will turn techies into full-time federal employees working on classified problems, the Explorer program seeks technically skilled individuals for short-term tours of duty, building off a model employed by Obama-era tech initiatives 18F and the U.S. Digital Service. NGA wants as many as 50 “explorers” who could be brought within NGA’s fold for one- to three-year terms. Provided they’ve passed an initial security vetting, Brooks said some explorers working on open, unclassified NGA problems, could do so remotely.

“It’s pretty radical to think people are working in uncleared projects where they are situated and located, but it’s the realization of the talent we need,” Brooks said. “We’ve got to meet them where they are. You’ll get to work on some crazy, high-stakes decisions and amazing projects. You’ll have an interesting story to tell. We’ll give them an experience for a year or two, and then send them back to industry.”

More Data, More Problems

NGA maps the world through a sophisticated network of spy satellites, reconnaissance planes, sensors and a growing amalgam of open-source data, delivering key intelligence to warfighters and policymakers.

The agency has a role in everything from routing aid to disaster-stricken locations to coordinating military strikes, but like the other intelligence agencies and the federal government as a whole, NGA faces a critical shortage of technical talent as it prepares to deal with a future driven by the explosive growth of data collected from vehicles, mobile phones and anything else with a sensor.

Today’s worldwide geospatial data production is measured in exabytes—a single exabyte equals one million terabytes. For context, digitizing every book within the Library of Congress would produce about 10 terabytes. The sheer volume of geospatial data—much of it relevant to NGA’s national security mission—highlights how large a big data problem it poses.

Backed by NGA Director Robert Cardillo, the Data-Enabled Workforce strategy is the agency’s realization that human capital trumps all in meeting tomorrow’s mission. It isn’t as if technology doesn’t matter. The NGA was among the first within the IC to make use of the Amazon Web Services-developed C2S cloud and earlier this year rolled out a plan keep pace with emerging private sector technologies. But people still matter the most, Vinci said.

“We have multiple programs combining into a comprehensive plan for how we recruit, train and retrain the workforce and talent that we’re going to need in the near- and long-term future to support NGA’s mission as it evolves, and as the technology necessary to do that mission evolves,” Vinci told Nextgov.

Vinci said big data problems exist all over the agency, from mundane-sounding human resources challenges to the cutting-edge ground systems that collect and disseminate data from defense satellites in space, to the data centers and systems where NGA ingests open geospatial data sets from a growing list of companies.

NGA’s challenges are matched by few—if any—organizations in the private sector, Vinci said, and that’s a big selling point in targeting Silicon Valley’s best and brightest.

“Nobody else in the world manages the kinds of large systems like we do working with the [National Reconnaissance Office] and our mission partners,” Vinci said. “Even the Googles and Space Xs of the world are frankly years, if not decades, behind what we’re able to do in taking data from space, satellites and other capabilities and getting it to the ground and moving it around the world and then using and analyzing that data. There is nowhere else in the world where you can get this kind of experience.”

Three Ways to Take Your Talents to the IC

The Data Corps, Developer Corps and Explorer program are three distinct initiatives the NGA wants to fill with people possessing slightly different skill sets and ambitions. These initiatives will augment the substantial data innovation that already exists within NGA’s various directorates.

The Data Corps will be an 85- to 100-person “corporate level data support office,” Vinci said, tasked with helping other NGA offices and directorates around the globe do more with their data sets. That could mean coming up with new data science models to support analysts or scripting new code around existing data, Vinci added, among a slew of other possibilities.

Brooks will head the Data Corps, and while NGA will recruit from its ranks internally, he is seeking to recruit data engineers, data scientists and data managers and others with technical backgrounds from Silicon Valley and elsewhere. Data Corps recruits will join NGA as full-time federal employees and will have to complete a full security clearance vetting before they can work with any classified data. However, Vinci said some Data Corps recruits could be tasked to work on unclassified problems before attaining a full security clearance.

The Developer Corps will recruit up to 200 software developers, designers and engineers to become the agency’s on-site team. Like most of the federal government, Vinci said NGA pivoted to buying software instead of building it more than a decade ago. While the agency will still outsource some software, Vinci said NGA believes hiring its own engineers to work on-site will make it more agile, responsive and in tune with the agency’s technical and institutional knowledge.

Unlike the Developer and Data corps, recruits in the NGA Explorer program need not become permanent federal employees. Instead, they’ll work on one- to three-year term positions before returning to the private sector or academia. NGA seeks data scientists, UI/UX designers and a variety of other technically skilled backgrounds to fill its Explorer ranks, and successful recruits will be tasked to tackle problems across the agency based on skillset and interests. Vinci said the turnaround time for Explorers to get hired is the quickest.

Despite the current security clearance backlog, Vinci said NGA expects to onboard new Explorer recruits within two months and promises they’ll be “working on stuff from day one” and able to contribute while their clearance goes through.

“We can get you working within 60 days of getting an offer, which is like light-speed for government,” Vinci said.

To Attract Talent, the NGA is Selling Some Unique Perks—And Itself

The federal government faces a stacked deck competing with the private sector for tech workers. The hiring process is lengthy, top talent doesn’t like to relocate and the government frequently can’t match private-sector pay. That partly explains why there is only one under-30 IT worker in the federal ranks for every four over the age of 60. To mitigate these issues, NGA is pulling out all the stops.

Many of NGA’s new recruits are likely to end up working at Outpost Silicon Valley, located at 50 United Nations Plaza in San Francisco. For a while, NGA was sharing office space in Silicon Valley with the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, but its own physical presence means NGA can support a workforce in the middle of Silicon Valley.

“I think it’s a game-changer for us because it’s in the heart of San Francisco,” Vinci said. “You could be working on intelligence or Defense Department problems right downtown. Not everyone wants to move out here, and at NGA, now you don’t have to. We can offer that.”

Vinci said NGA’s Silicon Valley presence enables some of its future data gurus and tech geniuses to stay where the innovation is. Vinci said NGA is considering expanding its presence further into other cities well-known for innovation, including Austin, Boston and New York City.

“What drives technology forward is that you’re communicating with all the other people developing that technology. You need to be part of the community to do it,” Vinci said.

Google, Facebook, Amazon and other tech giants pay a premium to their tech talent, and the NGA “can’t pay what you can probably get in the private sector, but I will say the pay rates are not too shabby,” Vinci said. The NGA will offer pay near the top of the federal government’s General Schedule pay scale and recruiting bonuses to “folks with key technical talent and skills we really need within the agency,” Brooks said.

Internally, NGA Learning Division Chief Shawn Riordan led an effort across all NGA directorates to maximize the agency’s use of hiring authorities to reduce the time it takes to hire new tech recruits. She also ensured the strategy met the agency’s rigorous legal policies and budgeting demands.

The NGA’s “bureaucracy hacking” reduced the time it takes to fully onboard some recruits to 60 days without compromising security, Vinci said. NGA may push its boundaries even further to seek future tech talent. Vinci said NGA’s Campus East is in the midst of a piloting the use of an unclassified cloud computing environment for uncleared personnel to play with unclassified data.

Internally, NGA has discussed the idea of allowing future tech recruits to telework. Commonplace in the tech industry, telework is a rarity for the majority of IC-related positions borne out of security concerns, and while NGA has not formally adopted any such idea, it shows how aggressive the agency is willing to be in maintaining an edge in technology and talent.

“It’s akin to the space race, right now where we’re at with data science,” Brooks said. “Part of the compensation is being part of the mission itself and solving a problem that is bigger than yourself.

Those interested can search through jobs at NGA’s careers website.