3 Ways to Hire More Tech Talent

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Want to hack a satellite? Come work for the Defense Department, one of its leading talent officials said.

The government’s challenges in recruiting and retaining tech talent are well-known and include an aging technical workforce and new hires who are more apt to leave the government ranks within two years than stay.  

The Pentagon understands those challenges and has worked in recent years to address them. The department stood up the Defense Digital Service, branded it a “SWAT team of nerds” and turned them loose to do their thing.

In a panel discussion Wednesday at Defense One’s Tech Summit, two current or former DDS officials and a former Pentagon staffer offered up their advice regarding how the government should pursue tech talent.  

“Google or Amazon or any of those big tech companies will not allow you to hack a satellite, but you can here at DDS,” said Christan Johnson, talent lead for the Defense Digital Service. Johnson said one of her key objectives is “connecting talent to mission” and explaining to potential talent what working in the national security space is actually like is a major attractant.

In addition, Johnson said sometimes it is appropriate to “forget about USAJOBS”—the portal for federal job openings—and “use technology to find the technologists” and “to into the spaces and places where the nerds are.” That includes making use of job recruiting sites heavily frequented by techies, attending tech-related conferences and engaging with entrepreneurs.

Johnson said 90% of DDS’ team comes from the tech sector, and she’s more than happy to accept referrals from them for more potential DDS recruits.

Lastly, Johnson said agencies need to make use of all the tools they have. During the COVID-19 outbreak, Johnson said DDS requested a waiver from the Office of Personnel Management to onboard several job candidates remotely. The waiver then extended to the defense secretary’s office, allowing them to onboard hundreds of new hires since the pandemic began.

“These persons are all coming on remotely, jumping into their projects, and we’re providing them with equipment and moving along with projects,” Johnson said.

Chris Lynch, who formerly served as the director of DDS and is now CEO of software company Rebellion Defense, said the government can entice more tech talent by doing “things that are rational and reasonable in private commercial software companies.” The government’s legacy IT systems do not mix well with today’s cloud-native tech talent, who are accustomed to collaborative tools like Slack or G Suite and not necessarily trapped in a dark office all day.

“Let’s put them in an environment that actually resembles what they’re used to, so they can use modern software, and they can configure environments to write code and deploy things,” Lynch said. “Let’s let talented technical people do what they are exceptionally good at.”

Lynch further stressed the need for some technologists to be in positions of authority.

“And let’s put technical people in a place where they can make technical decisions on technical problems in a position of authority,” said Lynch, who noted that particular advice was of significant importance for federal agencies.

Tara Murphy Dougherty, CEO of data firm Govini and a former Pentagon staffer, said bringing in “targeted groups of highly-skilled technologists and giving them [the tools] they need” is the right approach. She also urged the government to increase data literacy across departments.

“And that means everything from fundamentally changing your approaches to basic IT reforms so you’ve got the systems, the capabilities and the processing power to actually use data at scale,” Dougherty said.

At the Defense Department, Dougherty said there could be value in placing a data scientist in an Office of the Secretary of Defense role “because it impacts that increase in data literacy and drives data-driven policy-making.” In addition, she suggested employing separate cells of data scientists on teams doing more technical—and less policy—work.

The Pentagon, she added, may never look like a technology company, but it “better have good partnerships with the phenomenal technology companies” nationwide.