Technologists look for environments that value them, give them challenging opportunities, help them grow their skills, and provide a path to advance their careers.
Already, the Biden administration has shown its commitment to creating a modern government by bringing talented technologists into senior positions. To execute on that vision, the administration will need thousands of skilled technologists in the federal service to do the preliminary work to explore problems, help evaluate vendors, and lead the day-to-day operations of contracting teams.
Hiring technology professionals at this scale requires federal agencies to make serious changes to how they attract and retain talented people who could easily go elsewhere.
Technologists look for environments that value them, give them challenging opportunities, help them grow their skills, and provide a path to advance their careers. This translates into things like mentorship programs, training to grow skills, career paths that set out goals, and leadership in technical practice areas to develop best practices. Technology companies invest in these things both because it makes the work that they do better, and because it engages, challenges, and grows their employees into better and more valuable professionals.
Government is missing this support structure for technologists. While most agencies have some kind of career path for technology professionals, almost all are hired under the generic title of “IT Specialist.” In many agencies, there’s little specialization around different disciplines like product management, user experience design, or front-end development. There’s also little in the way of technical mentorship opportunities or leadership from senior technologists. Some organizations, like the Technology Transformation Services at the General Services Administration, have built out some of this environment, but they are the rare exception.
Some of the most talented people I’ve worked with have been in government technology, but there’s a difference between talented individuals and hiring technology professionals at scale.
Environments that don’t provide the things technology professionals are looking for will undoubtedly attract some talented people. But to compete in a market, you have to look at what the competition is doing and adapt, otherwise, you won’t bring in the people you need.
Another place where government fails to compete is in compensation. The pay scale in government is not on par with the private sector, and so the government will inevitably lose high performers to the private sector. One solution is to create a special pay scale for technologists that recognizes that the skills they have are highly compensated and that government needs this experience to be successful. There is precedent for this: the Securities and Exchange Commission pays lawyers on a higher pay scale because it’s competing with Wall Street.
The government also needs to work on the experience of being a government employee. Government shouldn’t compete with the luxury perks of major tech companies, but employees also shouldn't have to pool their money to rent a water cooler (a real thing that happens in federal offices).
Agencies should invest in an environment that makes employees feel respected and equipped with the tools to do their job. The federal government can provide modern offices, quality laptops, and the flexibility to use common software tools while still being good stewards of public funds.
Finally, the government must embrace remote work. Limiting employees to a geographic area creates direct competition with local technology companies, which is a losing battle. Enabling remote work will open up government jobs to a much larger group of people, and will increase the government’s ability to compete for better talent. The COVID-19 pandemic should have dashed any remaining idea that federal employees must be on site. The government can operate remotely, and it will have to if it wants to compete for the technical talent it needs.
Government should make all of these changes regardless, but they will be critical to attracting and retaining talent at scale with the skills and experience it needs to modernize the way it services people with technology.
Greg Gershman is the CEO and Co-founder of Ad Hoc. Before founding Ad Hoc, Greg was a software engineer, member of the inaugural class of Presidential Innovation Fellows, and part of the team sent by the White House to help stabilize HealthCare.gov.