How Younger Workers Update Agency Tech and Vice Versa

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It’s not millennial entitlement, said a top CIA technologist.

Federal leaders are struggling to attract young tech talent to government while also fighting an uphill battle to modernize legacy IT, but investing in either problem could eventually help address the other, according to a top CIA technologist.

Dawn Meyerriecks, deputy director of the CIA’s science and technology office, sees IT modernization as a critical factor in the spy agency’s efforts to recruit the best and brightest young techies. Then once they arrive, she said, those employees are often the ones pushing the agency to adopt more innovative technologies.

If federal data scientists and IT specialists can’t access the tools they’re trained to use, “they’re going to look at you like ‘you don’t really want me to do my job,’” Meyerriecks said in a conversation with Nextgov. “They have put a lot of [importance] on the latest and greatest toolsets and having those available.”

This demand for the latest tech may sound like millennial entitlement, but Meyerriecks said it’s hard to argue with the amazing results employees can produce when armed with the right tools.

She also detailed negative consequences stagnant IT can have on the workforce and national security consequences with a group of federal tech experts Tuesday at the Adobe Digital Government Symposium produced by Studio 2G, a division of Nextgov's parent company, Government Executive Media Group. Though many government tech initiatives rightfully focus on citizen services, panelists argued agencies shouldn’t neglect the online experience of federal employees.

Modern workers consider the technology available in a workplace as an increasingly important factor when choosing a job, said Stephanie O’Sullivan, the former principal deputy director of national intelligence. As such, IT modernization could make or break agencies’ chances for hiring young, talented technologists.

And historically, those odds have been low.

In December, federal IT specialists age 60 and over outnumber those under 30 about 4.6-to-1, a widening age gap experts attribute in part to low government salaries, lengthy hiring processes and increasing demand for cyber talent in the private sector. But Meyerriecks said the CIA retains “really good” recruiting and retention rates despite its drawn-out hiring procedure, at least in part due to the agency’s embrace of tech innovation.

O’Sullivan also echoed the sentiments of many government leaders who see modernization as an issue rooted as much in culture as innovation. IT specialists are naturally skeptical of anything that would interrupt their agency’s mission, but she said the shouldn’t see modernization as one of those obstacles.

“It’s not going to be a mission interruption to do some of the upgrades that are possible today—it’s beginning to hurt our mission that we do not have modern tools and technologies available to use,” she said. “There’s really not an excuse” to keep employees on legacy systems.