Upgrading IT Could Address Tech Hiring Challenges, Bring About AI, Experts Say

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Sluggish tech makes the government a less attractive place to work for talented IT specialists, experts said at SXSW.

Federal agencies face numerous obstacles to adopting artificial intelligence, but by upgrading their IT infrastructure, they could kill multiple birds with one stone, according to government tech experts.

On a technical level, implementing AI on the government’s legacy systems is next to impossible. Machine-learning and AI tools require significant amounts of data storage and computing power that outdated infrastructure cannot provide. But improving agency’s IT systems could also help government attract the talent it needs to fully embrace emerging technologies like Al, experts said on a panel at SXSW.

The government’s tech workforce is aging rapidly, and many agencies are struggling to bring in young IT specialists. The problem is often framed as a salary issue—technologists can earn far more in industry than government—but agencies’ antiquated systems could also be a key contributor, according to Meagan Metzger, founder of the D.C.-based startup accelerator DCode.

Many technologists have a desire to make a difference and find many federal programs worthwhile, Metzger said, echoing the thoughts of numerous other SXSW speakers. However, sluggish technology and bureaucratic information sharing processes can make the government an unattractive place to work, especially for people used to rapid innovation in the private sector, she said.

“Attracting talent is not the issue, keeping the talent is the problem,” she said. “There is a lot of infrastructure that needs to change in order to retain that talent. If you turn your computer on, get coffee ... and come back and it’s still turning on, we have a problem.”

Creating more efficient data governance policies could also advance government tech in two ways, she said. Improving information sharing between agencies would make it easier for the government’s current IT workforce to build and use machine-learning and analytics tools, and implementing those advanced tools would ultimately help recruit and retain talented techies.

William Welser IV, an AI researcher at the RAND Corporation, also highlighted how the government’s inefficient data sharing and innovation processes are keeping it stuck in the past.

“The one thing that’s holding us back is the bureaucracy of the workforce—it slows everything down,” he said. The “lack of speed … is really harming the workforce in a major way.”