Critical Update: The Programmers of Public Service


Meet two federal software developers: One at the start of their career and the other nearing the end.

Federal agencies rely on IT systems to meet their missions, and those IT systems rely on federal employees to remain functional.

Too often, the conversation around software development at federal agencies tends toward innovation shops like the U.S. Digital Service, the General Services Administration’s 18F or internal agency working groups with federal employees on temporary details.

But it’s the career federal employees who work to build, maintain, update and, in some instances, decommission the IT systems delivering services to the American people day-in and day-out.

As Critical Update kicks off its ninth season, we spoke with two career public servants: one who spent four decades building IT systems he is now helping turn off as those services migrate to the cloud; and a mid-career programmer, five years into a career in public service.

For the long-haulers, the day-to-day is a mix of maintaining old systems, engineering new ones and writing middleware to ease the transition from the former to the latter.

“A lot of it is, right now, we're going through a phase where we're modernizing our systems and in doing so writing the new system and maintaining the old system,” Shawn Price, senior computer programmer at Customs and Border Protection, said. “To do that we actually had to write programs, new programs that actually would pass data from one system to the other … and that's pretty much what my daily job is now. Not only do we write interfaces to the new system, we also had to make modifications to the old system because databases change, data from one system to the other is different.”

For newer developers, the struggle is finding their place in the bureaucracy where they can make a difference.

“I think there's a tendency especially among software developers to think you're out on your own island and then going to a conference, listening to a podcast, these sorts of things suddenly make you realize that, ‘Oh you know what, everybody is like you,’" said Ryan Hillard, who has been writing code for the Small Business Administration for five years.

If you’re a federal software developer at the start of your career or nearing the end—or anywhere in between—this episode is for you.

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