• December 9, 2021

The Biden Administration Needs a VP of Engineering, Not a CTO

Of course, it’s not a direct comparison: Government functions very differently than industry by design. And it’s essential that those seeking to work for it—or criticize it—understand those disparities. As I listen to friends and peers in Silicon Valley talk about all of the ways in which tech people are going to go east to “fix government” in 2021, I must admit that I’m cringing. In industry, our job is to serve customers. Our companies might want more customers, but we have the luxury of focusing on those who have money and want to use our tools. Government, on the other hand, must serve everyone. As a result, the vast majority of government resources goes toward solving the hardest problems and pushing out universal fixes.

A lack of understanding also leads to misguided explanations for why the nation’s most talented techies aren’t in DC to begin with. Recently, I’ve heard the flawed logic that underpins the narrative about “pipeline problems”—the industry’s excuse for its underinvestment in hiring and retaining BIPOC and nonmale talent—infuse the conversation about why government tech is broken. It isn’t broken because the government lacks talent. It’s broken because there are a range of stakeholders who are actively invested in ensuring that the federal government cannot execute, and that when the government is required to execute, it does so while upholding capitalist interests. Moreover, there are a range of stakeholders who would rather systematically undermine and hurt the extraordinarily diverse federal talent than invest in them.

If Silicon Valley waltzes into the federal government in January with its “I’ve got a submarine for that” mindset, thinking that it can sprinkle tech fairy dust all over the agencies, we’re screwed.

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The undermining of the federal government’s tech infrastructure began decades ago. What has happened in the past four years has only accelerated a trend that was well underway before this administration. And it’s getting worse by the day. The issue at play isn’t the lack of tech-forward vision. It’s the lack of organizational, human capital, and communications infrastructure that’s necessary for a complex “must reach everyone” institution to transform. We need a new administration who is willing to dive deep and understand the cracks in the infrastructure that make a tech-forward agenda impossible. Which is exactly why we need a federal VP of engineering whose job it is to engage in deep debugging. The bugs aren’t in the newest layer of code; they’re down deep in the libraries that no one has examined for years.

My ethnographic work in and around government has led me to three core areas that the new administration should prioritize in order to carry out this transformation.

The first is procurement. Government outsourcing to industry is modern-day patronage: You don’t need Tammany Hall when you have a swarm of governmental contractors buzzing about. When politicians talk about “small government,” what they really mean is “no federal employees.” Don’t let talk of “efficiency” fool you either. The cost of greasing the hands of Big Business through procurement procedures is extraordinarily expensive. Not only is the financial cost of outsourcing to industry mind-boggling and bloated, but there are additional costs to morale, institutional memory, and mission that are not captured in the economic models. Government procurement infrastructure is also designed to enable failure and ensure that the government agencies themselves are unable to deliver. That, in turn, prompts Congress to reduce funding and increase scrutiny, tightening the screws on a tightly coupled system to increase the scale and speed of failure. It is a vicious cycle. And it is filled with strategically designed inefficiencies, frictions, and insanely corrupt incentives that undermine every aspect of government. The key here is not to replicate industry; the structures of contracting, outsourcing, and supply chains within a capitalist system do not make sense in government—and for good reason. A VP of engineering and a tech-forward government should begin by understanding the damage and ripple effects caused by OMB Directive A-76, which fundamentally shapes tech procurement.

Next is human resources. Too many people in the tech industry think that HR is a waste of space—until they find that recruiter who makes everything easier. As such, in industry, we often refer to it instead as “people operations” or “talent management.” But even if we reject HR, we recognize the importance of investing in talent over the long term. In government, HR is the lifeblood of how work happens. In the 1960s and ’70s, progressives redesigned it to ensure a more equitable approach to hiring and talent development, creating opportunities for women and Black communities when industry did not. Over the past 40 years, a range of subsequent HR policies have sought to undo this progress and, in the process, made working in government hellacious. Those who have stuck around—out of duty or necessity—are enrolled in an existentially broken system that either incentivizes waiting to be fired or makes doing a good job nearly impossible. People on the outside complain that government is incompetent, but it’s the system, not its employees, that has intentionally produced these conditions.

Repairing the government’s HR will require a lot of work, not quick-fix policy changes. An untended HR system in government becomes a bottleneck unimaginable to those in industry. That’s precisely where we are. Existing talent will need to be nurtured, and doing so is crucial because of their profound institutional knowledge. Any administration that wants to build a government that can respond to crises as grand as a pandemic or climate change will need to create the conditions for it to be a healthy workplace, not just for the next four years but for decades to come. It will need to approach HR with a “people operations” mindset. A VP of engineering would be wise to start with a listening tour of those who work on tech projects in agencies.

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