- Biden aims to hire ‘hundreds’ of USDS IT experts — and tech workers are showing renewed interest in public service.
- To stand out, applicants should highlight how they’ve worked under constraints and show their passion.
- Remote work has opened up the ability for more people to try public service tech, experts say.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
Following four years of unease under the Trump administration, tech workers are showing a renewed interest in public service under President Biden through groups like the US Digital Service (USDS) and 18F.
Andréa Viza, the director of talent at USDS, which was formed under President Obama’s tenure to address government IT issues, recently told CIO Dive that after Biden’s inauguration, the organization had “the most applications within 48 hours than 2017 and 2018 combined,” with over 5,000 in all.
USDS hid several recruiting messages in the source code of the Biden transition website (and later White House website), which Cyd Harrell, a former chief of staff at 18F, told Insider reminded her of the charm of the early aughts and the “spirit of early civic tech heroes” — many of whom found their calling in government tech during the Obama era.
The Biden administration has already taken its lead from Obama’s tech programs: It dedicated an agency review team for USDS, carved out $200 million of its COVID stimulus package for hiring “hundreds” of cybersecurity and engineering experts for USDS, and elevated the Office of Science and Technology Policy to a Cabinet-level agency, giving tech a greater voice in federal policy.
With more tech workers vying for a likely expansion in Biden’s digital services jobs, Insider asked former USDS and 18F members — who now coach people on breaking into civic tech — how to get those roles.
Here’s what they said about making an application stand out and working in government tech:
Many groups, different projects and lengths of service
The government has several digital services programs which can be suited to technologists of various backgrounds, Harrell said, advising applicants to review the different organizations and their lengths of service to find the best fit.
USDS was first created in 2014 to bring in tech talent to address the troubled rollout of HealthCare.gov. The group calls itself a “SWAT team” of tech experts and is overseen by White House’s Office of Management and Budget.
As a result, it works on projects dictated by White House priorities, which in the Biden administration is likely pandemic-related IT and cybersecurity — especially in the wake of the sweeping SolarWinds hack. USDS members do tours of service from three months to four years, and can serve at agency-specific branches at the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs.
18F was founded the same year as a digital consultancy that sits under the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Service (TTS) office, and its members serve renewable two-year terms. TTS also oversees the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, which was created by Obama in 2012 to bring in tech talent for 12 months of service.
USDS doesn’t list open jobs on its website because of what it calls the “unpredictability and breadth of our engagements,” but posted in the popular Silicon Valley forum Hacker News earlier this month, calling for software engineers, security and site reliability engineers, product managers, data scientists, designers, procurement specialists, and “bureaucracy hackers.” 18F lists job openings on its website.
Contrary to popular opinion, not all digital services members have Silicon Valley pedigrees. Peter Karman, a former 18F engineer, told Insider the idea that “everybody’s on loan from Facebook and Google” doesn’t hold true. That narrative “focused on three people who happen to work at Google, and ignored the 150 of us who’ve never been there,” he said.
USDS said the people they’ve hired this year are “from Portland, Oregon, Ithaca, NY and formerly anthropologists, entrepreneurs, consultants, statisticians,” and the group hired in fall of 2020 consisted of “Facebookers, consultants, Presidential Innovation Fellows, and video game industry professionals.”
Jennifer Anastasoff and Jennifer Smith, former people operations leaders at USDS, wrote in a paper about hiring technologists that USDS has taken cues from Silicon Valley. It seeks out candidates directly and conducts a “rigorous selection process based on technical evaluation by subject matter experts.” As part of that evaluation, it uses a Subject Matter Expert Qualification Assessment to see if applicants fit the criteria before they apply. USDS hired nearly 300 people in its first three years, they said, half of whom were directly contacted.
But if applicants aren’t contacted by USDS directly, experts advised creating a “federal resume.”
Harrell tells job seekers to highlight experiences that show they’ve worked in environments with constraints — and how they’ve worked through or around them.
TTS also has a guide for how to write a federal resume, which includes an example from 18F content designer Amanda Costello, who said she included speaking engagements and volunteer work, which wouldn’t typically be considered direct experience.
Amanda Miklik, a former director of design at USDS who coaches people transitioning from the private to public sector, told Insider that resumes need to show an applicant’s “chops”: That means “how you communicate your passion for doing the work, why you want to do this, and that you’re not afraid of big, gnarly problems.” Hiring managers are not only checking that candidates meet minimum technical requirements, but also determining “if you’re prepared to do that kind of work,” Miklik said.
Public sector work can be much more challenging than private sector work, Miklik said. For example, one might work on a user experience design project for a federal agency that hadn’t encountered the concept before. “That’s the environment that you may be going into as a designer, where you have to not just speak a new language, but to teach a new language to folks who may or may not agree that they need to,” Miklik said.
Once candidates reach the interview, Miklik advises they make their commitment to public sector work clear: “Your job is just to be able to communicate your passion and excitement for taking on the work, and then demonstrate your technical skills the same as you would for any other job interview.”
Now is a good time to try government work
The move to an online environment, necessitated by the pandemic, can be helpful to job seekers who can’t attend events in person. Experts recommended tuning in to webinars and virtual information sessions: 18F has hosted sessions for its product manager role and Viza told CIO Dive that USDS has moved to virtual recruiting sessions, too.
Relocating to DC was also a constraint for many would-be civic technologists like Karman, who ended up joining 18F (which was already a remote workforce) instead of USDS (which previously required members move to DC).
Now, all interested applicants can try government work remotely: USDS director Matt Cutts wrote to Hacker News users that “if you wanted to try a short tour, now is a very good time; things are quite remote-friendly right now. Then when the COVID situation is better, you’d have better information about whether the DC trade-off is worthwhile.”
Some of Miklik’s clients don’t have the option to work in an office, so that barrier being gone has made a tremendous difference, they said.
“I’ve actually gotten clients into jobs where they probably wouldn’t have been able to a year and a half ago,” Miklik said. “They wouldn’t have been able to relocate, or they wouldn’t have been able to navigate downtown DC as easily. So it’s a huge thing, and it’s a big one for accessibility and representation on teams.”
What happens after you apply
After an application is sent in, Miklik said there’s no need to follow up: “There is a process in place that is tracking every application at each stage, and so you don’t have to do that. It never hurts, but it is certainly not expected or required that you be tracking where your application is.”
The government hiring process is notoriously slow however, especially compared to the speed that Silicon Valley snaps up talent. Experts advised having patience, especially depending on the role and if a security clearance is required. USDS has reduced its time from application to offer from 152 to 34 days, according to Anastasoff and Smith, and 18F says its average hiring cycle is 80 to 110 days.
Harrell also recommends job seekers prepare for the realities of government tech work: Burnout is high, and something she experienced while at 18F. Having a support network in place beforehand is key, she said, and the civic tech community can also be a source of support.
Harrell also warns technologists not to get too attached to any particular project because there’s no guarantee they’ll be to see them through. Others have said to prepare for a transition period when first joining the federal government.
Dana Chisnell, a founding member of USDS, said it takes six months to two years for people transitioning from private to public work to “feel effective.” Karman had a similar experience at 18F when he worked there between 2015 and 2017: “It took me a year before I realized that, ‘Oh, we’re not here to build things. We’re here to change how the organizations work and technology is kind of a Trojan horse,” he said.
But, Karman found that knowing the projects he worked on would have an impact on millions of people was most rewarding. And now, seeing positive signs from the Biden team on technology should spell out good things for civic technologists, he said.
“To see somebody come in like Biden who thinks government’s a good thing, and the kind of people that he’s going to put in charge of all those agencies, I think people get excited because they’re thinking, ‘Great, people who are gonna say yes, people who want to build this agency, make it stronger and make sure it’s serving the American people,'” Karman said. “That’s gotta be pretty encouraging.”
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