Code Red_: “They have no use for someone who looks and dresses like me”

I published a long piece on LinkedIn yesterday, reflecting on Steven Brill’s excellent Time Magazine cover story, “Code Red_“, about the rescue of by a small team of volunteer techies from Silicon Valley.,16641,20140310,00.htmlThe title of my piece took off from a comment by Google Site Reliability Engineer Mikey Dickerson, who is quoted in Brill’s article as saying:

“It was only when they were desperate that they turned to us…. They have no use for someone who looks and dresses like me. Maybe this will be a lesson for them. Maybe that will change.”

I am hoping that it will change, and I’ve spent a lot of my personal efforts over the past half dozen years trying to get more people from the technology community to apply their skills to improving government.  Love it or hate it, it is a huge part of our economy, both in the US and around the world.

It’s interesting to me how many of the early comments on the LinkedIn piece show the libertarian disregard for government.  I find that puzzling.  We celebrate startups all the time that disrupt established industries.  We celebrate innovation in big companies.  Why would we not celebrate people who are working to disrupt government “business as usual” and make things better for all of us?

So, hats off to the rescue team. They did a great service, while also demonstrating that yes, a small team with the right skills can do more than disorganized, mismanaged teams of contractors charging the government hundreds of millions of dollars.

But if we think that bringing Silicon Valley to the rescue is that simple, we’re missing the big opportunity, which is to change the way we design and manage government projects. You can’t just sprinkle some Silicon Valley fairy dust and go back to business as usual. The “emergency measures” of the rescue need to lead us to a profound rethinking of how government creates IT projects.  I won’t recap everything I wrote, but my key conclusions are as follows:

  • Digital leaders need a voice in policy, not just in carrying out orders from people who don’t know what’s possible with today’s technology.
  • User-centric design is essential. But we must replace the term “user-centric” with “citizen-centric”, to drive home the point that systems must be designed to meet the needs of the citizens who are the intended “customer” of government programs. We need to end the tyranny of overly complex business rules and processes that are strangling government’s ability to deliver on its mission.
  • Hiring technical, design, and project management talent into government is too difficult. The Obama administration should immediately create special hiring authorities for digital workers and empower competent leaders to hire the talent they need across government.
  • Government must learn how to appoint a person to lead an effort, and give that person the actual authority he or she needs to get the job done. Someone has to have real power to cut through the overlapping lines of authority that require project leaders to focus on managing the needs of internal stakeholders at the expense of user needs.
  • Government must stop using “waterfall” methodologies of project management, which assume that planners can anticipate everything in advance, and replace them with the agile style of development that has taken over in the cloud era. Phased rollouts, constant testing, learning as you go, are the hallmarks of modern software development, yet government procurement, budgeting and planning processes continue to encourage antiquated methodologies that have proven not to work.

It will take time to make all these changes.  But we can’t wait. There is a pressing need for more people with technical and user experience chops to consider working with government, either through short term programs like the Presidential Innovation Fellows (third round applications due April 7) or Code for America (at the city level), or through longer term appointments.  There’s a lot to fix, and now is the time!