The US Federal Government Needs a VP of Engineering, not a CTO

Nuts and Bolts by Kacey

If you look at the roster of the Biden-Harris transition team, it’s quickly apparent that the incoming administration is tech-forward. Given the systematic dismantlement of the federal government over the last four years, and the significant logistical and scientific needs underpinning a large-scale vaccine roll-out, it is unsurprising to hear that the new team is looking to bring in tech talent. Under the Obama Administration, the White House invested significantly in shoring up the Office of Science and Technology Policy, an office that has for all intents and purposes laid dormant for four years under the current Administration. The Obama Administration also hired the first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to help envision what a tech-forward US government might look like. As the Biden-Harris transition builds its plans for January 20th, many people in my networks are abuzz, wondering who might be the next CTO.

To the non-geeks of the world, these two titles might be meaningless or perhaps even interchangeable. The roles and responsibilities associated with each are often co-mingled, especially in start-ups. But in more mature tech companies, they signal distinct qualifications and responsibilities. Moreover, they signal different ideas for what is top priority. In their ideal incarnation, a CTO is a visionary, a thought leader, a big picture thinker. The right CTO sees how tech can fit into the big picture of a complex organization, sits in the C-suite to integrate tech into the strategy. A tech-forward White House would want such a person precisely to help envision a technocratic government structure that could do great things. Yet, a CTO is nothing more than a figurehead if the organizational infrastructure is dysfunctional. This can prompts organizations to want to build new tech separately inside an “office of the CTO” rather than doing the hard work of fixing the core organizational infrastructure to ensure that larger visions can work. When it comes to government, we’ve learned the hard way how easily a tech-forward effort located exclusively inside the White House can be swept away.

Inside tech companies, there is often a more important but less visible role when it comes to getting things done. To those on the outside, a VP title appears far less powerful, far less important than a C-Suite title. If you’re not a tech geek, a VP of Engineering might appear less important than a CTO. But in my experience, finding the right VP of Engineering is more essential than getting a high profile CTO when a system is broken. A VP-Eng is a fixer, someone who looks at broken infrastructure with a debugger’s eye and recognizes that the key to success is ensuring that the organizational and technical systems function hand-in-hand. While CTOs are often public figures in industry, a VP-Eng tends to shy away from public attention, focusing most of their effort on empowering their team to do great things. VP-Engs have technical chops, but their superpower comes from their ability to manage large technical teams, to really understand the forest and see what’s getting in the way of achieving a goal so that they can unblock that and ensure that their team thrives. A VP-Eng also understands that finding and nurturing the right talent is key to success, which is why they tend to spend an extraordinary amount of time recruiting, hiring, training, and mentoring.

When structured well, the CTO faces outwards while the VP-Eng faces inwards. They can and should be extraordinarily complementary roles. Yet, even though the Obama Administration invested in a CTO and built numerous programs to bring tech talent into the White House and sprinkle tech workers throughout all of the agencies, that tech-forward team never invested in a VP-Eng. They never invested in people whose job it was to truly debug the underlying problems that prevent government agencies from successfully building and deploying technical systems.

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,” I must admit that I’m cringing. Government functions very differently than industry, by design. In industry, our job is to serve customers. Yes, our companies might want more customers, but we have the luxury of focusing on those who have money and those who want to use our tools. Government must serve everyone. Much to the chagrin of capitalists, the vast majority of government resources goes to the hardest problems, to ensuring that whatever the government implements can serve everyone.

I have spent 20 years calling bullshit on “the pipeline problem” as industry’s excuse for its under-investment in hiring and retaining BIPOC and non-male talent. Even as tech workers are slowly starting to wake up to the realization that justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion are essential to the long-term health of tech, I’m watching the flawed logics that underpin the narrative about pipeline problems infuse the conversation about why government tech is broken. Government tech isn’t broken because government lacks talent. Government tech is broken because there are a range of stakeholders who are actively invested in ensuring that the federal government cannot execute, who are actively working to ensure that when the government is required to execute, it does so through 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. The undermining of the federal government’s tech infrastructure began decades ago. What has happened in the last four years has just sped up 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” organization to transform. Rather than coming in with hubris and focusing on grand vision, 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. And this is why we need a federal VP-Eng whose job it is to engage in deep debugging. Cuz the bugs aren’t in the newest layer of code; they’re down deep in the libraries that no one has examined for years.

If the new administration is willing to invest in infrastructural repair, my ethnographic work in and around government has led me to three core areas that I would prioritize first. Two are esoteric structural barriers that prevent basic functioning. The third is a political weakness.

1. 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 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 theoretically designed for efficiency is extraordinarily expensive. Not only is the financial cost of outsourcing to industry mind-boggling and bloated, but there are additional cost to morale, institutional memory, and mission that are not captured in the economic models. Government procurement infrastructure is also designed for failure, to ensure that government agencies are unable to deliver which, in turn, prompts Congress (regardless of who is in power) 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. Government procurement infrastructure is filled with strategically designed inefficiencies, frictions, and insanely corrupt incentives that undermine every aspect of government. They 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-Eng 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.

2. Human Resources. Too many people in the tech industry think that HR is a waste of space…. that is, until they find that recruiter who makes everything easier. As such, in industry, we often talk about “people operations” or “talent management” instead of HR. We recognize the importance of investing in talent over the long-term, even if we reject HR. In government, HR is the lifeblood of how work happens in government and it was redesigned by progressives in the 20th century to ensure a more equitable approach to hiring and talent development. For decades, government created opportunities for women and Black communities when industry did not. Unfortunately, this aspect of the “deep state” was not at all appreciated by those invested in maintaining America’s caste system. Those invested in racist hierarchies didn’t need to be explicit about their agendas; they could rely on the language of capitalism to systematically undermine the talent of the federal government. Just as outsourcing in government has statistically taken jobs from Black federal workers and given them to white contractors, a range of HR policies have been designed to make working in government hellacious. Those who have stuck around — out of duty, out of necessity — have become enrolled in an existentially broken system. Some have chosen to sit back and not do their jobs, waiting to be fired. Others took the opposite approach, masochistically throwing themselves at the problem. People come from the outside and complain that government workers are lazy, stupid, incompetent. But it is the system that has produced these conditions. The system has been starved, the policies and protocols are corroded. It is through the purposeful torturing of HR that an executive branch hellbent on destroying federal government can wage the greatest damage; this has been underway for 40 years but the proverbial frogs are now sitting in boiling water. HR will require a lot of repair-work, not quick-fix policy changes. An untended HR system in government becomes a bottleneck unimaginable to those in industry and that’s where we are. Existing talent will require nurturing, and this investment is crucial because their institutional knowledge is profound. Any administration who 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 government to be a healthy workplace not just for the next four years but for decades to come. They will need a “people ops” mindset to HR. A VP-Eng should start with a listening tour of those who work on tech projects in agencies.

3. Communications. It never ceases to amaze me that the top communications professional in every federal agency is a political appointee. And every incoming administration — regardless of partisan affiliation — tends to fill these positions with campaign comms people who helped them win the election. Unfortunately, the type of comms that’s needed to win an election (which requires appealing to only some people) is not the same as the type of comms that’s needed to be accountable to the public as a whole for 365 days per year. Over and over, the comms people that White Houses install focus on speaking to their political base and to Congress. This is all fine and well if the only comms need is to negotiate policy outcomes. But the partisan perversion of comms within agencies has another outcome — it delegitimizes the agency among members of the public who are not affiliated with that political party, not to mention the wide majority of the public who is outright disgusted by all partisan tomfoolery. If your political interest is to eliminate the federal government, undermining the legitimacy of federal agencies benefits you. If that’s not your goal, you need to rethink your approach to communications. Right now, every agency needs a crisis comms expert at the helm to regain control over the agency’s narrative. When things are more stable, they need strategic comms professionals who can build a plan for re-legitimization. Each agency also needs an org comms expert whose job, like a VP-Eng, is to repair internal communications infrastructure so that information can effectively flow. Most politicians and government watchdogs think that the key to greater transparency is to increase oversight, just as progressives did after Nixon. But given how broken comms is in all of these agencies, turning up the heat through FOIA, GAO, and Congressional hearings will not increase accountability right now; it will increase breakage. Inside tech companies, comms is often seen as soft, squishy, irrational work, an afterthought that should not be prioritized. But comms, like HR, is the infrastructure that makes other things possible. A VP-Eng needs a comms counterpart working alongside them to achieve any organizational transformation.

Addressing these three seemingly non-tech issues would do more to enable a tech-forward government than any new-fangled shiny tech object. There is so much repair work to be done inside government. Yet, as I listen to those I know in Silicon Valley talk about all of the ways they wish to “fix government,” I fear that we will see a significant flood of solutionism when what’s needed most is humility and curiosity. Humility to understand that the structure of governmental agencies exists in response to the never-ending flow of solutionist interventions. And curiosity to understand how and why road blocks and barriers exist — and which ones to strategically eradicate to empower civil servants who are devoted to ensuring that government functions for the long-term, regardless of who is in power. Grand visioning has its role, but when infrastructure is breaking all around us, we need debuggers and maintenance people first and foremost. We need people who find joy in the invisible work of just making a system function, of recognizing that technical systems require the right organizational structures to thrive. This is the mindset a VP-Eng brings to the table.

In conclusion… If you are working on the transition or planning to jump into government in January, please spend some time understanding why the system is the way it is. If you are a tech person, do not presume you know based on your experience with other broken systems or based on what you read in the news; take the time to learn. If you are not a tech person, do not assume that tech can fix what politics can’t; this is a classic mistake with a long history. If the goal is truly to “build back better,” it requires starting with repairing the infrastructure. Without this, you are building on quicksand.

researcher of technology & society | Microsoft Research, Data & Society, NYU | zephoria@zephoria.org