So you want to serve your country: A (biased) guide to tech jobs in federal government

A bunch of excited (and confused!) folks have reached out for advice as they think through possibly joining government service. I’m juggling a few things at the moment, so wanted to share my high-level advice. If you need more advice, search some of these terms on twitter to find lots of folks working on these issues who are super friendly and helpful!

What do you care about?

This work is… not easy. The best way to prepare to make it through a day where you realize that a single person is the only thing keeping a critical system serving Veterans running is to make sure the end goal you’re working toward is close to your heart. To know what you care about, you don’t need to know anything about the structure of government. Are you worried about housing? Poverty? Corporate criminals running amok?

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What the job can feel like on the best days. CC0 by me

What kind of work do you like?

Some tech work in government is talking procurement folks out of being swindled by deeply goofy blockchain schemes, and some of it is working with with Veterans experiencing homeless to learn how they access the internet to fill out forms. It can be overwhelming to figure out where you should apply and what each team does. There are a couple well-known ways to join, but they’re all acronyms, so I typically explain it like this:

18F — Build it / Buy it
USDS — Fix it
PIF — Try it
OSTP — Fuel it
Agencies — Own it

Edited to add: It’s of course more complex than that, and you can follow along with conversations like “is 18F building/buying or coaching/training?” by following folks who are living it.

But how do you even apply?

This is so confusing! Sorry in advance. For the first three groups, 18F, USDS, and PIF, there’s a link to apply and the instructions are clear and great. They all take a much, much longer time than many private sector folks are used to, but are actually some of the fastest hire-ers in government.

For OSTP, my understanding is that most people are asked to join by the existing teams, and are “detailed” from other agencies or academia. For example, when I started at OSTP, I was working for another agency but reported to OSTP. The best way to get a job at OSTP is probably to already work in government and/or hunt down Kumar Garg for advice.

Agencies (there are roughly 280 of them) all have tech and/or design needs in some respect. Sometimes it intersects with policy issues, sometimes it’s building things. The link I shared above is the best place to apply for those jobs.

IMPORTANT NOTE: To apply successfully to agency jobs, you’ll need to submit what’s called a “government resume.” This means it must be multiple pages, should include every job you’ve ever had, every responsibility you’ve ever had, and address all of the skills asked about in the job posting. So if the job posting says “Candidate must have experience in widgets” you *must* say “I have been interested in widgets for 3 years” (or whatever your experience with widgets is).

To illustrate, here’s a real example: While trying to hire technical talent at an agency, I’d recruited a bunch of smart folks to apply, including an engineer who was working at GitHub. When I got the list of eligible people I could choose from to hire, the GitHub engineer was not on the list. I asked the folks who sent me the list why she hadn’t made the cut. It was because, and I quote, “she didn’t have ‘version control’ listed on her resume, and it was in the job description.”

If you’ve worked in the private sector, it may be unthinkable to you to produce a 5+ page resume, let alone list random things that you might have a ton of experience in (version control!!!!!!) even if it’s obvious (SHE WORKED AT GITHUB!!!!!!!!), and describe random things (widgets!) that you’ve had questionable experience in (being interested!), but if you don’t, the actual hiring manager will not even see your resume. You may be asking why the system works like this — it’s because the Federal government is both the largest employer on earth and also is one of the most committed to fairness. This excellent short agency video explains why “government resumes” exist. It’s frustrating, but it’s not a horrible idea.

I’m overwhelmed. Help!

Fair enough! First, remember that you don’t have to jump right this very second. Lots of folks are excited right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s now or never for you. Waiting also means you can find out who you’d be working with before you show up.

Second, if 280+ agencies is a little intimidating of a starting point, here are some recommendations of agencies that are known for treating tech and design seriously and having excellent talent:

To reduce overwhelm, I also heartily recommend getting Cyd’s excellent book.

What about states and counties and cities and contracting roles and fellowships and internships and other things???

Those are important too! If you’re open to these roles, make sure to check out the Code for America Public Interest Job Board.

Written by

America’s foremost technologist named after a Great Lake. Now @CodeforAmerica! Co-founder @techladymafia + @usds. Former @harvard @whitehouse @cfpb.

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