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

by | Dec 23, 2020 | New, News

I always like to look on the optimistic side of life, but I am realistic enough to know that life is a complex matter.

— Walt Disney

A version of this article was previously published on Medium and Linkedin.

If you look at the roster of the Biden-Harris transition team, it’s quickly apparent that the incoming administration is tech-forward. This is no surprise given the systematic dismantlement of the federal government over the past four years and the significant logistical and scientific needs that a large-scale vaccine roll-out requires. The Obama administration had similar priorities, investing significantly in shoring up the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which has for all intents and purposes laid dormant for the past four years. It also hired the first chief technology officer to help envision what a tech-forward US government might look like. As the Biden-Harris transition builds its plans for January 20, many people in my networks are abuzz, wondering who might be the next CTO.

My advice to the transition team is this: You need a VP of engineering even more than you need a CTO.

WIRED OPINIONABOUT

danah boyd is a partner researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder and president of Data & Society.

To the nongeeks of the world, these two titles might seem meaningless or perhaps even interchangeable. The roles and responsibilities associated with each are often comingled, especially in startups. But in more mature tech companies, they signal distinct qualifications and responsibilities. More important, they indicate different priorities. In their ideal incarnation, a CTO is a visionary, a thought leader, a big-picture thinker. The right CTO sees how tech can fit seamlessly into a complex organization and sits in the C-suite to integrate it 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 prompt organizations to innovate separately inside an “Office of the CTO” rather than doing the hard work of integrating their technology and systems into the larger organization. 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 executing. In my experience, when a system is broken, finding the right VP of engineering is more essential than getting a high profile CTO. A VP of engineering is a fixer, someone who looks at broken infrastructure with a debugger’s eye and recognizes the critical importance of organizational and technical systems functioning hand in hand. While CTOs are often public figures, VPs of engineering tend to shy away from public attention, focusing most of their effort on empowering their team to innovate. They have technical chops, but their superpower comes from their ability to manage large technical teams, understand the entire landscape, identify any road blocks, and unblock them so that their team can thrive. A VP of engineering 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 outward while the VP of engineering faces inward. They can and should be extraordinarily complementary roles. But while the Obama Administration invested in a CTO, built numerous programs to bring tech talent into the White House, and sprinkled techies throughout all agencies, it never invested in identifying and correcting the underlying problems that prevent government agencies from successfully building and deploying technical systems.

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.

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.

The bugs aren’t in the newest layer of code; they’re down deep in the libraries that no one has examined for years.

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.

The third priority should be 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 communications people who helped them win an election. Appointing campaign specialists, adept at speaking to a political base and Congress, may be fine for negotiating policy outcomes. But when it comes to the messaging of government agencies, this partisan perversion delegitimizes the organization to constituents who are either not affiliated with that political party, or simply put off by political tomfoolery. Right now, every agency needs a crisis communications expert at the helm to regain control over the narrative. When things are more stable, they need strategic communications professionals who can build a plan for re-legitimization. Each agency also needs an organizational communications expert whose job, like a VP of engineering, is to repair internal communications infrastructure so that information can effectively flow. Most politicians and watchdogs think the key to greater transparency in post-Trump America is increased oversight, just as progressives did after Nixon. But without proper communications, turning up the heat through FOIA, GAO, and Congressional hearings will not increase accountability; it will increase breakage. Inside tech companies, communications is often seen as soft, squishy, irrational work—an afterthought that should not be prioritized. But, like HR, it is the infrastructure that makes other things possible. A VP of engineering needs a communications counterpart working alongside them to achieve any organizational transformation.

Addressing these three seemingly nontech issues would do more to enable a tech-forward government than any newfangled shiny object. There is much repair work to be done inside our government. Yet, as I listen to those I know in Silicon Valley talk about all of the ways they wish to “fix” it, I fear that we will see a flood of solutionism when what’s needed most is humility and curiosity. 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 are equipped to do the invisible work of making a system function and of recognizing that technical systems require the right organizational structures to thrive. Whether the new Administration formally assigns someone the title of VP of engineering is unimportant. What is critical is that it applies the mindset such a person would bring—in the White House and at all levels of government.

For those working on the transition or planning to jump into government in January, it’s essential to spend some time first 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.

WIRED Opinion publishes articles by outside contributors representing a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here, and see our submission guidelines here. Submit an op-ed at opinion@wired.com.

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