Federal CTO Smith wants tech experts who speak the language

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wfedstaff | April 18, 2015 12:48 am

Federal chief technology officer Megan Smith described the type of people needed to populate the new digital services offices across government in a simple way: TQ.

She said agencies need people with a high technical quotient (TQ) so they have a specific set of skills needed to meet the demands and expectations of citizens and businesses when it comes to digital services.

Smith said during times of war, the U.S. is very good about bringing TQ people to the table, but in peace time, agencies get away from it.

“What we really need to do is have technical people at the table,” Smith said Tuesday at the State of the Net conference in Washington sponsored by the Internet Education Foundation. “The U.S. Digital Service, the [GSA] 18F team, the Presidential Innovation Fellows, which are like White House fellows who are technical, who do user-design thinking, front end and back end, and embedding them in government. That is not say the government should build everything, that wouldn’t be good. We should have our amazing off-the-shelf products from tech, hosted products, and we should have things that we contract for, custom, but there should be someone in the room who speaks the language.”

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She compared not having a technical person on the government’s team to going to a meeting in a foreign language and rely on the other side’s interpreter.

“You will not be confident in what you know. Bad things can happen,” said Smith, who became the CTO in September. “In this case, we want to have TQ people, technical people, in the conversation on our side when we are doing contracting and [having] someone helping architect solutions who’s thinking about customer service.”

Smith said people with a high TQ are important because government and industry alike are in the early stages of digital services. She said it feels like the late 1990s when the Internet was first taking off.

At the same time, however, she said federal websites and mobile services should be just as good as those offered by Amazon or Twitter or any of the other technology leaders.

Training for feds too

This idea of creating digital services as good as the private sector, and bringing in people to help make it happen is part of the reason why the Office of Management and Budget is calling for every agency to set up their own digital services team. As part of the IT budget passback language, OMB gave agencies until Oct. 1 to set up this new organization and spend a percentage of their IT budget on the staff — or people with TQ.

Some federal CIOs say one of the big concerns about this new OMB initiative is finding enough people who have the necessary digital services skills.

One former federal CIO said one concern among some employees is they feel that the administration tends to overlook their skills when searching for new employees to meet these types of digital IT challenges.

Smith said agencies shouldn’t just be looking for outside experts for these digital services jobs. They should be offering training to their own employees as well.

“There’s these fabulous code boot camps and other things that exist that allow people [to get training],” she said. “When the Veterans Affairs Department’s digital service was looking at their internal team, they had some number, maybe 13,000 or 14,000 developers, and only three new JAVA script. How unfair is that for that team to not be trained at those elite things so leveraging those code boot camps and stuff so that the talent inside government can be at the same talent level as colleagues in the commercial markets.”

Smith said these skills will let the employees go between the public and private sectors during their career and with each new position bring back new capabilities to the government.

The U.S. Digital Service group in the Office of Management and Budget is utilizing an approach that is somewhat similar to the Army Reserves.

The USDS brings in people from the private sector for a few months sabbatical, and then calls on them for help or advice every now and then when needed after they’ve returned to their former private sector position.

Innovation labs are a model for government

Smith said these experts need to help the government create services more quickly and less expensively than ever before.

Several agencies are ahead of the curve in utilizing this concept. In addition to USDS, the General Services Administration’s 18F and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Idea lab are examples of small, technically savvy teams helping their respective agencies or others across government to deliver on the digital service mandate.

Smith said these types of organizations are the model for the government of the future.

“There are extraordinary people in government and outside of government who have innovative ideas and there hasn’t always been a place [for them to work on those ideas], and… that certainly [is] something the technology industry has done forever, that’s where the term skunk works comes from with the early digital equipment team,” she said. “One of the tricks of making something like that is to make it big enough that it exists so you have some budget and some people so you get almost entrepreneurs in residence who are coming from within or without, putting skills together and working on pilots and prototypes, and making something so people can get a feel of what you are talking about. But you also don’t want to over resource it. If you keep it at the right resource size, then you can kind of IPO it through the team.”

Smith’s reference to IPO or initial public offering is not about money, but getting people to invest time, resources and support for the project or program.

Smith said the U.S. Agency for International Development is expanding this innovation lab concept by bringing in outside experts such as those from academia to help with development engineering and mobile apps to better deliver services.

Within the digital services priority is open data — a long-time Obama administration focus.

Smith, however, said open data must include open source and open application programming interfaces (APIs). She said the government needs to move from requests for proposals to APIs — meaning instead of buying software, take existing APIs and improve upon or add to them.

Unlocking opportunity through policy

Beyond digital services, Smith said her other two priorities focus on technology policy and making innovation easier, and promoting Americans to focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and find opportunities to be innovative.

Under the innovation and policy goal, Smith said that’s the part of her job that is part instigator and part architect.

“A piece of that includes an area that we have been looking at, regulation reform, and how do we help in getting out of the way of America’s top innovators, yet protect the American people,” she said. “So how are we being the best place in the world, the best country for innovation and technology so the strongest entrepreneurs, the stronger inventors and scientists are coming here because we have a climate and policy landscape for them to really do their thing.”

Smith said getting the policy right is so important because it unlocks so much opportunity, but also it protects the public, especially as privacy and security continually come to the forefront of the IT challenges.

In fact the intersection of policy and regulation came to the forefront Tuesday when the Federal Trade Commission released its Internet of Things (IoT) report.

IoT refers to non-traditional items that are now connected to the Web such as watches, cars and even refrigerators.

The FTC says the Internet of Things universe is expanding quickly, and there now are more than 25 billion connected devices in use worldwide, and that number is expected to increase significantly as companies, auto manufacturers, healthcare providers and others invest in connected devices.

The report outlines best practices around security, privacy and transparency.

Smith’s third area is STEM and connecting people so they can be more innovative.

She said the more people are doing things that are innovative, the more likely they will solve problems faster. Smith said she wants people to connect through Tech Meet Ups or start up weekends.

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