One day last week, the icy grip of a winter storm broke and the skies of Colorado returned to their normal state of deep blue with bright sunshine. So I decided to head out for a hike on the warm red rock trails just outside of Boulder.
Taking a break on a big rock at the summit of the mountain, I pulled out a snack and a tiny glass-encased computer from my backpack. I unlocked it with my fingerprint and casually learned a few things, shared a few ideas, and conducted a few thousand dollars of business before the bag of carrots was done, then snapped a twelve-megapixel image or two before pressing the lock button and tossing the phone back into my pocket.
I took a brief moment to marvel at the efficiency of this whole situation, and how much wealth it brings to people like you and me who are privileged and clever enough to get set it up in our lives.
Efficiency reduces waste and multiplies your productivity, and even a small helping of it is enough to tilt you into a lifetime of financial surplus. Yet it is so rare that most people in the richest countries spend most of their lives in debt.
This contrast was illustrated dramatically as I descended from that Millionaire’s Rock and returned to reality. I needed to renew my driver’s license, so I stopped at the Department of Motor Vehicles only to find a two-hour lineup of people, waiting to speak to an understaffed roster of tired employees, manually entering information that was already duplicated on countless other government servers, into their own antique computers. And this was obviously not a new problem: I could see signs that a construction project was underway – the waiting room was being doubled in size to allow more people to sit and wait.
“THIS”, I thought, “is why so many people hate the government. Here we are spending taxpayer money on more drywall and willingly wasting my time, instead of figuring out the root of the problem, which is that I should have been able to renew my driver’s license with a smartphone app, at least any time after the year 2010.”
And I have similar stories about paying my city utility bills, applying for building permits, handling payroll taxes, and legally immigrating to this country in the first place. We need these public services, but we’d all be much wealthier if they worked more efficiently.
Why does this happen? Why is almost everything from Silicon Valley shiny and efficient, and almost everything from Washington DC (or the local government office) crusty and outdated?
In a word: Humans. When we work in big groups, we grow less efficient. When our groups have been around too long, we get even worse. When the management structure is too messed up, nobody is willing to take risks.
And most importantly of all, the most effective workers know all of this, so they avoid seeking jobs where they’ll be stuck in a crusty work environment.
In other words, truly talented tech workers rarely apply for government work, reinforcing a circle of inefficient services for citizens, and a low public opinion of government efficiency. Is there a way to fix this?
Enter Matt Cutts and the US Digital Service
Luckily, this self-reinforcing problem was not lost on the world, and some people have been trying to crack it.
Imagine, for example, if we could take one of the core developers of the Google search engine (one of the most efficient pieces of software in the world’s history), and get him to leave the lucrative tech industry to help the ailing public sector?
Matt Cutts is famous enough in the software world that he has his own family of followers known as ‘cutlets’. The Wall Street Journal stated in 2009 that ‘Cutts is to search results as Alan Greenspan is to interest rates’. And some of his efforts leading the Webspam and SafeSearch teams are the reason you can get useful Google search results instead of the monetized junk that is always trying to game the system and collect your clicks.
Then, imagine you could pull in a bunch of other top-tier developers and designers, empower them in Washington, and put them to work solving some of the nastiest efficiency problems?
It would be a tough job, but it would also be some of the biggest bang for the buck you could ever achieve, because all the fruit is juicy and hanging very low from the trees.
In Silicon Valley, you might compete to shave a dollar off the cost of app-powered flower delivery for a few thousand high-income families. In the federal government, you can change the lives of hundreds of millions of people whose lives are affected by government services.
Veterans applying for medical help, people applying for visas, businesses trying to win contracts or comply with regulations. Doctors trying to finish Medicare paperwork so they can spend more time with patients. And the Department of Defense gaining better security, to avoid having their information (or their nuclear launch codes) pickpocketed by hackers from more nimble organizations.
So, this has actually started happening.
In 2014, a critical mass of tech-savvy people in the White House were able to form something called the US Digital Service and begin looking for talent. They began to form a nimble start-up company within the government, with more autonomy and less bureaucracy holding it back.
In 2016, they found a willing recruit in Matt Cutts, which is around the same time I met him*
After kicking around the idea for a few years as I watched some of the progress via his Twitter account, we finally decided to do this interview. So let’s get into it!
Matt Cutts and the US Digital Service
MMM: How did the idea of the US Digital Service get started? Was it directly from Obama’s staff contacting you, or someone from the tech industry looking East?
MC: The US Digital Service got its start from a pretty big disaster: when the healthcare.gov website failed back in 2013. Regardless of whether you’re conservative or liberal, it’s pretty wild to see a signature presidential initiative at risk because the enrollment website didn’t work well. Todd Park, who was the CTO of America — how cool of a job title is that — recruited a small cadre of tech folks to help the website hobble over the finish line. Within a few months after that success, the government stood up the Digital Service to help on other technology projects throughout the government.
MMM: When I hear the word “Digital Service”, it has some echoes of both Secret Service and the military, like you sign up to be one of The Troops. Do you see parallels (and major differences) between enlisting for military?
MC: Absolutely. One parallel is the Digital Service asks people for a limited tour of duty. Most people end up staying for over a year but less than two years. We also try to set the expectation that like all jobs, some days are harder than others and can be really challenging. The idea is that we promise to find high-impact projects that will benefit others when you bring your expertise to government.
That can mean working in stressful situations where things aren’t going well. Your readers know how important it is to stretch ourselves to learn in new situations though, and how meaningful it can be to align our mission in life with our beliefs**. And of course, one huge difference is that no one in the Digital Service is put in harm’s way like the military or Secret Service.
So the work is demanding, but it’s nowhere near as hard as the military. We’re still sitting indoors while talking to people or tapping on keyboards.
MMM: How do the pay, benefits and work environment compare between USDS and private industry? What about living expenses in the area. Any perks or career advantages you perceive to working there?
MC: It’s a misconception that you have to take a huge pay cut. USDS can pay up to the maximum government “General Schedule” salary, depending on previous experience and salary. That can mean around $160,000/year. We ask people to move to Washington, DC, which is an expensive place to live, but it also has great public transit. You really don’t need a car in DC and it’s possible to live close to where you work.
I usually ride my bike to work and get a free workout each day. I will note that when working for government, you don’t always get to use all the latest cloud-based productivity tools that you can access in a startup, but that depends on which agency you’re working with.
MMM: What major things has the Digital Service accomplished so far? Do you have an estimate for how many people are affected and how many dollars (and hours) have been saved, versus the amount spent on the program?
MC: Oh man, I could talk about the work we’ve done for a long time. Sometimes it’s bringing time-tested industry best practices into the government. Take bug bounties, for example. The idea of offering money to researchers who find security holes has been used since 1995 on Netscape. But the Federal government had never done a bug bounty before. Our team at the Pentagon has run 7-8 bug bounties with great results: the government is more protected, and bug bounties can be cheaper than other ways of finding security holes.
Here are a few additional accomplishments:
- Launched vets.gov, which is a one-stop shop for Veterans to discover, apply for, manage, and track their benefits. It’s a much better experience to (say) apply for health benefits with a web form instead of proprietary/bad tech.
- Built a new system to help doctors understand and manage what they report to Medicare.
- Streamlined the process for small businesses to be certified for government contracts.
- Launch an online self-service option for checking online visa status, which saved thousands of calls.
- Accelerated naturalization applications so that they’re 50% digital instead of 5% digital.
- Helped create a better system that helps military families relocate.
- Helped fix security issues at the IRS and OPM, helped students figure out which college is the best fit for them, and built login systems that the rest of the government can use.
These are just a few projects we’ve done. If you want more nitty gritty details, check out our multiple reports to Congress. Or if anyone wants to apply to the US Digital Service, we’d be more than happy to talk about projects in more depth.
With a modest budget, we’ve helped tens of millions of people across the US. A pretty conservative estimate is hundreds of millions of dollars saved. Plenty of labor hours have been saved, too. When a computer can check that all the documents for an application are attached and complete, for example, that saves manual checking, not to mention time (and postage) mailing paper back and forth.
MMM: When working on complex software projects in a big company, I found the hardest part was often the beginning – after you have a foundation you can work off the same pattern, your reputation grows and your progress grows exponentially. Do you see this happening in your work so far?
MC: It really varies based on the situation. When there’s a crisis, we can move quickly. Other times, an agency does need to see that you’re committed over time. Lots of people in the government show up promising to help and then don’t deliver. So we start off small, building trust and credibility.
One example was veterans’ disability claims. The people judging those claims had to download dozens of documents one at a time. So we built a “download all” button for them. It wasn’t hard technologically, but it solved an actual problem. It showed that we were listening to their issues and were serious about helping. From there, we were able to build up a relationship with partners and stakeholders. In fact, we just passed 100,000 Veterans whose appeals happened a little better or faster because of tools that we built.
MMM: From the outside, I have imagined that many of the government’s priorities turned over after the 2016 election – Have you noticed a change from the inside, or do you feel your work remains prioritized and valued?
MC: Practically everybody agrees that we need government services to be more modern. Did you know that the government runs some technology systems that are over 50 years old? This still amazes me. Improving technology is one of the few ways where a service can get better and still cost less. Our work is nonpartisan, and we still get to work on important projects that matter to the public.
Earlier this week I got to have breakfast with members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, and it’s remarkable how much common ground there is on improving technology so the government works better for people.
MMM: There’s another group called Code for America that has a similar-sounding mission to the layperson. Could you explain the difference between CfA and USDS?
MC: Code for America is a great group of folks! They’re a non-profit that works primarily with state and local governments to improve their technology. The US Digital Service is a part of the Federal government, so we tackle programs at a national level. It turns out that the civic tech space is pretty small in some ways, so it’s still possible to get to know a lot of people who have an outsized impact on technology in government. Code for America is one of the organizations that got me interested in civic technology in the first place.
MMM: Has financial independence played a role in your willingness to do this job?
MC: No one needs to be financial independent to work for the USDS–we pay solid salaries–but my previous career as a software engineer did give me the freedom to work on what I want. But you’ve made the point over and over that financial independence doesn’t automatically mean that you stop working–it means that you work on what you want to work on. At the US Digital Service, I get to work with amazing people who are tackling projects that really matter.
MMM: Should readers of this interview apply to the USDS? If we wanted to filter to exactly the right candidates, how would we do it?
MC: Yes, they should apply! We’re always looking for mid-career software engineers, site reliability engineers, product managers, and designers–people who have accumulated some real-world experience and maybe a few scars. If you can stand up a major web service, for example, that’s a plus. We also look for folks with emotional intelligence and the ability to tell the truth in hard situations. You may need to sit down with a cabinet secretary and break the news that their new product isn’t ready to launch yet.
MMM: How else can they support you?
MC: If your readers are not ready to apply themselves, maybe they know a good software engineer and will encourage them to apply? Also feel free to share this interview with them or elsewhere on social media. :) It’s important to know that there’s a third path open to technologists now besides academia and industry. And it’s possible to find jobs that are meaningful even if they can also be hard. Keep looking until you find one that’s right for you. Lastly, you can follow USDS on Twitter and on Medium.
MMM: Thanks for your time Matt, and thanks for taking the time to help out in the world. This article is part of an ongoing series of “Interviews with Interesting Mustachians”, and there are quite a few in the queue for this year. To a prosperous 2018!
And if you have questions for Matt and the USDS team, feel free to write them up in the comments. I’ll invite them to participate in the discussion.
* I first heard about Matt when he sent me a random PayPal donation in 2015. It was a shock:in a long-ago article in the very early days of this blog, I had put a donation box in an article with a comment like “Hey, you can keep reading for free, but if you insist on sending me money, here’s the way to do it.” He shocked me by sending $100.00, so I looked up his biography and sent him a thank-you email. Later, he enticed me into attending an underground conference called “Foo Camp,” which involved spending a weekend camping out with 200 young Silicon Valley tech titans and giving impromptu talks to each other. I gave a talk on Mustachianism, and answered questions from a guy at dinner about index fund investing. Later, someone pointed out that it was sci-fi legend Hugh Howey, and both my son and I have since gone on to read most of his books.
** Matt and I did this interview by collaborating in a Google(of course) Doc, which means he was able to add his own links. So, all the links within are by him. I noticed that some of them, like this one, link to old MMM articles. I was impressed by his deep and historic knowledge of Mustachianism. ;-)