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NSA’s top talent is leaving because of low pay, flagging morale, unpopular reorg (washingtonpost.com)
824 points by sea6ear 48 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 515 comments



It seems like it's pretty hard for the government to compete with private industry in compensation. Federal pay grades are capped by Congress, and the top grade is around ~$150k a year [1]. And note that since it's the top of the scale, you have to start people off lower so that there is salary progression.

Pretty sure a top cryptographer or security expert should be worth several times that, especially if they are also dealing with classified information and safeguarding all the data collection (e.g. if the NSA is going to spy on us, wouldn't you like that to be as secure as possible?).

This is another reason why we're going to enter an era of corporate feudalism. There has been a cycle of:

1. perception of gov't incompetence

2. normal people ask 'why are we paying people so much for doing a bad job?'

3. gov't pay scales fall further behind private industry

4. rise in relative mediocrity

5. repeat

I think voters largely don't realize how much competence actually costs in the market now and will vent about their justified perceptions of inequality by preventing equalization of pay between the gov't and private sectors, but that will paradoxically just make things worse in the long run as the private sector snaps up all the talent and we end up with a barely-functioning federal bureaucracy.

[1] http://work.chron.com/nsa-pay-scale-16399.html


The problem is that we can (and should!) raise government pay scales, but we must also make it easier to fire people (or manage them downwards) for incompetence. Government work is for two types of people (and there's some overlap on the Euler diagram): patriots, and folks who can't hack it in civilian life.

It's not just a 'perception of gov't incompetence': it's a widespread phenomenon. Government employees tend to excel at working organisational politics (i.e., in serving their organisational customers) rather than in serving their taxpaying customers. Government work is a kind of kabuki theatre, in which everyone agrees to praise the emperor's new clothes and ignore the boy who points out that he's naked.

The unfortunate thing is that government work is really important: it requires the best and the brightest, not the lazy and the uninspired. Patriotism should of course be a sine qua non for the civil service, but so should excellence. We should pay market rates, but we should pay them for market quality.

Raising rates without working to improve quality would mean getting mutton when we pay for lamb.


It's popular to say things like some government employees are "folks who can't hack it in civilian life," but there's basically no evidence this is true.

First of all, let's make sure we look at the full scope of civilian life with a sober eye. Anyone working the counter at your local Post Office could easily work the register at any grocery store in your town. And any medium to large company has plenty of internal politics. Don't make the mistake of comparing the worst case of government to some idealized notion of private enterprise.

Second, take a look at what happens to people who do leave the government. Very often, their salaries go up in the private sector. This is especially true for specialists like the folks who work at the NSA. Seems like they can hack it.

Folks who have not worked for the government, or very close to it, have a hard time comprehending the fundamental differences between government and private enterprise. For one thing, when you work for the government, many rules of your job carry the force of law. Being too flexible might not just get you fired, it might get you prosecuted.

And there are so many rules. I'll give you one example scenario: a person leaves their job, and a subordinate steps up, takes on their workload, and does great.

In a private company, you'd just promote the subordinate. You already know they can do the work, you retain institutional knowledge, and it's easier to hire junior positions. Efficient and effective.

But in most federal agencies that would be illegal, as it might permit some form of corruption. The subordinate would have to keep doing the extra workload, while the supervisor requisitions a new position to replace the old one, and then runs a (highly regulated) open public application process. The subordinate can apply too, of course.

This is not because the supervisor is some terrible inflexible or dumb person. The rules are just stricter and more burdensome in the government than in private enterprise.

Why? Because everyone loves to believe the worst about the government, so it's easy to sell voters on the necessity of a shitload of burdensome rules.

So: if you want people to act smarter in the government, you have to give them permission to act smarter. Firing has little to do with it. You have to give people the opportunity to try things and make mistakes in good faith.


> It's popular to say things like some government employees are "folks who can't hack it in civilian life," but there's basically no evidence this is true.

Have you ever worked for government? I'm a civilian contractor in a software architecture role to a public safety agency in a state government. Half the "senior application developers" haven't written code in 15 years and don't know what a unit test is. There are maybe 2-3 individual contributors for each manager. Not team lead, manager, and is in a $105-110k+/yr position that does annual reviews, on call scheduling, etc.

The floor I'm on has 25-35 developers, DBAs, and BAs, and I can count on one hand the number of people who could get hired into a junior technical position at my employer. There are people who are unironically counting the days they have left until they can retire and draw their pension when they have more than 5 years left.

> Anyone working the counter at your local Post Office could easily work the register at any grocery store in your town.

And they'd take a 60% pay cut to do so, wouldn't they? Anyway, this is about folks in technical roles. Running a register and handing out stamps isn't particularly technical.

> Second, take a look at what happens to people who do leave the government. Very often, their salaries go up in the private sector. This is especially true for specialists like the folks who work at the NSA. Seems like they can hack it.

Well that's sort of tautological, isn't it? "The people who get a civilian job are capable of getting a civilian job." These folks are in the "Patriot, not inept" section of the diagram.

> Firing has little to do with it.

Firing has a lot to do. I've spoken candidly about my colleagues here with higher ups in the agency. They've openly bemoaned their inability to fire anyone, especially the people who they know for a fact do nothing all day. Those people are soaking up hundreds of thousands, even millions a year, in taxpayer dollars, doing little work of substance or value, and preventing their positions from being filled by someone capable.


This is more in line with my experience. A friend of mine purposely sought out a job in government for the job security. He seemed to have had a rough time in the private sector as he was always getting laid off/fired and generally seemed to never like his bosses etc. He explicitly expressed that he wanted a job where he could be comfortable working at his own pace without having to worry about performance based evaluations and such. He's now in government and seems to be doing very well financially.


Why are people conflating "government work" with "NSA work"?

It's like saying "corporate work" instead of "Google work".

State level agencies are obviously going to be low-level dreck. The NSA is completely different, and has some of the smartest people on the planet.

It's intellectually lazy (read: dumb) to apply an anecdote to everything, like saying "black guy committed a crime, therefore ALL black guys are criminals". Be smart and more deliberate, instead of being intellectually lazy.

I've been in enough situations, both in the corporate and government sides, to know that each situation is unique. I worked at/with large companies (Intel, IBM), medium companies (Cadence, ATI), and several small startups, along with government (NSA/other agencies). They all have their own unique properties, and I can't say "huurr durrr government employees are all lazy" when it's obvious they aren't, just by looking at what the NSA does.

It's always fun to see Google introduce a new product that the NSA already made years ago...


>It's intellectually lazy (read: dumb) to apply an anecdote to everything

>State level agencies are obviously going to be low-level dreck.

LOL


I have not worked in the government because I haven't been willing to submit myself to that level of inflexibility in my work.

However, I know a lot of people who have worked or currently do work in government, up to and including innovation fellows at the federal level.

I think you're responding to a point that I didn't make. I never said that government tech workers are top notch; in fact I know they generally are not.

My point is that even if you could fire anyone with no process, you would still be stuck with the inflexible structure that government tends to impose on any employee. You would still have trouble recruiting. Why aren't you a government employee? Because it would be too hard to get fired there? No, because it's more enjoyable to work in private industry. Me too.

Management basics: you cannot fire your way to success. You have to hire and empower great employees.

Firing is about efficiency; but what customers and stakeholders really want is performance. It's like saying "my car is running out of gas--I better take off the roof rack." Cutting does not provide forward momentum.

Fundamentally, people want to believe that the reason that government sucks, is because government workers suck. The reality is that government sucks because it imposes structural limits on the empowerment of employees, which harms flexibility and recruiting too.

And those structural limits were put in place, because everyone thinks government workers suck! It's a circle of pain.

BTW I would not spend too much time feeling superior to government tech workers. Governments waste a shitload of money on contractors too. And the rest of the tech industry tends to look down on government contractors about the same as government employees.


> And the rest of the tech industry tends to look down on government contractors about the same as government employees.

Yes, I'm still a government contractor because after doing this for 10 years, nobody in private industry will touch me. Once you get that .gov stank on you, it seems nobody else wants you (the polite term is "not a cultural fit", which I've heard over and over and over again) :(


Payroll is the number 1 expense for government agencies. Easier firing would make a world of difference. I think the root cause is pensions. When people are tied to pensions for a retirement, firing people becomes a much bigger deal. Just pay a match into a retirement account and then when people can go, they go. Private sector pensions are for the most part long gone. Why should public sector keep them.


Pensions just don't make sense mathematically. If they're solvent based on the state's investments, then the employee is getting a raw deal compared to having just invested the money themselves. If they're not, then I as a taxpayer am getting a raw deal by helping to pay for someone's retirement because they worked for a state agency decades ago.

My state starts doling out pensions at 5 years. A friend of mine worked for a state senator in the 90s for 6 years. He's got something like $1200/mo guaranteed during his retirement for 6 years of borderline political work ~25 years ago.

I know it's a politically charged subject but I don't see why from an economic/mathematical perspective it's any better than moving the same investments to the market. Or at least if you're going to keep the pensions, only give them out for full service (20 years) like the military, and make it easier to fire a government worker for poor performance.

I shouldn't be able to sit on my thumbs for a few years and have my mortgage covered by the taxpayers during my retirement.


Pensions make a lot of sense mathematically. If I personally fund my retirement I have to save enough for the "worst" case scenario of living many years longer than average. A pension on the other hand only has to invest enough for the average lifespan because the person who dies a week before retirement and collects nothing helps fund the person who lives to be 105.

State pensions are in trouble because govt pensions are allowed to assume overly optimistic rates of return.


If you're worried about living too long you can buy an annuity. It makes no sense for employers or the government to make that choice for you.


Mandatory safety net/insurance policies make sense because what we know from experience is that if you don't have a mandated program, some people will blow it off. And as long as we don't have the political will to let them die on the street alone in poverty, it'll be very expensive to try pick up the pieces of the mess once they hit the safety net. Especially if that's something like hitting the ER needing tens of thousands of treatment to stabilize, before just getting kicked back out to the street. Or wasting people's time in the ER without medical need because the ER has heating and a bed and the cold winter street doesn't.

Not everybody has family to fall back on in retirement, but we still don't want to let them simply die. So the money has to be given somewhere.


You've gone a bit off the rail here because most people in the US don't get pensions and we aren't forcing tons of people to die in the street.

I think you are confusing pensions with social security. Social security already provides that bare minimum mandatory safety net.


Social Security is a pension (defined benefit after a certain point as opposed to defined contribution).


Ok, but nobody in the US calls it a pension so when you refer to a pension everyone is assuming the one you got from an employer.


Right, but a very small pension.


I fully agree with your statement, but would also like to point to the darker side of the coin, where some people managing the mandatory pension fund will probably make some nice amount of money out of it.


It sounds reasonable in theory to collectivize this stuff, but in practice the programs all run out of money. Politicians always over promise. This happens over and over again all over the world.

I see no real alternative to freedom here. Let people make their own choices. Over the long term you can't really conjure up better investment returns and better retirements for people by decree. The wealth has to be there.


Do you think the political will is there to let people die in the street?

If not, the running out of money part happens either way.


> I know it's a politically charged subject but I don't see why from an economic/mathematical perspective it's any better than moving the same investments to the market.

It's worse on average, it's better at minimum (ignoring, for this analysis, municipal bankruptcy)

> My state starts doling out pensions at 5 years. A friend of mine worked for a state senator in the 90s for 6 years. He's got something like $1200/mo guaranteed during his retirement for 6 years of borderline political work ~25 years ago.

Assuming a 2% of highest full years salary per year of service formula at typical retirement age (a fairly generous public, non-safety pension), with 6 years of service that would require a base salary of $120,000 over the highest paid year of those six, that’s—today, not in the 1990s—a fairly senior staff salary for the California State Senate, which has the highest legislator and staff salaries in the nation.

Your description is not necessarily impossible, but it's extremely far from typical.


> that would require a base salary of $120,000 over the highest paid year of those six

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pension_spiking

piling up overtime and sick and vacation days saved over previous years, people are frequently able to 2x and more their salary for pension calculations.


> piling up overtime and sick and vacation days saved over previous years, people are frequently able to 2x and more their salary for pension calculations.

Yes—with a long career over which to save (especially since public employers tend to have vacation allocation which increases with years of service)—and an hourly wage rather than salaried job so that they are eligible for overtime, and participation in one of the systems that hasn't adopted controls to prevent pension spiking, sure.

But not with a 6 year stint in political staff position.


Salaried workers can receive overtime as well. Your thinking of exempt/non-exempt, which has more to do with responsibilities (e.g. management is an exempt category).

And the "political staff positions" are the in the same state bureaucracy as the other agency employees. They're not treated differently for retirement based solely on the fact that they work for the legislature.

And it's certainly possible to build up a lot of vacation and flex time (not strictly OT but it's still paid out at a reduced rate) in 6 years.


Pensions make a lot of sense ... they spread out the risk (notice this also means they spread out the rewards :). Now, the actual level of pensions is a different matter ...

Notice, also, that if you only give pensions for 'full' service (say, 20 years) you create a big incentive for people to stay exactly 20 years ... both people who should leave at 18, but stay 2 more years 'doing time', and people who get screwed because their boss knows they have to stay 2 more years (kind of like H1 abuses). There's no good reason to not make them increase linearly with time.


> If they're solvent based on the state's investments, then the employee is getting a raw deal compared to having just invested the money themselves.

Institutional investors have access to investment opportunities that individual retail investors don't. Many pension funds are big LPs in VC, PE, and hedge funds.


> Private sector pensions are for the most part long gone. Why should public sector keep them.

Because we don't want a race to the bottom?


Because they're a way to compensate highly skilled government workers for the fact that their salaries aren't competitive.


It’s true that highly skilled government workers are underpaid. But non-highly-skilled government workers are overpaid. Both groups get pensions, and there are a lot more of the second group.


Which is worse: a government with overcompensated secretaries, or undercompensated scientists?

I'm a government scientist. Maybe I'm biased. But it seems to me that if your government cannot compete for the best and brightest in your country, you are doomed.

Ideally, of course, we'd compensate both secretaries and scientists appropriately. But we don't seem to be able to manage that.


What about getting rid of pensions in order to be financially solvent is a race to the bottom?


> What about getting rid of pensions in order to be financially solvent is a race to the bottom?

The idea that the little guy needs to be made more financially insecure so those at the top can benefit from something more "financially solvent." This applies to business (less pensions, more dividends and share buybacks) and government (less pensions, lower taxes [for the rich]).

Also, IIRC, private sector pensions are quite common for CEOs and executives. They're only less common for the little guys.


> The floor I'm on has 25-35 developers, DBAs, and BAs, and I can count on one hand the number of people who could get hired into a junior technical position at my employer. There are people who are unironically counting the days they have left until they can retire and draw their pension when they have more than 5 years left.

This pretty much sounds like the majority of fortune 500s I've worked for. Software Engineers started by being interviewed by non-technical managers, worked there for 20 years becoming 'Senior' or even 'Enterprise Architects', when at most they'd be very junior or intern level developers / engineers at my current employer.


You hit the nail on the head. I've found that people can't grasp that there are a decent amount of federal employees that go to work and actually do nothing. I think some individuals take it as an attack on "big government" instead of a reality. Sure, it does sound a bit absurd if you haven't worked in that environment before, but people aren't exaggerating.


I work at a Fortune 500 (non-tech) company, and your first two paragraphs are very familiar. I’m not sure why people often act like the government has a monopoly on lazy and incompetent people.


It's not something special to government, it's just that any place with a lot of red tape, a lot of organization/bureaucratic process, and where one person is a relatively insignificant contributor will have it. The problem is that for many government is the biggest example of that type of organization.


Do taxpayers pay for your Fortune 500 company's employees' salaries?

These things happen everywhere, but in the private sector, that inefficiency only lasts as long as the rest of the company carries it. It's the taxpayer funding and political difficulty in fixing that make the incompetence of government employees more problematic.


That's such a load of bullshit. If it's an oligopoly or monopoly in a market where the consumer has very little market power, you are just as unable to avoid funding this profligacy.

I guess you could give up medical care, internet and having an education, but if you're going to do that why not just 'vote with your wallet' with your taxes too and move abroad.


I don't disagree with your argument, but I do call attention to your opening sentence.

> That's such a load of bullshit.

Assuming you don't know each other and talk this way IRL, then it seems to me a violation of HN guideline 1:

> Be civil. Don't say things you wouldn't say face-to-face. Don't be snarky. Comments should get more civil and substantive, not less, as a topic gets more divisive.


There are edge cases in the private sector where it is similar, but it's very much the norm in government work.


Firing has everything to do with it. It takes a herculean effort to fire one direct government employee. Replacing the prime contractor and their hundreds of employees and subcontractors' employees on a work order is much easier.

I once heard some "war stories" from someone who had previously worked in a state government office, about the fistfights that broke out between government employees, and the difficulties in keeping malware off the boss-of-the-boss's computer as he routinely visited NSFW sites on state-owned hardware during the workday. That stuff simply doesn't happen in workplaces where people can easily be fired for gross misconduct.

There's good money to be made in actually doing the work that government employees don't do. And that's why no one close to the matter makes a great deal of fuss about them not doing it. If the work needs to be done, and there is no way to force those nominally responsible for it to actually get it done, they can throw more budget at the problem and get a contractor. If you know enough about the problem to say why the direct employees can't fix it, you also know enough to do it yourself and get paid.


>> Anyone working the counter at your local Post Office could easily work the register at any grocery store in your town.

> And they'd take a 60% pay cut to do so, wouldn't they?

I wouldn't say the Post Office worker is overpaid just because of that. Private-sector pay for many such positions is shameful and exploitative.


I worked for a large government organization and fortune 100 organizations that didn't specialize in writing software. And they were comparable, if not the government job was probably a little better done.

I think in general large organizations that don't specialize in writing software are often pretty bad at it.


Do you think that some of the hiring practices are out of whack as well? I've heard it claimed that sometimes the government treats hiring as welfare employment programs - which adds a whole new spin on this.


I've never heard it phrased like this specifically but there is absolutely a mindset during interviews that the applicant gets the job unless you can find a specific reason not to give it to them. To @dragonwriter's point the rules surrounding Civil Service are even more extreme. Here is a real world example of CS hiring procedures:

0. CS Commission sets a minimum written score for oral interviews. Score is arbitrary and largely designed to limit number of interviews to an acceptable number (20-30 total per vacancy).

1. Commission asks applicants the same questions, in the same order, asked by the same commissioner. Scores are subjective but on a 1-7 scale.

2. Does the mean score surpass the 60% pass rate? If yes, applicant moves to next step.

3. Does the applicant, in their background investigation or oral interview, admit to any explicitly listed disqualifying acts as listed in the Commission's rules & regulations? If no, applicant moves to next step.

4. The written and oral scores are averaged based on a prescribed weighted formula. This weighted score is 0-100.

5. Is the applicant a veteran? Add a certain number of points.

6. Give the top three names to the hiring body (varies by position).

7. Is a veteran in the top three? Guess what, they get the job no matter what.


You'd be hard pressed to convince me that someone who fought for their country in the military should not be preferred as a civil servant. It seems like a very strong qualification for these jobs.


I didn't mean to imply they shouldn't, only used it as one of a list of examples in which civil service hiring is formulaic and not really open to personal opinion. That there are equations and rules for everything, and at the end of the process the "hiring body" is basically told who they have to hire for a given post, unless they can find a reason to disqualify that person.


Fair enough. I definitely agree with your broad point. My wife manages grants (many of which are federal) for a research institute and even though they aren't governmental themselves, just being federally funded creates many of the same circumstances you're talking about here. Being able to fire people more easily would not solve any problems: they need to be able to incentivize good work much more flexibly.


How'd you like Starship Troopers?


Maybe we're better off loading the dice so that they pursue other lines of work. They may be good at being government workers. They may want to be government workers. It may be better for society over all if we do not give them preferential treatment in some roles but do in others.

This question obviously only applies to a subset of veterans. There's a civilian analog to many military jobs and the military's training and experience in those fields can stand on its own without preferential treatment for the most part.

A combat veteran may make a good post office manager or a good cop but it's probably better off for everyone if he's only given preferential treatment in the latter role.


Maybe? None of what you're saying is obvious to me in either direction. But it does seem to me that "served country in the past" is a reasonable thing to consider when hiring for largely thankless civil service jobs.


Worked as a contractor for a federal agency, can confirm true, with a few variations: written score was weighted, and a cutscore eliminates candidates before oral portion. The written cutscore is adjusted downward until enough women and marginalized groups pass, and then candidates are weeded out in the oral phase, special consideration given to veterans and a few other categories.


Close. #7 is actually not true (although a lot of hiring managers seem to think that it is). You are not required to hire the veteran per OPM regulations. They only get the point based boost.

In practice, the veterans benefit becomes meaningless once you advance in specialist grades (GS-09+). But it will get you the glorious position of elevator operator in Carlesbad.


I'm not talking about OPM, I'm talking about my state's Civil Service rules. If there is only 1 veteran in the top three candidates, the veteran gets the job unless the hiring body explicitly disqualifies them.


> I've heard it claimed that sometimes the government treats hiring as welfare employment programs

There's two ways this is true in state and/or federal government:

(1) hiring into specific programs which are essentially designed as welfare hiring programs (these aren't big today, but there are a few of them still.)

(2) special, broadly-applicable civil service hiring preferences (mainly for certain disabilities and military veterans.)


I've worked onsite at a federal customer as a contractor (software developer). There appears to have been a big push over the last few years to replace contract sysadmins with civil servants (wonder why). So all of the good ones left for better paying jobs elsewhere, while the slugs converted into government employees.

At first I thought the sysadmins were deliberately slow-rolling all of my requests, many of which amounted to running a single UNIX command... turns out they honestly didn't know what they were doing (I asked you to fix the permissions on this directory - 6 weeks ago).

We've gone from:

  Me: Can I have sudo privileges so I don't have to bother 
  you?

  Them: No
to

  Me: Can I have sudo priviliges so I can fix it myself?

  Them: What's soo dough?
I'm actually shocked when I encounter a competent sysadmin these days. "Oh, you made it work. You didn't break something else in the process. Wow." but it makes me sad because I know they won't be around long, as some company willing to pay for competent staff will eventually poach them.


And at the same time we are arguing for basic income. It is not all bad, these people at least have an income and they allow you to make your income because of their incompetence. Chances are that if their employer could fire them you would not have your job either.


Thanks for telling it like it is


holy shit do you work for usps! you described my work environment almost to the T;


State level public safety agency is about as specific as I'd like to be, sorry :)

I'm sure if you trawled through my history you'd be able to piece it together.


I have no data to offer, but I do have a simple, heuristic model that might hint at GP's thinking process:

1. tolerance to short-term career uncertainty varies greatly between individuals (e.g. changing jobs, moving, having money in the bank to cushion the cashflow turbulence)

2. the gov't largely underpays in dollars in return for high career stability

3. if level of tolerance to short-term disruption is strongly positively correlated to general 'ability', then the government will end up with on average less capable workers

Not saying this is necessarily true, and certain fields are probably exceptions (do people who choose to become cryptographers prefer a quiet peaceful life?) but certainly the movers and shakers of industry are people who can stomach enormous amounts of short term risk.

And there are also heuristic arguments to think (3) might be true on average. Like, if people with more money in the bank can take more short term risks, and it's usually the most capable people with that cash available (because they had more earning power in the past), then 'valuing career stability' might be a negative signal for candidate ability.


The movers and shakers of government in the U.S. are the elected officials and their political appointees. A lot of them actually do come from private industry or academia.

The staff of government have to work within whatever decisions get handed down to them from the political process. The political process does not always prioritize staff flexibility and initiative. To the contrary, it's a favorite pastime of politicians to play up public distrust of the government.

In terms of government staff, a lot of people go into the government not because it is generically stable, but because it's the only place you can do certain work. If you want to manage a public park, you have to work for a government. If you want to catch criminals (and your name is not Sherlock Holmes), you have to work for a government. If you want to fly fighter jets, you have to work for a government. If you want to create policy and regulations, you have to work for a government. Speaking of the NSA--if you want to legally hack into a bunch of stuff, you have to work for a government.

In competencies one can do anywhere, like deliveries or contract management, I think you're onto something with your idea of seeking stability.

But I think the attribution might be backward. It's not "the government is made inefficient and inflexible by the lower quality of people who work there." It's more like "the government is made inefficient and inflexible by political law making, which makes it hard to attract the most dynamic people."


You make it sound like "political law making" is a problem and some other form of non-political law making would be a superior solution. The performance of the civil services in dictatorships indicates otherwise: they're invariably more corrupt, more prone to latching on to bad policies and refusing to give them up even in the face of disaster and so on.

Governments don't refuse to fire incompetent people because of "political law making". They refuse because firing people is hard, emotionally draining, legally risky and something that managers will only do when properly incentivised. Without competition or profit there is no incentive to rock the boat and pick a fight at work, so why bother? Some noble idea of higher quality public service? Fat chance.


No, my point is not about democracy vs dictatorship or something.

My point is that in government, there is a hard divide between the people who make the rules, and the people who implement the rules. The people who make the rules are rewarded for distrusting and limiting the capabilities of the staff.

In private industry, it's the opposite. Executives ultimately are judged by the performance of their staff, and they have great flexibility in how they organize and delegate authority down the chain.

Firing is not the key secret to success. Dictators can fire anyone whenever they want, but as you point out, their governments are not necessarily any better, and in many ways worse, than the U.S.


Which is a problem with the US civil service that relatively large numbers of mangers are political appointees rather than career civil servants - the blatant abuse of handing out diplomatic postings to unqualified campaign donors is deeply corrupt.


I too agree with GGP's characterization of the majority of government employees and I too have no evidence beyond anecdotal experience. But I think a reasonable model for evidence would be accountability information. I'll settle for numbers on government employee termination for dissatisfactory work by department (I'm sure it's somewhere, link anyone?). If, as I suspect, termination rates are very minimal in areas requiring skills like IT, I think we can either assume accountability is lower than the private sector or they magically hire the best on first try most of the time. Based on my naive knowledge built from discussions with career-public-sector employees, I suspect the former.


Or termination in the private sector is rarely and indicator of quality.

In 23 years in the private sector, I've only once had reason to fire someone because they didn't do their job properly, and I've seen exactly one more developer fired in the companies I've worked in for similar causes.

The thing is, in most cases you can move people "sideways and effectively down" - there are always grunt work that needs to be done where they can do better relative to the role.

I'm not saying that's always done, e.g. if the gap between abilities and performance is huge. But in my experience it usually can.

And often, if things like performance improvement plans doesn't work, it costs less to simply freeze pay etc. for such employees until inflation does its magic and they're no longer expensive for their reduced responsibility or they decide to leave (but such employees often hang on and quietly accepts their diminished responsibility because they realize they were lucky not to get fired).

I don't believe in firing outside of extreme cases, and neither have most of the companies I've worked in, but that's not the same as not being prepared to take action to move people out of roles they're unable to perform well. Personally I see it as a sign of an unhealthy corporate culture and poor hiring if a company need to regularly fire more than a very tiny proportion of employees.


> Or termination in the private sector is rarely and indicator of quality.

I never said it was. My comparison would be on termination for dissatisfactory work.

Regardless, the attitude that poor performing people can just be reassigned and/or languish seems to be one held exclusively by those working for companies that can absorb waste (or governments). I worked at IBM, I saw it plenty. Peer quality and management's tolerating of low quality work are among the many reasons I left.

But you're telling me and other SMBs that now in my small business of 6 people I can just move people? Or otherwise that I now have an unhealthy corporate culture? Many companies can't afford waste, and as strange as it sounds, can't often afford low-salary, low-skilled labor. Humans are our biggest expenditure, we can't just keep adding indiscriminately even with modest growth lest we hurt our customers with increased prices. Though your intentions and sympathy are admirable, the approach has led to corporate bloat and an inflated supply of employees in the field (at least in software).


> I never said it was. My comparison would be on termination for dissatisfactory work.

My comment applies to that too: One fired out of hundreds of people I've worked with.

It costs money to hire and fire people all the time - most of the time chances are good it's cheaper to shift people around than get rid of someone to hire a replacement.

> Regardless, the attitude that poor performing people can just be reassigned and/or languish seems to be one held exclusively by those working for companies that can absorb waste (or governments).

In my case my career has been almost entirely startups. It's worked fine.

> But you're telling me and other SMBs that now in my small business of 6 people I can just move people?

That's how it's worked in every small company I've worked in.

> Or otherwise that I now have an unhealthy corporate culture?

Yes. I for one - as someone generally seen as high performing - would leave if I found myself in a company where people got fired all over the place. I don't want to work in that kind of toxic environment. As such you're creating additional risks when you keep firing.

> Though your intentions and sympathy are admirable, the approach has led to corporate bloat and an inflated supply of employees in the field (at least in software).

I work in software, and as I mention, I'm not seeing it. What I keep seeing are low performing people who often become good at obscuring how poorly they perform because they know if they stick their head out, they'll face the axe rather than a chance to find a better fit.

And many are very good at it. I've had CV's from people with very distinguished careers that couldn't code fizzbuzz if their life depended on it.

A sign of how dangerous that is, is how often I see people call out e.g. performance improvement plans or training plans as a "trick" that will get you managed out. Because some places they are used mostly to get rid of people rather than to improve people.

It sets up an extremely adversarial environment, and I suspect that given a perpetual lack of understanding of the need to actually provide proper training and support for new managers in tech, that peoples capability to obscure low performance far exceeds managers ability to root it out most places.


Yes I was a branch secretary for the M&P union in BT and in all my time I only came across 2 cases where making some one redundant on grounds of NCI was probably correct and one of those was probably due to health issues which leaves one real case.

what I did see on a major scale was manipulation of the performance system to force people into leaving.


My ex works HR in a major bank, and they have scheduled redundancies every 3 months, whether or not things are going well or not. A large part of her job is to reign in managers that create too great legal risks by coming up with total bullshit made up justifications. E.g. they'll come and insist someone isn't "performing" a month after having given said person a glowing annual review and without having tried anything to get them to improve, and it turns out there's been some conflict or other, even though they insist that has nothing to do with it. People can even convince themselves that someone is suddenly totally useless even when the paper trail they themselves has created to demonstrate that the person in fact performs very well is sufficient to get them crushed at tribunal...


This is fine if the performance is low but positive and if, as sibling comment points out, your organisation can absorb large amounts of waste.

When an employee's performance is actually negative, i.e. they make things worse rather than better e.g. due to personality issues, then moving them around isn't going to work well.


It's worked well in every company I've worked in. The one person I fired is the only one of hundreds of developers I've worked with whose performance was actually negative once we'd tried to shift people around, and while some were probably "wasteful" for a while until we found work they could do that justified their salary, most were not.

A lot of the time people are just not in the position that's right for them.


> A lot of the time people are just not in the position that's right for them.

And a lot of the time the right position for such a person is in a different company.


With that attitude, yes - if you don't try, of course you won't find alternatives. Most people that do try rarely need to fire staff.


> ...I think we can either assume...

If I may posit a third for consideration: for-cause termination is such an insurmountable bureaucratic hurdle that supervisors pragmatically opt to pursue inter/intradepartmental transfer, effectively making the employee "someone else's problem".


I'm including that in the lack of accountability. If termination is difficult, surely many inept remain. Accountability is lowered when unenforceable.


>If termination is difficult, surely many inept remain.

And, if the top of the organization is dysfunctional, making termination much easier (especially where 'easier' means 'no obligation to cite justification') just gives the psychos and empire builders more unchecked power.

If termination were easier but 80% based upon a majority of coworkers signing a document stating "this person is not doing their job properly" you could raise accountability and euthanize the empire builders at the same time, but somehow I don't think when they say "it's too hard to fire people" that's what they're aiming for.


> I'm including that in the lack of accountability.

Fair enough and thanks for the clarification. In that case, I definitely agree with your perspective, both logically and anecdotally.


> heuristic

These aren't heuristics, they are all speculative. We can speculate many other reasons too:

For example, people value career stability when they have children and other long-term, serious obligations.

Many people work in government because they face discrimination in hiring and promotion in the private sector, such as women and minorities. Even Supreme Court Justice Ginsberg says that's why she ended up in government.

Finally, it may be hard for HN readers to imagine, but most people don't seek the life of an SV entrepreneur. It's not that they would do it if they could and settled for something else; they want something else.

I could add more speculation, but without some data I don't think I'm adding much.


the gov't largely underpays in dollars in return for high career stability

I don’t think this is true anymore, at least in the UK you’re likely to be TUPE’d to Capita or Accenture at the drop of a hat, then laid off in 2-3 years anyway when your job is offshored.

GCHQ has similar problems recruiting. And they also have to contend with the class system, exacerbating it.


The class system? In 2017, really? Or do you mean that GCHQ chooses to hire exclusively from the limited pool of Oxbridge graduates and can't change their internal culture such that they could hire school leavers at 16?


It’s still part of the civil service at the end of the day. The pool of people who can both cyberattack our enemies and conjugate Latin verbs is a very small one!


I read this in Sir Humphrey’s voice. Thanks for that.

You’re not wrong though. I know someone denied an MOD posting because they were Irish and had a chemistry degree.


Unsurprisingly this is complete rubbish.

Requirements

We’re looking for passionate individuals from a diverse range of backgrounds, who are intuitive and curious about technology, computer networks and security, and want to make a real difference to the UK.

To apply for these roles, you have, or expect to obtain shortly, a degree in any Science, Technology, Engineering or Maths subject or a Bachelor’s or Masters’ degree incorporating ethical hacking, digital forensics or information security. Alternatively, you have a thorough understanding of networks and protocols, including experience of securing and protecting software and networks.

Along with an aptitude for problem-solving, you like to keep up with changing technology, and are able to grasp computing concepts and to apply your knowledge above and beyond academia.


I think they meant the principal civil service in general from what I see the intelligence arms are are a bit more open to hiring non standard recruits.

BTW the NSA equivalent does hire school leavers and even advertises on the busses locally as I live in spook county (befordshire)


"if level of tolerance to short-term disruption is strongly positively correlated to general 'ability'"

That is seriously odd assumption. It sounds like confusing "personality trait that appeals to me on emotional level" with ability.

Plenty of inable unstable people around as far as I can tell. Plenty of low ability risk takers too.


I agree. Most of the least competent developers I have worked with in the past have been contractors.

I assume the instability appeals to them because they can move on before anyone realises what a pig's ear they have made of everything.

Most of the highly competent developers I have worked with have spent 7 or more years in one organisation.

From my anecdotal experience, therefore, tolerance to short-term disruption is negatively correlated to ability. However, I would be reluctant to make any assertion that links potentially unrelated traits like these.

In my (again, anecdotal) experience, organisations with more stable positions have a greater proportion of people who value that stability for its own sake e.g. those with primary care responsibilities (e.g. for children or disabled dependents); those with voluntary commitments (e.g. scout leaders, special constables); and people who have cause to worry about discrimination (e.g. those from demographics that are poorly represented elsewhere in their profession).

That correlation would be one that I would be slightly more comfortable to assert.


Would intolerance to a level of risk typically encountered in civilian life not make someone unable to function there?

My own experience in the public service was not so much of people unable to do their jobs but people unmotivated by them. My welcoming speech included the warning 'don't get attached to outcomes', and this was in a department disliked by the elected party where a lot of people had already been forced into early retirement.


> Would intolerance to a level of risk typically encountered in civilian life not make someone unable to function there?

I think it is rarely that extreme. Preference for stability rarely means complete inability to deal with instable situations. Also, let's not overstate instability of average tech job. It is not that bad.


in my experience in non-US government job, it not only offers more stability but also better retirement benefits, as such pay is not as far off as it might seem. Furthermore I'm in a country with paid vacations, but the Governmental vacations offered longer paid vacations - not sure if they do this in the U.S but I could expect they actually do offer paid vacations? Which would be something people might value.


it's usually the most capable people with that cash available (because they had more earning power in the past)

It's far more typically because of inherited wealth, which has no bearing on ability but is quite often misinterpreted as such.


Well, this might be a very unpopular opinion, but if generating wealth correlates to intelligence and ability, and these traits are transmissible to children (either genetically, or through practices that parents teach to their children, or through higher educational investment), then you would expect a positive correlation between ability and amount of parental wealth.

This above argument could easily be wrong, but assuming that inherited wealth reveals nothing about ability on average seems like a rather strong claim.

Whether it's fair that parents can try to give their children an advantage, of course, is a totally separate question.


I know that's just anecdata and not representative, but: Donald Trump.


Dude got himself elected while being opposed by both political parties and the media...and he's a billionaire to boot.


He's a billionaire who has spent decades producing a return worse than if he'd just put the money he got from his dad in a fund. His fortune is not a demonstration of ability.


He's functionally rich, but we have no proof that he's really a billionaire. His finances are opaque. We don't know how indebted he is. We don't know what his revenues are. (Crain's reported a few months ago that Trump Org has historically overstated revenues by a factor of 10.)


This is speculation, and I personally don't find it to be true anymore. Funnily enough, I was on the opposite end of this argument as someone else on reddit about a year ago, when I cited an article from I think the daily beast, making the exact same point.

Among the flaws with the argument though, are an assumption that he could track the market (or that it would be a good idea), which is a flawed argument because Bogle didn't even start the first index until 1975, and until the 90's index funds had a reputation of being terrible. It was an undeserved reputation, but the idea of dumping hundreds of millions into an index was just unheard of.

Again, it's also an issue that there was no way to track the market prior, so what was he to do with the money from the age of 18-28? There's also the issue of the article I read assumes the absolute minimum value it could find for the value of Trump's brand.

While I think Trump valuing it in the billions is absurd, so is stickering it at $30 million, even before the election. It seems in bad faith to me to choose the weakest possible version of the thing you are arguing against, especially if that's the only possible way to make the math work out.


> Why? Because everyone loves to believe the worst about the government, so it's easy to sell voters on the necessity of a shitload of burdensome rules.

There's also a fundamental difference between you being cavalier with your money, and me being cavalier with our money.

Being tax payer funded changes accountability, investment horizons, and access to capital. The CEO of Twitter gets to put whoever he wants in wherever, and eats the costs if it works bad, but to ensure responsible fiduciary practices with our collective wealth we, the taxpayers, demand less aggressive and efficient practices to limit corruption and incompetence.

This is a conscious social decision, to move slower and more carefully, and will hopefully be minimized with increasingly robust Civic Tech. Alternative federal structures would historically point towards oligarchies and widespread corruption.


Uh, it's about as much your money in both cases, that is to say it's not. In both cases its their money in both a the practical and legal sense.

The difference is that when a company takes your dollars and put it towards their new SAP system to hopefully upgrade their shitty web services, wasting $100 million, you don't fell you have any agency over what happens at all.

On the other hand, when the government invests money in a huge SAP project that then fail, you do feel entitled to rage about it, since there are actual ways you could have acted to prevent this waste (convoluted that the process may be).

But the money the government owns isn't yours in any real sense, since most of it is unaffected by any formal action you can take. In fact, you might in practice be more in control, by the avenue of complaints and media campaigns, of money you've given to private enterprises. At least on the extremes, it is certainly easier to get your favourite pub to buy new lamps than getting the Army to get some new artillery.


Why does Singapore have so much better administration?


I'm from a small city in a poor region of the UK. I find that many friends from that area work either at the local council or the NHS (hospitals etc), Education or decentralised government agencies e.g. Tax, vehicle licensing, immigration etc. They tend to be one of the few employers with highly skilled work available in those areas for people who don't want to or won't move to more affluent areas where the big companies are located. This is a primary reason for people working for the government and I'm sure this is true in small town US too.

Not for me, I moved to London as soon as I graduated, but later moved back to a medium sized city, as a compromise.


This is only personal experience, but multiple/many data points in that personal experience. I'm familiar with government departments where 20%+ of the employees do essentially no work whatsoever. Their assigned work languishes indefinitely, until it eventually looks bad enough on some chart that it gets assigned to someone else.

That "someone else" is often a hardworking, loyal employee who does their best to earn their pay (thank you, to those people!!). But their attitude is ground down over time by watching those other people do literally nothing, and eventually get promoted "because seniority."

So I fundamentally disagree with your premise that you could transplant that population into a business. I'm certainly familiar with freeloads in business, but I'd struggle to come up with an example company where 1/5 or more of employees do no work at all over multiple decades and then retire with a pension.


I've worked extremely close to the government and, yes, everything about the process screamed inefficiency in the name of positions and purchases not being abused. So you spend massively inflated amounts as a result of that bureaucracy for subpar quality (because a lot of people who can easily find alternatives don't have the patience to deal with the red tape, leading to an over-time retention bias towards the mediocre).

I disagree that firing isn't a big part of it, but you can't just have more firing. You need to let managers do their jobs in a way that isn't just following a checklist in a binder, which also involves hiring latitude, pay latitude, etc. All stuff that could be abused, but some abuse is better than uniform shit quality at high expense.

One easy example from both government and big industry: how much money do we spend on sending people to get mediocre extra degrees from mediocre schools that don't actually have anything to do with their job responsibilities but is a requirement for a certain promotion level?


I agree with what you say, but you attacked OP for not providing evidence, and you didn't provide any either.


Folks interested in a taste of how the federal government manages people can take a look at:

https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/

Much of the information in there carries the force of law; that is, a hiring supervisor cannot legally deviate from the process even if they think it is dumb and hurting their chances of getting the best candidate.

My example of the subordinate who can't just get promoted has happened to two personal friends who work for the federal government (both of whom have graduate degrees in their field of work BTW). To be clear, there are "promotions" in federal pay, from say a GS-9 to GS-10. I'm talking about a promotion into a different position, like from a specialist to a manager (to use generic example terms).


Wouldn't all of these (legal) rules, red tape, stories from your two personal friends, etc support the original argument that they employ patriots or the less qualified? Otherwise, why would a highly qualified person without any preference towards civic duty subject themselves to all of this when they have their pick of jobs? Especially in IT.


If the problem is attracting better people, how would that get fixed just by making it easier to fire people?

I wouldn't claim that the government has the best of the best across the board. In some areas they do, like fighter pilots or criminal investigators. In others, they generally don't, like web application developers.

What I disagree with is the idea that the government is full of incompetent people, who just need to get fired for things to speed up and get better. It ignores the reality of how the government really works, and therefore who joins the government and why.


> If the problem is attracting better people, how would that get fixed just by making it easier to fire people?

Because most high quality employees don't want to work somewhere where low quality is rewarded.

Nobody said it's full of incompetent people that need to get fired. But they are there as they are everywhere. I disagree with the idea that getting rid of lower quality employees won't help. It ignores the reality of quality disparity and implicitly encourages low quality due to no accountability.

It should be noted this same problem exists at many entrenched, older, large companies as well.


Most places don't work like IT where workers have easily transferable skills across a large market -- getting rid of somebody who you can't easily replace is not rational, suboptimal is better than none. It's not the people it's the organization and incentives around it that matter -- things get really complicated in larger orgs and systems of orgs. In your post it's like there is an easy and clear cut solution to this. You do understand that in an organization you take orders top down or you have a lack of information at the lower levels to make a decision right? You get what you measure and no rank and file employee controls that process + career progression depends on adherence to whatever incentive structure is set up before you started. Also hard as it is to believe, governments don't deal in stupid little apps that are based around some gimmicks. Quality is hard to measure, either you set up an arbitrary hoop for people to jump through or do it based on past performance which is almost completely tied to the environment -- which coincidentally dictates what problems are available to work on which also coincidentally dictates the skills you develop; it's not like implementing a ranking system is a perfect art either. I'm not a fan either of how things are, I know more about the pharmaceutical procurement process and pharma regulations than I ever wanted to.


> It ignores the reality of how the government really works

Have you ever worked or contracted for the government? Are you trying to say they're not incompetent? I'm just wondering which division of NASA you worked for.


> why would a highly qualified person without any preference towards civic duty subject themselves to all of this when they have their pick of jobs?

Well, all other things being equal they wouldn't. We cannot infer that those who are civic minded are more/less competent from that though.

In practice there are numerous reasons why highly talented people are willing to sacrifice from organizational flexibility and freedom of expenditure work in those organizations. The easy one is meaning. You don't have to be civic minded to get more out of helping cancer researchers get research data than making Accounting Excel Plugin v12.3. Variety and scope of challenge is another. Few companies can offer the kind of influence that being on a national standards org can. And since the gov can't really be salary competitive, it tends to compete on work/life balance - pensions, paid vacation, flexitime, sane office hours, no unpaid time on-call over weekends, etc...

For people like us though the answer is even clearer: cool toys. Oak Ridge National Laboratory works at scales so large I've literally had to google what the metric prefixes they were using meant as they were so huge as to be unfamiliar. Data centers, tools, software packages, etc chosen for cost and market fairness, and not just because some VPs golf buddy got wood from a slide deck...

--

Me, personally, like many here could be making roughly an extra car a year by working at RandomConsulting Co. I would wake up earlier, yell at my family more, be sitting in random office environments with smelly people constantly, lie-smiling while blowing smoke up customer asses in dumb meetings routinely, travelling 15 hours more every single week, be in airports all the time, and fundamentally trying to trick customers into building my resume while also being forced to follow their crappy tech choices and crappy tech environments...

Instead I'm building highly scalable open source, license free, BigData solutions on Kafka, Kubernetes, and Akka driven by F#. We're saving stupid money we get to use for schools and hospitals instead. I can tell my boss to suck an egg if I want, wear comfy clothes, and there are formal processes in place to protect my decision-making... Worth the financial "hardship" to have a pure, tech-driven, position, IoW.


It is not to say that the private sector is without problems completely. These rules around promotions and hiring in the public sector prevent certain other problems like favoritism, sexism, nepotism.


> These rules around promotions and hiring in the public sector prevent certain other problems like favoritism, sexism, nepotism.

If allowing those things results in a net better experience than forbidding them, maybe they aren't really problems after all. Maybe favoritism & nepotism, in particular, are good ways (within limits) to build strongly-functioning teams.


They did not attack the OP, they criticized their argument. It's a fundamental difference.


The burden of proof lies with the one making the claim, though.


Please provide proof that the burden of proof lies with the one making the claim, though.


I think you hit it the big difference between public/private sector work -- the rules. My spouse has spent seven years in a land agency specializing into a position that really entails knowing, and keeping abreast of a very narrow, specific body of legislation and regulation that is applicable only to that land agency and only in very specific agency/business relationships.

There is no comparable position in the private sector (there isn't even a comparable position in different land agencies), and there is no way you could pick someone off the street and expect them to be versed in that legislation without a similar timeframe (and no agency will ever foot the bill to train you on it either. They'll just leave the position empty and the work to pile up for years or decades until a similarly skilled person becomes available).

Unfortunately, the biggest issue that this particular agency is facing has been a multiple-decade campaign to hire externally to the agency rather than promoting internally. The result has been a body of upper management from the public sector that neither understands said legislation or how it applies.


"It's popular to say things like some government employees are "folks who can't hack it in civilian life," but there's basically no evidence this is true."

I worked at NASA for 6 years and almost fell out of my chair when I read this. Switching from NASA to Google was the most stark contrast of incompetent people late in their careers having political infights to keep "their" funding to people who didn't care about funding and just did the fucking work.

I can think of 10 people I worked with at NASA who absolutely could never hold a professional position in a place that requires revenue or useful contributions.


>It's popular to say things like some government employees are "folks who can't hack it in civilian life," but there's basically no evidence this is true.

I'm not aware of any scientific studies, but I spent a decade on active duty, and seven years as a reservist so far. When it came to technical jobs, almost everyone was terrible at their job, which was usually an incredibly narrow and overly simplified version of what the job would actually be in the civilian world. Everything is compartmentalized to the point where even if you excel at your individual responsibilities, you would still be terrible in the broader field. Almost every marketable skill I learned during my time in the military was something I did on my own time that was completely unrelated to my day job.

After I left the military and transferred into a different kind of technical role, eventually I started helping with interviews. 15-20-year government service veterans with incredible resumes and sr. titles are regularly found to be unfit for even an entry level job.

There are exceptions, but the rule in the military is incompetence. Its not that there's something inherently wrong with people, its just that the military recruits intelligent people, trains them very poorly, and then never lets them do anything remotely interesting or challenging. They just follow whatever steps they were told to complete in training over and over again for the rest of their careers.

As with anything, there are exceptions. Some tiny parts of the military do interesting work and have developed a culture that's reasonably conducive to innovation and fostering talent. From what I've heard, parts of the NSA used to be like this, but the lack of ethics among the organization's senior leadership ended up being partially responsible for the reorganization. Additionally, there are other people that manage to become really good at something in spite of being constantly strangled by the government's attempts to hold them back. Some of the most brilliant people I've ever met started out in the military, but the overwhelming majority of people that serve in technical roles are unfit to do anything besides put asses in seats for the defense contracting industry (which 95% of the time isn't any more capable of specialized technical work than the military).


> Anyone working the counter at your local Post Office could easily work the register at any grocery store in your town.

Not really. Don't get me wrong: I like the people in our post office. But they'd be killed in the private sector.

At my local grocery store (Safeway), they'll add a new cashier if the line becomes long. The Post Office? Nope! During busy times, I've seen the line go beyond 15 or 20, and there's this only 1 slow clerk taking his time, chit-chatting, in no hurry at all.

Or the DMV. Visit the SF DMV if you want to see government at "work".


> The Post Office? Nope! During busy times, I've seen the line go beyond 15 or 20, and there's this only 1 slow clerk taking his time, chit-chatting, in no hurry at all.

> At my local grocery store (Safeway), they'll add a new cashier if the line becomes long. The Post Office? Nope! During busy times, I've seen the line go beyond 15 or 20, and there's this only 1 slow clerk taking his time, chit-chatting, in no hurry at all.

Because Safeway has enough manpower to do that.

> Or the DMV. Visit the SF DMV if you want to see government at "work".

I've actually been reasonably satisfied with the approach the CA DMV takes, which is to do everything possible to make people not have to visit the DMV in person. I was pleasantly surprised by how easy online driver's license renewal was (they even had a mobile version).

I'd take the USPS over, say, the customer service experience on the US legacy airlines any day.


> Because Safeway has enough manpower to do that.

I can assure you, the cashiers at Safeway make significantly less money than the USPS staff. And accounting for guaranteed pensions, even more so. Most are minimum wage employees with no job security.

And to answer your speculation: there are employees at the Post Office. You can see them through the doors.

And finally: why isn't the office staffed properly, given that these holidays like Christmas aren't exactly new and unforeseen?


I suspect a lot of this has little to do with government vs. private sector and a lot to do with the APWU [1]. There are unions in the private sector too.

I'm personally just fine with paying the postal workers a living wage, even if it means the lines are a bit longer.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Postal_Workers_Union


What you see as a slow clerk wasting time with chit-chat might be that person's only way of coping with working in a chronically understaffed environment. Just because Safeway can afford to keep enough people in the store to be able to move an additional person or two to registers during busy times doesn't mean that your local post office has the same budget.


DMVs are privately-owned franchise in a lot of states.

It pays about the same as a retail job ($12/hr & 30hr/wk starting in my state) but you get to deal with infinitely worse clientele -- that never follow simple directions, thus need to come back three times, more pissed each time. There's rarely any downtime, as the lines are 30+ people long and every terminal is full.

Additionally, due to bad pay, they have high turnover. And because the state is cheap, no sane person would open an new franchise because they don't make money unless the line is packed out the door.


> Second, take a look at what happens to people who do leave the government. Very often, their salaries go up in the private sector. This is especially true for specialists like the folks who work at the NSA. Seems like they can hack it.

Well obviously. If the employee is competent, then of course they are more likely to leave. This exact method of adverse selection, where the good people leave, is the exact problem.


If the employee is competent, they're more likely to leave in private business too. Often exactly because companies tend to be really bad at offering raises and promotions relative to offering market rates for new hires.

It's not a given that this is better (or worse) in private companies than government overall.


This is a very good point. I recently moved to Denmark, and the biggest cultural shock is the huge trust Danes have with their public sector..


The legal floor of difficulty will always be greater with Federal employees as opposed to private employees as Federal employees have a property interest in their job. In other words, no Federal employee can be fired without some sort of paper trail. This is a constitutional Due Process issue and not something that Congress can easily address.

That said, I think the difficulty--or at least the consequence of the difficulty--is exaggerated. As a practical matter every large organization must contend with red tape, much of it self-imposed. Most government agencies, much like most corporations, impose more red tape than the applicable law necessarily requires. Consistency and repeatability demand process. Red tape is merely an epithet for process that appears wasteful, especially out of context.

IMO, government salaries suck because of the politics: Congress is more likely to increase expenditures if that money is laundered^Wfiltered through private contractors. Bureaucratic inefficiency is just a convenient narrative for why Congress prefers outsourcing. Over the past 50 years almost all the increase in expenditures for Federal work has gone to private contractors. The size of the federal civil service has increased by about 20-30%[1] since the 1960s, but budgets have increased several times that[2].

[1] https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/data-analysis-docu...

[2] See, e.g., https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/omb... from https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/omb/budget/Historicals


Serious question, why is being fired from your government job a due process issue while being fired from your private sector job is not? If tomorrow, all government jobs were made At Will and the pay increased accordingly, what property of due process has been violated?


If I fire you from your government job because you said something I didn't agree with, being that I'm an acting agent of the government, am I violating your First Amendment? This would not apply to a private employee firing someone for the same reason because they are not an acting government agent.


Being fired from a private sector job is a due process issue as well.


No, it's not, unless there's some particular legislation at issue, which is generally rare and targeted at specific industries.

Anything the government does is a Due Process issue. Due Process is a very complicated subject, but fundamentally the issue is this: the Federal government is composed of three separate, co-equal branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. At a very basic level and with rare exception (i.e. national security), Due Process means that the government (here, the executive branch) must be accountable; that is, anything the executive branch does which might deprive someone of a right must be reviewable for legality by the courts in case a person wants to challenge the action. If the executive didn't have some affirmative burden to justify, a priori, its actions, then except for the most gross violations the courts would be relegated to rubber stamping executive decisions. In other words, when the legal justifications for executive action are hidden from the courts, the executive is effectively usurping the power of the courts to decide on the constitutionality of government actions.

Reviewable means that there has to be a paper trail documenting the reasons for an action, such that a court can reasonably conclude that an action was a lawful exercise of power. Even when the executive has wide latitude, it typically must still document why it made a particular decision. If an action is not properly reviewable, often times the courts will restore the status quo ante as the courts will not assume that the action was legal merely on the say-so of the executive. How this plays out depends on context.

When courts say that someone has a "property interest" in their Federal employment, they're alluding to a set of relatively high legal standards that must be met before the government can take away certain pre-existing benefits. (They're not alluding to the Takings Clause.) You also have a "property interest" in granted Social Security benefits. Some Due Process contexts have less strict standards for reviewability (i.e. for a detention or arrest often all the courts expect--or could ever expect--is an officer's stated justification), and some contexts have higher standards (administrative agencies like the FCC, particularly ones with significant discretion, often have to document in exacting and excruciating detail their reasons for instituting or changing a rule.)

But Due Process is a fundamental (if not the fundamental) principle in Anglo-American law--that the government must be able to account for its action such that they can be reviewed for legality by courts. This is an affirmative burden, and was the very first limit on power imposed on the sovereign. (See, e.g., the Magna Carta.) Because it's so fundamental you cannot simply remove this burden altogether. Historically and conceptually it's the one restraint from which all the other restraints on government power flow. It's most important to safeguard whenever a lone individual is subject to government discretion; and especially in such cases it's really difficult to craft exceptions that don't swallow the rule or which migrate to other contexts. Normally when the government tries to game the courts by relying on legal technicalities, the courts can, theoretically at least, see through the ruse and change how the law should be applied by resorting to the underlying substantive facts. But when you weaken Due Process you weaken the court's ability to see and consider the substantive facts, thus you weaken their power to restrain the government categorically.

This is entirely unlike the private sector. In the private sector there is no such underlying affirmative burden wrt reviewability. Corporations can and do destroy paper trails, such as by requiring employees to discard documents older than a year or two. Unless they're knowingly (more or less) destroying evidence of a crime, and not violating some specific legislation regarding record keeping (e.g. the relatively recent Sarbanes-Oxley), it's perfectly legal even though the reasons for doing this are exactly to make it prospectively more difficult to hold them accountable in any future court case. Due Process, like Free Speech, is about restraining the government. It has nothing to do with private behavior, per se. So, for example, when you speak of Due Process in the context of a private civil suit, the issue is preventing the court (i.e. the government) from acting capriciously or favoring one litigant over another, and Due Process rules apply to litigants only in so far as they're necessary to properly restrain and channel the power of the court. But generally speaking, unless and until a court or other government actor becomes involved, principles of Due Process are irrelevant to the private actors.


I agree.

I don't know if this is a problem in the US, but something else worth mentioning is that for many jobs, public sectors pay much more (higher pay, better pensions, more sick leave, better job security, ...). So it isn't just about firing people for incompetence. [1]

If the govt should be increasing pay to match market rates, then it should also be decreasing pay to match market rates.

[1] https://www.fraserinstitute.org/studies/comparing-government...


> I don't know if this is a problem in the US...

With respect to STEM career fields, that's a gratuitous no.

For an idea of what a grunt GS-12/13 engineer's salary in Silicon Valley (highest locality adjustment in the country) looks like, see [1]; management is at GS-14/15 level. For the sake of completeness, other locality rates can be found here[2]. Keep in mind that it takes 18 years to progress from Step 1 to Step 10. Not all federal organizations apply the GS scale (the NSA may be one), but they don't deviate far from it either.

[1] https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/pay-leave/salaries...

[2] https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/pay-leave/salaries...


>Keep in mind that it takes 18 years to progress from Step 1 to Step 10.

This is true in some cases, but not all. I was hired at the GS-11/2 level without any prior government/military experience. A coworker of mine worked as a contractor for a few years, and was hired as a GS-15 last year. This is all in Silicon Valley (although he has a tech background, while I do not).


To be sure, the time it takes to progress from Step 1 to 10 has no bearing on the grade and step in which an employee is hired at.

If your colleague was hired into GS-15 Step 1, then it would still take this person the same 18 years to progress up the ladder to Step 10, assuming no irregular increases in pay.

If coming from private industry, entry step is often negotiable; prior industry salary serves as basis, so it wouldn't surprise me if this person started at Step 10 (not that it matters after Step 5 based on Bay Area locality).

In any case, GS-15 is a management position.


Not all GS-15 are management positions.


> https://www.fraserinstitute.org/studies/comparing-government....

Who is the Fraser Institute? Looking at their website, they seem to turn out libertarian and conservative arguments. For example, playing down income inequality, complaining about difficult investing in oil and gas, "Top 20 per cent of families pay 56 per cent of all taxes in Canada", etc. Wanting to reduce public sector pay would fit with that.


> they seem to turn out libertarian and conservative arguments

Better ignore everything they say, then!

> Top 20 per cent of families pay 56 per cent of all taxes in Canada

If that's wrong, then why not cite why? If it's correct, I suspect there's a good reason for it (e.g. progressive tax structures work and are objectively a good thing for society).


It is not wrong, but it is irrelevant except as propaganda: it frames the cost of government services as being borne by the wealthy and suggests the wealthy are being charitable already or that they should have some extra say over where their money goes. In fact it is the labor of the poor, extracted by the wealthy, then partially recovered from them in taxes that funds society. The wealthy hold the wealth not because they deserve it, but because they have used their power to take it.

Choosing to talk about what the rich pay, rather than how they have siphoned wealth from society (i.e. how much of their ill gotten gains should they be allowed to keep, rather than how much do they give) is not a "fact" even if it is a true statement, it is a political position, a rhetorical strategy, and a framing device -- it is an assault on your brain, an attempt to trick you into accepting a conservative frame covertly without being honest about it: "I'm just stating facts, what's wrong with that?" Well, everything is wrong with that. There are trillions of facts yet they state this one. For a reason, obviously.

You can reconstruct perfectly an ideological argument (of any ideology) based only on the sequence of facts they choose to present.


> The wealthy hold the wealth not because they deserve it, but because they have used their power to take it.

Who did JK Rowing rob to get her money?


It's definitely libertarian and conservative (by Canadian standards). But that doesn't mean it can't be right. FWIW, it's high on the list of known/established Canadian think tanks.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business has done its own reports on this [1].

This also seem to be true in the UK, but at least there they say the gap is closing [2].

The IFS report says what I've also observed and what this [3] economist article states:

"Wage differentials are relatively small in the public sector. Lower-level workers, such as secretaries, are usually better paid than their private-sector equivalents, whereas higher-level workers are worse paid."

[1] https://www.cfib-fcei.ca/en/advocacy/wage-watch-comparison-p...

[2] http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-40480766

[3] http://www.economist.com/node/17849199


These issues are often talked about in the abstract, but I've seen them first hand.

I worked in military medicine, and the IT department at one of the hospitals was entirely staffed with (in some cases well-meaning), but wildly unqualified staff.

Mostly this was people who were previously department secretaries and who turned out to be just generally incompetent, unmotivated or abrasive. As they couldn't be fired, they were promoted to IT. It was a dumping ground.

Their "Database Administrator" literally didn't know what SQL was and that's how it was for everything. One of them told me to my face (I was a contractor there to train them on an app): "I'm only going to be here for 5 more years, so I don't really want to learn all this."

Disgraceful.


> Government employees tend to excel at working organisational politics (i.e., in serving their organisational customers) rather than in serving their taxpaying customers

In my limited experience this depends on the area. For example I know scientists who work for the government because environment and policy is their passion and for better or worse the EPA is/was the place to be. First choice not second.

But I've also met developers that work for state government and... I don't think they could handle a private industry job for the most part.


The other side of this is the stability that a government job provides to low to middle income classes.

The southern states where I grew up and went to college both lauded people who were able to secure government jobs. No matter how grueling or toxic a work environment becomes and no matter how inefficient workers become -- everyone stays in those jobs for the pension.

In cities and areas where education in literacy is higher it's as if the market "pushes" that desire out, and the perception around having a government job is largely negative (excluding contractors).

I wish there were a way to increase competition for gov jobs and change the perception of them without resorting to privatization.


As long as policy is driven by lobbyists for private corporate interests, that will never happen. Keeping government jobs weak serves to make the labor market easier for them by reducing competition.


Agreed on corporate interests, but I'm not sure about keeping government jobs weak.

With the government, your target market is every citizen (plus visitors, immigrants, etc.). The private sector has to create its market by providing a product or service, whereas the government is obligated to provide some products and services.

What incentive is there for government to squander talent and keep itself workforce weak?


It is not in government's interest, but government has to follow the laws passed by congress, and keeping budgets hamstrung so that it's impossible for agencies to compete with the private sector keeps the private sector lobby happy.

Politicians' incentives are not to create effective government, but to keep getting elected. Having an ineffective government satisfies their financiers' desire to have less competition for top talent, and gives politicians an easy problem to campaign on fixing during election season, by never targeting the real problems.

Break some windows so you can claim credit for trying to fix them, and then blame the opposition when it doesn't work. It's a game where everyone wins, except the dupes that keep voting for them.


Completely non sequitur but if you've never see it check out "Ikiru" by Akira Kurosawa. It's a movie about a government employee that's been doing nothing but serving the organization customers his whole life until he finds out he has cancer.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0044741/


> It's not just a 'perception of gov't incompetence': it's a widespread phenomenon

How do you know? I know a couple of talented, hard working statisticians that work for the census. They tell me a lot of good work gets done there. Well, at least until this year when they have suffered complete demoralization after a Trump political appointee crashed their china shop.


Lots of private sector employees manage to deal with the fact that their CEO is an asshole.


For some agencies, it's not so much that the CEO might be an asshole (whether or not the president is an asshole is a fairly minor detail, IMO, as long as he can do the job). This is more like a pharmacologist working at a company making a vaccines being taken over by an anti-vaxxer.


I don't understand that analogy. I don't keep up with all the news, but my impression is that Trump hasn't done all that much. He has rolled back some regulations that originated in executive orders, left some positions unfilled, while eliminating some other positions. Do you mean to say that the conflict is between his "this bureaucracy will be smaller" and the public servants' "this bureaucracy must be larger"? The growth of the bureaucracy is not the purpose of any of these bureaucracies, even if some bureaucrats have convinced themselves otherwise. Even if you don't care about bureaucracy size per se but only want to see more regulation, "moar is better" is also not a sensible philosophy of regulation, in a government that is theoretically representative of the will of the electorate.

ISTM Trump governs exactly like any other republican would govern, which is nearly the same as any democrat would govern. His vilification and resulting election are a property of the media/content landscape more than they are due to anything particular about him. I stand by my initial impression, that the "problem" is that Trump is an asshole.


>It's not just a 'perception of gov't incompetence': it's a widespread phenomenon. Government employees tend to excel at working organisational politics (i.e., in serving their organisational customers) rather than in serving their taxpaying customers. Government work is a kind of kabuki theatre, in which everyone agrees to praise the emperor's new clothes and ignore the boy who points out that he's naked.

You've just described every large institution I've ever worked for.

IME, large companies that were well insulated from competition were way more dysfunctional than the government, too.


>Government employees tend to excel at working organisational politics (i.e., in serving their organisational customers) rather than in serving their taxpaying customers.

So you are saying that government employees are greater at serving the people who actually matter. Not the people who should matter, but the people who do.

Imagine a startup that focused on its customers' customers (maybe once or twice more removed) instead of the people paying it. Would anyone be surprised if it gets out competed by a different startup focusing directly on their customers, even if at the cost of their customers' customers?

This isn't unique to government. I've seen private organizations where employees will make choices that benefit their own department at the cost of the overall organization. I sometimes wonder if a natural selection-esque drive behind this is the reasons that inefficiency grows as organizations grow.

> We should pay market rates, but we should pay them for market quality.

I think this would fix a lot of problems, but implementing it is going to be a nightmare because it isn't just the rank and file employees who you need to do this for. You almost have to start at the top, and from what little I've worked with governments, you are looking as a massive cycling of employees and a large loss of institutional knowledge. Also, given that much of how any government agency works is dictated by some of the same people who would be replaced under this, you are looking at having to pay people much more than even going market rate because of the extra costs of working the position.

For example, hiring good government IT is not just going to mean having to pay market wages, but also having to account for paying people to work in dead languages and eldritch abominations built by poorly managed contractors who often still have rights to the software that prevent the government employees from doing major changes (lots of contract security).


> Government employees tend to excel at working organisational politics

I think that any large bureaucracy, including ones in big corps, attract people like this.


>I think that any large bureaucracy, including ones in big corps, attract people like this.

This is certainly true of my last employer. Let's just say it's a famous Fortune 500 company, in heavy industry.

I have seen a great many people promoted to their level of incompetence.

I had the combination of having good technical skills but terrible organizational political skills.

This company currently has a director of Cyber Security who doesn't know what ICMP is or why it's not feasible to block all ICMP traffic on internal firewalls & switches.

Having no technical abilities but outstanding political skills have served her well.


Ahhhh ... it doesn't suffice to simply do your work without slacking, we need no less than the best and brightest for mostly boring office jobs in the government!

Maybe some groups within the NSA need the best and brightest, but the government in general doesn't. A lot of government work concerns accounting and administrative tasks that are neither intellectually challenging nor do they have a clearcut equivalent in business. Most government agencies cannot be run like businesses, because there either is no market to speak with or the markets for their 'products' are not free and open.

All you need is people who get their work done.

> but we must also make it easier to fire people (or manage them downwards) for incompetence

That only works if you start at the very top. If you get what I mean.


Yeah my dad worked for army corps of engineers his whole life while he got stability, never was laid off the work was so unchallenging he has dementia as a result in retirement.


Sorry for that, but I don't think dementia is caused that way (although the claim is usable as a hyperbole in conversation).


Pedantic addendum, many government employees are still civilians.


> It's not just a 'perception of gov't incompetence': it's a widespread phenomenon. Government employees tend to excel at working organisational politics ...

Is there any basis for this claim and the others? It's repeated by many, but that doesn't make it so. It doesn't describe the people I know that work in government.


No one cares about government pay scales. You don't have to work FOR the government to work for the government. Many top NSA specialists work for contractor firms and do earn tremendous compensation from their employers. Those employers contract with our government for totally uncapped contract sums. Obviously the contracts have to be reviewed for budget and capex limitations but otherwise no such thing as a salary cap would be imposed on the various "consultants" or "contractors" coming in from a vendor.


> Those employers contract with our government for totally uncapped contract sums.

No, they don't. Billing rates are fixed based on the experience and education levels of the people working on the contract. If the government says they won't pay more than, say, $250/hour for a security expert that is all the contractor is going to get, and that in turn limits the amount the contractor can make. Pay at government contractors is better than the government itself, but it is still shit compared to the rest of the tech industry. This is particularly true when you look at variable compensation (which is virtually nonexistent in government contractor land).


That’s just one type of consulting. If you pay T&M for a guy in GSA schedule or whatever, they’ll bill him as a Architect level 12 at $250/hr. Or a higher scale for a different position.

The employee’s compensation is more about the number of pimps^H subcontractors between him and the contract.

Another example are service based contracts where the government pays a fixed price for delivery of one or more outputs. Those outputs might just happen to align with what particular employees do. These things are generally aligned to make the contractor more money vs the employee. But the employees are well compensated, and the overall deal is good enough that they don’t lose a lot of talent.


> That’s just one type of consulting. If you pay T&M for a guy in GSA schedule or whatever, they’ll bill him as a Architect level 12 at $250/hr. Or a higher scale for a different position.

I'm not talking about consulting, I'm talking about standard T&M contracts. There is a limit to how much an individual can be billed out for, which by necessity limits their compensation. As for what people are billed at, the government auditors require proof of credentials and experience.

> Another example are service based contracts where the government pays a fixed price for delivery of one or more outputs. Those outputs might just happen to align with what particular employees do. These things are generally aligned to make the contractor more money vs the employee. But the employees are well compensated, and the overall deal is good enough that they don’t lose a lot of talent.

This generally happens at small contractors for small contracts. Contracts so small the big boys wouldn't even notice their existence (assuming they even qualify to bid). The vast majority of people working for government contractors are not in this position.


Typically, to be in any sort of management position you have to be a civil servant. To be a PI or run your own research program you have to be a civil servant. Contractors are great, but there are a number of things vital to government agencies that they cannot legally do.

Which means that your managers are still getting paid civil servant wages, no matter how well paid the contractors working under them are. Consider how well run a tech firm would be if it paid less and less competitive salaries the higher up in management you go.


Assuming $250/hr is a real example, that’s $470k/year. Is that really a problem?

(Assuming 40h per week, 47 weeks per year because systematic staff shortage and EU-duration holidays because that’s what I’m used to).


The contracting company takes a significant cut of that.


For hard numbers, 80% markup of wages paid out is typical (at least for large contingency recruiters and IT contractors), though it can be higher.

$250/hr billed usually results in $125-140/hr in the contractor's pocket, and $110-125/hr for the place that sent them out.


In my experience its about 30%(ish) to the worker gross, which means that the worker gets about 20% after tax. It can be slightly higher or lower depending on the situation.


Depends on the org, and the rate. For high rates for specialists (well in excess of $250/hr), this is true (contractor sees 30-40%). For lower-end shops and lower rates (think your Robert Half, your Randstads), the contractor tends to take 50-60% of the bill rate.

My sources are VPs from some of the large contingency recruiters, founders of some mid-range consulting shops (~500 person headcount), and having to help run a smaller consulting shop (~20 employees) in the past before going fully independent.


You are assuming 100% utilization, which is almost never true, and even if it were, most of that money goes to the contractor's employer.


I pulled $250/hour out of my ass.

As for the rest, I am not talking about consulting-style contracts where a company is billing out people individually. I'm talking about contracts for development of bespoke systems, provide specific services, and so on.

When Raytheon gets a contract, they get it to build X. They need to account for the work, and the amount they get paid for labor is the number of recorded hours times the agreed-upon rate for that specific type of labor. There is frequently also a soft cap on the number of hours that can be billed in specific periods. The billed rate covers not only the employee salary but also benefits, overhead, and profit.


Depends, for a leader in their field that's on the low end. But, I understood $250/hr to be what the firm received -- usually contractors don't get nearly that much, but I don't have any experience with government contractors.


From my experience, you're dead on for the majority of "staff augmentation" full time contracts that come from tech-related consulting+contracting firms. Most organizations I've been around (East Coast, DC region) charge around $250/hr to big government, and the people they assign make anywhere from $40-$125/hr depending on the specifics of their role.


I recently got roped into one of Palantir's recruitment events (because I am a pathetic sucker for free beer), and they were making a really big deal of how they billed by _outcome_ rather than _time_. At the time I just thought that they were trying to differentiate themselves from Accenture/KPMG/Deloitte/etc. but I see now that billing by outcome is also a nice way to get around billing caps on hourly rates.


I can't speak to Palantir's contracts but the government generally does not allow billing bespoke development efforts by outcome. Companies don't get to just decide how they are going to bill the government, at least not if they want the government to actually buy.


You have glossed over and simplified how contracts and billing rates work, your synopsis is not accurate.


How have I done so? Part of the contract negotiations on a time and materials contract concerns the billing rates for the personnel who will perform on the contract. The government has a schedule of what it is willing to pay for certain domain expertise and levels of experience.


You have been down voted, but your observation is correct, and the parent comment is misleading as to rates. Source: I’m a government contractor and line manager.


I worked for government contractors for almost 15 years (until October 2016) and participated in proposal efforts ranging from $750k SBIRs to a $1B+ multi-year prime contract for a radar system. Every one had established billing rates for labor, based on the type of employee rendering the labor. How is this misleading?


It's misleading because, for experienced + well-qualified people, the upper ranges of the established rates are rather high, and therefore don't significantly constrain the hourly rates of those people.

So for instance, if, within a given discipline like "security", there are 6 experience levels (1 = fresh-out undergrad, 6 = most senior), and within those, 4 maturity levels (20th thru 80th percentile, say), then the 80th percentile of, say, level 5, will be a very high rate.

Because it's HN, and the comments above were referring to boutique security consultants ("top NSA specialists work[ing] for contractor firms"), I assumed that's who we're talking about. Cybersecurity, especially, has become a domain where institutional constraints have been lifted in the last few years - it requires less on-paper experience to get up to the "level 5" above.

On the other hand, and in agreement with your comment, the aggregate labor rate for a large contract (I'm sure $1B qualifies) could not be too out of whack with industry norms, and this would be a significant constraint on rates.


Knowing the billing rates of some of the companies they subcontract too for IR there is close to 0 chance they would take less than 500/hour as they have to turn away clients even offering higher rates due to serious shortage IR talent.


> No one cares about government pay scales.

NSA leadership has clearly acknowledged the impediment:

The big change these days is there’s a supply-demand imbalance between the outside and the inside

Total compensation for [SV and other cities that tech start-ups call home] jobs can reach $200,000 or more, meaning even relatively junior cyber professionals in the industry can make more than top officials at the NSA.


Like Edward Snowden's $200k salary from Booz Allen Hamilton.


Which didn't exist. BAH said his salary was actually 122k. I know of a few BAH salaries, likely more advanced than his, and they are much closer to that number.


Maybe Snowden was factoring in bonuses and and other incentives?


In what area?


I work in the public sector, in Denmark, but I think a lot of the myths around public IT are just that, myths.

We have some of the best talent in our country. We pay them less, but a lot of people prefer working in the public sector for a variety of reasons. Some are idealists who want to build a better society, others like the flexible hours and the paid sick leave for their children, others again like the relative stability or safety or the fact that they get to work on big projects.

I think the bad image comes from the fact that our scandals are public. When the banking sector does a big project that fails you typically won't hear about it. When the government fails, you'll be reading news articles, blogposts and the likes as well as having researchers from prominent universities trying to pour their take on what the government needs (typically to ask said researchers).

The public sector does fail more though. I think there was a study in the 00's that showed around 75% failures on major IT systems in the private sector and around 85-90% in the public sector. But then we have to digitize an un-digitizable law, so I think this is only natural.

In my municipality we don't do complete failures often, but we don't always succeed in implementing as successful as we wanted, leading to a lack of benefit realization.

That being said, we operate around 370 different systems 50-70 of which we've build ourselves, and most of these are working fine.

I think I'm a nice example. I get headhunter a lot, and I could be making a lot more money in the private sector, but I prefer the public sector because I have Children and since my job comes with paid lunch breaks I work two and a half hours less per week. On top of that, I'm not expected to work 40-50 hours a week despite being in management. I sometimes still do, but then it's typically for interesting projects such as heading the digital voter registration process during elections.

This may be very different in America, but I suspect that the NSA would be able to attract the best of the best on image alone.


Sorry going to have to disagree as well - I graduated from a top 3 CS school in the US and then when I recruit as well.

NSA has a booth and so does In Q Tel and a few others, but these are very sparsely attended. Where you'll see a line of 200+ for Facebook and maybe 1 person for NSA by accident sort of thing.

A number of the 3 letter agencies have very nice job propositions (you really can do work you can't do anywhere else) but their processes and bureaucracy (not to mention pay etc) really leave quite a bit to be desired.

For example a number of the NSA Presidential Fellows are ridiculously amazing, but for some reason (maybe my lack of exposure) I've not found them to stay in their role, or to necessarily be super positive about it.

Similarly when we were getting offers even with a lot of the red tape out of the way (e.g. already having a high level clearance), it would take months for paperwork - in the meantime you could get a few offers and deadlines for many of the well known companies.

Again similarly there were likely a handful that went to these agencies over the last 6yr and they were never our best + brightest; if you were drawn to that sort of work it made more sense to do a PhD with a NDSEG/NSF fellowship and do an internship at one of the military labs/NSA then to spend years there.


We have some of the best talent in our country.

I worked for a well known (in this area) science non-profit agency, and while we did attract good talent, after I moved to the private sector (and literally earning twice the salary) that I found much more brilliant people working at the high paid private sector jobs.

So while I agree that public sector jobs can attract good people, I think that most of the best people are in the private sector where they can earn more money.


I am not sure if it's just money but the public sector can't or are unable reach the same market as the private sector.


> others like the flexible hours and the paid sick leave for their children

I have the opposite perception about this in the US: government jobs seem to be 'butt at desk 9-5' where private sector provides the opportunity for flexibility.


I was just thinking about how social welfare would improve quality of government workers. With social welfare like that of Denmark, it is possible that the best people will want to work for the government. I suspect the difference in standard of living for the top talent in private sector and public sector is not that much in Denmark. In the US, a public-sector employee probably cannot afford college education expenses for his/her two kids.


Firstly, you won't hear about banks botching major IT projects and wasting $$ because it's their money they just wasted. The public doesn't have any stake in those private institution's decision making or their wallets -- and they are not necessarily harmed by their failures. Unless their IT projects are funded by the public, it's not really our business. They have their own investors, auditors and oversight committee who should worry about their IT projects and cost control.

Having worked in public sector (for a small gov't agency in NYC), I know for the fact that most voters or taxpayers don't hear much about most of botched projects or millions of dollars wasted extravagant IT purchases that incompetent gov't career bureacrats make. Or why the last president of my organization was "forced" to resign years ago after a major IT f'up. Normally, there would be no firing, but the scale of the f'up was so gross that the president had to resign, but, despite his public standing as the head of the second largest library system in the country (funded by taxpayers and private donors), nobody got to hear what really happened.


> if the NSA is going to spy on us, wouldn't you like that to be as secure as possible?

I have a friend who worked for the NSA. We had a heart to heart over drinks about a year ago. She asked what I thought about her working there. I responded, honestly, that if I didn't know her personally I'd be starting to wonder if she was, for whatever reason, unable to pass muster at Google et cetera. Not the best decision to drop that after a day of drinking together. But I'm glad I did--it was apparently the nudge she needed to quit.

Going to work and feeling like you're working on secret, cutting edge kit with the smartest people in the country is tremendously important to many people. The NSA lots its veneer of whiz kids confidentially cracking codes for good with Snowden. It now feels like another federal bureaucracy.

Postscript: She now works in the private sector and is thrilled with how much closer to her intelligence her new colleagues are. If you work for the NSA and are not a numpty, you're selling yourself short.


Response to your postscript: I know quite a few people who've worked for the NSA's mathematical research arms. They're not numpties. They're among the smartest people I've ever met (and I've been hanging around tier 1 research institutes, both public and private, my whole adult life).


Maybe that's because one of the biggest hiring firms for mathematicians is the NSA.


For clarity, let me emphasize: The people I'm talking about stood out among professional mathematicians, not just among the general population.


Presumably that's because the alternative line of employment for mathematicians is academia, which I can imagine pays even worse.


Most math PhDs work in industry, not in academia or government. Industry pays the best of the 3 by far. But NSA has nonetheless attracted some very smart cookies. Personally, I sleep a bit better knowing that they're there.


Not one of - they’re famous for being THE biggest employer of mathematicians.


> most of the tech companies, banks, insurance, a number of retail corps as well as consulting all hire mathematicians.

the NSA is a bit overhyped there


Yes, but those government jobs often come with great work life balance which is extremely difficult to find in the private sector.

If you're newer than 3 years at facebook or google, there's no way in hell you're going to have any work life balance. And even if you make it past the 3 year mark, it still depends on which team your on.


> if I didn't know her personally I'd be starting to wonder if she was, for whatever reason, unable to pass muster at Google et cetera. Not the best decision to drop that after a day of drinking together. But I'm glad I did--it was apparently the nudge she needed to quit.

So she stopped being an indirect servant of popular will, and started selling ads. Great.

> She now works in the private sector and is thrilled with how much closer to her intelligence her new colleagues are.

Not only richer, but less moral and more likely to pat herself on the back. Even better.


> So she stopped being an indirect servant of popular will, and started selling ads. Great.

You do realize Google does more than sell ads, right? Search and Maps alone are tremendously useful tools, not to mention the dozens, hundreds of other products. Drive, Docs, Photos...


Most of which are funded by selling ads, and then feed back into the cycle though, right? But I'm not as cynical as gp about it.


> You do realize Google does more than sell ads, right? Search and Maps alone are tremendously useful...

Proftable? Not so much.

Google is a surveillance company that currently makes money off ads, and gathers data through Maps, Search, Drive, Docs, Photos... Think about what happens when the current ad bubble pops.


Another POV might break it down as: stopped helping spy on her fellow citizens and got an honest job.


Nevermind fellow citizens. The NSA openly spies on other countries people and certainly doesn't do it with their interests at heart. Americans hypocritically don't like being spied on but they're more than happy to do it to everyone else.


Might be good to cite sources with direct evidence, if you’re claiming that somebody broke the law.


Nobody claimed anyone broke any laws. He claimed that the NSA spies on american citizens and that it is better to have an honest job.

The fact that it is legal for them to do this is the problem, obviously.


That is absolutely not legal though, which is why I asked for a citation, as it would be pretty big news.


It WAS big news. It was called the Snowden leaks.

For example, the government argues to this day that it is ok to do drag net collection of phone meta data.

Having access to every single person that you have called, counts as spying in my book, even if they aren't listening in to the conversations specifically.


The comment was present tense.

I certainly agree with you regarding previous handling of phone metadata, among other issues such as secret interpretations of law, but I was satisfied by changes/fixes made in the USA Freedom Act[1]. What current issue are still outstanding which you believe need to be addressed? (Serious, I like to learn and would be great to know if I am missing something).

[1] https://www.congress.gov/114/plaws/publ23/PLAW-114publ23.pdf


Snowden let that cat out of the bag years ago in voluminous detail. You absolutely do not need to cite sources re: illegal NSA surveillance anymore.


If you believe that his claim was proven by a leak, I am not sure why it would be difficult to produce a citation. My understanding is that it is not a true claim.


His claim was the leak, and it was huge, and I'm not going to dig through it for you for quotes just because you're a contrarian. The NSA did a shit ton of surveillance that was not justified under known US law, and that's pretty well accepted at this point.

What claim don't you think is true? Was the NSA not indiscriminately scooping up and querying communications between US citizens?


> What claim don't you think is true? Was the NSA not indiscriminately scooping up and querying communications between US citizens?

Correct. That would be a very big deal in my opinion. After reading through the hundreds of source documents leaked by Snowden, I did not find evidence of any sort of mass collection on US persons. Only foreign collection, which is the job of a spy agency (Perhaps plenty of ethical arguments there of course, but that is besides the matter of USPI collection/reporting).


Does the shtick of crying citation needed on well-documented public knowledge actually work, anywhere?


Not crying anything. I have seen no proof of the claim, I only ever see unsourced comments, oddly claiming the matter is documented yet not citing anything. It is very strange.


Would you please not post this sort of nasty snark? Even if you're right, the acid rots the container here.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html

You break the HN guidelines quite a bit like this, so we'd appreciate it if you'd clean up your act.


He didn't say she moved to Google.


Serve Trump and the runaway deep state, or serve spam. That's bleak. That's not the only two options though.


Not to get into the politics of it, but isn't the"deep state" supposed to be the entrenched government employees that work against Trump?


Ads are incredibly useful and have prevented trillions of dollars of waste.


And sold cigarettes. Don't forget that.


> 2. normal people ask 'why are we paying people so much for doing a bad job?'

The problem is that a normal tax payer doesn't interact with the R&D scientific side of the government. To them, their local BMV office (state govt) is representative of the entire (state+federal) government bureaucracy. When reports of government pay leading/lagging private industry come out, their first thought is that BMV worker, not the PhD engineer building mine sweeping robots.

The federal government doesn't make this any better by keeping NASA on GS tables. If NASA made the jump off the GS system (the Air Force and other DoD agencies have with lab-demo [1]), I think it would go a long way in separating scientist/engineer salaries from bureaucrat salaries. Once the separation is in place, you'd think it would be easier for the R&D pay tables to get higher bumps than the normal GS tables. OPM does have special pay tables for engineers at the lower end of the GS spectrum [2] so there is some precedent for giving scientists/engineers pay priority.

The talks of a federal pay freeze in 2019 have not helped morale at all for the younger S&Es I know. It's miserable to get a 1.85% COLA increase when your peers get a 7-10% raise. Patriotism only carries you so far and it seems like the NSA is figuring this out the hard way.

[1] http://www.wpafb.af.mil/Welcome/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/...

[2] https://apps.opm.gov/SpecialRates/2018/Table041401012018.asp...


Unfortunately, even if a lab goes off the GS scale, the top pay rate allowed by law is still the same as a GS-15 step 10. In the DC area in 2017 that was $166k and change, including locality pay. The only thing using a demo pay scale helps with is easier promotions, which is great until you get salary capped.

$166k/year isn't bad, by any means. But it isn't competitive for a PhD scientist or engineer with equivalent experience.


I feel like a lot of people asking this question 2 are also in low cost of living areas. DC isn't quite San Francisco or New York but it's higher cost than average, and especially higher cost than places where people tend to complain more about federal government waste.


BMV stands for Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and is called the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) in some states.


Also RMV in some states (MA, at least), Registry of Motor Vehicles


Or DOT, Deprtment of Transportion in others, e.g. PennDOT.


To make things even more confusing the DOT is sometimes separate from the DMV, and sometimes not.

In Georgia we have the DOT that handles road construction etc..., and the Department of Driver Services that handles drivers licenses.


In Pennsylvania they handle both, plus tolls and even snow removal on the highways and major roads. I’d never heard of BMV before tonight and thought it was just DMV everywhere until I was twenty something.

You’re right, state bureaucracy is confusing!


To add to the alphabet soup you have DPS (Department of Public Safety) in Texas.


Washington DOL (Department of Licensing) checking in.


Or the MassDOT RMV in Massachusetts. (Which always has to be different, like calling itself a Commonwealth instead of a state and having a General Court instead of a state legislature.)


That top pay grade is less than the starting compensation for PhD's at the big tech co's. Not to mention free food, potential for career growth, and an open non-militaristic culture where you can wear a hoodie instead of a tie.

I honestly don't understand why someone would work for the NSA given the choice.


A few possibilities:

Believing in what the organization does (which could include several different narratives about why its work is good and/or legitimate and/or necessary)

Recruitment via channels that civilian firms aren't using and offering people an educational and career path they didn't expect to have

Recruitment via family, friend, and teacher channels

Wanting to get to know lots of secrets

Wanting to work with smart people

Wanting to work with fancy hardware (for some subspecialties)

Wanting to have one's unusual abilities appreciated and put to use

Wanting to be paid to work on cryptography at all before the 1980s

Wanting to be in a spy movie/novel

Wanting to get to perform real attacks against real people and organizations and not go to prison for it

I know I've met people in all of the first three categories, and I imagine I've met people in the other categories and not known it.


> Wanting to get to know lots of secrets

A bit tongue in cheek, but that's the people NSA should least want. They should be looking for those who want to know only the minimum amount of secrets to get their job done.

> Wanting to have one's unusual abilities appreciated and put to use

That's a hard too I'd imagine. I wonder if many end up going in thinking they'd be writing kernel exploits all day and end up twiddling excel spreadsheets or porting a bunch of scripts from python 2.4 to 2.6 once they pass the clearance process. It's not something they could check in advance and not something they could advertise much if they want to tell others when they look for employment elsewhere.

> Wanting to be in a spy movie/novel

Wonder how much the recruitment appeals to those tendencies. Just like with wanting to know secrets bit. They probably really don't want people who think themselves as James Bond. Though when recruiting college kids, I could see them pulling a bait-and-switch.

> Wanting to get to perform real attacks against real people and organizations and not go to prison for it

That's a tough one as well. If there is a desire and tendency to attack real people and organizations, there are probably red flags to look for in there as well. Did they already attack? Did they break the law? Did it bother them that they broke the law? Will they continue to break rules and possibly leak classified info...

> I know I've met people in all of the first three categories, and I imagine I've met people in the other categories and not known it.

Yeah I was offered something like that from a teacher in college. But I was an international student so it didn't possible.


Given how much information is classified, the minimum amount of secrets to do just about any job at the NSA is probably "lots of secrets" to most people.

To your attack point, when I was in the Marine Corps, one of my drill instructors said something to the effect of "You know why I joined the Marine Corps? Because it's one of the only jobs where you can legally kill a [expletive]." He didn't work in intelligence before coming to Parris Island but did have an active Secret clearance. Some people are just psychopaths and that doesn't necessarily preclude them from a security clearance. And there are plenty of folks who simply want to fight the enemies of $COUNTRY and aren't necessarily psychopaths because of it.


> when I was in the Marine Corps, one of my drill instructors said something to the effect of "You know why I joined the Marine Corps? Because it's one of the only jobs where you can legally kill a [expletive]."

How confident are you that he actually earnestly meant this? I've heard DIs / SOI instructors say things like that on several occasions, but it was all pretty clearly within the context of trying to be "motivating"....they didn't come across as actually psychotic.


This one did seem legitimately off to me, but I'll be honest it wouldn't surprise me to learn it was all an act and he was the smartest one of the bunch.


> I've heard DIs / SOI instructors say things like that on several occasions, but it was all pretty clearly within the context of trying to be "motivating"....they didn't come across as actually psychotic.

If that's their idea of "motivational speaking", there's a whole new set of problems.


> , the minimum amount of secrets to do just about any job at the NSA is probably "lots of secrets" to most people.

Could be yeah. I guess was thinking of TAO mostly where say someone would be working on accessing Juniper routers and that's all they know. They can't be going around browsing through all the programs and capabilities.

> And there are plenty of folks who simply want to fight the enemies of $COUNTRY and aren't necessarily psychopaths because of it.

Agreed. I meant "red flag" in way that it should be look at more in depth. It could be they are driven by patriotism or they just like to break rules and get a high from that.


For the simple reason not everyone will get job at top 5-10 tech companies. There are jobs at consulting /contracting companies but apart from money they are in different league of crappiness. So once you eliminate those 2 categories govt job becomes pretty decent option if one can get it.


Work at a company that has big security consulting arm a ton of people came from NSA.


Some people are genuinely patriotic.


It's a requirement given the stringency of clearances. The article didn't touch on it, but since Binney/Snowden and revelations about the domestic focus, you may not have the same kind of recruitment/retention you would have otherwise in this demographic.


You'd think the genuinely patriotic would avoid working for the NSA, since it apparently results in exile to Russia.


Generally breaking the law and seeking to escape the consequences has always resulted in effective exile, throughout history. In fact, how could it not? Would you like the law to be suspended in this case, but not in the case of people leaking secrets to China? Where's the difference? Is it just that what you like should be an exception? You could argue it was patriotic to break the law, but working for the NSA hardly forced him to break the law, nor did it force him to avoid the consequences. He could have been like Rosa Parks who accepted the consequences. Admittedly, hers were smaller in magnitude, but there are other options than what Snowden took.


He did accepted the consequences. The consequence is his life now, quite literally. He has zero trust toward legal system as that is not designed to be fair. He his not willing to become martyr more than is necessary - and there is nothing wrong with that.

Rosa Park consequences went well beyond being arrested for one night. I am pretty sure she would prefer if she had the option to escape them - she did not. Altrough she did eventually left the city, due to consequences imposed on her there.


Talking about "the law" is a red herring. The NSA is in explicit violation of USG's founding charter, and yet it remains in comfortable operation.

But more importantly, the concept of patriotism is orthogonal.


Exile is the consequence, in this and most other cases.


He's not exiled? The US wants him back very much.


To be unfairly tried in a trial where he won't even be allowed to argue to the jury that his actions were justified.


(Presumably so they can kick his teeth in)


Would a genuinely patriotic person work for the NSA? I'd consider Snowden more patriotic than all of their current employees.



> culture where you can wear a hoodie instead of a tie

I was amused by this as I have worked in a lot of DoD environments where a tie is "overdressed" and makes others uncomfortable. Likewise for a lot of environments where the uniform is a hoodie.


And about matches FANG companies for bachelor degree graduates (I know Amazon's is now 145k total comp starting and I think the others are even higher).


145 total comp would not be very high lol. FB returning intern bonus was 100k alone thanks

also NSA Intern/FT pay was much much lower. I'm not sure where you're seeing that they match


> That top pay grade is less than the starting compensation for PhD's at the big tech co's.

The top pay was 150k so that closely matches Amazon new grad offer of 145k which is what my comment was responding too.


Because you can do things that would be illegal in private practice, like developing and deploying systems to hack into computers, phones, cars, telecomm equipment, etc.

There is a type of work and a class of problems that can only be legally pursued in a federal agency like the NSA.


You can do the same as a contractor and make double.


>where you can wear a hoodie instead of a tie.

A little off topic observation here, but people who can't handle adhering to a business professional dress code are exhibiting a low resilience personality. Not a good thing.

Not to mention the reality that a button down shirt, slacks and a tie, when properly fitted, are not constrictive at all.


I suspect that business professional dress codes coincide with a number of other workplace downers that a lot of us don't like.


People who can't handle life at minimum wage aren't showing much resilience either, but why put yourself through that?


Some people value self-expression and would rather be judged by the quality of their work than their appearance.


Hoodies have become as much a standard of conformity as suits. You're just conforming to an unspoken requirement to appear sufficiently non-conformist.

Show up in such an environment wearing a suit and see how much your self-expression is valued.


I've worked at one of the big Bay Area software companies with a guy who wore a suit every day. If I wore one at my current (non-US) company, people might ask me about it for a few days, but I'm pretty sure it'd become the new normal within a week.


I designed & architected supercomputers at the NSA as a teenager, starting as a co-op, using manufacturing tech that still isn't public decades later.

LOL @ the idea of anyone in private industry giving me the opportunity to do that.

These are some of the smartest, yet most normal people in the world. They don't go apeshit about free food or Silicon Valley startups. You'll never get fired, and you can raise a family perfectly fine, especially with the great schools in the area. After about $70k in salary, people are generally happy anyways. They're perfectly happy with dealing with pure tech challenges, because it's interesting to them.

It should also be clear that the NSA does everything per law. The NSA doesn't spy on US citizens. Remember the Snowden leaks revealed filters that removed US citizens communications. Why would a TOP SECRET program have filters to remove US citizens communications if they were trying to skirt the law?

I can't recommend the NSA enough. NSA caused me to understand that nothing is impossible and that everything in tech is small stuff and manageable. After the NSA, I rapidly did impossible things. (want me to list them?) I honestly don't understand why anyone would do obvious & routine things at Google, Facebook, Microsoft, etc., when they could be doing more awesome & surprising things at the NSA. It's always fun to see Google come out with something the NSA did years earlier.

Finally, and it should be obvious, going to work in a tie is a lot cooler than going to any job where people wear hoodies... but the NSA doesn't make you do that.. I do hate badges though.

It's the opposite of Silicon Valley, and it's great.


Saw you were being down-voted, seems unfair, it's good to have a counter-example or an opposing view in a discussion. Maybe it seems to much like a recruiting advertisement...

> After about $70k in salary, people are happy anyways.

Unfortunately living in DC/VA/MD on that you are competing with private companies which pay more and thus housing and well just about everything is a bit hard to manage on that salary.

> I honestly don't understand why anyone would do obvious & routine things at Google, Facebook, Microsoft, etc

What's stopping them from pulling a bait-and-switch. Telling kids they'll be doing exciting stuff that Google and Facebook haven't dreamed of yet, then being a stuck converting perl scripts to python, twiddling excel spreadsheets or writing TPS reports. I think most people would expect more routine working in a govt agency than say at Google.


> What's stopping them from pulling a bait-and-switch.

If you're a contractor, you can just quit and find another contracting position. When I worked as a contractor at NASA, I routinely quit (3 times) when the job turned undesirable and then found another contracting gig through networking in under a month.

>Unfortunately living in DC/VA/MD on that you are competing with private companies which pay more and thus housing and well just about everything is a bit hard to manage on that salary.

No, these places (NSA and NASA) are in the not-so-close suburbs. When I was working at NASA at $85K I bought a condo and biked to work.


He/She was down-voted because a) Never worked for NSA b) never lived in DC metro.


Why?


The NSA records on their communcations show this. ;-)


Old math dept joke:

Q: How do you apply to work for the NSA

A: Call your mother and ask for an application form


How many people work at Google and Facebook hacking scripts for ad sales? There's an equally large potential gulf between their reputations for Giant Alien Head genius and prosaic, if not social damaging, reality.


NSA lets co-ops rotate through various departments to give them a sense of what career path works for them. And nothing wrong with converting old Perl scripts when you're starting. It's a good way to get ramped up in the basics.


There's everything wrong with converting old WORKING Perl scripts to something else that probably will not be working when they are old like the Perl scripts would... Talk about introducing maintenance overhead...


They're usually converted because the hacks don't work anymore with the new software system you bought...


> The NSA doesn't spy on US citizens

That is a lie, but I understand why people would need to believe it in order to work for the NSA.


If you want to believe fake news, that's your right.



Yes. From your link:

"Each of these agencies has slightly different protocols and safeguards to protect searches with a US person identifier."


> want me to list them?

Yes, please


I'm not the OP, but here's what I did at NASA that I found interesting:

- Developed the space lidar that will measure the polar ice cap melting

- Created a dashboard to monitor a spacecraft in deep space (and then ran ops for it)

- Developed learning models on a top500 supercomputer

- Optimization of 1000-GPU (yes) detailed simulation of the earth's magnetosphere

Yes, I knew that the industry will pay more, but honestly, I was young and just wanted to have a good time and stay around family in the area. The other jobs in the area didn't seem as exciting.


For highlights, after NSA I went to Intel and worked on early CMOS camera image sensors - you could put processor logic in the same die. Then went to a small company that designed Iridium Satellite communications chips - personal satellite communications from anywhere in the world! - as well as hyperspectral imaging spy satellites - instead of just Bayer RGB, you had 1000 wavelengths of sensor per pixel.. good for identification. Then went on as a consultant to help companies & startups make their first ASICs, as well as make GPUs at ATI, including XBox360's GPU - probably the longest produced game system.

After that I went directly into fashion where I got to make a fashion magazine that included contributors like Cindy Crawford and other top fashion industry people, based solely on our creative draw (I never pay contributors, but each issue kept getting higher-and-higher profile contributors), and now engage with thousands of top fashion brands, dealing with the art, tech, and business aspects, an industry still largely separate from Silicon Valley.


Can you link to your magazine? It sounds interesting!


Our site is at: http://www.futureclaw.com

Our magazine is print, but you can view it online as well at: http://www.issuu.com/futureclawmag/docs/issue_6


> the NSA does everything per law

legal != right

> The NSA doesn't spy on US citizens.

I'm not a us[a] citizen.

qbros.


I think they are a victim of their own success. They had a good thing going, especially when the DC region was basically an army of clerks and was affordable. They made a little bit more than than average Federal employee and had nice benefits and retirement — a good gig.

Now there’s no way to pay a government employee market rate without a scandal. The public views government employees as conniving sloths, but doesn’t understand that they pay 3x for a contractor (including sales, legal, compliance, risk premium, profit).


My experience at a federal contractor suggested the main cost was probably due to lack of communication. Due government clients (sensibly) not trusting the contractor, there are extreme efforts at oversight, and that makes the people at the lowest levels cynical, because they're just ordinary people trying to do a decent job and the management slightly above them seems to see their mission as preventing any information from passing to/from their clients because it equates to risk. A government employee could waste 2/3 of their time and still get more done because of the cost of coordinating with others when you're external.


"Federal pay grades are capped by Congress, and the top grade is around ~$150k a year [1]."

If you make over $80k a year -- you are doing well in NSA [i]. The 150k number is pretty much fantasy land. With NSA on your resume I am sure a penetration testing firm would love to have you at 100k.

https://www.indeed.com/cmp/NSA/salaries


Interesting. The highest one there is "Clinical Psychologist" at $110k sure it must be a joke or it's a different NSA than the one we are talking about. Or maybe that's "the polygraph" department.


> if the NSA is going to spy on us, wouldn't you like that to be as secure as possible?

If I was an American, I would deny the premis. If the NSA is going to spy on you, wouldnt you like your fellow country men to refuse to work for them.


So much this.

I often wonder if I'm the only person on this list that wouldn't work for them simply because I feel its WRONG.


The weird thing is that they have lowered their standard to hire. I don't see any PhD positions advertised as much as now they want to just higher Undergraduates. Maybe they figured out that they don't need any more math and its all exploit engineering and data collection?


NB, that article is slightly out of date, the current top rate for GS-15 step 10 in the DC area is $161,900:

https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/pay-leave/salaries...


    > Pretty sure a top cryptographer or security expert should be worth several times that [~150K x several times]
On the other hand, I often wonder whether folks who are pulling in nearly a half million dollars in compensation in the private sector (as individual contributors) are really worth that much or if they're just benefiting from a relatively temporary windfall caused by scarcity in tech talent.

Keep in mind that government salaries still do come with decently good benefits and vastly more job security than start-ups. That is attractive to lots of people especially late in their careers. Cutting edge IT-related positions aside, non-cutting edge jobs in government do not face such stark competition with the private sector.


70% of the NSA's budget goes to private defense contracting firms:

https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/private-contractor...


A sibling got a fellowship to the other NSA, the NNSA (National Nuclear Security Admin). Arguably, a much smaller though important Admin too. Their time in the fellowship resulted in mostly the same: Google pays more. So ALL of the last 8 years of fellows have gone off to private from gov.

The fellowship is really good money for grad school, about 36k, and you get good interning in the various national labs and good-ish mentoring (if you want it). My sibling was telling me about the dinners though, a real hoot. The old grey-beards from the pre-Apollo days really are clueless as to why all the fellows are leaving for the tech companies. They really just cannot understand why 'millenials' don't want to do the work. My sibling had to inform them that many (likely all) of the candidates are lying on their applications when they say that nuclear security is important to them. In addition to that, the ability to make more money, not have a black hole on the ol resume, and be able to talk about their job to a Tonder date are important. From what I was told, Tinder really blew their minds (pun not intended). I guess they don't get out from behind the fence much?


Yeah, I expect that the only tech companies still around from when the grey-beards first hired on include AT&T and Apple who now makes phones for AT&T.


I think this does not tell the whole story. I will show you three countries that are outperforming the vast majority of countries and why:

- Switzerland: Switzerland is undoubtedly one of the richest countries. I contribute this largely to the fact that they have a direct democracy. All laws are voted upon by the people which makes lobbying much harder. Who profits from lobbying? Almost exclusively BigCos.

- Singapore: Singapore pays it’s top officials a competitive salary. The Prime Minister earns close to 2m dollars. As a result, Singapore attracts higher qualified staff for state positions.

- Estonia: Estonia’s growth since its independence some 25 years ago has outperformed nearly every Eastern European country. The reasons for this growth are their lean government, a high degree of digitalisation (nearly all government services can be accessed online), and an innovative culture at the state level.

In brief, a lot of the inefficiencies in government agencies come down to the facts that in many countries these agencies are intensively lobbied, risk-averse and - as stated by you - do not reward performance (i.e. efficiency improvements and innovation).


Well that depends how you define lobbying. I live in Switzerland and referendums very frequently have large advertising campaigns attached to them - sometimes unopposed (that is, there is no noticeable advertising campaign for one of the options). There is definitely money in politics. Of course that is not necessarily a bad thing. The adverts alert people to an upcoming vote they may find interesting, primarily.

Also Switzerland is notoriously bureaucratic. Even very simple tasks require visits to one of the many, many small government offices that dot the landscape and each interaction always costs hundreds of dollars ... even when the act itself is basically "print out a piece of paper and give it to you".

But I fully agree that direct democracy creates better quality of government in general.


The populations of these countries is significantly smaller than the US. Apples and oranges dude, things are always simpler when your bureaucracy doesn't have to cover 330m people -- you get a combinatorial explosion from all the additional interests and incentives with a larger population. Your points sound like they come from a bad econ textbook or a collation from poor reporting -- I know I heard them somewhere before.


That’s the top pay grade on the gs scale, there are special rates schedules and exceptions for specialists. NIH has Dual MD and research PhDs on payroll, those are unicorns... (I know a mid to top tier research university that has to start offers at over $700k for those, they don’t hardly exist, and that’s a university, they don’t make products) Nih doesn’t pay them GS rates either. NIST doesn’t pay gs rates. NSA could certainly do it too, and almost certainly does, it'd be difficult to live near hq on gs pay.

It still might be challenging to get a decent raise short of leaving for competition though. Pay is very easy to address in the grand scheme, the work environment, the politics at many levels, the organization, the idea that you could and will go to prison if you were to violate a policy or blow a whistle, inability to talk with your spouse, peers, or even coworkers about work, etc.. those things are hard and they probably suck there.


I am a civil servant. There are special pay scales for scientists and engineers, but they are still capped by law at the top end at the same level as the GS scale. In the DC area last year that was $166,000.

I am not aware of any exceptions to the law, unless you mean the Special Executive Service. You can - eventually - make it into the Special Executive Service (SES), which pays somewhat higher (around $200k per year, depending on specifics). But that typically takes 20+ years of service and is reserved to less than 1% of the total workforce of a lab or agency. It is extremely rare for someone to be hired directly into the SES, unless that person is a presidential appointee.

Which means that under ordinary circumstances, my lab cannot offer a Nobel Laureate more than $200,000 per year.


That simply isn't true. Via fedsdatacenter.com, the highest paid employee of a federal government agency earns $403,849. Note that this dataset excludes sensitive government agencies. https://i.imgur.com/bgFxOkh.png


Here is the executive order, signed by President Obama, governing the pay for all federal employees, including the GS and SES scales. It tops out at $207,000 per year.

I'm not saying that there is no civil servant anywhere who makes more than that. But such positions are extremely rare. The Vice President only makes $240,000.

https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/pay-leave/salaries...

If you read the fine print, the executive order allows agency-level directors of the Department of Veterans' Affairs who are physicians to be paid market rates. That is probably who these people are.

This exemption doesn't appear to apply to any other agency or profession.


TVA, a federally owned corp, had its salaries uncapped by congress in 2004. If not for that law, they would be subject to the cap also.

Also, that $995k for the CEO is just the base salary.. his full comp package is about $6.5m


Considering the amount of care and feeding that a Nobel Laureate would require to support their research program that seems appropriate.


> It seems like it's pretty hard for the government to compete with private industry in compensation

But you should not compare compensation for the top tech experts. It is not in general the function of the government to develop technology. There are some exceptions (for which there are opportunities for sweetening the pot), but in general government manages things, buying tech when needed.

Majority of it's bureaucrats are very expensive, non-fireable paper pushers. Non-fireabilitg leads to a huge waste. Raising the GS rates will make government even more expensive. To fix things you need to completely reorg promotions, allow for easy firing, do a RIF and give those remaining significantly more authority and autonomy.

Current schedule is pretty generous already once you factor additional pay scale multipliers and benefits. And if you must raise pay for top tech, at least go for the NH schedule, not GS. My 2c.


"But you should not compare compensation for the top tech experts. It is not in general the function of the government to develop technology."

I disagree. The US Government is the single largest investor in R&D in the country, and does much of that R&D work in house. The National Institutes of Health, by itself, does the vast majority of basic and applied biomedical research in the US. That research feeds commercial R&D. The commercial guys can't afford to do the decades worth of basic research needed before a new medical treatment can be tested in human subjects.

NASA, DOE, and DoD research labs basically invented the modern world. NASA and DoD developed spaceflight, satellites, satcomm, GPS, and digital computer networking. NASA was the single biggest purchaser of, and investor in, integrated circuits right up to about 1970. NASA did much, if not most, of the grunt work to make commercial aviation safe enough to be commercially viable. The US Navy did much of the early research work in radio, due to the need to communicate with a worldwide fleet, and is co-listed with MIT as the primary US innovators in radar.


DOE national laboratories (LANL, LLNL, etc) must compete with private industry and large universities. They are successful at this because the DOE awards contracts for the management of each lab to outside entities such as Johnson Controls, University of California, Lockheed Martin, etc.


That’s the thing about working for the government. You’ll never make more money than the president.


In the UK it’s not unusual for the head of a local council (running a city or a county) to make more than the PM. University chancellors make even more.


Yes but pay for both is a topic of frequent controversy. Does anyone really think it's harder to find a university chancellor, or that it requires more skill and time, than being prime minister? Or is it the result of correspondingly greater monitoring and accountability on politician's salaries vs the essentially unaccountable university system?


> It seems like it's pretty hard for the government to compete with private industry in compensation. Federal pay grades are capped by Congress, and the top grade is around ~$150k a year [1]. And note that since it's the top of the scale, you have to start people off lower so that there is salary progression.

> Pretty sure a top cryptographer or security expert should be worth several times that, especially if they are also dealing with classified information and safeguarding all the data collection (e.g. if the NSA is going to spy on us, wouldn't you like that to be as secure as possible?).

I don't want to deny your argument, but as I often write on HN, the "interesting salary metric" is not the salary per se but "salary minus cost of living [in the respective region where you work]". I would bet that the costs of living are much lower near Fort George G. Meade than in the Bay Area.


Imagine seriously believing that guaranteed lifetime employment, very generous pension and health benefits (unheard of in the private sector), a well-defined career ladder as well as a six figure salary somehow aren't enough. Out of the other side of your mouth claim that these people are public servants selflessly working for the good of all.

The reality is that the compensation package for government workers primarily appeals to those with average to mediocre ability and a strong aversion to risk (often also a tolerance for boring, repetitive work and/or bureaucratic infighting). When was the last time you met a bright, creative superstar working at your local DMV office?

That's why the US Digital Service is actually a pretty good idea. Tours of duty are preferable to lifetime career hires. I'd like to see much more of the federal government adopt that model.


> It seems like it's pretty hard for the government to compete with private industry in compensation. Federal pay grades are capped by Congress, and the top grade is around ~$150k a year [1]. And note that since it's the top of the scale, you have to start people off lower so that there is salary progression.

I feel like this has to be the biggest issue. When I worked in the DoD space as a constractor the amount of clearance required to work in an NSA SCIF would net a contractor a base of $160k a year (with benefits as you'd be working for a contracting company). With government employees making less to manage or do the same job as contractors, why would you stay on as a government employee? Most of the government employees I knew ended up transitioning to private companies.


I think the 2 main reasons to stick around long term would be the pension and getting 6+ weeks off a year. Not many private employers do that, and I imagine it is a huge boon for retention.


Hmm yeah fair point. We had about the same time off (I worked at 3 different companies one that had less, One the same and one “unlimited” vacation) but I bet the pension is a big one.


but it is open to political risk and you have to forgo any equity participation


The problem is not the pay, it is the pay grade. If you are a GS 11, you will get a GS11 pay regardless of your responsibility. And since this is union, you performance has nothing to do with what you will be paid.


Specific to NSA, we're also in a time when their skills happen to be in enormous demand. Crypto is hot, having NSA/CIA on your resume is great for starting a security startup, and the math experts can reposition themselves as data scientists.

For a comparison, in the 90s Singapore tried targeting a rate of 2/3 of private salaries for their public servants. I haven't seen evidence that this is still a format target, but their public services are fantastic. (Of course it's a small island country, so hard to compare with larger places)


>It seems like it's pretty hard for the government to compete with private industry in compensation. Federal pay grades are capped by Congress, and the top grade is around ~$150k a year [1]. And note that since it's the top of the scale, you have to start people off lower so that there is salary progression.

For the kind of work that some divisions of the NSA does, it's the only place you can do it legally. If that's your passion and you don't want to risk fines and jail time, well you have to take the pay disadvantage.


Compensation is not all about salary. Protected work hours, due process protection, job stability, and the honor of helping safeguard your country are motivators too.


The work around is you go work for a defense contractor who pays you the market rate and that contractor charges the government 3-5x that.


there are over two million civil servants at the Federal level and combine that with nearly twenty million at state and local levels it is easy for people to think they spend too much on government which in turn prevents the ability of government to spend more money on salaries of those who are truly that valuable.

so the first step is to pare down civil employment so that the general populace feels that they are getting a good investment. government needs to start selling itself on being a good investment instead of a jobs program. its not hard for the general populace to get this idea when there is news all the time about bloated pensions and high debt in their cities and states because of government pensions.

so since the 60s the size of government at all levels has tripled where the population hasn't. part of the explosion and state and local levels is from Congress funneling money to hire people outside of the Federal level but instead at local. then when the funding dries up the jobs tend to stay anyway


"how much competence actually costs in the market now". This was a beautiful statement! I have worked with sooooooo many incompetent "leaders". I left my last role because the guy at the top was a phony, and did not have the emotional intelligence to control his arrogance, so he looked like a god damn fool in every meeting.


>>It seems like it's pretty hard for the government to compete with private industry in compensation.

Pension, and other retirement benefits are awesome though. Over a period of time that actually makes up for everything else.


Not to worry. There are plenty of contractors in this space providing competitive salaries beyond government pay scales. NSA can still sub out much of its work to them and the taxpayers get to prop up more middlemen.


Not just the cost of competence, but the cost of SUCCESS too.

Lots of highly competent people out there in the market making big market wages ... and they fail all the time. Even just paying isn't enough.


I agree with the point that as long as wages are down for the majority of voters it will be almost impossible to get government pay in line with high-end private sector jobs.


For a fair comparison, you’d need to include federal pensions, which are very generous compare to what you’d have to earn to get that annuity with your own savings.


Government wants to have two kinds of people: The mediocre slackers, because they usually don't break stuff, and people who really believe in what the government stands for. Both are coming to you independent of having the best pay or not.

Therefore I think government jobs shouldn't even compete on pay. In some areas they are higher than the free market though, and this is actually weird.


Contractors do most of the real work. See Ed Snowden for example.


Does that count for contractors as well? I don't think so.


There's a lot of blaming of external factors being injected into this discussion. Namely, government pay scales, and the Trump factor.

But let's not forget the NSA's own self-inflicted wounds as well. Let's see, here's what I remember:

* mission creep

* overreach

* LOVEINT

* massive collection of bulk intelligence with dubious justifications

* withholding information about 0 days it wanted to stockpile for its own use

* misleading technical committees so as to weaken encryption and security related standards

* introducing flawed security protocols

* paying money to security companies (RSA) to introduce weaknesses

* (thus with the above four items) actively sabotaging its own mission of helping to secure our nation's systems

* allowing its documents to be leaked en masse

* allowing possibly its most powerful and dangerous (though we don't know) sets of tools to be leaked as well.

Did I forget anything?


Yes, you forgot one thing:

* We need a powerful spy organization to compete on the world stage.

This is an unpopular truth that people in our circles tend to forget. Rome was an influence solely due to the success of their military. What do you think will happen when ours becomes ineffective?

And the NSA is a key part of our military. Intelligence is everything.

I think it's good the overreach was exposed, but I was worried about exactly this outcome.


We need food. It doesn't mean being morbidly obese is good for your health.

Guess: what country spends on military several times more than any other country in the world?


The same one whose currency essentially powers the world economy via the petrodollar?


Petrodollar is pretty outdated, the current would be Eurodollar or dollar-denominated derivatives outside the U.S.


The Yuan.


Spy organizations are indeed a necessary evil.

But not at all cost. There has to be effective oversight, checks and balances and public discourse about its limits. Not sure about the first two in the US, but here in Germany they fight that tooth and nail. And their certainly wouldn't be any discourse without Snowden.

They certainly did that mostly to themselves and i hope the only lesson they learned isn't "next time we shouldn't get caught"


> We need a powerful spy organization to compete on the world stage

I disagree or at least don't agree to the extent I might have in a more embattled time (i.e. any time in the past). I do agree intelligence serves the military well, I just don't agree with military intelligence scope growth at a time when military use is shrinking. I'm not sure history repeats itself here as much as perpetuates the justifications being used.


If you're interested in the subject, https://www.amazon.com/100-Decisive-Battles-Ancient-Present/... is pretty fantastic.

"Anyone who clings to the historically untrue -- and thoroughly immoral -- doctrine that violence never settles anything I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler would referee. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forgot this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and their freedoms."

- Robert Heinlein

This quote has always stuck with me, and I posted it here a couple years ago. The reaction was almost universally negative. But after wising up a bit, I think offensive ideas need to be faced squarely if we're to evolve as a society.

I don't like it either. But I'd like it even less if it were a truth we conceal, rather than a falsehood we suppress.

It's hard to tell. But one thing is certain: If you read 100 Decisive Battles, you'll see the supremacy of intelligence in warfare. It matters more than any other factor. And the NSA would be our key way to get it.


I could understand this perspective if intelligence was a binary thing you have or you don't. But we shouldn't pretend abuses while gaining some forms of intelligence are justified by the need for other forms. You are arguing that intelligence is needed for military purposes. I'm arguing the apparatus doesn't need to grow in a time of military usage reduction. We might be talking past each other. The types of intelligence we're talking about barely overlap in a Venn diagram (i.e. domestic vs foreign, massive vs targeted, etc).


Personally I'd think that in more modern times, as close as we've been to wars (e.g cold war times, which I'll admit predates me), there are probably countless times where frantic phone calls and backroom diplomacy (importantly, that you do not see) have saved everybody's skin from war (or nuclear war).

I'll admit, this is speculation, but I'd be seriously blown away if not true.

But yes, sometimes nations just have to battle it out. I'm just not one of those people.


Both of the instances you mention would almost certainly rely or result on, and from, what intelligence might be shared or derived from having that frantic phone call or backroom diplomacy.

It's not just who you know, but what intel you can share to strengthen an alliance that matters the most.

What troubles me about this article is the after effect on those who might be employed by nation states who seek to better understand our intelligence mechanism, and while I realize that every actor in the schema is a cog in a very complex machine, it stands to reason that if tons of people are leaving public service for the private sector, there is a vast amount of leaky intel out there for the having.

I don't think there is anything wrong with consolidation, necessarily, but we need to have stopgaps in place to quell the unwanted outflow of personnel from what is essentially a defense-centered brain trust because of how much we as a public have invested in their training and relied on them to help us stay out of harm's way. I'm especially worried about the younger set (not to foment discrimination, per se, but maturity does shape one's thinking) who may more easily be duped by some seemingly friendly industry that is a shell company for nefarious activity.


A strong military is a must for global peace. Perhaps living in the west which has been war-free for so many decades its easy to forget. But go to Syria, or Libya and you will see what happens when, in the absence of a strong, centralized military command, factions duke it out with each other.

That being said: diplomacy is almost always better than war. But the ability to wage war must not be ignored.


Who knows what the future will bring -- on a 10 to 20 year horizon anything can happen. US prestige is waning and China's role is growing. Middle East is all fucked up and so is most of Africa. Russia will do something if somebody does something stupid in Belarus. North Korea is a wildcard, and of course there is Israel too. Being vigilant doesn't hurt. There are plenty of rats in sewers left too -- people just choose not to see them when it isn't convenient. Information flows faster now and is globally accessible so that helps to dampen things somewhat.


And the Roman legions marched into Rome and enabled Sulla and Caesar to become dictators for life, Augustus the Emperor (The Princeps).

The military is worth paying for as long as they protect our life and liberty but not when they are aiming at us.


That a service is essential isn't really all that much of a talent draw though, is it?

There are plenty of services that are needed that high value employees aren't rushing to get in to.


"* We need a powerful spy organization to compete on the world stage." - maybe I'm missing some irony here, but how is this a "self-inflicted wound"?


Well I agree with that bullet point, but I would put it in the other column, not the self-inflicted wound column.

I just wish they could be more careful. It's a dangerous power they have.


I think this is something best left to "the market", of all things. If government wants to inflict technical damage on an opponent, have a group of contracted hackers to launch attacks or consult on security. Our government, with its risk averseness and archaic ways are not, in any way, set up to meaningfully fend off or launch digital attack.


Not surprising. They’ve gone from having the perception of being the most elite organization for hackers to more of what is described in Good Will Hunting [1].

Perception is everything. I say this as someone who dreamt of working at the NSA for most of my high school years, but would now never even consider it.

Edit: although I bet a lot of it is the 4x-5x salary jump you can get in cyber security jobs by having the NSA on your resume. :-)

[1] https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=mJHvSp9AKYg


I think it's become pretty clear recently -- looking at what Snowden leaked and at the trouble the Iranians had with their centrifuges or at the way Comey knew that Sessions was going to recuse himself -- that the NSA _is_ the most elite organization for hackers/crackers. It's hard to be certain from the outside, of course, but when I look at what Henninger et al have written about what they're doing... well, it's a breath-taking technical achievement

As for perception: These technologies exist, and it's up to us to make sure that they're used wisely. Right now, the institutions of the US and allied governments are the caretakers and safeguards. They're not perfect, but I'll take them over the competition every day of the week.


The NSA leaks we're at once impressive in their technical scope, but largely just things we knew we're possible if you threw engineers at the problem.

It's likely we didn't get the really juicy bits, but the vast majority of the stuff we learnt about was just operationalizing things we already knew.to be possible.


They may be highly sophisticated for individual operations, but it's hard for individual citizens to assess how well the NSA is doing in terms of systematically protecting the nation or even their own assets. Looking at the scope leak of data from multiple sources such as Snowden, as well as the inability of the agency to protect the government from hacks such as OPM leaks leaves a lot to be desired in terms of comprehensiveness.

And maybe it's not in their charter, but failures to promote security among private industry leading to hacks like equifax, or home depot, or many many others, looks to me like leadership is off chasing political objectives while at home we get pecked to death and damaged by a million small cuts of fixable security problems.


> Perception is everything. I say this as someone who dreamt of working at the NSA for most of my high school years, but would now never even consider it.

One of the first three technical books I read was Bruce Schneier's "Applied Cryptography". I loved crypto and wanted to work in it.

Fast forward to my 4-year degree when looked around and assessed my potential career paths. NSA salaries weren't competitive to what I could make as a generic software engineer and the NSA was starting to get a bad reputation, and that was well before Snowden.

Fast forward to today and it's hard to see myself working as an FTE for the NSA under almost any circumstances, both practical and ideological.


Speaking from experience, I applied to the NSA a few years ago and its surreal how unrealistic the expectations were.

a major problem with NSA employment is the mandatory 5 year contractor like status period with half-pay. the NSA expects seasoned professionals from the private sector to join its ranks with a 33k salary? get real. The agency also prides itself on an almost obscene reliance on Polygraphs, a technology no more accurate or scientifically sound than a babushka shuffling chicken bones and reading tea leaves.

I also wasnt exactly blown away by the interview questions. my technical screening for a Linux position came from former members of the military, who grilled me on 2 unix questions before asking if they could switch to windows, confessing they 'didnt know much linux.'


> The agency also prides itself on an almost obscene reliance on Polygraphs, a technology no more accurate or scientifically sound than a babushka shuffling chicken bones and reading tea leaves.

I can't find out why I see smart people repeating this all the time. It's not true. Polygraphs are very flawed, and they are especially vulnerable to preparatory countermeasures, but they have non-trivial predictive power.

When I ask people to justify their dismissal of polygraphs, they generally point to the fact that they are not allowed in court, but this is a terrible reason. Hearsay isn't allowed in court either but that doesn't mean it isn't useful.


If it doesn't stand up to "beyond a reasonable doubt" how can you have such faith in it? Hearsay is a fine example, as I wouldn't want my innocence predicated upon someone's flawed memory or whim.


Because "beyond a reasonable doubt" is a much higher level of certainty than we have for making many decisions in life? The NSA isn't jailing people based on a lie-detector, they are just using it as a necessary but not sufficient criteria for granting security access. It's OK to deny such access based on weak or circumstantial evidence.


"can't find", huh? well did you even try? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polygraph#Validity has plenty of actual studies referenced.


Yes of course. Did you? The balance of evidence is strongly toward polygraphs having non-trivial predictive power. People frequently conflate unreliability with being fully random.


Don't know what "fully random" is but 60% sounds like pretty close to a coin toss.


If you require applicants to pass five independent tests that have 60% accuracy (e.g., interview, polygraph, family/friend interviews, recommendations, criminal record), good applicants are more than 7 times more likely to pass than bad applicants. Indeed, most of our important decisions are made by combining many weak pieces of evidence. Even if some other tests are more accurate, additional less-accurate tests can easily be worth running if their costs are modest.

Again, this is not an argument that the information provided by the polygraph actually passes a cost-benefit analysis in any particular case, it's just a criticism of the "all or nothing" mindset regarding accuracy that many folks have on this topic.


> the NSA expects seasoned professionals from the private sector to join its ranks with a 33k salary?

they don't. like any other military/police agency in the world they want them young and dumb.


When I was just about to graduate from University, I had an offer from Amazon on the way (yay internships) but not really in-hand yet, so I kept interviewing. One of the options was CSEC, Canada's NSA.

The stark reality was that at Amazon, in 2 or 3 years I would be making double what CSEC was offering. Early career pay in one was end-career pay in the other. They seemed nice, and I suppose what they were doing felt important, but the money was simply too good to turn down. (No regrets either- I worry if I'd gone with them, I might have wound up living in Russia with a roommate named Ed.)


It worked better for you and I'm glad to hear that. For some people, the stability of a Govt. job, the regularity of promotions, the lack of long term uncertainty and perhaps the absence of as high expectations makes it worthwhile to pursue a job that pays less.


Actually, this stability and security was another big reason I chose not to join Government. I had done a few internships in the public service, and what I saw horrified me.

When you have job security and low expectations placed on you, it's wonderful. When everyone does, it's horrible. There is relatively little room for the lazy and useless in the private sector.


> There is relatively little room for the lazy and useless in the private sector.

Spoken like someone who has not spent much time in the private sector.


Again, I ask that you refrain from characterizing everyone as lazy and useless. I know a lot of women friends who choose to join Government service because of its long term stability which is important for them as they raise a family. They are some of the hardest working and smartest people I know.

Sure bad apples are harder to eliminate, but that doesn't mean everyone is bad.


I agree that my choice of words implies everyone is- and that is not true.

What I saw in government was a lot of dead weight adding little value and taking home paychecks, being carried by a small group of people working their asses off to keep everything afloat. The dead weight couldn't be fired short of them doing something crazy, like sneaking into the office over the weekend and drinking half the wine set aside for the Christmas party (so the story went of the only guy who got fired from that office). The heavy lifters felt unable to even take a vacation because they know nothing would get done if they left- example, a boss I had who wasn't sure she could go to her sister's wedding in Jamaica for two weeks because the office wouldn't manage without her.

My own wife is an engineer in municipal government. She's a superhero as far as I can tell. The dead weight on her team can't be fired, and she does many times the work they do for a smaller salary- they've been here longer, you see, so they make more money.

Perhaps my perspective on public sector jobs is skewed, but I've yet to hear a compelling reason I would want to have one.


This is happening across the US government as a whole. The US State department is dead for instance.

When you have talent and options why stay with a creaky ship that's sailing straight into a hurricane with a mad captain at the helm?


This is a problem across all of government. As a mediocre senior software engineer with no reports, I was paid more last year than the goddamn President of the United States (and no, it's not because I got lucky with stock). This is completely stupid and unacceptable.

Of course our choices are going to be Hillary vs Trump if we pay the top leader in the country less than a mediocre software engineer. Of course Hillary will give secret speeches to Wall St firms - how else is she going to pay her bills? Of course the government is going to be incompetent and corrupt - we can't hire good people at the salaries we're paying unless they use their influence to obtain side gigs in the private sector (often after their service, but that means they won't do anything to annoy their future bosses).

Why does Sundar Pichai make 500x more than the President? Do we, as a society, value running Google well 500x more than running our government well?

Government salaries need to be raised significantly (2-500x) across the board, or the government will continue being the mess it is now.


A quick google says:

<<According to Title 3 of the US Code, the US President "shall earn" a salary of $400,000, along with a $50,000 annual expense account, a $100,000 nontaxable travel account, and $19,000 for entertainment.>>

Where can a mediocre software developer get $450K+?!


Any of the big tech companies, for starters. But, I don't work for any of those companies. You can PM me for details, we're hiring.

Keep in mind this is in SF, and I don't know any senior software engineers here making less than $300k/year, more than everyone in the government except the President!


You should tell Comparably: their email this week said the average for senior devs in San Francisco was $155k.


There's no pm on this site, and no email in your profile sooooo.... :shrugs:


> This is completely stupid and unacceptable.

Why?

> Why does Sundar Pichai make 500x more than the President? Do we, as a society, value running Google well 500x more than running our government well?

Why must the Presidency be the most highly-paid position for the government to run well? That is a ridiculous and silly assumption.


Why must the CEO of Google be the most highly-paid position for Google to run well? The point is that the pay for participating in self-interested capitalist endeavors leads to outsize rewards compared to those dedicated to serving society. (Including thousands of career civil servants, since leadership positions have their own trappings.) If we value those who serve society, perhaps we should pay them commensurate with how much we value them -- and get better results in the bargain.


> Why must the CEO of Google be the most highly-paid position for Google to run well?

That's up to Google, not me. Unlike you, I don't seek to dictate what organizations should pay their managers.

> The point is that the pay for participating in self-interested capitalist endeavors leads to outsize rewards compared to those dedicated to serving society.

You are making two implicit claims here, both highly suspect and probably false:

- Working for Google contributes no value to society.

- Working for the government is synonymous with 'serving society'.

Google's flaws notwithstanding, the government has a terrible track record when it comes to incentives, inefficiency, corruption (particularly graft), accountability, and so on. Equating 'working for government' with 'serving society' is baffling.

> If we value those who serve society, perhaps we should...

Therein lies the problem with your rhetoric. When you say 'we', you pretend to speak for all taxpayers, but you do not. Your claim that higher pay would yield better results is probably true for some sectors and false for others, yet you make no attempt to distinguish between these and speak as if a universal raise would lead to better outcomes rather than more graft.


Presidential pay is not outrageous because those seeking the Presidency should be motivated by public service, not remuneration.

Of course, the President doesn't really have bills. He or she doesn't exactly pay to rent the White House.


Everyone is motivated by remuneration to some degree - the only question is who is remunerating our government officials: the public, or some other party with its own interests?

In the US, we've chosen the private sector to remunerate our officials after they've left public service, and our lovely government is the result.

Keep in mind that, as a public official earning top wages (~$150k/year) in DC, you can just afford to buy the median home in the area. But if you want a nice house (single-family) in a good neighborhood? Forget it! Whereas if you took your skills to the private sector, finding a place to raise your family would not be a major concern.


It's true that public service is a major part, but another way of thinking about it is if government officials are highly paid, they are less likely to be bribed or act in their own financial self interest and more motivated by what is good for the country. Plus it attracts talent.

Singapore is an extreme example of this (perhaps too extreme) - the Prime Minister earns over $1.5M a year.


This Singapore comment needs to die before someone else ever repeats it again. Lee Hsien Loong (2004-now) is the son of Lee Kuan Yew (1965-1990) -- compensation has nothing to do with it in this case. Past a certain compensation range you are selecting for greed and nothing else -- if you earn in the top 10% and can't make do I seriously doubt you are 'intelligent' or your children must eat a lot and you have my sympathies.


> He or she doesn't exactly pay to rent the White House.

Actually the first family does have to pay for many incidentals, like every day food, and it comes in the form of a bill.


The President is billing the secret service to stay in Trump Tower.


millstone was saying that the president doesn't pay many bills. He can generate them, though.


> the Presidency should be motivated by public service

I don't see who this applies to in your last election


> should be motivated by public service, not remuneration. It's strange that this should be such a widely held belief given that it relates to the top job in the most capitalistic country on earth.



i'm pretty sure you're being humble about your skills as a developer.

$450k is a lot and rare, even for the bay area


> The brain drain has been so pronounced that at one gathering in 2016 of the agency’s elite hacking division, one individual raised the concern with Rogers directly. According to several people familiar with the exchange, Rogers disputed that there was any increase in attrition and told his employees that they should stop complaining and get back to work.

Remember this. As someone who started their professional life in 2000, lived through 2009, and went through a multinational's "reorg" (mass-firing by geography, several 10s of thousands of people), let me tell you :

As soon as you notice there is general discontent, and people no longer care enough about their jobs to ask questions like this to the top brass, it is time to make sure you have another job lined up. You can get better jobs this way, and the hammer will come down.

Above all, know that this Rogers guy is fairly honest. And yet, he directly contradicts the Washington Post. He's an exec, and he has ONE job : do exactly what his superiors say without bother them.

He (once for me it was a she) will NOT give you any piece of information you do not already have. They are there to get people to work together.

By "motivating".

By lying.

By cheating.

This means that when it comes to the health of the company and your future job prospects, a sober chat with the cleaning staff will yield more useful information than an hour long "fireside chat" with a highly placed manager. Not because they know a lot, but simply because they don't lie, and they know a little. An executive is not talking to you, except in the way a vet is talking to stray dogs at the impound. They don't respect you, they can't do anything for you, they don't like you ... and they're very, very good at hiding this (just look at financial presentations on youtube, say of the IBM CEO, knowing that she has for years, every 2 months or so, fired 1000+ people, with the constant online reports of them getting cheated out of severance. Listen to her, then think about the kind of person who does that. You half expect to get free candy and a hug every 2 minutes or so when listening to her. Or listen to Clinton talking, knowing that he's the sort of man that threatens women to have sex with him. Think about what those people he talks to really mean to him)


I feel like many organizations, of which NSA is one example, make the mistake of putting technical program leads in charge of people. Leading people and motivating them to do their best work together requires a different skill set, and Rogers' response to the vocalized attrition concern suggests that he isn't capable of keeping people in the organization. I appreciate that he took time to talk with staff and take questions but he needs to become a better listener, or in other words ... work on his signals intelligence.


You misunderstood my post. No he doesn't need to listen. In fact, listening is the quickest way for him to lose his job. The fact that you even say this means you partially believe him, and that's a mistake on your part. The only signals intelligence this guy needs or wants is listening to his superiors, and his job is one-way data transmission from his boss to the rank and file. STRICTLY one-way (and trust me, it doesn't matter if his boss is Trump or Obama).

Of course he "talks" with staff and takes questions. Why ? Because despite his wages, he is not all that good at correctly transmitting information, so he is doing this so he might do his job better by having his team interpret his ideas, and try to clarify them to him by asking questions. This is done mostly to avoid the worst of screwups. Only questions that follow this pattern get answered, or even seriously considered (check those financial videos again, trust me you'll see this happen).

He does not have an opinion (I mean he does, but none that you'll ever hear). Remember that. You cannot ask him for it, you will never get an answer. And when you do, because there are amounts of alcohol that will make him divulge opinions, please don't start destroying careers (mostly your own, but you may drag others down) by telling other people what those opinions are.

He won't care about attrition until the ability of the organisation to carry out his boss's orders is in danger, or when his boss cares. Nothing other than that can make him care. But he's paid a LOT of money to make you think he cares.


Well, I agree with you about the one-way transmission. My point about listening is that I expect that a lot of their technical capability is initially developed through individual/team interest and not top-down direction so in the interest of advancing the organization's operational capabilities management should support two-way communication.


I love everything about this post. I've dealt with enough sociopaths in "leadership" positions (and can count the number of true leaders I've encountered in my life on one hand) that I automatically distrust and dislike anyone in an executive role (and such a person would have to work very hard to get me to trust them).

It's sad because I started out my adult life as a very trusting person...


This combines a long running problem in government – not being allowed to offer competitive salaries for high-demand skills — with the new presidential administration’s chaos, and the specific feeling that the agency is not a force for good. I feel bad for everyone trying to do their jobs but struggling under the weight of so much baggage.


> the specific feeling that the agency is not a force for good.

There are a mixture of feelings about the agency. The same can be said of the CIA and FBI. And this is nothing new.


Not new but accentuated: I think a lot of people used to know there was some gray area but thought we were generally on the right side (not unlike the U.S. attitude about torture until the Bush-era reversal), before the pattern of relentless disregard for the law and American interests really went public.

A lot more people are comfortable with, say, targeted foreign attacks than broad domestic dragnets or attacking American companies or standards.


> relentless disregard for the law and American interests really went public

Are you talking about metadata collection?


Disclaimer: I work for the federal government, but my thoughts are my own.

From what I have seen, there are a mix of issues that cause this: - It takes a long time to hire someone (usually 2-3 months), and if they need a clearance, the process is even longer (some clearances can take easily over a year now, and that person cannot do any work until they have them). - A lot of people want to go into these organizations to do cool things, but then find out they have a lot of additional duties they do not wish to do. - Government salaries are capped, and it is very difficult to fire a government civilian.

The issue of taking a long time to hire someone means that if someone leaves, their job does not go away. So their duties have to go somewhere, usually on someone else, and that will take a minimum of 3 months if you hire someone off the street. If the job requires a clearance, you now are waiting over a year if the person did not have the right clearance (while the person sits on that spot, so you can't hire anyone else if they come up).

From what I have seen, most people hired off of the streets are from college/grad school, and they are excited to do technical work. However, since the government caps civilian salaries, they will frequently contract out technical work (so they can hire the very expensive technical personnel). This means most of the technical work is done by contractors. Civilians more often than not oversee the contractors doing the technical work. If you have a technically inclined government civilian, then those contractors frequently snatch them up.

So now you have a compounding problem of it is difficult to hire/keep technical people, and the work they do is more and more non-technical, as most of the work to oversee contractors is what is called an "inherently governmental function", so those have to be done by a government person. This is a negative feedback loop that really hurts keeping these types of technical people.


NSA is in the middle of a bozo explosion. It's hard to keep good people when they have to deal with so many bozos.

To give you an example, there was a reorg a few years ago to outsource NSA's IT. (Makes a lot of sense that an agency that pretty much only does IT would outsource IT, right?)

In the reorg, 500+ people were identified as having no discernible skill that was relevant to the mission. They were segregated into their own org and given busy work. When the outsourcing occurred, the contractor was incentivized to employ and retain them for 2 years, including the 500+. To entice them, they paid them above their government salary.

The contractor could not figure out what to do with them either. It treated them as "casual employees". They were given a salary, but did not have to report to work and had no responsibilities. For 2 years.

Once the incentive ran out, these folks went back to NSA and got rehired as government employees. According to the hiring rules, they went right to the top of the stack.


> The people who have left were responsible for collecting and analyzing the intelligence that goes into the president’s daily briefing

Cool, because the demand is gone too.


Exactly, right? Maybe they are not even angry about losing the analysts.


The State of California recently initiated a reclassification project for IT positions, which includes evaluating salaries. They last reclassified positions in 1976...back when Elvis was alive (note: salaries have risen modestly since that time, thankfully).


Might it also be because of the cost of overcoming their conscience? I understand that there are multiple groups in the NSA that do things other than illegal surveillance and hacking, but I would have an even higher price than other companies' offers I would require in exchange for my moral values if the NSA ever offered me any position at all...


still less than the cost of someone overcoming their conscience for working at Facebook


Only on HN can you find people who think the NSA is worse than Facebook.


Government work also suffers from over regulation. A friend of mine who works for a major defense contractor as an electrical engineer is literally not allowed to use a screwdriver driver. He must requisition a union worker for jobs involving a screwdriver. This takes tons of time and the simple job may ultimately never get done. In practice, he and his colleagues wait until after 5pm, when the union guys have gone, to use screwdrivers.

I told this story to my Uncle who worked for 30 years at a national lab. He said they had a similar problem and solution for using a broom to sweep up a mess in their work area. These stories sound unbelievable but I believe they are common and that situations like this regularly cripple and demoralize government work.


And this is why government projects are essentially doomed to fail versus capitalism, in the long-view.


Rogers disputed that there was any increase in attrition and told his employees that they should stop complaining and get back to work.

Can’t imagine why anybody would want to leave.


By way of comparison, GCHQ personnel seem to be leaving for 4-5x salary from big tech companies[1]. So do the math and figure out what the GCHQ folks are being paid.

Also, GCHQ has hired 494 contractors for 71m GBP[2].

[1]: https://sites.google.com/a/independent.gov.uk/isc/files/2016..., page 40

[2]: Ibid, page 70


I live in Cheltenham and pre-Snowden may have entertained the idea for working there. I tracked a job they were advertising for nearly a year - they were offering ~32k for a Linux expert with years of experience. Good luck on that one. I think they eventually converted it to a contract role, but even then I wouldn't entertain it.

Another friend worked at the big James Bond building in London, was regularly taken around the world at short notice to do security things, and was on less than 40k. He loved that job more than anything in the world but literally couldn't afford to live there so went contracting for 5x the money. Apparently in the government a large part of salary reviews is based on (age + seniority), so you're waiting a long time for a decent uplift that may never arrive.


Just to be clear, your amounts are in GBP right?


Yup.


Question: how does this compare to other states?

I'm particularly interested in China's equivalent(s?) of the NSA. Do they manage to retain talent? Is it because the PRC's elite believes more in its mission? Is it higher status than the NSA? Do they offer higher relative salaries?


I think the best we can do is speculate on this, as China's cyber capabilities are still relatively unknown by the public [0]. However, based on their investment in academics and a generally more positive view of government jobs in general (possibly due to historic sociocultural contexts [1]), I believe it's likely that their equivalent groups are probably treated quite well.

For example, for successful US-trained Chinese researchers, the Chinese government offers generous funding, publication bonuses [2], and high pay (comparable to, or better than, US institutions) for those who are willing to return to China and run research labs there.

Additionally, due to the relative lack of commercial opportunities for talent, creative, and ambitious home-grown talent (vs the opportunities in the US available to similar US-trained talent), the bar the government must exceed is commensurately lower.

0. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PLA_Unit_61398

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperial_examination

2. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/08/cash-bonuses-peer-rev...


Wouldn't worry too much. If they're heading to SV, their talents may still benefit the NSA.


Those fine people who have shown such a good jugement in choosing their previous job will be perfectly fine managing my google history and the cookies in my browser, I’m really looking forwards to it.

I’m really curious if they’ll have the power to get more people killed at google or at the NSA.


I'll never forget talking to an NSA recruiter (cybersecurity expert doing a recruiting assignment, not a full-time recruiter) at a university job fair. I asked if he felt like he was really spending most of his time protecting people or if a lot of it was political agenda and budget protection, etc. His answer was, "well, it's not all politics..." Thank you, recruiter, for making that career choice a supremely easy one.


Might expect this to ultimately lead to privatization of these services. Which is black mirror territory.


The top talent might be leaving, but the databases and the lovely toys are staying put.

To be used by not-top-talent.

Interesting times.


Honest question: What's the skillset of a hacker at NSA? Not that I'm targeting to become one, just curious as to how someone would become a hacker.


Why work for the NSA when you can overcharge Being a contractor for an equally inept organization


The NSA needs educated smart people. The president has denigrated education and smart people. NSA employees work for the president. Reap what you sow.


With the speed of development in government organisation one could wonder if the current fallout is Trump's fault or Bush's faulth, though.


I think that you're missing someone in between Mr. Bush & President Trump …


I think I leave him out on purpose.


Or maybe anyone who understands cryptography enough to work at the NSA, understands bitcoin and blockchains enough to realize they can make a lot more money for a lot less effort in cryptocurrencies. Same with machine learning. The crypto bubble goes beyond money, it goes to creativity and brain drain from the rest of the economy.


Plus security. It's always been a skill in relatively high demand, but in the last ten years or so companies have been willing to pay whatever it takes to avoid getting hacked. My company brought in all sorts of consultants just after, coincidentally I'm sure, the Target CEO lost his job because of a hack.


Actually I remember reading at some point that the people who have the best careers in tech move between government and private at the right times, when there is going to be a downturn in the economy they move into the security of government work and work on the rules and regulations that will govern the future, as the economy turns back up they move into consulting regarding those particular rules and regulations.

This actually points to one of my major career mistakes in that when I left my government job I was burned out on the standard I had just spent some years seeing through to law, and instead of working consulting on it I took a totally unrelated job (based on the enticements of a friend who promised we would get to work on something I really wanted to work on)

I left millions on the table just by that one stupid decision. but then again I was really burned out on it.

on edit: improved formatting


This is not a good thing at all. This will lead to a shittier NSA and with their power, this is a lousy combination,


This isn't just NSA, but tech positions GOV wide. Lots of locations are requiring Contractors be put on an equivalent pay scale as the GOV employees, causing them both to look elsewhere... Why take a position with less stability and benefits, for the same, and in some cases less, pay.


I wonder if there is also some people morale in this. I mean, if I was a hacker and knew what the NSA had been up to in regards of mass-surveilance, my integrity and morale would be like "heck no, thies org' fucked up and I want nothing to do with them, at all!".


A lot of EU security experts (UK included) take time off to make extra money through companies like ours - senseiclub.com - to train corporate in anything from ethical hacking to certified GDPR compliance - they can't be making much at their regular jobs.

Some even register their own company - which makes sense - as freelancing full time, end of the day, is possible. Make your own schedule, decline to go to work, take a month off - it's good fun. We got some people booked for over 110 days out of 250 for 2018 already.

As for pensions and savings - folks go to wealth managers.

Hit me up if you want some really good training courses for your company or your buddy is looking for extra gigs (GCHQ folks are welcome).

Think productschool.com for cyber security, compliance, cloud and data.

Cheerio


Seems like we should redirect some of the funding the traditional military branches get to the NSA. The work they do is more relevant and important than ever before, and it doesn't look like we're going to have a hot war any time soon.


I'd suggest separating these anonymous complaints into those which at least have boolean choices and those which have unary choices.

Reorganization of dept. has created red tape. Ok, that seems like one of many opinions a source at the NSA could have.

Snowden hurt our agency and made our jobs more difficult. I'm not sure that an NSA source could have any other opinions on this matter, especially given that a) I've never read anyone who currently works at the NSA call Snowden anything but a traitor and b) the NSA certainly knows the identity of the sources for this story. I think we have to reject such complaints as facile.


Another view: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/12/who-is-reality-...

That was circulated with the comment "the risk is not so much people running to the Russians as people running to civil society - the NSA is not as popular as they think."

The NSA, like much of the US system, demands absolute unconditional loyalty. Internal dissent is not possible. Taking dissent public will get you sent to prison where you're not allowed to speak to journalists.


replace prison with getting fired and you have the same in the industry.


Those are two rather different things though?


Clearly you've never been to prison.


Clearly the point is not the comparison between the impact of both experiences on the receiving end.


I read somewhere that 70% of US intelligence spending these days was on private contracting companies anyway. I guess if you’re good you'll end up at one of them?


Finally some good news from NSA.


> the nation’s 17 spy agencies.

17.

WTF.


From Wikipedia[1]: CIA, NSA/CSS, NRO, DIA, NGA, intelligence elements of the five armed forces (Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard), and intelligence elements of the State Department, Department of Energy, DHS, Treasury, DEA, FBI, and finally overseeing them all, ODNI.

Each specializes in collecting a different kind of intelligence or in a different focus for analysis.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Intelligence_Com...


Why do the DoE and Treasury need intelligence elements?


DoE handles the nuclear arsenal. Treasury contains the Secret Service.


Treasury handles tracking of financial flows involving sanctioned entities, terrorist groups, nations hostile to the US, etc. DoE handles nukes.



I remember predicting this back when the Snowden first leaked, and someone popular on HN saying it wouldn't happen. I suspect the reorg and general politics outside NSA have had a bigger impact than "oh, spying is wrong" in popular culture, though.


In this case, an inevitable outcome is likely the privatization of more of these industries. Let companies like Palantir take over the job and ensure we have some solid regulations to ensure Thiel can't read our emails.


I've got an idea, stop giving Congress free health care and stop giving Congress a $100k a year pension after they've resigned. Bam, there's your competitive salary to offer NSA engineers.


wow thank you so much for your brilliant solution. considering that both of those require Congress to accomplish, do you have another brilliant idea for getting them to do it?


The only reason I don't work for an organization like the NSA is that because of my past and current drug use they won't let me. Let the hackers smoke dope, we love our country too.


They end up going to private corporations like Booz Allen, then the government ends up contracting these companies in the private sector lol.


Now they really won't be able to analyze all that data...


Consider it has such bad reputation and public image, and subpar salary this is not surprising at all.


The salary cap sounds like it will lead to more outsourcing, which would increase expenses overall.


They probably hoped, if they work long enough for the man, they'll become the man.


I would love to work for them, creative interesting projects with funding, pick me!


What's wrong in leaving when somebody is paying better?


>If the NSA is going to spy on us, wouldn't you like that to be as secure as possible?

I'd rather those perverts not peep on us; this isn't an unreasonable request.


My favorite is that the more the FBI/NSA spends, the more government debt get printed. You may know that the government shutdown is because of a debt ceiling.


Don't hire these people!


Good?


I'm hiring ;)


And who are you? Working for a hospital or something? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-8gaoEQqoA8

Your website can't be reached btw.


I work on and advise several projects involving protection and cyber-security, specifically within the blockchain space.


LOL.


good.


with luck, mentioning NSA on your resume results in an immediate trip to the discard pile during applications at most tech companies.

if you're going to invade privacy on a massive scale, you better be ready for the consequences.


> with luck, mentioning NSA on your resume results in an immediate trip to the discard pile

You're getting down voted, but I've seen this first hand. I don't completely agree with it. But the employer's justification was that he would never be able to trust that the candidate wasn't a mole. (I pointed out that the NSA is probably capable of better hiding its moles.)


While you might have seen it it is very far from general rule at companies that matter in security space


Anyone who works in intelligence is evil and should leave and find a career in the private sector, but I won't hire them because they're evil and previously worked in intelligence!

Thankfully resume sorting is effectively already an entirely random process, so I hope this comment doesn't bother anyone too much.


Should we have no intelligence agencies? A better approach is to populate our intelligence agencies with good people, instead of leaving it up to incompetent/bad people.


>Should we have no intelligence agencies?

Why not? It would get rid of a big excuse for governments to conceal things from their citizens, who supposedly oversee them. If someone in the government needs to find something out, they could always just pay someone to do it on a contract basis.


How do we keep secrets from enemies while telling all secrets to our citizens? Such an idea does not seem to live in the real world.


Wait, which is the greater good? Keeping government secrets or holding the government to account? To me, the latter is obviously better.


Certainly, and the government has much abused its secret keeping ability. But, sometimes secrets matter. One example I know of is we had almost captured Osama Bin Laden in Tora Bora by tracking his cell phone. Then, a senator told the media we were tracking his cell phone, and we lost him, dragging on the war for many more years. Or, during WW2 if Germany had known we'd cracked Enigma, we would have lost a tremendous advantage. And, if the Germans had stolen our nuke technology and beat us to the bomb drop, the war could have turned out totally differently.


This is why people that finally realize they can no longer work for the NSA for moral reasons should be given support in exiting and finding a new job. Bruce Schneier and Tho9mas drake both endorse[1] Intelexit[2].

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=panT9P_VdyE

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intelexit


This service appears to do nothing else aside from automatically generating a resignation letter. Did I miss a value-add here? This just seems like a media campaign instead of anything useful.


> if you're going to invade privacy on a massive scale, you better be ready for the consequences

Consequences such as a $500 billion market cap[1]

[1] https://www.cnbc.com/2017/07/28/facebook-touches-500-billion...


If only-- the major tech companies are full of people with intelligence ties from the executive suite on down.


>if you're going to invade privacy on a massive scale, you better be ready for the consequences.

too late, Facebook and Google already do that


> if you're going to invade privacy on a massive scale, you better be ready for the consequences.

Like a job at Google/Facebook, where you'll continue invading privacy on a massive scale?


I like Google and Facebook. They provide a lot of value to a lot of people, invest in R&D, and contribute to the open source community.

I've seen an uptick of negativity on HN lately, especially targeted at the big SV companies. Not intelligent criticism mind you, just basic trolling. For example your account appears to be 99% dedicated to shitting on SV companies.


> Google and Facebook .. provide a lot of value to a lot of people, invest in R&D, and contribute to the open source community.

VS

> Facebook is attempting to kill all open communication protocols and force everyone to communicate through their platform with powerful network effects.

There's no contradiction here. Both can be true at the same time. Large organisations (government & commercial alike) have even less of a fixed & permanent nature than do individuals, and can carry out huge numbers of activities in parallel, some harmful, some beneficial.

You can try some sort of rough consequentialist calculus on an organisation's overall benefits / harms to society, which is complex and subjective to an extent that gives almost completely free play to prejudice.

Alternatively you can look at the systems within which organisations grow and assess the functioning of the whole thing. I think this is the more powerful approach, having more potential for sidelining empty moralising. Personally I believe that for fundamental reasons, hypergrowth-oriented technological society inevitably leads to the destruction of everything of value (in truth a subject for a book, not a forum comment). Facebook & Google are natural & unwitting agents of these fundamental forces. At the same time, decent & capable humans work for them in large numbers, so inevitably make positive countervailing contributions.


I like Google and Facebook. They provide a lot of value to a lot of people, invest in R&D, and contribute to the open source community.

The same can be said of most monopolies, like AT&T in the 70's , Bell Labs did top notch research, and the highly reliable phone network provided huge value to people and businesses alike. Although it did have high value, it also had a high cost to the consumer and few people want to go back to the days of paying $30/month for local phone service (plus $3.99 if you want to use touch tone), and spending $7 for a 10 minute cross country call.


Google and Facebook have been terrible for open source on the whole despite their contributions to some projects.

It is more difficult to run open source on your handset than it is on your desktop/laptop/server and Google wants it that way to ensure you are sucked into their ecosystem of data collection. And handsets outnumber PCs. Google is directly participating in the destruction of open source computing at the consumer level while distracting us with contributions to a few projects.

Facebook is attempting to kill all open communication protocols and force everyone to communicate through their platform with powerful network effects. Anything they have done for open source is dwarfed by the decades they have set us back in open communication and privacy.


"Alexa, what's a tele-screen?"


"At Amazon, a telescreen is known as an 'Echo Show'. Would you like 'free' 2-day shipping with that?"


This always gets me, too. Everyone targets the NSA, while freely giving away all their private email and internet activity (and now meatspace activity) to private companies without any of the oversight that NSA is subjected to. We really have no idea what G/F do with it all, and have no way to find out. Whereas with the NSA there exist many avenues to make sure it is not abused.


I've always seen those companies as the commercial wing of the NSA/CIA. I view them as one and the same.


Well yes, both have In-Q-Tel ties, and a former member of the CIA was on Facebook's original advisory board. Even more reason to not give these huge tech companies a pass.


Tis article reeks of Executive Branch propaganda from anonymous sources "according to current and former U.S. officials" etc etc


Been the story since George bush. I wonder if they would have acted narrowly within the law if they would have had better org


> The people who have left were responsible for collecting

> and analyzing the intelligence that goes into the

> president’s daily briefing.

I seem to recall that the president's daily briefing is now a single page with pictures. How many people does it take to produce that?


Why is this getting down voted?

genzoman 48 days ago [flagged]

the CIA funded Washington Post sullying the good name of those noble domestic spying NSA'ers?

Faker News


Would you please stop posting unsubstantive comments here?


The only real problem I see is a lack of elaboration on some of the important little-known politics at play, here.




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