I worked with Mikey on healthcare.gov and he's the real deal--wicked smart, but also humble, patient, respectful, grounded, and keenly insightful into how organizations work and how to fix broken ones.
The day healthcare.gov launched, six people total got through. Six. Nobody even knew when the site was down, except by checking CNN. Two months later, Mikey had rallied the 20-something contractors into punching through dozens of problems, and had recruited a team of (now-) 30-something engineers from Google, Facebook, YC startups, and other fine places to come in on rotations to keep the momentum going. As a result, 8 million people got health insurance.
And those of you thinking about joining: do it please! You don't have to give up your life to the government—it's possible to help in short-term rotations—but this is the best shot we have in a long time to change the way our government works.
(If you're interested in joining, feel free to email me a resume and I'll make sure the right people see it: firstname.lastname@example.org)
If there's ever a story that deserves an amazing documentary (it literally is saving lives), it's the unfucking of healthcare.gov.
I've long wanted to find out more about the behind the scenes. Thanks for pointing to the videos.
Off topic, I'm also struck by a statement Umesh makes during his talk in the video you linked to.
(paraphrasing): "there's this concept that people have different personas when they do different things, but I can assure you there is no difference in how they use sites and get information, no difference".
If anybody ever wanted to know why Google boggled up Google+ and fundamentally doesn't understand identity management, this statement gives me lots of insight into how that might have happened.
That is not sure. Overall management would not magically get better if the project would be done by small in-house team of developers. The same management that allowed contractor failure would allow in-house failure and the same management that hired incapable contractor would put together incapable in-house team.
Basically, the same bad decision makers would made the same bad decisions. You can blame the team for bad code, but you can not blame them for such a huge failure of the whole project.
The same management that allowed contractor failure would
allow in-house failure and the same management that hired
incapable contractor would put together incapable in-house
A lot of outsourcing contacts basically mean that if the contractors deliver late, the outsourcing company gets paid extra (more hours needed to finish it!) and if they deliver a buggy product, they get paid extra (more hours needed to fix it!). So scope creep, avoidable complexity and using bad tools are good for the outsourcing company.
For an in house team who do their own maintenance, the same things mean embarrassment, late nights, and possibly getting fired. So scope creep and avoidable complexity are bad for the in-house team.
Of course, if you don't have enough work to justify keeping the in house team around after the project is done, they might amount to the same thing.
According to accounts at the time, the original team on this project was working late nights long before the failed September deadline. Their attempts to inform government that they will not make it were cut with "failure is not an option". Are you saying that this situation would be impossible with in-house team? There were reports of contractor fighting government over scope, are you saying that in-house team would win that fight?
There was no one in government side with power to say "no" to features and with power to prioritize. Are you saying that such political power would magically appear in someone if they would use in-house team? There were reports of stressed governments people coming to contractor site in person all of sudden and forcing developers to show them not done yet hopefully cool features (nope not login, none of them cared about sign up and load problems). I am not making this up. Are you saying that the same geniuses would left in-house team alone?
There was no one officially responsible for integration of parts done by various companies and integration testing. Would the same management put aside time and resources for that work if the companies would be replaced by in-house teams? Well, maybe a little on this one, but I doubt they would put aside enough.
Plenty of outsourcing contracts have set price or deadlines and penalties for breaking them. Plenty of them are not paid on hourly fee basis. At least one of contracted companies has history of failures under their belt, so they are hardly innocent in the whole failure. That does not make government management more sound. It just makes them equally guilty at worst.
"For an in house team who do their own maintenance, the same things mean embarrassment, late nights, and possibly getting fired. So scope creep and avoidable complexity are bad for the in-house team."
There are few problems with this assertion:
* Scope creep is problem beyond the tech team. Scope creep happens to in-house teams of private companies as often as it happen to contractors. That one can be solved only someone with real political decision making power cooperates.
* In-house team does not get much embarrassment after failed deadline and firings usually does not happen after them. The thing is, if the management is competent, management knows the deadline will be failed in advance and have a plan for that. Deadlines are failed for various reasons overly optimistic estimates being the primary one.
* Most importantly, good management does not fire people after they failed important deadline due to laziness. Good management replaces lazy incapable people long before and does not assign mission critical tasks to unproven people. Management that ignores problems and then comes in all guns blazing after predictable failure is bound to build quite horrible in-house teams.
Managing contractors is somewhat different then managing in-house team, but both require sound management to succeed. You might be somewhat better at managing one vs another, but you are unlikely to be great in managing in-house team while being total failure in managing contractors.
Not in the government. There is little to no pressure to get rid of underperforming employees because you can always just dig a little deeper in to tax payer pockets and get more people. And any time you happen to hit the jack pot and higher a good engineer they end up leaving after a year to two because it’s imposable to get anything done in the government. I have been working in the government as a software engineer as a contractor imbedded in a government agency for almost 3 years now. The stories of brain drain in the government due to the untenable working conditions are true. When I was first hired I was told that I got the job but was then strung along for 2 months before I got my start date. When I finally showed up on day one multiple people commented on how fast they were able to push me through the system... After starting I was told I could not have any internet accesses on my development machine and that I would have to use a laptop next to me that is connected to a government machine. That laptops internet connection was totally useless with every other page and virtually all downloads blocked. If I do manage to get a download to go through I have to burn it to a disk take it up 2 flights of stairs scan it for virus before transferring to my stand-alone dev machine. If I can't downloaded it I have to wait until lunch drive 25 mins home download the file, burn it, drive back, scan, copy back to machine. I fully understand that such security measures might be need for the most sensitive DoD projects but the stuff I work on is in no way sensitive. When I need to order something even small things the process can take months and months. We had to order some projector bulbs for a very specialized projector which was only produced by the company that made the projector. The procurement process took 10 months and we were not allowed to buy the bulbs from the manufacture we had to buy them from a 3rd party at a steep markup. I have stayed this long because I am being compansated well (a little better then I could do in the Valley after taking into account cost of living) but its not worth it. The system is broken and I am burned out.
Yeah, I don't disagree, but I think it's easy if you're not careful (cough Google cough) to conflate that with people just have one identity. Which most people very much do not want to have online -- the simple example of which even my parents understand is your work persona vs. your leisure time persona.
People who are ill have a chance to die from their illness. 
People who are ill can be denied health insurance from private companies 
The Affordable Care Act prohibits this practice. 
Plans not listed on the exchange are not required to follow the provisions of the ACA 
Therefore, there is a chance that someone was on an insurance plan that did not cover their illness or did not have insurance because of an illness who could have been successfully treated if the exchange was open even one day earlier than it was.
I still want to know why we did not have this "All-Star American Tech Dream-Team" build the damn thing in the first place.
Talk about missed opportunity for the Administration to rally citizens around their landmark legislation. "Built By America's Best for America's Best" sort of thing. Instead, it was built by a no-bid process outsourced to a Canadian firm. The rest is history.
It sort of fails to convey the scope of how enormous, byzantine, and Kafkaesque the whole system is, however. For a hint of that, you can try clicking through https://www.itdashboard.gov/ (remember, this didn't exist before the huge efforts of Open Government Initiative pushed in the Obama admin) - it's still completely opaque who runs, bids, owns, or works on any project.
CGI Federal's bidding actually preceded the conception of Healthcare.gov! They were one of 16 companies certified for a $4B contract via a GWAC (that means if you weren't one of those contractors, you couldn't even be in the running). The way that GSA scheduling works pretty much guarantees that you won't get small effective teams building lean/effective tech.
The Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (HR 1232) would help. It was introduced back in March 2013 and has slowly making it's way through, but basically doesn't have any traction and is IMO pretty endemic and a great example of the type of deep regulatory/legislative dysfunction at the Federal level.
I don't think the nationality of the developers was a factor in healthcare.gov's disaster launch. The problems were related to systematic disorganization, and the heart of darkness was inside the government itself and its IT procurement system.
True - my comment was more along the lines of spending the project funds with a US based company instead of sending it outside. Like, have American companies build the American healthcare system. Especially for a no-bid contract...
Because things like Libya and IRS scandals pop up and the administration scrambles. We didn't elect Silicon Valley tech tycoons that know a few things very well. We elected politicians with a heck of a lot more distractions/concerns than you or I.
Of course, the truth is this system never needed to be built at all. There were already sites available to purchase insurance, and marketplaces like esurance. The government could have deployed a static link page to the insurance sites. It's ludicrous to claim 8m people have insurance because of this site, when they could have had it without the site.
What they could have focused on was a calculator for the subsidies and Medicaid qualifacation, with the subsidies being delivered as part of tax filing.
As it stands, we now have an overly complex process for buying an insurance like product, and very little actually targeted at our big problem forcing providers to compete on price for non emergency services.
The main thing healthcare.gov does, which esurance and others don't, is to tell the user which government programs they're eligible for and what their subsidy will be. The law makes that calculation is actually surprisingly complex, for example:
* there are at least eight different state- and federal-level healthcare programs (advanced premium tax credit, medicare, medicaid, children's health program, children's rehabilitative service, Tricare, VHA, IHS)
* which programs you're qualified for depend on your state
* the subsidy is based on which plans are available in your specific area and their cost, your household size, the ages of each person in your household, whether each person smokes, and whether you want a dental plan
* for calculating subsidies, different sources of income are treated differently. E.g., tribal income for Native Americans is subject to different tax treatment, earned income is treated differently than capital gains in some cases, etc.
* insurance is usually bought for a household, and there are precedence rules among different state/federal programs, so if any member of a household qualifies for a non-APTC assistance program, it affects the subsidy received for the whole household
* to get the tax credit, your immigration status needs to be verified with the Department of Homeland Security and your income needs to be verified with the IRS. This is the work done by the "Data Services Hub."
* by law, open enrollment starts in November but taxes are due the following April, so you can't compute the subsidy as part of the tax filing.
So you can see how something that seems like simple e-commerce task--buying health insurance--would turn out to be much more complex than a static site. You could argue that the law should be simplified, and I agree, but that would require an act of Congress and the cooperation of all 50 states. :) So, realistically, the software has to be complex to capture the complexity of the law.
(You could also argue that this complicated eligibility calculation should be exposed as an API, which would unlock innovation in the private sector. We want to do that, but need more help. :) )
> The day healthcare.gov launched, six people total got through. Six. Nobody even knew when the site was down, except by checking CNN. Two months later, Mikey had rallied the 20-something contractors into punching through dozens of problems, and had recruited a team of (now-) 30-something engineers from Google, Facebook, YC startups, and other fine places to come in on rotations to keep the momentum going. As a result, 8 million people got health insurance.
Out of curiosity, how much of the site's problems at the start were due to high load and how much would have been there even if it had seen much lower traffic? In particular, how would it have fared with the original design and code if only a handful of states had refused to implement their own exchanges, instead of 27 states refusing?
Java in production, especially with heavy "frameworks" use and "waterfall to subcontracted coders-for-paycheck" process (how else there could be a billion lines of code for a site) can't handle even a moderate load and runs out of memory on handling persistent connections (long sessions) and the fixes were mostly by adding tons of hardware (unlimited government money) and to redesign many components to share nothing (decoupling) and to work in asynchronous way with a short requests (service-oriented architecture + Erlang's process-based model) by Google, FB, etc. guys? That's the story?
btw, these are very legitimate questions. The original project was a epic failure which perfectly illustrated all the flaws of past-century practices (waterfall process with tons of specs created by idiots, outsourcing to the cheapest or favorite incompetent, blind faith in big names, etc.) and the fix, it seems, was to bring it close to the state-of-the-art tech which was evolved to use-at-home in [more-or-less] independent-thinking shops, like Google or FB.
> If you technology people can either build a working website that actually serves the needs for a billion dollars, or build one that doesn't work and totally fails for merely 100 million or 200 million or so. If you can do either of those things, then the government is coming out way ahead.
More generally - there is no market when there is only one purchaser. Right now, the market for "tech talent working in government" is separate from the market for "tech talent working in private-sector tech companies", and the former sector has only one customer, which can set salaries basically arbitrarily.
If you watch the YouTube video provided, it seems like the subtext of this appointment is that Obama wants to merge these markets, so that the federal government competes for tech talent out of the same pool as Silicon Valley, Seattle, Boston, NYC, etc. tech companies. There will probably be many subtle culture changes there - programmers may stop wearing suits in government contractors, market rates may adjust, etc. I can't predict exactly how things will change, but wouldn't count on the status quo remaining for long.
The government has two different kinds of workers. Actual employees they pay directly and contract employees they pay through a private company. Actual employees of the US government are generally paid a mediocre salary at best compared to what they could get in private industry. Government contract employees on the other hand are generally paid very very well. In excess of what a typical private sector non-government contract company would pay. It's common knowledge among government employees that you can double your salary by getting a job with a private government contracting company.
The essential problem of the US government is there is no accountability. Poor performing employees are never fired and poor performing contractors are never penalized. If a project is a massive failure there are never any consequences for the people or companies involved. Over time anyone with any sort of skill whatsoever tends to leave and what's left are the poor and mediocre employees.
I'd like to say creating the US digital service is a positive step but unless the basic problem of accountability is solved it too will be just as bad at IT as every existing organization in a few years time.
In the real world this problem of organizational calcification would be solved when the incompetent company goes out of business because they are over taken by competitors. In the government since there is no competition there is no natural accountability mechanism.
Part of the problem is that the contracting rules seemingly force contracts to be split among a bunch of contractors none of whom is fully responsible for the project, so when something goes wrong, it's a circular firing squad. My experience is that contractors do get fired, but the same people end up working for the contractors that are still there (and since they are often the only people who remember what the hell is going on, this is sometimes not a bad thing).
That's by design: it's built-in pass-the-blame with an extra helping of spreading the bacon around. Government contracting is little more than legal, officially sanctioned nepotism and graft. The whole point is to allow Congressmen and other connected government officials to enrich their friends and family. In turn, these officials get high-paying "jobs" at the same places they helped funnel lots of money to.
The people in these comments here on HN claiming that somehow that's "liberal government" at work don't know what they're talking about, at all, and I mean downvote-worthy, comically so. If we must label these antics with comparisons to American political ideologies, the government contracting system is closer to big-business, republican-style politics than anything else. Small-c-conservative and any-l-liberal are the last things I think of when I think of government contracting.
The law caps federal salaries at $155,500. Congress could change it, but given that they seem to have trouble passing a budget, that doesn't seem likely very soon. :)
That said, I think there are enough people that a) find $155k enough to meet their needs and b) believe in the mission that we'll be able to make a big impact.
(One thing that's important to remember—"the government" doesn't really act like a unified, coordinated entity. Different branches and agencies have different incentives and behave in different ways. It's often better to think of the government as a marketplace rather than an organization.)
Government employees that were hired since the 1986 don't get a "pension" any more they are under a new retirement system called FERS that consists of Social Security, an IRA like retirement savings plan called the Thrift Savings Program, and very small basic benefit plan which only pays a fraction of their salary and isn't indexed for inflation.
FERS website says the annuity rate is 1% per year of service of the average of your highest 3 years of service. Sounds like a defined benefit to me. (even if percent-per-year is higher in some local agencies)
True, but is isn't a good one, for that "privilege" employees are forced to pay 4.4% of their salary per year into the fund.
If you work out the math depending on what assumptions you make it's only worth about $5k-$10k per year in compensation so it doesn't really make up for the huge disparity in pay between private contractor and government employees.
You would be hard pressed to convince me that as it is presently structured that it presents some great value to the employee.
>'Or is the drawback to working for the government something other than that?'
I would say yes.
Getting paid is not the big challenge in Government work.
It's the lack of urgency, political infighting and general stigma.
The rotations described here and the leadership position / division described in the article both skirt those issues.
* Urgency: Healthcare.gov had it. It was a firestorm visible from a continent away. Most Government IT failures don't work that way, they're smoldering trash fires that generate a meeting to figure out who's going to fill a bucket with a follow-up meeting to decide who's actually going to carry it.
* Infighting: As described, the Digital Service 'will be focused on providing consultation' not 'a group that we parachute in to write code'. They're coming in from a position of authority - above the level of typical jockeying.
* Stigma: None. Finish your rotation and go back to Google. Finish your stint as a head of an elite Federal service and name your title.
Government often pays more than market price for most jobs. I think his issue was no one wanted to leave Google to go help the government full time, that is why they had the rotations, people were not giving up their interesting jobs to help fix the governments mess.
Working on a big project where people come in and out too often is a problem in its own right. The simple reality of code being written by too many people who are there only for short time tends to create special kind of mess. It also means that project will tend to repeat the same mistakes again and again.
This kind of integration projects tend to be discounted by some as boring and stupid and indeed there is a lot of boring and annoying work to do on them. The thing is, this kind of project also have non-trivial learning curve until you become effective and the more organizational mess there is to overcome the steeper it becomes.
There are more red flags then just salary cap on this one.
Part of the problem is the hiring process. I'm very interested, but knowing where to start on something like this is difficult.
When I applied to the Presidential Innovation Fellowship a year and a half ago, and there was no communication from them for 3 months -- far longer than they said they'd respond on the site -- and no way for me to get in touch.
(Just out of curiosity, have you seen a lot of interest?)
Can I suggest that "service" might not be as sustainable as "SME" for breaking down the government / mega-corp lockstep.
I have not followed the USDS but the UK version has gone from nothing to world class in four years and is trying to fix the badly broken procurement process as much as setting good project guidelines - for example all IT purchases are supposed to go through two gateway frameworks - the theory is to pre-quality as many SMEs as possible - then a department can buy a service (saas or development) from that SME with a single purchase order / credit card.
It's not perfect, getting on the frameworks is crazy hard and there are still tenders like "run our back office services please" but there is at least light in the tunnel for fools like me.
I even spoke to an agent today who bemoaned these frameworks - having to work trough small companies was painful - so it is having an effect.
I saw MikeyD's tech talk on fixing healthcare.gov on my second-to-last day at Google; it made me very glad that I'd pushed out my end date until mid-week. The key idea in it was just the idea of "show up and try" - that we have all these broken systems because the people with the skills to fix them won't even show up and try. Very inspiring - I thought that it very much demonstrated the entrepreneurial mindset, even if it was the federal government we were talking about.
I think this may also be evidence of a trend I've pointed out before, that the press is reliably 2 years late in pointing out where people are leaving Google to go to. I used to periodically glance at the list of departures back when I was at Google. Around late 2012 or mid 2013 I saw a lot more folks start to go into public-sector work: non-profits, academia, or government service. Overall a positive trend, I think.
Your comment rings sympathetic, and your motivations are unquestionably honorable, but there's still no way I'd even consider "just showing up and trying". I'd show up and try for a $200k salary and some staff to take care of the paperwork and drudgery associated with these government/non-profit jobs. But not for a shit job with shit pay. After all, Google (and the like) pay market rate (well, now that the cartel has been busted), and treat their employees with courtesy and respect.
It's well known that the federal government simply DOES NOT pay market rate for talent. Now it is able to get away with that behavior in sectors (cough, banking) where there's consistent regulatory capture: so you're incentivized to spend some years at the government to learn how the system works, and then parlay that into a higher pay job subverting those systems. So the government still gets some rotating talent despite paying absolute shit. But there's no such regulatory capture possible in tech, nor am I interested in going down that path even if it existed (I consider it moderately evil, and am still naively idealist at least in that respect).
Look, I'm not solely money grubbing. Money is nice. I grew up without it and now that I have relatively larger quantities of it, my life has unquestionably improved (with luxuries like consistent access to good dentists). I'd eventually like more of it. I'm not short-term greedy. I'm willing to defer compensation for years, if not decades, if I feel that there's potential monetary reward at the end of the line.
But from what I see, Mikey Dickerson made a pile of money at first, and thus was free to pursue his political goals of bailing out an incompetent administration that he nevertheless believed in and wanted their signature achievement to succeed. And maybe I'll feel the same once my stock options vest and the mortgage, college tuition, and retirement stockings are stuffed. But don't forget that 99% of the time it's a solid dead end. Mikey was part of a high profile rescue of a high profile failure. But anyone else going in with naive ideals is probably going to get their souls crushed by the sheer drudgery of it, with no Time magazine cover to boost their profiles at the end of it.
You're not thinking strategically-slash-cynically enough.
This guy did the "show up and try" thing, which he then parlayed into the title of Official White House Tech Fixer. That's the sort of résumé-enhancing title that will bring you literally as much money as you want for the rest of your natural life.
What can you do with it? Do your stint in government, then hang out your shingle as a private consultant. That very day, Fortune 500s will start pointing firehoses spewing money at you in exchange for "consultations" where you parachute in to tell them all their problems are due to their IT staff being idiots. Your White House title will give you unimpeachable (heh) credibility in their eyes. This credibility will last for decades, long after your specific tech knowledge has become obsolete, and will draw you business regardless of political affiliation. (CEOs don't follow politics, all they know is that you're Trusted By Big Shots.) You will also be invited to places like Davos and TED to wax rhapsodic on the Importance of Technology, further prolonging your marketability. It's a meal ticket for life.
It's possible that Mr. Dickerson was financially secure enough already that he didn't need the future payout this title will bring. If anything, that just argues more that such an opportunity would be better for someone who hasn't already made their pile, because for that person, such an opportunity is how a pile is made. Trading a little present-day income for a huge payout down the line is a career approach that should be familiar to those who work in and around VC-backed startups.
Of course, the problem with this strategy is that it only really works best for the first person to pull it off. Everyone after that gets less luster from their association; there will be many Tech Fixers who will come out of programs like the USDS, but none as prominent as the original Fixer. It's a risk/reward thing -- it was not obvious when Mr. Dickerson tried it that "showing up and trying" could lead to glory; so when he tried it, and it worked, he didn't have to share the glory with an army of others. Now it is obvious, so lots of people will pile on to try doing it themselves, and they'll divide the prestige between them. So it goes.
I don't think Mikey's in it for the money. If he wanted, he coudl easily have parlayed his prior experiences into jobs that paid millions (he's good with stats, math, and running production services, there are lots of options for people who do that).
It was also pretty obvious the steps he was taking would lead to this position. He worked on Obama's reelection campaign and got a lot of face time with preeminent people, and felt out whether they would be open to giving him a position of some responsibility and power.
I think Mikey genuinely wants to make a difference and spent a fair amount of time rationalizing and positioning to ensure that when he did make a difference it would have the greatest impact possible and that it would happen on his terms.
I believe the point being made here is that it is easy to not be in it for the money when you have already made enough money and have achieved enough security and stability. And I personally don't think there's anything wrong with that. It just riles up people when you start pontificating about "show up and try" without context.
Well, I take the opposite view. By being risk adverse, I stuck to paths that had a guaranteed but small income (grad school, postdoc, gov't job) instead of the opposite (going to work at Yahoo in '95, because I didn't really know CS). If I had gone to Yahoo in '95, just shown up and tried, I'd be wealthy today.
It's not that these kinds of people have made enough money to be secure and stable. They know they will likely have to work for the rest of their life, and they've deliberately structured it to ensure they can continue to work on interesting problems.
It's not like the normal maslow hierarchy applies to everybody, and it's especially inapt when doing long-term planning, where short-term incovenience can lead to a net win over the long term.
Welcome to 2014, where people gladly and boldly proclaim their love of greed and selfishness. Some people work for the government to make the world a better place instead of finding ways to make people more addicted to Facebook or clicking on Ads to buy things they don't really want or need. I understand that you don't care about anyone but yourself, but is it really necessary to shout it from the rooftops?
I think the point they were making is that there is no need for the government to rely on such instincts. They're very good to have, but many people have to balance that instinct to help the world with, say, a mortgage. And kids. It's very difficult to be idealistic.
Government could pay market rate for people like developers. Though there would be a higher initial cost, I would bet a lot of money that the systems they produce would save money in the end. Alas, if it's government, it's broken. And we won't see a change soon.
> but is it really necessary to shout it from the rooftops?
Pot calling the kettle black? And I'm not so sure commenting on HN is the rooftops.
What you identify as greed and selfishness, I identify as prudence. Not knowing what tomorrow will bring and acting like it would not only improve my life, but those around me as well. I can make life for family and friends better by preparing for the worst.
> Some people work for the government to make the world a better place...
Some believe they are making the world a better place even at Facebook, but "the road to hell is paved with good intentions". Group-think that occurs in any large organization is dangerous, and that's why we shouldn't assign hard problems and our security to groups susceptible to group-think. Look out for yourself or your group, because ultimately everyone else is.
You realize that that is also selfish, right? Why are your family and friends more important than anyone else's? I understand that many people these days don't feel any need to care about the larger world around them, but I do not understand why they need to be so brash and proud of it.
It's pretty typical - and accepted - to care about one's own self, family, and friends more than random strangers simply because you have more information about what will make your self, family, and friends happy than what will make random strangers happy. If you want to make the greatest positive impact possible on the world, focus your efforts on where you have the most information, so that you don't accidentally make things worse out of ignorance.
That's not to say that you can't also care about the world. But it's both illogical and immoral to ignore the good you can do right in front of you, for the abstract notion of good that you might do for the world.
I completely agree with that. I do not mean you should ignore those close to you, but instead meant that they should not be used as an excuse to have a negative impact on the world outside of that inner circle. Thank you for explaining that better than I was able to.
> Tell me why are random strangers just as important as my family and friends? Yours, too?
Because if you think you are more an important that the greater world around you, you become a liability to the rest of the world. The rest of us now need to protect ourselves from you because you have no regard for our well being. You are a burden. I realize you were not raised properly and much of that is not your fault, so I do not blame you. I only feel sorry for the world that now has to deal with you.
I never said I think I'm more important, but even if I did, how does that make me have no regard for your well being?
If I'm taller than my dog, does that mean my dog has no height?
Look, I'm not saying society should value me more than someone else. I'm saying I value myself and my loved ones more than some random person. Your ideals may tell you that you value all living things equally and that "greater world" follows suit, but you don't have to read too much to know that you're fooling yourself.
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” – Animal Farm
I don't get how people can down vote my defense of free market wages and doing something in the best interest of one's family. This is not greed, downvoters; it's a recognition and appreciation for scarce resources and getting paid to fulfill some need in the marketplace. The government as a monopoly, cannot allocate resources as efficiently as made apparent by the soaring prices in health costs of which well more than half is directly paid by government programs, and this rollout of Obamacare.
The whole goddamned system is rotten through and through, and one of the main things that perpetuates its existence is when otherwise bright people selflessly sacrifice their time and skill for a cause long since lost, feeding parasites and sociopaths.
I'll selflessly give my time to help .gov when they selflessly decide to switch to socialized medicine and do away with the current crumbling status quo.
In the meantime, they can pay me an honest day's pay for an honest day's work--especially if I have to fix things that shouldn't have happened in the first place.
>It's well known that the federal government simply DOES NOT pay market rate for talent. Now it is able to get away with that behavior in sectors (cough, banking) where there's consistent regulatory capture: so you're incentivized to spend some years at the government to learn how the system works, and then parlay that into a higher pay job subverting those systems.
Notably, the SEC is exempt from the usual Federal government pay scales, so they do actually pay a lot better than other parts of the government. Still not really enough to compare to equivalent private sector salaries though.
The Government Digital Service are doing wonders for UK government web applications - which have gone from 'pretty terrible' to 'global standard setting', for the ones that they've got around to so far: https://gds.blog.gov.uk/
Hopefully, this success will be repeated in the US.
Yes. What's really worked for GDS is having some political clout. You can assemble the best technical team in the world, but if they don't have the ability to push back hard against some of the entrenched resistance to change in most government departments then they can't achieve anything.
I hope the US DS is similarly well endowed with political might.
I watched Mike Bracken, who I think runs that, talk at Wikimania a couple of days back. Quite inspiring in some ways. He figures they have saved about £14bn in government costs by spending about £58m on developers. Quite a contrast from the NHS fiasco with private developers blowing £12bn before their thing was scrapped (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NHS_Connecting_for_Health)
Whoever runs these departments is letting bright technical people make the technical decisions. This does result in some CV-Driven-Development, but for the most part it's a hell of a lot better than trying to explain VCS or DR to your pointy haired manager.
These .GOV dept don't really need to worry about finances and they seem to be willing to hire contract workers and let them get heavily involved in the project. In the UK contractors will happily earn double your perm staff and that's before counting the fact they can bypass the 40% tax bracket.
Compare that to the private sector, they tend to prefer that all decisions are made by perm staff who are often outdated and are happy to sit there at half the contractors salary, paying double the tax and costing the company over 1.5x their headline salary.
Doesn't really make sense to me, you're not gonna find the best and brightest by paying them in a terrible way when they have an easy, more lucrative, alternative.
I was into warfare history recently and read, among others, The Guns of August, The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich, and biographies of FDR and Truman. A thought that emerged from that reading was... should we ever again have an all-encompassing war effort, if that should come to pass, what would be the role of the San Francisco Bay Area and of the tech community nationwide?
There will certainly be an insatiable need for applied engineering skills as Machinists, CNC fabricators, and process engineers of all sorts. So certainly many software engineers could gravitate towards that sort of work. But in what ways would and could software systems contribute, how would that happen, and how could it be organized and scaled-up. What, for example, would 10,000 engineers at Google be working on? Because in a WWII-mobilization-style event, it wouldn't be business as usual.
These are hypothetical issues and there isn't an answer, but I think answering the question "what can we do today" is a great start and I'm cautiously optimistic.
The first part of what you said is entirely correct. But a look at the production numbers from WWII provides some elucidation on the second point. We produced 100k aircraft in just one year. Over 60k tanks. Certainly the changing face of warfare alters the math here -- we have many force multipliers to our advantage -- but I think without question in a WWII style, fully mobilized engagement, the US is by no means fully equipped.
I mean, even if we were, how could we be? That's actually a great lesson in The Guns of August: Every general is fighting the last war.
I want to believe, but I don't. I've seen too many instances in recent history where administrations have sold a perceived solution to one problem as a secret sauce to be slathered over everything else. This administration has been absolutely abysmal at operations. I'd have been much more impressed if this new group had launched quietly and we heard about it after it had been functioning with positive results.
I'm not doubting the people named in this announcement. What I'm saying is that they can only succeed if there is ongoing support from the top. This feels much more like after the launch they will be left to fend for themselves in fighting to change a monstrous bureaucracy.
Well at least they didn't use the word "surge" to sell it. I guess that's a positive thing.
I understand your cynicism, and it's not entirely misplaced, but this team is both formidable and comes with strong support from the administration—in particular, from US CTO Todd Park.
For whatever reason, the tech press hasn't picked up on Todd yet, but he's as good as it gets. Prior to working for the government, he was a two-time founder: he started both Athena Health (now a public company) and Castlight (recent IPO). When healthcare.gov went down, Todd was the one Obama asked to assemble the "tech surge," including Mikey, and he pitched in around the clock to get things working--literally, at multiple points, sleeping in the office overnight when things went awry. I promise you that the people in charge don't consider this a typical, 9-to-5 job and don't leave teams to fend for themselves. They are there in the trenches.
I saw the "Saving Healthcare.gov" talk at Uber.The speakers were excellent and their observations were terrifying.
If you are believe in progressive goals and methods, the success or failure of the U.S. Digital Service will have a far greater impact on relevancy of progressive goals than who wins the next election or the election after that.
The "Saving Healthcare.gov" presentation portrayed the Federal Government as brittle, dysfuctional and broken. I came away believing that insider's in the federal government are largely aware of ongoing failure of the federal government. I suspect the expansion of security state agencies like NSA and Homeland Security is in many ways driving by the need to protect a failing system from any plausible external threat.
>If you are believe in progressive goals and methods, the success or failure of the U.S. Digital Service will have a far greater impact on relevancy of progressive goals than who wins the next election or the election after that.
It's increasingly become my view that fundamental political ideologies as a whole have less impact on success or failure (societal, economic, or otherwise) than governmental efficiency and policy implementation. I'm not sure it matters too much whether the goals are progressive, conservative or even anything non-delusional, if they're implemented effectively, and even the most brilliant goals are pointless if the implementation is dysfunctional.
Viewing government as software, it's as though politicians are spending their time arguing about what sort of programming paradigm should be used, and not particularly caring whether the software actually works.
I think it's fairly widely recognized in politics that whether government is perceived to "work well" has a large impact on what people trust the government to do. So politicians sort of agree and are acting on it. Enough that it's become a fairly common debate whether politicians are acting in good faith, or are rather trying to manipulate the efficiency / perceived efficiency of policies in order to achieve ideological goals.
For example, left-leaning Americans frequently allege that the current GOP policy is precisely based on that. Rather than (only) trying to convince people ideologically that small government is good, Norquist-style, the allegation is that their policy is to actively try to sabotage the government's ability to deliver social services, so people see it as inefficient/broken and therefore stop supporting it. Also occasionally a debate in Europe, especially around infrastructure projects (local/provincial politicians from the opposite party are sometimes accused of trying to actively cause a big infrastructure project of the ruling party to turn into a boondoggle, so the party can seem incompetent). In the other direction, officials are sometimes accused of cooking the books to make something that isn't running efficiently seem like it is. I think a lot of this kind of terrain is where modern politics is fought once you get beyond the first layer.
Just the federal government? At least the federal government has an official journal/government gazette where federal regulations etc. are published (online, in XML, for free). Compare that to the states of Massachusetts, which charges money for online access, and Georgia, which doesn't even have one.
If you think the federal government is broken, you haven't seen nothin' yet.
While I appreciate the brainpower the USDS is bringing to bear, I'd like to hear more about how they'll actually handle the politics and reality of what they're doing - disrupting bureaucracy and federal processes. Specifically, how can a service like this be effective when going up against entrenched bureaucrats, massive big corps, etc.? Healthcare.gov was an exception, due to the media spotlight and the political reputations at stake.
(Disclaimer: I'm investigating federal contract opportunities, so I would LOVE to see the process overhauled.)
I expect they won't be doing much disrupting - but a lot of saving and guiding.
The political aspect cannot be overlooked. The turf wars in government are unbelievable. What's going to let them succeed is by their being successful time after time. Only then will the heads of those other agencies call them up and invite them in. Sort of like the A-Team, but without the outstanding warrants:
Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem... if no one else can help... and if you can find them... maybe you can hire... The A-Team.
>'What's going to let them succeed is by their being successful time after time. Only then will the heads of those other agencies call them up and invite them in.'
I think that possibly the greatest value in something of this sort is to be able to point to the team, the playbooks and the free guidance as a unassailable proven formula.
Offering a safe, defensible choice of this sort for the people at the top of these agencies is very important.
Everyone knows the saying 'No one ever got fired for buying IBM'.
A legitimate source of excellence within the Government could supplant 'IBM' in that notion as the as a 'go to', safe source for solutions that actually has the best interests of Government in mind alongside technical excellence.
This was my first thought as well. Is he hiring? As there's no chance I'd want to take on the risk of getting a regular government IT/developer job and being enmeshed in the nightmare that is my conception of government bureaucracy but I would like to contribute to make a difference.
I'm thinking 'small team made up of our country’s brightest digital talent' suggests something that people would be recruited for and appointed to moreso than traditional positions to be filled. There's of the sort posted for OMB today at least.
>'As there's no chance I'd want to take on the risk of getting a regular government IT/developer job and being enmeshed in the nightmare that is my conception of government bureaucracy but I would like to contribute to make a difference.'
Your conception is pretty accurate.
I think the best shot most of us have at 'making a difference' would be to develop solutions to specific, self-contained (if possible) problems.
To look not at what central Government is doing, but at the community-level agencies/programs and what they need.
Clinics, libraries, rec centers, public schools and whatnot all have problems which can helped with technology, but you'll need to spend a lot of time, effort and a degree of sneakiness to get anything done.
Once it became apparent the rollout was a fiasco, Obama was associated with two major tech projects, one successful (his reelection campaign infrastructure) and one now famously unsuccessful (healthcare.gov). Bringing in people who he had worked with, who he trusted, and who had famously done excellent work for him in the past was an absolute no-brainer.
I have trouble believing that Obama's motivations were "largely" along the lines of "these guys helped me on the campaign, I'm going to do them a solid and bring them in to work on this hellish, high-profile disaster of a project".
Mikey was my manager for a while. Great guy. I advised him to figure out how to make an impact while his brand was hot, and this is what he ended up deciding on. I hear he doesn't even have to wear a suit all the time, either.
I know Code for America operates on the local level, but I wonder if there's anything to be gained by the federal government turning to CfA for an existing group of self-identified coders interested in assisting on government problems.
Have you seen the Presidential Innovation Fellows (http://www.whitehouse.gov/innovationfellows) program? We're a group (about 60 alumns so far) focused on doing CfA-esq projects within the Federal government. Jen Pahlka just finished up spending a year with the program helping scale it up and do even more awesome things. Ping me if you're interested.
Typo in the WaPo article - site reliabilty manager.
Perhaps off-topic but are (Google) SREs the Ops-equivalent of Data Scientists in terms of expectation of cross-domain skills? Mikey Dickerson's LinkedIn profile  shows he's a champ in S/W Engg + Distributed Systems + Sys-Admin + what-not. I know calling each of them a "domain" is a bit of a stretch but I couldn't come up with a better term.
The typical SRE is a PhD in physics who realized they enjoyed hacking on the departmental cluster more than they enjoyed writing papers. Well, OK, that's a stretch but:
To a one, SREs are the smartest group of people I've met, with a ton of practical knowledge about distributed systems, a strong quantitative bent, and a desire to fix problems on live systems. If you want to call that the Ops equivalent of data scientists, fine, but I prefer think of them of scientists who study the failure of distributed systems in a live environment.
I'm a devops engineer (I guess we're called SREs now too) at Localytics. We're not Google-scale, but our stuff isn't small, and a big focus of what we're doing is making sure we don't have to work 24/7. Automation, automation, automation. Handle failure states automatically and only inform humans after the system has fixed itself or if the system can't fix itself.
Good testing. I got hired as a Test Engineer in SRE at Google to write automation code tests. Good coverage from unit tests, good integration tests, and good system tests (many of them using fake systems with scripted failure modes). Then finally, a fair amount of testing on "real" machines as new code gets integrated.
Then make sure you have great monitoring because it will still fail at runtime and you're the poor sap on call who has to deal with it.
Max salary aside (which is obviously reserved for the bosses - what can the rank and file expect to pull down their first 2,3,5 years on the job?), the problem with working for the government is that you're working for the government. I don't think you can fathom the level of bureaucracy and pointy headedness that exists in the government. For most it is a burden too great to bear.
You are being downvoted by the big government fans who believe that one size fits all health care policy is going to solve all our problems just like the one size fits all education policies have.
They proclaim to treat science with the utmost reverence, but rather than conduct and analyze not even just a few experiments at the state level, they decide to slam together massive programs in a few short years and experiment on 310 million Americans all at once. As if they have all the information and the wisest and most experienced people running things. Things evolve kinda funny in the public sector when you get a new boss every few years with new campaign backers to repay. I'm not sure if there's a single government program that if cut or changed, wouldn't cause some politician to lose an election.
In the private sector, we don't have to worry about that kind of thing. Millions of concurrent experiments take place and thousands of people get fired and get hired everyday, satisfying some need that a government bureaucrat could never predict. Sounds inefficient, but so was the absolute miracle of Evolution. There's always a better way, but to think that your better way is right for everyone? Well that's just plain ol' hubris.
I don't know how many more healthcare.gov's or NSA scandals or failed foreign interventions we need before we say you know what, perhaps we should abandon the "go big or go home" strategy or false dichotomy that our politicians present to us. That mindset is far too rampant in big government without any kind of scientific underpinning.
I am truly amazed that in the heart of the UK Cabinet Offi e sits 25 flagship projects each one dedicated to building mostly Open software with Agile practises, of defining and requiring sane and intelligent management if government projects, who are trying to break down decades of huge supplier Lockhold and seemingly succeeding.
The quality of the work is impressive, the philosophy behind it strong and the pragmatism is solid.
For example one of the core team was asked to write up the first service design manual (oh go read these !). He put in "we prefer Open Source Software over proprietary". After a couple of high level meetings the minister said "OK". Now "prefer" is not a strong word ... But I recently pitched my wares at the Home Office for a tiny deal, about a month after hearing our hero tell this story. And the civil servants did not say "prefer" - all that the UK gov has heard is "we must go open source".
It is a deep cultural change that has me more excited about our governments future than anything for years.
If the US model can do half as well, China might need to take a back seat for a decade or two.
For the last ~5 years, I have disengaged from almost all political conversation because it's mostly tabloid nonsense.
This is the first thing I've seen in 5 years that actually excites me about politics again. I just started reading about this, so I don't know if it's any good. However: Mikey Dickerson and his team are making all of the correct noises, and I'm very excited to see what comes of this.
This is a good (policy paper?) describing the initiative and some of the ways Mikey et al are thinking about the problem:
I posted the NY Times link. The WaPo article to which 'dang links (which I hadn't seen) goes into more depth and seems to do a better job.
The respective headlines undoubtedly made a difference in upvotes here -- the NYT headline, which referenced an ex-Googler, is now near the top of the HN front page, while the (better) WaPo article, posted a few minutes earlier but which didn't mention the SV connection, is languishing with just 1 point. [EDIT: I just upvoted it; it still has just 2 points.]
The WaPo article may be better in terms of the depth of coverage but the writing is awful. Really awful. Misspellings, bad grammar, clumsy phrasing. I suppose the Post thinks that's okay because it's just a blog post and not a "real" news article. Or something. To the point, this new USDS sounds interesting and as a DC area resident, I should probably look into it. I will definitely watch the Youtube video linked to above.
holy crap...before everyone spooges all over themselves and this guy mike. might it not be a good idea to step back and understand what it means to turn the ship at the federal level!?!?!?!
it's embarrassing enough that someone in the HHS thought they had even a remote clue about delivering technology at scale, but seriously, does anyone really think that much has changed!?!?
it's super cool that a few more than 10 or 15 folks can sign up for a federal service at one time, but does that have any relevance at all to real change?
short answer: no. as in hell no....as in fuck no....
if you vote for someone with an R or a D after their name you are a part of the problem not a part of the solution...in particular, if you bail out an empty suit like obama or bush, you are also a part of the problem, not a part of the solution...
Your mistake is in identifying the government with the people who represent it (Obama, Bush) rather than the people it represents (us). If the work Dickerson and the USDS does helps improve the ways government serves the people, then they are performing a good work, regardless of whether the president is Obama or Bush or Ron Paul or the floating, disembodied head of Eugene Debs.