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Back to SF After the U.S. Digital Service (insouciant.org)
164 points by hodgesmr on June 29, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 160 comments

"Helping rich people get taxis easier". As a Lyft and Uber driver, I count among my rides: getting a rough looking fellow (who has spent years in prison after accidentally killing someone in a bar fight) get to the only job that would take him - affordably and on-time (he would have been fired otherwise). I've given an enlisted navy family from Oklahoma (husband was deployed) get home from a late night run to a distant Walmart - the military pay for an e-3 is low and I imagine tough to support a family of three and there are few other options without a college degree.

It's crazy to read about this guy who wonders if this all matters... The amount of money that the government spends to get a marginal improvement on society beyond basic functions of the government should be even more dismaying.

And it's incredibly patronizing to despair from on high that tech doesn't do any good for society.

The explicit inspiration for Uber's founding was as a "limo timeshare service": http://newsroom.uber.com/2010/12/ubers-founding/

I"m glad that some people are also getting easier taxi service. But having worked in in SF since the last bubble, there is definitely an intense focus here on solving rich-people problems; when they serve others (e.g., struggling felons and young military personnel) it is often, at best, a side effect.

That's often how technological progress works: it's developed to solve either a pressing-but-not-so-noble problem and then someone adapts it so the average person can benefit, or it's developed to solve a trivial and useless problem and someone improves it so it's useful to the average person.

We built radar so we could detect German bombers; we got microwave ovens from it. We built GPS so we could guide missiles and spy satellites; we got turn-by-turn navigation and Uber out of it. We built Twitter so we could send 140-character text messages; we got the Arab Spring out of it. We built the ARPANet to coordinate top-secret military projects; we got the Internet out of it. We built PCs to play games; we got Visicalc, Word, and all sorts of productivity boosts from it. We built computers to break German codes and guide artillery shells; you know where that went.

I'm so tired of the thoughtless repetition of this talking-point. Yes, some technologies developed serendipitously for luxury products. But when you take a broader view than the latter half of the 20th century, most of the technological progress that actually made our lives better were the results of targeted effort: wastewater treatment, antibiotics, essentially all medications. We didn't get to these things accidentally.

Maybe those technologies were expensive at first and came down in price with adoption, but that's different than making the claim that if we just work on whatever rich people want today, we'll automatically get to places that are beneficial for society. Want to help the third-world feed itself? Perhaps you should invest your resources in that, not in a silicon valley nutri-shake startup.

Hell, most of your examples are cases where the military did something to solve a known problem that was too expensive (or too speculative) to be left to private industry. How you turn that into an argument that our best-and-brightest should be working on ad-optimization eludes me.

This industry, I swear: we whine about the loss of space exploration, and wonder what happened to our flying cars, but we brush off criticisms when someone invests millions of dollars in the sixty-seventh niche food-delivery service for the SF bay area. Perhaps the two things are related?

An example of a startup doing work for the developing world is Wave, focusing on helping people send remittances to family in west Africa.


That's great! And it's not even an exceptional case. There are lots of tech-related companies with an explicit social and developing-world focus, including many in SF---such as our company, Angaza, which makes it possible for emerging-market consumers to get much more energy for much less money through decentralized solar

http://www.angazadesign.com/watch-video/ (obligatory: http://careers.stackoverflow.com/company/angaza/)

and many, many others, e.g.

https://welldone.org/ http://saner.gy/ http://wecyclers.com/ http://www.allpowerlabs.com/ ...

not to mention areas of "SF tech proper" with a direct positive impact, such as medtech or cleantech.

I'm glad to hear about these sorts of things. The world seems like a slightly less shallow place!

Penicillin was discovered by complete accident, actually.

Also, the jury is still rather out on the long-term impact of medications...it sure made a bunch of rich folks richer, though!


Also, most of those solutions came through private industry working on .gov contracts. A better example you might want to use is the innovations out of Bell Labs, all done basically to further solidify the telephone monopoly. That in turn could be argued to be a monopoly granted by a state to solve the communications problem, but still.

> Also, the jury is still rather out on the long-term impact of medications.

I can't speak to your experience, but I would have died as an infant without modern medications and modern medical procedures. I speak to you today as a healthy, relatively happy, productive member of society.

Moreover, I think we can point to the innumerable treated cases of snakebite, lockjaw, rabies, polio, cancer, syphilis, etc. as strong evidence for the positive long-term impact of medication and medical care.

Fleming discovered Penicillin accidentally, but he was a bacteriologist, and he was doing research into antiseptics. It was a discovery that was entirely related to his work.

And he was researching antiseptics because he had served in the Royal Army and had watched numerous colleagues die from infections following their wounds.

I've been working on p2p sync since 2008 or so. Now we have a real deployed base. I feel lucky because I chose the tech for it's political possibilities. This keeps me on track on the days when it'd be hard to focus otherwise.

What's the p2p sync software that you've been working on for the past seven years? (This is a part/spare-time project, yes?)

Sorry I didn't want to be too spammy, link from my profile: http://developer.couchbase.com/mobile/

No worries. I deeply appreciate people who don't spam their projects in every single comment they write. :)

Since we're complaining - I'm so tired of the (hopefully) thoughtless use of "we". It is incredibly presumptuous. Every time I hear it I'm reminded of the artificially simplified narrative portrayed by WWII propaganda posters - where if you do your part, Rosie the riveter, then we'll save the world†!

†Saving the world means unwittingly working to further the military industrial complex, undermining your long term interests, terms and conditions may apply, see reverse side of poster for eligibility and placement in the new power superstructure.

yeah, fighting that nazi's was all about furthering the military industrial complex.

That whole pearl harbor thing wasn't really the japanese attacking, it was obviously lockheed.

yeah, taking advantage of a crisis is impossible and never happens.


On a more serious note, you have services which will e.g. Wheel in your bins for you, or manage your grocery delivery and housekeeping services so you never have to see the people doing the work.

Every solution starts out as a solution for rich people, that's what brings the price down for everyone else

That's pretty far from true. Using rich people to pay for product development is a well-developed modern technique, and it can definitely work well. But we didn't get, say, the smallpox vaccine because Jenner said, "I wonder what I could do for very rich people?" Most early Internet work was done for the sake of public benefit; the rich-person version was Compuserve, which was basically an evolutionary dead end.

Moreover, plenty of things made for rich people stay as solutions for rich people. And some are only valuable because they are priced so only rich people can have them. Note the entire luxury goods market, for example. You could look at houses and cars as well: because those markets focus a lot of their product development on rich people, the non-rich end up with hand-me-downs that don't suit them very well.

Hi William!

I'm wondering how it would work otherwise. Should someone buying a new car who is thinking about its entire lifecycle optimize for fuel efficiency? Resale value? Ease of maintenance? Something else? I suppose a house should be designed so that it could easily be split into apartment units? It doesn't seem impossible to get wealthy people to consider these things, similar to how they consider the effect of the products they buy on the people in the supply chain and on the environment, but it would require a lot of research and marketing.

On the other hand, long-term planning like this is hard to do effectively. It seems like a lot of charity efforts specifically targeting the poor turn out not to be very cost effective, compared to the best approaches highlighted in GiveWell. It's hard to be confident that your average startup would achieve anything more than just showing good intentions.

Good question. I think a lot of rich-person spending is essentially buying status. So I think trying to get them to consider the ways their new dream home could be later retrofitted to suit the poor is working in contradiction to the motives. It is exciting to me when goods with some public benefit also become status goods, though; the Prius and the Tesla are examples of that.

I agree that do-goodery is hard. Of course, so is producing value in a for-profit context; I'm not sure which is relatively harder.

They wouldn't have developed a smallpox vaccine if it didn't affect rich people.

That's just not true.. There are numerous diseases which only affect the most poor and downtrodden citizens that are being worked on by thousands of 'first world' scientists.

With the obvious axioms that anyone with 1st world single-payer insurance behind them, or, say, the Gates foundation, isn't poor, could you give some examples?

The Perlstein Lab is a Public Benefit Corporation in the Bay Area looking for lysosomal deficiency drug candidates. A ton of research scientists are working on obscure diseases at university.

Basically the whole Orphan Drug market; https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orphan_drug

From the article you linked:

    > Moreover, we suggest that orphan drugs have greater
    > profitability when considered in the full context of
    > developmental drivers including government financial
    > incentives, smaller clinical trial sizes, shorter
    > clinical trial times and higher rates of regulatory
    > success

The original statement was that we don't develop treatments for diseases unless they affect rich people, the existence of orphan drug markets and regulations is evidence that we do develop these treatments.

A lot of problems look this way. If you want to really start thinking about this: ask yourself whether we should be focusing on obesity and heart disease at all. What greater rich person problem than too much food. You could argue that we should be focusing entirely on "real" problems like malaria first, then deal with the side effect of first world culture. We choose to focus the lens in our own frame of reference, so "taxis" seem like rich people problems, as opposed to having the frame of reference be something more objective like the state of the world, when all of a sudden many more issues reveal themselves to be "rich people problems".

Of course, funny enough, many of the same people that complain about this will simultaneously tell you how many unexpected discoveries came from seemingly abstract government funded projects (from pure research that has no clear immediate benefit to huge projects like landing on the moon). Such side effects are not exclusive to government projects however. So too the problems we choose to work on voluntarily. I think its not necessary to get into the great many benefits studying the heart for the sake of heart disease have given the medical community in general. Another example I like to use is how the gaming industry has led to the development of super powerful graphics cards that now have enormous medical uses. Personal computers themselves have enabled so much for our society. But before there could be a 200 notebook there had to be a 10,000$ rich person computer.

In my experience, it is a trap to worry about what is "impactful". You will make a much greater impact on the world working on what you're good at and what you enjoy, because you have more control on making that GOOD than making the alternative impactful. If you look at the history of truly amazing discoveries, they are rarely straight forward, so its a better bet to invest in what you like than what you think is important.

Ride sharing is helping lots of not-rich people in small and medium sized towns who can't find jobs but have a car. I can go to my hometown and probably would request an Uber or Lyft. I never once took a taxi living in the same area for 20 years.

I for one think technology should help the living. The goal should not be to maximize human population on Earth. If we could reduce the birthrate, fewer children would die from disease. Overpopulation is sometimes the cause of widespread disease.

Ride sharing also helps the middle class by providing available, affordable transportation and reducing the need for (multiple) vehicle ownership. It certainly has the potential to reduce emissions and other waste.

There are certainly some trivial things out there, but I wouldn't include ride sharing in that population.

I agree with the "help the living" objective. Helping poor, sick, foreign children is a fine cause. So is helping Joe Public.

If you make video games, and those games offer a few people a little entertainment and enjoyment, I think you've done some good.

Overpop is sometimes the cause of disease. Compared to the effects of ignorance, poor education, or systemic corruption, overpop is never the cause of widespread disease in contemporary human society.

If one is actually concerned about population control, sterilization is an easy, simple, relatively safe, and well understood solution.

A good part of the reason that they spend that money is because they've been discouraged and hamstrung from developing those expertise in-house.

Don't forget the mechanism by which government spends money - it issues a bond, which gets converted to dollars. The bond comes with interest, and the interest payments go to rich people (banks).

This poorly represents where the US national debt goes.

About 30% of the debt is owned by federal agencies ... that is the government owes itself that money. Social Security is the easiest (and largest) example. It owns about $3 trillion of the federal debt which it is saving (for now income>expenses for SS) for when it is needed as the population ages.

40% is owned by foreign governments. Being indebted to foreign countries isn't so bad. It means they have faith in you and are rooting for your success. It supports peace and cooperation.

The federal reserve owns about $3 trillion. This is the institution that creates dollars out of thin air. The interest paid to the fed goes right back into the treasury – the fed uses this as a control mechanism to keep the currency stable growing and shrinking the money supply. Lots of mildly ignorant people really hate the idea of the fed, but few of them have even the slightest understanding of how it works.

State and Local governments own another trillion – interest paid here is just like a different route to funding state and local governments, not something you can complain about all that much.

As for "rich people" mutual funds and banks own together about $1.5 trillion. A lot of those are pretty average folks. Even then this is only ~%10 of the $18 trillion debt.

There are a few other owners of us debt... Saving Bonds and insurance companies account for another few hundred billion together. The rest are odds and ends significantly smaller than anything mentioned above.

To summarize, the majority of the US debt is owned domestically, much of it by domestic government. Only a small minority of the interest goes to "rich people".

"40% is owned by foreign governments. Being indebted to foreign countries isn't so bad. It means they have faith in you and are rooting for your success. It supports peace and cooperation."

"As for "rich people" mutual funds and banks own together about $1.5 trillion. A lot of those are pretty average folks. Even then this is only ~%10 of the $18 trillion debt."

Ok so still that's 9 trillion in debt owed to people who get to collect money from the U.S taxpayer. A trillion here, a trillion there, pretty soon you're talking about real money! The annual payment of interest on the debt is 430 billion dollars[1]. So rich people get roughly 43 billion a year totally risk free for doing absolutely nothing courtesy of the tax payer. Meanwhile, in China, whenever the government needs some money they just print it up at the PBOC and hand it out, usually to bail out bad debts to state owned enterprises, but at least they aren't sticking it to the taxpayer like we are.


The "rich people" you're talking about includes pretty much every Average Joe with a 401k or IRA.

For instance, of that $1.5 trillion, $50-$100 billion is held in Vanguard's investor shares (by definition, retail investors with less than $10k in the fund). These people (mostly regular people saving for retirement) aren't "doing absolutely nothing"—they're helping fund the US government!

People are also missing the basic fact: with inflation and interest rates on par and both so low ... government bonds aren't profit centers. They store value and gain just enough interest to beat inflation. It's about your savings not evaporating over the years more than big greedy profits.

If you look at the interest payments for the US debt over the last 25 years ... despite the recent debt bubble... the actual interest paid when accounting for inflation is flat.

Adjusting for inflation we paid less interest in 2014 than we did in 1988 or 2000 (these are two random years I checked). America does not have a debt problem. The people who obsess over it or yell about the gold standard almost exclusively have absolutely no idea what's been happening or how it works. That's not to say that we should _aspire_ to borrow endlessly, but when times are down and people have faith in you, there's nothing better than borrowing. With the fed pushing the interest rates so low, (and buyers elsewhere running to the Dollar for security in uncertain times) there's just no reason to be afraid of a little more debt. We're far _far_ away from the territory when it starts being a problem. (and the same people who complain about the debt now want tax cuts instead of paying off debts when times are good – fools)

I absolutely agree. I was mostly replying to the uninformed belief that the benefits of investment accrue only to the "rich" (a loaded term I'm loathe to use).

Definitely no disagreements there.

The amount owed to SS is really just an accounting artifact.

SS works by promising future taxpayers will fund today's taxpayers' retirement benefits. The fact that all of the "saved" money was actually "loaned" back out to the taxpayer (while current taxes fund current beneficiaries) is a perfect demonstration of this facet of SS's internal workings.

>Meanwhile, in China, whenever the government needs some money they just print it up at the PBOC and hand it out, usually to bail out bad debts to state owned enterprises, but at least they aren't sticking it to the taxpayer like we are.

And when PBOC prints up that money to bail out state owned enterprises it devalues existing currency by the same amount. Inflation by this manner is functionally indistinguishable to a tax.

Well, ok, so some of that debt does go to things like retirement funds and mutual funds, which help individuals that are not the mega-rich (like middle-income folks) but still the very poor in this country are not being helped by this.

Just printing money is not a good solution. Inflation (despite what Paul Krugman says) is very bad for the poor. One: If it weren't bad for the poor, why is there a need to periodically raise the minimum wage? Two: The common refrain is that the poor are indebted and benefit from nominal devaluation while the rich will stuff their matresses full of bills if we had deflation, but the rich do benefit from quasi-loans, like leveraged investments. Leveraged investments get very favorable interest rates, and the poor, typically are not offered low interest rates. I will be impressed if you can find an urban money lender that offers an interest rate below inflation, but if you have access to IMF funds (which sometimes are below inflation!), you're probably not in the 99%.

That's the mechanism by which government borrows money; the mechanism by which government spends money is that it takes money out of the pile which it has either borrowed or received in revenue (taxes, user fees, proceeds of government-run enterprises) and spends it. (This ignores the possibility of government receiving grants directly for the particular spending, which also happens, more for some governments than others...)

Marginal increases in spending once revenues are completely used may be, in effect, equivalent to increases in borrowing, but spending in general is not equivalent to borrowing, so the mechanism for government borrowing money should not be presented as the mechanism for government spending money.

AFAIK, concerning the interest payments sent to the Federal Reserve, if any profits are made they are given to the US Treasury, after operating expenses. And all the staff at the federal reserve make ~$250k/year or less.

Last time I was on AC transit, I was next to two men in their fifties in white tees, one of whom was trying to convince the other to get his groceries with Uber- "only 7 bucks".

People are too convinced Uber is too expensive, I suspect[1].

[1]: I've never actually used Uber

I think the US Digital Service is a great initiative and I'll consider taking a tour myself in the future. That said, I don't really like these kinds of thinkers who believe the only companies that are doing something "that matters" are non-profits working directly on a specific problem in healthcare or poverty.

I have yet to work for a company, from non-profit internet companies to product-oriented SaaS startup powerhouses, that didn't enable some great initiative or program that could not have existed without that company creating and improving their product and making it accessible, via availability or cost, to the non-profit that needed to worry about doing their actual work.

Take the author's old company, Google, for example. They don't do anything "that matters"? I assure you there are many non-profits, charities, and important initiatives around the world that would have a much harder time if they didn't benefit from technologies that Google ushered in to the world. Mass, cheap communication via free email that is highly-available and untied from specific ISPs. Free, globally available document storage to safely store records and share documents across the globe, saving on the cost of having an entire department to handle the same task.

These products may seem frivolous and unnecessary to us, because we can (maybe) live without them. But there are organizations directly doing important, charitable work that can't. Saying product companies that don't directly work on the world's poverty, social, or health (etc.) problems are not working on "things that matter" is just pretentious, in my opinion.

All that said, the author has the right to feel the way he feels and work wherever and on whatever he wants to. Just don't tell everyone else what they do doesn't really matter.

But that's just my two cents =)

> Saying profit-making companies are inherently not working on "things that matter" is just pretentious, in my opinion.

Where do you believe he said that?

The things he called out were "helping rich people find taxis more easily, selling ads more effectively, or building sexting apps". He also said that he believed "the advancing state of computing technology has overall benefitted peoples’ lives".

So I think you're mainly arguing against a straw man here.

I had a feeling that sentence was going to be taken apart and thought I should change it, but I didn't have the words at the time. By "profit-making companies", I mean companies that work on products for people that are not directly designed to help an impoverished people or solve a health or social problem. That is being implied here. He calls out the "sexting apps" directly, but most of the article is about him reconnecting with his friends at Google and the conclusion seems driven from that interaction.

Again, I think you're arguing against something that is not actually in the article. I read him as pointing at ends of a continuum, and I think you're falsely constructing a dichotomy out of that.

He says quite clearly: "I’m still a believer in technology, particularly in the web platform, as a force for good." He also is explicit that for himself he wants something farther toward the clear-impact end of the spectrum: "I needed to redirect my energies towards problems that society wasn’t adequately addressing."

Forgive me, but you're kind of reframing his remarks a bit. For example, you cut off the second part of this sentence:

"Even though I’m still a believer in technology, particularly in the web platform, as a force for good, society needs more people working directly on problems that matter."

While the author acknowledges in the abstract that the internet has improved people's lives, I still see the tone implying we should all be directly working on more worthy causes if we really want to be doing stuff that "matters".

> While the author acknowledges in the abstract that the internet has improved people's lives, I still see the tone implying we should all be directly working on more worthy causes if we really want to be doing stuff that "matters".

Er, no. Again, you are engaging in binary thinking not warranted by what was actually said. He doesn't say or imply "we should all" be doing any one thing, he very directly says that "society needs more people working directly on problems that matter."

Note, particularly "more people" (not "we...all" as you would present it), and "directly". That is, there are plenty of things that indirectly matter, and plenty of people working on those, but, in the author's view, not enough people working directly on certain important applications.

The judgement you are reading into it that everyone not working in certain preferred areas is doing something less-than-ideal and not doing stuff that matters is simply nowhere in the text.

> "society needs more people working directly on problems that matter"

This does not imply that "we should al be working directly on more worthy causes". My impression was that the author was simply making an observation about the relative distribution of labor (specifically: that there are not enough people working directly on causes that "matter"), which should by no means be reduced to the absurd by saying that all people should be working on those causes.

You inferring something does not mean the writer implied it. This is all you, pal.

I am not sure why you say old company. I don't think he said he left Google.

I also don't think he is against working for profit companies (Google being one of them).

I think you are reading more between the lines than what he meant.

Nice read. I don't mean to derail the discussion, but I wonder what sort of developers they were looking for when recruiting for the program. When I applied to the US Digital Service, I received a message back - "we are seeking candidates with skills tightly matched to our current projects. Members of our team reviewed your application, and we don't have the perfect match for your background right now". I'm mostly a web developer, so perhaps they were looking for a different background.

I have many of the same thoughts as the author (feel like my dev skills could be used to help some greater causes), but not sure where else I could make an impact. Particularly in government where I have alot of interest.

There are plenty of startups and companies working on important, world changing problems. You just have to look outside of Silicon Valley.

Not to derail your derailment any further, but hey.

I live in Kansas City, and there's a fascinating startup here working on enabling farming with an open-data platform. They build hardware pucks to go on combine harvesters and stream the data collection to a Django front-end. They're also working on ingesting legalese forms that farmers have to file and putting web-based (Django) interfaces over them (c.f. how TurboTax will show you a tax form that's missing a form entry).

So, as someone else mentioned here, if you're willing to look outside the Valley, there's lots of interesting, high-paying work that helps the common good.

I applied and interviewed with the USDS, but the biggest thing was that they wanted me to move to DC for 6+ months. I'm quite happy here on the west coast, engaged to be married, and attempting to buy a house. Moving cross-country is pretty much a deal-breaker for me.

That said, I really, really want to get involved in something that matters. My dream, for lack of a better phrase, no matter how cheesy it may sound, is to change the world. I want to solve what I call Epic Problems: malaria, clean water, homelessness, HIV, slavery, human trafficking. Or even something as simple as making a trip to the DMV as painless as picking up a prescription at the drug store.

Maybe I'm wrong here, but I think if you want to solve Epic Problems like malaria and slavery, you are going to have to be ready to put things like buying a house and living where you like in the back seat.

That doesn't seem obvious. There are people working on banking, advertising, business software development, etc. in pretty much every major city. Why shouldn't the same be true of Epic Problems?

You can direct your work efforts towards goals that are important/meaningful to you without necessarily sacrificing everything else in your life. Conversely you can give up a good deal of your life to work on unimportant problems, and many people do.

I'm not saying you can't have any of those things and pursue your dreams, but life is not known for putting your dreams comfortably within reach. Banking is pretty universal (in every city); malaria research isn't.

Odds are at some point you will be forced to make choices; how many people are so lucky that their dream job is walking distance from their dream house in their dream city?

One less if the Op doesn't take advantage of his position.

Yes, like someone else said, that's not necessarily true or obvious. There's a DMV in every major city in the country, there are veteran services, immigration offices, department of defense, department of human resources, housing and urban development, and all the other alphabet agencies in almost every major city. There are hospitals, universities, and research labs in every major city. There are police departments, sheriff's departments, SWAT teams, FBI teams, and ATF teams in every major city. And in this day and age, remote work is a thing -- technology in general is a thing.

I don't see any reason I need to give up anything (other than maybe a huge salary) to work on these problems. The true roadblock for me, I believe, is just a lack of knowledge and education on those particular issues.

"I want to change the world and all, but I just got really comfy in this chair..."

You should reach out to 18F! While home base for them is DC, quite a few of the members are on the west coast. https://18f.gsa.gov/

What about austin?

No office there, but we have at least one remote staffer in Austin.

I wouldn't mind that kind of short tour of duty if they would pay for the roundtrip airfare every few weeks and for a room in DC. I assume only politicians would that kind of sweet deal though.

If they truly wanted to embrace technology and working on important problems in the year 2015 they'd support remote work...

We're embedded directly in project teams at agencies. I spent five years working remotely and running a major open source project before joining the U.S. Digital Service in January. I love remote work and enjoy extolling its virtues, but very simply, we could not do this job remotely, at least not for the time being.

Our friends at 18F (https://18f.gsa.gov) have a lot of people working remotely, as well as offices in SF, Chicago, and New York. The nature of their work is simply different (and just as awesome).

I really appreciate the reply.

I'd be interested in learning about the restrictions at USDS that prevent it from going remote. Perhaps taking the conversation off thread is best. I imagine it's a combination of being embedded at agencies and perhaps a clearance issue?

Conceptually, I think everyone at the U.S. Digital Service would be comfortable with working on a remote team. Many of us have done it, and since we're scattered across agencies, the group itself operates in a fairly distributed fashion on a day-to-day basis.

Remote work does work at 18F, where they are often shipping projects that are self-contained and executed in-house. It's also a lot easier to build a remote-friendly culture if you start on day one, which 18F did. It's really just about the nature of the work we do, embedded on these agency projects, that necessitates being in D.C. The role of USDS HQ is simply different -- we're often grafted onto existing 'culture' elsewhere (I work on a floor with more than a hundred of product and engineering folks who were here years before we arrived), and are then tasked with helping to advise/fix/transform those projects as quickly and effectively as possible. (I'd also read https://blog.newrelic.com/2014/03/26/depth-look-team-saved-h..., which was a precursor effort.)

If you're interested in serving in the U.S. Digital Service but are in a position to be only able to work remotely, 18F is a pretty great option.

Something about DC seems to give people the impression that anyone doing anything else in the world is "stuff that doesn't matter". R&D at these companies is what actually solves problems at the root cause.

How would all of that healthcare exchange work have gone if the tech industry didn't build the massive infrastructure it relies on (database tech, network tech, version control, the Internet)?

It feels like the person that wrote this article is the guy in the war movie yelling at the people designing new defenses for not being on the front lines firing a gun. There is a place for both roles, and shitting all over one half doesn't make you better than them, it just makes you myopic.

Something about DC seems to give people the impression that anyone doing anything else in the world is "stuff that doesn't matter".

I see this from people that live in the Bay too.

NYC too.

I would love it if anyone repeating the tired talking point, that solutions for rich people's problems will magically transmogrify into solutions for real problems with actual impact on human potential and quality of life, could name even one example of this that's come out of U.S. technology startups in the last ten years.

I would also love it if anyone could explain why so many people don't feel compelled to do anything about the poverty in Silicon Valley that is becoming much, much worse and drastically curtailing social mobility for poor people in the area, and instead promote this idea of "efficient charity" or whatever to help people far away, instead of fixing the problems caused by the kind of people who focus solely on earning a lot of money. Problems that exist whether those people spend that money on mosquito nets or hookers and blow.

These talking points get thrown around over and over again, largely without evidence, and it's starting to feel like it's just people trying to justify their desire to make a pile of money without feeling bad about it.

> I would love it if anyone repeating the tired talking point, that solutions for rich people's problems will magically transmogrify into solutions for real problems with actual impact on human potential and quality of life, could name even one example of this that's come out of U.S. technology startups in the last ten years.

Android. It was a technology startup purchased by Google.

Stripe, it has enabled small working class merchants throughout the US to make multiples more money. Every farmers market I go to now days has merchants who can now accept credit cards (my spending has increased dramatically!)

Multiple other mobile payment and banking solutions have helped people around the world gain economic freedom.

Stripe wasn't trying to solve rich people's problems. Stripe was started for the explicit purpose you just stated -- to enable small vendors who couldn't otherwise afford credit card processing to take credit cards. It's a great example of what can happen when you actually apply effort to a real problem instead of hoping that some side effect of what you're doing will solve a real problem.

I don't really see where you're going with Android.

So getting laid isn't a problem with real human impact? I guess I'm not a real human being then. Maybe I should just go slit my wrist and stop taking up space that could be used by people who haven't committed the crime of doing something with their lives.

Believe it or not, people get laid every day without having to use the Internet. One thing that really helps that out is living in a city where lots of different kinds of people are able to live.

Large leaps in technology have always, and will always, benefit the wealthiest 1% at the beginning. This is just the basics of capital in a capitalistic society.

The internet has already redistributed earth shattering quantities of wealth in record time. Besides, to actually solve the "real problems" (no true scotsman, but we won't go down that path) you still need massive amounts of capital. Where else are you going to get that capital except for individuals who have gained their wealth through industry?

Can't help but feel that there's a serious holier-than-thou tone throughout the article just because the author spent 6 months in DC. Thought experiment: who is helping the 1% more, people who generate products for a public company or people who work on pet political projects for the DC elite? (Not implying there's a right answer to that question, and not implying that's all the OP did with their time in DC)

I disagree with your first paragraph, but plenty of others here are already responding to that 'trickle-down' sentiment.

I also didn't read the article as being 'holier-than-thou' (in fact, entirely secular, but hey). It sounded to me more like someone narrating their own, personal, feelings on a topic and giving some context to why he might not give an unequivocal affirmative response to coworkers' queries about staying at one or the other job. Because life is complicated and there often aren't binaries. It's not a sentiment that gets a lot of traction on HN, but it's also not proselytizing.

I never implied, nor do I endorse the fact, that this results in a trickle down effect. If you would like to dispute the actual economics of my first sentence I have roughly 700 years of history and research to back my claim.

However your quibble with my phrasing of "holier" and the fact that you needed to point out that there aren't binaries in life kind of shows your true intentions in disagreeing, don't you? Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but when you start moralizing and implying that your opinion is preferable on moral grounds, well... I'm gonna call you out.

>>> "Working for the U.S. Digital Service showed me that, indeed, there were far better ways for me to spend my time if I really wanted to make a difference in people’s lives."

> Large leaps in technology have always, and will always, benefit the wealthiest 1% at the beginning. This is just the basics of capital in a capitalistic society.

What about the Green Revolution?

Honest question, do you mean to imply the Green Revolution did not follow this pattern?

From my understanding it followed the pattern exactly by spawning the creation of the huge food production conglomerates we have today while also greatly enriching vestiges of colonial powers as the movement grew to feed the "global hungry".

The last three paragraphs of this section of the wikipedia page more or less confirm it fit the pattern: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Revolution#Criticism

> > Large leaps in technology have always, and will always, benefit the wealthiest 1% at the beginning.

> What about the Green Revolution?

The "Green Revolution" is a term applied largely to the wealthiest 1% deciding to fairly directly forgo some part of the short-term returns from certain technical developments to purchase longer-term sociopolitical security and greater long term profits, specifically, to forgo some of the short-term profits of new agricultural technology to head-off dissatisfaction that might lead to Communist revolutions and instead get large parts of the world positively engaged with both specific product lines and the more general neoliberal economic model.

It certainly is not a counterexample to the technological changes benefitting the wealthiest in the short term.

> The Internet has already redistributed earth shattering quantities of wealth in record time.

Given that inequality has been steeply rising, you must mean that it has redistributed wealth further from the poor to the rich.

Or one might mean that it has redistributed the other way, while other factors in society were redistributing from the poor to the rich, and that the net imbalance would be far worse without the mitigating effect of the internet.

Your presentation presumes that the internet is the only redistributive factor that existed in the time under consideration.

True, but pointing out multiple interpretations adds nothing unless you can tell us about the other factors. What are they?

The most obvious one is tax policy changes that shifted the relative burden off the rich, which is a pretty direct upward transfer.

Global inequality has been sharply dropping over the past few decades as hundreds of millions of people in India and China have been lifted out of poverty. Amusing that you think inequality has been rising.

It has been rising in the U.S. and Europe. I imagine you're pretending you didn't know that, but it's not clear why.

>Most social impact projects and organizations are in the east coast, and, at least as far as I could tell (but in all likelihood, it’s probably because I suck at finding them), most of them don’t seem to have significant / meaningful software projects

That's because they're stuck in the stone-ages and don't have the imagination to use and create software (aka they're run by marketers, managers and people who want to feel good about themselves). The charities/non-profits are treated as non-technical users, the donors are treated as non-technical, the board members and C-level execs are all conservative. It's a wonder that there's been any use of software in automating and lowering the costs for non-profits to operate.

It's more meaningful to work on Uber because at least there you have the potential to deliver food using the service to more homeless people than any other food delivery service.

The beginning of this post was good; fighting malaria is a big enough problem that could use better software (or at least more big-picture thinking). That's the kind of stuff we should be working on; being able to distribute malaria nets as fast, as cheap and as efficiently as possible.

I don't know, you can't expect too much from companies and you can't expect much from non-profits either. At least while working at Google you have the chance to use some of your time for things like the disaster reporting/mapping tech or something else that can directly help someone like Gmail (charities do need a way to communicate!)

The flip side of "you can't expect much" is that a little help from tech folks would go a long way. Organize a hack event where non-tech people describe the stuff they need help with and tech people try to form solutions. The important thing is the relationships, not the solutions.

That is probably the only insightful comment on this article, which is sad for hn, however relationships are based on trust and respect and based on the other comments here programmers can't even respect themselves.

What would be a good way to find companies that try to address more "pressing needs" and need strong technical help? I am currently in Indonesia, on a break after 20y in Silicon Valley, and would have time to help. I've thought about NGOs but I suspect these may be hard to navigate? Thanks in advance for any pointers and ideas

If you're interested in working in beautiful Cebu, Philippines, to build products that improve the lives of the poor worldwide, check out www.engageSPARK.com . We're recruiting for 6+ month Fellows as well as Permanent hires. We have a talented international team and are looking for more passionate people who want to leverage their tech skills to do good and help change lives. We're a not-for-profit business/startup building a challenging distributed platform that enables NGOs and governments to improve the lives of millions of people in poverty around the world.

For example, a large international NGO (Mercy Corps) used our platform to do a financial education program using voice calls & sms soap operas with quizzes (to reinforce and test comprehension) for 20,000 people affected by a natural disaster: http://solutionscenter.nethope.org/blog/view/hitting-it-home...

And Cebu is a great place to live. If you're a diver, you can be diving in warm tropical waters in less than an hour from the office!

I'm sure this is a stupid question, but after a few minutes of googling I am still unclear on the answer so I thought I'd ask it here. I am about to start studying in the US (college), so I was wondering if the USDS accepts non-American citizens? Even without a green card? (I'm British, btw).

18F can hire legal permanent residents.

I didn't catch this part- why did the author leave? Was it just a term end and he chose not to renew it?

They do "tours of duty", since I think they found people had a hard time moving to DC permanently. Using this, they've managed to get a lot of people to take sabbaticals from their Google/FB/etc jobs.

"Quit your high paying job and indefinitely work for the government" is a hard sell; "come do something awesome for 6 months then go back" is much easier.

If anyone reading this is looking for a more permanent job working for the government, check out https://18f.gsa.gov/ which is trying to build up a modern software group which provides services for the rest of the government. Ben Balter, Github's Government evangelist, summarized the difference between the two here:


(Disclaimer: I don't work there but know a number of people who do and, as a taxpayer, am cheering them on)

Interestingly, they say 18F jobs are capped at four years. I wonder if this is a harbinger of change overall in government employment from being "lifers" to a more mobile workforce where people perform "civil service" at all levels as a more temporary thing (like elected positions are intended to be). On the other hand, it also strikes me a possible way to select for younger (less encumbered/tied down) applicants without explicitly performing age discrimination.

Yeah both USDS and 18F are capped at the same length of time. There's a pretty good article about USDS @ http://www.fastcompany.com/3046756/obama-and-his-geeks

I think it's simply a sign of how difficult it is to hire permanent staff which are seen as long-term commitments in a way that NTE (Not-To-Exceed) staff are not.

My impression from the outside is that people are working on a more permanent system to keep people around indefinitely without losing a way to jettison the retire-in-place types and are working to get something in place by the time it starts to matter. I don't think age discrimination is a goal – the people I know value experience and most of them are 30-somethings, mid-career and looking for something more sustainable than death-marches, churning institutional knowledge, etc.

The reason for the four-year cap is tied into the legal authority used to hire most people at 18F. Government jobs work a little differently than what most of us are used to in the private sector.

So I was aware of their tours of duty, but I thought that was not a carrot for outsiders to come in, but rather a way to circumvent the traditional hiring process. Probably doesn't hurt that the commitment is temporary.

From what I understood, rather than go through the job listing process with position writeups, giving veteran and disability preferences, dealing with HR on the certification process, getting various new office reorganizations approved by congress (they literally have to approve each individual office creation) and so on, they simply got an approval for 200-300 "innovation specialists" (that's what everyone's job title is there) and then they can informally cherry-pick whoever they actually want without going through the red tape. The mechanism is like having a standing approval for hiring 20 French speaking translators at all times, since that's a specialized standing volume-based need.

Anyhow, guess my question was more about the author's motivation for not choosing to extend the tour. It wasn't really spelled out in the post.

I'd argue it's mostly a carrot. The hiring authority is either one year or two, with option to renew. Most taking a leave of absence commit to six months at the onset.

The goal is to get to 500 by the end of next year. [1]

[1] http://www.fastcompany.com/3046756/obama-and-his-geeks

I'm sure there's a bunch of reasons they went with tours of duty. I do also know that a manageable hiring process was really important to them.

Most of those listed as employees of the digital service on the main site seem to be employed for political purposes, if you read their biographies most don't have deep technical skills. The whole department seems to have been created to help Obama deflect from the healthcare.gov debacle and make it seem like he was taking serious action to fix the site.

Sorry... that's just totally not accurate. While there may be some who are not hacking code 24/7, it's because they're providing project management or leadership functions. This is a damn elite team of technologists there to make a difference - not for politics.

Mikey Dickerson, who is now running the US Digital Service, was previously involved in the Obama for America campaign. I don't see how we can pretend that politics play no part in this organization.

He's also a former Google SRE and has a good, relevant background. Is that politics or going with someone you personally trust to deliver results when you have a high-profile disaster in the news?

(This is not to excuse other cases where donors, fundraisers, etc. get dubiously-appropriate jobs. That certainly happens but it's not the only option)

I.e. the revolving door.

No, “the revolving door” refers to people spending time working as legislators/executive officials, and then going to work in the same industry they were regulating, and basically getting time-shifted favors/salary in return for their help while in office.

Spending 6 months or whatever working as a programmer for the US Digital Service and then going back to a job in industry is something quite different.

Won't argue that doesn't happen, but it's overstated. People from industry go into government for the same reason people join the digital service: because they think that the skills and knowledge they gained in industry can let them do the job better than the government can without them.[1] And these appointments are temporary for the same reason digital service appointments are temporary: people are only so willing to sign on for salary-capped government positions for so long.

The only difference is the intent and motivation you're ascribing to the respective actors.

[1] I think very few people would disagree with the assertion that a Googler knows tech better than anyone in government. The fact is that pretty much everyone in every industry feels the same way. Everyone thinks that the public interest would be served if only the government folks in charge were people who "get it" like they do.

The "revolving door" is all about the fox guarding the chicken coop. How do software engineers working for the USDS fall into that basket?

That's a big ask Googles software requires a different mind set than say correctly calculating veterans pensions.

From googles perspective having 2 or 3% suboptimal query's is fine but that wont pass muster for other types of work.

Try building billing systems for a global Telco and have one of Vint Cerfs reports nudge you and say this had be right otherwise we are both out of a job :-)

I'm pretty sure that a billing error in Adwords would cause a fairly large controversy!

True and I bet that they pay more attention to detail on that but what proportion of googles SE's work on ad words billing.

I don't understand what you mean by "2 or 3% suboptimal query's", or really, in general what you mean.

They don't have to be 100% right but say an accounts system must reconcile.

A google query? What does it even mean for a google query to be "100% right"? I'm not sure that's even a thing.

But I think you misunderstand software engineering and the nature of engineering skill or fields of experience. There may be no such thing as "100% right" when it comes to which hits are included in the result set for a google query, but I have no doubt that nearly any google engineer needs to write all sorts of code on a regular basis that indeed needs to be 100% right with regard to specifications or requirements.

Ah so hobby programmers then and given some of the quality of the published google apis's I am not surprised.

Sorry after having been one of my country's 3rd line osi team I take a fairly hard line on correctness.

what the heck are you on about, man.

Googles code quality isn't all its cracked up to be and you have a least heard of OSI? You know the other networking standard that was at least a decade ahead of the internet back then.

Okay, that's cool, if you want to talk on the internet about how you're obviously a better programmer than anyone that works at Google becuase you worked on an ancient over-engineered standard that basically ended up losing out to TCP/IP... who am I to stop you?

Ah so hobby programmers then.

Calculating a pension and building a billing system is rather basic CRUD work compared to scaling software to handle millions of concurrent users. Google's hiring bar is relatively high compared to any government position in terms of quantitative skills you'd need to demonstrate.

Last year there where 279 changes to the federal tax code.

That system handles hundreds of millions of people and trillions of dollars.

Calling it "rather basic CRUD work" is incredibly myopic and/or arrogant.

Quite Google can take a relaxed view about things eg getting geoloaction wrong 1 time in thousand on a query.

Calculate 1 in a 1000 tax returns or bank statements wrong and some one will want blood.

The first paragraphs read like cheesy paid promo for jobs in Washington. Trying to fix government is a great endeavor though, independent of the articles authenticity.

It's sometimes genuinely hard not to sound cheesy when discussing my work in DC (moved here a few months ago). :) Here's another piece on this sort of work with a different tone but the same message: https://medium.com/@USDigitalService/mikey-dickerson-to-sxsw...

I love how after 6 months working for someone he is happily blogging about it and he isn't ashamed about it even in the slightest. If I saw he'd worked for someone for 6 months only then I'd want to hear a good reason why he left. Otherwise I will just assume he was fired, or knew he was struggling against his peers and decided to move on by himself. You have to read his About page to realise that is probably not likely to be the case in this instance, but still.

You sign up for 6 months ...

So... Gates Foundation or Google Ideas?

Why not take rich people's money for taxis, and then donate how ever much of your salary to charities that are trying to fight malaria you think is appropriate?

Is making $40K/yr doing something "meaningful" better than making $100K/yr doing something "meaningless" and donating $60k/yr to meaningful causes?

It doesn't have to be either/or. Will Chan is donating 20% of his income to charity. He has done that whether he was in DC with us or at Google. https://plus.google.com/app/basic/stream/z13pddzpwn30d5ozb04...

I support the idea of effective altruism, but at this exact moment, I believe that technical people donating time goes further than technical people donating money.

> Why not take rich people's money for taxis, and then donate how ever much of your salary to charities that are trying to fight malaria you think is appropriate?

That's a great thing to do.

It doesn't directly address the problem of insufficient talent being directed to those projects, though of course the money might allow the people running those projects to offer more to talent, which might deal with the problem.

Of course, choosing to work on the project yourself deals with that issue more directly.

Doesn't that entirely depend upon whether you think you'll be more effective than some other person making 60k/yr?

In other words, if you're a "10x" malaria killer and if 10xers are rare in the malaria killing business, then probably it's better for everyone (except you) that you kill malaria for a living. Rather than paying someone 60k to take your place (esp. if that other person is a 1xer or -10xer.)

Have you tried this? I know a lot of people, but nobody who has done this sustainably.

I've definitely seen people start out on that road. But either they eventually quit and find jobs with meaning or they gradually end up not caring about meaning and spend the money on creature comforts.

Bill Gates is the most prominent public example.

I also know a number of folks at Google who are very charitably active despite working big-corp jobs. Usually they compartmentalize very drastically, though, so I never heard about their charitable activities at work and only learned about them second-hand, through chance encounters with mutual acquaintances.

Is Bill Gates really an example of what the person described? Correct me if I'm wrong but I don't think his motivation for working or making money was to donate it. It seems like he decided after accumulating his wealth that he should use it for good.

It seems important to note the difference because I don't find it hard to imagine how a person whose motivation is to help the public good might not be passionate about a job which doesn't inherently do "good".

It's hard to speak of motivation unless you're the person in question. Most people do things for a number of different motivations. Hence the adage "We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior."

I suspect that as far as Bill Gates is concerned, he considers it all a game and just wants to win. For the first half of his life, the game was maximizing the money he makes. For the second half of his life, the game was maximizing the money he donates. This is all just suspicion, though.

Did Gates ever speak of this? If not, it's a terrible example.

Plenty of rich people, after spending their lives in business, eventually switch to philanthropy. Presumably because they discover, like the OP, that they value doing something more meaningful than stacking up money. But that's entirely different than somebody who has that realization young and does corporate stuff as a way of extracting cash, which is what alwaysdoit was suggesting.

If there were profit in solving real problems, there wouldn't be any real problems.


It's not ok to hijack the thread by posting a trollish, unrelated reply to the top comment. I'm going to detach this subthread and mark it off topic now.

In the future, if you want to make this kind of point on HN, please do so more thoughtfully. Slinging insults provokes flamewars and makes the site worse.

> "If you feel like curing malaria is more important than Uber"?

I'm sorry, but that strikes me as a pretty privileged sentiment. Would you say that everyone who feels a calling to work in the nonprofit/humanitarian sphere is merely doing so to assuage their "teen angst"?

If someone else feels compelled to work more directly to help those in need, and he or she is perfectly respectful of others' work (as OP clearly is), why do you feel compelled to reduce their desire to "standard liberal guilt" or "teen angst"?

> I'm sorry, but that strikes me as a pretty privileged sentiment.

How does any of the prior statement sound "privileged"? Or was that just a hamfisted attempt at using a dog whistle?

> If you're a programmer and you feel like curing malaria is more important than Uber

Um, this, for one. I see no possible reality in which a disease that kills almost one child every minute[1] could possibly take a backseat to you not being able to get a taxi when you call for one. The above could be put in the dictionary next to "first world problem".

I would love to hear your reasoning if you have some opinion to the contrary.

[1] http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/malaria/en/

> Um, this, for one.

Actually, that is a pretty neutral position. Your position sounds much more "privileged", as you appear to be attempting to tell people not only what they should do, but how they should feel. I'm going to assume that you didn't imply that anybody holding a contrary opinion on the best use of their time is somehow cheering on malaria :)

I don't like this argument b/c it assumes your money can go further than your time and personal engagement with an issue.

So... the real obstacle between Bill Gates and curing malaria is more money.

And it's one that'll be solved if enough of us start/sell businesses at a level of profit that'll move the needle on the amount of money Bill has.

Alternately, just give directly to individual poor people, which will mean that entrepreneurs can make money by solving the problems that poor people see and prioritize.



This is an ineffective comment for a few reasons: 1) The person you are responding to is advocating a course of action (funding work to end malaria) which helps poor people. They are responding to advocacy of a course of inaction (not developing taxi apps). The comment thus has some value, even if you disagree with it's conclusion. 2) You are advocating banning people for saying things. This puts a burden on you to make the case for why they should be banned. You don't explain anything about what was so bad about the comment, but simply insist that it must be obvious by inspection. 3) You assert that anyone who isn't offended by the comment is "fucking blind" and not "an essentially decent human being". This means that anyone who does not immediately agree with your comment is going to be defending their decency rather than giving your post a second thought.


I tend to agree that it wasn't a particularly useful comment, although I don't see it as black-and-white as you seem to.


Losers like you are the reason HN is a piece of shit now.

I don't think this is acceptable at all.

I've flagged that comment, though I'm sure you realized that would happen - and I suspect that was the point you were trying to make.

> Fuck you for pretending it was a real comment. It's disgusting that you're pretending it was a real comment. Losers like you are the reason HN is a piece of shit now.

> 2) I am advocating banning people for being rude.


It could have been less negative, but i've seen much worse. Folks like that tend to get downvoted to nothing pretty quickly.

Way to take the bait.

five seconds to write a throwaway troll line versus fifteen minutes of outraged huffing and puffing and demands of bans over someone saying something stupid on the internet.

Good work.

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