GovTech: The Job You Never Thought You’d Love

Yup, this is the view from our breakroom!

Psssst. Hey. Hey you. You new-grad/career-changer/just-curious looking into this coding stuff. I bet you’ve heard how hot the technology sector is, how it’s so easy to find a job. At the same time, you’ve also heard (and vehemently disagree with) the assertion that people nowadays, not just Millennials, only care about themselves and getting theirs. You want to do more with your life, you want to make a difference. You want to change the world. You wonder if maybe tech isn’t for your do-gooding nature, since it’s all about social media and cat videos now. Or it’s about going into the rat race of startups and venture capitalism, hoping someone will give you a minuscule chance to change the world.

There’s something out there that can give you a real chance to change the lives of real people, right now. It’s called government. Yes, you’ve probably heard that government has the worst red tape, that everyone’s lazy and nothing ever gets done. (And now there’s the variable of a new administration. More on that later…)

I know, I’ve been there too. That’s why I initially worked at startups, but again and again, the lack of money always limited what I could do (or even if I could show up). Then an interesting opportunity fell into my lap — information architecture organizing website content for the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety (LADBS). Intrigued at the chance of working for the citizenry, and a steady paycheck, I gave it a shot. And after an amazing two years where I introduced basic user experience (UX) processes, got a seat at some important tables, discovered my leadership skills, and learned some lifelong collaboration lessons, I’m here to tell you that government technology services is THE place to be.

Here are the reasons why:

1. You’ll be solving real problems for real people.

There is no struggling to find a market fit, there’s no “just make things look sexy so it’ll stand out from the millions of apps in the App Store.” Our customers have no choice. If you live in the City of Los Angeles and you want to remodel your house, you have to come to us. And because there’s no need to wave your arms getting attention in a crowd, you can go right to the pure service aspect of what you’re solving for.

So there’s only two choices — continue to let things be bad, or to help. Whatever you can do to help is going to help hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people on day 1. That’s a guarantee. You’re never going to be irrelevant.

And honestly, it doesn’t matter to us who’s in charge. Whoever’s in the White House (or governor’ office, or mayor’s office) is not doing away with building code or the power grid. People will always need certain services from their government. Most of those services could use technology to bring it faster to constituents, no matter what level. And they all desperately need your help.

2. There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit available for picking.

Government is finally starting to catch up in not only technologies, but software development processes like Agile. A few are even starting to adopt user-centered processes, but even so, they still need help implementing them. Think of government like enterprise, except 100x more complex!

The vast majority of government software is a good 10–15 years behind current consumer expectations, if it even exists at all. I have a super-techie contractor friend who praises Los Angeles’s online permitting system and thinks of it as the gold standard for permitting in Southern California, even with the confusing navigation and flow. It’s because LADBS emails you a completed permit application as a PDF once you submit the online form. That’s it. It uses your online form submission to fill in an otherwise-complex PDF application and hands it to you.

Even simple stuff like that is greatly appreciated, because most government services aren’t even up to that level. He demonstrated another city’s permitting form where you submitted it and it….just went into the ether. “Maybe I’ll get a phone call 3 days from now about this permit I just submitted. Maybe.”

Sometimes I feel like I’m getting away with something, because this is my first full-time job in tech and I have so much influence. I’ve been told by other designers that it must be like “trial by fire” for a new UXer to be in government, and I’m like, “Are you kidding? Whatever I do will be 1000x better than what currently exists!” Who gets to say that in today’s competitive consumer marketplace?

3. If you know your stuff and get things done, you’ll get respect and autonomy.

The procurement and development processes are broken in government. It’s readily acknowledged, and the extent of which it needs help is far beyond the scope of this essay, and probably the essay form in general.

All that is to say, government doesn’t have the resources to babysit you. If you sit around waiting for someone to tell you what to do, you’ll end up sitting around for weeks waiting for “stuff to do.” (Which may end up being the wrong thing to do, because government is so behind in adopting development processes anyway!) But if you come in offering solutions and then make them happen, you’ll earn trust and respect among your colleagues and managers. That will give you leeway in how you get your work done, and lessen presentation stress.

After getting sick of the back-and-forth in getting the LADBS.org redesign up and running, I finally took responsibility for it, put on the product manager (and developer) hats, and had it online in less than a year where it had floundered for 3 years in limbo. Despite the lack of experience on my resume, I got it done.

Now they bring me onto projects that aren’t just the website, even though technically my job title is “Website Content Supervisor.” Is there a workflow of a new service or application that needs clarification? They know to call me in.

Again, this is my first tech job, and I’m encouraged to delegate the more tedious metadata work (the boring side of information architecture) to other people, because they want me focusing on workflows. Our department head has looked me right in the eye during meetings with other managers and asked, “Anita, what do you think?” And listens.

Not only does government need help from technologists, but they truly want our help as well, which is even more important. If you can contribute meaningfully, they’ll give you lots of opportunities to spread your wings.

I’ve learned to speak up, and to cater my communication methods depending on the stakeholder. All of those are essential leadership skills for a UXer. (Yup, getting to do leadership stuff at my first tech job!) I’ve learned that people appreciate my expertise, and my willingness to lay everything on the table.

I’ve also learned that people appreciate stupid/basic questions from me. I’ve proven myself. I get things done, over and over again. If I’m asking that kind of question, that means A) I’m paying attention and B) I care enough to make sure I completely understand what’s going on. And believe me, it’s very freeing to be able to ask whatever pops into your head and not worry about how you come off!

Admittedly, government is not the place for someone who wants to come in at a junior level and be shown the ropes on everything. There’s simply not the bandwidth for that. But if you’re chomping at the bit to show how much you know and can do, the door’s open!

4. Looking for diversity and work/life balance? It’s here.

For the general public, the technology sector is associated with young white men. And that’s because all the sexy news about companies blowing up overnight in popularity are about startups, which tend to lean very young, white, and male. (And rich, but again….another topic for another day.)

But all kinds of folks learn IT and programming. Not all of them yearn for the gambling and rat race lifestyles of startups. Say what you want about government, but it’s a steady paycheck. It often doesn’t pay as well as the private sector, but generally, once you’re in, you’re in until you decide to leave. So people decide they can live a life while working here.

Over half of my coworkers are married with kids. Having to take a day off because your child is sick won’t be met with looks of bewilderment among your bar-hopping early-20-something colleagues.

My mom (a programmer herself) jokes about the “7–11” startup life, because those are often your hours, 7am-11pm. Not in government. We have something called overtime pay! The office empties pretty much after 5:30pm, so people can go home to their families. (Or in my case of introversion, decompress.) (Oh, and all federal holidays off. Yeah, I’d forgotten those existed too!)

About half of the managers here are women. Obviously, our voices count if some of us are actually calling the shots!

Overall, this is by far the most diverse group of people I’ve ever worked with. White men are actually the minority. Most people are over 30. It’s impossible to feel like you’re cut off from the rest of the world in a bubble of extreme privilege, because there simply isn’t one here.

5. Government can be startup-level fast, given the right incentives.

Government, compared to startups, has a bad rap of being very slow. Which isn’t without merit, but it’s slow for reasons people get wrong.

Let me get one thing out of the way — government employees are not lazy. More often than not, I see people literally running around trying to fix something that’s broken. If a project has slowed to a crawl, it’s because the workflow is extremely inefficient. Too much back-and-forth between departments is required to get stuff done. And there’s only so much nagging I can do about something, before even an efficiency-focused person like me has to throw up her hands and go, “It’ll happen when it happens!” (Then your job is to prepare for that moment when you’re needed. Great excuse/opportunity for checking out design podcasts and webinars!)

But at the same time, government can be VERY fast. Notably, if there’s a just-passed law requiring a technology service and there’s a set date later in the month, on the books, at which said service needs to be available. Oh ho, then any dilly-dallying disappears and the focus is on shipping!

(We just had a project like this, and I estimated that our timeline needed an extra month or two to have shipped it comfortably.)

Is being reactive to just-passed laws the best way to do things? Of course not, but if you had crossed out government because it wasn’t fast and exciting like startups, put it back on your list!


Know thyself

Like any organization, government isn’t a perfect place to work across the board. You can’t force anyone to accept the kind of change that technology adoption requires.

First, they have to be ready. Ready to focus on customer experience, and ready to change the way they work. Chances are, it won’t be completely smooth sailing even then, but if that willingness isn’t already there, you’re going absolutely nowhere. Period. Keep looking into you find a receptive group.

Even more importantly, you have to decide if you’re ready. Working in a large organization, whether enterprise or government, isn’t for everyone.

You’ll need patience and a long-term vision.

The existing processes that have been in place for years, won’t be able to change suddenly. Even when people are ready for change, it’s difficult to switch what you’ve been doing. Just the reality.

You’ll need to work with that, and be able to orient yourself when a project that’s spent months in limbo suddenly comes back to life. You need to be ready for that opportunity.

There will be weeks where you think you haven’t been very productive, but “slow and steady wins the race” will have to become your mantra. Celebrating small wins, even when things still aren’t perfect, is paramount to overall progress.

You have to know your stuff, or learn it very quickly.

As mentioned before, government (similarly to startups) doesn’t have the bandwidth to babysit you. You have to come in with the knowledge to contribute on day 1, as well as the capability of learning what you need to get the job done. If it’s simply beyond your capability, you have to know who to ask to help, or come up with contingencies.

I came in pretty comfortable with information architecture, as well as HTML/CSS/JQuery to help with the immediate need of organizing the website content. I expected I’d have to learn the new content management system on the job. But after I was hired, I realized what they actually needed — someone who made sure the new website actually got online and was maintainable by non-developers. So I picked up Visual Studio, ASP.NET, and MVC to get into the nitty gritty of the actual codebase. I wouldn’t call myself an expert in any of them, but I learned enough to do what I needed to do.

And even after launch, I took the project further by learning Section 508 accessibility requirements, for web as well as PDF. That’s an ongoing project for sure, especially with 860+ documents, but by learning it myself and training others, we’ll have a strong base of knowledge from which to work from.

You’ll need to become a partner, not just a consultant.

I once asked Jared Spool how to approach a redesign of enterprise software that was 5–10 years old. His answer: Never forget that someone initially designed it. It was most likely a developer, but someone made design decisions about it.

What that means, is that you can’t go whinging about how awful the existing design is. Especially in government, when the developer who made the existing application is probably still around and working with you! That gets awkward pretty fast!

It means you have to do more than just prescribe changes. It means you have to be a true partner. It means leveraging the years of knowledge and experience these developers have picked up working in the department, and on that application.

Some of my most fulfilling projects at LADBS have been working directly with developers. They know things about the department, about the processes, and about the systems that I’d have no prayer of knowing even if I was the best designer in the world. I treat them like experts, because they are experts.

Collaboration has never been more relevant than in government. You are not a rockstar designer, you’re someone who can help make the best government services possible (given existing constraints!). The developers know their applications could be better-designed. They need someone who can help them do that, and are not just there to stroke their own egos.


Join us

Technology can connect people to information, and other people, faster than ever. Leveraging technology to improve services for everyone is the pinnacle of its capabilities. Being in government, despite its slow adoption rate, has taught me the power of technology’s reach to help others.

If all this sounds good, and you live in Los Angeles, come check out LADBS’s booth at TechFair LA this Thursday (1/26/17) 11am-8pm and meet us! It’s about time government put itself on the map of technology-minded people. We’re doing cool stuff, I promise! And we need good people to help.


This blog post was inspired by Dan Hon’s fiery tweetstorm about working for California state government. (Check out state-level jobs on the California Dept of Technology’s Github!) Whether on the state level, federal level, or local level, there’s always something we technologists can do!


Originally published at anitacheng.com on January 25, 2017.