‘More than just IT’: Open source technologist says collaborative culture is key to government transformation
David Egts is the Chief Technologist of Red Hat’s North American Public Sector organization. He lives in Ohio but travels coast to coast engaging with agency executives to help improve government processes and technologies the open source way. In this interview, David explains why workforce culture and human processes are more powerful transformation agents than IT alone, and how agencies are benefiting from partnership with the open source community.
Why are you part of AGL and what inspires you about this community?
AGL is providing a valuable support network for people who are helping government work better for the public. The organization is focused on things that I am very passionate about — DevOps, digital transformation, open source, and similar topics that are top-of-mind for many government IT leaders. AGL provides me with a community to learn about what the best and brightest are doing today, and share those learnings with my peers throughout the industry.
What do you see as the most important conversation government IT leaders are having?
The government executives that I work with want to hear about more than just technology. They want to learn about what’s going on with workforce culture and processes. They want to discover how they can adopt the same agile and open organization-based approaches that have worked well for companies like Red Hat.
The government executives that I work with want to hear about more than just technology. They want to learn about what’s going on with workforce culture and processes.
I often get asked if what we’re doing at Red Hat can be replicated in the government space. My answer is always “Yes, but you’ve got to put in the effort.” Then, I point them to two invaluable resources: The Open Organization, a wonderful book by our CEO Jim Whitehurst, and our open organization leadership guide for government agencies. Both of these clearly articulate how to adopt a winning, open, and innovative culture and incorporate it into an organization.
What perspectives do you bring to help others who are trying to make a difference in government?
I have the benefit of working with clients across federal, state, and local government, as well as higher education. I’m able to absorb the trends, concerns, and innovations taking place among each of these groups and apply what I’ve learned to clients across different sectors. That’s extremely beneficial, particularly since everyone always wants to know what their peers are doing and how they can successfully adapt their practices.
We’ve been able to have a positive impact in government by helping the development community better understand the unique types of tools needed in the public sector.
I appreciate the opportunity to provide the public sector with a voice in the open source community. With that voice I’m able to help shape how open source communities help government organizations, and vice-versa. It’s gotten to the point where I can look at a product’s release notes and know exactly which of my customers helped shape that product. We’ve been able to have a positive impact in government by helping the development community better understand the unique types of tools needed in the public sector.
What people or organizations have inspired you recently?
Actually, one of the most profound moments of inspiration came from the recent partnership between AGL and Code California, where Rebecca Woodbury, Director of Digital Service and Open Government for the City of San Rafael, gave a discussion on the city’s open source initiatives. She mentioned Jim’s book The Open Organization as an inspiration for what they were doing in California. Ms. Woodbury had featured the book as part of an employee book club that she was participating in — a book club that Jim himself actually had called into! A lot of Red Hat employees were in attendance at her presentation, and the mention of The Open Organization took them pleasantly by surprise.
The open and collaborative processes that drive our organization are really making a difference to government agencies.
Things like that really bring home the importance of what we’re doing. They’re testaments to the fact that our impact goes beyond just the products we offer. The open and collaborative processes that drive our organization are really making a difference to government agencies.
What’s your favorite book or resource to help government work better?
General Stanley McChrystal’s Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World. He writes in great and compelling detail about business matters that really resonate with government agencies.
Business books are often wonderful, but a lot of them are about wildly successful companies. These companies don’t necessarily have to play by the same regulations as public sector organizations, and that can make it hard for agencies to relate to the private sector’s experiences. Government executives aren’t Jeff Bezos or Tim Cook. While many government executives may have the vision of a Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, they’re often constrained by government regulations, elected officials, annual budgeting cycles, and other unique challenges. In short, they have very specific requirements, yet still need to be able to foster cultures that drive and inspire innovation.
In his book, General McChrystal provides advice for those involved in a top-down command and control culture. He shows how organizations can have agility, cross-functionality, and openness within this very specific and unique culture. The lessons he teaches have been proven not only in the Department of Defense, but can also be applied to other federal, state, and local agencies.
What advice would you offer to public servants trying to sustain or build a culture of innovation?
The first thing I would say is that it’s important to look outside of your own network. Actively participate in communities like AGL, which is a great forum for learning from and sharing information with your peers. And get involved in the open source community through projects like Code.gov, and Code.CA.gov which bring government and the development community closer together.
Then, go beyond the United States and take a look at what other countries are doing. Canada is a leader on this front. That country recently adopted a mandate to put open source first when it comes to the development of government software, and has an open government program designed to make government more accessible to Canadian citizens. Canada is also home to the BCDevExchange, a great resource for connecting agencies and developers. Other areas of the world, including the UK, have open source policies, too.
Whatever you do, don’t go it alone. Digital transformation and innovation can be daunting. As such, it’s a good idea to partner with companies who know this stuff inside and out and do it everyday.
For instance, at Red Hat we offer programs called Open Innovation Labs through which we provide customers with a hands-on residency in open source development. We help them tackle their own real-world problems and develop actual working strategies and applications to meet their needs. We’ve done these throughout the United States and the world, even in places like Singapore, where we help customers across Asia Pacific achieve innovation through open source. We have also worked with organizations as diverse as UNICEF, with which we established an 8-week proof of concept engagement, and Lockheed Martin, where we helped the organization accelerate upgrades to its F-22 Raptor fleet of fighter jets.
How do you think industry firms and government agencies can form the most effective partnerships to meet modernization challenges?
Open source is all about caring and sharing — people meeting together to solve common challenges. The same principles should apply to the relationship between private sector organizations and public sector agencies. Close partnerships, where everyone learns from one another and shares ideas, are the key to modernization success.
That’s the way it’s always been within the open source community. Teams working together always lead to the best possible results.
Perhaps the best example of this was the development of the SCAP Security Guide, a rich and detailed security policy that was the result of many developers working toward a common goal. There was no money exchanged. Everyone took their respective work badges off, worked together out in the open, and the best ideas won. The resulting guide is the fruition of those best and brightest ideas. As a result, government and private sector organizations now know exactly how to lock down systems through security automation — exactly what they need in an age when ephemeral workloads are spinning up and down quickly.
The development of the SCAP Security Guide shows what can happen when different groups come together to work toward a common goal. You can move the Earth a little bit and build something that will make a lasting difference.