On extraordinariness

I had a small role in recruiting this man. He’d spent the last ten years leading engineering teams on a consumer product you’ve probably used, and he’s just arrived in DC to work with the federal government. He started on Monday, and it’s now Thursday night. I run into him at an event. He arrives late, and looks shellshocked.

How’s it going? He’s struggling to put words together. I’m worried. “I just left the office. I think everything’s going to be okay.” What is he talking about? “For the first day and a half, nothing. Then it was ‘go to this agency and help them with this thing. It needs to go live on Thursday and there’s a problem.’ Yes, there was a problem. The data the service relied on….I’ve never seen a database like that. Ever.” What do you mean? “1993. The guy couldn’t find any other way to make it work. The vendors would have taken too long even if someone could justify the budget. So he just hacked it at nights and over weekends. Used whatever he could find and taught himself how to use it. The machine is ancient. The software has just been running since then. I’m amazed he managed to keep it running this long. It’s a miracle. Either no one knew, or no one cared — my guess is that they were just happy to have something that worked at all. The guy’s been keeping this going like this…I mean…I had no idea…I’ve never seen….” He’s shaking his head and looking past me.

What happened? “First we just had to make sure we could get the data out somehow, make sure we had a copy. I mean, these records…they’re the only copy. The whole system relies on this. People rely on this. To help real people. People who need help. If it had failed…” He really is in shock.

“I’d just never seen anything like this. I was afraid if I even touched it, it would all go poof. We got it out. It’s okay…. It’s okay now…But this guy…He’s been keeping this together for 23 years…”

For a minute, I worry that he’s angry. And that he might be angry at me for encouraging him to take this job. But I look in his eyes and it’s not anger, it’s awe. Respect. Admiration and gratitude for a public servant who has achieved the impossible. Made things work in spite of the rules, not because of them. Broken dozens of protocols, risked his job. “He made it work. He’s the only guy who can run it. He knows it wouldn’t work without him so he’s deferred his retirement. I mean…he’s extraordinary.”

Extraordinary. A Silicon Valley technologist, the kind of person we champion as a savior of government, thinks that a career civil servant beyond retirement age with sorely outdated technical skills is extraordinary.

I thought about that word two weeks ago when the House passed H.R. 5658, The TALENT ACT. It stands for Tested Ability to Leverage Exceptional National Talent. If passed by the Senate and signed by the President, it would encode into law the Presidential Innovation Fellows, a program I helped run during my tenure in the White House, and which former White House CTO Todd Park modeled after the Code for America fellowship program. It would ensure that this valuable program will last beyond the Obama Administration.

I am proud to be part of the PIF family. I am deeply inspired by what the PIFs have done. I am humbled by the intelligence and goodness of the dozens of folks who have come to DC to serve their country through this program. And I am hugely grateful to the wise and passionate folks on both sides of the aisle who wrote, promoted, and passed this piece of legislation.

So maybe it’s a petty nitpick, and I’m probably looking a gift horse in the mouth, but I wish the authors of the bill had found an acronym that didn’t use the word exceptional. The first thing I thought of when I read the news was my friend calling his agency colleague “extraordinary.” The second thing I thought of was the t-shirt Mikey Dickerson was known to wear during the healthcare.gov rescue effort: “On my home planet, I’m normal.”

Not actually Mikey Dickerson

Mikey and the others who have come from (mostly) consumer tech companies into government are normal. They know how to make technology that works for people because their companies could only get customers by truly understanding what their users needed. The people in these companies learned from each other, and wrote about how to do this. They’ve made it possible for others, for pretty much anyone, to learn how to make technology that works for people. There are tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people who do this for a living every day.

“Go where you are rare.” That’s US CTO Megan Smith’s advice to people from what Todd Park calls “metaphysical Silicon Valley.” Those five simple words belie a deceptively difficult and brave choice made by those who left careers in Silicon Valley to work in government, in Federal agencies, at the United States Digital Service, 18F, the Presidential Innovation Fellows, and similar efforts at the state and local level. The plays you ran every day in your consumer tech job are very difficult to run on the government playing field. Things work differently. When you go where you are rare, you realize you’re working from a set of assumptions that most of your colleagues don’t share, and you have to step back–sometimes way back–and try to justify, explain, convince, win over dozens or hundreds of people in order to do what you came to do. I have some personal experience with this. It’s hard.

But in government, though your skills may be rare, you have something very much in common with your fellow public servants. Of course you are a talented, entrepreneurial, 21st century doer and thinker. Of course you work with data and technology in ways that change the world. Of course you spread the gospel of user-centered, iterative and data-driven approaches to problem-solving. You would not have been selected for your position otherwise. But (as you already know), it’s not your talent that makes you extraordinary. What makes you extraordinary is the same thing my friend saw in his partner at that federal agency, delaying retirement to keep a critical system running despite all odds: it is your empathy, and your desire to serve. Keep honoring that, and the service of those around you, and you will do more good for the American people than the most extraordinary talent this country has to offer.

To those in government welcoming talent from the tech industry, thank you for recognizing what these people and practices have to offer. Thank you to the authors of the TALENT Act for making sure we have more ways of bringing these people and practices into government. But don’t make the mistake of mystifying the practices of the consumer tech industry. As I said in a recent blog post:

Using the word innovation [to describe making basic websites that work] implies that you need some sort of genius, charismatic Steve Jobs figure hanging out in City Hall if you want good digital services. You don’t. You just need to throw out your old operating manual and get the new one.

User-centered, iterative, data-driven practices are not something young people in jeans do. They are not a gift bestowed on people from a certain place who look a certain way or speak a certain way or who come from certain companies. They are simply skills one learns, a bit like French or programming or origami. Government happens to need more of these skills in order to serve the public better, but the best way to spread those skills is to see them as ordinary. It’s courage that’s extraordinary.

Here’s to recognizing the extraordinary in all public servants.

Learn how to build government that works for everyone from the courageous public servants who do it everyday. Join me at the Code for America Summit, November 1–3, 2016.