Yesterday, the White House named its first-ever Director of Information Technology—David Recordon, an engineering director at Facebook. The newly-created position is an indicator of just how central technology has become to the governing process. President Obama was effusive in his praise for Recordon's talents, saying, "His considerable private sector experience and ability to deploy the latest collaborative and communication technologies will be a great asset to our work on behalf of the American people."
The tech industry's relationship with the federal government has been fairly rocky at times. For years, Silicon Valley luminaries have been preaching the virtues of gridlock, blaming government for getting in the way of innovation, and rolling their eyes when a federal technology project like Healthcare.gov hits a snag. But while other Silicon Valley engineers looked at Washington D.C. and saw only bureaucracy and broken processes, Recordon saw an opportunity to pitch in and help.
Last August, after spending several months working as part of the newly-organized U.S. Digital Service, Recordon posted a vigorous defense of his experience in government on his Facebook page.
It's worth reading the entire thing, if only as proof that not all engineers in Silicon Valley view government as the enemy. Some of them, in fact, grasp the essential truth that efficient, well-run government programs can help people in ways that Facebook, Google, or any other private-sector actor simply can't.
Recordon wrote (emphasis mine):
I had an amazing opportunity to spend a short period of time digging into another hairy technology problem along with a SRE from Google. Both of us were lucky enough to be in positions where we could set aside our jobs and take a break from our companies. We joined together with some great folks led by Todd Park and Steven VanRoekel who are the CTO and CIO of the United States. The close-minded bureaucrats one might have expected to find in DC just couldn't have been further from the truth…
In silicon valley we talk about "impact" all of the time. I'm writing this while I lay at home on my couch doing laundry when there are multiple startups who would happily come pick it up and do it for me with nothing more than a few taps on my iPhone 5S. Now don't get me wrong, there are plenty of absolutely serious companies who truly impact lives on a daily basis but the United States government serves all of us in ways the venture capital fueled valley does not. It lets people afford quality healthcare, it lets people afford college, it (sometimes) lets people immigrate, it helps small business grow, and provides many other social services not just for some but for all Americans. These services impact people in a way that can literally change whether they live or die, whether they are in a house or on the street, and whether they get to show their family from another country these United States. Good technology is not the silver bullet to solve these problems but bad technology actively makes them worse.
Recordon went on to reassure his Facebook friends that he was "not planning to move to DC or to go work for the government." (Obviously, he's since changed his mind.) Now, from his post in the White House, maybe he can start convincing other Silicon Valley engineers that, while the public sector might not have as many free snacks and stock options as their cushy tech workplaces, it's a worthy alternative.