BY jenna hollanderJuly 20, 2022, 2:18 p.m.
The headquarters of the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is in Washington, DC, as seen in August 2019. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg/Getty Images)
Talented IT professionals are regularly sought after by Silicon Valley startups and nationally established companies. But a surprising industry is also looking to attract IT talent: your local state house.
“It’s so important that people with a background in technology, engineering or computer science come into government,” says Kathy Pham, deputy director of technology for the Federal Trade Commission.
This is true at the federal level. From the Social Security Administration to the Department of Defense, more than 79,000 federal employees work in information technology fieldsand more than two-thirds of federal agencies employ at least one IT professional.
The need for the public sector is immediate and its services are ubiquitous. “Think about the number of government services you have interacted with, ranging from state and local services, like the DMV, to federal services, like passports, immigration, social security benefits, etc.,” says Pham. “They affect everyone. Often people have horror stories about having to do business with these services. And there are incredibly smart and dedicated public servants behind it all.
Part of the challenge in the public sector, Pham says, is the much older, large-scale technology systems that require a lot of technical talent to help modernize or make the people who have to work there useful. As a result, aspiring computer scientists can make a real difference and find plenty of job opportunities with federal, state, or local governments.
From studying IT to defining public sector policy
Making technology useful and equitable technological access in society – taking into account the ethics and responsibilities inherent in computing – is the vocation of Pham.
An elective programming class in high school was her entry point into computer science, a field she pursued to study at both the undergraduate and master’s level at the Georgia Institute of Technology. After graduating, Pham launched his career with software, product and IT roles at industry giants like Google, IBMand Harris Health.
Pham’s academic interests in human-computer interaction, data systems, and cryptography informed what followed. For the past 10 years, she has worked for the US Digital ServiceGoogle and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, the latter having led her to identify both her personal passions and the global interdependence between technology and society. Most recently, Pham became deputy director of technology at the Federal Trade Commission, bringing policy and regulatory direction to her previous technology work.
Pham recognizes a deep need for technology skills in the public sector. After all, IT and other technology engineering skills can be the deciding factors for essential public services.
In this area, effective engineering and accessibility considerations are crucial. “It’s so that government services are built to serve all people who need government services,” Pham says. “When people can’t access health care, social services, or even their social security checks – because of a technical glitch or just technology that’s designed not to work in general – it’s incredibly problem.”
Equally vital, says Pham, is the ability to step back from the fundamentals of computing to take a holistic view: “It’s important to have those perspectives in the room, to hire our peers who are in those other fields, such as journalism and librarianship. science and history, et cetera – or at least to have some understanding of the importance of these skills yourself.
Acquire computer skills at a higher level
But where to acquire additional skills? While undergraduate programs typically stick to a set curriculum to ensure students understand the basics, it’s at the graduate level that computer scientists can really discover and explore their own interests, Pham says.
“Graduate programs offer the flexibility to think about what courses you want to explore in your areas and the opportunity to think about those less tangible, less fundamental skill-like things about how to work with different people, how to think about the effects of technology on different parts of the world, in a way that undergraduate degrees might not offer.
And a master’s degree in computer science, like that held by Pham, may be a natural fit for those looking to make a difference.
“Government is the largest civil service,” she says. “It’s like a call to all techies: If you’re looking for some of the toughest, toughest technology problems that affect some of the largest populations in the world, because at least in the United States, government departments don’t do that affect US citizens, there are people who want to apply for immigration status, people who have to deal with the US government in any capacity – there’s probably a technological element there and that’s where the greatest need is right now.
Pham is also passionate about the public sector’s need to employ people who understand IT at all levels of government. “There’s technology at the federal level, at the state level, at the city level,” she says. “Sometimes it’s about independent technology, but sometimes it’s about figuring out how to coordinate your technology at these different levels. But all this requires our best technological talents.
Acquire a wide range of skills to impact a broad industry
Pham also teaches a Product and Company Management course at Harvard University, which focuses on building technology lifecycle thinking, with people at its center. She says this line of thinking applies to both governments and tech companies. “We get into questions of ethics and responsibility, when people just can’t live their daily lives. [There are] bus systems that cannot connect due to technology. There are so many examples.
Regardless of field, industry, or size of organization, fundamental computer skills will remain in demand. “And not just an understanding of what the technology is, but the skills to know how the technology works, the internal workflow, the selection of coding languages, the definition of your variables up to the architecture of the system and strategy around technology,” says Pham. “All of these are so important to understand, whether we’re actually building technology, or trying to understand the harms of technology, or trying to figure out how to regulate and set policy around technology.”
What is true for industry is true for the public sector. Governments at all levels need committed public servants who have a deep understanding of IT and, just as importantly, people who are prepared to tackle the ethical and practical considerations of how technology interacts. with society.