The chasm between technology and government is legendary. In the 2010s, tech talent flocked to startups and big platforms where they could move fast, break things, and get people to click on ads. Venture capital flowed freely as companies jumped faster and faster to stake claims on businesses that valued user acquisition above all else. With the exception of a handful of companies, the easiest way NOT to get financing during those boom years was to include the government as a market in your presentation. Too slow, too uncertain, too irrational.
By 2024, tech’s distaste for government will have morphed into a healthy appetite. Talent has already made that change. Thousands of engineers, product managers, user researchers, and data scientists have flocked to government tech job fairs. Executives have been taking on key leadership roles at agencies. Layoffs in the tech sector will take the credit for much of this migration, but a closer look at where these people are headed suggests that the desire to make an impact is the key factor.
Technologists surprised by the country’s response to Covid have joined the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The desire to help Ukraine and avoid a confrontation in Taiwan has attracted talent to the Department of State and the United States Army. In states that have authorized paid family leave, computer engineers are raising their hands to help implement these programs. Many look back on their careers and wish for something more meaningful.
Institutions are also changing. Venture capital is already pivoting toward much greater collaboration with government, focusing on problems typically addressed by governments (healthcare, defense, supply chains) that require larger capital commitments, longer time horizons, and more public-collaboration. private. In the United States, we will not follow the Chinese model, where the government explicitly indicates where capital can and cannot go. Instead, the government acts as a signal, shining a light on priority areas and increasingly providing incentives to address those areas, as it did with Operation Warp Speed during the pandemic, and continues to do through the Act. CHIPS and Science, and the Inflation Reduction Act.
The role of strategic government funding in the emergence of new technologies is often ignored or conveniently forgotten. Tesla (no less than the failed Solyndra) received huge government loan guarantees; SpaceX would never have been successful without NASA’s strategic commitments to customers. Google started with a “digital libraries” grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the NSF, the public health standards body. And of course, without GPS, which was developed with government support, there would be no Google Maps, no Uber or Lyft, and no real-time tracking so essential to modern logistics. Investors are realizing that treating the government as a partner, a co-investor and a market is a winning strategy.
Government work is hard but rewarding. Despite the stereotype of Marge Simpson’s sisters working slowly and futilely at the DMV, the government is full of mission-driven people determinedly working to solve huge problems, on a huge scale. This is a trap for developers, designers, and product managers who miss the days when the tech industry was equally idealistic and dreamed of impact, not just a big payday. In 2011, pioneering Facebook data scientist Jeff Hammerbacher observed that “the best minds of my generation are working to get people to click on ads. That sucks.” Since then, tens of thousands of people have come to the same conclusion.
This twist comes just in time. The solutions to the world’s big problems require our ingenuity. Many will choose to work to solve those problems in the private sector, at startups, or at tech giants. But many more have realized that some of the greatest opportunities for impact at scale can be found working with or for government.
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